Se mueve por aqui, se pierde por alla
Todo en medio de la oscuridad
Mueve bien todo ese encanto
Eso que enciende tu verdad
“Sabe Lo Que Quiere” - Monterosa
I should do something.
Technically, my pacing counted as something, but it brought neither satisfaction nor stirred fresh ideas as to what would satisfy. I stopped and planted myself on the edge of the bed, threading fingers through my hair.
Almost three weeks, now. Sliske’s right.
I snarled at the bookshelf across from me. New contract or no, I didn’t like how effortlessly Sliske had slid into Nomad’s old routine. He slept with me, greeted me in the morning before leaving, and had begun entertaining new nicknames for me - dove, sweet, poppet. “Love” wasn’t among them, thankfully, and I had no idea how Nomad endured it.
“My heart” was the most recent, and after I’d invited him to shapeshift one on the end of his finger and sit on it, he’d laughed.
My irritation had cemented it. I was no longer “pet,” but “my heart.” Whatever expression occupied my face when he used it seemed to delight him.
Disconcerting as it all was, I didn’t know whether to be relieved or angry that everything he said still rang with that smug, vaguely supercilious tone. He didn’t sound so much like a man in love as a man utterly thrilled with himself. Endearments, warm morning greetings, lascivious evening greetings all carried the undercurrent of spite and satisfaction, the quality absent only when the clothes and inhibitions were gone.
More than the ease with which he’d taken to this unsettling version of a domestic role, I didn’t care for how I’d become acclimated to him in that position. Waking to the expectation of Quen and finding a Mahjarrat occupying his space had been jarring the first few nights. Faded bruises decorated the back of my shoulder where I’d reacted by scrabbling and falling out of the bed, Sliske leaning over the side and quoting something poetic about swans through his amusement.
This morning had been different. I’d awoken harboring no illusion that I’d find Quen at my back, and the loss of that sense of disequilibrium was a newer, duller, deeper pain. I was more disappointed in myself than I was with Quen.
Fuck your letter. I’m coming to find you.
I stood. He’d sulked enough. I’d waited enough.
My search lasted all of two footsteps toward the cloth which divided bedroom and main area. It lifted aside before I could do the deed myself and I stopped.
A tumble of thoughts clogged the conduit between my mind and my mouth. Too many. Where did you go? Why did you go? I missed you. I’m sorry I forgive you please don’t do that again it hurt so much. I love you. I’m so happy you’re home.
“Get the fuck out of my house.”
Quen blinked, disrupting the hazy trail of soul magic drifting from his eyes. “I have something to say first.”
“Yeah? You do? Good for you.” I lifted hands to either side of me in an exaggerated shrug. “I’ve had something to say to you for three weeks, but, really, you first. I fucking insist.”
Reined-in anger glowed in his eyes. I heard the tremendous effort behind it as he spoke. “I was wrong.”
My hands dropped and I stepped back, sinking to a seat back on the bed. “That’s it? Three weeks, Quen. Three weeks, and you’ve got three words to say for yourself? I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re about as efficient as a kebbit pulling a cart. Inadequate.”
His eyes narrowed. “I deserve that. But I ask that you hear me anyway.”
“Fine.” The heat trapped in the tent wasn’t doing much for my mood. I balled up a pillow and hugged it in front of me. “Justification for breakfast. I had my heart set on a cactus puff,” I cringed at the word choice and pressed on, “but let’s hear it.”
Quen let the partition drift shut and took several steps into the room, some mixture of anger and wariness blending into a defensive tone. “You stood with Zamorak against me.”
I snarled. “I stood with him against Sliske. You chose to stand against me!”
“You could have just as easily…” he seemed to gather himself and suppressed the outburst again, “...but that serves no purpose. We stood where our allegiances lay. What I couldn’t understand was you choosing another over me. You closed your mind to me and left me adrift, trying to piece your motivations together on my own.”
One of his gloved hands tensed into a fist. “Sliske aired them all as casually as you please, as though those motivations were common knowledge. Tell me, Razwan. Tell me what I should draw from that. Tell me where I stand with you.”
I sat in silence for a moment, letting my gaze drift down to his boots. My voice was misleadingly calm as I spoke. “Where do you stand with me?”
He was perfectly still as I looked back up. “How dare you ask me that question, Quen Mahon? I stood with Zamorak when Sliske arranged a necessary choice, and I don’t regret it.” A feeling that was and wasn’t nausea moved low in my stomach. “But I never landed the killing blow under Soul Wars. I didn’t throw your staff back at you when you threw it at me and ran away with a piece of that fuckdamned rock. I didn’t kill you in Icthlarin’s realm. I took you home and walked through Duzakh’s well while that wight disease of Sliske’s bled off, while you screamed and tried to kill me during the madness of in-between.”
