There's only this much walking on the edge of the knife before your feet start bleeding.
The last few weeks swam past Viren's eyes in a dizzying vertigo of triumph and despair. He has been imprisoned and shortly after mercifully freed by the child prince – child king – he never expected to see alive again. His own children were back home, but their return (miraculous, as it turned out, in Soren's case) was marked by a string of failures that pushed Viren's world into the murky waters of the darkest scenario possible. Much as he felt guilty about it, he couldn't help quietly seething as he held Soren and Claudia to his chest – a fact that hadn't escaped their attention, judging by Soren's silence and Claudia's refusal to look him in the eye.
The one unexpected spark of hope was the horn Claudia brought back from the expedition. At first the best use Viren could see for it was a leverage in talks with general Amaya and her forces. A dragon breaching the borders of Katolis should be treated as nothing less than a declaration of war. He knew that if he could just reach into Amaya's heart, to that hidden spot that held all her contempt for the creatures that killed the queen, she'd agree to form an alliance – even if it meant going against the new king's will.
What he didn't expect at all was the startled gasp as he entered, the dungeon that held Thunder's magical mirror, horn in hand. Ever since the prison incident, the Aarapod lodged firmly inside his ear, forming a near–permanent connection to the Startouch elf. This proved cumbersome on many occasions, even after Viren got the impulse to scratch his ear to a bloody pulp under control. All the sudden noises Aaravos made – of which there were surprisingly many – always seemed to come out of nowhere and caused him to reflexively scowl. This time was no different.
"What is it?" he said, not even bothering with greetings.
"Let me see that horn." Aaravos was, likewise, uninterested in pleasantries – which on his part was actually unusual. Viren approached the mirror gingerly and held out the sizeable horn for the elf to inspect.
"Is it real?" Aaravos asked after a moment, eyes still glued to the horn.
"According to my children, yes. They fought a dragon and managed to injure him thus."
The falter in his voice was jarring to his own ears, but luckily the elf seemed absorbed with something else entirely. After another, longer pause, he finally raised his eyes at Viren, the intensity of his gaze making the man shiver.
"You said," he spoke slowly, as if every word carried an enormous weight, "that the mirror is covered in symbols. What I could see from your rendition seemed familiar, remember?"
Viren did remember clearly, the struggle to copy the complex symbols in their entirety and their shared bafflement as Aaravos in turn struggled to put them together in his mind, whether due to their own power or that of the mirror. It was obvious for both that they were dealing with incredibly ancient magic and at that point felt decisively overpowered. Viren failed to see connection between that event and the horn he held in his hands. Unless...
"Dragon runes," he gasped.
"Yes. A form more ancient that I initially suspected, from way before the dragons' native language mingled with elvish dialects and lost its original form."
Confusion must have been apparent on Viren's face, as Aaravos' expression broke into a smirk.
"You see, the problem with dragons, elves and dragon runes is that elves would have tremendous difficulties in etching signs into rocks with these," he said, pointing to his horns, "which is why dragons obliged us and assumed a less... extravagant method of expression. At the cost of the power that resided in genuine dragon runes."
"Which is?" said Viren, trying to speed up the conversation. He really had neither time nor will to participate in extended lectures on dead languages.
"Whatever is written with a dragon's horn gains magical power, whether it's a promise, a curse or, in our case, a seal." Aaravos walked closer to the mirror, fingers poised softly against its surface. Viren resisted the urge to raise his own hand and match the shimmering fingertips. "And the only thing that can alter or undo such inscription–"
"–is another dragon horn."
A shiver ran down Viren's spine and straight into his fingers, forcing them to squeeze tightly around the precious object. For all the failure and humiliation he endured, this was almost a sufficient reward. He held the key to the mirror. To the world beyond the mirror and the entity of seemingly infinite power residing within it. Infinite power, bound to him by the ties of the blood pact, that he could now unleash to do his bidding.
Unfortunately for that entity, Viren was no fool.
Aaravos promised servitude and truth, yet all the help he provided thus far ended up harming Viren rather than truly aiding him. And as the king's advisor – former advisor, he corrected himself bitterly – he had seen and heard enough honey–coated promises to spot a tang of bitter poison hidden underneath. He might've been desperate when he formed the blood pact, but while his situation hadn't exactly improved, he still wouldn't regard freeing Aaravos as wise.
After what they've been through, after all the conversations lasting deep into the night and the morning beyond that, there might've been shades of understanding between them – but most certainly no trust.
