Chapter 1: Ilheo
WARNINGS: This story is 1/3 fantasy epic, 1/3 romance, and 1/3 explicit erotica, including both healthy and unhealthy themes of dominance/submission and occasions of borderline noncon. If any of these things are not your cup of tea...my friend, this would be a good time to turn around.
If you've previously read my work Vhanaiel on fictionpress, you might recognize this as the Vhanaiel rewrite. The changes are pretty big (most notably Vhan's gender change from male to nonbinary), and if anyone is curious, I explain why I decided to make these changes in my FP account posting. I hope you will enjoy this version just as much as, if not more than, the original!
This story began a thousand years ago in the floating castles of Arihazana, when a guardian was born with the black gossamer wings of the night sky. But I begin my telling in a future that no longer exists, because this was where my dead soul woke.
From the sting of their laugh.
The pulse of their skin.
In the final moments of my fragmented sleep, we were in their sprawling silk nest, a bed as soft as clouds and white as snow. The black feathers of their tangled wings shed like blots of ink, foretelling a ruined tale, but I did not see it then. All I knew was their throat beneath my lips, the taste of sunrays and winter, the echoes of their quiet gasps like the willowed storm. The span of their body beneath my hands, soft and hard, broad and curved. The lust of their want beneath my fingers—the slick, soaked wetness of a woman and the thick, pulsing hardness of a man. And those eyes—those eyes like starlight, more brilliant than anything I would ever see in my lifetimes, vibrating with their capricious thrill.
All I knew was holding this beautiful, magnificent being that ruled the skies. Seeing the shadows behind my eyelids as their great wings enshrouded us, only us, only me and them. I wished it were a dream, because then I could have them forever. But it was a memory, and just as our lips touched, they left my arms.
My beautiful lover laughed, an easy sound that thrummed with power. I watched as another man pulled them away from me and held them against the bed, those great wings crumpled beneath their back. It sounded to me that the moan from their lips was more pain than pleasure, but their hands slid around that man's shoulders, caressed with such patient welcome as that man violated their ethereal body, again, again, again. I was empty until our lover looked at me with a hazed smile, the deep night curls of their hair plastering wet to their cheeks. They reached out a hand to me, inviting.
I took it, of course. I wanted them. I loved them. So I would treasure whatever little piece of themself that was offered to me, however brutally I needed to watch the rest be consumed by someone else. Someone bolder, better. Someone whose brilliance matched those starlight eyes.
In the past visitations of this memory, I felt those lips close around me, and I was momentarily satisfied. But this time, the hand I took pulled my soul out of its godless netherworld. The agony halted, and the fragments came whole. I was a spirit still, but I had the sudden cohesive consciousness of a living man.
The first thing I saw, cared to see, was that man. The other one, who took our lover so brutally away. Ate their phenomenal heart and spat out the pieces in a place my cold fingers could not reach.
The fury and heartache consumed me. But I was a wisp, unable to scream my pain.
You, I echoed at him, you.
He stood at the edge of sprawling runes now, the most intricate inscriptions I ever had and ever would see. As daunting and matchless as ever, Daeron of the Rohe, the sorcerer who charmed and ruined a great guardian. The Great Guardian. But his umber hair was matted by blood and sweat, and his copper skin was drained. His eyes had lost their youthful arrogance.
Within the fragments of my restless slumber, I could not tell how much time had passed since my death. Long enough that I was but pieces of memory, a ghost watching glimpses of the living world. Long enough I had gone mad. Certainly, the age of those eyes had been worn by centuries.
That man smiled faintly and said, "It's been quite some time, little brother."
I lashed out. In my current shapeless form, summoned from the Other realm and tethered by his blood, I could only shatter the glass of the lamps and snuff their fire.
Daeron chuckled at my efforts. But it sounded unlike him, tired.
"That's enough now, brother."
It will never be enough. Not for what you did.
"Perhaps, but I'm afraid we don't have time to waste on talk."
Through my swallowing rage, the setting of our meeting registered. He had called me to a stone room, jagged as if cut out of the mountains. The belongings of this room were scattered, ink bottles broken, knives sprawled. Distant screams echoed from a shadowed corridor, awful and shrill. The ground shuddered and debris shook from the uneven ceiling. It seemed as if the structure that we occupied was beginning to fall apart.
A second explosion followed the first rumble, this time a cracking thunder that split the wall.
The man before me sighed.
"That'll be the guardians."
The guardians? What is this? Why have you brought me back?
My unforgivable brother shed his coat. He held a knife to his forearm and sliced deep. The blood fell to the edge of his runes, lured in by the enchanted lines.
"I was wrong. They came for us and we lost. The sorcerers are dead. The high elves are dead. My daughter is dead. In a few moments, I will be dead, and our bloodlines will be dead. The future of magic is over."
He knelt upon the ground and slit his other arm. The blood filled faster, as if racing against time.
"It was my fault. So I'll pay the price to undo this nightmare."
Daeron looked up, his face a ghostly echo of what mine once was.
"I know only one way."
He spoke these words with a familiar respect, undiluted by his crimes. In his eyes I saw the shared, visceral memory of our lover: the hand on his shoulder, the hand taking mine, an untouchable smile upon those selfless lips. A long time ago, I believed those hands and lips and the heart they homed would change the world. I could still feel that rich, trusting pulse. I could still hear the broken screams that echoed across our realms, reaching me even after my death. I could still smell the blood, the tears, the rotting of a beautiful soul.
Long had I wished hell for myself and for the man before me. But on this day in the lost future, he pressed his palms to the crimson runes, and white light of holy ether filled the room as the rocks crumbled. He looked up at me. The last thing I saw before my spirit was ripped back into the void were his tired eyes, full of regret for what they had once destroyed. His words carried through the merciless disintegration, one final request.
"Bring them back, Ilheo. Save us."
This story began a thousand years ago, as magnificent as the sky, by the name Milan Azurasi. But I begin my telling from the dirt of the ground, with a lost, wingless angel named like the ashes of their soul.
Chapter 2: Character/Place Reference List
*This list is incomplete and will be updated as the story progresses.
THE DHANA VERS
Ash: Mercenary of the Dhana Vers; lineage unknown.
Galhenros (Rose): Leader of the Dhana Vers; an exceptionally powerful human sorcerer.
Jesaren (Jes): Human sorcerer in Ash's company; nine decades old.
Lyra: Sixteen year old human girl in Ash's company.
Maure: Dwarven warrior-sorceress; rumored to be several hundred years old.
Paskenate (Pask): Southern elven sorceress, known for her loyalty to Rose; Halek's younger sister.
Halekantar (Halek): Southern elven sorcerer; medic, medium, and scholar of the Vers; Pask's older brother.
Isylas: Western elven sorcerer, known for his affinity for alcohol and nonchalance.
Aiber: Human sorcerer hailing from Palabia, formerly known as the Angel of the Tower.
Euwan: Human sorceress known for her exceptional beauty.
Faroma (Faro): A mute sorcerer known for his size; speculated to have traces of giants' blood.
Berdagoan: Rose's soulbound giant black serpent, a land spirit.
Ilheo of the Rohe: Halfblood human sorcerer affiliated with Ash in the past; Daeron's younger brother; killed at Daeron's hands before the fall of Azurasi.
Daeron of the Rohe: Halfblood human sorcerer affiliated with Ash in the past; Ilheo's older brother; known among the guardians as the Truthsayer.
Sienne Vamothe: Famous alchemist of the southeast, residing in Azhani Jine.
Shan Peninsula: A western peninsula encompassing the warring kingdoms of Gaona and Babei.
Azhani Jine: The exclusive Garnet Isle, famed for its exorbitant luxury, peerless magic, and volcanic firegarnet.
Iskthal Velan: The legendary forest abode of the eastern high elves.
Arihazana: The White Heavens, located above the northern Azukan mountains; the abode of the guardians.
Chapter 3: Part I | Ash & Smoke, Blood & Bone | 1
The musk of autumn cedarwood saturated the morning air, cool as winter, clean as snow. It was a clear day: above, the sky was a gentle blue, sunrays flickering seven colors. Twin birds fluttered by, black silhouettes—high mountain eagles, perhaps, castle visitors carrying wordless missives. Their watcher wished for river lilies to portend another peaceful day—but ah, by the time these flowers reached their hands, who could say if they would still have the breath to distinguish the scent from sweet alyssum?
It was an old dream, after all.
Just the illusion of a dying soul.
"Ash? What are you doing?"
The voice which spoke was soft, worried, gravelled with age. Ash lowered their gaze from the sky to a bloodied woodland, a beheaded corpse to their left, a glassy eye to their right. Thick copper and the piss of the dead wafted away their forest musk, which had never been winterous or cedarwood to begin with.
Sitting against a thick trunk, Ash smiled a lazy smile at the man who had spoken. Despite the health of his stature and the vitality in his eyes, this man's hair had faded to white, and lines had sunken into his sun-kissed skin—Jesaren of the Dulhas, near nine decades into his human life. Blood splattered his cheap mercenary clothes and stained his dulling longsword.
"I was watching the sky," said Ash, "waiting for you."
The softness of these words belied a concerning debility. The man swept his eyes over Ash's body. His gaze landed on a loose, extended leg, which urged him into a worried rush. He sheathed his sword and knelt by Ash, no grace as he tore at the ripped fabric over Ash's thigh. He did not see the pained wince above his head.
"Ah, yes. I was waiting for your magic, to be precise."
Jes braced one hand against Ash's leg and pressed the other palm against their soaked wound. The warmth of ether flowed into their body, dissecting and repairing the damage.
"I thought you'd returned to the backline," said the sorcerer.
"Why would I do that? The battle wasn't over."
"You're reckless. We had none of our own positioned east. If Hafor's battalion of mages hadn't scattered—"
"But they did."
"Look to your left."
Jes paused. He did as instructed, scanning lost for a while, until his gaze abruptly settled upon a severed, decorated head. It was barely familiar, yet unmistakable: the glassy-eyed face of Hafor himself, King of Gaona. The confused frown slipped from Jes's brow, replaced by a parting of his battle-dried lips.
