The first thing Sorey was aware of was pain--blinding white and terrible. It sizzled through his veins like lightening and paralyzed him with the heavy pressure of fear. There was not a part of him that did not scream in terror, trapped in the agony of dying. Sorey had not a single care as to what was going on, only that it should stop and leave him in peace. Not a thought existed beyond the confines of experience and not a hope persisted more than a wish for release.
"Hold on," a voice called, muffled and strange, distant and unwelcomed all the same.
Sorey felt something thick pause over his lips and tasted the cloyingly sweet flavor of grape as the substance forced its way down his throat at the behest of strange fingers clawing at his jaw. The taste made him gag almost as certainly as the viscus goo that flooded his mouth to the point of choking him. He swallowed to breathe, coughing endlessly, chest screaming in pain. And then it didn't hurt so much anymore. It didn't feel like death or dying. Sorey took several deep breaths then allowed the hands to feed him again, surrendering to them as they gently poured more gel down his raw throat.
"That's it," the voice said again, no longer distant but still echoing despite the person being right there. His hands supported Sorey's head and softly attended to his pain, meaningless caresses lightly stroking across his face in an attempt to comfort. "There's no rush," he promised. "Sleep and heal. I've got you now."
Sorey opened his eyes but found they focused on nothing. Giving in, he fell achingly back into sleep's numb arms.
The next time he was conscious enough to feel, Sorey only noticed the softness of a bed and the cool rustle of a fragrant breeze. His eyes opened to spy the revolving blades of a fan overhead while music played in the distance and pain was but a memory. Overall, his senses felt dull with a haze surrounding everything. Light blurred and sounds mottled. He took his time, trying to remember what had occurred, trying to piece together what events had brought him here. He could think of nothing, though. There were no memories outside the moment he'd embraced his long sleep, nothing which called out to him as an excuse for an end to his slumber. The closest thing he had was a sense of revulsion with no clear source. His heart felt heavy with a panic in his pulse but there was nothing left to explain just why.
The room itself was small but strange with a desk covered in an assortment of... things... which looked like nothing Sorey had ever seen before. They were shiny like metal with decals of colors, some of which looked illuminated from within. He wanted very much to sit up and inspect the strange objects closer, but found only his head obeyed. His arms, his chest, his legs, not a one of them answered his call for motion. A new form of panic bloomed behind his ribs just as the room's sole door slowly opened, admitting a man backing into the room with a tray balanced in his hands.
Sorey didn't know him. His hair was black and he wore thick rimmed glasses, a jade teardrop earring hanging from one ear. He looked a little older than Sorey though his youthfulness existed only in his smile. He looked pleased to see Sorey awake and set the tray down on the bedside table.
"You certainly do like your sleep," he joked, his voice only familiar in so much as Sorey knew he had heard it before--the stranger who had tended to his pain in the blindness of his morning.
The man came to his side, hand pressing tenderly to his forehead as he seemed to check for fever under the sway of his sweaty bangs.
"Much improved," he announced, sounding genuinely relieved before squatting down to cradle Sorey's head as he held him up for the offering of a drink. "We'll have you good as new in no time," he promised as he pressed the edge of the glass to Sorey's lips without wording his intentions.
Not that it mattered. Sorey was wont to drown himself in the offered water with all the greed of his immense thirst. The man would not let him drink too fast, however, pulling back to force him to take a moment to breathe before supplying the cool reprise Sorey's throat and stomach begged for. It felt so good to fill himself. It refreshed him to his core. Sorey felt the rivers of water pouring out the corners of his lips due to his uncoordinated efforts but only rejoiced in the cool sensation as it continued its trail down his neck.
The man took the glass away and set is aside, carefully setting Sorey's head back down into the soft cloud of his pillow. Sorey almost felt drunk, his head spinning with satisfaction. That was water. His stomach grumbled with the demand now for food.
The stranger chuckled as he smoothed the blankets over Sorey's motionless form. "In a minute. Let's give your stomach a chance to suss out the water first. You don't want to overdue it and end up throwing up after all."
Sorey licked his lips, managing a weak nod. He had no choice but to trust the strange man. Circumstances had given him no other option but to sleep. "I--" his voice crackled with disuse, pain raking down his throat where the water had once soothed it.
"Shh," the stranger warned. "No need for that. Let your voice rest too, for now. Just leave the talking to me and focus instead on getting well. You've been through hell and you're lucky to be alive."
It was hard to feel lucky when the only thing he knew for certain was that he wasn't where he was supposed to be. Sorey certainly didn't remember this room in Artorius' Throne. Getting well seemed secondary to so many other concerns he had.
The stranger sat at his bedside, his smile almost as bright as the sunlight that obscured his eyes from behind his lenses. "My name is Joseph Medraut. I'm a student at Pendrago University," he explained. It answered at least one question anyway. "This is my home in Gwenhwyfar which I don't expect existed in your time. It sits in the foothills of the Aroundight mountains just outside Ladylake's city limits. Camlann's not far at all to the north. Still, I'm amazed that I found you. And alive."
Sorey wasn't sure if he should be amazed as well or not. It seemed to him in a blink, so much of the world had changed.
Joseph continued smiling at him, grabbing from the tray he'd brought in a small bowl of soggy oats and a spoon. "Of course, I know who you are. You're Shepherd Sorey. I think I've read just about every story ever written about you. I had a couple acquaintances that went on to be Squires who just about worshiped you as a god. They'd go mental if they could see me now, feeding humanity's venerated hero while he recovers in my bed." With that, he pressed a spoonful of bland oats to Sorey's lips which he obliged with a further grumble from his gut.
It turned out Joseph was quite the talker. He carefully fed Sorey both sustenance and information, painting the new world in a vibrancy of words that left a myriad of things to the former Shepherd's imagination. Things like radios and telephones, vehicles than ran without animals and the recess of nature in the spread of humanity. It all sounded like a dream but rather drove home the passage of time. Almost a thousand years, Joseph had told him. The nine hundred and sixty-third celebration of the Shepherd's Path was an annual event scheduled for two months out.
"And you don't look a day over seven hundred," Joseph joked, scraping the last bite from the bowl onto the spoon. "Human bodies aren't really designed to just stay still for great lengths of time and not fall prey to the ravages of entropy, though. I shouldn't promise you'll have the ability to move again but I think, despite the circumstances, you'll be alright given time. I mean, humans aren't supposed to live to be almost a thousand years old either. If anyone could recover from this, it'd be you. So let's not push too hard but let's certainly give things a good try. And if things don't improve, we'll consider moving you to an actual hospital. I just really don't think you want to deal with that level of celebrity right now which is why I've taken you in instead."
Sorey nodded in agreement then accepted one final bite of the honestly disgusting meal. It was still worlds better than the overpowering flavors of the grape gel from before. He just had forgotten that food could taste like laundry sometimes. Mikleo's certainly never did.
Mikleo. And Lailah. Edna and Zavied. His friends. His friends would be out there somewhere, living in this strange world as they had before with every other era that passed. He wondered if they all looked the same still. Did Zavied start wearing a shirt? Had Edna grown any taller? Was Lailah still working as a Prime Lord? And Mikleo...
"You're lucky I was out for a walk. Never in a million years did I think I'd stumble upon Camlann. I mean, isn't that place supposed to be sealed off? Protected and all that? I mean, you read about how they took great care to ensure your sleep wouldn't be disturbed. And now here you are. I mean, you'd be dead if I hadn't found you. The hell happened to you? Do you know?"
Sorey shook his head, dismissing pleasant thoughts for further concerns. The roads the Camlann were open? In the short time in which they'd spoken about their plan, the seraphim had all agreed it best to renew the seal and keep everyone out so long as Maotelus needed to purify. What had once been Zenrus' burden fell to them to ensure and renew. It wasn't like them at all to let such an important thing slide. If not just because they cared for him, they valued the fate of the world as well. How long had the roads been open? Since when had he been left vulnerable to curiosity and attack?
It was too much to verbalize and his savior was not likely to know the answers either way. It was hard to tell if another human had resonance without something there to be proven able to see. But Sorey could not feel Maotelus's blessing. There was every reason to worry and to hurry back to Artorius' Throne.
Joseph sighed loudly, stacking empty dishes along his tray as he packed up to carry it back out. "I guess I should let you rest now. If you want, though, I seem to remember reading you were quite a fan of books. I recently bought a few old copies of some ancient texts in Ladylake. Since you can't really hold one or flip the pages, I could read to you from them for a while if it'll help you relax."
It was one of the kinder things anyone had ever offered to do for him--which was perhaps a bit of an odd reflection on his priorities given the man had saved his life. It made Sorey flush slightly, though, with memories of his guardian reading aloud to him and Mikleo made fresh with the embarrassment of age. Trapped in his own body and doing his best not to think about the multitude of things he was currently unable to pursue, a story to drive his thoughts to distraction seemed like a most welcome gift. He nodded slowly, curious as to what sorts of texts they'd be. Ancient to Joseph could possibly be contemporary for himself. Either way, the content would be sure to soothe rather than pull at the inquisitive strings of his mind.
Joseph smiled and hurried out with the finished tray, returning shortly with a small stack of books of which the pages had almost all decayed to yellow. All but one, at least, and its wellkempt status went beyond the page color to the careful reconstruction of the book's leather spine and reinforcements on the book's outward corners. There were notes peaking out of it and hand written scribbles peaking out along spare sheets of paper trapped within. It was a book Sorey could almost recognize by smell, a tome he knew cover to cover; the most important book he'd ever held in his hands. The Celestial Record sat topmost in Joseph's stack.
It wasn't just any copy of the Celestial Record, though--it was his copy. The stains on page tops from where he'd accidentally spilled his supper, the handmade tabs to mark out his favorite tales. It had obviously undergone repairs since he'd last held it in his hands but Sorey knew those smudges along the leather cover intimately. That was definitely his copy, the one he'd given to Mikleo for safe keeping. The one his Mikleo would never ever let out of his sight. Yet there it was, in the hands of a stranger, sitting atop a small pile of lesser books.
If he hadn't known it before, he knew it for certain now. The seal to Camlann broken, his book in another's hands; something was most definitely wrong and it extended far greater than to only what had happened to himself. Something had happened to Mikleo. There was nothing more horrifying than that.
No matter how much Sorey wanted to get up and hunt for answers, there was nothing he could do. His body was unresponsive, nothing more than a burden it itself could not bear. He was stuck in bed until there was stark improvement to his health. He could barely even manage sitting in a chair, finding himself slipping down onto the floor on attempt, his desire to either push back with his feet or halt his slow slide with his hands nothing more than in-actionable thoughts as he pooled like liquid on the rug. Joseph at the very least was kind and patient with no small amount of medical knowledge as well. It was enough to keep Sorey comfortable but only time would promise results. And while he healed, he feared the trail was only growing colder for the two people he cared about, either of which could possibly be in need of his help.
On this day Sorey was sitting by the window, his chest bound to the chair's high back with cloth bandages to leverage his weight. He was tired of staring up at the fan overhead. He was tired of ceilings in general. The window offered him green grass and violet flowers, the kiss of the cool breeze as it raced down from the mountains. There wasn't much to see outside the small flowerbed and the side of another's residence but it was still colors and light the likes of which he hadn't seen in quite some time. Not since Elysia--from there, all things were scorched and dead. It was odd to remember and know such recent memories were of hundreds of years gone by. This was his first time seeing the world he had worked so hard to save, though. And it was green. Its sky was blue. And on the wind, he heard children playing.
"Do humans and seraphim live together?"
"Hm? Oh, well, yes, I suppose they do. I've never been able to see them myself but you hear people boast all the time about receiving a seraphim's blessing. Hotel chains, restaurants, universities--you name it. I'm not sure how true it all is but some people put a lot of value on those kinds of claims. And then there's the Squires and Shepherds and places of worship and... well, you'd know better than me. There's tons of those. So I guess you'd say we're integrated."
Sorey felt a fullness in his heart that threatened to bring tears to his eyes with just the memory of that conversation. This world was the one he'd been dreaming of, even if another house's stone walls was all of it he could see. They'd made this possible; their sacrifice was worth it. The future he and Mikleo had wanted was their new reality. Well, new for Sorey anyway. Mikleo had watched it unfold. Was watching. He'd better be, anyway. That had been the plan and the promise that they had shared. Their intention had never been to say goodbye.
"Where did you get that book?"
"From a shop in Ladylake. We're covering the 5th edition in my religious studies class but I couldn't pass up an original copy. The seller hadn't a clue what it was worth. It was a real bargain. I got this whole stack for just under twenty gald!"
Sold? Sorey didn't want to believe it. He'd had Joseph flip through its pages for him in the hope that he was somehow mistaken after all. But the notes were his. Even Mikleo had scribbled things down in his much cleaner but still juvenile penmanship. It was his book--their book--and it now belonged to someone else. How such a thing could transpire filled him with cold dread and unbearable thoughts. There were only two possibilities that he could even hold on to long enough to attach new ideas: the book had been stolen and he'd never meant to part with it, or else Mikleo despised him so much he discarded it and all of the memories it contained. As far as his heart was concerned, those were the only two viable possibilities. Because otherwise, it might allude to the possibility he could be dead. Which was impossible and so not a thing to be believed--best forgotten. Sorey never in all his life thought he'd have his fingers crossed that his best friend might hate him, but it was very hard to steal from the seraphim when they and their belongings could go unseen.
Joseph said he'd take him to the bookshop in Ladylake. Maybe the man there would know from whence it came.
"You don't have to be able to walk but if you could sit, I could wheel you there."
So they were practicing with tying him up. It didn't hurt so much as grew increasingly uncomfortable the longer the day went on. Even if Sorey was sure he was sitting perfectly still, he still managed to sink with as little movement as a bob of his own head. Pressure built along his tailbone and made his lower back ache as it curled out from under him. The bandages bit into his armpits as they tried to hold him up. But Sorey needed to not be confined any longer to that room. Three days was long enough. He needed to speak to the bookseller, and in Ladylake, there might be word of Maotelus as well.
He heard the door open behind him but didn't dare turn to look, having learned at least a little bit that it would only make his seated position worse. It could only be one person, after all, and his host was more than understanding. He heard the man put a tray down and listened to his steps as he came up closer behind. Strong hands grabbed him by his sides and adjusted him again with his back flush to the chair.
"Well, that's not so bad. How's it feel?" Joseph asked as he knelled at his side.
Sorey forced a smile to be polite, hating his own infirmity much more than he'd hated anything in his past. "It's not bad. If we tie me down at the waist and feet too, I think I could keep from sliding out."
"You're going to have people thinking I'm some kind of monster wheeling around a guy physical bound to a wheelchair," Joseph joked, though he smiled too as he stood, the sunlight catching against his glasses and the polish of the jade dangling from his ear. He sighed loudly, hands planted on his hips as he looked to the clock resting on the desk. "I guess we've got time this evening, though, if you want me to take you in to Ladylake."
It was more than Sorey had been expecting and yet everything he'd been waiting to hear. "Are you sure? How many days out will it take from here?" he asked, trying to keep his resolve in tact. This was no time to grow impatient when he was wholly dependent on his new friend.
"Days?" Joseph chuckled, shaking his head. "No, it's like... an hour there and an hour back," he corrected, turning the chair with a squeak of his legs so he could attend to feeding Sorey from his tray. "I bet you'd like the view from the car but I'm probably going to have to have you laid back in the seat. Otherwise you'd probably get hurt between the bumps and turns. But hey! Since we'll be in the city, maybe we can find you a seraph with healing artes. Not sure what they can do but it's worth a shot. Even if it won't get you back on your feet, it might speed things up a bit."
Sorey felt anxious with so many promises put before him. He prayed the tray emptied quickly so they could soon be on their way.
It took hours. Feeding didn't take long, especially with Sorey sitting up, but then there was clean up and then the bathroom which was a matter best not thought about outside of how much he really owed Joseph in the end. There were sundries to load like a wheelchair, plenty of cloth bandages, and, in some respects, Sorey himself. Cars were apparently light blue metal carts enclosed with panes of glass. Seats folded back and they came with their own means of securing bodies down. The ceiling was grey cloth to match the seats and inner walls. It was a very interesting place to be restrained in.