I shook as I spoke. “I keep not killing you. You’re dangerous to the world. You warp this life and the next whenever you feel like that world didn’t afford you the power you deserve. Every time, every fucking time I don’t kill you, you go somewhere else and start threatening everything again. Part of me wonders what you’ve been up to these past few weeks, whether I need to destroy another monster or upend another soul-harvesting machine of yours.” My fingernails dug into the pillow. “But I don’t kill you. I keep choosing you over the rest of the living world and the safety of the next.”
He was so still, but my steady build of anger didn’t abate. “How dare you imply I don’t care? There is but one person who matters more to me in all the community of life, but in the face of the fucking world, Quen? Are you that petty?”
Tears crawled down my cheeks, hot and uncomfortable, and I ignored them. “I’ve never demanded everything from you. Tell me why being important isn’t good enough.”
Quen’s voice was soft, the tension gone. “I’ve never had the option. Relenting in part was as good as sacrificing all for most of my life. I don’t understand part.” His eyes narrowed again. “But you say these things in light of the risks you take with yourself. Your carelessness. You speak of the world and its life as though you value it, yet you treat your own life as though it bore no significance.”
“Maybe it doesn’t.”
The silence lasted perhaps a minute before he spoke again. “Say that again.”
“Maybe it fucking doesn’t, Quen.” Fingernails dug crescents into my palm atop the pillow. “Maybe it doesn’t bear a whole lot of significance to me.”
I stood, and Quen began to move to intercept me before stopping, seeming to think better of it as I whirled in place and hissed. “I was fine when everything was nightmares. I killed, I came home to an empty tent, I drank until I couldn’t feel my injuries, I woke up in pain. I fought and stole and hated everyone whose pockets I emptied and I could live with that.”
My aim was off as I threw the pillow back on the bed. “Astrid was… a fluke. And that was fine. Flukes happen. But do you know what I get with you, Quen?”
He was silent.
I shook as I spoke. “I got proof that happiness isn’t a fluke. And I want it. Maybe I fucking need it, but that happiness is killing me. Everything’s manageable when it’s all bad, when you’re buried in misery all the time, but it’s…” I hiccuped, “...I can actually feel how much pain there is when there are moments of relief. It’s worse. I could ignore every day being filled with hate and rage and pain when there wasn’t anything to compare it to. Now I can, and… I fucking can’t.”
He made as if to step forward and I held up a hand. He stopped.
“You left. You took that good thing back, and you gave me a reminder I desperately needed.”
Quen tried to step forward and stopped himself. “I didn’t think-”
“-No, I’m pretty sure you did. That’s what you do. That’s the absolute fuck of it, Quen; you’re a thorough planner. Maybe you didn’t imagine this, but you intended to make a statement and damned if you weren’t successful.”
We were both still, the air was still, and there were no sounds from outside.
I crossed my arms. “Suck a dick.”
His response was instantaneous. “Again?”
An almost imperceptible tic quirked the corner of his mouth. I felt a muscle twitch in the same location on my face.
We both doubled over, barking laughter.
This time he stepped in and I didn’t offer protest. I rested my forehead near the magic retention gem at the center of his breastplate and didn’t tense when armored arms wound around me. “I’m still furious with you.”
He paused, and I felt breath stirring in my hair. “There’s nothing for you to find, destroy, or upend. I spent the time speaking at great length with… Nex.”
I leaned back enough to look up, surprised. “You two despise each other.”
Quen shrugged. “We still do. She’s self-righteous-”
“-So are you-”
“-Spiteful, convinced she can do no wrong-”
“-You realize you and I have met before, right?”
His arm tensed in a brief, warning squeeze at my back. “But she is also wise. We fought, argued, but some of what she said wasn’t without merit.” He looked down at me. “Before you ask, neither of us was wounded beyond the superficial. Both of us are capable dodgers. Now tell me why your life doesn’t matter to you.”
The words were spoken in a casual tone, but his look wasn’t. I stared down at the gem on his breastplate as I spoke. “I’m going to lose one of you. You or Sliske. Maybe both. Aris told me.” I closed my eyes. “There’s a new contract.”
Hands found my upper arms and shook me slightly. “Are you out of your mind?”
I brushed his hands off. “This one’s… livable. Not great, but livable.” I looked up again. “I promised Wahisietel I’d make a delivery for him out in the desert by this afternoon. Maybe an hour or two. Will you-”
“-I’ll still be here. Once is a mistake. Twice invites a pattern.”