Meanwhile, Ash touched a finger to the man's cheek and pressed away a blood drop there. "Reckless implies I'd no reasonable expectations. I would prefer it called a calculated risk."
Jes turned his gaze away from the enemy king's head, back to Ash. The look on his face was a usual mixture of bafflement, disapproval, and admiration—ever the contradictory set that followed Ash, who smiled and explained those words.
"The battle was not going in our favor, and a window of opportunity opened. You know Rose has been chasing this particular venture's reward for years. I would've hated to disappoint him."
"He's going to kill me when he finds out how much blood you lost."
Ash laughed, lightheaded from the gesture. "Now that's a fight I'd like to see. Blessing against nurture. What do you think, Jes? Shall I bet on you?"
The sorcerer only glared.
Moments later, the wound on Ash's leg sealed. They gave the blue sky one last look before allowing Jes to heave them upright. Blood swam within their skull, bringing present time back in thick doses—the distant realization that the twin birds they'd seen had not been mountain eagles. Peninsular vultures, nothing more.
These vultures flew because corpses littered the field. Ash and Jes recongregated with their mercenary band among a swath of exhausted soldiers collecting the wounded and the dead. It had been the escalated battle of an extended inter-peninsular conflict between rival kingdoms; the details of the politics and history were lost to the mercenaries, who were only here for the job and the prize. With the enemy king decapitated, the involvement of the Dhana Vers mercenaries ended with a contract fulfilled.
Most pleased among them was Rose, or Galhenros of the Amyric, leader of the Dhana Vers—nothing as innocuous as his nickname suggested. A massive black serpent hung around his shoulders, daring fools to believe otherwise. Perhaps the only indicator of fragility were the enchanted spectacles upon his nose, but if anyone had ever managed to scratch the glass in battle, no one alive knew of it.
Upon receiving the bloodied, dripping head, he touched Ash's lower lip with a faint smile, then went with the prize beneath his left arm, riding off into the battlefield to collect the band's reward from the king.
"Shoulda known it'd be you," said a dwarven woman who'd ambled to Ash's side. Bone rings swung from the ends of her dreaded braids, speckled crimson and brown. She wore a peeved look on her face. "The lone wolf makes the hunt, eh? Gods damn it. Lost another bottle of blue."
"I thought you knew better than to bet against me, darling."
"I can't well bet against meself now, can I? Damn it, play me a round of knocks tonight."
Before Ash could respond, a rugged elf threw his arm over their shoulders. "What happened to your leg?"
"Oh? Want to misstep into my tent tonight?"
"Is it possible? Your tent smells like spiderleaf from a marge away."
The elf snickered. "You're complimenting my brewing, darling."
"Take it as it pleases you."
"I'd rather take you as it pleases me."
"All eight etches, no?"
That was a pitched call, a prim young sorcerer waving a spotless hand. Around him, the other members of their band were trailing away from the battlefield. The hurry was for good reason—while the army's soldiers were still occupied with their post-battle duties, the nearby river would be free for a quick wash. With the contract fulfilled and prize collected, the Vers would be taking to the road soon, and that was not a place to be blood-soaked.
Not long later, they arrived back at their small encampment among the army tents. The Dhana Vers was not a large band, numbering a single dozen, but the breadth of space reserved for them among the camping field would have suggested a group five times their size. Perhaps it was a matter of fear: twelve they might be, but all except for two were mages blessed thickly by ether. They'd made a showing of their magic in the early days of the campaign—a ruthless, gorey mess the soldiers still whispered about from time to time.
It made washing an undisturbed affair. Ash soon found their own crevice along the bank, a ways upstream from the encampment. Though the band had returned early, many medics and soldiers already claimed the water, their eyes wandering toward Ash like skittering magnets—but eyes and nothing more. Eyes could not be blamed: here on the southern peninsula, women were never soldiers. And Ash was more peculiar to them than even a woman, more striking than any gendered beauty.
In leisure, Ash worked through the splattered blood and layered sweat. In exchange for at six dozen lives slewn today, they had earned a few nicks that Jes had neglected to heal. It was no matter for Ash, who was not averse to the aesthetic of a few more scars. If any of their mercenary lovers minded it, a bit of ether would erase the markings. By the next year, they wagered, all these would be vanished.
It was past noon by the time Ash returned to the camp, cleaned and comfortable. Some others had begun to pack their tents, which was next on Ash's own agenda. Unlike the soldiers' tents, the Vers constructed tiny conical structures. From the outside, these appeared as if they would hold no more than a cramped body or two. The deerskin hide of their tents had in fact been painted with blackewe enchantments, and when Ash stepped beneath the flap of their own tent, it was into a generous space that hosted two full mats and some pacing room.
At present, it was occupied.
The leader of the Dhana Vers had returned from his prize collection. He sat cross-legged on the edge of a mat, his great black serpent Berdagoan hanging about his shoulders, the both of them observing a glittering red crystal in his hand. He was illuminated by a floating orb of etheral light—simple magic for a sorcerer of his caliber, but for most mages, the feat of creation was unthinkable. Ash eyed the orb, old envy stinging faintly, and sauntered over to the man. Their gaze fell to a jewel in his hand.
"That is the firegarnet?"
"Beautiful, isn't it?" said Rose. He arched his head back, gazing up at Ash with a smile. "Come see."
Ash knelt beside him, earning a slithering kiss from Berdagoan's forked tongue. Rose offered the jewel to them. It hung from a necklace chain and was embroidered by decorative silver. For this pretty thing, the Vers had traveled three hundred yalms to the peninsula and fought six weeks of a dull war—for this pretty thing, Ash had lost enough blood to hallucinate of the northern mountains. Indeed, the stone was beautiful, emanating a crimson so vivid that it seemed alive.
"With this," said Rose, "we have passage to Azhani Jine."
Ash handed the crystal pendant back, arching a curious eyebrow. "I'm pleased to see you so thrilled. Yet I am a little apprehensive of what you're chasing so—ah—religiously."
The sorcerer slipped the pendant around his neck. The motion dislocated his serpent, who slithered onto the ground and vanished beyond the tent. He reached for Ash next, hands catching beneath their fresh shirt, sliding up along their sides. Ash turned away from a kiss, letting lips colliding with their cheek instead.
"There's nothing to be apprehensive of," Rose murmured, undeterred.
"The band is packing to go."
A touch skimmed Ash's stomach, sending deep a wave of etheral heat too provocative—and this was to say nothing of the lips trailing the most sensitive skin of Ash's throat.
"It will be quick."
Ash gripped the sorcerer's wrist, keeping his hand from traveling between their legs.
"Compromise with me, then. Lie down."
Moments later, Ash hovered over the sorcerer, tracing the broad, chiseled plane of his covered chest while working his thick length hard in their palm. Rose was not a moaner; he was quite controlled about his lust, the only indicator of affectation coming from his hitched breaths and the hands digging into Ash's hips. When the sorcerer was ready, Ash opened their slit by their fingers. Eyes burned at Ash, the pupil black swallowing a nameless color. His grip urged for entrance.
"Some patience, Rose," murmured Ash.
"Patience?" said Rose, husked. "I thought you wanted quick."
"It will be. But let me have the ease of it."
His palms slid against Ash's waist, fingers spreading. "When you brought me that head, I wanted to bend you right there and fuck you over their corpses."
Ash chuckled. "What an inspiring sight that would have been. The leader of the Dhana Vers employs a whore among his blades."
Rose growled. Ash shoved him flat.
"Be still now."
At their own pace, Ash slid the man inside. It was a slicked penetration, stretching, burning beautifully. The fullness of his sex was delicious, sating a hunger from the envy of his magic, the undercurrent of residual adrenaline. With a growled breath, Rose flexed his hands against Ash's hips and began to thrust.
Ash pressed a hand to his chest."What did I just say?"
Rose dug his fingers deeper, hurting. Irritation rumbled his chest. "For Jhasan's sake, would you just..."
Ash laughed. "This is not a holy time to invoke the name of your god, Rose."
The sorcerer caught the rope of Ash's thick, damp braid and pulled their mouth down. Ash let him kiss, feeling their hair twine like a leash in the man's hand. Lips skimmed their pulsing throat while fingers skimmed their body, the soft flesh and hard muscles, the faint, swelling curve of their breasts. With a rough clench that stung, Rose spoke into Ash's ear.
"You are my god."
Ash tilted their head, pausing briefly. It was a dangerous, foolish admittance. But that was a lesson for Rose to learn in time, for Ash had not been in the business of gentle teaching for centuries. As if the words had not been spoken, they rolled their hands into those broad shoulders, rolled their hips deep. The hand on their braid loosened.
"Fuck," whispered Rose.
Yes, Ash could feel the bursting ache to fuck thrumming in the body beneath. Centuries of sex could reduce it to a dull act of satiation, no more common than pissing—but the thrill within the pleasure—that was what made intimacy such a timeless addiction. Feeling the tension in their lover's body, seeing the wisps of desperation in those powerful eyes, these things brought Ash closer to the edge than anything simply physical. The rhythm built.
Soon those nails in Ash's skin began to hurt. Rose did not seem to realize it, hard-pressed as he was to stay still. So lost was the man in his pleasure that his hands left Ash's hips, traveled a bit too far up Ash's back, grazing old, torn indentures along their shoulder blades. Ash quickly knocked his hands away. Below, eyes flickered in alarm. Moment averted, Ash smiled again and kept riding.
"Would you like to move?"
Rose gripped their hips. Ash pushed him still, then brought the sorcerer's hand around their own hard length.
"Satisfy me first, Rose. Then you may fuck me."
Moments later, in a haze of pleasure, Ash released over Rose's stomach. The sorcerer milked them out with an intoxicated anticipation in his eyes, until his clothes soaked in the viscous wetness. Before the waves of pleasure had entirely tided, he flipped them around and pressed Ash into the bed mat. He drove hard into Ash's body, delicate in the aftermath of climax, aching from the subsumed pleasure—but he had earned his desire, and Ash complained not.
Before he finished, a voice called to their tent. A sliver of noon light flickered in. Rose pressed Ash down further by the nape of their neck. Cheek against the mat, Ash closed their eyes. Vaguely, Ash registered the light vanishing, a casual whoops, a snicker. Sex among the Dhana Vers had the commonplace pleasure of alcohol: the distinct elven voice faded with idle commentary, unsurprised and unbothered.