If Sorey could, he knew he'd be fidgeting. Part of it was a need to go faster and find the answers he needed to seek. Part of it was a new breed of terror that existed in each glimpse of... everything. Like cars. Sitting in a stationary one felt odd but not threatening per se. Not until Joseph got in and twisted a key beneath the wheel. The roar, the rumble, the rush of forward air even as he felt them reversing; nothing felt right or natural about it at all. The sounds that screamed from all sides with voices calling out made him seize up in panic, wanting his arms to spring up to protect himself from whatever it was but panicking even more with their continued refusal to come to his aid.
Joseph fumbled with some nobs, cursing gently under his breath. "Sorry! Sorry. Forgot I had that up so loud," he relayed. The sounds and voices disappeared with the same immediacy as they had began.
Sorey breathed deeply, trying to calm his pounding heart, while through the window all he could see was the blue sky and a few black rooftops as they passed. Soon only the sky remained.
He must have fallen asleep. When he again opened his eyes, they sky had abandoned them in favor of brick towers as far as his eyes could see. Sorey recognized the soft sounds of music all around them, though as far as taste, it wasn't very good. Lights of all colors were everywhere as well as giant pictures holding on to the buildings' sides. It was a mess. It was one, big, noisy mess. As the car came to a stop and Sorey heard the beast go silent, he couldn't help but think this was all a big mistake. What was this and where was Ladylake?
"Ah, I forgot what traffic was like at this hour," Joseph groaned as he got out and leaned back to stretch his spine. He sighed loudly as he walked around to the back and began the chore of their unpacking.
Sorey bit at the flesh inside his lip. In front of him a sign warned about the proper hours of parking, promising enforcement by Ladylake Police. "Are we here?" he asked, not sure where else they could be but still unnerved by the changes he saw. He tried to look as far back as possible but still could not quite glance behind him as Joseph messed with the wheelchair behind the rise of the back seats.
"Yup, this is Ladylake. Shopping district. I tried to get us as close to the Great Sanctuary as possible, though, since we'll hopefully be heading there too. Should be some ramps. Never needed to look for any before but it'd be a pretty piss poor capital if they didn't work that bit out." Joseph made quite a bit of noise as he set about getting things prepared, the door to Sorey's side of the car only opening once the chair was set and ready.
Joseph tied him into it tightly with a blanket thrown over his bound legs. "This should help keep people from staring," he commented. He strolled behind and began to push him away.
This wasn't the Ladylake Sorey knew.
Outside the tall buildings and smell of the air, even the people he saw looked different. Sorey was glad for the borrowed clothes as he looked at the fashion on the street, men and women both dressed very casually in single articles rather than in layers. It was easy to tell the seraphim from the humans in the way several of them still carried on in more elegant styles. But they were both there--humans and seraphim walking together on the streets. Some seemed to notice while others plowed on through. But they were there. They were part of this place.
No, this wasn't at all the Ladylake Sorey knew. And in some ways, he was glad.
Bookstores had most certainly changed as Joseph struggled to wheel him backwards through the door. From what Sorey could see, there was a massive abundance of books inside. The smell was more acidic than in the libraries he remembered from life before, but the sheer number of books waiting on those tall shelves made him smile as though meeting an old friend. When at last Joseph had him inside, the little rise in the doorway vanquished by sheer force of will, he slowly wheeled him past the displays towards the counter that stood as tall as he was seated. This was not at all a decent vantage point for conversation. Sorey scowled at his continual bad luck.
"Hey, do you have a minute?" Joseph asked, getting the shopkeep's attention while Sorey looked up, not interested at all in the sights of the counter full of chocolate bars and bookmarks. He could see straight up the man's nose when he came into view, though, arms crossing as he leaned in close.
"What can I help you with?" the older man asked, his nose hair blending in with the whiskers of his mustache.
Joseph opened up a bag and pulled out Sorey's old book. The Celestial Record looked positively ancient in this home of newer tales. "I bought this from you about a week ago. I was wondering if you remembered how you got it? It apparently used to belong to a friend of a friend and we're interested in finding out how it ended up here."
There wasn't much else to add so Sorey stayed silent. He hoped for a story involving a man with pale aquamarine hair.
"The old ones?" the man questioned, taking the book back to inspect it. "I got a whole bunch of these not long ago from someone looking to unload a few relics for gald. Had a truck full of all sorts of things but I was only interested in the books. They had an assortment of weapons, quite a bit of clothing, and some other odds and ends as well. Never seen them before. Truck had Pendrago plates. Immigrants if you ask me. Decent wares, though, that's for certain." He handed the book back with a small scowl on his face. "If that doesn't sound like your friend, all I can say is that I don't deal in stolen goods. You're going to want to take it up with whoever it was in the truck. I paid for them honestly."
Sorey nodded, feeling heavy in his chair. "We didn't mean to imply anything. But, um.. do you mind if I ask if you have resonance?"
"You mean can I see seraphim?" he asked, then shook his head. "Nah. Never been one of those. Why?"
Sorey hadn't the heart to explain. Mikleo could have been in that truck and this man would never have known. He couldn't answer his questions even if he wanted to. A mystery involving seraphim was limited in search by the resonance of those who could see.
Joseph made their excuses and took to round two against the door, though leaving seemed easier, especially with passerbys helping to hold the way open while he pulled. On to the sanctuary, then. Wherever that now was. Sorey tried to be optimistic but was having a hard time amidst disappointments and tall brick monoliths to not lose heart while he sat uselessly. He had some manner of clue even if it was small: the book had once been in Pendrago. If he could get mobile again, he was sure the trip wouldn't take too long. Then he could search the city night and day until some other clue led him to Mikleo. It wasn't hopeless, it was simply hard. But he'd dealt with things that had seemed impossible before. If he didn't give up, he knew it'd all be fine.
"Sorry," Joseph said, the sidewalk bouncing Sorey uncomfortably. "I was really hoping he'd know more than that. But maybe a seraph at the Sanctuary will know something, yeah? I mean, Mikleo's not exactly a low profile seraphim. They used to joke about how Amenoch had reason to worry about keeping his title as Lord."
Sorey smiled at that, though he didn't dare ask more. He wanted to hear the past from Mikleo's own lips. After that, he'd be fine hearing the other perspectives of his long life and adventurous journeys. But only after. The initial pleasure belonged to Mikleo alone.
And then the sirens rang.
"Shit!" Joseph shouted, his voice almost unheard under the loud cry piercing the air. There were a few screams but the city was already so loud Sorey could scarcely filter out what was and wasn't just noise.
There was nothing that seemed familiar to him except for the deep pain that suddenly bloomed in Sorey's chest. Overhead, the shadow of a dragon passed. Sorey stared as his chair jolted forward over cracks.
Joseph ran with him, pushing him away from the main roads, their path traced by many others who all scrambled to the alleys like rats from a storm. There was panic and misery and the threats of malevolence grew thick. And in the chaos, a bright blinding light appeared. Sorey felt something give in the world around him like a tenuous hold finally losing its grip.
In an instant, the shadow of the dragon was gone and Sorey lay slumped and unresponsive in his chair.
Sorey woke up with a dizzy sensation in his head and a panic renewing in his heart. His last thoughts and memories were punctuated by other people's screams while the sensation of something tearing through him added confusion to the fear. There had been a dragon, though. A large one. He saw its shadow and knew from his past position how tall the buildings were that it would have to be above. The amount of damage a dragon could do to a city, the sheer volume of lives at stake, made him nauseous. And though he'd slain several in his past, he was in no condition to do so now. Other Shepherds would have to, though he feared for them as well.
Opening his eyes, Sorey found a damp cloth resting on his brow and overhanging into his line of sight. He could still see the ornate ceiling patterns, though, and auspicious crown molding that tickled at distant memories. He knew this place. It hadn't changed. Even the tapestries, though faded, looked the same. The Great Sanctuary. Sorey smiled faintly, annoyed to feel the creep of tears into his eyes. It wasn't worth crying about. The place held fond memories but nothing so deep as to warrant tears. But still, it hadn't changed when so much of everything else had. It seemed that meant more to him that he'd realized.
A hand pulled the cloth from his head and Sorey blinked up to find a face. It wasn't Joseph which meant it wasn't anyone he knew. The man seemed startled to see Sorey awake. "Oh! Sorry," he said, mopping up the extra moisture from Sorey's brow. "Well, that's a relief anyway. How do you feel?"
How did he feel? Sorey wasn't entirely sure. He felt weaker than he had in Joseph's bedroom and the world still seemed as though it were spinning fast. But it wasn't as though he could sit up or walk anyway. They weren't exactly debilitating in his respect. "I feel... off," he summarized, not wanting to waste the lingual dexterity required to try to be more verbose.
The other man nodded. His hair was short and grey, his eyes clear blue and crinkled at the sides with advancing age. He smiled brightly as he continued to mop at Sorey's face. "You must have very high resonance. That's quite a gift, though I doubt it feels that way now. There's no reason to rush so take all the time you need. Your friend will be back as soon as he has finished moving his car."
"What happened? There was a dragon..."
"Yes. There was." The man sighed, removing the cloth and setting it aside. Sorey noticed he wore vestments of which the sash bore the insignia of the Shepherd. That alone couldn't really tell him anything, though. "That was the city's defenses," the man explained, looking older than he had before. "Such a terrible device but... well, there's no denying its usefulness. It's just hard to accept death as inevitable, I suppose. You see, each dragon was once a seraphim," he continued, at the very least making it obvious he had no idea who Sorey was. "Once a seraph gives in to malevolence, they are set on a path that ends in becoming a dragon, which is a state with no known reversal. Only death is said to be the cure. But it is a necessary task that has taken the lives of many Shepherds and Squires in the past, not to mention the civilian casualties. The new weapon does the job much more effectively. Not even a bit of property damage this time. It really is an unfortunate marvel."
Sorey scowled slightly, wishing again that he could sit up. Conversations laying down were almost as awkward as they were uncomfortable. "That light was a weapon that kills dragons?" he asked, thinking back to the last moments he remembered before before the pain sent him into darkness.
"I'm not entirely versed on how it works. All I know is that it attacks the very source of the dragon's divinity. It rips the soul out, so to speak. And without the soul, the body simply dies. Quick and efficient--almost painless I should hope. But those with resonance can certainly feel the force of its severance from the natural world." The man sighed once more, frowning thoughtfully as he stood. "Don't you worry about a thing. You'll be just fine in an hour or so and that poor seraph has been saved from harming others. It's not a happy ending, but it's the fact that there is an end that grants it salvation."
He didn't need to tell Sorey that but it was pointless to let him know. Sorey didn't much care to know what would happen if they knew who he was. Not in his current condition. But he was nothing if not a little single-minded at times. Mikleo had teased him about it often enough and there was no point in changing now. "Do you have resonance?" he asked before the man began walking away. If anyone was sure to, certainly they would be found here.
The man paused, his brows raised and thin lips pulled even thinner. "That's an interesting question," he remarked, seemingly taking far longer to consider the answer than such an easy question should have required. "Why do you ask?"
"I'm looking for someone. A seraph." Then a thought. "Does Lailah still live here? I'm an old friend."
He chuckled at that, his smile returning. "An old friend of Lailah's, hm?" he questioned, his own age perhaps finding humor in his words. "Well... if she's around, I'm sure she'll do her best to come by. For now just rest." With a bow of his head, he took his leave.
Rest? It was impossible to rest. The man had more or less said Lailah was there in the same building as him right then. If he paced the halls, he'd see her. If he could move, he'd go to her. But no. That wasn't a possibility. And what was a possibility made his stomach churn. He could call her true name. It was certain to get her attention. It was also extremely rude and inappropriate without a contract which had long ago been severed. He was certain she wanted to see him too but not certain she'd be fine with a summons. The only way it wouldn't be inadmissible was if she had a current contract and vessel to take priority. But he didn't want to risk it. If she didn't, she'd be prisoner to his will. Regardless of his intentions, he could not stomach that questionable breach of trust. So he'd wait. When Joseph came back, they could walk the halls and find her then. It wasn't the quick way or the easy one, but it was worth it out of respect.
And, as fate would have it, entirely unnecessary.
"Sorey!?" the familiar voice shouted as heels clicked against the stone floor in a run. And this time, Sorey was fine with a few tears shed. He couldn't even see her yet but he'd never forget the sweet sound of her voice which had once echoed from inside himself.
When he finally saw her, she was little more than a blur that quickly threw itself against his chest and held on, suffocating him in a hug. He wished more than anything he could return it and place an arm against her back. Instead he watched her sob happily, trying not to be too surprised by her appearance.
Nine hundred years, he reminded himself, and her face and hands were still ageless. Her hair was cut short, though, in a way that made his own eyes grow wide. The red tips were all the more pronounced with her new bob which further lacked its old accessories. A gold clip was set in her hair instead, with red gems glittering in their settings. It made her look younger somehow, as did the change in her attire. In many ways, had she not spoken, he would not have recognized her at all.
"I feared you were dead," she confessed into his breast, her fingers clawing at the front of his shirt. "The resonance boost faded and Maotelus' blessing left and I just knew something terrible had happened to you. Oh, Sorey, I thought we'd lost you for sure!"
Sorey frowned, in his mind patting her back to reassure, hating himself for making her cry even as he knew it wasn't his fault. "I'm okay," he promised her. "Could use a bit of help, but I'm all here, inside and out."
She wiped her face off on the sleeves of her while, ruffled blouse, smiling with good cheer as she pulled away and sat back. With her hands outstretched, Sorey felt a warmth overcome him. It hurt as much as it satisfied. It was a strange sensation but welcomed all the same, and eased his heart with her compassion anyway. Once the power faded, he tried to sit up but still only his head would rise. He felt his hand push against the bed to aid him, though. If he tried, he could make his fingers move.
Lailah looked stricken for a moment, then hid it quickly to be replaced by regret. "I'm afraid your body is fine," she lamented quietly. "There's nothing I can do about..."
Sorey shook his head, smiling still as he tapped against the sheets. "You did help, Lailah. Thank you. It would have been asking too much to expect a miracle."
She smiled, her cheeks still red from tears, as she looked him over and adjusted his hair. "You deserve one, Sorey. But I believe it's strength you currently lack. It will return. And I'll do my best to help you until it does."
He had never been so happy to see a familiar face in all his life. He told her all he could remember of what had happened; of waking up to pain and finding himself then relocated in Joseph's room, of the missing seal to Camlann and the book that shouldn't be where it was. Her reactions to the story were telling in ways he almost wished they wouldn't validate. Her concern was palpable and observed in every waver of her large, teal eyes.
"Oh, Mikleo," she whispered, looking far too solemn to not cause alarm. "He was the one responsible for the Camlann seal."
That confirmation alone was almost too much. Sorey clenched his hand into a fist and bit into the flesh of his lip to keep it still. He wasn't going to think about how uncharacteristic it would be for Mikleo to abandon his duty. Even if he hated Sorey and everything associated with him, he was too intelligent not to understand the needs of Maotelus and of Glenwood as well. Sorey was not going to think about what it would take to make Mikleo fail to uphold his part in cleansing the continent. He wasn't going to think about it. There was nothing there to consider. It was all a matter of coincidence. Mikleo was fine and probably furious that someone had not only taken his book but also broken his seal. Poor irate Mikleo--Wrathleo. He was probably on his way back right now to deal with it himself.
Lailah tucked the sides of her hair behind her ears, the fingers of her other hand curling into the fabric of her short denim skirt. "He took great pride in that seal. Nothing was more important to him, Sorey. No matter where he traveled, he always came back, every year, to make sure it was holding and to make it even better as he grew stronger. He would never--"
"Stop," Sorey ordered, trusting his voice only enough to manage that one word.
Lailah flinched at the forcefulness of it, but melted soon with a somber smile. "He travels a lot," she corrected, her voice much softer than before. "I'm sure he's devastated right now to know it failed."
Sorey swallowed the thickness in his throat and took a deep, steadying breath. "And when he travels, he leaves the book behind."
He didn't even need to hear the words she might have said. Lailah looked down at her own lap, her eyes closed as she waited in silence. She could not bring herself to even halfheartedly agree.
It wasn't true, though. Whatever she was thinking, it wasn't reality. He'd know if Mikleo was... if Mikleo... if he wasn't. He'd know. Somehow. So it didn't matter what it looked like. He'd know. That was all.
