Chapter 1: Return
He was home.
Aiur was beneath his feet; it was all around him; it’s energies filling the air and melding with his psionics, still crying out for the Khala, like a lost friend, lover, gone forever. Artanis walked across the ground, covered in broken pieces of the chambers that once housed the Conclave. Dust billowed around his feet and swirled in the air, catching the rays of light that pushed through the broken walls gaping roofs that once adorned the most exquisite art and architecture known to Aiur. Now it lay in pieces at his feet. But none of that mattered.
Because they were home. They were free.
The air that was once filled with the song of the Khala hung heavy with silence around the Heirarch, it’s weight almost too much for him to bear. He ran a hand over his severed cords, feeling the brittle ends, uncovered and bare. He took a step forward, pushing aside the broke head of a statue. He should be happy - he should be celebrating with his people, with the Daelaam, the Nerazim, those they had saved from Aiur, those that had stood at their side at every step and the Tal’darim that still hung back, awaiting their Highlord’s command.
But he could not revel in their joy - it had come at such a price, and it all weighed upon his shoulders. He brought a clawed hand to rest upon Zeratul’s bracer. And you are only the beginning of my burden, old friend.
Artanis lifted his head as he felt a presence approach; each of his hearts missed a beat as the familiar aura grew stronger, the steps of it’s bearer echoing off the shattered walls.
“Your people call for their Heirarch,” said Alarak as he entered the chambers, his footsteps slow, his voice to match.
“They can wait,” said Artanis as he turned to his companion, reaching out with both hands to pull him close. There was a hesitation in the Highlord’s posture; he stood rigid, and his hands were hesitant to greet his lovers. But the eagerness of Artanis’s welcome was too great to notice.
“It seems you cannot,” said Alarak as the Templar slid his hands around Alarak’s waist. The Tal’darim ran a claw along Artanis’s braids, watching the flicker of his lover’s eyes as he looked up, expectantly. “You are troubled,” he said, drawing the same hand across his crest.
Artanis let the weight of his shoulders drop as he leaned into his lover. Normally Alarak was one for actions first, words later, but on the one time that Artanis would welcome such decisions, he chose words first. His hands ran along Alarak’s back which was heavily armoured, despite them being at rest upon Aiur. He thought little of it.
“I cannot forget the price it took to take us home,” he said, leaning into Alarak’s touch and closing his eyes. His crest shimmered blue.
“But you are home. Your people are back where they belong and they are free,” said Alarak, brushing a thumb beneath Artanis’s eye. “Nothing comes without a price.”
Artanis opened his eyes, feeling an unease at the other’s words. “Will you return with me - to the festivities?”
Alarak stood in silence for a while, idly drawing his thumb beneath Artanis’s eye before leaning in close and touching together their crests, taking his lover’s unsteady hand into his. “I came to say goodbye.”
“No - no -” began the Heirarch, sinking his claws into Alarak’s back as he spoke. “I need you.”
“You don’t. I am the last thing you need,” he said, unable to still the quiver of desire that rippled through his body from his lover’s desperate hold.
“Stay on Aiur - on your home,” said Artanis, feeling the heat between their crests rise.
“This is not my home. This is not where I or my people belong,″ said Alarak, drawing a hand along his lovers cords, from crest to tip.
“It could be - let it be,” pleaded Artanis, trying to pull the Highlord closer, tighter, so that their bodies almost melded as one.
“As much as you speak of a united Protoss, your people would not accept the Tal’darim here, nor my position alongside you as Highlord,” he paused, pulling back from their intimate embrace, Artanis’s hands still clutching to his back. “Never mind as your lover.”
“I am their Heirarch!,” said Artanis, furrowing his brow, the colour of his crest shifting colour almost with each word. “They will follow and do as I say.”
Alarak shook his head with a smirk. “You sound like me - and that is not who you are, Artanis.”
The Highlord raised a hand and stalled Artanis’s words, swaying his head with a no. The tip of his nerve cords brushed against Artanis’s arm; he shuddered. “You are not me; you are better than me and you deserve better than me.”
Artanis made to speak, but stuttered on his first words, the flicker of his eyes the first betrayal of the tremor of pain that stirred beneath his skin. “Let me decide who I deserve,” he said, bringing a hand to the Highlord’s face, mostly obscured by his decadent armour.
