The twin sound-feelings of the Dawn Chimes—the top notes piercing and crystalline, floating high and crisp on the air, and low, rumbling bass tones, trembling through the earth beneath him—rang out, reverberating in his mind before he was entirely awake.
Oh. Morning. It was morning. They obviously fell asleep at… some point.
Merron blinked, the world at first little more than a blur. But it returned to him soon enough, one of the most important parts of it coming sharply and immediately into focus:
Expanses of grey- and umber-flecked green granite, formed into flawless hills and valleys. Spirals of argent hair framing a heart-shaped face. Smooth arcs of smooth cheeks, their perfect curves only broken when their owner shut her eyes tighter, fighting to stay asleep.
He almost didn’t want to wake her, but it couldn’t be avoided.
“Nel,” he whispered, barely moving so as not to startle her. “Nel, wake up. It’s morning.”
Her voice creaked as it drifted up in pitch, a wordless questioning of absolutely everything, including why she was conscious. “Hmmm?”
“Nel, hey.” The words were as soft as he could make them. “We slept all night.” The first restful sleep he’d gotten in over a week.
She blinked back at him, echoing the movements of his own stirring moments earlier. “Mmm. So?” She shut her eyes again and settled herself on his chest, as if to show how plain her intent to stay put was. “‘S’okay. I like sleeping in.”
Merron chuckled. “Yeah,” he reminded her. “But Kyan should be back.”
Kyan should have been back days ago, he didn’t add.
Nel heaved a deep sigh, like a gust of wind whipping over desert sandstone.
“Mmmm. Okay. Okay,” she acquiesced, slowly beginning to shift herself off of him.
Every grain of silicate in him seemed to hum as he watched her move, and he smiled. Bahamut’s scales, but he loved her.
And Kyan would come back today, he told himself. And they could meet with Zairah, and this interruption to their plans would be over.
Today, he decided, would be a good day.
He’d always loved Nel, since the moment of their first meeting.
He could still picture her as she was then, before she was a ‘she’ at all: shorter and slimmer and flat-chested, as all orelings were before they grew into their chosen shape. All energy and laughter, all dangerous smiles and taunts and dares.
She was always braver than he was, always, and spoiling for a fight, even when it wasn’t needed. Even when it got her in trouble.
And when Achnelia grew into hips that swerved and breasts that swelled, taking on a shape that said more more more in the same way her spirit did, his feeling for her grew beyond what he’d ever dreamed possible.
“I love you,” he told her finally. Just those three words, because he didn’t know any other words for it.
“I love you, too,” she said, not leaving a second for silence to land between them.
He felt his heart tossed up like a boulder, only for it crash back to the ground when she kept speaking.
“But I don’t want to… you know…” She shrugged uncomfortably, eyes darting away. “Lie with you.”
He thought of the hot rivulets of gold that would seep from the veined deposits between his legs, unbidden, unexpected, when he dreamt of her body, and cast his eyes down in shame.
“I don’t want to lie with anyone,” Nel added quickly, simply.
And her words did reassure him, for such things were far from unknown among their kind.
Once long ago, Bahamut freed the Auricars from their creators, the dark ones who would have kept them as slaves forever, and gave them the gift of their own creation: the act of Free Forging.
Their conception was no longer in the hands of outsiders, and the arrival of that sacred ritual brought with it a beautiful complication: no being—Auricar or otherwise—could control how any of them would turn out, what they would look like or grow into, who or how they would love.
And there was a brilliance in that, the surprise of it all. To be Free Forged was to shape your own destiny, and in turn be shaped by it. To be fixed and fluid at once, to be mountain stone and river silt both. Everyone was free to become who they were. It was at the heart of what it meant to be a unbound Auricar.
As such, it was not uncommon for their kind to want to experience pleasure with one another—as was not wanting to.
Her admission of her lack of desire made him feel a little less foolish.
But as he saw it, it didn’t solve any problems.
He’d thought they were made for one another. How could that be true now, if their needs were so ill-aligned?
“I still want to be in a quarry with you,” she said softly, as if reading his thoughts, so plainly written in the lines of worry carving themselves into his face.
“But what will I do?” he asked, voice straining. “When… when I want…”
He gestured vaguely toward his hips, and felt heat explode in his chest and belly, as though his insides had suddenly become molten.
“You’ll find someone else.” She sounded so sure of herself, and when he raised his eyes to look on her face again, to tell her no, that simply wouldn’t be possible, she was smiling. “They can be in our quarry, too.”
He shook his head. It was a nice thought... But no.
He could never love anyone else like he loved her.