"... We might get only one chance at doing this. Unfortunately, due to my particular circumstances, the onus of deciphering the runes falls on you."
Viren's thoughts drowned out all of Aaravos' monologue. For some reason, couldn't bring himself to look up, even as the elf paused.
"I will... consider it."
He owed Aaravos nothing. If anything, Aaravos was indebted to him for finding the mirror in the first place – otherwise he might've ended up rotting forever in Thunder's ransacked cave.
There was no reason for his stomach to coil as he left the cell without another word.
Maybe sitting around that mirror passed its curse onto him, Viren thought, rubbing the bridge of his nose. The more he looked at the runes, the less sense they made.
He didn't exactly have to do this. Probably. Nobody was forcing him to do anything about the runes or the mirror, but he began to think that in itself was a problem. He'd rather be ordered around in this respect.
Not that Viren was an indecisive man – the burden of responsibility was simply too great to shoulder on his own, even for him. But there was nobody to give the decisive command. Harrow was... gone, and the young future king had better things to do, apparently (which at least meant Viren could move around the castle somewhat freely – providing he disregarded the many hateful glances and whispers surrounding him at every step).
Meanwhile, Aaravos had been mum ever since Viren left his cell. The prolonged silence, while refreshing at first, now seemed to leave a constant, insistent buzz in his ears. Viren would have lied if he said he missed the elf's voice, but he had grown used to it enough to be acutely aware of its absence.
To hell with the runes, he stopped making sense to himself.
The door to his study clicked open, then was nudged wider as Claudia stepped in with a tray, on top of which sat two steaming goblets.
"You look tired, dad, so how about some of my Hot Black Morning Potion? Freshly brewed. Or in case you're not up for it, I also got herbal tea."
Viren's stomach coiled unpleasantly for the umpteenth time this week. Claudia was trying so hard to be her usual, energetic self; yet there was no way to hide the shades under her eyes or the strain in her smile. Viren had already talked to her – tried to talk to her about Soren's accident, but all he got was evading answers and a pile of "all's well that ends well"s. He was afraid to think just how extensive the original damage was to take such an enormous toll on his daughter – a dark magic prodigy, if he has ever seen one.
The poorly glamoured lock of hair in her fringe seemed to taunt him.
Examining Soren would yield some definite answers, surely, but Viren's son was particularly elusive these days; he left home early each morning, came late and excused himself to bed on the account of fatigue, only to be gone the next day before the first rays of sunlight hit the windows.
Viren might've not been a stellar example of parental care, but he knew his son. How, for all his bravado and poise, Soren was a fragile child who, when faced with trouble, would rather push them away than mull them over and over in his head endlessly until he's not able to do anything else. Right after Soren and Claudia's mother left, there wasn't a week without Viren returning home late to find Soren quietly sobbing curled in her favourite armchair, refusing to return to his own bed. Viren would scoop him up and carry him to his own quarters, then spend the night wide awake as his son's clinging prevented him from finding a comfortable position for his injured leg. How long has it been now?
"Dad, if you keep zoning out on me like this, I'll start to worry for real."
Viren sighed and gently pushed away Claudia's hand waving in front of his eyes.
"It's fine, I'm just tired." He looked at the two goblets. "I'll keep both of them if you don't mind."
"Not at all, they're all yours. I guess I'll be going then, bye!"
"Claudia," he called out as she was halfway through the door. "I need you to help me with something."
The sudden tension in her back made him choke on words. What has he done...?
"Yes, dad?" she asked, not turning to face him.
"Could you fetch me as many books on ancient draconic as you can find? I'm not exactly welcomed at the library anymore."
The librarian used to be quite abrasive with him even when he was on good terms with the court at large – lending towers of books every time and forcing her to stay behind and keep an eye on him in the reading room probably had something to do with it. Nowadays she actively worked against him, making it absolutely impossible to find anything in the vast archives. Perhaps, just perhaps, she'd be kinder to Claudia. Maybe even pity her.
"Sure! I mean, sure. On it. Any specific requests?"
"Dictionaries. Anything resembling a dictionary."
"Leave it to me!" she tapped her nose and was gone before Viren managed to say another word.
He must have dozed off after she left. No, not dozed off, fallen into some sort of trance. The things around him slowly began to lose the definition possessed by real, tangible objects and before he knew, he was suspended in a world of glass. Glass walls surrounded him on all sides, glass light bounced off the translucent surfaces, creating unreal fractals beneath his fingertips. Was that what his life had become? Everything, everyone turning unreal. Fragile. He could imagine reaching out to Claudia... Soren... Harrow... and shattering them, shards digging into his skin, drawing out red, translucent pieces of glass of his own.
