Death was no more a thing of mystery than to which horizon the sun would fall. Things lived and things died; they became, they were, and then they ceased to be. Virtue could lead a human to be reborn as a seraphim but it was rebirth--not resurrection. The dead did not rise beyond the persistence of what was good in them. In that respect, Sorey understood completely why Mikleo had stacked a small memorial of stones beside a much older, weathered looking mound topped with a long, thin pipe under the bows of a familiar tree. They were markers to show respect for those who had passed and served as a place to remember and mourn. The nearby temple may have been in reverence to Zenrus but the stones paid homage to their beloved Gramps. Sorey had been given a similar place of honor. All the same, it sent shivers down his spine.
Mikleo mourned him. Sorey did not dare approach him when he saw him knelt in the grass under the shade of the tree before the stacks of stone. Not since the first time. Not since the argument. This was simply the way things now were. He couldn't reason away unhappiness or fight back against a stubborn heart without risking that it should break. So Sorey left him alone to his thoughts and reservations. He had his own trials of existence to contend with. They agreed in that respect at least and there was much Sorey still needed to learn about being an entirely different being in a world he remembered walking as something else.
"It's a funny thing," Maotelus mused, his kind voice echoing in Sorey's mind rather than formed on the dragon's tongue. "Those of us who were once human usually take comfort in the separation of our past and present existence. Not having to carry on the burdens of our past lives and accepting that we are our own selves regardless of our origins is a unique grace bestowed upon us. We see the human life and the seraphim rebirth as almost two separate selves that only have as much to do with each other as we are comfortable appending. You, however, desire only to be everything you once were. You'd rather ignore the blessing of a new life in favor of the one you lost."
Sorey sighed, looking up at the afternoon sun from their perch along the steps to the Throne. "Not so funny," he corrected with a frown that pinched along his brows. It had certainly not ever put a smile on his face when Mikleo looked away from him with a barely contained shudder.
His friend bowed his large head apologetically as he sat with claws crossed. "I'm sorry if I'm not entirely sympathetic. I understand your circumstances but I've only ever seen heartache and misery as a result of not letting go of the past."
"But Mikleo is my past. Every bit of it," Sorey reminded him. "I can't have one without the other."
It was a reminder that hardly needed restating. They knew each other's stories as well as their own. In sleep, no secrets had existed between them as years passed in the retellings of the paths they'd taken that lead them to each other. Maotelus's story was much longer with rich histories woven in that would turn Mikleo green with envy if he cared to imagine their scope. Sorey's own life was very short in comparison. There were sixteen years on a mountain falling in love with the world and its possibilities and then a handful of months spent in an epic adventure that lead him to Camlann. Mikleo was more than a constant; he was as integral to Sorey's life as Sorey himself. Regardless of how trite it sounded, they were two halves of the same whole. Existing apart was endurable but unpleasant to the point of pain. Especially now that they were together again. Sorey wished more than anything that the honeymoon phase hadn't ended; that the relief and joy of being reunited had been constant and not interrupted by logic, facts, and time.
Sorey sighed loudly as he leaned back against warm scales, taking refuge in the shade of a raised wing. Maotelus's silver light was nearly blinding in the afternoon sun, the Lord's massive body curling almost protectively around his companion as they enjoyed daylight for a rare, shared occasion. Darkness was more their usual surroundings. It was nice to be pulled away to the realms of man where other things existed rather than the confines of the places in which the other lords slept.
"You have your memories," Maotelus mentioned to console.
Sorey shook his head, bangs shifting over his eyes as he looked up through the whites of his hair. "I thought I did. Not all of them, though," he confessed, still unsure how expansive the loss was. "Sometimes we'll talk and he'll mention something and it's only by the look on his face that I realize the story doesn't take place during the time when I was asleep. Apparently I had squires. Two of them. And it was a pretty big deal to him that I didn't know who he was talking about. I read the books but... it's not the same as remembering."
Maotelus closed his eyes slowly in an expression Sorey had learned to read as resignation. Even a dragon's reptilian visage could sometimes relay the expressions of a human face. "The man he loved is dead," the Lord reminded him. "Let him mourn. You'll still be here when he's done."
"But I'm the same person... I'm still me!"
"No, Sorey," he said again. "You're something new. It's only that you choose to define yourself entirely by who you once were."
It was such a tired phrase that Sorey knew he must seem very stupid and very stubborn to still refuse to accept it as such. The words and his reality were simply too dissonant. "I don't want him to get over me. I don't want him to cry for me anymore. I just... want him to accept me. I hate being jealous of myself when he and I are both here now. This was supposed to be a happy time. Instead he can barely look at me some days."
"You cannot make him ignore what he's lost no matter how much you offer to give him instead. Do you not mourn for the Mikleo you left behind? Is not growing and making new memories in part the death of what was?"
Sorey's frown deepened as he sank further into the firm flesh of the dragon's shoulder. "Do I miss the person I said goodbye to all those years ago? Yeah. I do. I wish things could have been different every day even if I don't necessarily regret what I've done. He used to be so cocky and argumentative and... yeah, he still is... but it's not the same. No matter what, though, there's only one Mikleo in the whole world and it's him. And I'm the Sorey that finally gets to spend forever with him."
"Perhaps he'll come around," the Lord said at length with a sigh. "Don't let it consume you either way. I've seen love destroy as much as I have seen it save."
"Keep watching, then," Sorey insisted with resolve. "I won't lose," was his consummate promise.
Maotelus chuckled, his tail rolling like a slow whip from hip to spade. "That's more like it," he mused before raising his head from its previous state of repose. "Now give the heart a break and try using your artes again," he commanded of his young heir to the silver light.
Sorey groaned as he stood, pushing fatigue from his bones as he followed suit and stepped apart. He knew purification as part of many forms but never like this and never by his hand alone. It was in these moments more than in any other that the reality of his existence and how limited that life was felt real. He wasn't a person of great ability and battled honed expertise--he was a neophyte, an almost literal infant learning the very first skills of life. It was alarming in some ways how easy it was to accept his newness in that respect when in Elysia all he cared to do was pretend it wasn't so.
"You do not wield purification; you are purification. Through you, malevolence can be rejected and cleansed. Without a vessel, this power is all but useless, but it is important that you connect with your primary element nonetheless."
Sorey nodded, closing his eyes and he tried to feel out beyond himself into that part that now existed within him as a seraphim. He wondered briefly if that place was one of rapids or still lakes for one such as Mikleo. For him, it was a calming warmth that emanated outwards just outside his grasp. It was different but not frightening as he tried to command tendrils of it to come closer, physically twisting his fingers in the air to try and call the invisible warmth to himself.
"Even before I became as I am, I could command any element. My rebirth was linked with a powerful Lord and through that link, I inherited vast artes. As I am part of Innominat, you are in some ways part of me. See if you can find the flames inside that space as well."
He remembered the flames. Fire was the first element Sorey had been embraced by, the first to fill him as its vessel and leap to his command as Shepherd. For brief moments, he almost thought the peaceful silver light might lead him to the scorch of flames but there was nothing beyond the calming rays that spoke of elemental power. Even if there was, it remained out of reach. Purification was a power bestowed, not one wielded on one’s own.
Sorey let his shoulders sag after a moment more of courting the elusive light. “I don’t think being your vessel for over nine hundred years is quite the same as being part Lord,” he surmised.
Maotelus bowed his head, the sunlight blinding as it reflected off his horns. "You are still of mine. In time, we shall see."
Sorey nodded quietly. He was fine with it taking time. Time spent in Camlann with Maotelus was time given to Mikleo in Elysia to think things through. It was time not spent watching and waiting anxiously for the water seraph to look at him and smile like things were going to be okay. Absence had in a way become part of their normalcy after nearly a millennia apart. As much as he hated it, Sorey had to acknowledge it was there. The hope was only that it was temporary. Sometime soon, surely, they'd both feel okay about the way things now were.
"Try again," Maotelus calmly instructed.
Shaking heartbreak aside, Sorey honored his command.
Sorey smelled blood thick on the air from the moment he stepped through the ruin's exit onto the summit of Mt. Mabinnogio. The setting sun already painted the trees and archways in golden hues that faded to rich crimson and plum, the copper scent an assault to the senses while it settled in well with the fading light. It smelled like a battle field--like a memory tinged in sadness and regret. The Hyland goats had fled, as had the prickle boars and all other manner of wildlife from the mountain's crest. It was quiet and eerie and the smell only grew stronger the closer he walked towards Elysia. Sorey was hesitant as he took in the strangeness that had overtaken his home. It was the sight of the bodies in the end that took his mute wonder and turned it in to terror and panic.
"Mikleo!" he screamed as his eyes scanned the green grass that had become blurred with the bodies of men. Heads were twisted. Bones were broken. None of them stirred nor made a sound.
There were at least a dozen if not half that more. They were dressed in plain clothes without military insignia. They carried no weapons and yet they had all been quite obviously killed as though they had posed a threat. Though no longer immersed, there was a clear presence of water soaking the earth around them. These had been here for quite a while. The smell was overwhelming. None of the bodies belonged to the water seraph but his involvement was made horrifically clear. Sorey stepped away from the carpeting of corpses and half tripped over his own feet as he ran to their shared hut, calling out his name in panicked succession, "Mikleo! Mikleo!"
Part of him was already imagining a dragon circling overhead. Malevolence was the only weapon those humans would have possessed and only a Mikleo completely devoid of reason would massacre them like that. He tore towards the hut all the same, body shaking with a cocktail of hormones that had his hackles raised and pulse hastened. He whipped the door open, nearly falling through the entryway as fear's tremors rid him of any grace. And then he stopped, his eyes wide and mouth agape with heavy breaths as he spotted a lonely Mikleo perched quietly on the foot of their bed. His hair was unbound and beautiful, a cascade of pale sapphire that hid his face. He seemed calm and perfect, not even bothered by Sorey's abrupt appearance and previous shouting. He just sat there, holding in his hands the mangled remains of some object that hadn't been there before. He didn't even bother to look up. It was as if he hadn't heard or seen Sorey at all.
"Mikleo!" Sorey repeated once more, his limbs still trembling as he sought support against a chair. "Mikleo, what...? There are bodies on the mountain," he announced, though he knew their presence would not be a surprise.
Mikleo nodded slowly, fingers tracing the glass panes of the broken item in his grasp before taking a deep breath and tilting his face in Sorey's direction. His eyes were dim and heavily lidded in resignation. "What else was I supposed to do?" he asked, not seeming to expect any real answer.
It hardly seemed true. It felt more like a nightmare trapped outside the hours of night. "Did you kill them?" Sorey heard himself ask at length.
Mikleo nodded again and looked back to his hands before finally setting the object down on the bed beside him.
Sorey fell into the chair out of necessity, his legs no longer strong enough to support him. He'd already assumed he had but to see him admit to it so easily, as though no other option existed, was almost more surprising than the deaths themselves. "Did they hurt you?" he asked, looking for some way to excuse murder though even that seemed out of character when the seraph in question could cloak himself to escape if need arose. He, more so than almost anyone else Sorey knew, had means to avoid a confrontation.
Fingers laced and resting across his lips, Mikleo took another deep breath through his nose, eyes falling closed as though in prayer. He looked almost angelic. It was a strange dichotomy when murder was the topic at hand. "Do you not know what that is?" he asked, gesturing with a nod to the mound on their bed. It was a strange box with glass panes, broken and mangled but still somewhat obvious in its intent. It looked like a light of some sort. Like a lantern. It was far from a weapon--just a simple aid to see in the dark.
"It looks like a light," Sorey all but whispered, wincing inward as his words brought to Mikleo a brief shudder and returned refuge under the veil of his hair.
It was something he'd forgotten, then. Things never went well when they discovered those.
"It's an Animus Ray," Mikleo explained in a hushed tone. "They call this kind a lantern. It's what humans use to kill seraphim."
No luck. It meant nothing to Sorey. He clenched and unclenched his hands against his thighs, trying to infer what he could to try and keep from annoying Mikleo further with his ignorance. "Humans can actually kill seraphim? With that?" he asked, still seeing only a harmless light source but willing to accept it could be more. "So they were trying to kill you?"
"Or you. Or just some random seraph. Might be they'd only heard stories of Elysia and were unlucky enough to find it. We'll know if another group comes looking again," he surmised, still speaking as though every word held a secret. "If it was a targeted attack, there will be more."
"But why would humans target us?" Sorey questioned. He knew immediately, no matter how fair a question it seemed, it was the wrong one to ask. Mikelo's hands grasped at his hair on the sides of his head, pulling as he gave a guttural scream through clenched teeth.
Sorey jumped up, crossing to him quickly and grasping his shoulders tight. "I'm sorry; it's okay," he promised, willing to say or do anything so long as it made him stop.
"How can you have forgotten!? They're the reason you're awake! They're the reason you died! They're the reason I'm like this!"
Sorey abandoned trying to get him to calm and pulled his head to his stomach to hug close instead. Mikleo didn't try to tear away. His hands fell to Sorey's hips and held on tight, nose buried next to his navel. "Shhhh. I get it," Sorey whispered. "It's okay. I remember those people. I remember the ones who hurt you. I just need a little help sometimes. Those people are the ones behind those lights that kill seraphim, right? I get it now. It's okay. I just didn't remember... I didn't know they were related."
"I wish I could forget too," was the muffled retort swallowed up in the dampening cloth of his shirt.
Sorey stroked his hand over the soft hair that stretched down Mikleo's shoulders and back, dreaming of the power to soothe away the pain that lingered on the surface of the other's heart. Of all the artes one might possess, he longed for one that did more than ease physical maladies. Flesh healed in time. Other wounds seemed to forever fester. He'd been too young and naive to understand in their shared youth the true measure of suffering that could be endured by the heart.
"I remember, Mikleo," he promised, rocking them gently as his fingers ran through the loose curls. "I remember being scared because I couldn't find you. I remember being even more scared when I did. I remember you asking to be killed out of mercy for us all. I remember telling you no, and promising I would be there to save you this time. I remember the moment I knew I would have to die to save you and knowing there would never be anything more worth the sacrifice. I remember the name I gave to you--the last words I spoke before I died as a human being. I do remember, Mikleo. Lots of it I remember very vividly. Just not all of it. Sometimes I just need a little help putting together all the pieces. Okay?"
Mikleo took a deep breath and let his shoulders sag on the exhale, slowly relaxing against him completely. His hands no longer held him firmly in place but hung from him limply, touching him without confining him to the spot. Sorey felt the tension slowly wash away with each moment's embrace. He let out his own heavy breath, not sure when last he'd remembered to simply breathe himself. He was a seventeen year old trapped in a world that expected a great deal more maturity from him than his years had prepared him for. Hugs worked though. Hugs always worked. It was the words that most often escaped him.
Such as how to address the fact that there were nearly twenty dead men on the summit with them, the stench of them still present though somehow less noticeable than before. Did they bury them? If so where and how? Individually or in one mass grave? People would miss them--did they need to take steps to have someone claim the bodies? It was hard to think practically in a world that was infinity strange to him. What were they supposed to do about all those bodies and what were they to do about the fact they'd come there with the intent to kill at all?
"Should we call someone?" Sorey asked. "If this was personal we may not want to handle it on our own."
Mikleo pulled away slowly, wiping an eye with the heel of his palm. "I'll text Edna. If she's still with Hyacinth, she may know something."
It sounded like a more than decent plan. Sorey bent a kiss to the top of his head before stepping back to give his friend a bit more space. "Not mad at me?" he asked.
Mikleo quickly shook his head. "Are you upset with me?" he asked in return. There were bodies outside. Within him still howled a storm.
Sorey tipped Mikleo's head back at the chin, refusing to look anywhere but into his sorrowful eyes. "I'm not upset. I'm scared if I'm anything at all. I love you. I just want us to be okay."
Mikleo smiled sadly as he tilted his head and closed their encounter with a kiss that tasted of battles not yet won.
"Throw the bodies off a cliff and don't say anything to anyone," Edna ordered in her usual deadpan. "These aren't the good old days when you could just have a bunch of dead humans lying around and no one bothered asking too many questions about it."
Sorey tried not to smile at the dark humor of her words, remembering well the state of their fellow mountain dweller's old home wherein a dragon kept the trails scattered in the bones of the ignorant and foolhardy. She had never been very soft on humanity but she wasn't one to disregard their lives entirely either. Sorey was sure her flippant tone disguised a real concern for the consequences a pile of bodies might bring them both even up high in their all but forgotten home.
Despite her complaints that the signal was poor, Edna's girlish voice rang clearly from the phone's speaker as Sorey and Mikleo sat side by side to share in the long distance conversation. In some ways it was amazing to know they could now communicate so effortlessly from anywhere in Glenwood. He was used to Edna being a disembodied voice, though, too. Remembering she wasn't speaking from inside himself him but rather through the device in Mikleo's hand was the greater source of astonishment.
"Do you know why a bunch of humans would come here to kill seraphim in the first place?" Sorey asked, leaning in, shoulder to shoulder as he pressed close for answers and to offer a little bit of comfort as well.
There was hardly a pause. "Off the top of my head, I can name a couple, sure. Especially if the jokers happen to be belong to the Knights of Avalon."
The Knights of Avalon? Sorey felt a cold pit of dread subside in his belly. He didn't remember anyone called the Knights of Avalon. He bit at the inside of his cheeks, hating to make yet another such admission. Beside him, Mikleo looked just as confused, though. He tilted the end of the phone towards his lips as he spoke. "I've never heard of them. Who are they?" he asked much to Sorey's relief.
"Just a bunch of crazies who look to our good ol' pal Dr. Breton as their martyr. They believe in the extermination of all non-human sentient life in the name of global prosperity. They're just some fringe nut-jobs but... well, it's not the size of the organization that matters so much as it is the power at their fingertips."
"Such as?" Sorey found himself inquiring.
"Man, you two really do live like hermits up there, don't you?"
"Can't help but envy that," Zaveid could be heard lamenting in the background. They were all there, no doubt listening in just as Sorey and Mikleo were to them.
One could almost hear the rolling of Edna's eyes. "They're loud and annoying, is all. Hyacinth's been going up against them in the boring way: talking. Remember when we talked ol' Kitty Beard into not being such a grumpy puss? Me neither."
"They're not malevolent, they're just hateful," Zaveid chimed in again. "Not a whole lot us seraphim can do about them, honestly. They've got one thing right and that's that this is a human problem that's gatta be solved by human means. We're not in a position to make these issues just go away. We're just along for the ride whether we like it or not."
"Only because we signed on with little Miss Try-Hard the Activist Shepherd. We could be going after the dragons or fighting hellions instead but somebody thought it'd be a great idea to contract with the lobbyist."
"Ya know, Edna, for being such a sweet, gentle, petite little seraphim, you can be a real cunt."
"Our Shepherd, ladies and gentlemen. A true paragon of diplomacy."
Sorey couldn't help but laugh softly as the others teased each other from so far away. Regardless of what was said, he imagined they were still having fun. Working together, even when it didn't feel like they were accomplishing anything, was still time better spent than struggling towards a goal alone. They were trying to make a better, safer world for humans and seraphim alike. They were doing the job he'd abandoned. It was hard not to feel somewhat remorseful at having failed personally and having in some manner given up.
If Mikleo felt the same, he hid it well. It was facts first and introspection after. He'd always been the better when it came to inferring the effects from their list of causes. "So what should we do if more men show up?" he asked, his own tone far less playful than theirs. "If this is in any way related to Dr. Breton then I don't imagine they'll stop coming until Sorey and I are either dead or used against each other to assist them in some manner."
The seriousness with which he spoke took the good humor out of the air instantly. The name 'Breton' meant almost nothing to Sorey but in context he could figure it out for himself without bringing more attention to his lapses in memory. Breton was one of the men who was responsible for Mikleo's kidnapping or torture. Or both. Someone detestable in either light. If they wanted Mikleo again for any reason they were definitely going to have to go through Sorey first. He wasn't nearly skilled enough to fight with artes yet if ever but he was at the very least still handy with a sword.
People still fought with swords, right?
"Hey, Edna, can I see the phone, please?" Hyacinth asked, her voice becoming clearer as a change in possession occurred. "Thanks. Uh, hey... guys. Um.. Mikleo... sir.. uh... Yeah. Okay, I'm just going to come on out and say it: I need your help. And I don't think you can expect any peace on your mountain unless you help me."
Sorey sat up straighter with surprise. Hyacinth sounded anxious. It was a strange transition from her previous levity.
"Help how?" Mikleo asked, his closed off demeanor only growing more so.
"I'm fighting against an invisible enemy here. Most people don't admit to being a human supremacist but they work in the shadows to push forward agendas that make it pretty easy to see what their real intentions are. If they all wore nice little badges that said 'I'm with the Knights of Avalon' my job would be a hell of a lot easier. They do their best to hide it, though. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say they probably outed themselves to at least one person: Dr. Breton. He talked enough politicians and officials into signing off in his animus ray, and I imagine they probably talked about more than just the limited scope of anti-dragon precautions."
Mikleo's cheeks twitched as he clenched his teeth. "You think I know names."
"Maybe," she admitted. "Maybe just faces. Voices. You were there and you were a part of it even though I know you didn't want to be. Even when others didn't know you were there, you were present and aware of what was going on. The things that you know could expose the people working on the inside who are trying to legislate genocide in the name of the greater good. If we can prove they knew about the crucibles, that they were complicit in the creation of and weaponization of dragons to exacerbate the fears of the general public, we can oust them from power. I hate to ask but I've got millions of seraphim lives on the line here and I'd hate myself forever if I didn't at least try to get your assistance."
Silence. Sorey watched as Mikleo sat in complete stillness, not even his eyes daring to blink as they looked down at the device in his hand as though it were venomous and poised to strike.
".... it's fine," Hyacinth said at length, anxiety fading with resignation. "I get it. I mean, it's only been a handful of months. Fresh memories are helpful to someone like me and what I'm trying to do but for you... I do understand, sir. So, uh... you'll probably want to seal Elysia to keep them out in the interim. You'll be completely isolated inside but... until things are settled, I can't promise you won't be targeted again. Sorry to bother you."
Sorey opened his mouth to tell her she wasn't a bother but too soon found another voice returning to the air with less joy but still persistent with friendliness.
"We're heading over to Ladylake on Thursday. If you're going to seal yourselves away, come down for a drink beforehand. We should do a proper send off this time. Twenty gald says I can drink you under the table still, Meebo. See you then," Edna goaded, then hung up before either could reply.
Even with the call having ended, Mikleo still remained fixed in place and time. Slowly, gently, Sorey placed his hand over the phone and slipped it from his grasp, standing up to put it away at its charger on the desk.
Hyacinth was right. It was too soon. But she was probably right about a lot of other things too.
Looking back at his friend, Sorey felt the familiar pangs in his chest that echoed in empathy for deeds that could never be undone. Mikleo looked so old. So tired. So done. It was much too raw to face any of it head on just yet. Especially not in person against those who did nothing to help him--who thought of him as a tool. But when the time was right, would it be too late for everyone else? It was an almost too familiar dilemma which weighted the good of one against the good of many. It wasn't so different from the arguments their own enemies made. Simple logic rarely chose sides. "I can't tell you what to do, but--"
"Then don't," Mikleo cut in sharply.
"Mikleo..." Sorey crossed his arms as he leaned a hip against the desk, frowning thoughtfully as he heaved a heavy sign. "... You know as well as I do that we haven't really been given a choice. Our dream, Mikleo... everything we did and wanted for ourselves and the world... We can't just seal ourselves away like it doesn't matter anymore." It could be different this time. They could face it together.
"The world can burn for all I care."
It wasn't the words so much as the hatred behind them that stunned Sorey to a short, breathless silence. "You don't mean that," he said, knowing fear was just as likely the culprit behind the lie.
Mikleo jumped to his feet, hands in the air, his voice raised and madness in his eyes. "Don't tell me what I mean! You don't know me! You don't know who I am; you only know who I was and I am not that child anymore!"
"I'm not asking you to be!" Sorey found himself shouting back. His hands were shaking. They'd fought many times before but this felt different. This wasn't about the architectural designs of prominent ages or a sublord pact. This was frightening in a way their other disagreements never were. This felt like it could actually hurt them. "I'm asking you to be honest with me. Do you really not care anymore? Is our dream just some silly, childish memory to you? Because if it is then... then what was it all for, Mikelo? Why put ourselves through all that pain just so we could be stood here shouting at each other now? Because I didn't do it for this, Mikleo. This... this isn't anything I ever even dreamed I should fear for. Everything we did, every sacrifice we made... is this really the most that came from it? Can you be satisfied with this? In the end, is this what you want now?"
"Just go away!" Mikleo commanded. The hut felt too small. There wasn't room enough to even breathe with the two of them standing on either side.
But Sorey stood his ground nonetheless. "No," he insisted. "I'm not stupid enough to make the same mistake twice. I'm not going anywhere. I chose you this time, remember? I just thought... I just thought somehow that meant that you might choose me too."