Of course, it turned out she was right.
Kyan was of the Marlstone tribe, strangers who came from across the Shatterspine Mountains and settled in their forest valley in the spring of Merron’s 43rd year.
The stone of his make was as blue as the bright mid morning sky, and his personality was every bit as expansive.
Merron stepped into friendship with him unreservedly, but quickly found himself falling fast into affection with the man—in a rather literal sense.
A mountain top walk turned game of catch-if-you-can sent tremor after tremor through the earth, each seismic footfall striking the cliffside with unnatural power, until finally the ground beneath them gave way; the ensuing rockslide caught them up in its path, carrying them down as they laughed all the while. They came to rest at last in a pile of rubble, tangled in each other’s arms.
It was suddenly too much. The metallic brush of Kyan’s locks and beard, the rumble of his laughter, the deep-but-bright forest air smell of him: each irresistible aspect of the man was too close, too perfect. Merron had to say something, right now.
Thigh-soaked and growing harder by the second, he drew back fractionally, just enough to look Kyan in his glistening aventurine eyes.
“I… I want—”
Like the fall, the kiss happened so fast Merron didn’t see it coming. At first it was eager and needy—a release for them both—then grew more gentle, playful: a moment of quiet exploration, of the simple bliss of mutual desire.
Kyan pulled away at last, staring back at Merron with hooded eyes and a satisfied smile.
“You want…?” he asked, prompting.
Merron couldn't remember what he—that other version of him from only a minute ago, who hadn’t been kissed, whose world hadn’t been turned completely upside down—was going to say.
“I want you,” he blurted out, finally, desperately, letting the covering he’d shaped for himself recede back into his hips, trying not to wince at the sudden exposure.
But as Kyan drew his gaze down, his eyes seemed to glow with delight.
“Good,” he smirked, wrapping strong fingers around the base of Merron’s cock, gripping him through the glistening slick and wringing a resonant moan from him.
“Very good,” Kyan praised, seemingly pleased with his work. “But. Well. You’re going to have to be a little more specific than that.”
Merron’s eyes shot open at the objection, terrified he’d somehow made a misstep, only to be astonished by what he saw.
Wet with liquid silver, the slit at the join between Kyan's legs was… more than inviting, if a bit unexpected.
Saliva pooled in Merron’s mouth, but before he could get a word out, Kyan raised an eyebrow.
In little more than the space of a breath, his gorgeous cunt shifted and ebbed away, spiralling up, reforming into a shaft not unlike Merron's own—and every bit as hard.
By the dragon's talons.
Auricars were natural shifters, true. Clothes, weapons, instruments—all could be formed from the same matter that made up their bodies.
But it had never once occurred to Merron to change a part of him.
“Just… be yourself,” Merron finally sputtered, realizing some kind of input would be needed for his further participation.
Kyan threw his head back and laughed.
“I’m always myself. But there’ll be time to experiment.”
Mercifully, he seemed to sense the helplessness suddenly enveloping Merron, a result of his passion colliding with his inexperience and indecision. With a smile and a caress more heather than stone, he drew Merron's hand down to his cock.
“Why don’t we try this for now?”
Merron would have worried about what to say to Nel about Kyan—how to broach the subject, what exactly to tell her, what it would mean for all of them—if he'd had time.
Instead, Nel took one look at the two of them together, her eyes lighting up with secondhand joy, and fairly flew into Kyan's arms, hugging him tightly.
They got on, as their dear human friend Zairah was fond of saying, like a house on fire.
Not that Merron had ever been in a wooden house before—or a house at all.
But heat? All-consuming intensity, burning out of control? He was beginning to understand that rather well.
Some evenings, after teaching the orelings all day with Nel, Merron would barely set foot in their home, intent on repose, only to be ambushed by Kyan and dragged to the ground, his (admittedly faint and not entirely sincere) protests dissolving into soft sighs and moans.
Other times, after a marathon love making session with Kyan, Nel would reappear at just the right moment, and all three of them would stay up until the dawn, playing games, telling stories and talking about their pasts.
Kyan’s arrival did nothing to impair his love for Nel, and in fact, only deepened it, revealing new facets of it he’d never seen before.
And Kyan’s playfulness seemed to delight Nel in both her kind and more wicked moods, as well as providing her some relief that Merron would be cared for at times and in ways she couldn’t provide.
They were a quarry now, a real quarry—not as big as the one that had raised him, but perfect and warm and complete, and he couldn’t imagine wanting for more.