Sorey had put a rather finite end to the happiness of their reunion, though. Lailah was quiet, rendered somewhat demure in her unwillingness to bring turmoil. It was his fault and he felt badly for it, even if apologizing might erase the certainty of the statements he had made. This was supposed to be a happy time, though. He wanted it to be happy again.
"It's been a long time, Lailah. I like the hair. You look very nice."
The seraph blushed and smiled genuinely as she patted his leg in sympathy.
Introductions were pointless since Joseph couldn't see her, but Sorey made them to be polite to Lailah anyway. He was dependent on them both right now though in very different ways. While it'd be easier if they could both hear and speak to each other, at least everyone understood who all was in the room. They both said hello rather fruitlessly as Joseph tied him to the wheelchair again. Lailah watched in silence, her frown worn once again as she observed the careful procedure of getting Sorey upright and mobile for a start.
"She wasn't able to fix you?" Joseph asked, and Sorey shook his head with a confidant smile.
"My hands can move so that alone is much better. I bet in about a week, I'll be moving my arms."
Joseph nodded, giving his shoulder a firm pat before taking a seat on a wooden bench close to the wall, unknowingly sitting quite close to where Lailah stood. As awful as he was sure it looked, Sorey much preferred to be strapped sitting up. The world felt more real when he looked at it right-ways-round. It seemed like he was a part of it when he wasn't trapped lying on his back.
Though the sanctuary had hours after which the public was not permitted within, Lailah had extended such permissions for them for as long as they chose to stay. Notably, she never mentioned who Sorey was when speaking to the humans who operated the building. Any friend of the renowned Lailah was simply a friend of all those at the Great Sanctuary. As first impressions went, Sorey supposed he wouldn't make for a very encouraging sight, the fabled Shepherd Sorey having been brought in unconscious, passed out from an anti-dragon attack. It hadn't sounded like it was a rare result but he felt sheepish about passing out regardless. He was infirm enough without insult added to injury. He worried about the strange attack, though, either way.
Sorey tapped his fingers against the arms of his chair, enjoying the little bit of freedom the simple motion granted him. "Why was the city ready for dragon attacks, Lailah?" he asked at length, trying to decide between his two companions who could best answer his question.
Lailah looked to Joseph then sighed, her shoulders sinking as she clasped her hands in front. "Over the past few years, dragons have become a more pressing problem than in the previous ages. Despite the fact that there is less malevolence than ever before, we continue to see a rise in the number of dragons," she explained, her solemn posture making more sense with every word. "We've sent out as many teams of Shepherd and Squires as is possible and lost many of them in the end. And now their numbers are even thinner. Without your resonance to guide them, several of them have lost their ability to see and speak with their comrades. As dragons keep increasing, our own ability to fight their malevolence decreases. I suppose we're lucky there was something else already in place."
"The white light," Sorey surmised. "They just aim it at a dragon and that's it?"
"It..." she faltered slightly, shaking her head. "It's a terrible weapon but... we can hardly promise the city the old ways would be just as effective."
The old ways being hours of long battle, wearing the dragon down bit by bit until by some miracle managing to strike the killing blow. It was hard. It was as devastating as war. Each dragon carried its own list of casualties not limited to its own eventual demise. Sorey wasn't sure how he felt about a soul-rendering weapon that had an affect that could be felt by those with resonance, but it was hard to argue with its necessity having seen just how many people were packed in just the small places he had seen. He imagined a whole building could house hundreds of people alone. One strike with a tail was all it would take. A hundred lives forfeit in the blink of an eye.
Joseph leaned forward on the bench, his elbows resting on his knees. "Is she talking?" he asked. Sorey shook his head to encourage the other to reply. "The white light is called the Animus Ray. They've been around for about two years now. They started in Rolance but you can find them in all the capital cities in Glenwood by now, and some of the other population centers too. You just take the tallest building in the city and turn it into a... well, sort of like a lighthouse, I guess. I don't know if it actually attracts dragons but it sure as hell gets rid of them. Most smaller cities don't have to worry about attacks since the big cities take the brunt of the attention anyway."
"Larger cities hold more people and thus produce more malevolence naturally, drawing the dragon's attention," Lailah added to help explain.
But it didn't explain anything. It didn't explain why there was a sudden influx of dragons. It didn't begin to touch on why so many seraphim were suddenly becoming corrupted and fated to die. "If Seraphim don't exude malevolence, and the overall level of malevolence has gone down, how can there be enough dragons in the world to require this sort of thing?"
"I don't know," Joseph replied, not understanding it wasn't entirely meant for him to try to answer.
Lailah, on the other hand, hung her head. "I do not know either. But there does not seem to be a Lord of Calamity at its root. Despite the dragons, this is a prosperous era. Whatever's happening is something I've never seen before. And our forces have depleted to such small numbers, my concern is we're stretched too thin to find a solution before even more dragons are created and killed."
And Sorey was in no shape to help.
Not physically, anyway.
"Could this have anything to do with Maotelus? Do you think a dragon could have attacked us in Camlann?"
"This began long before Maotelus's blessing disappeared. But I fear it will only get worse now. Today was our second dragon attack this month," Lailah said.
Joseph all but spoke over her with his own reply. "I don't remember hearing a dragon while I was up there, but unless they're roaring and trashing the place, I bet they can be pretty quiet. Could be. I mean, I didn't run into anyone else leaving when I was on the road. So they had to come and go somehow. Could totally have been something flying in the air."
Sorey nodded, trying to take it all in. He wanted so much for it to all be connected though he struggled to see how it could. The rise of dragons came years before what happened to Maotelus and himself last week. And what harm could a dragon do feasibly to Maotelus of all things? The lord was sealed somewhere or dead--neither of which he liked to consider but both vaguely possible given his absence again. A dragon, even a strong one, could never hope to kill Maotelus and no dragon Sorey had ever heard of had the ability to seal him away. But... whatever it was that was somehow making dragons might too possess the power to seal a lord. It was a long shot and not in the least substantiated but two strange occurrences happening without a known cause or reason may as well share something at least.
"If someone were to want to build an army of dragons, perhaps they desired to enlist the greatest dragon of them all," Sorey postulated, his fingers drumming loudly against the padded arm. "Would an Animus Ray work on something as powerful as a lord?"
"Even if it didn't, to truly enlist Maotelus would be a feat far beyond normal capabilities," Lailah counseled while Joseph shrugged his shoulders instead.
She was right. And it didn't feel possible anyway. But there had to be link somehow in all this.
Joseph stood up, the bench rocking in the absence of his weight as he stretched his arms above his head with a yawn. "Well," he sighed. "You about ready to go?"
Go? Right. They weren't staying in town. They were going back to Gwenhwyfar and tomorrow would be more ceiling fans and neighboring stone walls and bland porridge he couldn't bring himself to complain about. He wouldn't be able to see Lailah for a while. This was just a visit. His needs necessitated he stay with his new friend. Sorey forced a smile and looked to Lailah, wishing time could revert if only for a while, just to be who they once were again. "When I'm better, I'll come back to visit you," he promised, though his heart felt heavy not knowing how long that'd be.
"She's not going with us to Pendrago to look for your friend?" Joseph asked.
Sorey's eyes blinked wide as he turned to the other human instead. "We're going to Pendrago?" he repeated, the surprise not far from his voice as well.
"Well, not tonight, but in a few days, I was thinking, yeah. That's where the people who sold the book came from, right?" Joseph recounted, yawning once more behind his hand. "I thought you'd want to check out the Shrinechurch and ask around. It's too early to head back for next semester but I've got some friends I can visit too. It's not like a seraph's going to take up a lot of luggage space so she can come if it's.. I don't know.. allowed."
Sorey told himself not to get his hopes up but failed miserably, turning to Lailah with near genuine sparkles in his eyes. He had no clue what it was she did in Ladylake--could be important--but he knew for certainty if there was a way, she'd come with him once again. It was a significant mission, after all. Maybe not as big as finding Maotelus or the answer to the swarms of dragons, but a mission with some manner of leads anyway.
Lailah's smile was soft but worn, a bit of age showing in her tired grin. "You're going to look there for Mikleo?" she asked without question.
Sorey nodded. That was definitely the plan.
"It's a good place," she offered, stepping closer as she spoke. "He spent a lot of time there. You'll find plenty of people who knew him."
Know him, Sorey corrected in his mind but otherwise let slide. It wasn't a argument he wanted to have when there was so slim a chance he wouldn't lose. "If you can't come with us, could you tell me a little about him? Not a lot. Just... enough to go on. I don't want to spoil too much of what he might want to tell me himself."
That made Lailah smile brighten just a little bit, her fingers stroking his bangs back from his eyes. "He's a world traveler and adventurer," she said. "A writer and a scholar. He was studying domains last time I saw him, in fact. Was trying to figure out how to increase their size. He wouldn't say as much, but I'm certain I know why. If he could spread his and take some of the burden off Maotelus, it might allow you to finally wake up again."
Something about her voice reminded Sorey of his guardian and of the proud lilt to his voice when Gramps had showered them in praise.
"Is Mikleo powerful?" he asked, Joseph's joking in the car coming back to him.
"Edna used to like to tease and call him Little Lord. It's not really teasing anymore."
And yet it was his seal which had been broken. Had Maotelus broken it himself in an escape? Right now anything seemed possible if it denied the very contingency he vehemently denounced with every fiber of his being.
Joseph took hold of the handles at the back of the wheelchair, preparing to steer them back out to the streets. "So is she coming?" he asked.
Sorey looked up at Lailah's soft frown as she nodded, doing her best to pull the expression towards a smile. "If Mikleo is missing, I think I'm needed more at your side than I ever could be here."
"Thank you, Lailah!" he all but shouted, her words the best bit of news he'd heard all day. Her hand fell to his and he quickly wrapped his own fingers around her palm in a squeeze. She'd given him so much already, but he so longed for her companionship. She'd know everything without him having to explain. She'd been there. She knew. And there was still more to share.
Joseph switched the break off and began to head out. "Be by to pick you up in about three days, then, Ms. Lailah," he let her know.
Sorey held on to her hand until her fingers slipped away.
Three days wasn't long. They'd be together again soon.
And together they were sure to track down Mikleo.
Sitting in a vehicle with nothing else to do was a good opportunity to get to know the man Sorey had more or less entrusted with his life. Joseph wasn't adverse to talking, in fact he did quite a lot of it, but it always seemed his answers led to his own questions which turned the tides. Lailah was interested, though, and if he spoke, at the very least they both could hear him. So Joseph spoke while they road with the windows down on the their bright and sunny trip into Rolance.
He was a student, which Sorey had known--graduate level or whatever that meant. His interests were in history but his background was in medicine. He had no siblings and no parents, just an old grandmother who had recently passed. Lailah asked if he had helped care for her, which Sorey relayed and Joseph confirmed. It seemed to answer a few other questions she'd had, like where the wheelchair came from and how he managed Sorey in his condition alone. Sorey didn't relay those parts necessarily, not entirely comfortable about talking about himself and his current needs. Strapped to the back seat this time and even less amused by the ceiling in there, he was quite set on ignoring all questions and comments that mentioned himself in that particular way.
Did Joseph have a girlfriend? No. Did he had a boyfriend? A laugh and a very adamant no. In fact, he was very keen on knowing what exactly Lailah looked like and Sorey indulged the curiosity with a vague description.
"You sound cute, Lailah," he teased, winking towards what to him must have looked like an empty passenger seat.
It wasn't attention Lailah was unused to getting and her polite acceptance of his compliment was far more charming than Sorey's "She says thanks," as he continued as translator between the two. It, like the view of ceiling, was getting old. He loathed the thought of sleeping though when he was needed to bridge the two worlds represented in the car. It seemed to be his lot in life, though in his dream, someone like him wasn't needed. It brought up questions of its own, though, somewhat related to the flirting going on up front. "Do humans date seraphim?" he asked on his own behalf, trying to think back to Ladylake and of the couples on the streets.
Joseph chuckled, his hair waving wildly in the wind. "I knew a guy in junior year who said he'd gotten a seraphim in bed once but from what I hear, even those who can see them aren't really all that well liked by the seraphim."
Sorey frowned, looking across at Lailah as she continually pushed her hair behind her ear.
"It's not that seraphim don't like humans," she challenged. "We're simply different races with vastly different understandings of love, time, and all of creation. Friendship between races has been strong for centuries. Romance simply isn't necessary."
Not necessary, no, but... well, Sorey would have been happy to know there existed some template in the real world for what he as a young man had longed for. There didn't need to be great contemporary romances featuring humans and seraphim but it might have been nice to hear that things had progressed even that far after all this time. "I bet Zavied still flirts with every pretty lady, seraphim or not."
"Oh, he's terrible," Lailah confirmed with a scowl, picking her phone up from her lap. "He sent me a picture before I left of him flexing. He's considering meeting us in Pendrago if he gets done in time in Lanceer."
It was as if there existed a completely new form of resonance that Sorey had yet to hear of. She'd seen Zavied? And spoken to him? He would never get used to phones. "Where's Lanceer?" he asked, and since he hadn't addressed it to anyone, Lailah and Joseph ended up talking over each other to answer. It was a city in what had once been known as Glaivend Basin, he understood from the jumble of words. He hated it every time he forgot to specify. It had to be annoying to Lailah as well.
"You wanting to make a pit stop there?" Joseph asked, looking back at Sorey through the review mirror. "I don't mind the scenic route and Lanceer's around when we'd need to refuel."
Sorey was intrigued but relegated to translator duty once more. He looked to Lailah for some message to relay. "If we went, would Zaveid have time to stop what he's doing to say hello or would it be better just to wait?" Sorey didn't want to wait to see his comrade again but neither did he want to necessarily take the longer route to Pendrago. Whatever Lailah decided would be alright with him. At least stopping for a bit in Lanceer would mean getting up and a change of scenery.
"I believe he's there with Edna looking into dragon activity. I'll send her a message and see what she wants to do. She's much more reasonable than him anyway."
Zaveid and Edna? Sorey couldn't argue that it made sense when dragons came into context, but their personalities still caused his brain to grind to a halt with the notion they'd be traveling alone together. It was a very personal topic for both of them, though. He couldn't even begin to imagine what an age of dragons meant to them. Dragon had been a buzz word of sorts, something you just didn't talk about unless the subject couldn't be avoided. Of all the seraphim Sorey knew, they were certainly the most knowledgeable and familiar with the plight of the malevolent beasts. He bet they were an amazing team. Them least of all wanted anyone to share in the misery they understood from Eizen.
Sorey wanted to see them. He wanted to hear about the work they were doing. "Let's go to Lanceer," he instructed Joseph, not wishing to wait for confirmation from Lailah. It'd been over nine-hundred years. Zaveid and Edna would find time. Even investigating dragons came second to a reunion such as this.
Everyone, so it seemed, agreed.
They met up in a restaurant just off the road where metal stables awaited their car to feed it with more energy. That was how Lailah explained it anyway. Joseph told them to go on without him while he took care of things, and after being settled in his chair, Sorey and Lailah went inside. It wasn't difficult to find the other two seraphim seated within. The place was mostly empty.
Zaveid, like Lailah, could have been an entirely different person if Sorey hadn't already known he was supposed to see him there. His hair was shorter than Sorey's though twice as messy, and he wore a black suit with a loose white tie. Not seeing him in Dezel's hat was as surprising as it was not. Zaveid was a man of personal style and it was fitting even an homage would eventually be laid to rest.
Edna, on the other hand, looked exactly the same. And she didn't stand out in the slightest.
"Well, would you look at that!" Zaveid shouted, slapping the table with joy. "Now there's a sight for sore eyes. Though you look a few centuries short of some actual beauty sleep, if you know what I mean."
Sorey smiled wide as Lailah wheeled him up to their table. There was already a spot made vacant for him to settle into. She's warned them ahead of time; they had known what to expect. Sorey couldn't help but feel a little grateful. It wasn't a topic that needed to be brought up again and again.
Edna smirked at him, her caustic attitude already seeping out from those azure eyes. "He got a haircut. I win the bet."
Zaveid sighed and dug through his inner breast pocket, passing a few paper notes her way. "Should have been a safe bet. You let me down, Sorey!" the wind seraph jested. "How do you sleep long enough to end up stuck in a wheelchair but your hair not grow even an inch?"