Mikleo said nothing. He didn't challenge the idea that Sorey wasn't the Sorey he wanted. He didn't argue against the suggestion that he hadn't come to accept him as he was. It was true, after all. The 'real' Sorey was dead. All that stood before him was a pacifier and a reminder of what was gone.
Not since setting Gramps free had Sorey's heart hurt so completely. At least in that, they'd stood together. He supposed this was a new low. "I won't ask you to help Hyacinth. I understand why you wouldn't want to. It's too soon. No one is questioning the reasons you have for saying no. So if you say we stay here from now on, then we stay here. I can't promise I'll be happy knowing the world outside is in turmoil but I can promise I'll try just as hard as you did to make the best of my life following your decision." Because, regardless, he'd made a promise. He chose Mikleo no matter the return.
Mikleo shook his head, his eyes staring off past the floor into infinity. "You'll resent me. You'll wake up some mornings hating my very existence for what I've forced you to accept."
Like he did once. Probably more than once. Sorey closed his eyes, squinting against the sting of tears. "I have the entirety of my new life to try and make it up to you that I ever made you feel that way."
"Your selflessness is a dagger."
"I don't know how else to be." Sorey rubbed his face, tired beyond measure and soaked through in a sickening chill. "Let's not hurt each other anymore, Mikleo. It's late. Let's just... let's just go to bed."
Mikleo nodded dumbly, his fire having burned out among the heavy smoke that choked them both in a room with too little air.
It was amazing in that hollow, cold sort of way that two people could sleep in the same bed and still have miles of space between them. With the morning sun peeking through the blinds and the cumulation of a good night's sleep far outside the realms of possibility, Sorey pushed the blanket from his chest and sat up to face the day. He'd managed to more than just lay with his eyes closed amidst a barrage of thoughts for maybe an hour or so through the night. He was tired but sleep was neither its cure nor its tourniquet. Seraphim didn't really need sleep anyway. It was just a habit and his fatigue was far from physical.
Mikleo did not stir as Sorey stood up, his weight noticeably shifting the mattress beneath him. He remained with his back turned to the rest of their home, more than likely pretending not to be awake just to avoid Sorey a few moments more. He could have those moments. He could have hours if he wanted them. Sorey pulled on a black t-shirt and a worn pair of jeans, tied on shoes and headed out the door.
He wasn't sure what his plans were at first. Maybe spend the day in Camlann again? His time wouldn't be wasted there for so long as Maotelus had time to instruct him. Maybe hunt some prickle boar and load up their meat and skins to sell. They'd need gald if they were going to meet with the others in Ladylake. Likely they already had more than enough but it was something productive to do with his day. He'd barely closed the door behind him, though, before the stench reminded him what he was charged to do. The corpses were bloating under a wash of dew. Sorey set his jaw and went to a shed for tools.
He would have preferred to bury them. Sixteen graves would take the entire day to dig most likely but it wouldn't have been much of a hardship. Even constructing several pyres to send them off on waves of smoke felt kinder than the course of action dictated to him to take. He got a hoe with a rusting head of iron that had probably seen better centuries to help him roll and prod the bodies towards the cliffs. He grabbed the pick ax as well--in case gases needed an outlet that could be managed much more cleanly than a sudden burst as the sun rose higher. He'd seen the corpses of the animals he'd hunted in his youth do incredible things if he took to long to get them gutted and hooked. He didn't care to see those same things happen to the bodies of the sixteen human beings currently decomposing on the sloped lawn of their home.
It was much easier to count them in the daylight. It was also much easier to see their ages which Sorey could have gone his whole life ignorant of. There were three men of reasonable age and maturity. The other thirteen couldn't have been much older than Sorey used to be. Than he was. Just some foolish kids playing around with things they couldn't yet comprehend. Again, not that unlike himself back then. Not unlike himself right now.
The hoe broke almost instantly so Sorey grabbed the ones closest to the cliff's edge by the feet and pulled them along to the rocky edge. The dew let them slide nicely over the grass, giving aid where otherwise there was none. It was hard not to think about the fact that these were actual people. He didn't want to not remember that even though it made it harder to stay mindful and work. Food for the wolves? No--a dead teenager; a dead man. Compost for the forest below? No. Just a different pile of corpses for someone else to someday find. That was the point. You threw them from the mountain so their loved ones might know they'd died and have closure to such wounds of loss. They were people. Someone out their loved them. Sometimes, if Sorey didn't give a hard enough shove past that last few feet of mountain, he could hear the crack of bones as they impacted against the jutting rocks of the cliff.
This... was his life now. This wasn't a nightmare. This was real. He cleaned corpses off of mountaintops. He slept in the same bed as their killer. He excused slaughter with self defense. He did it because he didn't know what else to do. Nothing in all his life had prepared him for a day when Mikleo would want nothing to do with him and his every outburst was frightening as it warned of insanity. What if the kinder thing, once again, was to kill? Would it save sixteen other lives? Was it better in the end to just run away?
Sorey had to stop. There were still more bodies to throw over but his shoulders were sore and his head and heart were screaming underneath his flesh. He'd thought the hard times were over. Why weren't they over? Why was everything even more of a mess than in the age named for Calamity?
Arms wrapped around him from behind, encircling his chest tightly as a face pressed against his neck. Even if there had been a million people living in Elysia instead of just them two, he'd have known who's body it was. He knew the heat of it, the smell of it, the way it melded against his own. Sorey wrapped his own arms overlapping the lithe twins holding him, trapping them in place as he let his head fall back and rest against the top of the other's. He didn't say anything; neither of them did. Sorey took deep breaths, ignoring the stench of death while trying to find calm in the quiet that greeted him.
Hugs worked. They made time and thoughts slow down, unstacked fears and set them in less cluttered places. Hugs made heartache mellow with care and comfort, promising that everything would be okay; nothing need be tackled alone. Hugs worked. Hugs always worked.
Perhaps someday they'd find the words that worked to take the pain away forever.
They toiled in silence to clear the rest of the corpses together, taking each by hands and feet to swing them out clear of the rocks so they would sail soundlessly away. Mikleo washed Sorey's hands with his artes, cool and careful, cleansing away all traces of their harrowing deed before bringing his palms to his lips to kiss, apologies and gratefulness expressed but unspoken.
It was just a bad night like so many bad nights. It was just another bad morning to move past.
Mikleo did not like the idea of them meeting the others in Ladylake. His anxiety was palpable and tasted of rock-salt in the air. It didn't help that things were already still rather tense. They'd managed a few words since clearing the bodies the previous day but mostly just words that convenience necessitated--words that unsaid might lead to suspicion of intentional avoidance. Mikleo wasn't trying to actively avoid Sorey. At least that's what he liked to believe.
"This is insane. What are they even thinking?" Mikleo rambled mostly to himself, pacing as he packed a travel bag then unpacking it just to repack it again. Sorey watched the same books go into the small brown case three times, the same phone charger being picked up but never fully making it past the bed before being put back down where it was supposed to go. "I'm not doing it. If they want anything, they need to come here," he demanded. The books came out again but still did not go back to their shelf.
Sorey wasn't quite sure what he was meant to be doing. He sat in a chair, observing the strange performance, doing his best mostly to stay out of his way. Mikleo didn't seem mad, at least. Annoyed--most certainly--but far from the flaring anger Sorey mostly remained wary of. He watched the books land on the desk beside him, Mikleo's hands still touching the leather binding of the Celestial Record on top. It was tradition they never go without it, after all. If they were going anywhere, it had to be along.
It was hard to watch Mikleo war with himself. As much as Sorey hated being his opposition lately, old habits were the hardest to kill. "It only takes a few hours nowadays to travel to Ladylake, doesn't it? We could be back the same night if you really wanted."
Mikleo's whole expression turned sour, his arms crossing over his chest. "What good does that do, exactly?" he asked. He shook his head, gesturing out the open window though there was nothing to see but clear skies. "You're only a few months old! You don't have a vessel. You've never been to a human city before like this. You've never been in public as a seraphim at all!" he exclaimed, his frustrations evident in his tone. "This is just stupid! You could get hurt or exposed to malevolence and then what am I supposed to do? You're not anywhere near old enough to leave Elysia yet. I only let you got to Camlann because Maotelus is there! Have they completely forgotten what happened the last time we saw them? This is just selfish and stupid and we are not going."
Ignoring the part about letting him go the short distance to Camlann alone, Sorey couldn't help but feel relieved to hear most of what he'd said. It was one hundred percent the wrong expression to make, but he could not keep the large smile from his face. "You're worried about me," he noted with unspeakable joy.
The water seraph only scowled even more. "Of course I'm worried about you. You're not used to being ignored by most of the people around you because they can't see or hear you. The memories you have are almost all about being human and it's completely different from that, Sorey. And no vessel? This... this is the worst possible thing we could do right now. They're going to get you killed; I'm going to get you killed again if we do this and for what? It's just some nothing get together," he complained, falling into a separate chair with almost boneless abandon, slumping inelegantly as he made his case.
And he was right, Sorey supposed. Overly cautious, certainly, but not making dragons out of fireflies. There were risks to traveling alone without certain precautions being made. That said, Sorey could not escape the thoughts that proclaimed how very much Mikleo sounded like someone else they both remembered who had assuredly thought the same things about the two reckless boys in his care. "Guess you have a better appreciation for how Gramps used to feel," he mused, the wizened man a familiar presence in his memories.
"Gramps," Mikleo repeated with reverence and a long, tired sigh. "He told me not to follow you."
"But he always knew you would."
Mikleo smiled faintly, shaking his head, bangs revealing his circlet with the gentle sway. "You have any idea how lucky we were I didn't become a hellion and murder you? The moment we left Gramps' domain, we were surrounded in malevolence, there was no other Lord of the Land granting a blessing to the area, I had no vessel, no real power, I was a baby in Seraphim years and water is one of the most corruptible elements. Not to mention this was during the height of the Age of Chaos. We made it to Ladylake and me into a sub-lord pact in one piece by the skin of our teeth and we never even realized how close we were to catastrophic failure before your journey as the Shepherd ever really began."
Ah, the good ol' days when most concerns of safety were a mere afterthought. "I guess when you put it that way, that was pretty stupid of me," Sorey admitted. "Risking you like that, I mean. I was just so happy you wanted to come along. I never really thought about the things that could happen. I was only thinking about..." He'd said too much. He'd reached a part which he'd forgotten. What had he been thinking about way back then? What had been important enough to make him leave his home and potentially leave Mikleo behind? It must have been important, Sorey surmised, but it was missing from every corner of his mind.
"We were both young and stupid," Mikleo agreed, not acknowledging the loss this time around. "The difference right now is that I'm not anymore. I can't just lead you into potential danger like I don't know the risks. You are far too young and you don't know near enough to be prepared."
"But it's different this time. There is a Lord of the Land and a blessing we'll be under. There are Shepherds still who can help if things get rough. I can find a vessel temporarily if it's really that big of an issue. And it's only for a handful of hours," Sorey reasoned, trying to dispel the idea that he was still stupid in his youth. "It's different. It's not really that much of a risk."
Mikleo looked back out towards the open window. "There is always risk where humans are involved."
And there was the other not so underlying reason why Mikleo did not care to go. It wasn't worth bring up, really. They both knew it was justifiable even if its scope could be inflated now and then. Sorey knew Mikleo was still afraid. He was there for the night-terrors and the outbursts when things got to be too much. The idea that Mikleo might always be somewhat untrusting of humanity was one Sorey was very slowly working towards accepting for himself. He couldn't blame him. He wasn't all that fond of what humans were doing now either. It would be a waste of breath and an insult to his intelligence to tell him it would be alright; that not all humans were the same and to not judge the sum by its parts. Mikleo knew. And Sorey knew Mikleo knew. So what was the point of making a point of it? It was what it was. It either mattered the most or it could be temporarily brushed aside.
Every mention of it brought along melancholy anyway. There wasn't even really anything more to say. Mikleo had been tortured and the bastards got far less than what they deserved for it. This was simply the aftermath. It was sad because it was horrible, not because there was anything left to be done. "I guess I shouldn't really think of prejudice as a good thing but at least now I don't have to worry that you prefer humans over seraphim," he joked, trying to alleviate the gloom that was slowly descending upon them again.
And if his eyes weren't deceiving him, Mikleo had turned his head to hide a blush. "You weren't exactly a normal human," he argued almost sheepishly.
Sorey smiled back, feeling a calm in the room rather than the anxious energy of before. Mikleo was still somewhat slumped but it looked more theatrical now as his chest rose and fell with each steadying breath. "I think we should go," he said into the quiet, watching to see if Mikleo shot back up in a panic again. But he didn't, instead looking at him with an almost bored expression as Sorey leaned in with his elbows bent against his knees. "Just for a few hours. I bet we can both make do for that long. I'll get a new outlook on what being a seraphim is like and you'll be there to be sure I'm fine. Nothing either of us has to stick with. Just a few hours to prove that we can. Maybe it won't be as scary a thought once we see how boring it all is."
Mikleo sighed again as he slowly sat back up, no longer a pile of black shirttails and white trousers as he unfolded into the shape of a much more serene man. "My car's in Pendrago. We're going to have to take a bus. Buses take time and we'll have to walk to Gwenhwyfar first since they don't come up here. It's not a matter of hours. We're remote. It'll be at least a day. Maybe two."
"But still only a few hours in Ladylake. In a human city," he insisted. "The rest is less condensed and the walk will just be us two."
Mikelo bit his thumbnail thoughtfully, arms crossing once again over his chest. "You really want to go? Be ignored and deal with--with who knows what's going on out there just to sit around for a few hours at best?"
"With the others?" Sorey nodded his head in strong affirmation. "Yeah. Its different in person. I don't feel like I really had a chance to say goodbye before. Everything was kind of crazy and... and they had work to do."
Mikleo didn't respond, his teeth still embedded in the tip of his nail as his eyes shifted uneasily from Sorey back to the open window and its sky. Saying nothing was still not the same as outright saying no, though. Sorey could take a small victory in giving him pause to consider and leave him to it without any hardship at all. Mikleo had left the Celestial Record on the nearby desk after all.
Picking it up, Sorey flipped to his favorite chapters, looking down at places still unseen. Even some of the places he'd been to he'd had to leave without really getting an opportunity to explore to his heart’s content. He had all the time in the world to go see them now as a seraphim, though--if they still existed anyway. Being sealed away in Elysia until Mikleo was ready to be part of the world again would just be another temporary setback. He'd handled those okay in the past. To be honest, he was pretty good at putting his own desires on hold.
"I think the Celestial Record will make a fine vessel for you for now," Mikleo said at last, standing up from his chair to put the mobile phone charger in the brown case after all.
Sorey blinked at the swiftness of his victory. He was going to Ladylake. They were leaving Elysia--even if it was for a short amount of time. He looked to the book in his hands, the kinship he felt with the text filling him with some excitement to call it his own in a whole new way. "But I thought you used it," he noted, closing it gently as he held it in his lap.
Mikleo smiled softly, collecting the other book to pack but leaving Sorey with his. "I have in the past. But of all the things of yours that exist still, it has the best connection to you. I have Mabinnogio if we're not going all that far."
"The whole mountain?!" Sorey found himself exclaiming.
Mikleo actually laughed at his response, leaning back with his hands planted firmly on his hips and a wistful expression pinching at his lavender eyes. "I wish you could have met me even just two years earlier. I really think you would have liked me."
"I do like you, Mikleo."
"Mm." The water seraph's noncommittal hum said almost too much about how Mikleo felt about himself. "Still, I was amazing before all this. I worked hard to be so. I wish you'd have met me more like that."
To be perfectly honest, Sorey did too. Just two less years and so much could have been avoided. Mikleo would be happy. Sorey the human would be alive. And so many things that were wrong about the here and now would never have reason to be.
"Teach me how to take a vessel?" he asked at length, not willing to comment on impossible things.
Mikleo nodded simply and knelt by his side, his hand resting gently on Sorey's knee.
Sorey had rather been looking forward to taking public transport. Mikleo had described it as a nuisance since humans were always sitting in the assigned seraphim rows when things got full, expecting the unseen passengers to deal with it rather than respect the special seating designation. Though most of his attempts at describing it were negative, Sorey still couldn't help but be excited to be on an 'extended carriage' with new people he'd yet to meet. Maybe they wouldn't see him but that was okay. The better parts of observation were made where one's addition did not affect the outcome. He wanted to know more about the world he was now a part of. People watching sounded amazing.
As such, it was hard not to sigh in resignation when Mikleo decided to steal a car instead. There were two left abandoned near the boundaries of Camlann where they had said goodbye to Hyacinth and the others months before. Mikleo regarded them in disdain but had no trouble at all producing the keys to the light blue one. The inside smelled like a memory. There was something strange about it that went above and beyond the unfamiliarity as Mikleo instructed Sorey on how to correctly manage his buckle before turning the key in the slot near the wheel.
The sounds that screamed from all sides with voices calling out made Sorey seize up in panic, his arms jutting out in front to grasp the dashboard to keep back whatever it was that was trying to burst its way through in alarm. He could feel the heavy vibrations through his hands and in his own skull. Even in his surprise, he could still detect a hint of melody behind the assault.
Cursing, Mikleo slammed his hand down over a button between them, the car falling silent immediately in response. "You always had it too loud," he muttered, apparently addressing whomever it was that he'd procured the vehicle from without asking.
"What was that?" Sorey asked, unlocking his elbows and letting his hands fall from the dashboard in relief.
"It's what passes for music," Mikleo explained with an eyeroll as he pulled on levers and checked strange fixtures before their vehicle began to move. "Some of its not terrible. Like artwork, it's representative not only of established social influence but by thematic geographical variance. The types of instruments used can define the genera or time period something was composed in to some extent but globalization has lead to the adoption of and assimilation of certain sounds, creating a wide verity of sub-genres that make me glad I'm not a music scholar."
Whether he was or he wasn't, it had all gone over Sorey's head either way. "Can the bards hear us?" he asked, assuming things worked rather like the telephone did.
"No, they can't hear us. It's a record of a previous performance put down on a disc to be played back at leisure. We have access to their recorded activity, not to them."
"Oh!" Sorey smiled charmingly. "So is it like an audio version of the Earthen Historia then?"
Mikleo paused for a moment, his lavender eyes narrowing just slightly as he contemplated--an expression Sorey knew well from their many arguments over history. "....Hm. I mean... well, that might be one explanation for the original inspiration. Except recordings like this are made by technology instead of by artes. Humans made it."
"That's pretty amazing," Sorey exclaimed. This world seemed almost tailor made for shut-ins and mountain dwellers. It brought friend's voices to you without having to physically go to them, it made music available without the accompaniment of minstrels, and it made possible transportation without concern for inclement weather or a beast's health. He had a feeling it offered even more outside the confines of Camlann and Elysia. It wasn't the world he thought he was helping make but he supposed no generation was ever really able to foresee the direction their decedents would go. "What does it sound like when it's not so loud?" he asked, curious as to the workings of humanity's strange creation.
His lips pursed, Mikleo's hand returned to the button and turned it back on, slowly increasing the volume until it grew from a whisper to a conversational level. It was... interesting. Hard to understand. It was more percussive than Sorey was accustomed to but there was a melody hanging there to follow somewhere between the noise of voices and the strings. The few words he strained to make out weren't pleasant, growing even worse as he finally caught on to the cadence and found he could make out intent in the verses.
'They're coming for ya. They're coming for ya. Like a ghost, out of sight, crimson death in the night. Dragons soar through the sky, motherfuckers gonna die. Ain't no Shepherd gonna save--his empty tomb, our mass grave. Fuck the dogma that binds us, fight the fools who defy us. This world belongs to us but y'all had better believe--They're coming for ya. They're coming for ya.'
"Like I said," Mikleo explained, turning the music off once more. "Social influence."
Sorey really didn't have words. For now, he was okay with the silence.
The drive was interesting to say the least. It was almost as though they were traveling through time as the towns they passed through initially remained not so unlike those Sorey was used to only to slowly bloom with increased technology the closer to Ladylake they seemed to get. Animals and farms gave way to housing developments and large stores. Individual buildings regularly grew taller than the trees and seemed to stretch on forever as one continual township--though Mikleo explained there were actually many. Gates and walls were a thing of the past; cities were separated by the imagination rather than physical barriers. Sorey liked that even if it was visually confusing. The future had gotten some things right, he was pleased to know. Perhaps an absence of physical borders would someday help plant the seeds for true social integration as well?
After about an hour, Mikleo declared the reception good enough to try to introduce music to Sorey again. The radio, he explained, would provide a better sampling of popular ideals and reflect less of the antagonistic bias of fringe interests. Or something. Sorey was very much getting the idea that Mikleo had spent centuries in the company of intellectuals and scholars which, proud as he was, certainly filled him with a bit of jealousy as well. He didn't have that kind of background. Music hadn't exactly been a part of life in Elysia when they were children, leaving the odd minstrels playing in pubs or street corners during his tenure as Shepherd more or less the pinnacle of Sorey's experience with music. He knew he favored panpipes because the player always danced as he played unlike the others, looking as though he was having the best time of all of them. Beyond that, he had no knowledge or preferences. Except maybe for the way the wind whistled through the empty passages of ruins.
The new songs were infinitely more to Sorey's liking though to say he liked them would still be an overstatement. "Do all cars have the ability to play music?" he asked, noting that the instillation in the vehicle between them seemed specially made for the task.
Mikleo nodded, eyes on the road. "Music is more a staple of life now rather than a luxury. In fact, silence is both feared and revered. Quiet isn't so much a natural state as it is seen as an absence of something. So humans fill the quiet with music rather than inane conversation to control the spaces of silence between points of intention," he explained.
"So it's music or conversations about trivial things."
"Precisely," Mikleo said. "No one wants to talk about important things when you're stuck in a vehicle together with very few options for deescalation."
Sorey breathed deeply through his nose, nodding vaguely as he turned the volume slightly up. He thought he might have heard a panpipe in the background. Probably not but for now it didn't hurt to listen.
He kept his phone out as he did, keeping in touch with the others to let them know when they could expect to see them. Zaveid preferred to reply with selfies where Lailah communicated to an almost startling degree in emojis. Sorey wasn't going to lie--he enjoyed trying to decipher them. Edna's nonsense 'I hate all of you' after Zaveid's bored face and a series of cryptic, brightly colored ideograms more or less set the tone for the whole team. Mikleo rarely joined in, preferring for Sorey to speak for both of them even when he wasn't currently driving. He supposed that wasn't entirely different from before either. It sort of felt like in the past, though, it was because they were always on the same page.
Sorey made a face as the current song on the radio changed and assaulted his ears. It was just a horrible, obnoxious, repeating tone but it seemed sour in some way, as though designed to be unpleasant. What sort of music was that?, he couldn't help but wonder, looking at Mikleo to share a glance of displeasure. Mikleo's eyes were wide, though, in a way that made Sorey pause. Outside the vehicle he could see the red lights of an other car's breaks. There were horns and the terrible screechings of metal. Mikleo twisted the wheel in his hands wildly, tossing Sorey against the door to watch the side of large truck pass mere inches from the glass. He hadn't a clue what was going on but the panic not knowing was inducing in him seemed not too dissimilar from the panic that knowledge had instilled in everyone else. Cars were almost leaping from the road around them. They all seemed desperate to fall into the embankments on either side. The actual lanes in front of them were all but empty.
Sorey adjusted himself back into the seat properly, holding firm to the safety restraint across his chest. He opened his mouth to ask what was going on only to slam back in his seat with the pressure of quick acceleration.
'--tely. Repeat: this is not a test. A dragon has been spotted on approach to Ladylake via the west. All surrounding counties are advised to seek shelter. All traffic should exit the roads immediately. Repeat: This is not a test.'
A dragon? Here? Sorey looked out the window to see if perhaps they were close enough to spot it but found it difficult to focus on anything other than the fact that he was traveling at a speed which he hadn't considered possible before. Things were passing by as literal blurs. Each slight turn in the road or other vehicle before them put the fear of death in him as Mikleo plunged them onward with quick maneuvers and never a hint of decreased speed. Though he held on tight to the belt across him, Sorey was doubtful it would do much more than slice him in half if anything happened to quickly decelerate them. For all the mania in his driving, Mikleo appeared nothing but calm on the outside--calm but seething with fury. Sorey did not like this version of his friend. This Mikleo was going to get them both killed.
"Mikleo!" he struggled to shout, somewhat choked by acceleration and the unsettling way it made him feel.
"I have to know," he said simply, his voice insistent but lacking the anger clouding his eyes. And his judgment.
There was nothing Sorey could do. He couldn't take control of the car. He couldn't reason them off this course of action when he could barely speak from the pressure on his chest. He could almost hear his vessel calling to him from the bindings at his belt. If he retreated to the Celestial Record at the very least he wouldn't feel the world's physical affects anymore. It didn't accomplish a hell of a lot to get Mikleo or the car under control but it might give him a second to--
He heard the roar before he noticed what was happening, a quick jerk of movement from Mikleo sending the car into a spiral. Walls of water encapsulated them, protected them, helped slow them down quickly but not too sudden. Sorey was still pressed against the glass with a sharp pain in his shoulder but otherwise seemed to be in one piece as Mikleo opened his car door and raced outside in a flurry of capes.