When it was over, Ash moved first to clean the residue. The roughness of the sex trailed them, drawing a sharp wince.
"Careless again," said Ash. "I've barely recovered from last night."
"I can fix that."
"Why is it always a retroactive offer?"
Rose said nothing, taking Ash's wrist. Bare skin was the transferal point of ether between living creatures; a moment later, the sting vanished. Ash hummed their thanks. Rose kissed the corner of their lips, then left to wash.
Soon, Ash emerged from the tent with the mats rolled and supplies boxed. An array of things happened next. The elven hunter Isylas sauntered over to lighten their load, but not before slipping in a wry comment about no spiderleaf tonight. The human sorceress Euwan walked by, ramming the rolled mats out of Ash's hold as she passed. The dark elf Paskenate eyed that encounter, whispering something to her brother Halekantar after the moment. And, inevitably, nineteen-year-old Lyra hurried to help Ash with their fallen things, appearing guilty as she asked if they were okay. She didn't mean the aggressive brush from the sorceress.
Such was life among the Dhana Vers—for all its hedonist taking, never quite free of the drama. Ash sighed before a smile. "I'm very good, love. Help me the collect the tent, would you? It's time to move."
Late afternoon, the band had ridden their horses and wagons out to the thick, unpaved forest of the peninsula's central south. Not fond of forests and not in a rush, Rose called the decision to take the long way around come early morning. While the sun was still low above the horizon, the battle-tired band made camp for an early rest.
Hunting duties went by rotation. Tonight it was Ash and Pask's turn. Leaving the others to set the tents and prepare the pot and fire, they wandered into the edge of the forest. Dense shadows soon filtered out the sun and distant voices.
"Say, Pask," said Ash after they had walked in silence for a time, "am I on your good side or your bad side?"
The elven sorceress snorted. She spoke with a faint accent in her Ostrosian, the common southern tongue of the band. "Why ask now? It has been six years."
"Well, that's because today, I almost died."
"A silly mistake," said Ash. "I was distracted by a thought." They paused. "A memory, actually."
"In the middle of a battle? I had thought you better."
"Me too. In any case, I ask because mortality's a provocative subject. So, would you fend off an ogre for me if it came to it?"
"No, I would not."
"Oh? And here I was hoping I'd made some bonds."
Pask slashed aside an obstructing branch and continued.
"Do not mistake me. I am not either way about you. It is simply that I do not value your life over my own."
"You don't need to value my life over yours to help me with an ogre, you know."
"I misspoke," said Pask. She turned and faced Ash, stopping them on their tracks. Her dark eyes scanned their shadowed face. "I do not value your life over my convenience, agnaka."
Ash lidded their eyes. It was not the first time in the past three hundred years that they had been called such a name: two-faced, demon-kissed, shadow-viper, masked wolf—they had heard it all. By now, all the comment drew from them was a soft sigh.
"There's a ruminant about a half marge north, if you'd like to catch it," said Ash.
Pask blinked, then narrowed her eyes. She turned north.
It was still light out when the two returned with a sack of birds and a generously-sized deer. The tents were up and wood had been cut for smoking fire. Sharpening knives by the pot were Lyra and the young Palabian sorcerer Aiber, the former a head of tameless red curls atop a freckled, gentle face, and the latter a chiseled beauty with jaw-cropped chestnut and enchanted silver eardrops. Spotting them, Ash grinned off the colder talk with Pask.
Passing by to drop off the hunt now, Ash ruffled the girl's hair. She paused mid-conversation, jerking away and calling Ash's name in annoyance. Ash withdrew with a smile and tossed her the bag of birds.
"All yours, Lyra. Dress me the fat one, would you?"
She gave Ash a peeved glare. "Why don't you get Rose to do it?"
Beside her, Aiber covered his lips and laughed elegantly.
"I like your cooking better." Ash scanned the vicinity. "Where is Rose anyway?"
Lyra fell quiet.
"He's watering the horses," said the sorcerer Aiber.
So to the stream was where Ash went, following the trickle upstream toward the forest. It was quieter there. Despite circumstances, Rose preferred the isolated peace to company—a product, most likely, of his etheral bloodline and the unforgiving younger years that accompanied it. Ash ascribed many of Rose's traits to the trouble his overabundant ether had caused, but never voiced these thoughts.
Ash detected Rose well before they saw him—a residual sixth sense that had not been entirely lost with their ether. A few moments later, a row of silhouettes appeared near the bank, guzzling the stream. A man leaning against the nearby tree turned this way and smiled. His serpent was not with him, having vanished into the forest to have her own hunts for the night.
Ash tilted their head curiously.
"You haven't spoken to me since you left the tent this morning. Bothered?"
Rose offered a hand. When Ash only peered at it, Rose took their wrist and pulled them closer. Another hand slid around Ash's waist. The sorcerer gazed down and said, "I never did get a satisfying response to my little confession. I admit it was a slip of the moment, but tell me something."
It took Ash a moment to recall the referenced fragments of their conversation—you are my god.
"Don't tread those waters now, darling. You'll regret it."
"Because you can't love?"
Ash lifted an eyebrow. "Well, now you're the second person today to accuse me of—"
The jagged edges of the tree trunk collided against Ash's back. A mouth pressed over their lips, stealing the air with cutting teeth. Ash tore their mouth free, only to have the other trail their cheeks.
"I want to fuck you again."
"What? What is going on with you?"
No answer. Ash glimpsed the firegarnet hanging from the sorcerer's throat. He was beginning to unlace Ash's trousers. Ash gripped his shirt, meaning to push him steadily back—but a rupture in the nearby air alarmed them, and on instinct, Ash shoved the sorcerer sideward. Ash twisted around, blocking the space between the unstable man and the ominous disturbance by the river bank.
A shadow had emerged into the evening light—a silhouette. Ether so dense around it that even Ash could see the distorting wisps. But soon the distortion cleared to the figure of a man: a man in a thick, rich fur coat padded for winter, with polished snowboots, with two gemmed stones ringed around his fingers and a pendant about his neck. A man who towered, with sun scorched copper skin and rich umber locks hanging to shadow a lowered face.
A tiny glass jar fell from the man's right hand. A bundle of alyssum flowers slipped from his left.
Ash stepped back.
The man collapsed.
Even before that motion revealed the unmistakable contours of his unconscious face, the blood had chilled in Ash's body. Though Rose moved, spoke, Ash registered none of it—nothing but the wind around their throat and its whispers in their ears, the blood filling their chest and the sky falling away.
The man on the ground wore a face Ash had not seen in three hundred years, except in their nightmares.
Chapter 4: 2
It was a warm hand jostling their shoulders which restored Ash to their senses. Pained by the scalding touch, they jerked away, the pounding of their skull fading beneath the echo of their name. They could not take their eyes off their unconscious visitor, but the details of their peripheral registered once more. That was Rose, worried, blistering threads of defensive ether.
Ash touched the sorcerer's chest absently. "I'm fine."
It was a lie, but it sounded as true as ever it had.
As Ash stepped toward the fallen man, Rose grasped their wrist. "Careful. He's dangerous."
"I know," said Ash, and went forward.
There was a pause as Ash knelt before the sprawl of that thick winter coat.
"You know who he is," said Rose.
Ash did not answer this time. Their gaze caught on the alyssum flowers crumpled beneath the man's leg. The glass jar had rolled elsewhere, but these flowers alone dredged the loss in Ash's chest, overfilling like the whole span of the sky. It was not something which could be borne in this moment. Shutting these feelings away, Ash turned to the man himself.
His eyes were shadowed. His breath was weak. Cautious not to rouse him, Ash took his shoulder and pushed him flat upon the ground. Deep, powerful heat radiated through the layers of winter cloth—burned from the skin of his cheeks, when Ash swept his stray umber locks aside his face. Ash peered down at that face, every detail of their memory sharpened brutally.
Across the body, Rose had knelt. "Ash."
Ash lidded their gaze, waiting for a dusk breeze before they spoke.
"I would ask a favor of you."
"Who is he?" said the sorcerer.
Ash looked up. Rose had removed his enchanted spectacles, leaving his discolored eyes bare to scrutiny. "His name is Daeron of the Rohe, but I suspect that means little to you. I'd like him bound with the Kabamari."
Rose frowned. "What is he to you?"
Ash parted their lips to answer. But the words swarmed their chest, widening that insidious pit. On the verge of slipping into the ugly black, Ash leaned forward and caught Rose's jaw. Kissed his lips, slow, sensual, and then murmured against them, "Bind him for me, Rose. Please."
An exhaled swept their skin. Rose closed his eyes and nodded.
"Thank you," said Ash, rising.
"Where are you going?"
"For a ride," said Ash, reaching the horses. With an untelling smile, "Save me some dinner, would you?"
But that was the last of their exhausted composure, and with a harsh snap of the reins, Ash vanished into the dusking forest.
Back at the mercenary camp, Rose delivered the body to Halekantar of the southern elves, who was the only mage possessed of the knowledge to cast the Kabamari. Ash's alluring kiss had bought no small promise: even Halek, medic, medium, and scholar of the Dhana Vers, versed in great histories, balked to hear that request. For the Kabamari was not a term lightly invoked—an advanced technique to seal one's ether, derived from old magic by the high elves of Iskthal Velan. It was unspeakably powerful, reserved for criminals of a rare caliber; and it was exceptionally costly.
"That is going to consume the entire store of dragons' blood we have," said Halek, reluctant.
"Can you do it?"
The elf sighed and nodded. "Is he spelled to sleep?"
"No. We'll need marsh venom."
"I will fetch the supplies," said Halek, "if you would bring him to my tent."
Moments later, the medic and the sorcerer had the unconscious man laid out upon a mat, his coat removed. To Rose's wariness and Halek's intrigue, the interior of this coat had been sewn with gryphon vein enchantments, most of which not even Halek could decipher. His pendant and his rings, each confiscated by Rose and set in a pouch, carried the detectable aura of ether. Upon rolling up his cotton sleeves, they found that even the man's palms had been inked with strange runes.