Sorey looked up at his bangs, not having really thought about it before. "I guess Joseph must have cut it," he surmised. He didn't mind. It'd be nothing but a hassle right now if left long.
"Maotelus must really be in a state to let you go like this," Edna said, her chin resting delicately in the weave of her fingers as she sat with elbows on the table. "With your body so obviously destroyed, he should have made you a seraph in the end. I have a bet going on that as well. You'd better not let me down."
"You had a bet on whether I'd become a seraph or not?" Sorey asked, almost a little insulted there would be any question as to whether his deeds deserved the ascension. It lacked modesty to think it, but Sorey felt pretty assured if Pawan managed it, he certainly could. As far as it depending on how he died, slow deterioration while in service to Maotelus seemed worthy enough for strong consideration.
Edna shook her head, though, her almost monotone voice lifting slightly to tease him "No, that was obvious. We were betting on the element. I have you down for water," she explained.
"Betting makes it easier for Edna to subtly talk about things she's actually very concerned about. Just this morning, we put fifty down on whether we'd run into Mikleo as a dragon." Zavied leaned back in his chair, avoiding Edna's glare as he reclined with both feet up on the table. His words were spoken so easily, as though saying such things meant nothing, just another loss to eventually grieve.
"You guys haven't heard from him?"
Zavied gestured hopelessly with his hands. "Last time he replied to a call or text was almost a year ago. That's not unusual or anything but it's definitely not normal for me to tell him I'm worried about him and for him not to reply with anything. Been trying since Lailah said his seal in Camlann was broken. Not a peep," he admitted just as calmly.
Sorey frowned at the tabletop, not sure what he disliked more: Lailah's silence or Zaveid's flippancy. "You don't really think he could be a dragon though, right?"
"Of course not," the other man said. "But as someone whose job it is to try and find the source of these new dragons, little Edna's got to now include Pendrago in her list of leads since she decided to include Mikleo in the--OUCH!"
An umbrella slammed neatly into the top of Zavied's head, the simple instrument then finding its place of rest on the table beside Edna as further warning. No one liked their front to be discredited. She didn't care until she said she cared. Which wasn't true at all. She cared a lot. It simply wasn't something she wanted everyone else knowing.
Sorey had missed this. He missed the teasing and mutual affection. "You mean you two are coming to help us find him?" he asked.
"You're awake now," Edna said simply. "It isn't right for him to miss this."
More than anything, it meant the world to Sorey for someone else to believe they could find him alive. "Thank you, Edna," he half whispered, indebted to her resolve. She turned her head, feigning annoyance as he did.
"Pardon me," a voice called from behind them, a finger tapping Sorey on the arm. He turned his head to see a man his age standing there. He wore a coat of a very familiar design. "Are you speaking to seraphim?" the man asked, looking at the other chairs pulled up to the table.
The man looked like a Shepherd; it shouldn't have been a question he needed to ask. Sorey considered him for a moment before opening his mouth. "Uh.. yes. Can we help you?"
"My name is Shepherd Harland. I... I lost my resonance. I was hoping you could tell me if my friends are alright? I can't hear them anymore. Or see them. I just want to know that we're all okay."
Sorey blinked, looking behind the strange Shepherd, seeing nothing by his sides or in his wake. There was no company of seraphim with him. The man was entirely alone.
He wasn't sure how to tell him. Sorey wasn't even sure what the answer was. "Were you in a fight?" he asked, concern settling in his gut like an old and quite familiar friend.
"No," he replied, shaking his head side to side. "We were just walking through Volgran a little more than a week ago. One minute we were talking and the next... well, it never came back. I just.. I know they're there but something just doesn't feel right. Do they look okay?"
Not dead in a fight then. Not just invisible either. The only seraphim Sorey could see were the ones at his table. The Shepherd's companions had gone away. "I... I'm sorry. No one's there."
With hollow eyes, he whispered, "They abandoned me?"
Sorey tried to reassure him but had no words to say. The heartache in the man's voice was devastating. He couldn't leave him with that thought alone. "Maybe they just stepped away for a while," he tried, not wishing to deny the man hope.
Shepherd Harlan shook his head and turned away with a muttered thanks. With shuffled steps, he left the restaurant.
Edna shared a glance with Zavied before the two of them rose from their chairs. "Volgran Forest it is," Zaveid announced while Edna pushed in her seat with a squeak. "He'd have to be a pretty shady fellow for his seraph companions to just leave him like that. But if the seraphim are missing, we could be looking at another handful of dragons in the making."
Sorey hadn't actually thought things for the other Shepherd and his party could get worse. Resonance lost and friends turned into dragons? Could such a thing really happen in this world? While each part was something he was learning to come to terms with, that they could coincide in any way was frightening to consider. He felt terrible for Harlan, whichever way his story went. Just remembering the loneliness of his own short stint without resonance made his heart ache with pangs of empathy. There was little harder than losing a friend.
Lailah had stood up as well, her hands working the breaks on Sorey's chair as she moved to wheel him out. "He lost his resonance because of me," he said softly where she could hear him, wishing with all his might that he could give it back.
Lailah shook her head, the swing of her bob dancing. "It's not your fault," she assured him. "You were meant to still be asleep. Someone has done this, and perhaps you weren't wrong to suggest there could be a connection."
It didn't entirely mean he wanted to be right. Sorey wanted only to be helping everyone more even if his greatest priority remained Mikleo.
"If you're heading to Pendrago from here, think you could give us a ride to Volgran? You'll pass right through it and save us the trip," Zavied inquired, holding the door while Lailah pushed Sorey through.
Sorey gave a firm nod before scanning the grounds for Joseph and the light blue car. "I want to help find them too," he said, feeling a need to do something when he was partially responsible--regardless of what Lailah thought.
Zavied made a face as he stood with his hips out, his arms crossed at his chest. The expression was not promising. "Sorry, kid. You're not going to get around all that great in the woods in that chair of yours. Just leave it to us and we'll meet back up in Pendrago," he promised with a pat the shoulder that was almost too hard, making Sorey very grateful for the bandage ropes.
It was hard to argue with him though Sorey wanted very much to try. It would only be as hard to bring him along as they were willing to deal with. By Zaveid's words, that willingness wasn't very high. He obviously felt Sorey would be in the way, a burden to reaching their goal--as unspecified as it was. Searching the forest and looking for clues as to the missing seraphim was a job for the able bodied among them. No time for Sorey. His usefulness was superseded by the inconvenience of his transpiration.
Lailah began to fret. "What Zaveid really means is--"
"Zaveid said what he means," Sorey cut her off. "It's whatever. Let's just get back in the car."
He could almost feel the looks the others were sharing behind him, the heat of Lailah's anger and the breezy nature of Zaveid's lack of concern. It was what it was. There was no point pretending. He just wanted to leave and get back on the road.
Sorey sat in the back between Lailah and Zaveid, the latter's combination of wind and an arm around his back doing a fairly decent job at supporting him as they drove. He was probably the last person Sorey wanted to help him, though. He wasn't mad at him, but he was mad that he had a point. Having to he helped by him now only rubbed it in harder like gravel over an already skinned knee. Sorey tried to ignore how nice it felt to be held. He refused to let his head rest on his shoulder even though it felt very tempting being just there. He would not act like he needed this even though not a single sole in the car thought differently. He did need it. He wasn't improving fast enough to be of any help. But that didn't mean he had to accept the support of Zaveid's side and sturdy arm.
He even smelled like the wind--dusty but sweet like grass. It was great to be with him again. Edna too. He just wished it hadn't had to be like this.
"So, how far into the forest are we taking your friends," Joseph asked, adjusting the mirror now that Sorey was sitting up. Sorey probably looked absolutely ridiculous leaning up against a body that to him wasn't there.
Edna didn't even look up from playing some kind of game on her phone. "Anywhere he wants to let us off will be fine. Just so long as it's at least a few miles out of Lastonbell."
Sorey relayed her request, his voice apparently hinting at more than he had wanted given the concerned looked cast back his way. Joseph was at least mindful of the fact they weren't actually alone. He didn't ask and kept on driving. It was the much kinder choice all things considered. Sorey didn't want to talk about it. It was better if they just kept going and ignored everything.
The drive was almost painfully silent, though. Through quiet chastising, Lailah and Zaveid had entered some kind of awkward stalemate in the back of the car. Edna, not a fan of drama, had made her position known in not bothering to get involved. Sorey had nothing to say and Joseph had no way of knowing whether the others were engaged in conversation. So it was quiet and terrible and seemed to stretch out far too long. Sorey hoped they pulled over soon so he could lay down and go to sleep.
"Man, look at all those clothes just piled up like that on the side of the road," Joseph remarked.
Sorey looked because he lacked anything else to do. What he saw left his heart in the throat.
Bodies. Dead bodies. At least four, all jumbled and piled next to each other. Everyone in the car was shouting for Joseph to stop but Sorey could hardly hear anything outside the pounding of his own pulse. In the pile was a head covered in a pale aquamarine hair. He couldn't speak. He couldn't breathe. He didn't know what to do.
Zaveid grabbed his arm and used it to smack at Joseph to get his attention, the wild puppetry and Sorey's own expression getting the desired result somehow. Joseph pulled to the side, the bodies not far from the car at all, details visible and promising so much.
The car doors opened and Sorey's sight out the front window was gone. Zaveid pushed him down, not just into the seat but down to the floor, making sure his eyes could see nothing but the crumbs from a long forgotten meal. Sorey tried to get an arm under himself to push up and look to the windows again as the car doors slammed shut and enclosed him away from the sight. No. Sorey screamed at the top of his lungs, unable to do anything even as he understood how pointless the action was. They couldn't do this to him. They couldn't leave him behind when Mikleo...
"What the fuck!" Joseph shouted back, twisting in his seat to watch him. "The hell is going on?" he asked, sounding almost as scared as Sorey.
"Get me out! Get me out!" he ordered, unable to care how rude it seemed. They'd left him behind! This wasn't okay! He needed to be out there right now!
Joseph opened up his car door only for a stiff breeze to slam it shut again. No matter how many times he tried, the elements would not admit him. The human cursed as Sorey renewed his struggle, willing himself to get up, even if just as far as into the seat. He'd open his own door and drag himself to the others if that was the only way for him to see. He wasn't going to be abandoned like this with Mikleo's corpse laying outside being a possibility. On the dirt, discarded and forgotten, no care even taken to try and hide the deaths as though they were a thing of pride.
Sorey pressed his palms to the rug and pushed up, groaning loudly with the physical strain. With insistence alone, he managed to get one arm up as well as his head, half of his chest resting heavily on the edge of the seat. He paused to breathe, not willing to take pride in the fact he was holding himself up on his own. He pushed up again, all but screaming for more strength, when the door near his head finally opened. Edna stood there in her oversize boots, looking down at him with a lost but considerate expression.
"It's not him," she said, standing still, waiting for something.
Sorey pressed his face into the seat's warm leather, still barely able to breathe as he shuddered with exertion.
"We couldn't let you find out that way if it was."
"That wouldn't have made a difference! I have a right to see with my own eyes!" he demanded, feeling himself slipping back towards the floor with a heavy sob.
Edna picked him up gently, her giant strength not in the least bit diminished as she helped him rise, leaning him carefully into place. "I know. But it's hard not to protect you. It's sort of second nature to us now."
It hurt. It hurt so much. It hurt to be sheltered and abandoned and scared. Sorey just wanted to see for himself that it wasn't him. He needed to see the strange seraph's corpse and know without a doubt it wasn't his Mikleo.
It took a few more minutes but Edna brought over Zaveid, the wind seraph easily gathering him in his arms as he pulled him out of the car and to the waiting atrocity. Sorey punched him in the chest, unable to express himself any better.
Zaveid smiled sadly. "That wasn't half bad. It almost hurt."
Beside the road, Lailah had helped arrange the four bodies separately, their limbs no longer a jumbled mess with each ones' eyes closed and hands down at their side. Three women and one man. Each one was of a different element, arranged as fire, earth, wind and water, with the latter laying closest to the road, his face clear of his pale hair.
The face shape looked wrong but it had been nine hundred years. Sorey was sickened to realize he didn't even know what Mikleo looked like, what he dressed in, or how he wore his hair. The absence of a circlet gave him reason to hope but he couldn't tell. He didn't know. It had been too long to feel assured.
"Go ahead and opened his eyes, Lailah," Zaveid said gently, no longer joking in the presence of the dead.
Lailah nodded grimly as she rolled back the seraph's lids. Two blue eyes stared lifelessly above.
Relief made Sorey weak, falling back into Zaveid with not even his head willing to support itself. It wasn't him. It wasn't Mikleo. There was still no proof that Mikleo was dead.
Zaveid walked him back to the vehicle, sitting him down again with unprecedented gentleness as he healed his screaming muscles of the strain he'd put them through. Sorey didn't care what they did so long as they never did that again. His heart couldn't take the panic and his nerves most assuredly couldn't take the strain.
"You should tell Joseph to go on ahead," Edna instructed as she watched from behind Zaveid. "We'll meet up with you both in Pendrago after we take care of things here."
Sorey shook his head, or at least attempted to. "Those are Harlan's friends, aren't they."
"One of each element. Pretty standard Shepherd party."
And found so close to the road. Had no one seen them? Was the road so little traveled? Was resonance so low? Four bodies just laying in a heap on the ground and somehow they were the first to find them.
Not they--Joseph, the only one in the car who couldn't see seraphim. And he hadn't seen seraphim; he'd seen a strange pile of clothes beside the road. How was that supposed to even happen? "Joseph saw their clothes," Sorey remarked out loud, not wanting it to be forgotten if he fell asleep without it said. "They should be imbued. He shouldn't have seen anything. So why can he see their clothes?"
He could see Lailah walking towards them, her head bowed solemnly. "There's no injuries to their bodies either. It's like they all just suddenly died right where they stood."
It wasn't right. It didn't make sense. But part of him wasn't surprised either. There was another thought begging at the edge of his mind to be forgotten amidst new evidence that threatened to offer rare certainty. Something like a book that also should have been invisible to humans without resonance.
"Hey Sorey?" Joseph called, leaning over the back of his seat. "Is everything okay now? Are your friends getting out here?"
With Edna's nod, Sorey took to relaying their plans to the rest of the team. "Yeah. Sorry. We can get going soon," he muttered as seemingly the car's buckles took it upon themselves to carefully strap him down.
Such strange phenomena hardly seemed to phase Joseph at all. "You don't look so good. I think we'd better stay over in Lastonbell."
It wasn't a plan Sorey felt like fighting.
"Edna and I will catch up with you tonight then. Lailah will tell us where you are."
Sorey didn't argue. Ne neither cared to nor could. By the time Lailah took her seat and the doors had all closed, Sorey had taken it upon himself to simply sleep.
Mikleo was a little taller than Sorey with long, thick hair and an array of six capes. His black undershit split down towards the back of his knees with ruffles at the bottom that added a softness to the otherwise harsh lines of his long white coat. He wore tan gloves even though Lailah liked to tell him they didn't match with black shoes and mostly back accessories. He still carried a staff. He was still quite slim. He was, as always, stunningly beautiful. Sorey tried to picture him in his mind as Lailah took her time to describe him. But he couldn't see him. He could only remember his own Mikleo. His mind lacked the creativity to grant him age.
He liked the way Lailah talked about him, though. He sounded like a good person. He seemed to have done well with his life and gone on to do so many fantastic things. He'd written books Sorey would someday get to read and he'd been far beyond Glenwood to explore the world at large. But he always came back to Camlann, she said, to make sure Sorey was safe and sound. He wore feathers around his waist. He'd never in over nine-hundred years forgotten.
And the Celestial Record was always at his side.
Lailah talked about the last time she'd seen Mikleo. He'd been having the book's spine repaired where he'd finally broken it, the ancient tome rendered in two after far too many years of fond reading. He'd been pleased with the craftsman's work though had hated the experience of letting it out of his sight for repair. He'd held it lovingly before putting it away in his personal pack. They'd talked of the good old days and then he hurried on.
He'd made them all very proud even though he still, at just under a thousand years old, was just a kid by their understanding. He was an amazing seraph and someone Sorey would have loved in an instant. Lailah talked about Mikleo as if he were dead and with a dryness in his throat, Sorey again didn't correct her.