Another roar--close enough to cause cracks in the already stressed windows around him. Sorey tried to get out of the car as well but found himself tangled in the safety restraint. He tugged on the buckle, not sure if he'd forgotten how to make it disengage or if it was broken. All he knew was he was being left behind and getting to Mikleo was imperative. He could see Ladylake at the bottom of the foothills and the glistening glow of its lighthouse. In the sky he could make out the approaching dragon. It sounded much closer than it appeared. Sorey calmed slightly as he attempted getting free at a less frantic pace.
Mikleo stood in the middle of the empty road staring at the approaching calamity. It didn't seem to take any notice of them--it was heading to the city; it was following the malevolence. From their spot on the foothills they could watch it all unfold in relative safety. Buckle finally undone, Sorey put as much distance as possible between himself and the car as he stumbled like a newborn towards his friend. His phone was ringing madly.
The water seraph didn't seem to hear him. Didn't seem to even know he was approaching. Sorey took a few steps closer, hand reaching out, only to find water spring up at his fingertips. It wrapped around him not unlike it had the car before, encasing him in a bubble that, thankfully, did not distort his vision thanks to the implementation of combined artes. It did however keep him away from Mikleo--as was rather transparently part of Mikleo's intent.
Sorey banged his fist against the concave walls, finding it more rubber-like than watery in the way it repelled his attack. "Mikleo!" he shouted, either continuing to be ignored or actually now muffled enough to go unheard. His friend was watching the dragon unblinkingly. Beside himself, nothing else seemed to exist.
When his phone began to ring again, Sorey answered for lack of an alternative. He couldn't move the bubble and no amount of shouting was helping. "This is Sorey," he said, trying not to sound annoyed. It wasn't Lailah'd fault Mikleo was being a jerk.
"Are you both safe?" their friend asked, the worry in her voice matching well with Sorey's view from the bubble.
Was being stuck in a bubble in the middle of the road while a dragon approached a populated area considered safe? "I guess. Mikleo stopped the car a few miles from the city. We're watching it approach. Are you guys going to try and fight it?"
"Fight it?" Lailah asked, her confusion short lived. "Oh, Sorey. No. The lighthouse, Sorey. They're going to fire the lighthouse. You both need to make sure you're not where the light can touch you. If it does, you'll both disintegrate."
Sorey looked up again, noting how clearly he could see the top of the lighthouse which seemed almost level with them standing on the foothill. With most things, line of sight tended to be mutual. Would a handful of miles be far enough away when they stood as a straight shot?
The dragon's roar made ripples in the water around Sorey, temporarily obscuring his view of the approaching danger that had for all intents and purposes arrived. It was close enough to make out the number of horns along its head--six--and if it reflected a secondary color from black in the sunlight. There seemed a tint of green to the scales, though it was possibly due to the charging light atop Ladylake.
"Sorey?" Lailah called, but Sorey had already dropped his phone.
Mikleo had to let him out. Mikleo had to get to safety. Sorey punched and screamed to try and get his attention but only seemed to hurt his own ears. Mikleo refused to look away from the dragon or recognize anything else around him for that matter. Not for the first time that hour, Sorey felt positive Mikleo was going to get them killed. The brighter the light of the lighthouse grew, the more assured he felt that it could indeed reach them. It was meant to ward off dragons on approach, after all. Something as fast and massive as a dragon... it only made sense the range would extend this far and more.
As the lighthouse grew brighter, its massive beam imminent, it seemed Mikleo had at last become aware of the world around him. He looked out at it, holding perfectly still for just a moment, before his staff manifested in his grasp. In an instant a large bolt of ice appeared and with even greater swiftness he let it soar.
The lighthouse burst apart in a spray of sparkling glass and ice, the ray dissipating instantly in a column that fizzled out into nothing.
The city's defense against dragons had been destroyed while a startled dragon bellowed, swooping up towards the clouds in defense. Sorey wasn't entirely sure what any of Mikleo's actions meant outside the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in Ladylake were now most certainly in danger.
The lighthouse had been destroyed with a single attack. Sorey wasn't a fan of them by any stretch of the imagination but he'd been taught their intent and knew why a city that revered its seraphim like Ladylake would allow one to be mounted atop its tallest building. A single structure could hold thousands of citizens; a lone dragon capable of ending the lives of millions in a matter of seconds. It was a matter of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. Sorey was very familiar with the idea. He hated the overreach of those who proposed the lighthouses but could not argue they were not in some part necessary.
But Ladylake's was gone. The greatest fear mankind maintained was flying through the skies above and their means of protection was raining down to the streets below in a shower of glass and ice. Sorey was speechless, his eyes darting easily from the empty space where the light had been, to the dragon circling close to the city, and to his friend who stood with the wind playing in his six capes and hair, standing heroically with his staff in hand though his intent appeared anything but. His actions might have saved them both from being collateral damage but he had most certainly doomed countless others to death in the process. And there was no way Mikleo--with his intellectual mind--didn't know that when he attacked.
Sorey leaned hard into the walls of his bubble, not sure whether he wanted to collapse in impotent despair or fly into a rage at the sudden injustice. This wasn't okay and he had no idea what to do to make it better. What if it had been intentional? What if Mikleo had finally snapped and was trying to get the innocent people of Ladylake killed? He hated that the idea seemed in any way likely but things weren't exactly okay--they both knew it--maybe not this level of not okay but perhaps closer than he ever thought to fear.
For his part, Mikleo remained still and silent. He only had eyes for the dragon above though he made no move to engage it as he had the city defenses. The only arte still in use was the one keeping Sorey from interfering as he seemed content to stand back and watch.
Sorey didn't want to watch this.
It didn't unfold quite the way in which he feared. Fate seemed to take great interest in making his expectations prove limited in their sight. The dragon didn't seem to care at all for Ladylake anymore but instead was searching for something. It found it on the foothills standing out in the middle of the road. If a dragon could scream, Sorey felt sure he now knew what that would sound like: it was a screech beyond anything uttered by Tiamat or Eizen and it made Sorey's blood run cold as he watched the dragon change course.
Calling his sword to his hand, Sorey did his best to pop the bubble from inside but physical attacks were useless and sadly his only real recourse. Perhaps for the best. Regardless of his past life, he was in no shape to be fighting a dragon now. The malevolence it exuded alone could prove fatal in the right circumstances. It was more or less everything Mikleo hadn't wanted them to deal with though Mikleo himself had brought it upon them. They were just out to meet friends; nothing was supposed to happen. Nothing was pretty much the only thing Sorey could do.
"Late to class again, Ayla?"
Sorey paused in his mental frenzy at the sound of Mikleo's voice, looking from the approaching danger to the sad smile on his friend's face.
"I always thought it was rather funny that you gave your blessing to the dormitories," he spoke quietly to the wind. "I'd meant to ask if your residents had a higher rate of truancy."
Sorey almost wished he could pretend not to understand. It was surprising how little time it took in the midst of a panic for a heart to still find a moment to break.
Hearing his name, Sorey's attention flashed from his friend to the descending form of a female Shepherd--Hyacinth--cloaked in Lailah's red trappings as she touched down on the road beside them. Sorey had never been more pleased to see anyone. She regarded Sorey and his annoying bubble but seemed just as happy to leave him to it as Mikleo was. In a flash of lights, three additional forms appeared around them, all of them familiar except the team's new water seraph whom Sorey had heard of but never met.
"Not that I don't feel the same or anything, but what the actual fuck, sir?" Hyacinth asked as took up her sword beside Mikleo.
Mikleo seemed to all but hiss, taking a large step aside and regarding her sword with disgust. "You're not needed here," he said, though Sorey thought any argument to the contrary would be rather valid given the enemy Mikleo had decided to fight.
Hyacinth raised one eyebrow as she pointed to the sky with her blade. "You made this my business when you took out the lighthouse. This is a Sheaperd's job now, sir. Learn to deal with it."
The look on his face said he was prepared to do no such thing. There wasn't any time to argue, though.
It was perhaps good that Mikleo also had no intention of doing that either.
As the dragon raised up to land before them, a domain the likes of which Sorey had never felt pushed out and thrust the dragon back up into the air with revulsion. It snapped at the wind and clawed at the clouds but flew fast to escape the immense power that spread quickly over the land and air as a ward against malevolence. It reminded Sorey of Elysia instantly; of Gramps and the calming domain under which they'd both grown up. There were far more complexities to the sensation now that he too was a seraph, though. The air felt thick like molasses around him, full of energy but still somehow sluggish. The very sky seemed tinted in gold though the clouds glimmered with a pinkish hue.
The dragon was heading away from Ladylake and their party by the time Hyacinth and the others recovered from the surprise.
"Wha--" Hyacinth breathed out in frustration, her hands shaking in their grasp on her sword's hilt. "You've got to be kidding me! We'll never catch up!"
Mikleo shrugged as though he neither cared nor thought it mattered. His staff disappeared and at last he broke the bubble arte. Sorey stumbled forward only to be caught from falling by the unfamiliar water seraph.
"Careful," she warned, keeping her hands against his arms as Sorey took a moment to adjust to a flat surface under his feet. He wouldn't have been able to approach Mikleo even if she hadn't made him stall for a few seconds. Hyacinth, Edna and Zaveid had all but hidden him from view with their backs.
Edna extended her parasol over her shoulder, hiding them even further. "Well that was stupid," she let everyone know.
"There is no excuse for what you just pulled," Zaveid echoed. "I'm of half a mind to punch you but I don't think even that would get through that thick skull of yours."
"Give it a go if you've any real conviction!" Mikleo snapped.
Sorey didn't need to see them to understand what the sound that followed had been. He winced and pulled away, shouldering his way through the group to Mikleo's side where his friend stood in opposition to the others, his left cheek marred red.
Zaveid shook his hand out, scowling. "Well, that's that," he remarked dully. "You going to give us a ride back into town or are we meeting at the pub?"
Mikleo's shoulders sank as he glanced back at their car. "You can get in if you like. Let me see if she starts up first. I might have broken something stopping the way I did," he said, walking towards the light blue vehicle as though nothing big had happened previously.
Edna poked the front of the car with the point of her parasol. "The Little Lord's a bit of a masochist if he's driving his car now," she remarked.
Mikleo flinched but ignored her, dropping down into the car instead.
Not one second of any of the recent time passed made any sense at all to Sorey.
The pub Edna had picked for them to meet at was surprisingly for seraphim only. There was a human with strong resonance at the door who let them in but inside the only variance were the handful of normin sitting in extra tall chairs alongside the bar. Sorey supposed to many people the establishment looked completely empty as even the cups and chairs had most likely been imbued. It was a safe place where all patrons could see and interact with each other. An interesting idea, he marveled. At the very least, seraphim were engaging in human culture. Not the integration he'd prefer in his heart of hearts but an effective point of privilege for those so often left out. More than that, it was very considerate of their friends to consider a place that would offer minimal stress to everyone coming along.
Well, not everyone. High resonance or not, not even Shepherds were permitted in the specialty pub, though Hyacinth didn't seem to mind being told they'd meet up later. She had work to do and trusted that they did too. She bowed her head in respect to Mikleo and Sorey himself then walked on towards the cathedral with her water seraphim--Oriel--in company. The unspoken qualification that this was a meeting for the old team seemed to fill the air between them. Sorey would have liked to have included everyone but... well, he wasn't going to argue that this was in all likelihood the better plan.
They walked into a room filled with contentious celebration as the bouncer held the door open for their entry. It was easy to overhear the different pockets of patrons as they conversed loudly among themselves. Some men toasted to the demise of the lighthouse while others argued about the consequences and felt celebration was a callous response. It didn't seem that anyone wasn't talking about the recent dragon scare up until their group walked through the room and the boisterous voices began to lower.
The stares and whispers were extremely obvious. Sorey felt his ears grow warm as he stood beside his friends, walking in beside Lailah as the older woman lead him in by the arm. There was an energy in the room that brimmed with excitement as voices slowly began to rise again in normal conversation though some eyes refused to divert from his entourage. Did they know who they were? Did they know who he was, he couldn't help but wonder. Humans did thanks in part to Mikleo's writings. Could the seraphim look at the five of them and see a long departed Shepherd and his once pact-held friends? Sorey felt the warmth of their eyes on him all the same and felt very fortunate to have the others with him in his seraphim debut.
"Looks like we'll have to wait for a table," Lailah lamented, her eyes searching the room. While most tables weren't full, finding five seats together didn't appear to be possible. Sorey nodded as he too looked for someplace they could wait until space opened up.
There didn't appear to be a need. A tall woman with olive hair stood up from her table, her voice almost shouting to get their attention. "Please, take our table," she proposed, quickly gathering her glass in hand as her friends nodded enthusiastically and followed suit.
Sorey shook his head, unwilling to disturb the small group, but Edna beat him to an official reply with a swift kick to his shin to keep him quiet. "Thank you; how thoughtful!" she said sweetly, pouring on the charm as she waited for them to move past. She claimed her seat before Sorey had even stopped grimacing from the kick. Instead he waved sheepishly to the small group of kind ladies and thanked them as they passed by. They really, really hadn't needed to do that. That they had jumped at the chance to give up their table to them made Sorey even more certain their identities were far from unknown.
"Ah, the perks of celebrity," Edna praised as the others took their seats around the table as well. She leaned back with her arms crossed behind her head, her cheeky grin spreading almost from ear to ear. "We should make you come out with us more often."
Sorey, having sat beside her, leaned in close to keep his voice low. "Does everyone here know who we are?" he asked.
"Maybe by association but not to the same degree by a long shot. I was talking about our Little Lord Temper Tantrum here," she goaded. "Ten gald says the fire seraph checking you out at the bar offers you a drink, Meebs."
Sorey couldn't help but look at the bar behind them, seeing several seraphim standing around and talking. A handful were of fire. He couldn't really tell which one Edna meant, though. "You mean someone saw what Mikleo did an hour ago?" he asked, worried those whom he'd heard arguing over it might try to make Mikleo feel bad.
"Even without all the panic, I doubt anyone saw," Lailah recounted. "Edna just means it's always like this when we're with Mikleo."
Edna rocked back in her seat with one foot on the table. "Yeah, everyone's got goo-goo eyes for Lord Overreacts Much."
"Is right now really the most appropriate time for this?" Mikleo asked.
Edna raised a single finger at him. "Sit and spin, Meebo. I think a bit of teasing is permitted from those of us who didn't go with the punching you option."
"Those of us who did can still get in on the betting though, right?" Zaveid queried.
Mikleo huffed while Edna nodded firmly. "I consider myself a fair and just seraph."
"Put me down for ten on the wind chick next to the purple normin, then. Pretty sure she was trying to part those capes to get a better look at his ass as we walked through."
Sorey once again looked, this time making eye contact with the woman Zaveid had described. She blushed and turned her head, looking up at the ceiling as she drank from the long neck of a brown glass bottle.
"If I'm old enough to know you're being completely juvenile, why aren't you two?"
"I'll second Edna's guess!"
"Lailah, not you too?!"
It felt a little bit as though Sorey wasn't really there. Like this sort of thing happened a lot without him. It was nice in some ways to see how much the others cared about Mikleo--choosing to annoy him rather than chastise him further over the incident on the road. The topic left an uneasy feeling in his stomach though. Sorey smiled warily, not really sure he wanted to join in on either side.
"Okay, Lailah, since you've doubled down on my pick, we should have a side bet on the kind of drink just so we can determine an ultimate winner."
Lailah sat close to the front of her seat, her hands clenched under the table on her knees. "Sounds fair. How about beer or cocktail?"
"That'll work," Edna agreed, looking over their heads towards the horse she'd entered in their race. "I get the feeling you offer a guy like Meebo a beer because you're attracted to his hugely massive, impressively macho, super awesome power but you buy him a cocktail if you're imagining fucking him up against the table till he screams. So I'm going to have to go with cocktail this time," she announced to the table.
"Well poo. I guess I'm stuck with beer."
"For the love of all creation, just punch me next time if this is your alternative means of punishing me." Mikleo sat back with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, his chin held high but a telling blush coloring his cheeks and throat. He was scowling across the table but there was very little animosity behind the sharply articulated words. Anger, yes, but nothing hateful. Mikleo was getting angry but at least he still knew he was in the presence of friends.
"Maybe instead don't do anything worthy of being punched for," Edna proclaimed. "I think that makes for a much better compromise, don't you?"
"Just because you disagree with what I did doesn't mean I regret it. Or that I wouldn't do it again in a heartbeat," he said. He lowered his tone and the haughty angle of his face as he leaned in against the table instead. "And I could, couldn't I? You mentioned going after dragons when we called before. You know about my thirty-two and you know how many confirmed dragon deaths there have been. There haven't been thirty-two, have there? How many are unaccounted for?"
It was a strange if not altogether welcomed change in conversation. Sorey looked between the two, still the same squabbling seraphim he'd always known but there was a subtle shift in power between them.
Edna shrugged, feigning disinterest. "Including the one you let get away today? Eight. There have been twenty-four dragon deaths recorded by the cities of Glenwood and the Shepherd's union. The rest are probably in hiding unless you know where the Knights of Avalon might have a few locked away."
"If I told you that, you'd tell Hyacinth and get a group together to kill him."
"So there's one locked up and seven on the loose? Either way, sounds like a good time to go revisiting the old crucibles." She shrugged again though her lips curled wickedly with a hint of triumph in her grin.
Mikleo took a deep breath before sitting back, his eyes looking off into a nothing that existed somewhere distant in the wallpaper. "Just leave them alone," he said quietly, though even his own tone betrayed how pointless he felt the words were.
"You know why we can't," Edna agreed. "And there's no amount of bullshit excuses you could give me that would mean a damn thing either."
The tension had already been dying down but was broken completely by a polite cough just over Sorey's shoulder. He turned just in time to see the back of a red shirt and an arm pushing a rose colored drink onto the empty table. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything but I couldn't help but notice you when you walked in. You're Mikleo, aren't you?" the fire seraph asked.
Sorey gawked slightly, able to catch a glance at Mikleo from under the stranger's arm that separated them. He looked mildly surprised at the drink in front of him, blinking up at the man who had put it there. "I am," he answered. "I'm afraid I'm also rather engaged at this moment with my colleagues."
"Sorry about that, I'll let you get back to whatever you were discussing. I just wanted to introduce myself and bring you a drink. I've heard a lot of amazing things about you but, well... they never mentioned just how stunning you are." The fire seraph snapped his fingers and lit the alcohol in the drink on fire. It burned blue for a few seconds then expired without a trail of smoke but had somehow turned the rose color a vibrant red in its wake. "Name's Casper. My address is on the napkin. Hope to see you around," he said, then coolly pulled away.
Sorey watched him go, pretty sure that was one of the smoothest interruptions he'd ever experienced. The trick with the drink had been pretty neat too. It was more than a little weird to dislike someone so quickly and with so few excuses to.
Tossing some money to Edna, Zaveid stood up and edged around the table to pull Sorey to his feet as well. "Well, we can't have Mikleo be the only one enjoying a nice drink. Come on, Sorey, I'm gonna need the extra hands. The usual, ladies?"
They both replied to the affirmative before descending upon Mikleo. Sorey was pulled too quickly away to catch any of what they said. It felt like an intentional move on the older seraphim's part but Sorey wasn't sure to what end nor was he a great fan of conspiracies. He was just being paranoid, he told himself. No one was actually trying to take his Mikleo away. Courtship had to be reciprocated, after all. All Mikleo had said were polite words to tell the other man good day.
The bar itself was uncrowded though there were still a few people they needed to wait behind to put in an order. Sorey tried not to look at him but found his eyes drifting back to where 'Casper' stood just a few shoulder widths to his left. He didn't look like anything special: high cheekbones, chiseled jaw, distinguished looking nose, perfect black hair with ruby ends. Handsome. He was talking to a friend about past adventures they remembered, bemoaning the days they'd apparently once spent in the trials at Lefay. It wasn't hard to figure out how they'd come to the topic of a water temple or of the trials. His golden eyes kept looking back over at the table, more than passively glancing at Mikleo's back.
Sorey made himself stop watching him, knowing it was hypocritical to hate the other seraph doing it when he himself was engaged in a similar act. "Does... uh, does Mikleo often get that kind of attention?" he asked softly to Zaveid as he leaned into him to get his attention.
"In one form or another," he replied honestly, his own voice not nearly as quiet. "Between the legends of the Age of Chaos, the books he's written, and all the times he just had to show off, he's made a name for himself. Worked very hard to prove seraphim and humans could live in the same communities by living as an example. Most seraphim have heard of him. Good number of humans too. And to top it all off, he's a goddam beauty. I mean, the winds don't blow in that direction or anything but that doesn't mean the sails aren't up. Ya get me?"
"I think so," Sorey said, glancing once more towards the table. Mikleo was looking at the napkin with the handwriting on it. He seemed to sigh as he put it back down.
Sorey wanted nothing more than for Mikleo to crinkle it into a ball and throw it away; throw the drink with its stupid color changing trick away too. It hadn't actually been that impressive. Casper wasn't that good looking. More annoying than any of it was how easily everyone just accepted it. Joked about it. People wanting to get close to Mikleo romantically was just... something that happened regularly. Had he ever--no.
And especially not right now.
Zaveid wrapped an arm around Sorey's shoulders, jostling him lightly. "You okay?"
"I'm really worried about him, Zaveid," he said, not able to lie and so focusing instead on a truth that fit better than where his thoughts currently ran.
"I know. We all are. He'll bounce back eventually, though. The kid can have his dark moments but despair's just not in his nature. Just don't baby him too much and he'll get his heart and mind settled again. Probably don't mention dragons or humans much till then," he only somewhat joked, tussling Sorey's less than perfect hair. "Trust me on this, okay? I've known him a lot longer than you have."
Sorey's train of thought did a complete stop, a backflip, and promptly crashed into the sun. I've known him a lot longer than you have. The person Sorey had grown up with and spent every second of every day beside--the person who even when wide awake watched him sleep rather than go exploring? I've known him a lot longer than you have. The person who'd told him his true name in childhood; the person who had always been there and was part of his every memory? The person who Sorey could not imagine life without because he'd never known life without him? I've known him a lot longer than you have.
I've known him a lot longer than you have.
"You know what you want?" Zaveid asked as he pulled him up to the bar.
He wanted those words not to be true.
He wanted the life back where he had been his Mikleo.
The first time Sorey had gone to Ladylake, he'd been in awe of the world humanity had built. But even surrounded in all the city's wonders, he couldn't help the thoughts that said he was even luckier still because he alone could see Mikleo. It had felt like the whole world had reason to be jealous of him. They couldn't hear his architectural observations or converse with him on historical discrepancies. They couldn't see how beautiful he was or know how smart and a small part of him had wanted to show him off. He was proud of him and of the fact that someone as amazing as Mikleo chose to be his best friend. How funny life was now that almost everyone knew how wonderful Mikleo was for it to fill Sorey less with gratification and more with terror.
He'd known Mikleo for less than a quarter of a century. There existed people on the planet who mattered less but who had known him longer; people who knew this older Mikleo better. And with so much of childhood forgotten in age, that meant even fewer years of memories shared between them up until he'd gone to sleep. That meant maybe as few as ten years that were more than just a vague sense of past bad ideas and misadventure. Ten years of actual memory that made up ninety-nine percent of Sorey's past and current life. Ten years out of the nearly thousand Mikleo had lived was just one percent. Just a drop in the bucket. Who had been there to make up the rest of his life?
Sorey couldn't concentrate at all as they sat in the pub. He nursed his beer and stared mostly at the table, trying not to read the address that appeared distorted through the thick bottom of Mikleo's empty glass. He knew the topic of conversation was important--dragons, the Knights of Avalon, and most of the affairs he knew Mikleo despised--but all he could think about was a time when the chair he currently occupied would have been empty and someone like Casper might have been more welcomed to take a seat. Ninety-nine percent to one, he kept reminding himself. Surely even seraphim became lonely. Especially seraphim raised in a village setting, raised beside a human in a place designed to mimic human societal norms. The seraphim they met in their travels didn't seem to understand loneliness as a relatable concept; they existed and time passed and they were okay with passing invisibly through the world. But not Mikleo. That wasn't how they were raised. Even when apart, they'd always worked hard to unite again.
So, for the sake of argument, maybe a hundred years ago another Casper brought a drink and sat down for some conversation. Maybe Mikleo was happy for the attention. Maybe they talked about his books and he made Mikleo feel good about himself. Maybe he made Mikleo smile. There wasn't anything wrong with that. Sorey never wanted Mikleo to be unhappy. Maybe this Casper popped up a lot, they had lots of conversations and they became friends. Noting wrong with that either; it was good to have friends. Friends were the silver lining on a cloudy day. Sorey wished nothing less than for Mikleo to have only the best of friends to celebrate the highs with and to find comfort in for the lows. But... maybe that Casper of a hundred years before wanted more than just friendship and offered Mikleo a kiss. That... that hurt on some fundamental level to even attempt to conceive of. But there was ninety-nine percent of a life to fill in. Maybe he would have kissed him. Maybe he'd have done more than that. Maybe infatuation made the years pass faster than an in-actionable, wasting love with no end in sight. Who was he to say? He'd been asleep at the time. He hadn't been the one left with the task of still being around when Sorey finally returned.