Stepping back out of the embrace, I smiled. “My father used to say something like that. ‘A mistake is a singular event. Anything beyond that is practice, and if you’re going to practice, bother yourself to do it thoroughly.’”
He nodded. “A wise man. I will remain until you return. This conversation isn’t over.”
I walked over to the shelf, lifted the package, and paused. I turned back to Quen. “In Death’s realm. When we were breaking down the door and you spoke to me through the soul connection the first time.”
He lifted a silent eyebrow.
“I almost…” The package’s wrapping made a papery crunch in my hand and I relaxed my fingers. “...I almost did. Join you. I have to find a way to get rid of this World Guardian thing. Pass it off to someone. The world isn’t safe with me for a guardian.”
Reaching into a pocket, I withdrew several runes, the tiny stones clacking against each other in my hand. I closed my fingers around them and lifted the little fist in attempt to point. “You said you’d be here. I’m holding you to that.”
Quen nodded again as I pulled the spell into being. He was lost to the wash of light that carried me away.
Don’t disappear unless you intend to remain gone, Quen. I can’t do this again.
Heartbreak make me a dancer (dancer)
Deejay, give me the answer (answer)
Life starts bringing me down, down, down
(Do it alone? I couldn’t do it alone)
Freemasons Feat. Sophie Ellis-Bextor - “Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer)
I could handle dry, unforgiving heat. The glare of the sun. Provided I had a little warning and the opportunity to gather supplies for myself, there was very little the Kharidian Desert could throw at me that I couldn’t adapt to or weather in familiarity.
What I couldn’t handle was a Mahjarrat conjuring up magic sand tornadoes and laughing delightedly at his own antics.
I’d already met Akthanakos, after a fashion. Once as a transformed guard under Enakhra’s command, again at the Ritual Site, and a handful of other places, but I’d never seen him outside gravity-imbued situations. Never casually, as I had Wahisietel or Azzanadra. Or Sliske, for that matter.
And never had I seen a more perfect antithesis to that last.
He laughed, but his pleasure wasn’t had at the expense of someone else. Nor was it blanketed in a weird mixture of the servile and haughty. It wasn’t even the measured-by-age sort of amusement I’d seen in both Wahi’s human guise and his Mahjarrat self.
It was guileless. Full and joyous. Sand stirred where one small tornado collapsed and another rose to take its place. Akthanakos giggled, and - though his voice was deep with adulthood and whatever being Mahjarrat added to the mix - he sounded almost childlike. Purely devoted to an innocent activity and completely enamored with it.
Several minutes of tornado-watching passed before I remembered why I’d come. “Akthanakos?”
He turned to face me with his hands held out to either side. “Razwan! Look, watch this!”
He extended his index fingers upward and began twirling them, and a pair of thin sand tornadoes built up and up until they stood four times their creator’s height. He drew his hands together and both spinning storms closed in on each other, each narrow tip pulling more sand from the ground and building on their opaqueness.
As I watched, the two drew almost close enough to touch and stopped. Their tips moved instead, dancing circles around each other and weaving the pair of storms into a double-helix. Round and round they went until my eyes couldn’t distinguish one from the other.
Akthanakos clapped his hands together and the pair of tornadoes merged, breaking, the sand falling to the ground in a yellow-tan wash of dry sound. Those same hands went to his middle and he looked up at the sky, laughing again, then back at me. “I spent decades in the past trying to do that. It works now, though! ‘A waste of time,’ Azzanadra called it, and him up there lighting incense in an empty temple day after day. My ass!”
I grinned at him. I was helpless not to. “Azzanadra wouldn’t know fun if it turned purple and sat him on its lap.”
More laughter boiled up in him and Akthanakos let himself fall to the sand, something glittering where his eyelids squeezed shut. “On his… yes, yes! I mean maybe he’d…”
A Mahjarrat. A stern judge. An impossibly ancient being with untold power. Snorted. It was the last straw.
I bent forward and landed in the sand on my knees, wheezing. “...he’d have such a hard time-”
“-Oh, the hardest! Rock-solid-”
“-I mean, it wouldn’t be your ass, but his ass-”
“He’d wiggle. I bet he’s a wiggler-”
“-Probably have to be tied down-”
“-Not that he minds, not one bit-”
We rolled around in the sand, gasping and wiping tears from our eyes, occasionally settling down before one of us bellowed a fresh peal of laughter and set us both off again.
Akthanakos rolled up to his side and swiped at his eyes again. “I bet his collar doubles-”
“-There’s a spot you could tie a leash to. Right near the front-”
“-Maybe he just grabs his hat by those ridiculous antlers-”
We howled helplessly. Minutes passed before I could speak again.