The book had been sold from a truck carrying clothes and weapons for sale. The bodies on the road had looked like clothes to the eyes of someone without resonance. A seraph's possessions could be un-imbued and made tangible to everyone regardless of affinity. Even Sorey understood that it didn't look good. If he was honest, if he gave Mikleo the respect his memory deserved, he knew his friend would never have let him down the way he had. It would have taken death to relieve him of their book. It would have taken something unthinkably monumental for him to abandon Sorey and his duty. If it took believing he was a lesser person just to keep hope for his existence alive... was it worth the plague of disrespect just to find solace in a better dream?
It wasn't as though him being dead helped fill in any blanks. Why would someone kill Mikleo? Why would someone murder the seraphim on the road? And how? Mikleo was supposed to be immensely powerful by all accounts. How could they have killed Mikleo? Was it the same way they had perhaps even killed Lord Maotelus? There was only one thing that seemed to Sorey to make any bit of sense. But it scared him. It scared him more than he cared to even admit. And unfortunately, he was growing accustomed to fear.
"Who invented the Animus Ray?" he asked at length.
All four other people in the inn's private room drew quiet.
The power to kill a dragon was the power to kill seraphim. They were the same basic being; the same race despite appearances. That which could destroy the one with just a single shot of light would wipe out hundreds of the other if unethically deployed. And those without resonance wouldn't even know about the slaughter. Just piles of clothes and trinkets suddenly laying on the ground. Just bits and pieces of lost lives left over from some terrible, indefensible attack.
And if it rendered the soul, it destroyed the source of what was imbued. It made sense. It made horrific sense. And its use spoke of mass murder in the making.
Joseph had his phone out as he sat on his bed on the opposite side of his room. The jade earring swayed as he cocked his head, reading aloud from the screen in his hand. "According to the Wiki, it's manufactured by Spirit Industries but was originally invented and developed by a Dr. Arthur Breton at Pendrago University."
"We need to talk to him. There could be a problem with his invention."
"His invention, sadly, is meant to work in this way," Lailah commented. Since the moment they had left the bodies by the road, she had not lost her melancholy as she sat demurely at the end of his bed, her hands folded with grace in her lap. "In its early testing, there were many seraphim casualties. A dragon would be killed but tens of seraphs in the weapon's path would have met the same fate. As we are brothers and sisters of dragons, the possibility of our deaths was deemed permissible, with an accepted limit of nearly one hundred. So long as the Animus Ray saves thousands of lives within a city, a small sacrifice of seraphim is considered tolerable. The compromise was to fire it from a rooftops only. Most seraphim don't visit upper floors anymore."
"Every seraphim is just another potential dragon to these people," Edna explained. "They don't mind in the least if they kill us off early. Just one less dragon to fight."
Sorey shook his head, his worst thoughts proven less than what the others perceived. "Why is it like that? Why are humans okay with murdering seraphim?"
"It's not murder if done for the greater good. And I guess they figure we're up for the slaughter at the hands of a dragon same as them." Zaveid looked about as accepting of that as he sounded, scratching the back of his head as he looked across the room. "What I don't get is how those seraphs could have died from an Animus Ray. I'm not saying they didn't or that I can think of anything else that makes as much sense, but there's no lighthouses out in Lanceer. Shepherds took on the last dragon that happened to appear there. That's probably what Shepherd Harland and his team were doing in the area to begin with."
"Could someone have made a smaller version? Something they could carry instead of having to install on a building's roof?"
"If anyone would know, it sounds like it'd be this Dr Breton guy," Edna agreed. "He's the one who invented the big ones anyway."
Sorey nodded, resting back into his pillow. They'd speak to him. They were going to Pendrago anyway.
He didn't feel much like talking anymore. He wanted to hear the others speak, wanted to overhear stories and listen in to humorous retellings. It didn't feel like the time or the place but his heart needed the levity. He wanted simply to be far away from Lastonbell. Even the place had far too many of its own memories.
"Do you think someone might have used an Animus Ray to harm Maotelus?" Lailah asked, breaking the silence with more of what Sorey only wished to forget.
He wasn't sure what he had left to believe, but there was little harm to be had in weighing the possibility.
"Do you remember anything from before, when you were still with Maotelus?"
Did he? It was too be confusing to be sure. "I remember... feelings but there's no thoughts that go with them. They might have just been part of a dream. I just feel like he was angry and then he was resolute. But I wasn't. I was scared. And then I was all alone."
The seraphim in the room looked to each other, as though between them some answer could be found. There was no consensus, though, and their attention strayed away. It might be nothing after all. Just part of a near endless dream.
"So... what's everyone saying?" Joseph asked at length, rocking impatiently on his bed.
Sorey closed his eyes. Maybe if he was back in darkness, this new world would just go away. It didn't work like that, but he felt better behind fallen lashes either way. "We're saying my friend's dead along with a lot of other seraphim so we'd better check out Dr. Breton and see what he knows about the possibility of a mobile Animus Ray."
"Oh. I'm, uh... I'm sorry to hear about your friend."
Sorey didn't answer. What was there to say? So was he. Very sorry indeed.
"I don't know that I disagree with you, but it doesn't feel right hearing you say he's dead," Zaveid argued, his tone uncharacteristically remorseful as he spoke.
Sorey made a fist against the sheets, still not ready yet to talk about it but unwilling to run away from it as well. "I don't want to think less of him just to fabricate excuses for him to still be alive. He's a better person than my excuses give him credit for. It's not... I don't want to do him a disservice just because I want to believe in something else."
No one questioned his motives any further, letting the conversation dwindle to nothing. It had been a long day for all of them and Sorey felt too numb somehow to cry.
In the morning still no one spoke. They loaded into the car and headed off early with a quick box of muffins and juices to share. Lailah helped Sorey while the others did there best to act like everything was fine. Just a normal trip out through the vast Meadow of Triumph which had changed into small towns over the years. It was amazing to see the sights sitting up. Sorey didn't mind leaning on Zaveid anymore when it meant viewing all the buildings and the people everywhere. A few leaning towers remained but it was nothing like it had once been. Sorey remembered hellions and crucibles and hellish beasts. Now it was cars and bight signs and the sunlight dancing on the buildings made of glass.
It all went by so quickly. The time they'd spent fighting their way through the meadow was almost hilariously overtaken by the ease and speed with which they now crossed over land. It was barely afternoon when the signs mentioned they were in Pendrago. Such a perilous trek now nothing more than a simple morning drive.
"I'm pretty sure I know where the Science and Humanities building is," Joseph said as they turned down mazes of streets.
It was bigger than Ladylake, much bigger and packed full with other cars. The ancient stone walls were nowhere to be seen. It was as though a the city had been build on its grave.
Sorey couldn't tell the university from the rest of the city. The only difference he could see was lettered parking and a greater insistence on being mindful of pedestrian traffic. They stopped and went, repeated the steps, and then repeated them some more. Nausea was going to become a bit of a problem if the motion did not stop. No sooner had it gotten bad enough to speak up about, though, than Joseph drove into a gridded space and turned the car off. They were surrounded by brick buildings but at least one sign he could read pointed out the one they wanted: Science and Humanities--the Breton Building. It wasn't too hard to believe they had found the right place at all.
"There's just mini-mesters going on right now but we should be able to get up to his office either way," Joseph promised while Zaveid took over the normal task of getting Sorey in his chair. "If the doctor's not in, we'll ask around. Someone should have some contact info at least."
He lead the way while the other's followed, signs and plaques leading the way towards lifts and possible room numbers. The halls were empty with closed doors on either side. It was the longest short trip Sorey could remember with anticipation mounting with every echoing step towards the end of the hall.
"I didn't know Mikleo worked here," Edna announced, her voice ringing loudly off the narrow walls.
Sorey turned his head, looking back to where she stood behind them, her eyes fixed on one of many closed doors that all had looked the same. Lailah turned them back around and walked quickly to join her. On the closed door, the name plaque read simply "Mikleo". There was no last name given though Sorey had no idea if the name had ever become popular. It was, however, starting to make a little more sense of things.
Joseph has stopped in front of a different door not but a few yards down the way. "Is that it?" Sorey asked him.
Joseph nodded, peering in through the glass. "Doesn't look like anyone's in but..." he tried the handle and the door swung open without a sound.
So Dr. Breton and Mikleo would have known of each other. They would have walked the same hall. Sorey could only too easily imagine heated arguments over a device that indiscriminately killed seraphim. It made it hurt less, in a small way, to construct a narrative in which Mikleo died trying to make a difference, as an advocate against the Animus Ray, and not just randomly in the world somewhere.
"Should we check in here first?" Edna asked, her hand resting on the door to Mikleo's scholastic domain.
It was tempting. It was severely tempting. But still Sorey shook his head and looked away. "I want to come back to it after. I want to see if we can find Dr. Breton before hand."
No one bothered to disagree as they marched again to rejoin Joseph as the student lead them inside the empty lab.
It was a larger room than Sorey had expected, with multiple tables arranged against the wall and covered in strange assortments of wires and plates that looked like utter chaos but still seemed in their proper place. There were shelves of books and a few comfortable chairs set before the desk in the back amongst papers and a solitary lamp. Outside themselves, there was no one inside. The room was full but still empty.
"So, what exactly are we doing in here?" Edna asked, poking at a light display with the end of her umbrella.
Sorey looked around, hoping to find a calendar or other mode of scheduling. As far as he was concerned, they were only looking for a means of communication. An open office was promising--perhaps it meant he'd only just stepped out? There wasn't a clear need to spy through Dr. Breton's things. It wasn't as though seraphim death at the hands of his Animus Ray was a secret fault. This was a ethical dabate; an attempt to appeal on behalf of seraphim concerns. And if they could find out if smaller versions of the Animus Ray had been made, it would settle all their questions and lay to rest a few doubts, though Sorey couldn't argue it would be hard not to address the man as a murderer. There was no proof, and perhaps there was more Sorey didn't know, but his own attempts at following the narrative had him placing firm blame on the scientist he hadn't even met. "We're going to wait for Dr. Breton," he let them all know. "See if you can find any clues as to when he'll be back."
"There's no need for that," a voice called from behind.
Sorey turned his head to see but could only barely glimpse the door behind Lailah. There was a man standing there, a mug of something in his hand. Sorey heard the door close and watched the stranger walk further inside.
He was quite a bit older than Sorey had expected. Most of his hair was gone and what was left was in wisps of white. He sipped from his mug, hands wrinkled and covered in purple spots. He was an old man--seventy, maybe eighty?--and his eyes were oddly magnified behind thick glasses which sat high on his bulbous nose. He didn't look the part of an evil scientist. He took tired as much as he looked wise.
"I take it you're not all here to discuss your grades," he said, his eyes drifting not only from Sorey and Joseph but to Edna and the others as well.
He had resonance. That made things easier. It made things more painful in a way as well. "Are you Dr. Breton?" Sorey asked, not sure in which way to hope.
The man nodded before sipping from his mug again, slowly making his way to his desk across the room. "Yes, I am. And by your entourage I'm assuming you are a Shepherd?"
It seemed like a title one earned for life, regardless of the lack of a pact this time. "More or less," he admitted, not caring to go into details. "I wanted to talk to you about--"
"About my Animus Ray, yes, I know," Dr. Breton interjected, cutting him off as he gently lowered himself into his chair with the groan of tired, old bones. He sighed once he was settled, a smile crinkling across his features as he picked up his steaming mug again. "You're not the first and you won't be the last. It is what it is. There's nothing more to say."
Sorey was slightly shocked at the abruptness of his dismissal. If so many people were worried about his invention, one would think he'd have something better to say. "You're not bothered by the fact that it's killing seraphim?" he asked, going with the obvious since the scientist seemed to prefer getting to the point.
"Not in the least," he admitted. "Parasites the lot of them. I'll only be too happy the day they're all finally gone."
It was stunning to look someone in the face as they spewed hatred so pleasantly. Dr. Breton looked proud, his blue eyes small but shining as though picturing his ideal world where seraphim were extinguished. Sorey was used to hate but it was something he associated with wrath and jealousy. To see a man smile with nothing but joy in the light of moral decay was a shock his system need more than a moment to comprehend. "You can't be serious," he heard his own voice say, the crisis of conscious ringing loudly in his own ears even though the older man seemed deaf to it.
Dr. Breton drank and smiled away. It was as though he really had been over this so many times it was memorized and rehearsed. "Why not? It makes sense, does it not? Malevolence is just another word used to describe the toils of humanity. We create it and now, we can destroy it. My Animus Ray is the salvation we've been waiting for. Dragons, hellions, it can destroy them all. Meanwhile all the seraphim do is become monsters which terrorize the innocent; only a few helpful enough to have the power to purify. Malevolence is part of our existence and their antithesis, therefore seraphim are antiquated and unnecessary in this world. Humanity can save itself. Seraphim are simply the anchors weighing us down."
Sorey shook his head. It was simply too much. "How can you live in a world where you can see and speak to seraphim everyday and not understand the value their lives have as living beings?"
"Knowing a cow can feel pain doesn't stop me from eating a steak. It's a simple matter of hierarchy, and mankind belongs at the top."
Sorey wanted so much to be able to stand and argue what was right. He'd been down this road before, though. There was no such thing as absolute evil, just terrible atrocities committed for the best of intentions. The Hyland-Rolance war. Cardinal Forton. Even, in some respects, Maltran. No one set out to be evil, they just set out to do their best. Shortsightedness made villains of them all. He wanted to believe Dr. Breton was no different even though he sensed no malevolence. He wanted the best for humanity and felt seraphim were a part of the problem. He was wrong, but Sorey wasn't the first to tell him that.
This wasn't a discussion that would solve things in minutes. They needed to plan ahead and attend to what they could before addressing how to make a change.
"Have you created portable Animus Rays?" Sorey asked, beginning to fear for his friends in the room in which they spoke. If one existed, it could be the doctor owned one. How long would it take for him to fire it up and destroy the others like the seraphim on the road?
"Every good resistance needs well armed soldiers," Dr. Breton explained, his tone still set on explaining his position as though all contrary thoughts were uniformed and unnecessary.
"Then you're declaring war on the natural world."
"I'm declaring independence from a tired, broken system."
Sorey shook his head. "We'll see about that." It was time to go before his friends were put in danger.
He missed being able to communicate with them with his thoughts alone. He missed the protective joy of having them tucked away safe inside him. He wasn't so sure they'd be able to hide even there from an Animus Ray, but it still felt vulnerable having to meet their eyes to garner their attention, letting them know it was time to step outside and regroup to return another day.
Lailah walked backwards with him towards the door while the others held back, waiting for them to go first.
"Tell me, is the world everything you dreamed it would be, Shepherd Sorey?"
Lailah froze mid step without any request given. All their eyes once again returned to the old man behind his desk.
There hadn't been any announcement in any fashion that Sorey had awoken or that he was that Sorey. He hadn't given his name at all, in fact; they'd ignored such pleasantries. Dr. Breton should not have known who he was or even been able to fathom such a specific guess. For a shot in the dark, it was far too accurate. It didn't sit well with Sorey in the least. "How--?"
"I'm sorry we had to wake you up so suddenly. You can imagine my disappointment upon hearing of your condition. Joseph assures me that it won't be an issue, though."
And with that, several things became far less clear. Sorey watched as Joseph leaned against the scientist's desk, his expression not pleased or proud but still somewhat cold in its presentation. A chance outing out in Camlann. A lucky rescue by someone who just happened to possess the skills and know-how to help him out. Selfless offers to travel straight towards the heart of their problem. Sorey supposed he was a bit naive to not second guess his good fortune from the start.
So Joseph had been party to whatever had happened in Camlann that day. He might even have resonance if that was the case. Sorey had never felt so stupid in all his life.
"Did you kill Maotelus?" he asked, finding it only too easy to imagine Joseph standing on the steps by the throne, a device in hand to destroy the greatest of the Five Lords at the behest of a racist coward.
Dr. Breton only laughed. "What would be the point in killing him? I need him to finalize the plan. After all, the last Lord of Calamity was also the great Lord's vessel. It seems counterproductive at this stage to deviate from that success."
Sorey could not believe what he was hearing. "If you really want to be the savior of humans, why would you ever want to become the Lord of Calamity?"
"I don't. I want you to be," the scientist explained, and Sorey's blood ran cold. "Right now, there are plenty who object to the extermination of seraphim. They believe the old ways are the right ways to handle malevolence. But now that you're awake, their forces are weaker. With constant dragon attacks, the people's fear is stronger. Add to that the corruption of the faithful's beloved, heroic icon and governments will come crawling to us to end the people's suffering."