Curiosity burned at Halek, but the disturbed look on Rose's face warned him from asking. In silence, the two men sterilized both of those copper arms, wrists to elbows. Halek observed the mysterious stranger meanwhile, drawing his own conclusions.
Superficially, the man's features resembled those of the desert-touched kingdoms of the midwest. Halek thought that he was perhaps a descendant of the nomadic tribes there, whose history of enduring brutal hunts and harsh terrain had crafted bold, towering builds—standing, he would be Rose's height and broader. But he did not present as a nomad or a desertman. His trimmed beard and shoulder-length hair were lush, recently washed, regularly kempt; the hue of his skin seemed paler than the perpetually sun-bathed ochre of the midwesterners. His coat and boots suggested he had been spending some time in a winterous, snowy region—and that he wore them now in the warm peninsula suggested that he had traveled by the deadly feat of teleportation.
Not Rose, with his immense ether, nor Halek, with all his knowledge, could manage such a thing. It daunted them that man might possess both, and perhaps more. They read a presence about him, one detectable only by the blessed—an aura of ether that echoed the density of Rose's. It was difficult to say whether this one had a greater etheral blessing than Rose, but that alone was a statement: to date in both men's lives, Rose's power was unrivaled. This, perhaps, might be the first time they feared a challenger to the leader of the Dhana Vers.
Tense, Halek sank his needle into the man's center wrist while Rose kept the canvas of the arm taut. Blood ink followed the steel tip and engraved into the skin. In his drugged sleep, the man's body jerked, rejecting the draconic restraint. He groaned softly after the first chain of inscriptions were complete, and this only escalated as Halek continued to carve the patterned symbols, twenty-two rings per arm in etherscript.
When it was complete, the man was covered in sweat. His breath came in uneven hitches. He did not wake, and would not for several hours more. By then he would be powerless.
Halek breathed, feeling the pressure in the tent relent. He turned to Rose.
"Now, will you tell me who he is?"
Rose, whose gaze still plastered to the unconscious man with a strange, perturbed expression, paused before answering. "I don't know. He appeared by the stream. Ash seemed to recognize him, but wouldn't tell me much. They called him Daeron of the Rohe."
It was unfamiliar to Halek.
"Where is Ash now?"
There was another pause. Rose looked away from the unconscious man at last.
"I don't know." He reached into his pockets and pulled out two items: a bundle of violet flowers and a small glass case. "He was carrying these when he appeared."
Halek took both and inspected them.
"These flowers are mountain alyssum," he said. "They have minor medicinal properties, but I do not know what other purpose they would serve. But this...I believe this is an anchor."
He held the small glass case between them. A single black feather laid inside, curled along the edge so that its span could be contained.
"An anchor?" said Rose.
"Teleportation magic is tethered to living creatures. The theory, as I understand, requires that the moving body follow the etheral stream to another living soul. And at the time of the invocation, the spellcaster must possess an anchor—that is, something from the body of the target soul." Halek paused, momentarily enchanted by the feather. "But I do not believe this man was following a bird..."
The glass case vanished. Halek blinked.
Rose had taken the cased feather away, cupped now between his palms as if shielding it. He understood it as well—they had both seen the scars upon Ash's back, one more frequently than the other. For a long time Halek passed them off as sadistic carvings, but this drew a great array of new implications.
"You will keep this a secret from the others," said Rose.
"They have not gone through great efforts to hide those scars, Rose. I doubt it would offend them greatly if we—"
"Halek," said Rose, hard-toned. "Keep this quiet."
Halek frowned. "Very well." He turned to the unconscious sorcerer. "What about him? He will be trouble when he wakes. What do you plan on doing with him?"
"It seems Ash has business with him," said Rose. He paused, his fingers unconsciously stroking the casing in his palm. "And I, as well."
The burning in his forearms woke him, thinking that the flesh was being perpetually torn from muscle.
The world, then, began to smell.
He opened his eyes to a strange solidity. An etched canopy towered above him, lit by a floating orb of raw etheral light. The markings on the canopy did not undulate. The scent of straw matting and rich dirt, and it didn't evaporate at a thought—the rasp of air in his throat, continuous. No blood, no cracking walls. He was not sure why these details were peculiar to him, but with them came an indefinable sense of urgency. Something he had to do. Someone he had to find.
He snapped his head rightward toward an unfamiliar voice in a barely familiar tongue. In the same moment, a sharp pain throbbed beneath his skin. He saw the man first: a silhouette sitting atop the adjacent mat, a glass jar in his hand. He saw his own arms next: bared to his elbows, marked by inked enchantments—powerful restrictive magic. Somehow he knew it was dragonsblood.
He pushed upright. This much was necessary: he was vulnerable, clearly in enemy hands. All the while he felt his chest rising and falling, breathing, a strange concept. Beyond that, his palms took in the texture of laced straws, rocks beneath the mat. He could still smell that dirt, but sweat too now, and cooked flesh, and salt. He could hear muted chatter and the wind rustling the tent canopy. It was only briefly overwhelming before he remembered how to sense selectively.
Remembering anything else, that was harder. He didn't even know his own name.
Shaking his head, he lifted his gaze to his company. A pair of cool, discolored eyes stared back at him. He read them like etherscript: distaste and antagonism, and a hint of apprehension.
'What did you do to me?' he said in the etheral tongue, for the sorcerer he spoke to was unmistakably blessed enough to understand.
The other man blinked. He appeared surprised at his own comprehension.
He responded in that barely familiar southern tongue.
"I sealed your ether. Ash asked it of me."
"You know who I'm talking about."
The sorcerer furnished the glass jar in his hand. A lone black feather sat within, teasing the edge of his memory—the taste of sunrays, heartache, rot, ink—but it was not quite enough. After a long pause, the sorcerer pocketed the jar and leaned forward, inspecting his face.
"You do know who I'm talking about, correct?"
He pressed a hand to his temple, shutting his eyes.
The other man grabbed his collar. On instinct, he clenched a hand around the offending wrist—but screamed as his palm suddenly began to burn. It was the calling of ether, and he was defenseless against it. The next hit fell against his chest, leaving him arched over, gasping for breath. Fingers wrapped around the back of his neck, holding his head down, smelling of untamed adrenaline hostility.
Just then, the light of the room flickered. The tent flapped. The sorcerer aggressing him shifted.
"What are you doing?"
Even steeled in that hard tone, it swept through his lungs. He tore out of the sorcerer's grasp to see, and it took little effort for the man's hold had weakened to nothing. As the sorcerer quickly stood and stepped away, he revealed the speaker who had entered.
A person with the delicate beauty of a woman, framed by the bold contours of a man. Whose hair wisped from a loose braid like strands of the stray night, whose air had the suffocated expanse of the bottled sky. This person looked at him, with eyes like indelible starlight, and he, without memory or logic, found solidity in even this abstraction.
Then it didn't matter that his arms were scorching wildly, because this person was real and he was mad, certainly, deep in his skull, for how agonizingly he wanted to touch them.
"Leave us," they said, eyes not leaving his.
Those words were for the sorcerer, who paused, then left the tent. In the aftermath of the sorcerer's departure, silence hung, and he dared not break it first.
So it was that person who said, in soft, quiet murmur, "Myage."
Spoken in the tongue of ether itself, it meant speaker of truth.
He shook his head.
This person's lips curled in a corner, but there was neither humor nor warmth. Their eyes were flat. Their words stayed quiet in that intimate language.
'Should I have forgotten, Daeron of the Rohe?'
He didn't understand it. Daeron—he wondered if it was his name.
It didn't matter then.
Only by instinct, to close some unphysical chasm between them, he stood on uneven balance. The canopy brushed his hair as he walked toward this person, who stared at him unmoved. He wanted to touch—but he dared not, for some reason, dared not. As if he were fire, and them, an invaluable parchment that would be consumed by his hunger. So his one lifted hand hovered useless, barely grazing the radiating heat of their skin.
He searched their eyes, saying, 'I know you. I saw you in my dream.'
The curve in this person's mouth loosened slowly, very slowly. Some depth returned to their flat eyes, but no stability. He watched with a growing dread as they became like cracked stone.
"You don't remember," they said softly, in that southern tongue which distorted the sky in their voice.
How did he erase the crack in their eyes? Fix this? What was this?
A hand grasped their shirt, so fast his eyes could barely follow.
They stared at him, a seething cold. 'You anchored me, didn't you? Don't tell me you were so foolish to mistake the script. You brought the alyssum!'
'I don't—I don't remember.'
He was sharply released. He caught a glimpse of something stripped, fragile, before it was all tucked away under a smooth mask.
'Fine,' they said. 'I've waited three hundred years. I can wait a little longer.'
Then they turned and began to leave.
The sight welled up some mad emotion, a mixture of fear and grief and desperate desire. He staggered after them, faster than he thought he could move, caught their wrist in his hand—that skin like sun, that pulse like life. They startled, jerking back, but he did not let go. Could not.
Ash, the sorcerer had called this person. But to him, it was not right, not whole, not like the overwhelming impression of their being.
'Your name,' he said. 'Tell me your name.'
He could not, but for some reason, his hands loosened.
They pulled free. Pulled their wrist to their chest and stepped back from him. An indecipherable look crossed their face, and yet he was able to decipher it like instinct: confusion, fear, hatred, revulsion, hurt.
Again it disappeared beneath a mask.
Lifting their head and arching a brow, they said to him, 'You have no right to my name, Truthsayer. And should I hear it from your lips, I will cut out your tongue.'
The tent flapped shut. By the time he stumbled into the night air, that person was nowhere in sight.
Chapter 5: 3
Ash had gone to the midnight forest, where atop a stray boulder, they sat awaiting their own calm. The weather was peculiar upon their skin tonight, a frigid cold. It seemed to Ash that Daeron had brought the winter with him, turning the late autumn of the peninsula south to the high solstice ranges of the northern mountains. Without the heat of their wings, the sting was biting. Excruciating.
Three hundred years, and still they had not processed those final days in Arihazana.
Three hundred years, and it was still as raw as yesterday.