I gathered myself and stood, picking up Wahisietel’s package and approaching the still-snickering Mahjarrat. I offered him my hand and he took it, standing.
He was a reed of a man, and ridiculously tall. His face prongs were longer than I’d seen on any other Mahjarrat. His features were built for intimidation, but the warm, open smile made them character-enhancing rather than menacing. Deep blue irises sat in blackness, but weren’t frightening the way most of their eyes were. A cool color radiating warmth and kindness as much as his voice did.
“I don’t get visitors much out here. Still know how to draw up water and offer a good stay, though. If you have time?” Sapphire eyes held mine and made no secret of his hope.
I should’ve been wary, but nothing in the man’s countenance or words gave me cause for fear. I smiled. “I can. For a bit.”
Akthanakos beckoned with one hand until I stood closer. His other pointed at the sand, which began whirling slowly around us. “Quick travel. It’ll get us out of the sun and… you know you smell like Sliske?”
I sighed as his teleport stole us away to another part of the desert.
East Coast or West Coast, it don't matter
Down south or up north, it don't matter
Hollywood or in the hood, it don't matter
Either way, it's all good, it don't matter
Robert Randolph and the Family Band - “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That”
Akthanakos’s tent was a spacious, tidy nod to desert living. Tidy, but by no means dull.
I’d noticed Azzanadra and Wahisietel both preferred austere, solemn colors, and the camel god seemed to have no interest whatsoever in the subdued. Silks in riotous hues draped above and down the insides, equally bright colors mirrored in floor cushions. Even the carpet was woven in reds, purples, and rich yellows. Candles on various stands screamed into the visual clamor in vital blues, pinks, and oranges. None of it matched.
It was an eyesore.
He’d disappeared beyond one particularly horrific piece of patched silk serving as a divider between the main room and beyond, returning with a large glass vase filled with water and a pair of ceramic cups for each of us. Cups filled, he sat across from me and set them on the floor between us.
I handed him Wahisietel’s package. He tore into the paper and shook out a long woven tapestry, one depicting a desert sunset and a number of camels whose silhouettes stretched out toward the bottom of the image as they crossed a dune. It was beautifully done, matching everything else in Akthanakos’s home only insofar as nothing in the tent matched anything else.
I’d never seen anyone grin as widely as he did as he held it up and eyed the masterpiece. “It’s going to look wonderful in here!” He set it aside and lifted his cup, gesturing toward mine. “Running’s thirsty work.”
Nodding, I picked up my cup and drank. The water was cool, and I sipped slowly after the heat. “Thank you.”
He leaned forward, eyes like ocean depths meeting mine. “Sliske, huh?”
I almost spat water. Swallowing, I nodded back. “Sliske. And Nomad.”
Akthanakos neither recoiled nor made any other gesture to indicate disapproval. Instead, he looked even more curious. “Is it the danger?”
From anyone else, the questions would’ve seemed nosy. Inappropriate. We didn’t know each other, not really, but something about the man casually avoided the “outsider” feeling that intruding questions normally engendered in me and in most other reclusive Pollnivneans. From him, they didn’t seem to be prying. He reminded me of Saiman a little.
“It’s the World Guardian thing. Can’t get involved with someone who’s… safe, I guess. They can handle being with me. Hell, they manufacture half of the shit I deal with. It won’t destroy them. Anyone else would get torn apart or killed trying to keep up with this craziness that gets tossed in my lap.”
He nodded. Sipped. Set his cup over the point where his calves crossed in front of him. “Well, that’s enlightening.” He smiled. “Now what’s the not-camel-shit answer?”
I stared blankly at him. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, not that it doesn’t sound noble or anything. And it’s good. Really good. I’ll bet you’ve convinced lots of people with it.” He lifted his cup and rested his elbows on his knees, grinning over the rim. “But you forget I’m of the desert. Not your fault, really, but I’ve been pretty much everywhere around here since Tumeken went chinchompa. Pollnivneach, too. I know an Ali line when I hear one.”
I blinked, struggling for words.
He might be guileless, but he’s sharp as fuck.
I didn’t know what to make of him. “Maybe. I don’t… I don’t know.”
Akthanakos tilted his head to one side and then the other as though weighing my words. “Closer. Still a lie, but not quite as pure as the first one.”
He was testing me for truth? I played my hands around the cup and thought. All the times I’ve sussed out the truth in my own words. It’s so strange to hear it from the outside. Is this something to do with his magic?