Kyan had just slipped another finger inside Merron, gently tugging Merron’s balls away from his body with his other hand, gliding a knuckle over the skin just behind them, when Merron heard soft steps just beyond the wall they’d formed at the glade’s edge to hide them from prying eyes.
Torn between feeling and fear, moaning even as he cast his eyes toward the entrance of their home for the night, Merron caught sight of Achnelia as she stood there in silence, watching them, wide-eyed.
“Nel! I—I didn’t expect—”
Kyan froze, while Merron’s instinct was to immediately sit up, to pull away—as if he wasn’t naked and covered in his own gilded wetness.
Nel immediately threw up an open-palmed hand, shaking her head. “No, no… please don’t stop on my account. In fact... ” She smiled at them. “Maybe I could… stay?”
Thankfully Kyan was more poised to answer than Merron. “Of course.”
Nel crossed to Merron, kneeling at his side. He could only imagine the shock in his eyes that prompted Nel’s awkward laugh.
“What? You’re both very pretty and happen to be in my bed.”
Kyan chuckled, settling back into position. “He really likes having his hair pulled. If you feel so inclined.”
Merron could only gape as Nel cooed, easily lifting his head and settling it in her lap. “That, I can do.”
Staring up at her, her head wreathed in the blushing colors of the setting sun, watching her smile, Merron couldn’t find the words. “Nel… I…”
She stroked his forehead, her touch imbued such tenderness, such a deep, rich knowledge of him it only stunned him further. “Relax,” she laughed softly. “It’s only me.”
He felt his golden locks twirling and coiling between her delicate fingers, and his voice was thick when he finally spoke again.
“I love you,” he said. Just those three words, because he still hadn’t learned any others that could come close to describing what he felt.
“I love you,” she whispered. Looking down the length of Merron’s body, she smiled warmly at Kyan as well. “And you, too.”
Kyan nodded solemnly for just a moment before grinning wolfishly at Merron and running a finger up the underside of his cock, while Nel gave his hair a ruthless yank.
It was all Merron could do to keep from coming then and there.
Suddenly thrilled with her new role, Nel laughed savagely, involved yet apart, delighted at both her vantage point and her power.
“Steady, Mer,” she cackled, pulling his locks again, “You’re done for now.”
Letting his eyes fall shut, Merron reflected that it wasn’t a bad way to go.
Nel and Kyan had long since fallen asleep, the former wrapped in Merron’s arms, the latter scooping him up from behind.
But he couldn’t manage to doze off; he could barely make himself close his eyes.
How could he possibly sleep through a miracle?
Their gentle breathing was calming and restful enough even without sleep, a living wonder he was somehow blessedly a part of, and as he lay quietly, he felt something new flowering within him. New... but also ancient, instinctual.
He had everything from Kyan and Nel, and they had all of him… But now Merron found himself wanting just a bit more.
Like happy laughter, and the uneven sound of unsteady little stone learning how to walk.
Their quarry suddenly felt incomplete in the most blissful way possible.
By dawn, his cheeks were sore from smiling; he couldn’t wait for his quarry to wake up.
It was a formality, really: consulting with Zairah and asking for Bahamut’s blessing before a quarry began the Forging process.
More than obtaining permission, the audience with their friend the priestess was a declaration of intent, and an announcement of the creation of new life to the larger tribe. Not to mention, it represented the beginning of a time for celebration. And with Kyan and Nel in his life, Merron had every reason to celebrate.
He’d been involved in several Forging ceremonies—they all had. But this rite—this child, he though, stomach fluttering—would be theirs: a fruition of their affection, their love given form.
When news reached them that Basalt, Zairah’s escort through the mountain pass, failed to meet her for her autumnal visit, a cold stab of dread tore mercilessly through his joy. Nel tried to calm him—steady, he reminded himself of her newly chosen mantra for him—but he couldn’t shake the sense that something terrible was there, just beyond their senses, waiting for them.
Two weeks after Basalt’s disappearance, the Shatterspine tribe’s council moved to create a small patrol corps to survey the mountains for their missing member, and to report back on the strange rumblings they were all beginning to feel from the earth’s crust.
“You don’t have to do this,” Merron grumbled to Kyan’s back as he watched his lover practicing a few swings with his maul, newly shaped from his own body.
Their tribe had always practiced certain martial skills, more as an art form than out of any sort of necessity.
In his younger years, Merron had been rather disappointed by the lack of combat they’d experienced; he dreamed of defending his home and his quarry’s honor in some great battle.
Now the merest shadow of a threat calling his love away into the mountains had sent his mood into a downward spiral.