So maybe... maybe there had been others. Other people that made Mikleo laugh till it hurt and took him seriously, who traveled with him and listened to him talk on and on without making him feel like he was boring them. Maybe other people existed who understood how amazing he was and felt the whole world had a reason to be jealous because Mikleo chose them in that moment. It wasn't crazy at all to imagine someone falling in love with Mikleo. It just hurt like hell to conceptualize a world in which Mikleo loved them too. It wouldn't take long at all for them to know each other longer and in many ways better as age took Mikleo further and further from being the youth Sorey would always remember.
He shouldn't have wished so hard to be able to share Mikleo with the world. The reality of it was far too cruel when the passage of time for each of them was vast and mostly unexplored.
"You two should probably stay the night. Kid looks out of it," Zaveid remarked.
Sorey looked up from his ruminations to see a kaleidoscope of eyes all looking at him with varying degrees of concern.
"I wonder if the malevolence is affecting him," Lailah questioned with a frown.
Sorey shook his head and pushed the remaining dregs of his drink away. "No, it's fine. I don't feel anything like that at all, I don't think. Just... tired. It's been a long day."
"Then we should just head back to the car." Mikleo pushed his chair back and stood up, waiting patiently for Sorey to join him at his feet. They'd parked only a few feet from the door and then it would be just a few hours more until reaching home. Just to be sealed off from the world as Mikleo continued to run from everything?
Sorey took a deep breath as he looked up at him. "One more day? Please?" he asked. He knew all the reasons he'd argue why they should go. All Sorey had was the word 'please' and the hope it might still be enough.
Mikleo frowned but didn't argue. He looked to Lailah instead. "The Sawhorse still a pretty decent place to stay?"
"Yes, and even more expensive now than I'm sure it was the last time you were in town," she said, offering them both a smile. "Save a few gald and come with us instead. It's a small chain hotel but Hyacinth can handle the transaction if they don't have anyone with resonance available at the counter. It'll make it even easier for us to catch up again tomorrow. It feels like with everything going on today we've rather missed getting the most of this opportunity."
Sorey expected him to argue but Mikleo just nodded with consent. He remained standing nonetheless and motioned towards the door. "Guess I'm giving you all a ride, then. Unless you want to stay and walk to the hotel later, let's go."
He was something of a different person after sitting with the others for a while. Less frightened. More sad. They seemed to draw his frustrations out and replace them with a dull melancholy. Mikleo knew it too by the way he simply gave in. In an ongoing three against one battle, it was much easier to surrender and wait for a battle worth the fight. Staying the night wasn't one. The inn they chose wasn't either. He walked ahead as the stares and whispers accompanied them out. Sorey followed, relegating himself to observation.
The drive was short and uneventful. Lailah texted Hyacinth whom met them at the inn, took Mikleo's gald and got them a room then handed them the key and said goodnight. It was all a blur, really, as Sorey focused instead on the way the others watched over Mikleo. He could almost see the years he'd missed in the looks that went between them. They were a united front that each had their own way of looking out for Mikleo, worrying over him, taking pride in him but also remaining wary in the presence of such deep sadness. He was sure they'd all hoped it would all be erased once Sorey came back. Then again, maybe they had known even from the start that it wouldn't be as easy as all that.
He wished them all goodnight then followed Mikleo up to their room where someone had already hung a sign from the door's handle alerting cleaning staff that the room was occupied by seraphim. He was sure there were all kinds of implications in needing to advertise that but didn't dwell too long on it as Mikleo unlocked the door and proceeded him inside.
It reminded him a bit of the inns of his own day with multiple beds all in one room. These two beds were bigger than those--nearly large enough to fit two--with a small table, their own television and a limited view of the parking lot from the large window on the far wall. It was utter luxury the likes of which Sorey hadn't seen before. Not only were the beds made massive with plush white comforters and multiple fluffy pillows all but spilling over the sides but there were mirrors and glass fixtures and ornately carved bedposts that would have suited royalty back so long ago. To think this was available to anyone now for just a handful of gald. He couldn't help but get excited inspecting their very own private bathroom, the closet, and even the side table between the beds with a copy of the Shepherd's Tale resting in the top drawer. It was fascinating how much things had changed and his curiosity was hard to ignore. This world was so much more than he expected or understood. It made him wish he remembered better the time between waking up and finding Mikleo. He must have seen these things then too. Perhaps it was better this way, though. Now it meant he got to experience everything for this second first time alongside Mikleo.
"Bit of a squeeze," he commented, eyeing the width of the two beds. The one they shared in Elysia was easily an extra foot wider. These seemed designed more for the luxury of a single sleeper. Cuddling close wasn't something they were generally adverse to, though.
Mikleo sat at the foot of one of the beds as he began pulling off his tall brown boots. "You don't have to sleep with me," he said, looking only at his simple task.
Sorey knew the day had been unexpectedly difficult for the both of them but found the quiet words painful to hear in their own right. "Are you saying that because you'd rather be alone or because you think I don't want to be in your bed?" he asked, hoping it was something between those two options. He could understand if Mikleo wanted space; he'd give it to him without any qualms. Any other sort of misunderstanding was heartbreaking to consider.
Mikleo set his boots down on the floor, slowly drawing his gloves off as he continued to undress. "I'm not sorry about the car. Or the bubble," he said, not entirely addressing the question posed.
So he thought Sorey was mad? He wasn't sure how he'd managed to make him think that. Then again, perhaps he had been rather quiet since then. His mind had been racing nearly the entire time they had been at the pub and before that they'd been in a car filled with other people. While not normally overly sensitive, Mikleo had always had a knack for understanding what Sorey felt even when he did his best to hide it. It made Sorey feel guilty to think his mental shut down at the pub had seemed like anything but a personal dilemma to Mikleo watching him sit there silent. "I never asked for an apology," he said solemnly. "I get it, Mikleo. In fact, thanks for trying to look out for me."
Mikleo looked at him through his pale bangs, eyes darting aside when the secret glance ended in their eyes meeting. It didn't seem to make him relax any or allow him to take any measure of solace in knowing things between them were okay.
Were they? Were things 'okay' and ready to simply pass by as best forgotten? Sorey had a feeling it was as much in part due to his own heartache that Mikleo did not feel like he was hearing the whole truth. What was Sorey supposed to say, though? That he was reeling from the idea that in all likelihood Mikleo had had friendships that were as close as theirs with other people? That the fact that Mikleo didn't belong to him anymore in that special way they had both belonged to each other so long ago was causing a psychological crisis? He wasn't ready for that. Mentioning it meant they might actually talk about it and one way or another Sorey knew he needed to be far more prepared for that time than he was now. Now it was a fresh hurt of sudden and surprising realization. The very worst thing for both of them would be to tackle it now.
There was ninety-nine percent of a life worth of things Sorey didn't know about and far better places to start than with that.
Sorey took a seat perpendicular to him on the bed, being careful not to sit on any of his capes as Mikleo slowly worked the buttons on his coat. "Her name was Ayla?" he asked, venturing softly with his voice pitched low like a rumble in his chest.
Mikleo paused for a moment then let his shoulders sink slightly as he resumed. "Yes," he explained. "She took graduate lectures with me. TA'ed once, even. She was always late. Time just seemed to pass by faster for everyone else but her. She said she'd blink and suddenly an afternoon would go by. She was nice. Everyone seemed to like her."
She sounded like an interesting seraphim. Sorey could imagine Mikleo being stern with her for arriving late and the smug grin that would be on his face when she did something right. He was probably a good teacher. Someone like Ayla had thought so enough to keep coming back. Sorey preferred to think of the dragon as she had once been. Most of the other dragons were dead and gone, after all. It only made sense that this one should arrive late. "The others.. did you know all of them?"
"All but six," he admitted with a deep sigh. "Some seraphim were unlucky enough to get caught by some of Dr. Breton's compatriots. Most of them were unlucky because they knew me." He slipped his arms from his coat, letting it pool behind him as he stared down at his open hands. "Lanterns meant seraphim were dying all the time around Pendrago anyway. No one thought anything of it when seraphim went missing. No one looked into it. Just casualties of the war against malevolence," he said, his hands clenching into fists. "It was just as easy with the children. They lived on the streets anyway; they were practically invisible. No one notices a lack of starving children and remarks how they're missed. Most people just assume someone else did something about it they're being taken care of somewhere else. No one looks. In the end, no one really cares."
Sorey frowned. "Why were you kidnapping homeless kids?"
The air between them seemed to cool by several degrees. By the stiffness in Mikleo's back and the slow motions of his arms as he rested his elbows against his knees, Sorey wished he could take back what he'd said and ask about his time at the university instead. He probably all had sorts of great stories of getting to be the know-it-all at the front of the class. Much happier stories. Stories of a time he felt proud of. Sorey pursed his lips shut trying to think of a way to backtrack.
"They needed something human to torture to make dragons," Mikleo whispered.
Sorey couldn't help the shiver of revulsion that rolled through his body. He supposed he should have known something like that must have happened. Humans were generators of malevolence and dealing with hellions directly would have been dangerous or even impossible for those disgusting excuses for humanity. He'd seen his fair share of dead children as a Shepherd; he knew from experience that they were all too often preyed upon by those who had nothing but ambition in their hearts. That didn't make it any easier to hear. It almost made it worse to know some things never changed.
He put a hand to Mikleo's shoulder, offering support and the warmth of his skin. "We can find the others, if you want. Stop them from hurting anyone. Give them peace."
Mikleo shook his head firmly, shoulders shuddering on a tangled breath. "That's not my answer, Sorey. I can't... I can't fix this with more horrors. Not with death and violence. Not this time. If I were to accept that... I don't think I can come back from that, Sorey. Not as me. And not as someone I want to become."
"Is the only alternative hiding away until someone else deals with it?" he had to ask. Inaction had consequences as sure as actions did.
"I don't know," Mikleo admitted. "I didn't know any were alive. It's... I need some time."
Sorey nodded to himself. He knew exactly how that was. He knew it hurt to be stuck with decisions that were beyond expectation but also couldn't wait to be addressed until after the sting dulled from the wound. Killing had been a hard choice to accept for himself. He wouldn't dare rush that decision for anyone else. Whether he agreed or not, this time it was his job to follow just as Mikleo had done for him in how own time.
Slipping his arms around his waist, Sorey leaned in against Mikleo's back, his cheek resting against his shoulders as he tried to imbue the embrace with every ounce of love he felt. "I'm with you at every step," he promised him. "Let me stay at your side and I'll help you however I can."
Mikleo hugged Sorey's arms to him as he leaned back into his chest. At the moment, it didn't matter in the slightest if there had ever been someone else in a hotel room with the water seraph. Sorey was the one who had the chance to be there now. If he let a past he didn't know keep him from being grateful, he was a greater fool than ever anyone thought. And Mikleo deserved so much better than a fool.
One of the most fascinating things about Ladylake was how much it had changed. If not for the water wheel, Sorey would not have recognized the part of the city he found himself in as a place he'd once stood long ago alongside much the same group of friends. Beside him were glass display windows full of headless mannequins in denim and plaid, the buildings themselves all of relative similarity as they extended upwards with flat brick faces. The streets were paved flat rather than constructed in stone, no longer intended for horse carts and pedestrians but instead occupied by cars and public transport. The sidewalk passed directly beside the water wheel which spun as part of an ornamental fountain--no longer part of the archaic and long defunct aqueduct system. Sorey could see the ages in the mechanical fixes appended to the traditional construction of the wheel. Like himself, it was a relic of an age past that stuck out from the passage of time.
It was just the old crew once again--minus one which no one found surprising. Mikleo had no desire to see the sights of Ladylake and opted to visit old haunts alone instead. Sorey had no choice but to trust him when he said he'd meet them back at the inn later, the time set as relative since both were well known to wander and lose track. He owed it to Mikleo to display some manner of faith even if Sorey's gut screamed not to let him out of his sight. Normal people did things on their own as well as together, though. This was fine. This was normal. It was better to let Mikleo have his way for a while than to try and control things until they felt safe. That was a lesson they were both currently learning. It was harder than Sorey would have cared to admit.
"The sanctuary is right past there. Do you remember coming this way with Joseph?" Lailah asked, a vanilla cone in hand as she walked gracefully by his side, keeping close amidst the humans who could not see them.
The name was familiar but it stayed outside the realms of memory and closer to an inkling of something once mentioned. "This is effectively my first time here, really. Was Joseph a friend?"
Lailah frowned and licked her white swirl of cream. "He was... a rather interesting person," she settled on at length. She had a knack for talking around things perhaps best unsaid.
"That's one way to put it," Edna chipped in. "Can't believe you forgot all that stuff that happened but you can remember things like the water wheel."
Sorey couldn't help but smile a little as he looked back at the wheel behind them and the stragglers walking in his shadow. Edna had a brightly colored parasol open over her shoulder while Zavied had lost his shirt to instead bask in the sun as though time had failed to teach him to dress respectfully after all. So many memories looked just like this. Well, with one or two exceptions. "I know it doesn't make sense," he admitted. "Drives Mikleo up the wall, honestly. But I can't exactly help it. Believe me, if I could, I wouldn't choose to have blanked out the last however long when I was still human."
Lailah nodded, still daintily licking at her melting treat. "It isn't very hard to guess why your memories are the way they are," she said.
Sorey's eyes grew just a tad wider as looked to her for answers as he had often done. "What do you mean?"
"Well, the memories that remain are chosen by their quality," she began, "A Shepherd reborn as a seraph may remember their trials and duty. A good person may recall their values. For you, Sorey, the one thing you could never bear to forget was Mikleo. And it just happens that Mikleo has been a part of nearly every memory you once had."
Sorey blinked several times, trying to think of something that might be in his head that was his alone and not a moment shared. There wasn't one, but that wasn't a surprise. How does one even go about finding things they don't know they've forgotten? "So you think the reason I don't remember much about the time between when I woke up and when I was reborn was because Mikleo wasn't there?" he asked.
Lailah nodded, her short hair swinging. "You were looking for him. He was with you the whole time, it seems, but none of us knew that until much later. Do you remember the fight at the university?"
Sorey remembered... he remembered being terrified. He remembered an expression on Mikleo's face he never wanted to see again. So much of it was jumbled, though. It was there but it was focused only on Mikleo with so much of the rest shrouded in a dense fog. "I think so. Mostly I remember seeing Mikleo in Camlann and him fighting Hyacinth, but before that, it get a little vague. But... yeah. Mikleo's always there when I think about that life. Not that that's strange--like you said, that's just how it's always been."
"But Joseph, Dr. Breton, none of the stuff in Lanceer or Pendrago? All that's gone?" Edna asked, sounding annoyed to find memories of herself missing. Sorey was sure, if Lailah was right, there was even more of their shared history that was forgotten. Not too much, though--he felt sure he remembered the important times. He wanted to believe so, anyway.
"If the memories didn't include Mikleo, it's unlikely they would carry over," Lailah clarified for them all. "I imagine nearly all of the memories Sorey has are from nine hundred years ago."
"Well, you can't get much more romantic than that," Zavied remarked, slinging a slightly sweaty arm around Sorey's shoulders.
Romantic? Sorey sighed loudly. "I only remember the Mikleo that was, and he can't stop thinking about a time I've forgotten. It's not romantic. Honestly, though, it's not even tragic. It's just... what we've got."
"You two going to be alright locked away on that mountain of yours all alone?" the other man asked, giving him a short squeeze and a jostle.
Sorey wanted desperately to say everything would be just fine. It was a shame he'd never been a very good liar. "No," he admitted though it was still hard to confess just how scared he was. "I mean, it's fine but... I annoy him. If I let myself think about it long enough, I start to realize that he's a stranger to me. I know... without even the slightest bit of doubt, I know he loves me. I love him too. But I'm not... Love's not enough to... to just..," he stopped, let a short breath out through his nose, and tried again. "I don't know that I really know how to say it. I'm worried. It's like I've already lost him but I'm not strong enough to admit it because I'm the one who decided it had to be this way. I left the world, expecting change, and forgot he was a part of it."
"If it makes you feel better, Sorey, he's a bit of a stranger to us right now too," Lailah admitted, her face drawn tight in a frown with empty hands clasped thoughtfully at her hips. "You'd have recognized him immediately just a few years ago. I'm not saying it wouldn't still have been hard, but he would have been able to have made it easier on the two of you; given you assurance to believe you could both adjust and move on together. Right now, he's too hurt to help anyone. I wish I knew how to give you both what you need."
"You're still a big help. Thank you," he assured them. They couldn't solve his problems but they at least were very good at letting him know he wasn't alone.
Zavied half-growled as he removed his arm from around him, the sound much more feral than a sigh but still made in aggravation. "One thing's for sure: we can't let you both disappear to Elysia alone. World-altering political factors aside, these don't sound like the kind of problems time and space fix on their own. What you need is a distraction. Remind you of what's really important and all that," he explained, smiling brightly at a few seraph women as they passed in the other direction making it quite obvious what all he meant. The tip of Edna's parasol was quickly repurposed for the stabbing of Zavied between the shoulder blades in a manner that made Sorey wonder if there wasn't a bit of jealousy in the air. The wind seraph arched painfully and jogged a few steps away, sweeping closer to Lailah and the store windows instead to avoid a continuation of the minor attack.
"Pathetic pervert," Sorey thought he heard Edna mumble as she popped the parasol back over her shoulder in the open position.
"I'm speaking to Sorey as men. Your sensitive female sensibilities wouldn't understand," Zavied offhandedly explained.
Even without looking back at her, Sorey was positive he could hear her eyes rolling with the manner in which she spoke. "Oh, yes. You man. You have problem; sex make problem go bye bye. Dick always know answer. And then grunts that I of the delicate female nature will leave only you men to imitate."
"Sweetheart, you are a true scholar of the male populace," Zavied replied with a wink.
Sorey hated to admit it, but sometimes being around Zavied was a real gut punch to his masculinity. And other times, he honestly would rather just fall into ranks with Lailah and Edna, taking turns with the pointy end of the parasol until the walking stereotype took a hint.
"Regardless of what else Zavied may have implied, I do think he's right about the two of you in isolation not being entirely healthy," Lailah interjected, shoving Zavied aside to let him know he'd get no sympathy from her.
Sorey nodded as she spoke, her words echoing his own thoughts on the matter closely. "I don't know that he wants us to hide in Elysia anymore," he mentioned slowly, already somewhat aware of what their reactions would be as he let the words form and fall. "He wasn't just adamant I not leave home yet; he was furious with you guys asking us to come here, shouting about how you were risking my health from malevolence in human cities. But then he was almost immediately okay with us spending the night here after destroying the city's defenses. After last night, I'm honestly more worried he's going to leave me with you guys and go off on his own to find the missing dragons."
"To what end?" Lailah asked.
"I don't know. Not to kill them, though. He was clear on that part."
"Then he's better off staying out of it," Edna pronounced. "The only thing he can do is cause more problems if he thinks he can run after dragons out of curiosity."
Sorey nodded again. He knew. They all knew--Mikleo included. He most certainly wasn't being driven by simple curiosity, though. There was a great deal more behind his friend's desire to find out what happened to the remaining eight. "You ever think about how the five lords are all dragons?" he asked. "Like, Maotelus--he says "Hello" by the way--like... he's just like any other seraph except he's also a massive dragon. He's not malevolent--none of them are--they're still themselves. But they're also dragons. Like maybe that's... just what happens when a seraph gets that much power. Like it's just a natural part of the seraphim's lifecycle."
"Nothing natural about becoming a mindless beast," Zavied argued, his playful demeanor forgotten. "I get what you're trying to say; you're not the first to suggest it. Honestly, it's the sort of stuff the people we're fighting against like to say: that we're all just baby dragons waiting to sprout wings and tails."
Mindless beasts? The dragon they'd fought in Glaivend Basin he supposed had seemed mindless but it had just had its identity, body and life stripped away only minutes prior to them rushing into battle against it. Eizen had spent centuries plagued by guilt and his own brand of bad luck up on the mountain, alone in his mind and unable to communicate with the people he once loved. The dragon the day before--Ayla--had recognized Mikleo and reacted to his presence with anger. Would a mindless beast react like that, singling out a lone person when there was a city of innocents left unguarded and easily attacked instead?
"Maybe they're not mindless," Sorey mused, knowing he was venturing into uncomfortable territory for most members of their troupe. "I can't understand a dog, but that doesn't mean other dogs can't. Have you ever seen two dragons together? Interacting?"
"There is no collective noun for dragons, Sorey. If just one dragon is a calamity, what kind of chaos do you think two of them could wreak?" Zavied said flatly.
Sorey frowned. "There were thirty-two and there's still eight out there. Maybe the reason they're still alive is that they have each other; there are other beings with them who understand them, and they're not having to manage their new existence alone."
"It's pretty words, Sorey, but you can't let yourself fall into that line of thinking. Those seraphim are trapped. Just like what happened to our Mikleo, they're stuck doing terrible things they would never wish to do and they'd rather die than continue hurting themselves and others that way."
"I think Mikleo wants to save them. He just... he doesn't want to do it through violence," Sorey clarified.
"Since when is Meebo that naive?" Edna all but scoffed. "You know what I think? I think he wanted that dragon to kill him yesterday. As penance for what he was made to do to it."
Her words sent an uncomfortable chill down Sorey's spine, lighting up his senses like little shocks of electricity. "Mikleo is not suicidal, Edna," he corrected, though he felt a warning grow in his tone.
Edna shrugged her shoulders, looking almost bored as she rotated her parasol idly. "He's been ready to die for years. Just because he's not gearing up to do it himself doesn't mean he doesn't welcome the idea of his death."
Sorey's jaw clenched so tightly his teeth hurt. He waited for someone else to speak up for him but the others said nothing as they continued to walk silently beside storefronts. Not one voice chose to speak out on Mikleo's behalf professing to a love of life that might be a little less vibrant but was obviously still there. Silence was agreement and it hurt Sorey to the core. Did they think that way of even the Mikleo Sorey had slept too long to get to meet?
No, it wasn't true. There were sixteen dead bodies piled up off the side of the mountain that could more than attest to Mikleo's fighting spirit and his will to survive. Murder hadn't just been a gut reaction in terror, had it? Or was it just to protect Sorey that he'd reacted with such ferocity knowing they might find him next if left unchecked?
Sorey swallowed hard on the knot in his throat, remembering still that, regardless of memory, his friends knew Mikleo better than he did. It was worthless to fight them on something that could only be observed. He'd had months to learn about him; they had nearly a millennia. He despised the implications but it wasn't worth the fight.
"Whether or not it's his intention, if he does decide to go after the dragons and is not willing to kill them, it is a suicide mission," Zavied said, his own worry at least more than evident as he glared ahead at nothing in particular.
"How do I help him?" Sorey implored. "They were his friends; he knew them. He wants to do something for them to make it better."
"You already know how to help them, Sorey." Lailah said. This wasn't a path he'd never walked before. He'd found his answer once and stuck to it long ago. This was old and well-trod territory that needn't be revisited anymore.
"And I would do it," he said, not caring in the least to reconsider his actions in the past as anything apart from necessary. "But I don't think Mikleo can. I'm not even sure anyone should be trying to convince him otherwise. He's had enough of other people telling him what to do. This needs to come from him."
"I know you want to be respectful of his wishes, but that doesn't mean you have to enable his insanity. You're going to lose him all over again by being too passive about all of this."
Edna was right. Sorey knew she was right. Thoughts like that had kept him up some nights when he'd clung to Mikleo not out of love but of fear. Whether the journey in its entirety was there or not, he knew he'd struggled to find him before finding death in his arms. There was nothing if there wasn't Mikleo be it in the past, the present, or the future. He couldn't lose him again but neither could he force him to stay in his sights. It wasn't in Sorey's nature to impose on someone's own countenance. He risked so much either way.
"I think... Or rather.. I... I've been thinking that... I love Mikleo. I'm possessive of him and jealous of other people paying attention to him, I want to spend forever with him and explore and do all the things we ever dreamed of. But... If it's between him being my Mikleo and him being the kind of person he wants to be... I'd choose to accept the latter," he said, his insides contracting in pain even though he couldn't imagine feeling any other way. As much as he wanted him, Mikleo had to want him back for it to mean anything.
"So you already know he's probably miles from here in the car, tracking down the eight merchants of his death right now without you."
"Or he's visiting the address on the napkin he never threw away last night." Sorey hated the way it still made his blood run hot. If the world stopped turning long enough, he was sure he'd notice a lot of things he was forcing himself to be accepting of that made him more inclined to vomit. "There are literally a million things he could be doing right now that would break my heart one way or another. I told him I'd be with him at every step but that's my decision. It's his decision if he wants me there. And if he doesn't... then that's... okay. Because I chose the world over him when it was my choice to make. If he chooses something else over me... that's fair. I can't ask for more than I was willing to give. So just... please help me if you can but don't... it's not about me. Don't make it about me. It's not about rushing into each other's arms and.. and finding some happily ever after together. I just want him to be okay. Whatever that takes or however that looks. Please help me help Mikleo find himself again. I... I can't do it on my own. I've tried. It's hurt him. And... and you all know him better than I do now."