“You have made many decisions in your young life, Artanis, and all of them weigh heavily on your shoulders,” he said, cupping the Templar’s face with his hands, the tips of his claws gracing the edges of his crest, still adorned with his armour. “I am making this one.”
“Alarak - don’t do this,” pleaded Artanis once again, tilting back his head. “I thought this - this was more than just - just -”
“Some fun?” said Alarak with a smirk. “Oh but it was fun, Heirarch.” He paused, closing his crimson eyes before he spoke his next words. “It was…many things. But like most, it must come to an end.”
“Just like that?”
“Forget me, Artanis,” said Alarak, drawing his thumbs beneath his eyes once more. He tried to pull away his hands, but he couldn’t.
“You’re a fool if you think I’ll ever forget you.”
Alarak laughed gently, at last slipping his hands free from Artanis’s face. “I do like to leave an impression wherever I go.” He took a step back. Artanis caught his hand.
“I love you.”
Alarak said nothing.
“I know you won’t say it back now, if ever, but I can feel it within you, Alarak. When you touch me, when you make love to me, when you look at me,” his words faltered, “like now. I won’t give up on us, even if you have.” Artanis let his hand fall and he turned away, staring at the broken wall of the chambers.
Alarak took a step forward, reached out a hand and almost touched Artanis’s shoulder - but he stopped. “Goodbye, Artanis.” He turned and left, his footsteps echoing off the broken walls.
Artanis looked around him, he was home, he was free, but he had never been more alone.
Chapter 2: A Message
Artanis receives some unwanted news and seeks some wanted advice.
Artanis watched the young Lieutenant leave, his steps echoing off the newly built walls. They gleamed, reflecting the light, an echo of the majesty that had once surrounded the Conclave, years before. Now it housed the Hierarch, his fellows and the Matriarch. Although, she much preferred to keep away from the grandiose housings of the new seat of the Hierarch, instead often mingling with her Nerazim as they begun to find their footing upon Aiur, and to find a semblance of home.
Artanis wished them well, for the ground beneath him, the familiarity that surrounded them, still felt empty, void, hung with muted words and unrecognisable faces. The happiness that had spread through the Daelaam upon the reclamation had dimmed now; it still swelled in their hearts - he was sure it would never leave, if Artanis knew his people - but the initial thrill, the adrenaline of victory had quelled, and it had left him with a thousand words, and a thousand thoughts.
A beep on his holo terminal caught his attention; another message. Artanis stared at it, willing it away. But it flickered, almost taunting. WIth a clawed finger, he swiped it open, the words forming in a blink over the terminal. It was from some of Vorazun’s scouts, from the fringes of the system. They had witnessed another Daelaam ship captured, the crew that managed to escape had fled home, broken and bruised. Those that hadn’t, presumed dead.
He swiped away the message, feeling the words bite like claws upon his hearts; bitter, latching, unwilling to yield their hold. For he knew who was responsible.
Alarak, of course.
The last words of the message lingered with him as he left the seat of his power, waving off the lights with a hand.
Course of action, Hierarch?
Nothing, he wanted to shout. Nothing. But -
He had shared his body, his mind, his life with Alarak all through their war. And this is how he repaid him? With thievery and betrayal? Artanis guessed he should have expected this. Alarak had given him enough warning with his ominous words, his sullen refusal to give as much as Artanis had given him. Looking back, it was plain to anyone . But at the time, he was blind. Blind. Deaf. Dumb.
Was he even happy, then? If not, what was it he felt now?
The doors hissed open before him, and Artanis didn’t break his stride. He wasn’t sure where he was going - but he wanted it to be anywhere but here. There were memories of friends; past, lost, that felt too close, taunting, haunting, that he just wanted to escape. The burden of his title and his victory was something he couldn’t shift. He had often turned to Alarak to forget. And it had worked .
They had worked, somehow. Or so he had thought.
Eyes followed his steps and words filled his mind as he strode through the grand entryway to Aiur’s seat of power. There was always someone who wanted his attention and time, but there was only one who Artanis had time for just now. He made sure his presence radiated his desire to remain undisturbed. It seemed to work. A zealot hovered by his right, the flicker of his eyes, the push of his aura indicating his desire to speak. But he remained still, unwilling to take another step towards the Hierarch. A Shadowguard, two, passed before Artanis. He recognised them - the damaged ridge of his crest hidden beneath a handful of loose cords. At his side was a shadow-sister, her black ribbons dancing around their bodies in an echo of her bubbling laughter. Their hands brushed together as they shared a private exchange.