Sorey could feel the minute trembling in his otherwise paralyzed limbs. Perhaps there was such a thing as pure evil. To invoke such catastrophe just to further one's own ideals was a selfishness beyond his comprehension. Dr. Breton was insane. Joseph was a cold, calculating accomplice. They had to know such plans were not only monstrous but impossible. Sorey would never give in to malevolence no matter what. After the time they'd spent together, Sorey was hurt that Joseph couldn't already tell him that. "The last Lord of Calamity tried to get me to join him. I think you know how that went down. I have everything to fight for in a fight against your intentions. Your plan will fail if you think you can corrupt me."
He could hear the quiet assertion of his friends behind him, their faith in him unquestionable.
Joseph, however, shook his head at the impassioned words. He adjusted his glasses which obscured his eyes with streaks of light. "We all know you're in no condition to fight," he pointed out. "And even if you were, we hold your linchpin."
"Heldalf thought he did too. Think about the risks you're taking if you try and wage a war on the seraphim. Don't do this to humanity. It's not too late to stop things right now."
Dr. Breton finally rose again from his desk, his arms behind his back as he took to Joseph's side. "You underestimate how close we are to an easy victory. Allow me to put into perspective just how little choice you have." He placed a hand on Joseph's shoulder, his smirk of the utmost satisfaction. "Show him, would you?" he asked almost gleefully.
Joseph nodded and touched his fingers to the jade hanging from his ear. "Appear before me, Luzrov Rulay," he commanded with a booming voice.
It took seconds for the words to make any sort of sense to Sorey. It took far less time for Mikleo to appear. The blue orb circled out from the earring and burst into full form in the blink of an eye, his appearance everything Lailah had said it would be from the thick ponytail to the black ruffles peaking out from his coat. Sorey's breath caught in his throat, his heart pounding in his ears. He was alive. Mikleo was alive and standing right there. He was alive and his eyes had never looked so sad or far away and hollow.
"MIKLEO!" Sorey shouted, demanding his body rise and run to him. It wouldn't. And Lailah did not wheel him any closer. If anything she pulled him back, a hitch of breath wrenching itself from her own throat.
"Yes, indeed," Dr. Breton said with delight. "Mikleo the Enforcer. It's a very fine name, don't you think? How lucky I was that it is in fact his very nature to accommodate another's desires. It's like having my very own genie in a bottle. I just speak his name, make a wish and then poof... All my little dreams come true. All thanks to you," he added, with a nod towards Sorey.
It was bait he could not refuse to bite. "How?"
"Sorey and Luzrov Rulay forever," he quoted mockingly. "That's what is scribbled in the back of the book I asked Joseph to steal from my... colleague. With as much as he protected the damn thing, I thought I was getting a diary that might help to tarnish the illustrious Shepherd Sorey's reputation. Instead I got possession of my very own slave and the means to ridding the world of the lot of you: Shepherds, seraphim, and all."
Sorey's eyes went wild with memories of a time when he hadn't been careful with Mikleo's gift to him. He'd written it down everywhere he could to commit it to permanent memory. He'd never envisioned those scribbled words would find their way to another. They were meant for each other, like the book in which he'd written them. They belonged to them alone.
Mikleo's current misery was palpable and Sorey could not bring himself to look away. His body shuddered in in even increments as the desire to break free registered in the taut tendons of this long, pale throat. Mikelo's fingers spasmed wide before curling into fists as he himself did his best not to look at Sorey. They possessed his true name so they possessed his essence. Regardless of what he wanted to do, Mikleo could not disregard their commands.
"How many dragons have you created for me inside those crucibles, Luzrov Rulay?"
Mikleo's bottom jaw locked with tension before giving in and replying, "Thirty-two."
"And who broke the seal to Camlann?"
"... I did."
"And who attacked Maotelus, waking Sorey from his sleep?"
"... I did."
"Who's the reason the Shepherd is crippled?"
A stream of tears broke free from red-rimmed eyes as Mikleo did not even hesitate in his admission. "I am."
"And who is going to help me ensure the genocide of all seraphim?"
Mikleo whimpered in pain as he doubled his efforts to fight it.
Sorey could not bear a moment more. "Luzrov Rulay!" he shouted, willing him to return to his side instead, to become free of the villains who tortured him with pride.
Dr. Breton tsked his desperate cry, his wrinkled smile gathering along his eyes. "Joseph is in possession of his vessel," he reminded him. "Knowing his name won't do you any good. My will takes priority. And I refuse to release him. He's mine. Just imagine the sheer power of the dragon he'll one day become."
"That will be the day I eat you whole," Mikleo swore with a voice that trembled with exertion.
Dr. Breton continued smiling as he gently brushed away a fallen tear from the seraph's cheek, the gesture almost kind as his wrinkled fingers caressed his perfect face. "Kill the Shepherd's seraphim companions, Luzrov Rulay," he ordered with the utmost sweetness in his voice. "And make sure the Shepherd watches."
In barely an instant, a staff appeared in Mikleo's outstretched hand. And with cold, lifeless eyes he whispered just one word: "Run."
Sorey's mind worked in slow motion while the rest of the world flew by in stuttered frames of confusion and abject horror. By the time he realized he was falling forward, the wind having severed the bonds that held him upright, he was already being lifted up from the limiting transport of his chair and cradled to Zaveid's chest as they made for an escape. Sorey's eyes could not move from Mikleo, though. He stared, mesmerized by the turmoil his friend did not even attempt to disguise as he stepped forward, his staff pointed menacingly.
His first attack sent Edna flying as she tried to defend while the other's escaped. The wall cracked and deformed from the force of her impact but as she slipped down, Sorey lost her from sight. Zaveid had him out the door and racing down the hall, windstepping towards a door marked 'Exit' above.
"Edna!" Sorey shouted, looking over Zaveid's shoulder to make sure she was bringing up the rear. She wasn't there, though, and within seconds there instead stood Mikleo as he continued his pursuit.
Lailah stopped running and sent out a flurry of flames, obscuring them from sight in a shield of fire. The heat caused the walls to char while the floor peeled and curled like the writhing of something alive. For all of a moment, it seemed an effective deterrent. Then from above, spouted from little metal heads, jets of water rained down over all of them. Zaveid cursed though Sorey could see it wasn't Mikleo's doing but rather that of the building itself. Even the architecture seemed out to get them. In the blink of an eye, a huge torrent of water crashed through the flames as though they'd never been there, flooding over Lailah as she raced to counter with a string of burning paper. Mikleo's staff struck her in the gut then twirled in his grip to bash into her skull. She went to one knee as he swung at her again.
"Lailah!" Sorey cried out as she too disappeared from view behind another entrance as a grey metal door slammed closed with a boisterous echo. Zaveid vaulted over a rail and quickly made his way down a flight of stairs, leaping down levels rather than racing down the steps which he seemed to worry would only waste time. Sorey held on tight as best he could, thankful for the grip Zaveid's new clothes provided. "Zaveid, we can't just leave them behind! We have to--"
The stairwell's echo ate his words as a flood of water rained down around them. Zaveid stopped, listening intently, as he stood in the canopy of the stairs above. He growled as the water began to pool faster, turning the stairwell into a waterfall. "I'm not letting you do this, kid!" he vowed, adjusting his hold on Sorey to free up a hand. He was practically thrown over his shoulder, dignity exchanged for function, but Sorey could still see the glimmer of the pendulum that now waited to swing into a fight.
The entire passage was nothing but a continual roar of raging water. It was fortunate that Zaveid used more than just his normal senses to feel out a battle. Reacting to something Sorey couldn't see, the wind seraph shot his pendulum out at the open air, striking against something hard. The illusion dispersed, leaving Mikleo exposed from his spectral cloak, though it failed to catch him off guard as he countered with a watery blast.
They rolled down the stairs. The water wasn't much of a buffer, nor was Zaveid, as they tumbled to the next open landing. Sorey slid into the wall, wincing as he tried to heave himself up to help. Zaveid was much quicker to recover as he scurried to guard him, Mikleo blankly summoning up a maelstrom to throw them again.
"Forget something?" Edna shouted, landing on Mikleo's back from above. It wasn't much of a diversion but it worked to buy a little time. Zaveid gathered Sorey up again and lept down another flight just as a vortex of flames erupted on the floor behind them.
Sorey wanted to call their names again in elation, having feared the worst when he'd last seen Mikleo stalking towards them. He'd left them alive, though--Edna and Lailah both. Despite orders, he'd let them live and chased after Sorey instead. Somehow it didn't make any sense though Sorey wasn't about to complain in light of mercy. He only hoped they managed somehow to get out and not hurt each other too much in the process.
He heard Edna scream, though, as she fell fast down the column of air between them, plummeting towards the bottom of the stairwell before striking a rail and rolling off to the side. Lailah's battle cries above sounded desperate but Zaveid had only one objective: get down and get out. Sorey worried he wouldn't even stop to help Edna as they caught up to the level on which she'd landed.
Edna groaned as she rubbed at her side, her face torn between pain and rage as she pulled herself back up on her feet. "That Little Lord can be a real pain in the ass," she seethed through closed teeth, gearing up to go back at him again.
Zaveid nodded, seating Sorey down on the floor in a corner. "We're not getting out of this if we don't come at him together."
"You can't be serious," Sorey balked, wishing to whatever spirits would listen that he could stand and take charge of the fight.
"If he's taking it this seriously, we have no other choice," Edna explained, picking up her umbrella which almost seemed more appropriate to use for its intended purpose.
But Mikleo wasn't taking it seriously. He'd let Edna and Lailah live when he'd had a chance to try and finish them off alone.
Kill the Shepherd's seraphim companions... and make sure the Shepherd watches.
Sorey sat stunned for a moment before squeezing his eyes closed tight. "My eyes are closed!" he shouted, hoping to be heard above the fight. "Mikleo! My eyes are closed! I'm not watching!"
He could not move and now he could not see, but he could hear and he could hope he'd gotten it right. Amidst the pounding of his pulse, the sound of crashing water slowly died and from above where Lailah and Mikleo had been he could no longer hear the roar of fighting. Instead there were staggered steps that splashed in the latent pools of water and the racket of a staff falling to the ground.
Sorey angled his head, trying to hear more of what he was not seeing. There were heavy breaths from many mouths and the echo of feet on steps but the whirlwind of battle had settled once more leaving only the sounds of panted breathing.
"Good call there, Sheps," Zaveid said amidst Edna's heavy groan.
Sorey smiled sadly. This was truly the least the old him could have done. He wasn't even capable of fighting to protect his friends anymore. His one and only contribution was to not open his eyes. And even then, he wanted to. He wanted to very badly.
Mikleo's voice was hoarse and calm, his restraint still evidenced in the tension behind his words. "Kill me now while you still have the chance," he advised. He sounded distant but felt so close.
Sorey turned his head to the wall, not trusting himself not to look when he heard such despair in the utterance of his most beloved. "Mikleo--"
"They won't stop; it will never stop!"
Sorey swallowed hard, conflicted and pained by the choices presented that he could not act on alone.
"I'm not in the mood for any of this salvation via death crap today so shut it, Mik-boy!" Zaveid said with a growl. "No one's killing anyone right now. Got it?"
At the very least, the violence had stopped. And of all people, it seemed Sorey had the power to keep it that way.
Cold laughter bubbled up from above them, the sweet sound tainted with heartache. "None or you are a match for me," Mikleo lamented of what had once been his pride. No one spoke up to deny his claim. It only served to fuel his dark humor more. "Maotelus should have done it while he'd had the chance."
"Our Little Lord seriously picked a fight with Maotelus?" Edna asked, never one to mind the boundaries of teasing in good taste.
Mikleo said nothing at first--perhaps looking away in regret? Sorey wished more than anything that he could look at him again. "They had no concept of what it was they'd sent me to get and Maotelus had no problem killing me to keep himself and Sorey safe. But Sorey wouldn't let him," Mikleo snapped, a fist striking against something that sounded hard and unforgiving. "Sorey couldn't stand by and just let him kill me! He held him back! So I had no choice but to complete my mission."
"What did you do with Maotelus, Mikleo? Maybe he can help us now," Lailah proposed.
Every moment of silence was an eternity to wait through. Sorey held his breath, hoping not to miss anything even in the soft rumble of his body's own needs.
"I sealed him away inside Sorey. I thought it might keep them both safe. Instead it... I didn't know it would hurt him! Maotelus was just too imposing of a force. It was too much.... I wasn't thinking. I just wanted to do something that might cause their plans to stall."
Edna sighed. "Yet I imagine that turned out just fine by them. The payload's all in one spot now. They just need you to break him."
Again there was silence. Again Sorey could feel the heaviness of aversion.
Hands picked up him from the corner, and before he felt the familiar texture of Zaveid's soaked suit jacket against his cheek, Sorey imagined it might be Mikleo this time come to take care of him as he always had before. He knew it wouldn't be; knew the others would likely not trust him to get that close, but for a moment it felt good to use the darkness for make-believe.
"They know all about how Heldalf's curse set him up for corruption. They'll offer up a human sacrifice if required to force Sorey's hand. Place him in a crucible. Let him observe countless atrocities. They want him to rise in corruption under a banner of seraphim vengeance. They'll warp his good intentions using everything I know to help them. And it will work or he will die. And I'll have failed him all the more either way."
"Ain't happening," Zaveid promised, his grip perceptibly tighter as he held on to Sorey.
No matter how many times he said so, Mikleo was determined to disagree. "If you kill me now, you can go back upstairs and take them out without any further problems. They're only two humans. It won't weaken their cause by much but it will end their plot. And if you don't, when we meet again, I'll be forced to either kill you or take you away to be numbers thirty-three through thirty-five. And with the three of you gone, who then will rescue Sorey? You have victory resting in the palms of your hands. Take it! This may be the only chance you have!"
"Or you can just kill me and that's it done with as well!" Sorey barked, unable to listen to such words without rebuke any further. "Shut up, Mikleo! That's not how we do things!"
"Sorey..." Mikleo's voice was quiet with shock.
It made Sorey glad. He was tired of hearing how his friend felt better off dead. He wasn't. And he wasn't malevolent. There was no reason to give up the fight. "You listen to me! I'm going to save you! Even if I can't move, no matter what else I have to struggle against, I am going to save you! I wasn't able to make the world like the one in our dream but I can make our life together our whole world. Together. Do you understand?" he roared, hoping his heart was as much imbued in his words as his anger. "Please, Mikleo. Stay strong and have faith in me."
"... Okay," was the solemn reply.
Sorey smiled, pushing aside everything else but his gratefulness to have a chance to be in the same place as best friend again. "Thank you, Mikleo. I promise I'll free you," he swore.
"Then I promise I'll still be waiting."
There was the loud scrape of a staff being dragged across the ground and the tock as hit with its righted base. This was where they parted ways, Sorey realized. This was the part where he was expected to just leave Mikleo behind.
"Don't open your eyes until you're out of Pendrago. Just to be safe," Mikleo warned, his footstep echoing as he walked away. "It might take a while, but eventually they'll get curious and call be back. So long as I don't know where you are, you'll be safe. For a time."
"Thank you, Mikleo," Lailah called out as her own hurried footsteps lead her to join in their decent down the rest of the stairs.
Sorey wanted to look. He wanted one last glance at the man he'd longed to see as he let his head rest high on Zaveid's shoulder. It was such a simple, silly thing to deprive himself of but nonnegotiable in its necessity. He promised himself he wouldn't soon forget, though, the way Mikleo had looked when he'd first appeared.
He was every bit as beautiful as Lailah'd said he was. The next time they met, he would make sure to make him smile.
Don't make your paralyzed main character electively blind as well if you're going to tell a story from his perspective. It leaves you with damn near nothing to work with. OMG that was a dumb decision...
If you're interested in reading about Mikleo Vs. Maotelus, you can read it here.
They didn't leave Pendrago. There wouldn't be much of a point to running away when their adversary was known and in the city. They needed the jade earring to free Mikleo so encountering the water seraph again far away from Joseph and Dr. Breton was not advantageous by any respect. It was, in fact, imperative that they stay close and try and prepare for an attack as soon as possible. Unlike with Heldalf, there was no need to take time and develop the skills and knowledge to win. Their enemy was just two humans with no innate power; just the devastation of the Animus Ray.