But the shadow of a presence flickered along the edges of Ash’s awareness, and like clockwork, they breathed the memories away. Before the sorcerer emerged into small forest clearing, Ash’s body had fallen lax beneath the moonlight. They sighed, waiting for their new company to climb his way up the boulder.
Soon, Rose settled beside Ash.
“I was worried about you,” he said.
Ash spared him a flat gaze. After a moment, they loosened their hard expression into its default ease. “You were also unattractively envious.”
“That’s...he’s a danger and I…”
“Wanted to put him in his place? Toss that thought, pup. He has about four hundred years on you and a mind for games. You’re lucky he was bound, or else you would have been dead in that tent before I returned.”
Rose bristled. Pup was not the endearment he desired to hear from Ash’s lips, and for a man who had only known the pinnacle of power, the remainder of that sentiment struck his pride. “You think highly of him.”
Ash laughed at this. “I think ratshit of him. But his mastery of ether has no equal, and that is a fact.”
There was another pause.
“What did he do?”
Ash did not respond.
At last, Ash sighed and closed their eyes. The residual poison in their heart, coating those harsh words to Rose, slowly evaporated. It was because they had remembered Jes’s wide blue eyes as they ran out of the camp, his aged lips parted to call, his hand reaching out—and halting in the air, afraid to breach a past Ash kept so deeply hidden.
“Never mind,” Ash said softly. They looked at the sliver moon. “It’s a thing that has no place in this life. A loose end I’d like to tie, nothing more.”
“Nothing more? I have never seen you like this. You can’t expect me to turn a blind eye. And what of the Dhana Vers? If he is as threatening as you say, to keep him among us without—”
“I can leave, if you’d prefer.”
Their eyes met. Rose withered, then scalded, gripping Ash’s shirt. His ether flared.
“Don’t play that game with me.”
“What game? I’m being as straight as I can afford. That man is personal matter from a past life that I want resolved for my own peace. But I won’t have it tarnishing the life I have now.”
“Then kill him and be done with it.”
“It isn’t so simple.”
“You want him dead. I can see it in your eyes—”
Ash growled and shoved him back. “By my own terms, Rose. Stay out of it.”
Rose did not budge. After a moment, Ash sighed and touched his fist, still buried in Ash’s shirt.
“I appreciate your concern. And I appreciate your spellwork. Or Halek’s, rather. Still, I haven’t thanked you properly, have I?” They leaned forward and kissed the corner of Rose’s jaw. Their lips traced the edge of his ear, and there murmured, “Go on.”
Ash withdrew and arched an eyebrow, pinning the sorcerer’s conflicted ire with a sensual cold. “Where’s your fire? Didn’t you say you wanted to fuck me again?”
“Is this how you settle problems now? You whore your way out?”
Ash chuckled and pulled apart the laces of their shirt.
“Call it what you will. I’ve had a rough night. I could use a good round. What about you?”
It was a subtle insult to buy the compliance of a man like Rose with sex, and Rose, understanding this, lashed out in anger. His hand snaked forward, gripping Ash’s slender throat, a dare dripping from the touch. But Ash only arched their head back and hummed, that vibration pulsing electric against his palm. The fabric fell from their bold shoulders, revealing a moonlit expanse accented by the midnight shadows.
His head swam and his vision blurred. His reason struggled against his weakness. A moment later, with a ragged, frustrated groan, Rose pulled that terrible smile in for a kiss.
In the absence of Ash and their leader, a half of the Vers waited around the campfire, sharing conspiracies about the man hunched over the far log. Such was the nature of a small, nomadic band: matters of intrigue sparked hours of conversation, a way to pass the endless dull of travel. Somewhere among the tents, the siblings Halek and Pask were having—or had completed—a similar talk; somewhere among the tents, the sorceress Euwan was struggling to sleep over her own musings on the matter. Perhaps only Maure dozed, too drunk on the post-battle booze to stay awake, but Isylas, Aiber, Faro, Jes, and Lyra lingered outside, three playing an idle game of Serpents while the other two simply sat.
“Look at those shoulders,” said Isylas, not all sober. He whistled after the comment. “Now that’s what we call a rockcrusher.”
“Does anyone ever hit below the surface with you?” said Aiber, tossing a card into the center pile. “Double fang, by the way.”
The towering Faro grunted beside him, slapping two more cards into the pile.
“What I’m saying,” said Isylas, “is that he’s a one-up on the boss. Blessing and brawns? No wonder they rigged his arms like that. Fuck, that’s got to hurt.”
“And when was the last time you’ve seen anyone best Rose?” said Aiber.
“When was the last time you’ve seen ‘em pissed like that? I’m telling you, this guy is a gem.”
Aiber chuckled. “You sound like you’re in love already.”
“Hey,” said Isylas, holding out a card to gesture his words, “I’m gonna make friendly with the big guy. Case you haven’t noticed, it’s been six hours and he ain’t dead yet. I’m betting you my next blue that he’ll be one of us by the first snow. Jes, what’d you think?”
Further to the side of the fire, the elder sorcerer Jes sat watching their new company more intently than the occupied rest. At the mention of his name, he glanced over his shoulder.
“I doubt it,” he said.
Playing silently with the others, Lyra looked up at those words. Like Jes, she had joined the Dhana Vers following after Ash, and the peculiar reaction of their friend, mentor, and guardian had unnerved her fivefold more than the rest of the band. She knew less of Ash than Jes did, for Jes was the one who had spent near nine decades of his life with them, and deferred to the quiet of his words with a shiver of concern.
“Why’s that?” said Isylas.
“He seems dangerous,” said Jes. “The kind that neither Ash nor Rose will risk for a thrill.”
“He seems pretty harmless right now,” said Aiber. “He’s been staring after the trees for the past hour.”
“Probably plotting something nice and sinister,” said Isylas, with a crooked grin. “Looks like we’re in business for some fun times.”
“You are really something else,” said Aiber. “Did you pick that up from Ash?”
“That give-no-shit attitude.”
“Well, if we’re talking by the amount of time that’s gone, Ash is giving a lot of shits.” Isylas snickered at his own line. His eyes sparkled, and his mouth opened to tag on a follow-up, but at that moment, a sharp motion in his peripheral stopped him. It was their mysterious company, who had suddenly stood.
“Looks like they’re back,” said Aiber.
Moments later, Ash and Rose emerged into the camp, both appearing tousled. To the mercenaries, who had paused in their card game, the next moments were another layer of curiosity. Rose cast a hostile gaze upon the mysterious sorcerer, while Ash gave him only a passing glance. Meanwhile the sorcerer had no eyes for anything but Ash, and as they approached, spoke an indecipherable, foreign murmur. Jes understood some of it. Aiber and Isylas felt the contours of its meaning, but not the words themselves. A plea, an apology.
Ash responded in the same tongue, something short, cold, flat. A command. The sorcerer fell silent as Ash passed them by and approached the others, now struck by that exchange.
“What...was that?” said Isylas.
“Ether,” whispered Aiber.
The two sorcerers looked at each other. Before Isylas could press, Ash passed too close. They didn’t stop for the camp, not a single word, and spared only a faint smile for Lyra and Jes before proceeding onward. That mysterious sorcerer trailed them, and soon the two vanished into a far tent.
It was Rose who eventually paused by the fire, appearing irritated and defeated.
“Hey, boss,” said Isylas. “You wanna tell us what’s going on?”
“It’s late,” said Rose flatly. “We ride out early. Get to bed.”
With that, he also vanished into his own space, leaving the others to speculate a little while longer.
In the somber space of Ash’s enchanted tent, the assumed Daeron settled with folded legs atop the far mat. A tryst and the midnight air had given Ash some space of mind, and dismissing the desire to leave this conversation for another day, they sat opposite the Rohenan man. It had been weakness to retreat behind their emotions earlier—weakness uncharacteristic of Ash, even before the fall. This time, they spoke calmly.
‘How fares your memories?’
Daeron shook his head once. His voice came dry. ‘I’ve been trying to recollect. But aside from any impression of you, there is nothing.’
Their eyes met. How horribly familiar to Ash was that rich earthen shade—midnight firewood could echo it only faintly. How utterly strange that it lacked its proud, sharp glint.
Daeron spoke the truth. In the language of ether, one could not lie.
It burned Ash terribly that after all this time, he had dared appear without his memories. For centuries Ash had been satisfied to vanquish the man from existence in their reconstructed universe, here among mortal thrills and pleasures. But the image of his face shattered all that Ash had built, stripped them down three hundred years back. In the forest, after hours of forced contemplation, Ash had resolved to hold on to the life they had—to, from this monstrous piece of the past, only seek the final peace of justice. To give him what he was due, and erase him. But to extract such a peace from a man who remembered not the atrocities he had committed was an impossibility. Here, Daeron sat before them, a sadistic taunt. A cruel farce.
He had always liked his games. Ash dared wonder if this was not a deliberate arrangement. But for what end? For all their foresight, insight, they could not say.
‘You know nothing of who you are, then,’ Ash said tonelessly.
‘No. You called me Daeron of the Rohe. I find some familiarity with that name, so perhaps you are correct.’
Ash smiled, no humor.
‘Do you know what you are?’
A faint frown drew his brow. ‘Am I not human?’
Ash arched an eyebrow. ‘How would you define human? You’d need a heart to be one, no? And I don’t really know if you ever had one.’
‘We knew each other well,’ said Daeron, frowning at the space between their mats. It was but a sliver, dirt and grass peeking nosily. He glanced up, tentative. ‘I wronged you?’
‘That’s a tame way of putting it.’
It was quiet.
‘You said you saw me in a dream. What dream?’
Daeron shook his head. As his head lowered, Ash saw the visceral memory of this same image. The copper of his eyes, obscuring his vision from what he had done, while Ash screamed, then pled, then screamed.
Indeed, they had not been ready for this confrontation. For all the hours spent in the forest, for all the smothered instability, all the resolve to keep their calm, still a terrible blackness crawled into Ash’s chest. They stood up. Took the two steps to that man as the motion startled those eyes. Knelt again, this time beside that man’s folded legs, so close that their thighs brushed.
Daeron inhaled sharply. Ash curled their fingers around his crumpled silk shirt and leaned up, so that their words could sweep his lips, so that he might taste the poison.