“Shadowguard,” called Artanis, interrupting their retreat.
Both halted, stood apart a step, held their armoured arm before their chests and bowed, almost in unison to the Hierarch. The nuance of humour that flickered in their eyes was lost to the Hierarch, but it rippled gently in their auras.
“Hierarch,” said the shadow-sister as she lifted her head, her voice soft. “What is it you wish?”
“Where is your Matriarch? I wish to speak with her,” he said, picking up on the quiver of amusement in their presence. But he said nothing.
“The gardens, by the pond,” said the one with the damaged crest, “we have just come from there.”
The shadow-sister tried hard to quell a laughter, but her body shuddered as she pulled herself straight, blinking slowly as she nodded in agreement to her companion's words.
Artanis stared at them both, blinking. Was that a twig in her cords? He glanced to the side. “Thank you,” he said somewhat abruptly before turning away and heading the way the two had come, leaving them behind.
It was pety, he knew, but the happiness of others, their joy, soured his mood. When they had been one with the Khala, feeling the joy ripple through the air, through ones mind at several points through the day, night, was - indescribable. You didn’t just see it, hear it, but you felt it. It brought you out from your stupor; helped at times to draw you from the darkest depths; but now? Now they were all alone.
The Nerazim managed; by Adun, the Tal’Darim managed - are we so weak that we - that I cannot cope?
Zealots walked by, animated, their auras still pulsing from their training. High Templars were few down here, often confining themselves to the higher reaches of the citadel, or within the walls of the archives, assisting the Preservers. But one glided by, his sullen face unreadable, his mind unbroachable. The ends of his cords were tattered, ragged, barely covered by the muted clamps that tipped the ends. Artanis turned away.
As he stepped out to the gardens, the sun dappled his skin, and he drank in it’s warmth. He hadn’t been outside for days, and his body was reminding him of such. The rays crept over his blue skin and caught the exquisite shimmer of his armour, making it gleam brightly, a distraction to the exhaustion of his skin.
“Vorazun,” he said, dipping his head in respect as he approached.
She sat alone, reclined across a bench, tapping idly on her datapad. A shawl of branches, low and thick, hung just above her crest, the tips grazing the edge of her cords. Her skin was dappled in their shadows, it’s pattern fragmented, scattered.
“Hierarch,” she said, lifting her head lazily, “you are uneasy; tense. What troubles you?” She set the pad onto her lap and drew her legs to her chest, clearing a spot for Artanis to sit. But he didn’t. He paced. And paced.
“Alarak,” she said, simply. “I know.”
Artanis paused mid step, his hand poised before his chest. “How did you know?"
“It was my scouts that reported back,” she said, the shimmer of her jewels catching the light as she spoke.
“Why does he do this?” he said, turning from the glare of the sun, clasping his hands behind his back.
Vorazun let a light laugh fill their connection. “It has always been the way of the Tal’Darim,” she said, crossing a leg over the other, elegantly. “Or have you had your memory clouded by certain events , Hierarch.”
Artanis stared, reaching out to her presence, trying to decipher the weight of her words. But it was just the shroud of his denial, for of course she knew. And the longer he stared, mute, unwilling to answer her question, the more he unwittingly bared.
Vorazun sighed, shifting on the bench so she sat upright, crossing one leg over the other. “You never did tell me why he refused an alliance,” she began, “well - you told me the official reason, of course. But I am no fool, Artanis.”
“Because we were too different?” said Artanis as he resumed his pacing, the hiss of his armour an accompaniment to the gentle trickle of the fountain’s water. “That reason still stands.”
“Really?” said Vorazun, stretching an arm across the back of the bench, her finely tipped claws tapping over the surface.
Artanis paused. “He didn’t care enough to stay. Is that what you want to hear?”
“Or he cared too much?” she said, her words rising with a gentle inflection.
He turned his head, the metal clamps at the end of his braids clinking against his armour. “And he expresses that by stealing my ships and murdering my people?”
Vorazun blinked, staring at the Hierarch before she rose from the bench, her datapad in hand. “You came here seeking my advice, yes?”
Artanis said nothing.
Vorazun walked to Artanis, lifted a hand and curled a clawed finger beneath his chin, turning his head to face her.
“Then go and find him.