"It's not your fault," Lailah said gently, resting her hand against his bicep. "What you did for the world was selfless and kind. Don't let it be defined by tragedy."
Sorey bit into his bottom lip as it started to tremble, forcing a tight smile as he did his best not to tear up. "Thank you," he managed to squeak out at a pitch several notes short of manly or in control. It hurt so much to carry the weight of that guilt. He wasn't ready to give it up, but it felt wonderful to be given permission to let it go nonetheless.
His sight was cut off as Edna's parasol came to rest against his shoulder, sheltering him from view under a dome of colored spirals as they all came to a quiet stop. No one said anything and Edna did not move the parasol from its new perch that hid him away from curious stares. Laughing pitifully, Sorey wiped at his eyes with the heels of his hands, grateful to be out of sight from the rest of the world.
Mikleo never met them back a the inn. Sorey wanted to feel surprised when the norman at the front desk handed him a letter left behind by the missing seraph, but the numbness overwhelmed even his sense of touch as his fingers pressed to the folded pages. No one said a word. They stood back and watched him read with knowing silence as Sorey took a seat towards the shadows of the lobby, his hands trembling noticeably as his world quietly fell apart.
Even after he'd finished reading the letter, Sorey read it again and again until he was quite sure there wasn't some hidden message left behind to lead him from the chair out to wherever Mikleo might be. He read it backwards to see if there was any new meaning in its reverse and then again forwards but skipping every third word. He wanted so much for there to be more to it than what was written and left behind. There was nothing so clever disguised in the words. Just goodbye. Just his blessing and a long farewell.
Sorey folded it carefully, noticing with mild annoyance that his tears had caused little distortions in the page where they'd fallen and soaked the material into thin, bleeding bubbles. He'd have to be more careful, he considered, as he took out the Celestial Record and placed the letter between its own worn pages near there back where it still carried his old name.
He looked up slowly, seeing Lailah standing there with a face full of knowing sorrow and a sympathetic redness to her eyes. Did he really have to say anything? He supposed some manner of words needed to break the silence or else they'd never stop looking at him.
"I...," his voice cracked on even that small a syllable. He tried to smile but felt sure the expression only made him look even more pitiful than he already did sitting in an inn's lobby with glistening cheeks and a trembling voice. "He's gone," he managed after a few slow breaths. "I don't have... I mean... he's... I'm on my own now."
"No," Lailah said softly, taking the seat beside him and wrapping him in her arms. "You're not alone. You have us," she whispered against his hair.
She smelled of cinnamon. Sorey wondered if she always had as he rested his head against her, too uncertain of the world to really cry. There were tears on his face but they fell slowly as though from a leak, neither increasing or subsiding as he tried to find comfort in the support she offered. He wished this had come as more of a surprise, though, honestly. He wished he'd either had more faith or less to have either been hit so hard by the departure as to truly shock him or have not given him a chance to walk away at all. Instead, there was only a dull vacancy in his heart that ached but hadn't the strength to react.
"We can't leave him here. And Camlann and Elysia are out of the question," he heard Zavied say, his voice low but still well above a whisper.
"He's coming with us, of course," Edna said. "Who else is going to show him the ropes?"
Sorey took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He didn't know this world. He didn't know this life, this body, or its powers just yet. There was so much to learn that it almost felt more overwhelming than the knowledge he'd lost his closest and most dear friend. And in a small way, to Mikleo's credit, it felt okay to focus on how hard adjusting and learning was going to continue to be. All other concerns had been taken off his plate, so to say. There was room to be a little more selfish for a time.
"Hyacinth and Oriel will be here in a few hours."
"Think she could handle a fourth Sub-Lord?"
"Sub-Lord? Sorey's element is purification. That's Prime Lord level stuff. Eventually," Edna remarked. "No one better than Lailah to teach him how it's done, though. I bet even an old squire like Leia could have Shepherd-like resonance with a Prime Lord like Sorey if we ever get out of the political stuff and get back to the hellions again."
"The old girl likes a spot of action same as the next Shepherd. Tell her it's for a good cause, and we'll be wiping the floor with malevolent forces in no time. Just mention how she accidentally murdered Sorey if she protests too much."
Sorey listened without comment, somewhat calmed at the idea of other people deciding what was going to become of him now. It was too much to consider, and he didn't even know where to start. He'd never had to face such big decisions without Mikleo by his side. That was enough to wrap his mind around for now. The rest would still be there later.
To my Love,
I'm a coward. I couldn't do this in person. You'd convince me this isn't what I want to do, and I know that it is even if I'd prefer to ignore the ramifications. I know this isn't what you wanted. I'm sorry. I truly am. But I don't regret this decision. I know you know what that's like--to hate knowing the thing you have to do will hurt someone you love but also knowing there was never really any other choice. I thought about trying to make this easier on you by giving you a million reasons to hate me, but I don't want you to hate me. I like you far too much to want you to think poorly of me and you'd probably have seen right through it anyway. All I'd leave you with would be a lot of hurtful things to remember me by. So I'm not doing that. I'm a coward, but I'm not an idiot. Neither are you.
I want to give you something you never thought to give me when you were in my position. That's not meant to be a jab; neither of us had any real concept of time and of how much of life we hadn't yet known. You still don't understand those things, but at least, this time, I do. You don't have to do what I say, but I hope you understand that I'm coming from a place of experience and want only the best for you. I love you. I love you more than I could ever express. So please, please, live like I'm dead. Go live your life. Explore the place you've always dreamed of, find adventures and make new friends. Fall in love again with someone new. Learn about life and yourself and everything that there is. And don't for one second feel guilty about any of it. Because you deserve those things and more. They don't belong to anyone but you and you don't need anyone's permission to live your life. Least of all mine. But I'm giving it to you anyway. Because you're young. And I remember what it was like to be your age and looking out at a life that was nothing like I'd ever imagined, alone in a way I had never been before, and wasting so many years doing little more than waiting for you.
I don't want this to be goodbye forever but I don't pretend to know how the future will go. I want to see you again. I want to run into you on a crowded street and find you happy and well adjusted and with a million stories to tell. And if there's someone special in your life when that day comes, that's okay. I'm the one who walked away. That's the price I pay for leaving you behind. But, please, never think this wasn't out of love or that I left because of you.
We both need something the other can't provide right now. I'm too bitter and scared and angry to support you in your new life. And I'm hurting you. I know you need so much more than I'm able to give right now but you'd never ask for it. You care too much about what I'm going through. Selfishly I thought if I held on long enough, if I didn't give up, I could make us both okay. But that stubbornness is killing us. I'm a mess, Sorey. I know that's not exactly a surprising revelation but I hate myself so much that your love for me physically hurts. Because I don't feel like I deserve it. I feel like a charlatan who stole your affections based on little more than nostalgia. One day, I'd love to see if the you you become likes the me I try to be. That's not the goal, but it's a nice thought all the same.
Live like I'm dead. Be sad things turned out this way but in the end, say yes to the opportunities that come your way and take chances without worrying if I'd approve or not. You saved me from the monsters, but the demons that remain are mine alone to face now. I love you. A million times over I love you, I love you, and I'm so sorry for every way in which I've failed you. And never for one moment believe if you hadn't died that things would have been different. It wouldn't change me or the fact that you hardly know who I am. Some things might have been different, but this letter would still be in your hands.
I left a list for Hyacinth on the other page. It's the names of all of Dr. Breton's associates I can remember. Even if they're not all actively Knights of Avalon, they're surely sympathetic to their ideals. Hopefully, it'll help as much as she thinks it will. Why not go with them back to Pendrago? Plenty to do there. Lots of people will be excited to meet you. It's a good place to make your grand return. So is Ladylake, though. I trust you'll figure out what you want to do. I'll be thinking of you always and cheering you on. In my heart I'll know you're doing the same.
Sorey held his phone out in front of himself with the front-facing camera engaged, smiling brightly with the altar of a foreign ruin behind him as he snapped another souvenir selfie. The room was darkly lit but he rather liked the added ambiance. It wasn't every day he got to see something ancient that didn't require tour guides and roped off passageways with electric light installations illuminating the key relics of the archeological find. Ruins were dangerous and careless people could get hurt or destroy their long-preserved history; ropes and lights and tours were for everyone's shared benefit. And they were boreing. Sorey much preferred the rare opportunities to touch and experience these places as he'd done as a child. What fun was there in having someone tell you all about a place when you could work to discover it on your own instead?
A hand snatched his phone away, chuckling softly as the cloaked man hurried to stand a few feet before him. "I can take your picture, you dork," the man admonished jokingly.
Sorey pursed his lips in a pitiful frown. "Come on; give it back, Stuart. I always look terrible when you're the one taking it."
"Nah, nah, nah!" Stuart denied, readjusting the camera setting as he held it by his face. "I got this. I'll even make sure to get the background in this time."
Sorey sometimes had no idea what to do with that Shepherd of his. He smiled and made a peace sign towards the camera, feeling self-conscious but not caring enough to make a point of it.
"Got it! Now a fun one!" Stuart suggested.
Sorey stuck his tongue out at him and crossed his eyes, making Stuart laugh as he captured the moment. He held the phone out to give his photography a quick look while Sorey hurried instead to yank his phone back into his own possession. The first picture was already being previewed on the screen with an attractive little trash can icon beckoning to him immediately.
"You have an arte all your own," Sorey teased. "I'm not keeping these."
"Send them to me before you before you delete them!"
Sorey sighed but conceded as he left the images alone to be dealt with when they once again had reception. He put his phone back in his pocket and took the Celestial Record from its holster instead, turning to the page where a ragged letter was being used as a makeshift bookmark.
Mikleo had written many books but some things he'd kept to himself such as ruins he'd discovered and had long ago planned someday to show Sorey. Their locations with rudimentary drawings and maps were handwritten into new pages appended to their favorite compendium. Sorey thought it only fitting Mikleo should carry on his uncle's work. Sometimes they even found the water seraph's footprints from centuries past still captured in the dirt. Pen in hand, Sorey did his own markings, writing down the date on which he'd made it there himself and of his own findings where they differed from the ones another had penciled in. Stuart appreciated spelunking more so than the actual history of the places they explored, so Sorey didn't bother him with longwinded lectures on how to guess the age in which something was built. Knowing his audience was something that came with time and maturity. After thirty-seven years as a seraph, he felt he was doing pretty well in at least pretending to be old and refined.
He closed the book and fastened it back into its belted pouch, looking around the room once more before giving a stretch and a long, hearty sigh. "I think that's about all that's left of this place," he commented. "Have fun navigating your way back out of the sewers!"
"Sorey!" Stewart protested, but Sorey just offered a closed eye smile and let his physical form dissolve into energy, dancing through the air in a silver arc as he melted into place within his vessel. With a frustrated groan, the shepherd picked back up his flashlight to backtrack through the smelly passageways. Such was the burden of the shepherd--always having to face the world alone.
He'd get no sympathy from Sorey. Sorey had played taxi to four seraphim and thus far he'd only subjected Stuart to himself. The shepherd talked about someday maybe taking on Sub Lords and tackling the four elemental trials but... well, what was the hurry? This was still an age of peace. Sorey was enjoying being able to simply explore and help out now and then when small outbreaks of hellions came about. He'd already conquered those trials and explored those places. He could retread old ground when it was necessary. For now, especially with no elemental seraphim in accompaniment, there just really wasn't much of a point to it.
It was definitely different being on this side of the pact, though. Occupying a human vessel was much more... intimate... than he'd previously comprehended. Stuart's body didn't necessarily feel like it was his while on the inside, but the manner in which senses and sensations were shared dulled the edges around where they remained as two separate beings. He'd actually gotten stuck in his first human vessel but that was an embarrassing story that didn't really need to be retold. Nor did the manner in which they finally got him to come back out again. The priests had all been sworn to secrecy anyway. He was the legendary Sorey, after all. Best to let some legends persist despite the clear incompetence of reality.
Regardless, it was strange how even if they weren't his feet trudging through the slippery sewers, he could still sense the tenuous balance his vessel experienced in trying to maintain traction. He could hear with perfect clarity and see with not only Stuart's eyes but with an extended sense of sight that permitted perception all around him. It was quite extraordinary and much more involved than simply getting in and taking a seat as with a car. He was energy, here, and energy didn't really just sit back and relax.
"So, after I get out of here and take a well-deserved shower, should we check in with the local church and see how the town's doing?"
"Your call," Sorey deferred. "Thanks for going along with the detour first."
"My duty is in service of my Prime Lord," Stuart proclaimed with exaggerated reverence. There was light at the end of the tunnel where the pipe emptied out towards the sea. The smell of salt water was still undetectable, though the ammonia in the air may have burned through all other odors. "The organization might prefer we do things by the book, but since they based the book off of you, I think this technically still counts as following the Shepherd's Path."
"I see nothing wrong with that interpretation. I mean, if you really wanted to follow the Shepherd's Path, you'd spend most of your time running back and forth across the continent getting lost in caves."
Stuart sighed, his fingers digging in along the brick walls for stability as algae and foam made the last few feet even more treacherous as the tide slowly crept back in. "It's kind of sad to know it wasn't all as glamorous as they made it seem."
He certainly wasn't the first person to say as much to him, either. "I promise you, being a Shepherd has always been about walking through sewers, aqueducts, prisons, caves, and swamps. You're doing exactly the things I remember doing ninety-percent of the time."
"Leave a man his dreams, Sorey," Stuart pleaded as he pulled himself the last few feet by the bars of the grate.
Sorey felt the warmth of a smile as they finally stepped from the darkness and into sunlight.
Joyeuse Garde was a small fishing village east of Ladylake where nearly everything revolved around the monger's market with beaches too stony to offer a grand vacation spot. Even outside the sewer, the air was still rather pungent with the odor of fish. There were whalebone entryways and several stalls of the day's catch hanging up on giant hooks. The scales twinkled in the sunlight with green, blue, and golds. It was a simple place, and Sorey could detect no presence of malevolence from their walk down the main square. Just a quaint town going about its normal day. Sorey preferred that in all honesty. It meant the people there were strong enough to get past bad times without succumbing to the darkness within. He wanted Shepherds to have very little to do. He loved that they existed to help, but prayed for their irrelevance all the same.
Despite their fragrant surroundings, Stuart still received several disgusted looks. The hotel itself was hesitant to offer room to a patron that smelled of filth, but his Shepherd's garb landed a key in hand with little said other than to enjoy his stay. Shepherds traveled light but there was at least one change of clothes in Stuart's pack. Sorey did his best to freshen it up while the human washed his flesh clean of the stench. They'd have to send it all to be laundered before they left but it'd be good enough to conclude their business in Joyeuse Garde. The church wasn't going to kick them out for not smelling like a daisy. At least they didn't back in his days. If they had, no one would have been let in.
Sorey took the rare moment of privacy to archive his photos into smart little folders on his phone. He forwarded the horrible pictures Stuart had taken then wiped them clear of his memory, leaving only his documentation and a few selfies to be stored. Stuart wasn't a bad photographer, he just... Sorey always felt he looked a little melancholy when made to stand still and pose for someone else. In his own photos, he looked like an excited explorer or gleeful geek. Stuart's photos were just of Sorey standing there alone amongst forgotten things. It always made it seem like Sorey was the focus of the image and not the thing that made him so happy he wanted something to remember it by. Better off trashed to make room for something else. Better ignored. That wasn't him. That was the price of a few moment's nostalgia but far from his normal approach to life.
He put the phone back in the same belted pouch as the Celestial Record. There were still a few more places Sorey hadn't visited yet that Mikleo had recorded in their tome. He was looking forward to them. They were a gift that had been wrapped and left waiting for him by a man who at the time still felt wonder and hope. Pieces of that Mikleo felt like they still lingered there. He could imagine the bounce in the water seraph's step as he marveled at the things he wrote down as Sorey stood there immersed in his own wonder, divided by time but united in space.
Thirty-seven years and not a sound. Not a trace. Over twenty years since he'd last heard sightings of any dragons either. The last count he'd read in the union's files listed twenty-five dead since Dr. Breton's rise and fall. That still left seven now. No one had heard or seen any of them either. Sorey told himself it was all for the best. Some days he even believed it. Even on the days he didn't, he was too busy living his own life to let it break him down.
The hotel had given them a rather nice room with a view of the sea. Sorey enjoyed watching the turbulent waves crest and fall against the rocks with a white spray spewing forth from the deep green-blue of the waters. He could see, nearly over the horizon, the darkness of a storm pulling dark clouds overhead. It was too far to cause the water to swell but the sky was grey there where it still shone blue to either side.
Sorey jumped slightly, looking over his shoulder at Stuart who stood dripping from the shower but draped in a towel. "Sorry, guess I zoned out a bit there," he said, rubbing self-consciously at the back of his neck.
Stuart regarded him in silence for a moment but nodded once at length. Finding his clothes on the bed, he hurried to get changed while Sorey turned his attention to the distant storm once again.
The church at Joyeuse Garde was among Sorey's favorites. He'd never been there before but he could already tell just by looking at it. It was old and completely worn out, parts of it showing obvious repair from ages spent braving the elements so close to the sea. Roof tiles were a mosaic of patches where it was always more advantageous to only fix the pieces that were missing than endure an extravagance like fitting out a new roof in its entirety. The siding consisted of different types of wood signifying different rounds of storms it had survived. There were knotted driftwood accents along the eves of the windows and whalebone carvings of the church's pantheon--not surprisingly paying greatest homage to Amenoch and Hyanoa. It was such a mess of construction it was impossible to tell when it had first been built or how long it had stood there. It looked like a place that valued substance far above appearance. It made Sorey excited to see what was beyond the closed doors. His fingers were crossed the eclectic hodgepodge existed in there too.
Stuart chuckled, assuredly sensing Sorey's thrill inside himself. "You know, your last Shepherd did warn me about your fetish before I took my vow, but I honestly thought they were exaggerating."
If energy could blush, Sorey would have turned from silver to brilliant red. "That's not--! How can you not find this place amazing? Just look at it."
"I am. Looks a bit rundown. Could really use a new roof," Stuart observed as he pushed open the heavy double doors to the church's interior.
Sorey lept from him almost immediately, unwilling to let anyone's disinterest stop him from enjoying himself. He had to be mindful he was less likely to go unseen in a place of worship but still hurried along to the aisles where he suspected several pews were indeed original given their cracked varnish and nearly rubbed flat decorative carvings. He took the Celestial Record out to make a quick rubbing of the faded details to be looked over later. It was quite possible the church originated from near his own time--the Age of Chaos. It was simple and modest like most of the newly constructed religious buildings tended to be in those days. The fact that it was mostly made of impermanent materials despite being erected in a harsh maritime climate made him suspect it was put here on a whim rather than commissioned by one of the governing religious institutions. Maybe Michale had inspired worship here during his pilgrimage? Someone had, it seemed, and it was a worthy hypothesis for now.
Then again, perhaps a grand sanctuary had been here long ago, been destroyed, and this place built to stand in for a time only to become the permanent structure. Sorey looked at the wood floorboards, wishing he could perhaps pry one of them up to see if it was earth or stone that laid below. Its original intention not being permanent made a lot of sense when considering the many repairs made without great investment. Or maybe people by the sea were so used to structural damage it just didn't make sense to maintain a grand facade. There were many possible explanations which were only made more fascinating when considered in conjunction to the ruins underneath the city where their ancestors had erected their places of worship instead. Was it an entirely forgotten structure or, if he mapped it out, was it directly below them, linking present religious practice to the past?
"What is he doing?"
Sorey paused with the stick of graphite in his hand, mid swipe across the faded wood carvings as they came into better view on the page.
"Uh... taking a rubbing of your benches," Stuart explained to a man in a rather elaborate hat. "He won't hurt it. He would literally rather die. Literally. Like, the real literally. That's my Prime Lord Sorey. I'm Stuart. Hello."
Sorey could feel the middleaged man's eyes boring into him and quickly finished up. He'd mark the place and date later; for now, he put the Celestial Record away.
"I'm Father Ishmael," the man said, still staring at Sorey with an odd expression but looking away as Stuart politely shook his hand. "Welcome to Joyeuse Garde, Shepherd. How may we be of assistance?"
"I was going to ask you that same question," Stuart remarked. He smiled brightly, his hands on his hips, looking far more like some cocky kid than a trusted keeper of the peace.
Stuart hadn't been the only person to be warned before their vows. Seraphim, religious leaders and other Shepherds alike had had their own things to say about the up-and-coming young man with less than remarkable resonance. Sorey considered himself a pretty low ranking Prime Lord but his past reputation still gave him a strange inherited seniority among the elite group. He could have had his pick from the graduating class that included some of the smartest, bravest, and kindest that humanity had to offer. Stuart was none of those things. In fact, Stuart had almost been thrown out of the program twice for either insubordination or poor performance. Unlike the others, he didn't dream of being the next Shepherd Sorey, though. Greatness wasn't his aspiration. Stuart just wanted to travel the world and help people, maybe saving a princess or two along the way depending on the current daydream. The choice had been simple, and no one had been more surprised than Stuart who had let out a rather loud "Are you fucking with me?" in the halls of the Great Sanctuary.
Father Ishmael looked the young Shepherd over but didn't seem to make any immediate judgments concerning the young, bright-eyed brunette. "I'm pleased to report we've no use for a Shepherd at this time. Things have been quite peaceful," he said, clasping his hands behind himself with Amenoch's crest beautifully embroidered on his gown.
"Are you sure? We noticed there was a storm on the horizon. I could board up your windows if you'd like," he offered, displaying the second trait that had made Sorey attracted to him above all other prospects. Never having been all that remarkable a Shepherd, no job was felt to be beneath him.
A laugh from the front of the church drew Sorey attention to where an older man knelt before a statue and array of flickering candles. He shook his grey head as he slowly pushed himself to rise, his voice strong beneath the vaulted ceiling. "That storm hasn't moved in decades," he said as he turned towards the small gathering. "Run along, little Shepherd. You'd best leave these parts before the Lord of Nightmares comes in the night to turn your seraph friends into a new dragon for her army."
Sorey watched a calm fury light up behind Father Ishmael's eyes as the gentleman moved to walk past them with a wicked smile. "That's enough," he warned.
"I'm sorry, what?" Stuart asked.
The man chuckled again as he continued on his way to the door. "By the way, Father, the Bonny Blue never came back to port last night. Another tribute to your Lord of Nightmares I suppose? Tell her to hurry it up, then. I'm tired of waiting for the end of the world." He pushed the doors open and quietly left, tugging up his top button to the wind.
Sorey watched him go with more than a passing desire to follow him. That had been... unexpected. And very little of it had made any bit of sense.
Stuart cleared his throat loudly, his nails scratching at the short black hairs at the nape of his neck. "So... should I run after that guy and have him tell me what that was all about? I mean, you can give it go," he said, addressing the present clergyman. "You're kind of my contact in this city. Kind of sounds like you've already lied to me once, though."
"I didn't lie. There is nothing for a Shepherd to do here," Father Ishmael reiterated.
Sorey shared a disbelieving look with his Shepherd as the other man shook his head. "Right. Uh huh. So, he mentioned all kinds of crazy shit. Are you one of those evil zealot types who is working for some main villain I'm going to have to take down to make the storm go away?"
Father Ishmael sighed loudly, raising his sights far above him as though asking for some help on high before returning to look on Stuart with a frown. "What is your mission, Shepherd? To save humanity or to save this world?"
"Both if I can help it," Stuart said proudly. "Not sure why there has to be a difference."
"But there is one," the priest insisted. "And we have far exceeded nature's generosity. Your duty is to preserve the world's inhabitants against threats of men. When the world itself is ready to purge humanity from it, no force may stand in its way."
"That's a rather bleak understanding of the world," Stuart claimed, looking over at Sorey with worry darkening his brow.
Sorey couldn't help but feel a strong sense of trepidation. He wasn't a big fan of doomsday prophets but at least he could sense no malevolence coming from the vested man. Perhaps living life at the whims of the sea gave one a unique sense of fatalism at the hands of natural forces. Still, he'd heard the word 'dragon' and his interest was intently piqued.
"Whether we like it or not, destruction will come. It's just the way of the world." Father Ishmael gestured to the walls where, amidst a myriad of repairs, a mural had once spanned the width of the room. Parts that remained appeared as a map but unlike any Sorey had seen outside much grander temples or ancient tomes of forgotten lore. The seas were vast and the land separated into many isolated chunks. A map of Desolation from the Era of Asgard. He was definitely going to have to take a good look at that later.