‘You don’t remember?’ Ash murmured.
Daeron shivered, and shut his eyes like he had long ago.
‘Perhaps we share the same dream. I dream of you too.’
Those eyes opened suddenly. Ash continued.
‘In my dreams,’ they said, ‘you tear open my skin and dig through my bones. You didn’t watch it then, so I would show you, but you wouldn’t survive it as you are, Truthsayer. I wonder—did you smell the blood at least? The smoke when they burned my wings? Did you see where they gutted me?’ An old, unbearable pain flared in Ash’s chest, echoed in their rising voice. They shook Daeron hard. ‘Did you? Did you even look then?’
The man had paled. He shook his head, a faint motion.
He wasn’t denying Ash’s last question. Those soft words were a denial for every line, so raw that Ash hesitated.
But it was Daeron’s face who stared back. Daeron’s eyes.
Ash shook their head slowly.
‘You have the nerve to forget.’
Ash pushed him back, no force in the motion. But the two of them fell apart easily. As Ash gazed at the man, who understood nothing, that pain from earlier spread—this forgotten thing that had never truly gone away, simmering raw once more.
If only he remembered.
If only then, Ash could have some peace tonight.
The soft, toneless word fell against lost eyes.
Ash began to rise.
A hand grasped them.
‘Wait,’ said Daeron, leaning close—as close as Ash had been, but the tone of this intimacy was without threat. Thrown, because there was a desperation to this and Daeron had never been a desperate man, Ash paused. Daeron’s hands held their arms as he continued, his eyes bare. ‘I’m sorry that I don’t remember. I wish that I did, so that I could—’
He hesitated, then shook his head.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said again. ‘I wish I could remember your dream. But I can only remember mine, and I never—your skin and your bones, I only—’
The words kept catching in his throat. At last he swallowed and inhaled.
Though Ash saw it coming, they were too stunned to withdraw in time. Daeron’s lips covered theirs as his hands tangled in their hair. Upon their lips melted the aftertaste of a spiceless dinner, and the salt of his copper skin—a numb, hanging moment.
Ash shoved him back. It was instinct, an unreserved and inhuman force. Daeron was sent toppling back against the tent cover. With the spellwork disrupted, the entire structure came tumbling down.
Ash tossed the deerhide canopy aside. Stumbling upright, Ash touched their lips, like that taste of that salt was a stain that could be felt. But there was nothing to distinguish the moment except the revolting, staggering fury. They snarled in poisoned Ostrosian at the man on the ground.
Daeron pushed the deerhide from his shoulder. He gazed at Ash, silent.
By then the others had appeared. Ash straightened and planted their heel against the ground. Though the residual disgust swarmed them still, they drew out what small composure they had remaining and spoke through grit teeth.
“Somebody grab me the rope. And mind you all keep your distance from the rabid dog.”
Chapter 6: 4
They bound Daeron's wrists and ankles in cheap rope and left him by the dead campfire overnight. As warned, the mercenaries kept their distance, but it made little difference: Daeron had neither the ability nor the will to threaten them, empty as he was.
His thoughts were still disoriented. His soul was pained. Thinking of silver starlight and sprawling midnight, he drifted to sleep by the ashen wood and bird bones.
The sound of footsteps woke him, scattering his dreams. He opened his eyes to the dim dawn light, sun not quite above the horizon just yet. The camp was quiet. A lone elf stood by, scratching his chestnut stubble as he gazed down with vivid green eyes.
"Did you sleep?" said the elf.
Daeron pushed upright by his elbows, shaking off the dull lingerings of sleep. He inspected the elf, whose etheral blessing did not appear dense enough to fully translate the mother tongue. He tried the southern language the elf had spoken, of which his knowledge was fragmentary and faint. "Who, you?"
"I'm Isylas. Hunter, mage, and occasional culinarian. Got breakfast duty today. Well, now that you're up, might as well help out, eh?" The elf knelt, reaching for the knots at Daeron's wrists. A few moments later, the rope fell loose. "Got a name?"
Isylas chuckled and shook his head. "Sounds like a bastard with rings bigger than his cock. You one of 'em?"
Daeron did not quite understand, and so remained quiet.
"Gonna take that as a yes. Well, mister high lord, you're about to help me pick some wood for the fire. How's morning soup sound?"
"Firewood. I go?"
"No, no—you're playing mule. Can't let you out of my sight, you know. Come over this way."
They went. The hour passed, and a morning soup was cooked in three large pots. Slowly, the band of men and elves and one stout dwarf stirred to life. After Daeron had played his part in delivering the firewood, he was left to wait by the wagon. No one spoke to him.
When the food was ready, Isylas brought two bowls his way. The elf offered one and sat beside him. Several eyes flickered their way, glaring in wordless communication. But the elf ignored them all and turned to Daeron.
"So there's a rumor you kissed 'em last night. True? False?"
"Oh, come on," said Isylas. "Aiber says he saw a bruised lip. He's got a sharp eye, you know, so I'm inclined to believe him unless you tell me otherwise."
Daeron turned to his soup. It was bland, but a better option than responding to the elf.
"Gods damn. You did? You really fucking did. Ha!" The elf shook his head. "No wonder they're pissed. Hates lips, you know. Won't let anyone do it, 'less you're Rose."
The soup bowl halted an inch from Daeron's mouth. His brow twitched.
Isylas pointed toward the camp center, where most of the band was gathered. "Guy with the glasses. He's our leader. We're the Dhana Vers, by the way. Best mercenaries you'll find in the south, guaranteed. And we've seen it all too. See that elf, the bald one? That's Halek. Grew up near Iskthal Velan—you know, where the high elves live? And his sister over there, Pask, oh, you don't want to get on her bad side."
The elf paused to chuckle.
"Why?" said Daeron.
"Why? She'll shred you to pieces, that's why."
Daeron frowned, trying to find the right words to clarify his question. To his annoyance, Isylas plowed on ahead, too animated by the opportunity to flaunt his band.
"You ever been to the Silent Hills of Palabia? No? That one's Aiber. He's from there. They called him the Angel of the Hill, you know. Not sure about the story behind that one, but you don't blink when you're up against him. And there, the big guy? That's Faroma. They say he's got giant's blood in him, but he doesn't talk, so hell if we know the truth. And the dwarf, she's Maure. Been around for four hundred years, apparently."
Just then, the red-haired girl who'd earned a passing smile from Ash last night emerged from a tent.
"Ah," said Isylas, "there's Lyra. She's here with Jes—Jes, that's the old man—and Ash."
Daeron opened his mouth. Isylas didn't notice and continued.
"Let's see. Who's missing? Euwan, she's a hell of a sorceress, can't miss her when you see her. Thought she was the gem of the land when we first met." Isylas chuckled. "That was, what, about four years before Ash came along? There's a drama for the ages." He scanned the camp again. "And I think that's about it. Ah, we've got a land spirit with us too, but she's still out hunting, I think."
Daeron sighed. None of this was particularly interesting to him, less so with the terms he struggled to fully understand. The matter he had been curious about was lost to the elf's chatter now, and he was uncertain of how to retrieve it.
"Rose," he said. "Ash...love?"
Isylas stared at him for a moment. The elf blinked; then snorted. "Wouldn't call it that. More like Rose is the boss and he gets what he wants. Well, that's not all accurate either. It's complicated. Ask them." He paused to drain some soup, then peered suddenly at Daeron. "Oh. I get it. You're a jilted lover, aren't you?"
"Probably still asleep. Always the last one up. Well, are you?"
"Not—how can you not know?"
Isylas squinted. "Seriously? So, what, you jumped Ash without knowing who they are? That's...I mean, I would too, but..."
The elf paused. To make his point, Daeron turned to his bowl and chewed at a bone in pointed silence.
A moment later, Isylas chuckled. "You're an interesting guy, Daeron. I think we'll get along."
As planned, the band travelled around the peninsula forest, reaching the far east bend by sunset. Daeron was tame, speaking not a word from the wagon except when spoken to. Rose was distant, merely gazing at Ash every once in a while. Mercifully for Ash, they only had Lyra and Jes's lingering concerns to quell, and those faded easily enough when Ash laughed over a poorly cooked lunch. Humor—the great panacea.
Evening, the band camped by the forest outskirts once more. Off duty tonight, Ash idled with Lyra and the towering Faro over a game of serpents. It was not until dinner had concluded that Ash went off on their own, seeking out the river for a rinse and some laundry. Three hundred years of constant travel had not vanished their affection for cleanliness, and yesterday had not afforded them the opportunity.
Washed and dressed, Ash was rinsing out the last of their laundry when soft steps rustled the ground. The sound struck peculiar. Ash was particular to details—the uniqueness of a person's footsteps, their gait and pressure, ought to be as telling as a whispered voice. But this one, Ash could not quite pin.
They turned, seeing Daeron.
Ash frowned, having the fleeting thought that something was not right.
'I...didn't mean to startle you—'
'I am not startled,' said Ash, cold again. They turned back to scrubbing the grime from their shirt. 'If your memories are not restored yet, I suggest you scurry back to camp.'
There was a pause while Daeron took a few more steps. He stopped a fair distance between them.
'I came to apologize for last night,' he said. 'There was no opportunity earlier in the day, or I would not have waited until now. It was wrong of me to touch you. Particularly after...what you had told me.'
Ash continued scrubbing. Their knuckles rubbed raw.
At last, feeling the sting of it, Ash paused. 'You want to apologize for kissing me?'
It was quiet.
Ash scoffed, then wrung out the last shirt and tossed it into the laundry basket. They sat upon a nearby boulder and looked flatly at the sorcerer.
'Come here. No. Closer. Now kneel.'
Frowning, Daeron knelt almost between Ash's legs. Ash could smell the nerves on him. The lust. A madman, through and through.
Ash took his hands and slid them beneath their shirt. The contact of his skin was scalding, revolting in its old familiarity. Ash hated that they knew those calluses had grown new, that his temperature was abnormally hot. A swallow rolled down Daeron's stubbled throat. The black of his pupils ate into his umber brown.
'Go on,' said Ash, toneless. 'Touch my back.'