When Viren came to, there was a fresh stack of books on his desk, with a little note pinned on top:
Hang in there, dad!
As this sign remains intact, so this door remains unmoved.
It was a rough translation, but the best one Viren could come up with on such short notice. As long as it put the text's point across, it was sufficient.
Unfortunately, while Claudia supplied him with both reference materials and a hefty dose of critical thinking, she couldn't resolve the biggest dilemma in the whole equation: Viren was still in two minds about allowing the portal to open. Worse still, it seemed Aaravos caught up on his hesitation and, while he said nothing, the space between them brimmed with an intense feeling of... something. Anger, most likely. With a tinge of... fear? Disappointment? Viren brushed all these thoughts aside, concluding that this was one of the worst moments to contemplate the degrees of emotional complexity among elves.
Facts remained facts, whether Aaravos liked it or not. And all this time Viren was searching – hoping, almost – for clear signs of betrayal on the elf's part. An echo of the force that Aaravos shared with him being reused to control his actions; phantom movements in the corner of his eye suggesting a stealthily cast charm, through the damned worm perhaps. Yet the voices that kept Viren awake at night – spurring him to action, whispering that he had no other options left anymore – were nobody's but his own.
Perhaps, he thought descending the dungeon stairs, every step feeling like treading barefoot on glass, perhaps his defeat was inevitable from the start. In which case maybe it's actually better to end it all at one fell swoop.
If history was out to judge his actions, Viren honestly doubted he'd survive long enough to comment on its forgone wisdoms.
No words were exchanged as he entered the mirror cell. Aaravos had largely lost interest in Viren's actions, apparently convinced that their collaboration hit a dead end; he didn't even raise his head from a book he must've read a thousand times over already. The elf's flippant behaviour ignited a new flame in Viren: how dared he look away from him now that he had the key to the mirror. How dared he ignore him after all the hard work Viren poured into figuring out the ancient magic that bound Aaravos to his prison.
Some part of Viren wanted to free the elf just to trap him inside a coin for this insolence.
As it were, he stepped up to the mirror – still completely ignored by its occupant. From what he understood from Claudia's ramblings, dragons held themselves in such high esteem that even their words were crafted to convey their deeper understanding of the surrounding world (or, to quote Claudia verbatim: "Puns! They liked puns! And not of the 'knock, knock' sort, the ones that make you go 'huh?' and then wake up in the middle of the night three years later and groan so hard everyone runs thinking it's an actual dragon... Or you're just sort of bloated after the boomberry picking season. Shrug."). Which is why deciphering the inscription was only step one. The harder part was to understand and make good use of it.
Viren's hold on the dragon horn, hidden for safety under several layers of cloth, tightened. 'One chance', Aaravos said before. He had only one chance to break a thousand–year old spell conjured by the greatest of dragons that had ever lived in human memory.
The dragon slain with his own two hands, Viren reminded himself, unwrapping the horn's tip.
Swallowing hard, he held the horn up like a dagger and aimed it at a specific part of the inscription. 'This sign'. If altering any part of the inscription was supposed to break the barrier, there's only one choice, really. Ignoring the movement in the corner of his eye, he lunged forward, pouring all of his physical strength in that one, precise stab.
Several sounds hit Viren's ears at the same time. The crack of the horn breaking on the frame; the deafening crash of shattering glass; Aaravos' shout to stand back. All drowned out by the light so brilliant it consumed all senses.
Viren rose from the floor – when did he fall down? – shaking, covered in dust. His eyes caught Aaravos' across the room and for a split second his only thought was 'not ignoring me now, are you?'. Only then did he realise what they were both looking at. Mirror shards were filling the whole room, suspended in thin air, rotating slowly, reflecting the flickers of torch lights and the glimmer of fake sunlight from beyond the mirror. Viren felt the urge to shout in triumph rising within his chest, but something about the scene didn't feel right.
Aaravos was still standing behind the frame, frozen on the spot, his face contorted not in triumph, but in seething, hopeless rage. Taken aback, Viren was about to call him out on it, when he felt a tug at his shirt. One of the shards that lodged between the folds of his sleeve freed itself and floated back towards the mirror. Each shard it passed gained the same sort of sentience. Soon, Viren could only helplessly observe the mirror reforming itself exactly as it was before, smooth and completely impenetrable.