"Two thousand years ago saw the rise of the first Lord of Calamity. Humanity had exploited nature for too long, and in the end the earth and waters created pandemonium. The entire world was new again and our progress as a species became stunted for centuries as we were forced to resettled and rebuild. Then a thousand years ago we had the Age of Chaos where humans had learned how to ignore the majesty of the Seraphim and were delivered into war in the absence of their reverence. We should have been punished and crushed once more under nature's heel, but we were shown mercy and allowed to thrive despite our indifference. Now here we are, a thousand years later, in an age where we've learned how to murder the spirits that exist as the embodiment of Nature herself. The history of mankind is written in the invisible blood of the seraphim, unacknowledged by most of our race who see themselves only as the rightful rulers of all they behold. And that time will soon come to an end," Father Ishmael explained with all the pomp of a sermon rolled into his somewhat biased interpretation of the past.
Sorey pursed his lips, not sure how to respond to that. It wasn't entirely wrong seeing as a lack of reverence had been part of the series of events that saw Maotelus become corrupted. Claiming it was man versus nature and the elemental Lords themselves was a bit of a stretch, though.
"So you... want mankind to die?" Stuart questioned, his arms crossed tightly over his chest above the jagged markings of his own religious garb.
The Father shook his head. "What I want is immaterial. We've come to a crossroads where what is best for humanity is at ends with what is best for the spiritual world. When such opposition exists, a champion rises. Out there on that island, protected by the storm, the Lord of Nightmares raises an army of dragons to cleanse the world of humanity's arrogance. If we're lucky, we will once more be returned to an existence that requires we acknowledge the majesty we are beholden to. But at this point, that may be too much to hope for. And it's not for us to decide."
Stuart looked unconvinced, the lines in his forehead deep as he furrowed his brow. "I've never heard of a Lord of Nightmares. What makes him different from a Lord of Calamity?"
"The Lord of Calamity is malevolent; his selfish desires are the inception of chaos," Father Ishmael explained, his tone that of someone rather surprised to have to spell that part out to a Shepherd of all people. "The Lord of Nightmares is a force of nature. She is the mother of darkness which nurtures the souls of the vanquished. She is the angel of death."
"I don't know, an army of dragons sounds pretty malevolent to me," Stuart said with a shrug, letting his arms fall as he hooked his thumbs in his pockets instead. "I think you're overcomplicating things. Does this thing's existence threaten the world or will its actions breed malevolence? If the answer is yes, then it's a Lord of Calamity and it's your duty to report this sort of thing."
Father Ishmael looked irritated as he took a step back. "Why? To watch Shepherd after Shepherd throw themselves at an island of dragons? Proponents of the Animus Ray would be crying out for a repeal vote on current legislation before the first party of well-meaning peacekeepers fell. I will not be responsible for seeing that thing brought back into use," he proclaimed.
"I understand if you'd rather ignore this, but I can't."
"You're too young to remember the years when every major city had a lighthouse and rouge lanterns were in use almost everywhere. You have no idea the horrors you will reawaken just by breathing the word 'dragon' in civilized society," the Father warned, perhaps the real reason for his initial hesitancy being found in his current disgust. Maybe he wasn't so much protecting whatever was out there so much as protecting against the reaction to it. Sorey could understand that very well. Many times it was the fear or something that caused the most harm. Fear saw to the creation of many terrible things.
"He may be too young to remember, but I'm not," Sorey said, allowing himself to enter into the conversation. He much preferred to leave most affairs to his Shepherd, but he very much got the feeling Father Ishmael might take his intentions as more relevant than his compatriot's. "Would it be possible to get to this island by ourselves? The last thing we want to do is spread misinformation. I'd be more willing to accept potential consequences if I could see with my own eyes the scope of what we're dealing with."
Father Ishmael paused to think for a moment, eyeing the both of them but still not entirely unphased by their appeal. "The Eternal Storm hasn't ceased in decades. The land itself sits atop huge white cliffs and is all but surrounded by mountains. There's a cave under a waterfall that has been said to connect to the land itself but no one has been to the island and safely returned in many years. If you can find a ship that is willing to brave it, you might be able to get close enough to give the elements a try through armitization. No pilot's going to fly you there at any rate so the sea's you're only option."
"If no one's been there in years, how do you know there's an army of dragons there?" Stuart asked, at the very least dependably pragmatic.
"Because many years ago they blotted out the stars in the sky as they flew out to the island. The storm began the very next day. Since it persists, so then must the dragons," he explained, looking almost wistfully past them into the fog of memory. "I watched it myself as a child," he recounted. "I counted nine in the sky as they passed. Even in darkness you could feel their shadows."
"Nine?" Sorey echoed, feeling his stomach drop.
"I did say an army."
Stuart took a long, deep breath with a loud exhale. "Sounds like we'd better find us a ship, then."
Sorey had never been on a boat before. To be perfectly honest, he was one hundred percent okay with that record. He could swim just fine and never considered himself phobic by any means, but he couldn't see the bottom of the sea nor what might be bellow. He'd seen how big fish got and had heard stories of whales, sharks, and other massive aquatic entities. It was a little strange, but he felt more scared of them than the thought of trying to sneak up on a whole dragon army. At least with a dragon, there was a very small chance of being snuck up on. They were rather good sports about proclaiming their presence and intent.
The sea air felt wonderful, all things considered. The spray was refreshing as it brushed against his skin, the wind from their propulsion jangling against his earings and sending his long hair flying behind him. It'd be a mess by the end of the day but Sorey didn't mind too terribly the idea of brushing it out. There was solitude on the bow and that was more or less what he really wanted while they sped off towards the storm.
An Eternal Storm guarding a Lord said to be plotting the destruction of mankind. Sorey really had only wanted to see the ancient altar under the city. This felt like a little much to suddenly spring on him in the midst of a mostly touristy journey. That was his luck, he supposed. Not even a walk in the park was promised to be simple. The moment he stepped on the tarmac, surely the swingset would reveal itself to be some dormant evil ready only then to conquer the world.
Nine dragons, though. There should only have been seven left. Sorey kept track; he was more than meticulous when it came to dragon documentation. There had been only one documented sighting and confirmed kill in all the years since Mikleo had left him in Ladylake. That left seven, not nine. Why were their numbers growing? His best hope was that either Father Ishmael or Mikleo had been wrong. Why say nine though? If it had been a lie or a guess, why had it been so close to the truth? Maybe Dr. Breton had manufactured more dragons than Mikleo counted? It didn't seem likely, though. Thirty-two wasn't exactly an arbitrary sounding number to hold on to with all of his guilt. The only other options left him feeling ill, though. Had two more seraphim fallen to malevolence? Had he known them? Had one of them been...
The sky was almost violet but easily split apart in silver strings of lightning amidst the black clouds hanging low in the distance. He could hear the roll of thunder and the way it echoed like a dragon's roar. He hoped that was all it was: thunder and clouds all mistaken for calamity in a world that was going to be okay. It was beautiful to see the way the dark sea sprang up in white crests as the winds pushed them hard against each other and the ship. Sorey lurched against the railing as they climbed high against a watery mountain then slammed down the other side like a falling stone. It was perhaps a little dangerous to stay but the excitement wasn't without a bit of fun. The hairs on his arms stood straight with a chill as the rains began to fall but he didn't wish to retreat to safety just yet.
"Everything okay?" he heard Stuart call out, his voice muffled as the winds blew it far behind him.
Sorey nodded, forcing a large smile and thumbs up as his Shepherd carefully crept near, his large orange vest quite the eyesore as he used the railing to join him.
"They're going to turn back soon," he shouted to be heard above the wind. "How far do you think we can fly?"
In this? Sorey frowned thoughtfully as he scanned the growing darkness. It would help if he knew exactly where the island was. Soaring around a bit in search of it was only going to create more problems than they could afford. "If they can wait until we can see the cliffs before heading back, we can make it," he called out.
Stuart squinted out past the sting of rain, pointing with the hand not grasping at the rail. "I think they said that's them," he said. It appeared as nothing more than more darkness, though. Father Ishmael had said the cliffs were white. Those looked far more like waves or clouds.
Sorey opened his mouth to reply but the thunder roared so loudly it nearly stopped his heart. He dissolved into Stuart instead, no longer needing to shout. "We'll have better senses while armitized," he reminded him.
He really didn't need to say much more than that. Stuart excitedly yanked off his orange vest, shouting Sorey's true name into the crash of the storm. Black hair turned white and spilled out in a ponytail that lashed along the wind with their coattails, all of it becoming soaked in only a matter of seconds as they stood as a far less than heroic spectacle at the bow. In the next burst of lightning, though, Sorey could see the distant rockface reflecting the light along different formations.
Stuart turned and gave a cheery salute to the boatmen, then lept off the railing and into the air. It threw them up high then dropped them quickly back towards the deep. They struggled together to find balance on the breeze. Stuart was laughing like an idiot but Sorey was mostly happy at least one of them was having fun. Sorey was mostly grateful the silver light of purification gave off such a splendid ambiance. He felt like a shooting star racing across the darkened sky, their own brilliance helping them to find their way in a world of black.
"This is amazing!" Stuart proclaimed, laughing as they danced with ribbons of lightning.
Sorey didn't necessarily disagree with that. A bit of trouble seemed to always play a part in most of his fun.
It never got old. Having been on both sides of the equation, armitization was still one of the most thrilling experiences of Sorey's life. In some ways, it felt like being human again. There was an immense vulnerability in being pulled into conjunction with another being, fused together to the point of every nerve. It hadn't felt that way when he'd been the human component. He'd felt powerful and larger than life with a seraphim partner joining him like this. As a seraph, it was almost frightening to experience the limits of human mortality through the control of another. There was a huge amount of trust one had to place in their vessel not to abuse their very presence and the gift of their power. He'd been grateful for it before but only really understood it recently. Enjoying the whims of a nineteen-year-old Shepherd put a little more of an edge to that fine line sometimes, though.
It all happened at once. Simultaneously the storm broke apart as though it had never been there, and Sorey found himself plummeting towards the blue sea amongst the sunlight, a gentle breeze, and terror. They weren't amitized anymore. Stuart was shocked and falling beside him, his gold eyes wild as his arms waved for something to grab hold of to stay his fall. There was nothing. They were out at sea. The island was just there before them with its large waterfall glistening in the sun, but they were going down far too soon to reach the land above. The waves stretched up towards them and in a matter of seconds, clasped them in its fridged embrace. Sorey opened his mouth in shock, feeling it fill with brine as he sank towards the dark depths below.
Instinct alone set his legs to kick as he fought his way back towards the surface, blinded by the bubbles of his splash to the mysteries around him and focused only on making it to the top in hopes he'd see Stuart there. He broke past the swell of waves to gasps at fresh air, choking on the mouthful he'd swallowed. His chest hurt, his lungs and heart both crashing into his ribs in an attempt to escape.
"Stuart!" he shouted, trying to blink away the water that blinded him, hoping to keep his own splashing to a minimum so he could search for the splashing of another. "Stuart!"
He thought he heard coughing. He thought he saw water splashing off something that rose and fell with the waves.
"STUART!" Sorey screamed, swimming off in that direction. Why wasn't he answering him? Was he hurt? Was he conscious? He took the fast track and turned himself back into an orb of energy, hoping to spring back into the body of his vessel and make sure he was okay.
He was elated to discover the floating obstacle was indeed his Shepherd, finding himself tucked away inside a shivering body that was having a hard time doing much more than keeping above the waves. "Are you alright?" he asked, finding it difficult to assess his body's damage from within. Stuart said nothing. He spat water and slapped at the sea. He was kicking his legs furiously but not managing to make it amount to much.
"Sorey?" he choked out, twisting his head around to look out at the water beside him.
"I'm right here," Sorey said, letting himself relax a little, trying to figure out what to do now.
"Sorey?" Stuart said again, louder this time. He jerked as he turned, splashing around in circles as he searched in growing panic. He changed tactics, shouting instead Sorey's true name this time. Sorey felt nothing from their connection as the words rang out. His resonance had been blocked.
Things just became infinitely harder.
Sorey took a deep breath then rejoined him in the water, shocked again by just how cold it could be. He wouldn't be able to grab him and pull him towards the cliffs, but he could try to manipulate the water enough to get him moving in that direction. He splashed and kicked, trying to make waves of his own that might carry his Shepherd towards the rocks and the waterfall. If he drowned out here, he was never going to forgive himself. If he had to watch him sink knowing resonance kept him from saving him, he was going to lose his mind. "Swim! Swim now!" he ordered, praying he'd stop looking for him and go. It wasn't too far. He could make it, but he had to start now.
The waves Sorey made splashed Stuart in the face, making him cough but at least prove sense enough to turn away. After what felt like ages, he started swimming towards the island cliffs. Sorey followed him, willing him to make it there and at last be safe from the sea. He tried to steer him away from the undertow caused by the waterfall but nearly lost him again in his attempt to drive him to the cave Father Ishmael had mentioned laid behind it. He was thrown against the rocks with a large wave and raked back over them with the water growing red in his wake. The second time it smashed him against the cliff, Stuart managed to hold on to an outcropping and keep himself from being pulled back for a third attempt to crush him into the land. He scurried, slipping on algae and his own blood, climbing above where the waves clawed at him to where he could see the entrance to the remembered cave. His hands and feet were shredded by the jagged path he made but at last he collapsed on cool, flat ground with the waterfall serving to protect him from the hungry mouth of the sea.
And all Sorey could do was watch. Stuart needed to take those wet things off and find some way to warm up and tend to his wounds. He knew he wouldn't. He couldn't. He hadn't the strength to. So instead Stuart just lay bleeding on the stone, curled up on his side, breathing heavily and shaking from cold and exertion.
"Try to get up," Sorey said quietly, kneeling down at his side and trying to gently brush the wet strands of dark hair from his face. The absence of resonance meant he couldn't even manage that. He was trapped as a spectator to his Shepherd's plight, not even able to give him the reassurance that he hadn't been abandoned to struggle alone. "Please get up, Stuart. You need to get up. It's too cold here," he insisted, knowing it would do no good anyway. Stuart was going to fall asleep right there. And if he was very, very, very lucky, he'd get back up in a few hours and move further inside the cave.
There was a beastly roar that could never be confused for thunder that broke through even the rumble of the waterfall behind them. Sorey jumped, his sword coming to hand, feeling nothing of malevolence but unwilling to let that calm his nerves just yet.
On the ground, Stuart shuddered, curling up even more, a brief sob echoing from his lips. That sound, more than that of a dragon, made Sorey's heart sink as he quickly returned to his knees. Frustrated and scared, Sorey wrapped himself around his Shepherd, hoping somehow he might notice him there; somehow he might feel his warmth and know he wasn't in a land of monsters alone. He knew from experience it amounted to nothing. Regardless, he had to hope.
Sorey thought of Stuart's mother as he waited for the young man to wake, gently stroking his hair to soothe even if impotently. The older woman had told him to take care of her boy. She hadn't the resonance to hear him, but he'd still promised her he would. They weren't attempting the trials so it would only be a simple missionary excursion. They'd be gone a couple months then she could see her son again, listen to him talk about the journey and maybe have a story or two about a hellion in their path. They weren't the first line defenders who had pilgrimaged and earned powers from the four Lords who would be found in places of conflict taking on the darkness that formed. Neither of them was ready for that. Their duty was primarily to spread goodwill and foster trust in the Shepherds through Glenwood. But Stuart heard there was trouble and couldn't look the other way. It was Sorey's job to make sure they didn't take on more than they could handle, and he'd failed insurmountably all because someone mentioned they'd seen dragons.
What kind of Prime Lord didn't consider the probable consequences of encountering the domain of the being they were pursuing? He'd flown them straight towards catastrophe armed with stubborn ignorance instead of the wisdom he was supposed to supply. Sorey was supposed to be the gentle mentor that Lailah had been for him. She'd warned him adamantly about not being ready to fight Heldalf, stood by his side but tried to lead him safely to victory above all else. Sorey hadn't said one word of warning before offering his Shepherd up as sacrifice to his own persistent curiosity. He'd told they boy's mother she'd see her son in just a few months. He'd promised to protect him. Sorey had failed.
It was almost more than he could hope for to see Stuart rise up off the stone floor and with considerable effort take several steps further inside the cave. It was dark but Sorey could see his wounds had formed soft scabs that no longer oozed with blood. He made several trips around him, circling him to assess just how much damage he'd sustained. There were no bones poking out anywhere but large portions of exposed skin were discolored amethyst and gold from extensive bruising. Most of him was scraped raw and speckled in coagulated blood. But he was standing. He was walking. His eyes looked frighteningly vacant but his body proved he had the will and desire not to give up.
"Ninety-percent of being a Shepherd is about walking through caves," he heard Stuart tell himself.
Sorey wouldn't have bothered trying to hide the tears in his eyes even if he could be seen right then.
It took hours to find their way through the cave. Some of it came from the slowness with which Stuart moved but a great deal had to do with the way the tunnels wound through the rock. Stuart used the wall to support himself, following it half-blind in what happened to be the best means of finding the way out. The first hint of light set his pace all the quicker, sunlight guiding him out towards warmth, potential food, and something softer than stone to rest upon. Sorey went on ahead, his sword drawn in anticipation, hoping to find the area clear of danger but ready regardless for a fight.
He emerged blinded, the scent of flowers in the air. They weren't far from the river that ended in the very waterfall they'd scaled past with a row of trees leading off into the forest amidst waving stalks of tall grass. He could sense no malevolence, though the island appeared quiet and void of even birdsong. There was a wrongness about it but with a heavy ambivilance that seemed to keep a hallowed peace. Sorey felt a shiver run down his spine regardless. He knew this feeling--this familiar blessing. It didn't do to dwell on it. This place was far too in the open and he needed to find some way to lure Stuart over to the trees.
Turning, Sorey watched as his Shepherd finally broke into the sunlight, his heart aching with how poorly he looked now that he could see him outside shadows. He hadn't noticed how caked in blood his black hair had been but could see it now as the ruby crust took on a matte finish in the light. He stumbled, squinting, no longer able to support himself on the cave wall as he walked but managed fairly well given the state of his feet. He looked around as Sorey had, but his eyes grew widest as he gazed at the water's edge. Carefully, he crept out into the open field to quench his thirst from the river.
Sorey's heart was going to break with panic. A very real possibility of dragons in the area and his Shepherd was walking into the middle of an open field. Rivers were ambush territory; he'd gotten prickleboar as they drank from mountain streams all the time as their attention wandered from the threat of enemies. But humans needed water. After everything, of course Stuart needed to drink. It was a matter of life or death every whichway he looked at it. Sorey took a deep breath and hurried to his side. Please, he prayed, just let him drink and rest in the cover of the tall grass.
Whatever luck Sorey had forfeited in their terrible arrival, it at least existed now in keeping Stuart alive. He drank, he vomited, and he drank some more. He sat in the shallows and washed the stones and grit from his wounds till the crystal clear waters turned muddy and red. Sorey supposed most people living in the current age weren't taught much regarding survival in the wild. Water was necessary and that made it dangerous. Only predators on the hunt lingered in its presence. Every second Stuart wasted taking his time at the waterside was a second Sorey spent in agonizing anxiety. He stood by him, though. He kept watch while the other focused on himself instead. It was almost literally the least Sorey could do but it stood more as solace to himself.
"I'm going to teach you basic survival as soon as you can hear me again," he vowed. It was pointless noise but it made himself feel better to at least try to be there for his friend. "We'll cover hunting and camping, fires and navigation. I'm going to teach you how to be okay until I get you out of here. So we've got to do our best."
Stuart didn't hear a word of it. He just stared blankly at the water as it bubbled against the stones. His eyes looked haunted but Sorey hoped he was just thinking. He wished he too would say something out loud again; silence was eerie from the young, cheerful man.
At least he wasn't panicking. Not outwardly. Panic was more deadly than even lingering at the waterside.
The earth shook as the weight of something massive hit the ground, a single thud being followed by a second as the trees trembled, their canopies swaying. Sorey spun to face the direction from which the thundering boom had come but saw no trace of a beast towering there in his line of sight. Stuart cowered in the grass, his breath loud and carried on a half-cry as it became rapid and shallow. Sorey knelt down beside him, stroking his hair again as his eyes continued to search for danger. "Don't be afraid," he called, even if fear was a very safe and completely normal thing to feel. What he meant more than anything was that Stuart didn't have to feel that same fear of having to face these things alone. Sorey would fight them for him. He wasn't going to let him down.
He felt Stuart sit up, stand up, and start walking--not at last towards the safe cover of the trees but out further towards where the sound had come from.
"Don't be brave either!" Sorey shouted, following after, trying to shove him off course. He didn't stand a chance and surely he knew it. Trying to discover what that was was the least of his current concerns. Whatever his thoughts, Stuart's legs could not carry him where his curiosity called. He fell back to his knees having not gone far, hissing as he at last decided it better just to crawl. By some manner of grace, he changed course for the forest, the trees much closer than the mysteries in the distance that called.
One obsticle down, many more to come. Sorey would take what he could get, though, and went ahead of him, making sure the way was safe. His Shepherd finally stopped to rest against the trunk of a mighty tree, the sunlight filtering down through the leaves in changing patterns across its shade. Warm and clean and satiated on drink, Stuart closed his eyes and breathed. His brow furrowed in pain but with no one to hear of it he remained stoic, taking each moment as it came.
The only way to help Stuart now was to find the creator of the hampering domain. With no resonance, the Shepherd wouldn't be able to do anything about it himself anyway. Evil would appear as storms, his knowledge enough to perhaps tell the difference but his abilities far too limited to challenge them regardless. It was down to Sorey to deal with whatever was out there holding them apart with the force of its blessing.
'Whatever' it was.
No, he wasn't that naive.
Kneeling in the grass, Sorey checked Stuart over one last time, making sure he was breathing fine despite the fact there was nothing to be done for him if he wasn't. It made him feel better about leaving him now to truly be on his own. If Sorey didn't go try to do something, though, nothing would improve. Stuart just needed to stay here in the shade of the trees until he came back--hopefully as someone tangible again. There were nuts to be found to ease the pain in his belly. What Stuart needed was in here where it was safe. Sorey only hoped he knew that or could at the very least guess when the time came to move again.
As for Sorey, the source of the loud thud was as good a place to look as any for answers to their plight. It was foolish to go and not expect a dragon, but their very mission had been to ascertain the truth of the rumors anyway. He kept to the shadows of the trees as he walked off slowly, telling himself once more that it was the right thing to do. He wasn't abandoning his Shepherd; seeking their foe alone was the best he could do. It had nothing to do with the fact he'd likely find him there.
Though this was his domain after all.
Sorey knew this blessing better than his own, regardless of the strange changes within it he could detect. He'd spent the first several months of his new life living in this domain. It had protected him, somewhat stifled him, and called to him at his core much as Gramp's had done in their past. This was Mikleo's domain and he'd never wanted to feel it less than here on an island that was said to be home to too many dragons.
He'd often wondered how seraphim recognized their lost friends in dragon form. If they weren't there to witness it, how were they to know for certain who one was? Dragons showed no care for their past loved ones so acts of mercy in recognition weren't likely to be the source. He supposed it only made sense for there to be some hint in the feeling of their blessing. Even awash in malevolence, both Edna and Zavied had recognized Eizen without a shred of doubt holding out as hope in their minds. Sorey sensed no malevolence but what he did feel still didn't seem right.
If Mikleo's blessing had been a garden, it was lilies and oleander waving in a spring breeze. It was dew on grass in the early hours of the morning that sparkled like starlight on the hills. It was simple in its majesty but complicated in its parts. Like him. Because they were one and the same. While still uplifting, this domain and its blessing felt far more like autumn. There was a coldness there that sapped the sweetness away and imparted a sting of mourning where before there had been life. Same plot of land; different season. Same Mikleo; different...
He was glad, in a small way, that Stuart wasn't with him. Of all the things he'd ever faced alone, this was perhaps the one he feared the most. He'd take a thousand Heldalfs and another thousand years of sleep over the things he told himself to prepared for. Still, so much for meeting someday across a crowded street. He had so much he wanted to tell him. Why did he have to be here?
The island was beautiful at least. There were evergreen and tall oaks leaving wide passage among bush and bramble. Large stone outcroppings gave Sorey something to climb over as moss kept him secure in his direction. It was a little like Elysia though overgrown and oddly quiet. The mountains that shoved the horizon far above him probably offered that same, comforting view as he'd always see behind closed eyes. He imagined there were caves up there as well--the perfect homes for winged beasts that were said to call this home. At least one had deigned to walk along the ground for now, he supposed. One big boom for hindlegs landing on the earth, a second for the forelegs touching down moments later. That's what he suspected the earth-shaking thuds had been. He'd heard their sound and felt their vibrations before.
An inhuman roar froze Sorey to the spot as the voice echoed off rocks and trees. An instinctual terror gripped him and set his hand against the hilt of his sword. Nothing moved around him but he did not dare to move either way. He was close. Could it sense him too? He took five deep breaths then pressed away from tree he'd flattened himself against in panic before. The trees were growing more scarce with the light of the sun pouring in more brightly. He was approaching a clearing or perhaps the edge of a cliff. Either way, his cover was becoming all the more bare and his trek all the more dangerous for it.