A tremor shivered against their skin. Slowly, Daeron's hands traveled without pressure. Those hands knew to move upward, and soon grazed the edge of the deep indentures. It took great effort for Ash to keep still and blank, staring upon the face of the man who very well should have made the cuts himself. Yet again, the moment was peculiar to Ash: Daeron, who was a master of expression, hid nothing of the horror that seeped into his eyes. Those eyes soon fell, darting as they strung the pieces together. His fingers began to shake, until he abruptly pulled them back.
'Truthsayer,' whispered Daeron.
'Have you remembered?'
Daeron shook his head. 'You...you were...'
'A great fool,' said Ash. They smiled, humorless, and lifted the sorcerer's bearded chin. 'But what does that make you, who comes seeking forgiveness for a kiss? Well? Are you still intent on having my forgiveness?'
'I cannot remember it,' said Daeron, desperate. 'I did not...I could not have...'
Ash shoved him back, disgusted. Without another word, they picked up the laundry basket and strode away.
A half-dozen paces away, Daeron spoke.
It was difficult to believe they had heard right. Not because Daeron had thrown his once-unyielding pride to speak an apology, but because an apology had been spoken at all. An apology, for the immeasurable damage he had done. For all the irreplaceable things he had taken.
The basket fell from Ash's hand. They turned.
'You are sorry?'
Daeron was silent. Ash drew the second knife from their belt: selhare, the etheral Silver.
'Remove your shirt, then.'
Daeron's gaze fell to the blade in Ash's hand. He did not move.
'Afraid?' said Ash, smiling, taunting. They stepped closer. 'But of course. A sentiment costs little to offer. You're sorry?' Ash laughed once. 'What does that give me, Daeron? Your apology has already vanished with the air.' They stopped before the sorcerer, whose head was bent. 'Your words are worthless to me.'
The sorcerer shivered.
He then reached for the lacing of his shirt. Stunned, Ash watched the fabric fall, revealing the unmarred plane of his copper back. It seemed to Ash that he truly was mad.
Ash smoothed away a frown they had not realized materialized. 'Turn,' they said.
The sorcerer straightened and turned toward the river. Ash knelt slowly, selhare blade in hand. Facing the vulnerable canvas of his skin, they suddenly were unsure of where to step next. Up until this moment, their words had been for nothing but a point. A point Ash had lost.
But they thought:
Was this not Daeron of the Rohe, that pivotal Truthsayer?
Was this not the man who had taken their trust, and for nothing but greed and envy, shattered it to their very bones? Tore it through their heart?
Yes. It was. It unmistakably was.
Ash held his shoulder by one hand. By the other, they sank the blade along his left shoulderblade, tearing the thick muscles beneath. Daeron hissed—not from the wound alone, but the etheral Silver leaving its mark. They had used selhare to dig the wings out of Ash's body too.
Slowly, Ash carved the twin lines. The sorcerer tensed to silence, until the cruel angle of the blade drew quiet, shuddering groans. Not long after, Ash withdrew and observed the bloody product.
'Stings, no?' Ash murmured softly.
Daeron's fingers curled into his arm. He said nothing.
Ash rose, dusting the dirt from their knees.
'Well, growing wings is not so bad. It is losing them that you really must scream for.'
Ash groaned at the light seeping beneath the tent hide, then turned and fell back asleep. Two, three times they wove in and out of consciousness, until on the fourth, a shadow stroked their hair. Blinking, Ash gazed up.
It was Jes. He held a bowl of breakfast.
"Good morning," said the sorcerer. "It's time to wake up."
Ash groaned, clutching his weathered hand and curling against his leg. "'Lil' longer."
The sound of his voice was strangely ached, nearly frustrated. Ash lifted their head.
Jes sighed when their eyes met. He offered the bowl, which Ash pushed grudgingly upright to take. They did not have an appetite yet, still doused with sleep and confused by Jes's reaction. It took a few moments longer than usual for Ash to surmise what might have happened.
At last, as they lifted the first spoonful of breakfast, Jes spoke.
"It rained last night."
"Oh? I didn't notice."
"Rose wouldn't give him shelter. Halek couldn't heal his wounds. You used selhare, didn't you?"
Ash chewed. Swallowed.
"I knew it was him," said Jes. "The man you said cut your scars. But why do it like this? Why bring him along with us and let him live, only to bleed him like that? Lyra couldn't sleep last night."
Guilt pricked at Ash. But they smothered it, speaking lightly.
"I would deal with him on my own, but I don't think Rose would let me leave. And I can't kill him. He doesn't remember enough to deserve that mercy yet."
Jes turned away. "You don't sound like yourself."
Ash paused. They put down the bowl of food and reached for Jes, touching the back of their fingers to the man's cheek. The gesture inevitably softened the sorcerer, peeling the frustration in his heart to worry. Jes returned his face slightly, his gaze cast toward the hems of Ash's shirt.
"He comes from a time when I was someone else. I'm sorry if my behavior's unsettled you. But I never dreamed I'd see him again, and it's no longer so easy to let the past go." Their hand slid to Jes's shoulder, gripping lightly. "When he remembers, I will settle it. Then we will have our lives, together, the way it should be."
"If he has the chance to remember," said the sorcerer. "Between the bloodloss and the rain, and the Kabamari, he isn't doing so well."
Ash snorted softly. "That's not a necessary concern, pup. He'll be fine."
Still, after eating breakfast and packing the tent, Ash gave the wounded sorcerer a visit by the wagons. He was hunched, cross-legged, a blanket pooled by his legs. He smelled of copper and puss, and though the rain must have stopped hours ago, his drooping locks and lowered temple were moist. Beside him, Isylas was chattering without mercy. The elf paused as Ash approached.
"Well, if it isn't our sleeping beauty."
Daeron shifted and looked up. Ash caught a glimpse of his shadowed eyes before turning to Isylas.
"Might I borrow your companion for a private moment?"
Isylas snickered as he rose. "Just don't cut him up too bad. He makes a good mule when he's healthy."
Ash waited until the elf had sauntered off before stepping closer to the hunched sorcerer. They gazed down at the man, examining the oddity of his sickly appearance.
'Curious, no? The frailty our ether leaves us with when it is gone.'
Daeron parted his dry lips. He wore no hostility or blame, nor sounded anything but pained. 'How did you survive?'
The wings being torn from their stems, and what followed. Ash lifted their gaze to the rising sun and folded their arms. 'I wonder if it was their vision of mercy. Or was it a part of your bargain? That my life be spared.' They turned back to the sorcerer. 'Was it guilt, I wonder, that kept you from seeking me out after it? Or had you been disillusioned by the way they stripped me down?'
Daeron shook his head, a motion so faint it was perhaps unconscious. 'But I did. I'm here. I came for you, I know it was for you...'
'It's been three hundred years,' said Ash. 'You came for me because a matter has arisen for which you need me.'
'You know? Why I am here?'
'Not exactly. But the possibilities are limited. Not that it is particularly relevant.' They knelt then, tilting their head to inspect the gaunt of those copper cheeks. 'You see, Daeron, I intend to kill you when your memories have returned. I have no intention of being dragged into your affairs again, and in any case, I'd like to square away the past for good. But before you go, I'll have you understand one thing.'
They lifted the sorcerer's chin, feeling the thrum of a fevered pulse from his throat.
'I am not the person you knew. I am the person your betrayal made me. And mourn this, Truthsayer, for in these final days of your life, I will have no mercy for you.'
Chapter 7: 5
True to their word, Daeron was spared no kindness in the following days. His fever came and went. His wounds slowly healed. Aside from Isylas, who kept the man fed, none of the band spoke a word to him. Ash had intended the effect: the company of eyes which revolted him, gnawing at the sprawled, empty husks of his memory. The knowledge that Ash, whom he had so desperately pled forgiveness from, reviled his very existence for a crime he could not remember. For now, it was punishment enough.
But this latter fact trailed Ash’s thoughts as well. The image of Daeron on his knees, offering his skin to the burning Silver, disturbed them to the core. Ash had wondered at the enchantment behind his memory loss, perhaps a fault in his transportation runes—wondered if, maybe, the flow of souls in the etheral stream had swept up somebody else. But who else could it be? Who, alive, spoke the word of Jhasan with native familiarity, who dreamed of Ash, understood the roots behind their scars?
It was Daeron. It must be. And yet that sliver of doubt kept Ash from taking the knife to him again. If only his memories could be restored sooner: his unleashed ether would likely do it, but his unleashed ether also made him far too dangerous. For now, Ash could only wait—and wager that upon the legendary etheral island of Azhani Jine, there might be a cure that didn’t cost his chains.
It was to Azhani Jine that the band traveled now. The king of the southern nation of the Shan peninsula possessed the rare passage ticket in the form of a firegarnet, a crystal grown uniquely from the enchanted volcanic isle. That firegarnet rested upon Rose’s collar, the prize of their labor to fall the enemy’s head. He had been touching it frequently since they left the army camp, more often than not with his eyes on Ash. Another complication, Ash worried, that might trouble their endeavors for vengeance and peace.
Yet their time was not always strung between Daeron and Rose, and the fretting worries of Jes. Life had its own place too. A week and a half after the battle, the band made it beyond the Shan peninsula to the coast of Langanula. This was a curious place, with sand the oddest shade of vermilion.
Midday, the band stopped at a beach. Jes and Rose went to collect fish and crab for their meal, the sort of hunt Ash had little interest in. Meanwhile they sat on the sand and watched the orange soak beneath the foaming waves. In the background, Isylas began his chatter with the wagon-bound Daeron again.
Ash did not pay attention. This place was too beautiful to think of that sorcerer. Instead, they called to Lyra, who was picking up shells from the sea with her feet bare and her trousers rolled to her knees.
Lyra gave them a crooked look and trudged meticulously through the sand. She stopped two paces away from Ash and pointed at their shoulders. “Ah, could you…?”
It was Rose’s serpent, Berdagoan. He had handed her off to Ash before he went fishing. She did not quite get along with Lyra—nor Jes, nor Isylas, for the matter—and hissed rather irritably when Ash shrugged her off. Fortunately, Aiber was in the vicinity to soothe the slithering spirit.