Viren stumbled forward. The thoughts racing through his head, of magical fire raining from heavens and knives glistening in the shadows, blended in one indistinct buzz in his ears. The silhouette behind the mirror looked paper–thin. Unreal. It was as if he was staring at the world through Soren's broken kaleidoscope – a single blotch of indistinct colour at the end of a long black tunnel.
"I–" he felt his jaw move, but the sound came from somewhere beyond him.
He tripped and grabbed at the mirror's frame with the force that made the whole thing quiver. His gaze fell onto the remains of the dragon horn – now completely useless – that must've found their way under his foot.
They were lodged halfway between the cell and Aaravos' study.
It took Viren a moment to figure out what he was looking at, and when he did, he still couldn't comprehend the meaning of what he saw. Looking for something, anything, to anchor his mind on, he looked at the mirror frame and found the rune he attacked before simmering faintly beneath his fingers.
'As this sign remains intact'.
'Intact' could also translate to 'untouched'.
Did he really never...? No, he must have...! Then again, what magic user would willingly touch ancient, possibly cursed runes without knowing what they meant. Completely at a loss, Viren turned his gaze to the other person present – only to find Aaravos in the exact state he was in.
Well, that was rare.
Aaravos' gaze was heavy with emotions Viren didn't feel capable of unpacking, but somehow understood them anyway. After the false hope that felt so real just seconds ago, the glass barrier being removed didn't seem possible at all. Yet here they were, transfixed by the proximity that suddenly became more real than anything either of them experienced in a long time. Possibly ever.
A movement in the corner of Viren's eye. Aaravos raising one of his hands, skin shimmering in fake sunlight, breath hitching as his fingers rest on the glass – no, where the glass should've been. He keeps them suspended in what was now mid-air, as his whole presence shifts before Viren's eyes, from menacing to nervous. So entrancingly open and vulnerable that it halts Viren's breath. Without thinking, he raises his own free hand to meet Aaravos halfway.
The shared pressure feels like a heartbeat.
Viren didn't have time to think if these words were spoken or thought – his back's already against the wall and the... creature he released is at his throat, teeth grazing the vulnerable spot just above his pulsing veins.
This is where all of Viren's mistakes come to a head. This is where he dies.
The teeth don't pierce hard enough to tear his throat out; the hands search for skin rather than blood. And Viren's own hands, instead of pushing away, pull the intruder closer, clawing at the shabby cloak on his back. Aaravos' skin is cool like the surface of the mirror, but supple and undeniably real beneath Viren's fingers and he's quickly losing himself in the sensation that should be familiar despite the flow of time – but is brutally yanked down, literally, by his bad leg giving out.
When the blinding pain subsides, his vision is filled by unkempt silvery hair and dark skin peppered with unknown constellations. Aaravos' eyes above him look like twin eclipses, pupils blown wide and surrounded by a thin golden halo. Viren can see himself, see the same hunger reflected back and forth between them, growing with each second of delay.
"Bed," he rasps out, barely recognising the sound of his own voice.
Climbing through the hidden passages was never pleasant. Even less so when accompanied by an elf who couldn't keep his hands away from you even for a fraction of a second. Not that Viren was any better. Aaravos' presence was intoxicating and only focusing on his aching leg kept Viren focused on their final destination.
It wasn't his bedroom, strictly speaking, but Viren knew it was both unoccupied and secluded, the secret passage being its only entrance. He supposed its original purpose was similar to what he and his... companion had in mind, but all history trivia dropped out of his mind as soon as his back hit the sheets, raising a cloud of dust, and was immediately pressed further down by Aaravos' body.
It made no sense for his weight to feel familiar, comforting almost. He was nothing like Viren's former wife, not even remotely similar to Harrow – back in the days when the king allowed for such intimacies – and yet the elf fit seamlessly within Viren's frame. Aaravos' insistent fingers undid the clasps of Viren's tunic with one swipe, then immediately took to work, mapping every inch with seemingly unquenchable need to just feel. Viren allowed for that without a second thought, too lost among the stars to stop and think. It felt as if the night sky draped itself over him, keeping the rest of the world behind an invisible barrier.
Before long their clothes were entirely gone, leaving their naked bodies free for exploration. Viren's arousal battled with exhaustion as he slid one hand between Aaravos' legs. He could not see, but what he felt there was certainly new. He could feel something akin to tiny, soft tendrils instinctively curling around each of his fingers; when he rubbed them together, Aaravos shuddered against him, letting out a cry. Viren stopped immediately, startled.