And Mikleo. Whether Sorey wanted to view him as such or not, Mikleo was an obstacle standing between them and his own salvation. To hope that the next orders to kill or harm would be countered again without the need to incapacitate was nothing short of wishful thinking. It'd be much worse when they once again confronted Dr. Breton. In all likelihood, there would only be one more attempt.
Yet despite the horror and heartache of the past hour, Sorey was happier than he'd been in days. Mikleo was alive and he was still waiting for him even now. The details didn't matter so long as a life with Mikleo was still a possibility. They'd go back to Elysia for a while to regroup with stories told of the histories Sorey'd missed in the warm domes of the childhood they'd shared. Once they were all caught up, they'd grab the Celestial Record and go, searching the world for what remained of the wonders spoken of inside. Mikleo would make sure Sorey didn't trust so blindly. Sorey would make sure Mikleo learned to forgive himself. The future would be fantastic and through it all, they both would heal. No matter what came before, Sorey knew their new life was well within his reach.
Just a battle away. One last fight and he could have it all once again. And to do so, he was going to need help.
The Shrinechurch was still a monument to the worship of the five lords. Sorey could think of nowhere else where allies could be so readily found. Even if they had a hard time believing in a planned genocide of all seraphim, the precedent set with the Animus Ray was surely a concern. They could appeal to those of a similar understanding of the right of life for the seraphim, recruit some Shepherds who might be in town to aid them in a rebellion against such atrocities. It was worth a try at any rate. The Shrinechurch was home to those most likely like minded. And it was a close enough place from them to run.
Still cradled by Zaveid, the chair left behind and best forgotten, Sorey looked around at the inside of the Shrinechurch with the same pleasant nostalgia he'd only experienced once before. Like the Great Sanctuary of Ladylake, so much of the Shrinechurch had stayed the same, with a few updated and repaired structures adding some age but never touching its original majesty.
"Well, what the fuck are you going to do about it?!"
...well, things were mostly the same. Local color was always to be expected and the angry Shepherd standing by the podium at the end of the center aisle was certainly that. Her white cloak was short, barely concealing the red shirt under it that hung untucked over black pants. Her auburn hair rested just past her shoulders with a gentle wave. From a distance, she too reminded him of the past.
"They're dead and all you can say is okay?" she shouted again, her temper making the nervous clergyman before her sweat. "That fucking Animus Ray straight up murdered my friends! How can you just stand there and tell me that's just the way it goes?!"
The man in dark vestments raised both palms towards her, either hoping she would step back or at least protecting the space his hands preserved. "Miss--"
"Miss?! I am a god damn Shepherd, do you hear me?! Don't come at me with 'miss'! I am Shepherd Hyacinth and they were Grace and Edgar and Elanor and Benson! We were here last week when you asked us to help you! How can you sanction their deaths in your own city!?"
Sorey winced as they slowly drew closer, hating that this story wasn't a first. He thought of Shepherd Harland and of the four dead seraphim found sprawled against the earth. It hurt to realize suddenly that he'd never gotten their names. They were known to him as just what they were; dead and left there like vermin, expected to be forgotten. He made a promise to himself he'd find Shepherd Harland again. Not just so he could tell him the truth, but to learn those four names.
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave if you continue to speak in this manner," the clergyman insisted, sounding braver now as he seemed to notice they had company. He eyed Sorey with questioning eyes before seemingly settling on something that fit. A floating man? No, not exactly. The limits of his resonance seemed rather clear by his face.
"Oh, I'm not going anywhere," the Shepherd announced. "My friends are dead and someone is going to answer for it. I am not going to sit back and just accept this as the way things are!"
"We'll talk later," the man said, trying to push his way past her.
She grabbed his arm and held it firm. "We'll talk about this now!"
Sorey tried to wave the attention off, not managing much more than a shake of his head. "Don't mind us," he requested, looking between the two with a smile. "I think our concerns are actually somewhat related."
The Shepherd looked at him with dark, soulful eyes. With skin like pumpernickel and a short button nose, he could tell she wasn't from Glenwood. He could also see her resonance was strong. She looked at the three faces standing with him, her hardened expression growing soft around its edges. "Did you lose one too?" she asked with a tone that extended sympathies.
A fire, an earth and a wind seraphim with a human man. It was a fair assumption to make. "In a manner of speaking," Sorey replied, not having the heard to go into specifics with a woman who'd lost all four of her own. "I'm here to get help to get him back and try and stop what's happening everywhere."
The Shepherd smiled humorlessly as she pointed back to the decorated man. "You're wasting your breath with this lot. The only time they give a damn about seraphim is when they've got a bit of a hellion problem. And even then, they send Shepherds and their teams on suicide runs through areas utilizing ground level animus rays."
"It is the right of the city to deploy whatever means necessary to protect its citizens," the holy man proclaimed, the words dripping of propaganda and weighing heavy on Sorey's heart.
"Oh yeah? Well Benson grew up here," the Shepherd yelled. "Where was the city when they turned the lanterns on him?!"
The clergyman took several steps back, a deep breath expanding in his chest as he continued to move away. "I've had enough of your slander. I'm calling the police!"
The Shepherd all but laughed in his retreating face. "Do what you want. But you can't shut me up! I'm going to put a stop to this with or without the Shrinechurch's backing!"
Her words fell to deaf ears as he made his way out through the back doors, the few men still standing near the bookcases quietly trying to be invisible as they ignored her and her insistence.
Even in Sorey's time, the Shrinechurch had held very close ties to the government. It saddened him in some regard knowing humans resided over matters of state. They did what they thought was best for themselves. He couldn't blame them even if he vehemently disagreed. But it did not seem as though, even in a place of seraphim reverence, there were many who desired to champion the very lives of those they venerated. Human lives were more important in all institutions in Pendrago.
But not with all the people who came to it with a desire to help.
"We should get out of here before someone comes," Sorey called to the Shepherd as she stood with arms crossed in defiance.
She glanced back at him with suspicion in her brows as she looked him over again. "We?" she asked, dropping her arms to her sides as she steadily approached.
"I think you're right. I don't think anyone here is going to be able to help me," Sorey admitted. "But I think that maybe you can."
The Shepherd laughed as she shook her head side to side, waving him away as she waited for the cops. "Unless it has to do with sticking it to those assholes behind the Animus Ray, count me out," she explained, too busy planning to be a martyr to entertain another cause.
"That's actually exactly what I'm talking about."
She paused for a moment, her eyes searching Edna, Lailah and Zaveid all in turn before focusing again on Sorey. She bit down on her bottom lip with a contemplative frown then began to lead the way to the front door. "Then you can tell me more over a few drinks," she insisted, holding back just long enough for them to catch up and walk beside. She was quick to lose anger but her whole body still resonated with a spark of indignation. "What's wrong with you, if you don't mind me asking? I mean, you realize half the population sees you floating in a fetal position, yeah?"
Sorey chuckled nervously, not entirely comfortable with the circumstances himself. "I'm not exactly mobile on my own. I don't mind if I look strange, though. If they see me floating, they'll know I'm being helped by a seraph. Maybe it's the sort of thing they need to see to remind them of the goodness of the seraphim."
The Shepherd paused in her steps then, with sinking shoulders, turned and pulled Sorey into her arms instead. "All it tells those bastards is where to aim their lanterns," she warned, looking at Zaveid with great sadness as he slowly let go and allowed her to take Sorey from his grasp.
Sorey was a hundred percent sure he'd ever been carried by a girl before. Certainly not cradled and by a complete stranger at that. His face felt hot as his side pressed up against her chest. She smelled of lemongrass.
"We drink to our lost friends and then we talk about whatever it is you're looking to do," she announced, setting the pace once again. "And if I like the sound of it, we drink some more. Sound like a plan?"
Sorey unquestionably conceded as she carried him back into town.
Sorey had never been much of a drinker. In Elysia, Taccio had had a hobby for distillery but his products often gave the human a headache. Strong wine, strong lager, just about everything made his toes curl with just a whiff from either bottle or old wooden barrel. They were mature drinks for mature people, so of course he and Mikleo had tried to stomach more than a few sips now and then. Feeling sick together was almost part of the fun. Not at the time, of course, but in memory.
The wines of the human world were much more sweet and subtle and their beers were diverse and flavorful. Sorey much preferred the taste even if he did miss the cold, dry throat of an age Elysian brew.
The straw was an interesting touch.
They spent far longer than Sorey had imagined drinking to tales in the corner booth of a tavern. Hyacinth knocked back five heady beers to the tune of her last battle beside her friends while Sorey listened to the adventures of another Shepherd and the bonds shared, though eventually broken, between them all. It was as sad as it was gratifying. It gave him hope to know people like Breton didn't speak for everyone with their disrespect towards the lives of seraphim. People like Harland and Hyacinth existed who knew first hand the connections they all had.
She was still surprisingly alert when it came time for Sorey to speak, and while he worried at first how to begin, the words seemed to flow quite easily. Like his first taste of wine, it all started in Elysia. His life seemed very short, though, condensed down to his Shepherd days. The books and ruins he'd explored in his childhood, the wonderful years being raised by the seraphim, they all defined him but they did not define the path he'd taken once leaving his mountain home. He'd only been a Shepherd for a handful of months and there were centuries between then and now that simply did not exist for him. It was only a few weeks ago by his own memories that they'd ended Heldalf's ambitions and reminding himself to account for the gap was aided only by the way time started again without the use of his body. It was strange to think of himself as being tired but he was. He wished only for a time to personally experience peace the way he had in his quiet childhood.
"So you want to kill the guy who invented the Animus Ray?" Hyacinth surmised when Sorey finished explaining how they'd gotten to the present from back then. It was a far better start than the interruptions that came before that cast doubt on his identity.
Sorey shook his head, however, being careful not to disturb his slouch. With his arms on the table, he could just about hold himself up without much aid from Zaveid's wind. "No," he said plainly. "He needs to be stopped but he can be dealt with without his death being necessary. I'm sure we can take someone like him down using normal channels in the end. But with Mikleo guarding them, involving something like the police now will only escalate the problem. We have to get Mikleo free before we can directly challenge Dr. Breton."
Hyacinth downed another glass of ale before angrily snatching a peanut from a bowl. She snapped its casing off with a satisfying crack, chucking the nut in her mouth before grabbing another. "And you know this asshole knows that and is counting on it. If you stay quiet and make Mikleo your priority, they have the means to orchestrate their plot without having to worry about any serious backlash of any kind. If you let everyone know what they're doing and stand back, he's taken down but Mikleo's life is pretty well forfeit. But with the latter, there's no risk of them tarnishing the reputation of the Shepherd if they succeeded in tainting you."
It was hard to assess what course of action she preferred. They'd spoken at length about their mutual love and understanding of the seraphim and yet Sorey got a very distinct impression she doubted him still in some way. "You're afraid I'll fall?" he asked, knowing his friends could more than vouch for his sincerity and pure heart if need be.
Hyacinth looked at him as though he might have grown a second head, flicking her empty peanut shells across the table. "You're the Shepherd Sorey. Do you have any idea how much we need you right now? You heard that guy in the Shrinechruch--they're so worried about losing the power they have, they're willing to fall in with the rhetoric the state hands down without any regard for the very powers they worship. Pendrago has been taken over by minority extremists while the rest of us are all scratching our heads trying to figure out what the hell happened. If the big damn hero who brought an end to the Age of Chaos were to walk up--er... well, was to come back and take a.. figurative stand, it could be just what we need to put sanity back into the minds of those in power. This rule by fear is hurting everyone--human and seraphim alike."
"I won't fall," Sorey promised her, feeling secure in his answer still.
His words seemed empty to her all the same as she continues to subtly glare. "But are you prepared to die in order to save Mikleo," she proposed.
It was hardly a question. "Of course."
"And that's the problem." She let her fist pound against the table with an impassioned strike, her empty glass jumping with a splash of condensation. "The world right now needs you not to be. You dying is just as bad as you becoming tainted. Your memory doesn't carry the same weight as your miraculous return does in the hearts and minds of the people who see you as a symbol of hope and unity."
Sorey frowned at his own drink, still mostly untouched even with the offered straw to assist. It wasn't as though he could not sympathize with her beliefs, but they were still somewhat alien to himself. "Before I was a Shepherd, I was just a normal human. I'll never stop being a normal human no matter what they expect from me."
"You've never been a normal human to the people alive right now. You're a legend even children know." Hyacynth sat back in the booth, her arms crossing at her chest as her voice lowered from stern to almost kind. "The Great Shepherd Sorey who vanquished evil and sacrificed his future to sleep and dream of a better world. Most Shepherds I know took up the call because they admired you. No matter what you think, you'll never just be a human in this world. You've been a hero for much longer. If you go into things willing to die for your friend, you turn your back on everything you created while you slept. You're much too important for that, Sorey; maybe even the most important human being in all of Glenwood."
So important she felt it was better to forget Mikleo in favor of championing a different cause. Too important to risk anything for his friend when he was needed, by and large, by others. This from a woman who had lost four friends to the current pressures of discrimination and hate. Sorey knew she didn't mean it in a way that belittled Mikleo's importance to him but was trying to level with him Shepherd to Shepherd. This was bigger than them and they had taken an oath to do their duty no matter the sacrifice to themselves. That was what Mikleo was to her--an unfortunate sacrifice to secure the futures of seraphim kind.
And she was wrong. Such a path was avoidable; other possibilities could be chased. It wasn't the sure thing but so few choices ever were. However, the words he wanted to describe what he meant refused to land on his tongue. The ones he could summon seemed harsher and far more selfish than the intentions that lived in his heart.
"I don't regret what I did and I'd do it again in a heartbeat... and I don't know that there are words which mean what it is I really want to say," he began tentatively, fearful of losing an ally so soon after becoming friends. "I can accept an answer that requires some amount of sacrifice but I can't believe in a world in which I'm the most important part. I didn't end the Age of Chaos alone, the only thing I did by myself was sleep. My friends were the ones out there actually making a difference. What I did was important but the world wouldn't have been doomed forever without me. And it still isn't now. Except in regards to Mikleo. I'm the only one who can save him. He's been waiting for me and I promised I'd be back. No one else in all the world can keep that promise for me."
Hyacinth was quiet for much longer than Sorey was comfortable with, her dark eyes like miniature voids drawing him in. "You'd risk the fate of an entire race for one seraphim?"
"I have faith in the people of this world to rise up against evil," he tried to explain. "I believe in Shepherds like you. None of you need me the way Mikleo does. And I need him to know he's still worth that risk."
The Shepherd shook her head, her chin resting on her palm as she continued to stare into Sorey. "You know, I always thought you were more.. altruistic," she described.
Sorey couldn't help the nervous smile that bloomed across his cheeks. "I am. I'm just not selfish enough to consider myself Glenwood's only hope. And right now, the only thing I want to do is rescue Mikleo. One way or another, that's going to happen. The rest I know, if it comes to it, I can leave to you."
Not just to Hyacynth but to the other Shepherds and Squires across the continent who understood the evils of a seraphic genocide. It wasn't to say he wouldn't help; his plans currently included surviving to live happily every after with Mikleo by his side. But if her fears existed in what happened in his absence, he hoped to impart some bit of belief in a victory without him.
Though he could tell she did not like it, and though there was a sadness in her smile, Sorey could feel with the utmost confidence that Hyacnth understood what he was trying to say. "Fine. Okay, I'm in. So what's the plan?"
Lailah looked up from her cocktail with its skewer of maraschino cherries with a pleasant calmness that went well with her flushing cheeks. "I will become your Prime Lord with Edna and Zaveid renewing their pact as my Sub Lords. Through armatization, we may stand a greater chance against Mikleo," she explained.
Hyacinth nodded though she gestured across the table. "Why me and not Sorey?"
"Sorey is already currently acting as Maotelus's vessel," Lailah recounted, though most of the details had been glossed over before. "While the seal limits his ability to access his powers, it also removes the possibility of becoming a vessel for anything else."
"Can't someone just remove the seal?"
The fire seraph slowly shook her head. "Mikleo has been studying seals for centuries. It would be hard to find a contemporary able to match his skill and knowledge. Any attempt could cause further and irreparable harm to both Maotelus and Sorey."