He tapped the cup against one of his chin prongs. “I’m not using magic. And no, I’m not telepathic, either. These are just little things I picked up along the way. Less so in the old days, but it’s just a knack I have that got honed after the Empire crashed. So…” he took another sip of water, “...how bad is it? The self-hate, I mean.”
I bristled. “I’m not with them because I hate myself.”
He rolled the water around in his cup, then dipped a claw in and pulled something I couldn’t see from the surface and flicked it away. “Camels shedding again.” He looked back at me. “I can tell you love them. That’s obvious, but what’s also obvious is that you’re seeking out risk because you’re not happy with yourself. No, don’t start with that line again; I know self-hate like you wouldn’t believe.”
That stopped me. “You?”
He nodded. “Me. Nothing I did was ever enough for some people. I liked being silly. Not the cruel way Sliske was - or is, I suppose - but I kept getting distracted by fun. Everything was so grim with wars, military actions, and I kept trying to cheer people up and failed. Especially Azzanadra.” He set the cup down and stared at it. “Enough failure and you start to wonder what’s wrong with you.”
I nodded quietly.
Akthanakos picked up his cup again and the knowing yet malice-free smile returned. “But this isn’t about me. What do you think you’ve done that’s so awful you don’t deserve to be happy?”
I looked down into my cup for several minutes, the directness of the question unsettling. Inhaling, I began speaking.
Thieving, conning. Killing. My short and dismal career as a “Slayer.” First my tutelage with Godblessed, then my becoming an assassin for hire. Astrid and the small, unexpected happiness I’d found with her. Her death. Becoming the World Guardian. The drinking. The forgetting. The fights, the failures, and sinking deeper into disdain for everyone who wasn’t in my small inner circle.
The thrill-seeking. Clambering atop Gnomish gliders, climbing mountains with minimal or no safety gear. Hang-gliding. Crashing. Going home with cuts, bruises, and drinking those away, too.
I told Akthanakos everything Sliske had said to me before I’d gone to see Zamorak. “A boon to others by serendipity alone.” That I’d sought out Nomad because we shared the same brokenness. That I was behaving as a promise I could never actually fulfill.
He held up a hand at this last. “Sliske says what benefits Sliske.”
I shook my head. “But he wasn’t wrong.”
Akthanakos looked at me for a long time before speaking again. “I know what you said. Now let me tell you what I just heard.”
I fell silent.
His clawed fingers wrapped around the cup and he spoke over its rim again. “You were a small-time criminal. Someone asked you tried to murder en masse and you couldn’t do it despite being trained from an early age to do precisely that. You found someone to love, loved her, and lost her. You grieved and drank away your pain. Were thrown into a situation no human being should have to endure and not everything turned out according to plan, or to the purpose of good.”
He held up a finger along the side of the cup. “You punished yourself. You risked yourself hoping fate would do what you didn’t quite want to do yourself. You decided you weren’t good enough to be happy.” He pointed at his head. “In most of your mind. The little part where good sense is kept sought it out anyway.
“You held yourself to an impossible standard. Maybe you aren’t particularly good on many scales, but you aren’t outright evil, either. You’re a person. Flawed. With weak points and strong points. And,” he leaned forward, “you’re allowed to be happy.”
I remained silent. His words were simple, yet they’d punched me squarely wherever my emotions resided. “I don’t deserve to be.”
Akthanakos snorted. “By whose authority? Yours? You can’t trust yours. You think you’re too evil, remember?”
My eyes burned with tears and I blinked the feeling away. “I fucked up. A lot.”
He smiled. “Evil doesn’t reflect on itself and see anything wrong, Razwan. Evil is very sure of itself. But you don’t have to torture yourself, either. Change what you can change for the better. Let yourself fail. Give yourself credit when you don’t. And stop punishing yourself. Let yourself be happy.”
I stared down at the remnants of water in my cup, drank, and handed the cup to him. “Maybe. I’ll think about it. S’all I can promise.”
Akthanakos grinned again. “Good. And please tell Wahisietel I said thanks for the tapestry.”
Standing, I smiled back. “I will.” I turned, then turned back to him. “Thanks. Looks like you’re happy. Is it because Zaros is back?”
He blinked then, a long, slow one. “No. I decided I’m going to be happy no matter what happens. I spent long enough in his Empire being miserable. Come to think of it…”
He canted his head to the side and something impish lit in his eyes. “Fuck Zaros.”
I chuckled. “You’ll have to get in line. I think there’s a Pontifex ahead of you.
We both brayed laughter, and we waved our goodbyes before I stepped from the riot of color within Akthanakos’s tent to the less painful brightness of sunlight outside.
“I decided I’m going to be happy no matter what happens.”
His words followed me as the teleport carried me back home.