Aaravos' head was tucked in the crook of Viren's neck, long hair fluttering everywhere; his ragged panting was leaving Viren's neck and shoulder moist with perspiration, now joined by thick drops of another liquid. Tears?
The elf made an indistinct nod–shake, but the movement of his hips left no room for guessing. Whatever Viren was doing before, Aaravos wanted more of it. And Viren obliged, aggravating the tendrils until they swelled up, until Aaravos was completely reduced to a sobbing, clawing mess beneath his hands, mumbling something in his own language between shallow gasps. When Viren made no sign of understanding, he seemed to have gathered all the coherence that was left in him to translate:
"Go... in... me..." Aaravos gasped out, as if ascribing meaning to each of these sounds was nearly beyond his capabilities.
If he had any presence of mind at that point, Viren would congratulate himself the restraint of not coming at the suggestion alone. As it were, he just nodded and let himself be guided along, quivering tendrils coiling around his shaft and pressing it inside Aaravos' body in shaky, uneven thrusts, gaining momentum with each gasp until the pace was close to maddening, denying him release way beyond Viren's normal breaking point and finally, mercifully letting him spend himself in a blinding wave of sensations, Aaravos' body glowing around him like the heart of a star.
Viren suspected some kind of magic was at work during their exchange. A man his age, even deprived of intimacy for an extended period of time, would not be able to come as many times as he had in a single night.
As he lay on the dusty bed, still trying to gather his wits and even out his breath, he wondered what exactly he had gotten himself into. Something dangerous, of that he was certain. Possibly lethal. And surprisingly – although it pained him to admit it, even before himself – fulfilling.
It cost him the remainder of his strength to turn his head and face Aaravos. The elf lay sprawled in a messy heap, the lights on his body still glimmering faintly, wisps of hair crossing them like falling stars. The look he sent Viren was still that of hunger, but for now his desires seemed satisfied. Something suspiciously like a smirk was tugging at the corner of his lips.
He looked utterly, breathtakingly beautiful.
There's only this much walking on the edge of the knife before your feet start bleeding – and Viren was already left completely drained and discarded. So maybe, just maybe, it was fine to give up and forget about the pressure and the many regrets. It was fine to lay down and have this – something selfish, some temporary lull in the centre of a storm. A moment when even he'd be forgiven for letting his guard down and drifting away into darkness, holding onto a silver lock of hair like a drowning man holds onto a lifeline.
Aaravos woke up in darkness, in a bed with a scent and a texture. He rose slowly, savouring every rustle of the sheets, every dip of the mattress. As he tiptoed to the window, he could feel the dust in the air moving around him, framing every step; the coolness of the floor beneath his feet, the coarse wood of the chair he grazed in passing. When he rested his hands on the cold stone, he could feel a surge of emotions that made his vision swim. Below him there was a thriving, living land, stretching off towards the horizon, shrouded in the most glorious night sky he had ever seen.
So much time had passed since Aaravos was trapped in the mirror that many of the stars shifted their positions; but even the sight of this new, unfamiliar night sky felt to him like unexpectedly meeting an old friend at the end of a long journey.
He was free.
If nothing else, this proved beyond doubt that humans, however insignificant and overlooked, could deliver in the most dire of circumstances. And speaking of humans...
Aaravos turned away from the sky to look at his new companion. Viren was wearing a different set of clothes and dozing off in a chair, curiously unwilling to share the bed where they consumed their new union not so long ago. Ridiculous prudishness on his part, but one that could be excused – after all, Aaravos was still far from earning the man's full trust.
Chuckling to himself, he plucked a tiny gust of wind from outside and sent it to curl around Viren's ear. As expected, the man was startled awake immediately, almost falling off the chair in the process. He looked towards the window with anger that quickly subsided into an interesting mixture of fear and awe. Aaravos didn't need to ask for the reasons behind that change; he could acutely feel the starlight at work, reaching beyond time to envelop him in the phantom of his former greatness. Still, he couldn't help smiling at Viren's expression. How many times more does he get to surprise his human like this? The prospect was... quite thrilling.
Of course, there was also the issue of a cloying veil of darkness surrounding Viren, ripping his fragile body to shreds without the man realising. A snag in Aaravos' plan, certainly, but not one that could not be taken care of with some gentle ministrations.
All in due time.
For now, he simply let himself enjoy the night, the first of many more to come.