He heard the splashing and at first suspected another waterfall flowing down the mountain made from the melted snow, but the intervals were random and imprecise. It wasn't a force of nature that smacked against waves and it didn't take a genius to hazard a guess. It was hard to see, though, as the sunlight bounced back in blinding brilliance off what appeared to be a lake. Sorey crouched down low within the bushes as he crept closer to the edge of the trees, careful of dry twigs underfoot that might announce his presence unintentionally. Looming large before him was an impressive specimen of his worst nightmares personified. It wasn't as large as the one they'd faced in Glaivend Basin but it would have given Eizen quite the fight.
The scales were dark blue but with a teal iridescence that sparkled with the same sunlight that caused Sorey to squint from behind the brush. Its long tail swished gracefully below the surface, stirring waves in otherwise still waters. What had once been hands now curled along the rocks with talons, the long face dipping its lost lips to the lake, tongue extended to take a drink. Only preditors lingered near the water, after all. What had a dragon to fear of anything in the wild as it laid lazy in the sunshine with the water to keep it cool. It had definitely been a water seraph but that didn't mean it was him. Whether seven or nine, there was a high degree of likelihood there were more than one whose element had been that of the deep blue. He couldn't help but feel he was indeed looking right at him, though. Something was pulling at his heart that said he'd found him.
He supposed it could have been worse. He could be out there hurting someone. At least he was here, away from the world at large. He looked peaceful. Maybe he was even somehow happier now.
A rustle of movement stole Sorey's tense attention as he glanced once more at the dragon's massive claws. They hadn't budged, but something was leaning there, tucked comfortably against a knuckle, and it was rising up from its spot in the grass. Long, unbound hair of the palest aquamarine was brushed over bare shoulders, the black tunic long out of style with its scalloped edges dancing in the breeze. Sorey's heart went still, his eyes growing wide as a lavender stare met his across the lake.
Even hidden in the remaining darkness of the forest, there was no questioning whether or not he'd been seen. He'd recognized him too, then. He sensed him there. Neither of them moved nor could Sorey dare to risk doing so with a dragon in the way. It was him, though. Sorey's whole being felt tense and alive, his heart racing in a full-body panic to see him there and yet have no way to close that gap. Mikleo was there and he was still a seraph and Sorey was there and they were there at the same time. He took a deep breath and slowly stood up to no longer hide behind the brush that separated the lake's clearing from his safe seclusion in the forest.
Mikleo seemed to jolt with electricity as Sorey unfolded into his line of sight. His staff in hand, he parted the water that stood between them, taking off in a run against smooth rocks and flapping fish. The water crashed back behind him, almost seeming to propel him forward as it swelled back into the path he'd made. In mere moments, Sorey felt the impact of his chest against his, arms encircling him, staff crashing to the forest floor as the momentum spun them around. Sorey held him tight, shaking, so sure it would all break apart and reveal itself as nothing more than an illusion. He pressed his face into his hair as they entwined, holding on to him so hard that he might just dissolve into him once more. He swore he could hear Mikleo laughing as they spun in circles. This was a dream. Perhaps he hadn't survived the storm after all.
"How did you even get here?" Mikleo asked, his voice soft and spoken close to his ear. "Are you completely insane?"
"Probably. I'm still trying to figure out if I'm dreaming," Sorey said, pulling away to better look at him but not allowing him to fall outside his touch. He looked just the same as he remembered with only one noticeable difference for him to behold. Mikleo was smiling. His lavender eyes were bright with glee. Sorey crushed him against himself in another powerful hug. This was almost too much for him to take.
Mikleo made a noise of disagreement, muttering through considerable effort, "Too strong," as he pushed for Sorey to let go.
He didn't want to. He never would again. But he relented if only because Mikleo wished it so.
Not even Mikleo seemed ready to draw completely apart, though. His hands rested on Sorey's bent elbows as they held each other's arms with barely any space between them, "You grew your hair out," Mikleo noted. "It looks nice. I mean, if you had to copy someone, I suppose my style is pretty enviable."
Sorey laughed, partially from surprise at hearing that tone in his friend's voice once again. "Nah. The guy who cuts my hair skipped town is all. I've been thinking of getting it cut for around thirty years."
"You're such a dork," Mikleo admonished.
Sorey shrugged. "Maybe. But at least my shirt doesn't look like a dress," he said, dropping one hand to skim his fingers along his waist.
The reaction was immediate and oh so satisfying. Mikleo's face burned red as his body went stiff, almost visible tingles shooting up his body, eliciting goosebumps over his skin. He let go of Sorey with a start, slapping his hands away and hugging himself to keep his sides safe from further caresses. "Don't do that!" he shrieked, his face slowly fading to a warm shade of pink. "Do you want me to sic Fáfnir on you? Because I will."
Mikleo nodded and gestured back to the lake where a dark blue dragon watched them with its dark, piercing gaze.
Sorey felt a chill roll over him, remembering all too well the times in the past he'd had a dragon stare directly at him. None of them included peaceful conversations, and all of them involved encountering corpses. He got the distinct feeling Fáfnir would rather he wasn't standing there. Though there still was no malevolence, the sense of wrongness still lingered all around.
"Why is there a dragon here, Mikleo?" Sorey asked, finding it much harder than before to tear his eyes away and look back at his reunited friend.
"Because I brought him here," he said. "I brought them all here."
Sorey had been afraid that had been the reason why. His heart felt as though it were trapped in his stomach and both had fallen out to his knees. "Have you ever heard of a Lord of Nightmares?" he finally had to ask.
Mikleo beamed proudly, both hands triumphant on his hips. "Pretty cool, huh?" he said, confirming all Sorey had feared he might with an admission painted all across his pride.
His mouth felt dry, his lungs tight and sick of air. "Please tell me you're not amassing an army," Sorey pleaded.
The Lord of Nightmares seemed to deflate a little, his smile turning from bold and energetic to something sadder and more ironic than pleased. "I suppose that means it's time talk and stop acting like kids again," he suggested. Glancing back at his monstrous companion by the lake, he took Sorey's hand and pulled him out into the sunlight.
Despite his fears and apprehension, Sorey had nothing but the utmost trust in Mikleo as he allowed himself to be lead out towards the lake and its idle dragon. He tried not to be distracted by the cool touch of Mikleo's hand on his, and in fact the presence of one of the world's most feared beasts made it a little easier to concentrate on the matters at hand. Fáfnir's dark eyes followed them with a knowing stare, a perceivable tension in his once relaxed posture as he observed Sorey in his master's presence. Mikleo maintained their distance, leaving the lake between them as he mounted the large rocks that bordered the sparkling still waters. Sorey climbed with him, taking a seat where Mikleo gestured. The stone was warm but the breeze felt cool. The absence of birdsong made all the more sense.
"You don't have to be afraid. Nothing on this island will harm you. Especially not you," Mikleo promised. His unbound hair rippled around him in loose waves, his fingers tucking pieces behind his ears fruitlessly as the wind pulled them free.
Sorey tried not to smile but found it hard not to still feel elated to be sitting across from his friend again. He felt sick to consider they might now be enemies but... it was Mikleo. Lord of Nightmares or not, he felt as though at last he'd truly found the man he'd lost all those years ago; the smiles, the playful jabs, the snarky attitude, the warmth, and the pride. "It's not that I think you're lying... but, Mikleo, I don't understand any of this," he admitted, casting a quick glance towards their chaperone whose tail had gone still in the lake.
Mikleo nodded, leaning back on his palms, the deep neckline of his black tunic highlighting the dip of his throat and the shadows of his breastbone. "Where do you want me to start? The beginning? I probably owe you that, but it's a pretty boring story."
"The beginning would be nice," Sorey urged.
Mikleo sighed. "Alright. I did warn you though, so don't fall asleep." He sat up a little taller, pulling his hair over one shoulder to keep it out of his face. "Not to be too dramatic about it, but I was dying in Elysia. Anger and hate had consumed me and I couldn't let them go. When I saw that the anger in me had become a sadness in you, I got scared. I couldn't handle the guilt of being responsible for your pain too. So I left. I think I said as much in my letter, but it's been a while, so if I'm repeating myself, it's your fault. I don't know if I was looking for redemption or death when I decided to go looking for Ayla and the others. I honestly didn't see them as separate goals. The first dragon I found was Melusine and after she pretty well tore me to pieces, I made an oath. I wanted the power to grant peace to those who were lost to malevolence. And the Empyreans saw fit to grant me that power. So now I am the Lord of Nightmares with dominion over dragons. Technically I think I'm more or less the Lord of Malevolence but we're still kind of working that bit out."
Sorey didn't find it to be a boring story at all. If anything, it was told a little too cleanly cut. "Who's we?" he asked, trying to piece together the gaps that felt far too wide in his tale.
"Myself and the other Empyreans," Mikleo said.
"You're an Empyrean!?" Sorey couldn't help but half shout.
By the look on his face, Mikleo was more than a little amused. "No," he denied. "I mean, not specifically. Maotelus doesn't care--he's actually really empathetic towards hellions--but that would put malevolence on par with the other elements and Eumacia for starters is having none of that. They don't want to exalt the darkness all creatures are meant to fight against, which makes sense. But malevolence is a natural part of our world and to vilify, curse or abandon everything that becomes tainted by it and cannot be purified is too cruel for a civilized world. Not all things that have fallen can be raised up. They're not better because they've fallen, but neither should their worth be forfeit to it either. In the past, the Empyreans tried suppressing malevolence but that apparently had its flaws. They've tried purifying it but Maotelus has his limitations. Now we're giving controlling it a trial run. If malevolence is as abundant on this earth as flame, wind, and water then someone must take dominion of it and ensure its imbalance is managed properly."
Mouth slightly agape, Sorey knew he must look like an utter fool sitting on a rock with nothing but a fat tongue in his mouth and wide, astonished eyes. "You just... talk to the Empyreans. Like it's a completely normal thing to do."
"Sorey, you took a thousand year cuddle with the Lord of all Empyreans."
Well, okay, he had him there. Sorey rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, hoping the warmth of his ears was nothing more than the sun as he looked down at his own crossed feet. It certainly made him feel a little better knowing the Great Lords--especially Maotelus--were involved in something that sounded terrible on the surface. "So... if you're now at least somewhat as powerful as the Empyreans and are linked to malevolence, how are you still a seraph and not a dragon?"
"Consider it a condition of my oath," Mikleo remarked but did not deign to explain further. "As for being malevolent, I am. Relatively. Compared to a human, maybe not, Compared to a seraph, absolutely. But it's okay. I'm never going to forgive the ones who controlled me. I'm always going to hate them and be angry about what happened. I don't have to let that anger define me, but I'm not a bad person for possessing it either."
Sorey didn't quite get it, but didn't care to argue the point either. Instead he marveled at the brightness in his lavender eyes and the way they flashed with intensity whenever the topic turned passionate. "You look pretty happy for someone supposedly so full of negativity."
Mikleo shrugged. "You might have noticed, but we're not really big on spreading malevolence around here. I seal as much of it away as I can, locking it away inside the hearts of those affected. I know it sounds terrible, but it's not like they can get rid of it anyway. It's theirs, and they're allowed to keep it. For the dragons, it allows them to exist without harming the world around them. You can sit here with Fáfnir maybe a hundred yards away and not feel pain just being in his presence. He's not a blight on all creation even if the pain he experienced as a seraph is always with him." Mikleo's smile turned softer, sadder, as his eyes fell to his own feet instead. "It's much easier to learn to deal with trauma when you're not being attacked and reviled for it by the world. And for the rest of us, being allowed to exist and not be looked at or treated like something that needs saving has its own sort of healing involved."
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to--” Sorey's voice cut off as fingers pressed for silence, the soft pads of Mikleo's fingertips cool against his lips.
“It was never about you, Sorey," he insisted, leaning in close enough to cast his shadow over him. "You were perfect. There just wasn’t any amount of loving me or doing for me that was ever going to make things okay.” He sat back with that, but remained somewhat closer still, his eyes casting over Sorey approvingly. “But look at you. You look… you look grown up. I see you’ve appropriated the ‘wearing the color of your element’ theme into your attire. Though, I think I liked you better in blue.”
“Gee, I wonder why,” Sorey joked, feeling warm again. He pressed his palms down his shirt to try to press flat its wrinkled state. His silver shirt had been a recent change when he'd gotten a little tired of confused Shepherds asking for him to help with water. Not too many understood the silver either, though. Some confused it with lightning. That was okay, though. Rarely was a roaming Shepherd looking for helpful lightening artes. “It’s.. it’s been an interesting thirty-odd years,” he admitted, the time suddenly seeming to have gone by so fast. In the moment, each day had been endless in length and full of engagement. Looking back, it appeared to have flown by.
Mikleo sat tall with attention, leaning in so as not to miss a syllable. “Tell me about them. I want to hear everything. Did you go to one of the colleges or a university or the Shepherd academies? Are you a student, a teacher, a professor, a journeyman? What all have you done?” he rattled off, consumed by the endless mystery.
“Uh, well, I’m a Prime Lord right now,” Sorey dutifully explained.
Lavender eyes grew impossibly wide. “Prime Lord!?" Mikleo repeated, his hands falling heavy to Sorey's shoulders. "Sorey, that’s amazing! You must have trained so hard! A Prime Lord at your age? I wish I’d have been there to see that. Did Lailah cry? Even if she says she didn’t, I bet she cried.”
Sorey laughed at the pride and attention being shown him, ducking his head nervously. “Of course she cried. She said Gramps would have been proud. You too. I had a feeling she was probably right.”
Mikleo was practically beaming, his hands a comforting weight as they dragged down Sorey's arms then fell away. “So if you’re a Prime Lord, what are you doing all the way out here without your Shepherd?” he asked.
“Oh." A pause. "Wait, you brought a Shepherd here?”
“Of course I did," Sorey said, frowning as his thoughts returned to Stuart. "The people in the town said there was some evil force out here building up a dragon army to go slaughter humanity. He wasn’t going to just wait for someone else to confirm that, and neither was I.”
“What’s he doing here, though?” Mikleo asked again, jumping up to his feet and scanning the ground. His lighthearted attitude had been shaken, a nervous energy replacing it in the blink of an eye as Sorey stood up beside him.
“Well, right now he’s alone, scared, hungry, and pretty heavily wounded," he said, taking Mikleo's elbow in hand to try to calm him down, though there was still more he needed to say. "He could really use your healing artes if you'll come with me. I'd appreciate it if you'd give him back his resonance too.”
Mikleo pulled away from his grasp, not hard but apparently needing both hands to gesture as he spoke. “I can’t allow a Shepherd to be here, Sorey," he insisted. "That’s the whole reason the resonance blocking is active. If I give him back the ability to stand against me, he could ruin everything I’ve worked for here.”
“I’ll explain it to him,” he promised. Within the words he hoped Mikleo could also hear I'll protect you" in his meaning.
“Sorey, you don’t understand the risk."
Perhaps he didn't understand it as Mikleo did, but other things he understood quite well. “He’s nineteen, Mikleo. He’s just a kid. I can’t just sit back and watch him suffer, but at this moment, with the way things are, that’s exactly all I can do.”
He watched as Mikleo's chest filled with a long, heavy breath, his eyes intense in their exchange with Sorey's, jaw clenched tight. This was more like the man Sorey hadn't gotten the chance to say goodbye to, and he hated to see under the smiles and laughter he still existed when taken aback. Arms wrapped around his middle, Mikleo breathed out with a furrowed frown. “I’ll do it, but then you have to go," he insisted. "My domain is no place for a Shepherd.”
Sorey could feel the mended pieces of his heart start to break off once again. “Aren’t we all on the same side?” he asked, reaching for him again, fingers against Mikleo's own as he wrapped an arm around him.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean anything," Mikleo said as he leaned into it, his fingers laying over his though he kept himself turned away. “I’m the Lord of Nightmares, and I ensnare monsters in the night. I stave off the execution of the world's terrors. I’m supposed to be feared; Shepherd’s should despise me. I have dominion over the forces they fight against. Even if we share the same cause, I represent what we all already know—that purification has its limits. I am the embodiment of that uncomfortable truth. If they accepted me, what would their mission be then? And do you think anyone is going to just accept and be okay with dragons being allowed to live after millennia of history written about how bad an idea that is?”
He was right. Sorey didn't like it, but he couldn't argue against it. He'd been in the schools where Shepherds were taught; he knew firsthand the lessons they learned and the mission they all swore to uphold. They were the peacekeepers; they purified those corrupted by malevolence and destroyed that which could not be purified. It was an all or nothing approach to saving the world; Maotelus was purity, and they followed his cause. Dragons meant mass destruction and their execution could mean the return of the Animus Ray. Fear of everything Mikleo represented could spell disaster for the world he now knew. While Sorey preferred to see things in moderation himself, he could understand why Shepherds would serve better not accepting anything less than pursuing purification throughout the world without fail. It created too many issues in labeling some malevolence as acceptable and others as not. The level of uncertainty in establishing shades of gray in a black and white world could cause chaos. It wasn't worth the risk.
Neither could he abandon Stuart, though. Not even if it was to spend just one more minute getting to enjoy being with Mikleo again after all this time. “I’m not ready to go yet, but I have a duty to protect him," he accepted. "Come see him. He’s really hurt, Mikleo. And he’s got no idea what to do out here.“
Mikleo turned his head slowly, looking at Sorey with unamused bewilderment. “You’re choosing him over me?” he asked softly, casting his eyes out towards the woods. With his free hand, he smacked Sorey in the chest, making a heavy sounding thunk against the meat of his breast. “It’s almost like I’m dealing with a real Prime Lord," he mused, tipping his chin back with an elegant smile. He gave Sorey's hand a tap as he pulled away, approaching the edge of their shared stone as he hopped down to the long, waving grass.
“Hey, I am a real Prime Lord!” Sorey shouted as he followed, landing far less gracefully at his friend's side.
Mikleo shook his head at him, extending a hand back to lead him once more. “I’ll see about getting your Shepherd put back together since I guess it’s my job to make sure you don’t screw this up. And it’s the least I can do for someone stuck traveling around with you all the time," he teased.
Sorey took his hand, not because he needed it but because his heart would ache if he even attempted to deny him. “You’re jealous," he whispered, using his hand to pull Mikleo close to his side, unable to ignore the playful spirit in the air.
“Of you?” Mikleo asked incredulously.
“Of him," Sorey corrected, giving his hand a squeeze, feeling it tug at his chest.
Mikleo chuckled, leaning his head against his shoulder as they walked. “Yeah. Probably. I miss those days when it was us.”
Sorey did too. Every day. Every night.
Thirty-seven years took a lot less time to sum up than Sorey had expected. Mikleo wanted to know everything but there didn't feel like much to tell once it came time to recount his story. Not comparatively, anyway. Years of study could be condensed into just a few words, the monotony requiring few details and yet encapsulating so much of his new life. There were a few funny asides he could jump to for color, but up until leaving with Stuart, things had been rather mundane. Sorey talked about how strange some things were to have experienced as both a human and a seraph, finding in that topic a few more insights to pad out the last few decades. Mikleo's attention was rapt regardless of the story, content to listen to anything Sorey seemed to say.
Sorey recounted visiting the places Mikleo had written about in the appended pages of the Celestial Record as twigs cracked under foot and leafs rattled in the wind. He mentioned Joyeuse Garde and his current assignment through the east. It was a warm midday even under the tree's waving canopy.
"And how exactly were you two expecting to get off my island after finding it as dangerous as they said?" Mikleo asked, still holding Sorey's hand. It was a link neither felt comfortable breaking so long as no obstacle on the hike required they let go.
Sorey tugged firmly at the hair of his ponytail, as he sheepishly thought back to their less than impressive previous plans. "We were going to just call the boat back with our cell phones and get out the same way we came in. But, uh... that plan didn't account for us being submerged in salt water for long periods of time," he said, alluding to the potential setbacks incurred in the interim.
"So what you're saying is you need my help to get your Shepherd out of here as well. Why am I not surprised." Mikleo walked into him, bumping him with his hip. "I guess you can use my phone to call the ship back too. I’ll bring it to you so you can organize getting him out of here before nightfall."
It was hard not to feel a pang in his chest with that offer nor feel confused and a little bit hurt. "I didn't think you still had a phone. You never once replied to my calls or texts."
Mikleo waved aside the implication he'd been ignoring him, walking just a few more steps out in front. "I don't keep it on me," he explained. "It's in my home. Most things around here that need to get my attention just sort of drop out of the sky and say hello."
"But you did see that I was trying to get in contact with you," Sorey pressed.
Mikleo shrugged. "I was glad when you finally stopped."
At least he'd admit to it. Sorey wanted to tell him it was a shitty thing to do, but he obviously knew that. He probably also knew that telling your friend to go on without you as though you were dead and then never answering the phone again made it look like the intent was suicide. That first week had been hell, calling and texting at every moment he could trying to get him to come back, not to do anything rash, and reminding him always that he was loved. Every unanswered attempt was a new unwanted fantasy of him dead, or a dragon, or hurt and scared all over again. There had been endless agony in the waking hours and guilt for the ones where there was sleep. Those first weeks hurt in a way tossing all those dead bodies off a cliff only had hinted at. He knew intimately what Mikleo was capable of and it had terrified him for weeks after his absence. Months. If he was honest, it still scared him sometimes, but in those days it had felt far more terrible. Because back then, it still felt like there was something he could have done—something still left for him to do. Making sure Mikleo got better had been his sole desire in his seraph life. He supposed… it still hurt, a little, to know that purpose wasn’t for him to fulfill. That hurt was far lesser to the joy at him smiling, though.
"How are the others?" Mikleo asked as the silence drew on, skipping over sensitive topics for perhaps the better if their reunion was to be short.
Sorey didn’t mind. Not really. What was there to even say about being left alone that Mikleo didn’t already understand? "Lailah's been taking it easy as Lady of the Lake. She's pretty much retired from being a Prime Lord now. Edna and Zaveid have like... twelve kids,” he recounted. “I don't know how he does it--he just finds them. He could walk into almost any city and boom all the orphans in the place would just be magnetically drawn to him. Edna can't stand it but she's mostly just being Edna about it. She always seems to have a doll on hand just in case he picks up a new one. I also think she might be pregnant, but she hasn't said anything and I'm not about to ask her. Overall, I'd say they're all doing well. They're happy. Busy. Kind of starting to all settle down."
"All except for you. You're just getting started."
That he was. It was something he thought about a lot recently, too. Nothing too existential but still a revelation all its own. "Yeah. But it's also nice in some ways. It means I can't just try to pick up where I left off and be the man I was before I died. I have to be around new people and they make me question things and think about the world in ways I didn't before. I get to put some separation between the human Sorey and me, which is honestly great because it gets to be a little much when people realize who I was. It’s hard to live up to a human’s legacy when you’re living in completely different times and by vastly different rules."
"And what do you think of Shepherd Sorey?" Mikleo asked, hanging back again to stare curiously at Sorey’s face.
"I think it's sad he died so young. But I'm proud to have been him and am glad to be who I am now," Sorey said, not having really put much of these thoughts to words and unsure how exactly they’d sound without the years of introspection in accompaniment. "We're still the same person. He'll just never get any older. So the more time passes, the further away from him I feel, but I think, if he'd lived, he'd have grown up to be a little like me too. Except.. still different. Because he’d still be a human being."
Mikleo nodded slowly, giving his hand a squeeze. "You're probably right," he said, falling into silence again.
Sorey wanted to ask if that was okay, but… to be honest, he didn’t care. He liked who he was. He’d worked hard to become him. If Mikleo didn’t like it, that wasn’t on Sorey. And by the way he insistently held his hand, perhaps he had his answer anyway.
They came upon the edge of the woods where he’d left Stuart much sooner than Sorey had expected. Which was good he supposed. Stuart needed to be healed and comforted given what all had happened.
And then they’d have to leave.
Sorey wished he’d wrapped his arms around Mikleo, pressed his back against a tree, and kissed him as though he was the air his lips were praying for, not letting go until the sun burned out, pulling him close, keeping him close, and touching him in all the ways Gramps had long ago warned him against. He wanted a million years to waste, just the two of them alone. His responsibilities said that wasn’t possible. His Shepherd needed him. And.. and at the very least, he’d seen Mikleo again. He knew where he was and that he was okay. That was almost as good as a million years worth of kisses. It would certainly hold him over for however long it took to meet again.
As Sorey approached his Shepherd, he felt Mikleo release his hand, his footsteps no longer falling alongside his as the other seraph held back. Stuart was still asleep which was likely for the best. Kneeling down, Sorey made sure sleep was all it was as he felt for breath against his hand. There was caked blood still in the along the creases of his ears. His breath sounded sharp on the inhale probably due to a few bruised or broken ribs. It felt good to be back beside him, able to fend for him even if invisibly. Sorey gave his shoulder a pat as he looked back, waiting for Mikleo to come help him now.
Mikleo hadn't moved, his face a stony mixture of unease. "So this is the man who knows your true name," he said, his tone far darker than the situation would have implied. His eyes swept Stuart from his lacerated feet to his messy black hair. There was no hint of sympathy in them in the least.
Sorey frowned, knowing his friend's unspoken comments just from the disdain with which he eyed the battered young man resting against the tree. "He won't abuse it. He's a Shepherd. He's been taught better than that," he insisted. "We haven't discussed it between us, but if it makes you feel better, I'll make sure to talk to him about it. If I know Stuart, though, the idea of abusing that trust would be completely foreign to him."