“I should have volunteered.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Kyan reassured, letting the weapon dissolve back into his palm. “Gravel-brained fool probably got lost.” Spinning back to face Merron, he tried what was clearly his most nonchalant look. “I’ll be back before you know I’m gone, pebble.”
“I’m not a pebble,” Merron grumped. As soon as he said it, though, he wanted take it back. He never bristled at any of Kyan’s terms of endearment before. In fact, he adored them.
But the idea of being left behind wounded him in a way he’d never anticipated. He felt smaller than he ever thought possible, as useless as a stone at the bottom of the ocean.
Kyan’s hands were on his face, then, pulling his chin up as soothing kisses were pressed to his eyes, cheeks, and finally his lips.
“You’re my pebble,” Kyan said fondly, his green eyes fixed solely on Merron. “Be well, my love.”
The scheduled week of the group’s reconnaissance mission was difficult on both Nel and Merron, but they managed, each doing their best to hold the other up.
The days after, each one seeming to drag on endlessly with no sign of the scouting party’s return, were harder.
After acting particularly irritable at their evening meal, Nel snapped at Merron, sending him stalking off into the woods in a huff.
He came back after the stars had appeared to find Nel waiting for him, looking as miserable as he felt.
They apologized immediately, then spent the entire night releasing their hopes and fears, burning through the night hours with whispered conversation, much like they did in their childhoods, only now their main topic of discussion was the one they both missed, and how they longed for his return.
Exhausted but ultimately hopeful, sleep finally took them both.
The Dawn Chimes were long over by the time he and Nel made their way outside to face the day.
He was little more than a few steps beyond the confines of their stone shelter when he was nearly struck by a rock the size of an apple. It struck the front wall of their home instead; Merron tensed up, immediately on alert. What was happening? Were they under attack?
But the crash of impact was followed almost immediately by laughter and gasps, and a cry of admonishment in a high voice.
“KAOLIN! You almost hit Merron!”
Their students were far more energetic they were this morning apparently.
The children, Montane and Kaolin, siblings, both sand-colored and small for their age, burst through the brush. Kaolin skidded to a halt, Montane crashing into their back. Both looked abashed at nearly smashing into him with their plaything.
“Sorry, Merron,” Kaolin mumbled, making a half circle in the grass with their feet.
Laughing, pleased for once that his instincts were so wrong, Merron knelt to retrieve their toy, tossing it back them.
“It’s fine. Just be a little more careful next time.”
Joining him just in time to hear their shouted thank you as they sprinted away, Nel moved to him, slipping her arms around his torso.
“Gods,” she sighed into his back, sounding like she was smiling, “You’re ready for this.”
Merron didn’t have to ask what she meant, watching the space where the kids had run off, squeezing her hands.
“Aren’t you?” he asked.
“Of course. But you’re made for this.” She sighed, interlacing her fingers with his. “We just need Kyan to come back.”
As if her words were more invocation than idle chit chat, a faint tremor rang up from the ground; both Nel and Merron knew the feel of it immediately, intimately. There was no one else it could be.
“...Speaking of which,” Nel said, releasing him. He turned to her, but she waved him off before he could ask permission. “Go, go,” she laughed, “I’m still waking up.”
Merron kissed the top of her head, then turned and ran down the mountain pass as fast as he could.
He expected, once his own steps were reverberating through the cliffside, for Kyan to feel them and pick up his pace.
He expected see his lover’s face cresting the rocky formations with every ascent he made, for Kyan to call out to him in relief and excitement.
None of those things happened.
He slowed his pace, refocusing on the vibrations rippling through the earth; it became increasingly clear that there was something… wrong about Kyan’s steps. It was undoubtedly him, but the gait was a little too light, and strangely syncopated.
Merron broke into a run again, his strides pummeling the mountainside.
Was Kyan hurt? Where was the rest of the party? What in the world had happened?
He was about call out, to scream Kyan’s name into the quiet of the morning, when just over the next ridge Merron caught sight of him, and gasped.
Some fifty paces up the path, standing with shoulders hunched, his limbs all at fractionally wrong angles, Kyan looked… broken in a way Merron couldn’t explain, but could certainly feel, a nameless terror twisting deep into his gut.
He stopped in his tracks, sliding to halt, just breathing, waiting for some reaction from his love. None came.
Unable to take another step and unable to look away, Merron finally called to him.
Kyan raised his head slowly, as though he had some vague recollection of that combination of sounds.
And as beams of the dawn rays caught his face, Merron saw it. Even at that distance, it was unmistakable: a horror he wished he couldn’t see, that he knew he’d never forget.
Kyan’s eyes... were gone.