“Thanks,” said Lyra. She settled beside them and spread her collection over the vermilion sand. “Neat, yeah? I ought to try drawing a few when we get ink from the next city. The island will have it, won’t it?”
“Would be a poor city if not,” said Ash, craning their head for a better look. One of the shells was rimmed a deep ocean blue, lit cerulean at the right angle under the sun. The interior was a soft pink, segmented maybe two dozen times by perfectly distanced red lines. Ash pointed to it. “What’s this?”
“I don’t know, but it’s pretty, isn’t it?”
Ash picked it up. The shell felt odd beneath their fingertips, like it should curve to the pressure, like it was a liquid thing. But they pressed gently, and it did not bend. They wondered what creature it had belonged to, and felt and old pleasure that they had to wonder.
“You like it,” Lyra observed. “I might let you keep it.”
Ash arched a brow. “Might?”
Lyra’s lips widened. She crossed her legs and pulled out a familiar notebook from her satchel—a birthday gift for her fifteenth. Ash’s scrawled note flashed along the inner cover as she opened the notebook, turning to a blank page near the final quarter of pages. She pressed the tip of a pen to the parchment and hummed in thought. Then she gazed over the sea, the breeze lifting her auburn curls.
A memory flickered. A warm swell, and an old sting. Ash smiled, though Lyra was not looking.
“When was the first time you saw the sea, Ash?”
“When I was seventy.”
Lyra looked back at them with a bright, curious gaze. She waited for Ash to continue, so Ash tapped the pretty shell in their hand and did just that.
“Among my people, we have a tradition of sending out our young on their seventieth birthday. We call it Mahasari. The Pilgrimage. It’s the only time we are permitted to leave our land. To see the world for twenty seven days, the cycle of a single moon. Then we return to be declared adults and bound to the mountain skies forever.” Ash gave a wry smile. “It’s a tragic fate, really.”
“Only twenty seven days?” said Lyra, glancing up as she wrote. “To see the whole world?”
Ash said, “We travel quickly. And my people did not think there was much to see.”
“Really?” The girl looked to the sea again. The hued turquoise slipped to a deep blue, and the deep blue went on until it was just a smooth, flat line on the horizon. The sky above, just as endless, an echo of the span below. “So the sea is not so impressive to them, is it?”
“Well, most returned to describe it like a large pool of water.”
“Is it to you as well? Just a large pool of water?”
Another breeze came their way, synced with the collision of a wave. The sound of the ocean breathing. The smell of an eternal salt.
“One day, maybe,” said Ash. “One day when I’ve lived long enough to see the whole span of the world. But this?” They gestured to the scene in front of them. They still found it peculiar to see their fingertips interrupting the blue. “It’s the image of infinity and inconsequentiality. The reminder that our immortality is as precious a gift as any finite life. That no matter how great we are, we have greater things to admire.”
Lyra gazed at Ash. “I can see why you left them. Your people.”
Ash laughed. “I didn’t leave them.”
The girl tilted her head and frowned.
Ash smiled and pocketed the shell they had earned. “Well, I’ve made fair payment, haven’t I? That is a story for another time.”
The next day, the band arrived at the little seaside town of Baolo. It was their first stop among civilization in some time, and even Isylas lost his interest in their sorcerer guest for the opportunity at fresh alcohol and townswomen. Daeron was left to his own devices in the wagons, limbs bound firm by rope. They left him a flagon of water and an empty pot.
For Ash, dinner was first on the agenda. Of a similar mind were Aiber, Isylas, and Rose, and, by association, the serpent Berdagoan. They wandered the lower market district where the streets were grimed with the scent of fish, where the hygiene on the public butcher slabs and in the weg rag bags left something to be desired. It was at a decrepit, crowded building that Aiber paused, nodding toward the worn door and faded banner, saying, “This one is good.”
“This one?” said Isylas. “Smells like dung.”
“Have I ever been wrong?”
Isylas sighed. “There’ll be a first time for everything.”
But relenting that it likely wouldn’t be today, he followed the others inside.
They were greeted by a stout woman who eyed Berdagoan with some paleness in the face. This was eased moments later by Aiber’s broken Ganish, the language of the region, and silken charm. She vanished for a few moments, which was followed by a commotion near the back of the establishment. Not long after, the group was led to a somewhat decent, very curiously empty table, respectably far from the other tables and positioned right by the opened windows. An associatively familiar view was outside, the common cheap scenery of passing band dinners.
Seated, Isylas picked up a menu and frowned at it. “Can’t read this.”
Ash peered at the parchment and hummed. “It says fish.”
Isylas scoffed. “Darling, I might not be as bright as you, but I do know that piss ton of gibberish has got a lot more range than fish.”
“Hardly,” said Ash. They flipped the menu around and dangled it. “It is entirely fish. Fried, broth, dumpling, skewer—have your pick.”
“I’d suggest the rockwhale,” said Aiber.
The prim sorcerer smiled, not lifting his eyes.
“Rose, what are you getting?”
Rose pushed up his spectacles. “Raw frogs.” Berdagoan slithered in delight. “Would you like to share?”
“You’re all incorrigible,” said Isylas.
In the end, they ordered some skewers of fried eel for Isylas, who was pleasantly tamed after a taste. Ash, in the habit of trying the most eclectic dishes, soon found a pot of vivid red broth before them. A finned gray tail peeked between the oil bubbles, spices gathering in the crevices. Not entirely pleasant, as it turned out—quite painful at times. But it was an experience, and so Ash endured, to the humor of the other three and a hissing serpent.
As they were wrapping up the meal, a peculiar excitement from the far corner caught Ash’s attention. Two burly men and a stick were chattering about an affair in the northwestern provinces, earning a small crowd as they recounted the tale. Ash softened the clinking of their spoon to listen.
“No body left,” said one man in thick Ganish. “Just went splat, like a plum. Some real sick magic. Heard it served the mage right, though.”
“But weren’t there others?” said the other man. “Like about a dozen of them, right?”
“Yeah,” said the first. “But I mean, mages. Prissy pimps and horseasses. You really feel bad?”
Ash glimpsed a shudder from the table.
“But that’s the thing, right? They were mages and still got done like that.”
“What killed them?”
“Don’t know. They say it was angels. But angels? I mean, come on.”
“But I saw them,” said another voice. Small, timid. “Men with wings in the sky. I saw them.”
An ache burned in their back.
Ash glanced at Isylas, then smiled. “Sorry. Were you saying something?”
Midnight, drunk, they returned to the innhouse.
It was Aiber who Ash lingered with this time, lured by the sorcerer’s gentleness. They stumbled into his tiny innroom, shedding autumn jackets and leather belts, dropping swords and knives upon the floor. The pulse of a chiseled, delicate body fluttered beneath Ash’s fingers, giving way without a single protest. Soon Ash was sprawled across the bed, arching to the mouth that suckled them sweetly.
Sex was a curious thing. A few well-pressured touches in the right places, and one had pleasure. But throw in the vulnerability, the intimacy, the complexity of dynamic and personality, and one had this staggering, tailored high. For Ash, Rose brought a thrill; Isylas, fun. Aiber was of a different realm: something mesmerizing, ever giving in the balance.
Ash stroked his sleek hair, gently tilting his face away from their cock. A pair of clear blue eyes gazed up, waiting; a pair of swelling, luscious lips. Such an image made it easier for Ash to understand Rose’s inclination to hold them down, fuck them as if to break them. But beautiful things—Ash always found them more captivating when they dismantled themselves.
“Come, lovely. I want to watch you ride me.”
Compliant, the sorcerer rose to straddle Ash. For Aiber, too, sex with Ash was matter of dynamic—falling beneath the shadow of an effortless, unwavering dominance. He made an exhibition of preparing himself, eyes fluttering shut to Ash’s sultry whispers of encouragement. By the time he had Ash inside, his thighs were tremoring from the high.
“Oh, heavens,” whispered Aiber.
“Has it been long?”
“S-since Talgor—Talgoras. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember Talgoras. You’ve not slept with anyone since?”
He arched his head back briefly, lips parted in the the rhythmic pleasure. “Some outsiders,” he said after a moment. “But you know I—don’t like men.”
“Clearly, it’s not because of their dicks.”
Aiber laughed, hands sliding up Ash’s body as he leaned down. “What about you? I’ve never seen you with a woman.”
“I am not exclusive.”
“But you—prefer men?”
“I prefer whatever might thrill me. At the moment, I prefer you.” Ash took the sorcerer’s hips and maneuvered them around. Aiber gasped, fingers digging into Ash’s shoulders. “There now. Spread your legs, beautiful.”
“Oh, fuck, Ash—”
The moment dissolved to raw, intoxicated lust, no more room for peripheral conversation. Fair to his word, Aiber seemed not to have been taken in quite a while, and the tight, swallowing warmth of his entrance drew the pleasure from Ash faster than Rose ever allowed. In a haze of murmurs and moans, they both came.
With their spill still between them, Ash settled atop Aiber’s chest, welcoming the grime of their intimacy. Not a common thing: it was the alcohol, making Ash warmer than they tended to be in the aftermath of sex. Tracing the planes of Aiber’s chest, Ash hummed in satisfaction.
Aiber stroked their hair. Ash arched into the touch, nearly purring.
“You’re terribly cute like this,” said Aiber.
Aiber chuckled. “You do this with Rose? Cuddle like a kitten?”
“He’d get the wrong idea.”
Aiber paused for a moment. “Have you ever loved anyone, Ash?” When Ash peered beneath an arched eyebrow, Aiber added, “Just a curiosity, mind you. I’m not so dangerously involved with you yet.”
“I didn’t think so,” said Ash.
“So, have you?”
“I love Lyra and Jes.”
“You know that isn’t what I mean.”
Ash was quiet. Their thoughts swam, hot at the brink. It was the drinks at the tavern, still lingering.
“I did,” said Ash. “Though I didn’t know until it was too late. Most of us don’t.”
“What does that mean?”
A pounding began on the door, scattering Ash’s answer. They shoved upright instead, for the rhythm of those knuckles were frantic. Without dressing, Ash jumped off the bed and hurried to open the door.
Isylas stood outside, pale.
“It’s Daeron,” said the elf. “He’s gone.”