"He's still human. And mistakes can always be made," Mikleo remarked, though the hard set of his shoulders slumped slightly as his muscles seemed to relax.
"I know. I made that mistake too, remember?"
Mikleo looked utterly bewildered. "No. When?"
"When we were younger. Still living in Elysia with Gramps," Sorey recounted. There were sometimes benefits in childhood having been less than half a century away from current memories. It was fun to be the one to remember something for once that the other one didn't recall.
Rolling his eyes, Mikleo slowly approached, the tense atmosphere melting away. "Oh, good lord. That hardly counts. And what on earth were you calling my name in the middle of the night for anyw--" he stopped in his tracks, still several feet away, his face going red as he stared down at his friend. "Sorey!"
"Maybe you could help Stuart now?" Sorey implored, his ears positively burning no matter how long ago that had been. He'd been a teenager; he'd never claimed to be pure--that had been the church. The acts of the body did not necessarily reflect on the thoughts of the mind. He'd been biding his time, not practicing deliberate celibacy.
It was easy to tell Mikleo was trying his best to look scandalized, but the corners of his mouth betrayed him. He kneeled beside Sorey, keeping him between himself and the Shepherd, extending his hands to heal while he cast Sorey glances through the veil of his lashes. "Even then?" he asked.
Sorey shrugged. "It's only ever been you, Mikleo."
That was both a simple and a difficult question to answer. "I'm pretty sure for forever," Sorey said, looking away to watch the water permeate and mend his broken companion. "I mean, there's lots of nice people in the world and if I was looking for it, I'm sure I could find someone to love that would make me happy. But, to be honest... I've never looked. I wasn't looking when I found you, though, so I guess that doesn't mean much. But even if I do happen to find someone else someday, it's never going to change the way I feel about you. It's forever. So... yeah. Of course even now."
Mikleo said nothing, focusing only on his artes. Sorey supposed he was glad of that. It felt a little too late to be discussing love of that nature when in a few hours he'd be forced to go. They had their friendship. They had their separate lives. That was fine though not ideal; he still would have preferred the kissing and holding in the forest, biding time. Perhaps in another life. Perhaps many years down the line. There really was no telling what the future held. He was only just starting out, after all.
Sorey felt his body freeze though his heart lept straight into his throat. "But you said--"
"I changed my mind," Mikleo stated, standing up and brushing the damp from his knees. "Spend the rest of the day getting him prepared to be left alone then come spend the night with me."
"I--I'd like to spend more time with you," Sorey agreed.
"Sorey," Mikleo said again. He didn't need to say anything else. His intent was made in the way he looked at him. It made Sorey feel numb as his breath caught against his teeth.
"I'd like that," he said at last. "I-If you're sure."
"You're not just a kid yourself anymore," Mikleo stated as he glanced again at the human in their midst.
Sorey stood up, feeling drunk on his feet as he very slowly stepped closer to him. "Was that why?" he asked.
Mikleo shrugged, hiding his mouth delicately behind his hand as he looked away. "You were seventeen. I was nine hundred and eighty. It might not have mattered to you, but it mattered to me."
"Sorry," Sorey whispered, not sure fifty-four was really all that much better with a rather impossible gap existing between them he could never really hope to bridge.
"There's no reason for you to apologize. Like I said, you're not a kid anymore. Plenty of room to grow still, but.. well, I'm not done yet growing either."
Sorey nodded, licking his lips. "But is it really okay? Even if I can't stay?"
"Since when has this relationship been defined by us being in the same place?" Mikleo smiled, leaning back on his heels as he set his fists firmly on his hips. "I think we do a pretty good job of being in love but still giving the other person all the room he needs."
"You realize I'm not the kind of guy who just--"
"I know," Mikleo interrupted again. "But for now, I hope you can just accept that I'll be here, longing for you to visit. Only you. Until the end of time."
If a heart could break from happiness, Sorey was sure his had done just that. "I can visit?" he repeated, trying not to get too far ahead of himself with visions of holidays spent just the two of them alone, talking of their adventures into the nights while dragons snored under the stars.
"Of course. You're welcome here. Only your Shepherd isn't," he explained, nodding once to the sleeping youth. "And if you can't come here, well... I don't stay here all the time. I go out and collect that which belongs to me. If you happened to be near.. well, I might stop by."
It took everything Sorey had not to wrap him in his arms. If he held him now, he might never let him go, begging him to say it all again and again until words lost their meaning and their lips devoured all sound. "I have a lot to teach him even if it is only to prepare him for one night," he said, clenching his sweating palms into idle fists against the cloth of his pants.
Mikleo nodded, looking only slightly less flustered as he stepped slowly away, using his hair to shield his face. "Well, his resonance should be back so I'll just... come back later then. With the phone. And.. take you home with me then."
"See you then," Mikleo said, ducking out towards the clearing. He walked like someone thinking too hard about what they looked like when they walked. But that was fine. Sorey was pretty sure he was breathing like someone who forgot there was air.
Sorey was glad for the distraction of taking care of Stuart. It made the hours pass quickly without too much time for anxious overthinking as he showed his Shepherd how to find food and build a fire for the night ahead. His body still expected itself to feel pain so his movements were slower than an able body would require. Healing artes didn't remove mental barriers, but at least Stuart was well and aware of Sorey again. He could already tell his Shepherd was many times improved by all measures from his state in the early morning. There had almost been tears at learning Sorey was still alive and with him. It was heartwarming to say the least. He almost wished Mikleo had been around to see for himself just to know this human wasn't going to let either of them down.
Even with Mikleo having left them, the presence of the Lord of Nightmares was still everywhere. There were too many distant dragon sightings and roars to pretend there was nothing amiss on the island the local town had associated with their doom. Sorey had done his best to explain things without causing panic or inciting righteous action. He'd never been very good at lying, though. It was hard to explain why no one was in immediate danger but neither was their presence on the island implicitly safe.
"How do we not tell the church about this? I mean, this is exactly what most Shepherds trained for; to stand against threats like this Lord of Nightmares," Stuart professed, the fish on his stick nibbled down to the bones on one side while a second roasted away against the fire.
Sorey scratched at his cheek, uncertain as to what he really even wanted to say. That they were allies? That so much of what Stuart had learned in school was potentially wrong? That he'd heard second hand from the Lord of Nightmares that the Empyreans were totally on board with all this? "It's not that simple," he started, wishing he'd had more time to prepare some kind of explanation. Funny how telling someone you were leaving them alone for a night on an island of malevolence tended to force better explanations of one's circumstances. "The Lord of Nightmares isn't really a bad guy. I mean, his intentions are good. Just.. not conventional. It's okay if you prefer to be a traditionalist about this; I'm not asking you to approve just because I'm okay leaving it alone, but I do feel it'd be best if we didn't try to interfere. Or mobilize the troops. Which I understand sounds a lot like complacency or validation by inaction, so... I'm confusing you even more, aren't I?" he asked.
Stuart nodded, tossing the bones over his shoulder behind him. They skittered down the cave walls which were blooming in the warm colors of the setting sun, their shadows haunting against the dancing lights of the fire's flame. He turned to the other fish, finding it not quite cooked as evenly as he preferred, and instead gave a poke to the crackling embers that had turned the tail to char. "Are you sure he's not just using some kind of arte to make you obey him? I mean, you're going out tonight to talk with him alone again, yeah? That's really, really suspicious."
Sorey was beginning to wish Stuart had just stayed unconscious until it had been time to go. This was hard. It wasn't exactly something his own training had prepared him to do. He thought about when Lailah had been his Prime Lord and of the kinds of conversations they'd had about things. It didn't help; Lailah's oath had made these kinds of relevant explanations impossible. They only spoke of Cammlan after the Storyteller had shown them the things she was forbidden to say. There really wasn't much of a precedent to draw from when it came to trying to get across complicated, potentially destructive things. He didn't want to be the kind of Prime Lord who said nothing. He also didn't want to be the kind that lied. Many people could die if he didn't get this right, though; a whole war of Shepherd versus dragons just because he hadn't found the right words to satisfy his own.
Perhaps... perhaps it didn't have to be the whole truth. Challenges to Stuart's perception of morality aside, there was a certain way of looking at things that wasn't a lie, necessarily. He could work on slowly questioning established norms, seeding free thought, and perhaps engaging in discussion. That sounded much better than laying it all on him at once. But it would require a bit of... creativity.
Sorey shifted on the rock he perched on, the levels of comfort nature provided often only holding true for the first several minutes. "What if I told you Mikleo was here on a special mission?" he asked.
Stuart's eyes grew wide, his jaw hanging slack as the fire cast his face in shadows. "You mean, the Mikleo? The most powerful seraph in Glenwood? You're saying he's here? Right now?"
Sorey nodded, afraid to move or breathe. He'd never tried something like this on his own before.
"Shit, he's here taking care of this stuff? Like.. this is why he disappeared? For some secret seraph showdown type stuff?" Stuart looked absolutely impressed, grabbing his last fish stick from the fire, forgetting the heat that remained within the wood and nearly dropping it as he passed it quickly between both hands. He waved it, hissed at it, then clamped it between his thighs. He'd improve on patience one of these days. "Wouldn't it be better if he had backup then or something?" he asked, blowing deep breaths across the blistered and charred fish flesh.
Sorey shook his head, swallowing his reservations. "Telling the church about this might lead to panic. He's trying to avoid that. Plus, with as many dragons as he's currently got trapped in here, they might bring out an Animus Ray. And those kill pretty indiscriminately."
"So we tell the org and Mikleo could end up dead in the crossfire. Got it. I'd rather not be the second Shepherd to kill an icon this century. My lips are sealed," Stuart promised, miming the motion as he went in for a large bite. Sorey almost asked who else had been killed. Almost. Luckily he remembered his own existence before the words had gone anywhere.
Still, it almost felt too easy. Stuart was going to let him perpetuate the experiment Mikleo was running under the pretense Mikleo wasn't actually in charge and yet had everything under control. Perhaps there was a reason fate had lead him to pick a kind-hearted Shepherd over a bright one. It seemed absolutely transparent to Sorey. He was sure he should be glad, but instead he felt... guilty. Like he'd betrayed a small part of the trust they should have in each other. He supposed Prime Lords had been leading Shepherds on half-truths and promises since mankind and seraphim joined forces. It still felt cheap. He hoped this would be the only instance where such a path was taken.
"So Mikleo's the one you're actually meeting tonight then, yeah?"
Sorey nodded, trying not to frown too strongly as he stared into the fire. "Yeah. Mikleo and I are old friends."
"Yeah. Friends," Stuart mocked with a roll of his eyes. He punched at Sorey's shoulder, nudging him playfully. "It's 4318. You can seriously just call him your boyfriend, okay? It's not going to make things weird or anything."
That hadn't even been a thought in Sorey's mind as he blinked in surprise, rubbing pointlessly where the play-punch had landed. He'd always described Mikleo as his friend. His best friend. Boyfriend? He supposed it was less corny than openly calling him his soulmate. He'd just never considered a boyfriend to be someone you left behind.
The next few hours were mostly devoted to fire safety; how to sleep close to the light but not in danger of its heat, how much fire was too much to leave to burn itself out in the night and where the water should be kept to douse it if required. He'd never thought his Shepherd to be a pyromaniac but the young man was certainly enchanted by flames. Perhaps all people were in a world powered by electricity where fire was at best a novelty. He could still remember being taught my Gramps how to start his own with natures tools and keep his home warm when the cold of the nights crept down upon Elysia.
When Mikleo arrived it was with a whistle from the mouth of the cave, the sound echoing brightly as he stood far back, haloed in stunning twilight. He made no effort to step inside though he stared pointedly at Stuart as he waited. It was awkward but at least Stuart seemed too in awe of his celebrity to think it rude.
"You're sure you'll be okay?" Sorey asked, wavering in the few feet that extended between his investments, almost literally torn between the two as his obligations clashed with his desires.
Stuart sat up straight from his obvious posture of leaning back to peer at Mikleo from around Sorey. "Sorey, I am one hundred percent okay with us setting a precedent for sending the other away for privacy. I'm cool here. Not gonna ask that you kiss and tell but... maybe a little?" he asked, giving him a crooked grin. Sorey stood slack-jawed and dumb while Stuart chuckled and pushed him away. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he urged, slapping him once on the flank.
Death would be kinder than this level of embarrassment.
Sorey smiled nervously at Mikleo as he walked over, glad to see he didn't appear annoyed by the things he'd almost certainly overheard. If anything, he just looked pensive as he stood with the stars at his back, putting on a pleasant smile but still wary as he waited for Sorey to join him. His eyes darted to Stuart as though still making sure he knew exactly where he sat, the human anything but subtle in his lingering looks. It was sad to see that anxiety still present under those layers of contentment, but Sorey could understand why some things might take even more time to eventually push past.
"He's just star struck. He won't hurt you," Sorey swore on a whisper as he came up beside him, his hand stretching out along the backs of Mikelo's shoulders.
Mikleo hummed thoughtfully, stepping away and pulling Sorey to join him. The night was beautiful, and his pale features seemed to glow amidst the dawning moonlight. "It's not just because he's human, Sorey. It's... more like a conflict of interests in light of my oath," he slowly explained. He set a pace back through the forest, once more taking him out towards the lake.
Sorey kept pace, leaving his hand against him, letting it pull him closer than their held hands had done before. Lailah's oath forbid her to speak of Maotelus; Muse's forbid her to see her son. Oaths required a certain amount of sacrifice, and that alone made Sorey wary to know he'd made one. It already felt as though Mikleo had lost enough to have then decided to give something else away. "What did you give up?" he asked, hesitant to ask if it had been related to him.
"Nothing I'll miss," Mikleo explained. "But more than enough for the others to feel this kind of power was balanced in the scheme of things."
"That's pretty vague. Is telling me a taboo?"
Mikleo chuckled, leaning against him as they strolled. "I'm permitted to tell, but it would be as a detriment to myself. Telling anyone would be granting them a certain amount of power over me. They would know my weakness; the limits placed against me," he said. It sounded almost as dangerous as letting others know one's true name.
"Then, honestly, I don't need to know," Sorey resolved for himself. Mikleo deserved the comfort of his secrets, even from him. "No humans allowed is a fair enough rule. If you tell me it has to be that way, I'll follow your wishes. No questions asked."
Mikleo said nothing, but the quiet felt nice as it fell between them. There were too many heavy topics in existence in the spaces between pleasantries and stories of simpler times. It was nice to just be there, no wounded Shepherd waiting for him to return, no destination calling for them to rush. Just the quiet; just themselves alone. They had a whole night to spend together without even sleep beckoning them as human needs had once dictated. Sorey held him tighter, his grip moving to his opposite arm, almost distracted by how well he still fit against him and the smell of him that remained unchanged since childhood.
They were back at the lake in the blink of an eye, though Sorey's attention was distracted by the presence of a swirling blue light. There was a warp pad by the rocks on which he and Mikleo had first sat and spoke. He was more than certain it hadn't been there before.
Mikleo pulled away, taking Sorey by the hand as he pulled him towards the rocks once more. "I usually get around by dragon, but that didn't sound like the best way to pick you up from under a Shepherd's watch," he explained, smiling proudly. "I spent most of the day linking my home with this lake. Never made a warp pad before. Ready to try it?"
Sorey chuckled at the thought of Mikleo studying for hours just to try and impress him one more time. It was perhaps the least surprising part of a day and among the most comforting. "Just promise me if I go through that with you that there's at least a slight chance we'll end up stuck together."
"Afraid not. I'm much too smart not to calibrate for that," he boasted, pulling Sorey closer as they shared the circular pad. The blue light was cool and perfect, swirling up along their legs as it swelled with building power. "Besides that, I don't think I'm allowed to be that careless. Performing any action with the intent to harm would destroy me instantly. As it would mean I'd broken my oath."
Sorey stood still for a moment, locked in place not by the seraphic artes but by the meaning of the words he'd heard. He tightened his hands against him, his forearms trapped in his firm grip.
"I can't fight," Mikleo continued. "Not even in self-defense. It's also why I'm not a dragon; a dragon has greater physical resilience. I am meant to be killed almost effortlessly should someone deem my existence unacceptable."
Someone like a Shepherd, Sorey understood implicitly. And they would come. Someday. Such a conflict was almost assured. And that Mikleo had intentionally made himself that vulnerable scared him more than he was willing to consider. "I don't suppose I'll ever stop being afraid of losing you. Even while protected by dragons," Sorey spoke with a frown.
Mikleo tucked himself under his chin, bringing his locked arms up against Sorey's chest. "That just makes every moment special, doesn't it?"
"They already were," Sorey whispered against his hair.
The blue light burst brightly as at last the warp pad engaged, a column of white light engulphing them whole as the lakeside was left empty once more.
Mikleo's home was high on a mountain, overlooking the valley below through a fog of elevation. It was nothing like Elysia but there was still that same comfort in being high above the world as though its troubles could not find them among the clouds. The landscape was rockier than Mt. Mabinogio, and Mikleo's home was more a small shrine than an abode. A proper residence for a seraph, Sorey supposed. He was still adjusting to 'home' not necessarily being a house.
The moon looked gigantic, hanging low and half full, hiding half its face in the shadows as it seemed to watch them standing there. The ground was a flat expanse of rock with patches of grass coated soil, a few red blooms of sage growing up from a boulder's cracks. There was a blanket laid out and anchored by stones, not large but perhaps wide enough for two if they cuddled close upon it. It was charming in a way. Simple. Compared to their shared home in Elysia with its books, weapons, and knick-knacks aplenty, though, it felt empty on an emotional level. It lacked the memories of a home; that connection to the self. It was easy to be discouraged by the sight.
More discouraging still was the full view from Mikleo's mountain. Sorey counted five dragons visible either below them or out across on another peak. He wanted very much to find them majestic and unalarming, but a well-earned sense of unease remained at the forefront as he observed them lounging in the moonlight, scales opalescent and eyes like glowing embers in the shadows.
One way or another, he was looking at death from afar. Sorey frowned, trying to pull Mikleo closer though he had already pushed him aside to walk out to the middle of the blue blanket as a breeze threatened to carry it away.
"Is it alright with you if we just sort of get right to it?" Mikleo asked, fingering the deep V of his neckline. "I mean, yes, foreplay, but maybe a pass on waiting for the sake of pretense or for the mood to feel right?"
Sorey's brain stuttered to a halt, not sure why he'd expected his friend to be more demure about this when he was practically as up front and headstrong as himself. Was it really all just a matter of pretense to expect some level of intimacy be required to proceed? 'That's... fine. I guess. But I mean, if this doesn't feel like something we should be doing, we can just visit tonight inst--"
Mikleo was having none of it. He crossed back to him, grabbing his arm, pulling Sorey towards the blanket as he spoke over his loose objections. "We can't keep treating this life like something that lasts forever. Every decision we've made has always been under the assumption there would be time for you and me later. Surely we're smarter than that now, Sorey," he said, quickly beginning on the series of buttons that ran down the length of Sorey's shirt. "Tomorrow doesn't exist. There is no such thing as the future. There is only right now and the past, and only one of those things can be changed. I know how lucky I am to be here with you now. If you feel that way too, that's mood enough, isn't it?"
Sorey really didn't know what to say. He knew what he was supposed to say but it all sounded hollow and pointless in the scheme of things. Did he want this? Yes. Did Mikleo? Yes. Were they of their right minds and fully cognizant of what was going on? Yes. So why did it feel so rushed? They'd known each other for ages; they'd loved each other for just as long. They weren't risking anything by physically following where their hearts had been all along. Why was he hesitant when he knew in his heart and his soul that this was what he wanted--who he wanted.
But, of course, reluctance had nothing to do with them. Nothing ever did. When it was just themselves, when he could block all the world from his mind, there was perfection. They as themselves were everything. But the world always seemed to pull them apart, even alone on a mountaintop. It had once before and it was surely trying to again.
Because Mikleo was going to do something not even a Lord of Calamity had managed; he was going to awaken a theological civil war amongst the orders of righteousness. There would be factions that supported him and factions that opposed. Humans and seraphim alike would fall divided on either side of a very plainly drawn line. Prime Lords and Shepherds might part ways due to ideological differences; Prime Lords and Sub Lords, entire religious institutions preaching their bias and indoctrinating the masses. And Mikleo, though far from defenseless with his army of malevolence, was himself powerless against it.
He wanted desperately for that to be the impetus: Mikleo's vulnerability in the face of forces Sorey could not hope to hold back. He'd spent too long believing he could save the world, though. His thoughts were far more pragmatic than that. And far darker than any he'd entertained in the past.
Sorey had the power to stop it all before it began. He knew Mikleo's weakness. He had him alone. The most powerful seraph in Glenwood could fall with nothing more than the power of his hands clasped around his throat. Mikleo was malevolent regardless of his appearance; it would be no different than slaying Eizen. Sorey could murder him to save him. He could save them all from the horrors that awaited once his existence and philosophy leaked to the rest of the world. Sorey's hands alone in this instance could stave off the nightmares of tomorrow. That he could conceive of such a thought was nearly worse than knowing his decision had already been made.
From the very start of this new life, he'd chosen Mikleo.
Mikleo was quite right about one thing at least. There was never any certainty past each moment as it went by. So many of the ruins he'd said he'd see once his time as Shepherd had been done: destroyed. The adventures they'd planned while reading the Celestial Record: impossible. Nothing about the way they'd wanted their futures to be had come true. Except for right now, standing together on a distant mountain, just Sorey and the man he loved desperately. He wanted one night of not being a hero; one night of getting to behave selfishly. He'd curse himself tomorrow but perhaps the sky would fall before then. Now was the only time he had to be with his Mikleo.
And he knew; of course Mikleo knew. This would be their first. It might very well be their last and only. Life was both too long and too short to wait for every star to align.
Sorey dipped his head, capturing Mikleo's chin in his grasp as he pulled his face nearer to kiss.
The awkwardness passed much quicker than Sorey had expected. A lukewarm start fueled with tenderness rather than passion quickly heated up as clothes fell and hands rose to feel along the newly exposed territory. Nakedness wasn’t new to them, but maturity had molded each differently. Sorey enjoyed the way Mikleo’s wide shoulders tapered elegantly towards his hips, his frame still lithe and deceptively frail in comparison to Sorey’s thicker, more toned build. Their different complexions made watching as his hands traveled from sternum to navel entrancing, never considering himself tan before seeing his fingers disturb the pale glow of Mikleo’s luminous skin. The dull pinch of Mikleo’s teeth against his throat and his heavy grip on Sorey’s biceps as he squeezed against the muscles felt far too good to be so simple and tame given all there was still to partake in. He was glad they had all night. If he was to be a sinner, best to indulge fully and let it carry him away. Just this once. Just for the night.
Sex ended up being everything Sorey had hoped it would be, but still not everything others had made it out to be. He didn’t feel closer to Mikleo. He didn’t feel grand and empowered at the culmination of his conquest. He didn’t feel more manly or as though he’d passed some rite of passage. He felt content in his own pleasure and proud to see it mirrored in his lover. He felt drunk on stimulation and high on endorphins, but it certainly hadn’t made him love Mikleo more or extended any claim towards him. There was no magic in their shared arte that could link them together eternally. It was just flesh and exertion in the end. It felt amazing but it didn’t feel like it would ever be an answer to the question of what became of them now amidst everything that had changed. His arms wrapped around Mikleo, trapping him against the thunder of his beating heart. Sorey wanted nothing more than for time to simply stop right then and there; let him be the cage that held back chaos in an everlasting embrace as had been done long ago in Maotelus’s story. What he wouldn’t give for the power to go back in time just to have awakened sooner.
Maybe someday he’d stop dreaming about impossible things. Not tonight, but someday.
Mikleo pulled away slowly, pressing more kisses to Sorey’s lips before moving to his clothes which lay haphazard in a pile in the grass among Sorey’s. Watching him pull his hair from the neck of his shirt in one whooshing cascade of loose curls was a beautiful sight but beyond that his efforts to dress seemed more private than for his viewing pleasure as their removal had been. Sorey looked back at the stars above instead, impressed at how the lack of city lights brought back a sky almost identical to that of his childhood. Blackness was nothing more than a simple backdrop for millions upon millions of tiny pinpricks of light along the sky.
"I think I see the Lover’s constellation," Sorey noted, putting his hand up to trace the familiar shape he’d once studied on the pages of books that had been old even in his own time.
Mikleo paused, looking up above them as he smiled gently, turning his head to look at the heavens at the same angle as Sorey did. "Are you sure it's not just part of the shield, again?" he asked, leaning back until he rested on his elbows beside him.
"Maybe," Sorey conceded, tilting his head to shift his gaze until his head came to rest against Mikleo's. "Who's to say they're not the same constellation, though, if they're that hard to tell apart?"
With a low chuckle, Mikleo turned a kiss to his cheek, "You make a good case. But no. I think you were right the first time. Definitely the Lovers," he said, wrapping his arm around him as the shadow of dragons drowned the starlight from view.