Zaveid coughed with a laugh as he sat back in the booth, arms crossing behind his head. "Sort of a tragic irony about the whole thing. Kid becomes one of the strongest seraphim outside the five lords and spends his free time trying to improve his seals all in the name of protecting Sorey only to become the greatest threat standing in his way."
It made Sorey feel ill to think of it that way, knowing it was only too close to how he was sure Mikleo saw it as well. "Regardless of how things turned out, I'm really proud of him," he remarked truthfully. "Saving him won't be easy but it will most definitely be worth it."
"Well if I'm taking on Mikleo with these three, who's taking care of you?"
It was only too appropriate a question, and yet it filled Sorey with no small amount of shame. He was a liability now, which hearkened back to conversations from long ago. So this was what it had felt like to be filled with the desire to help but ill-equipped and not allowed. He felt bad for ever making Mikleo feel like he didn't belong. Funny how the little things always took the time to come back around.
"It might be for the best if we get you a room at the inn to wait in until this is over," Edna proposed.
Sorey nearly face-planted into the tabletop with the strength of his dissent. "No. I need to go too," he assured them, no small amount of fear welling up with memories of what happened on the road in the car. If they decided not to take him, there was nothing he could do. What they decided for him in regards for his own safety was a choice he had to live with whether he wanted to or not.
"And do what? You can't move," Hyacinth felt the need to remind him as Lailah carefully helped him back into a more stable position. "We'll be busy fighting Mikleo which means at any moment one of those jackasses can just pick you up and carry you away and then suddenly we need to worry about rescuing two of you."
Sorey remained adamant in his refusal. "Mikleo doesn't want to fight us. He doesn't want any of this. If I'm not there, regardless of his ability to rationally understand why, it will hurt him in a way nothing else ever could. Can you really risk pushing him any closer to the edge than he already is?" he asked, casting doubts he didn't care to believe in in regards to his friend's tenuous grip on purity. Mikleo wouldn't become tainted, he assured himself. He was strong and his very nature put his obedience in close accord, regardless of the nature of the deeds he'd done. Mikleo would stay true no matter the results of the fight. He wanted the waiting to be over too much to fall to darkness now.
Hyacinth sighed loudly as she pulled out her phone, her fingers typing out across the unseen screen. "Let me get with a friend, then. She used to be my squire. Leia lost her ability to see seraphim not too long ago but she can still hear them just fine. If all we need is a battle-born babysitter to protect Sorey and coordinate with, she should be more than adequate."
The words stung but the intent was uplifting. Sorey smiled brightly at his new trusted friend. "Thanks. I'll try not to be too great a liability," he promised.
She waved his words aside, putting her phone face down as she waited on its reply. "It's as much for me as for you. I can't afford for you to either become tainted or die. You're my best chance at putting things right and seeing justice for Elanor, Grace, Benson, Edgar and all the other seraphim who have lost their lives to these devices. Maybe you don't think you're that important, but I know what this world needs. So we're going to save your friend because, fuck it, we can and we will. But you're going to make it up to me big time when we take it to the Shrinechurch after."
Sorey nodded, wishing he could shake her hand and let her know he'd be there for her. In all his life, he'd only ever gone back on a single, naively made promise. He would not let this be another one.
Hyacinth was kind enough to offer to share her hotel room, not bothered in the least by the idea of four others crowding into her single suite. She was used to the company; it was lonely without it. After months of traveling with Rose and the rest, Sorey knew exactly what she meant. He'd never been alone himself--even in sleep he was there with Maotelus. He found it hard to imagine the full depths of such a loneliness. It made him feel somewhat accomplished to help just by being there.
It was also an offer he couldn't afford to turn down. Sorey had already required Zaveid & Edna's bet money to pay for their drinks at the tavern, lacking the current ability to earn much money on his own. They didn't seem to mind, both of them knocking them back with the best of them--the best of them being Edna herself. It was almost impressive how well the seraphim held her liquor. Sorey was just happy he'd managed to sort of sit up in public without looking too awkward anyway. Awkwardness existed in his being carried away again afterwards, though Hyacinth promised Leia would bring with her a wheelchair when she joined them in the morning at least.
The inn room was small and freezing, a false breeze humming in the air and disturbing the long green drapes. There was only one bed though there was a small grouping of two chairs sitting in the far corner by the large open window. Sorey wanted so much to be the gentleman and excuse himself to resting on the floor but hadn't managed to get so much as a word out before Hyacinth threw him down on the bed. He didn't bounce so much as flop, the hard mattress catching him with very little give. He scowled at the ceiling, bits of his back complaining quite loudly at that while Hyacinth walked to the end of the bed to remove his shoes.
Sorey blushed slightly, trying to sit up despite knowing full well the lack of result. "You don't have to--"
"Shoes off in the bed but you're keeping your socks on. I don't like cold feet, you understand?"
Sorey's face burned darker as he realized how far to one side of the bed he was. Hyacinth apparently had no intention sleeping on the floor. He didn't mind but it felt weird. It would have perhaps been far less weird without Zaveid trying to give him subtle gestures of encouragement. This was not a situation that called for a thumbs up. Hyacinth was just being kind, not salacious.
She pinched is big toe once both shoes were gone, one brow raised as she looked him over. "Can you feel that?" she asked, wiggling it between her fingers.
He did his best to wiggle it back to limited success. "I can feel everything," he said, tapping his fingers against the blanket instead. "I just can't move all that much. I once managed to pull myself half up into a seat, but after that I could barely lift my head."
Hyacinth hummed in contemplation, taking a seat beside his feet as she too prepared for bed. "Sorry there isn't much left for the rest of you," he noted, though the seraphim had already mostly settled in the chairs sitting opposite them.
"This is quite alright. I may spend a fair bit of our time here dwelling in you anyway," Lailah pronounced. They'd already made the pact, both of them being old hats at the practice. Both seemed quite tired though Sorey still admired Hyacinth's strength.
Hyacinth nodded, stretching her arms overhead before getting up and climbing into the other side of the bed. She punched the pillow a few times, not exactly a dainty flower even when retiring for the night. It was not a large bed. Sorey could smell the alcohol on her breath as Hyacinth breathed out on a long sigh and stretched to turn off the lamp's light. Still, the feeling of another body close was oddly comforting even if the person was not one he was used to in that respect. There was warmth and security in the presence of a friend. It was much easier than Sorey had thought it would be to gently fall to sleep.
Alone in the darkness of his mind, he did not dream.
The sky was rose colored when Sorey awoke to a knocking at their door. There was not yet enough sunlight to create trails across the ceiling but the blush of dawn was steadily growing, pushing back the lavender echoes of night. The Shepherd slumbering beside him grumpily groaned and slowly threw off her blankets in a huff. A glance towards a clock had her cursing under her breath, her feet stomping angrily as she got up and paced to the locked door. "Leia better have brought some damn coffee to be showing up at this hour," she muttered, fingers massaging between her brows before pressing her face to the peep hole. Sorey couldn't see her so well beyond where the bathroom cut into his view. He could hear the jangle of the door's chain lock though, and of the door pulling against it as it held in place. "Pretty sure you've got the wrong room, pal," Hyacinth grumbled to their supposedly unwanted guest.
"I need to speak to Sorey," a familiar voice replied. "Tell him it's Joseph."
Sorey eyes went wide as he strained to lift his head and see further, able to only watch as three seraphim bodies quickly vacated Hyacinth, taking defensive measures behind her.
"Joseph?" Sorey called out, more than a little bit confused. It was early morning but even then, he felt sure even a properly awake mind would have a hard time comprehending a visit from him. The man had betrayed their trust since the very beginning. As a protege of Dr. Breton, they were no longer exactly what one might considered friends.
Hyacinth slowly undid the sliding chain lock and in a few short seconds, Joseph stepped in. There was no longer a jade earring danging under the black hair at his ear, much to Sorey's disappointment. It would have been so easy to have just ripped it away from him right now. He supposed that was exactly what it wasn't there. It meant, however, that Joseph had come without a seraphic means of defense. Sorey wasn't sure what an Animus Ray lantern looked like, but given his empty hands and no large bulges in his pockets, it seemed fair to assume he was unarmed. Very curious indeed given their last encounter. He still worried for his friends currently acting as his shield.
Joseph moved his hands to his back pockets as he leaned his shoulders against the wall. "You wanna help him sit up?" he asked, addressing the seraphim but nodding towards Sorey. "I'd do it myself but I imagine getting that close would land me in a fair bit of pain right now."
"I'm almost hoping you try," Edna coolly provoked while Lailah broke the line to prop Sorey against the headboard.
As grateful as he was to not be made to spend an entire confrontation with a crick in his neck, Sorey was even more put off by Joseph's continued consideration for him. They were both human, he supposed. However he felt about seraphim didn't necessarily affect the way he felt about him. It was sad to see a small indication that it hadn't all been for show. "What are you doing here?" he asked, still more alarmed than simply confused. Something had to be seriously wrong for Joseph to feel confident enough to come alone.
"Just came for a chat," Joseph replied. Sorey was certain it was anything but.
"How did you even find us?"
To that, the man offered a small smile as he slouched further against the wall. "A paralyzed young man getting carried around the city isn't something most people don't notice. Our network had no problems tracking you here. Though, I admit, you're quite the resourceful guy, Sorey. Oh, and great job tricking Mikleo the way you did back at the university. I thought this was all going to be over and done with but you're just full of surprises."
It was odd to be praised for stalling their plans. Even so, he felt no ill intent. As far as Sorey could judge from the man, this was nothing more than a somewhat tense but pleasant conversation between old chums. Perhaps this was the night's dream he swore he hadn't been having. It was much nicer than threats and menacing plots, however. As far as conflicts went, this was certainly ranked most preferred.
"How's Mikleo?" Sorey asked, ignoring the tension in the room emanating off the others.
"I'd tell you that he's the least of your concerns but I guess we both know that's not true. I imagine he's resting. Dr. Breton has no need of him right now other than as a deterrent to keep you in line," he admitted, his honesty extended to even their own plans. "It gets worse from here on out, though, you know. If you let me take you back with me, you can at least save your other friends."
Hyacinth laughed as she took a seat against the dresser, a dagger already unsheathed and glistening in her grip with the morning sun. "Until the genocide begins," she said mockingly.
Joseph shrugged, his hands moving from his back pockets to the front. "And I'm not saying that isn't true. But at least it wouldn't have to be Mikleo who killed you all. The seraphim are all going to die anyway. All Sorey has is the option to choose how painful it has to be and whether or not his new Shepherd friend is among them."
Sorey ground his teeth at the way Joseph spoke so easily about using Mikleo against them. Like he didn't consider him an equal being. Like none of the seraphim really counted for anything. "Why do you hate seraphim so much?" he had to ask, not able to understand that level of disgust that allowed the human with resonance the ability to pretend he couldn't even see or hear them.
"I don't hate them," he explained. "I just want to protect humanity."
The words sounded incredibly stupid at such an early hour. "Protect it from what?" Sorey demanded. "Your partners are the ones creating the devastation. You're manufacturing the very things you're trying to save people from. How can you blame the seraphim for that?"
Joseph sighed, one hand coming to rub at the back of his neck. Every movement he made caused the pendulum in Zaveid's grasp to nervously twitch. "You can't deny that seraphim would be better off without humans. We create malevolence which is their antithesis. A world without humans becomes a natural paradise so what reason do the seraphim have to do anything to help us? A day will come when seraphim decide they've had enough of humanity and wipe us all out. Makes sense to me to take the advantage science has given us to make sure it's humanity that ends up the dominant species."
Sorey was half disgusted by his ignorance. To think that seraphim cared at all about creating a world without humans ignored the very nature of seraphim who would surely become hellions if inclined to think that way. Seraphim did not relish in the death of others but rather accepted the natural order of things. Nature put humans and seraphim together along with animals and plants. All of them were meant to nurture each other. There was no war between the species brewing amongst the seraphim.
"So to you this is just a race. First one to wipe the other one out wins," Sorey summarized bitterly.
"If we wait to go on the defense, we'd be as good as dead."
Sorey could not disagree more. "The only way to even start such a war would be to have a Lord of Calamity who sided against humans and even then it's be a war of hellions. Everything you are doing is only helping to create a self-fulfilling prophecy," he tried to explain, though he felt no assurance the words mattered in the end. It was like arguing with Mikleo about ancient architecture: they were both looking at the same evidence but their minds had simply drawn separate conclusions. "It won't happen, I can't be tainted, but just so you understand, countless people died during the reign of the last Lord of Calamity. You're proposing a solution to a problem you've invented all in the name of a fear that's unjustified at best."
Joseph was quiet for a moment, seemingly inspecting the tops of his shoes, before sighing heavily and pressing on. "We've chosen our human sacrifice. We'll be returning to Camlann to see that it's done right."
There was no right way to murderer someone. There was no right way to curse another human being. Sorey breathed deep. "Maotelus isn't there," he reminded him, choosing to argue specifics rather than appeal to his humanity.
"No," Joseph agreed. "But Mikleo will be."
A sacrifice made to the seraphim incarnation of the last human sacrifice offered? Sorey had to close his eyes to contain his revulsion, his insides turning cold at the repugnance of it. "Mikleo's also not a hellion."
"We understand the requirements. It won't be an issue."
Oh, but there was plenty of issue to take. Sorey wanted more than anything to believe Mikleo could withstand any action he committed through command. But to have a life ended in sacrifice to him... it would be, perhaps, too appropriate a final blow.
"Just give him back," Sorey whispered, not knowing what else to say. "You have no right to do this to him. He doesn't belong to anyone."
Despite his claim towards imminent victory, Joseph did not look overly pleased. If anything, it looked as though his work had left him with some manner of regrets and a heavy heart. "The sacrifice will be made tonight. I'm assured you don't actually need to be there for it to take effect but I expect you'll come anyway just the same."
"Or we deal with you right now." Hyacinth proposed, dagger still in hand, poised and ready to strike.
Joseph pushed off from the wall. "You could," he admitted calmly, "but what good would it do you? Dr. Breton has Mikleo and they're already on their way. Hurting me doesn't get you anything; I've already done everything I was supposed to do and you already know everything about what happens next. Though I can't say I wouldn't understand how a bit of revenge might feel good for some."
"I don't want to hurt you, Joseph," Sorey admitted, though part of him felt weak for not insisting on some retribution for Mikleo. "I owe you a lot. You didn't have to treat me nicely. You could have treated me like your prisoner and made life hell."
Joseph seemed genuinely surprised by that. His smile faltered into a confused if not somewhat sad frown. "It's much easier to take a willing person on a trip than it is to kidnap them. Besides, I was hoping one of your other seraph companions might be able to fix you up." He shrugged his shoulders, backing away towards the door. "Mikleo said it wouldn't work. The guy has an annoying habit of being right."
"Yeah. He's pretty great. Just don't get him started on the Era of Asgard because all his theories are based on conjecture if you ask me." Sorey smiled as his words continued to wear away a little at Joseph's facade, another crack showing as he flinched in the face of kindness. Perhaps they weren't entirely enemies just yet. After all, he never said Dr. Breton had sent him to give them this warning about the impending sacrifice. "Please be kind to him," he asked. "Let him know I'll be there tonight to take him home."
Joseph took a deep breath, his glasses obscuring his eyes before he finally turned his back. "We'll see. See you in Camlann, Sorey."
"See you in Camlann," he promised.
Joseph opened the door and quietly walked back through it, the latch ringing with a heavy click as it closed.
Back to Camlann again, where all things started and some things came to an end. Back to the origin to stop another sacrifice. The land there itself must have been cursed.
Hyacinth locked the door behind him as she hurried to the nightstand and retrieved her phone, not even bothering to sheath her dagger until someone picked up on the other side. "Leia? Hey, it's Hyacinth. Yeah, I know it's early, but how many people can you fit in your car?"
"But he's really him?" Leia asked again, her voice not nearly low enough not to carry to where Sorey was sitting in the back of large black SUV.
Hyacinth groaned from the passenger seat, her head leaning hard against the back of her chair. "Yes," she repeated with growing exasperation. She ran her fingers through her straight, auburn hair.
Leia continued to eye Sorey through the middle mirror with a doubtful look in her eyes.
She was a petite young woman with dark hair and eyes who, while certainly fond of Hyacinth, maintained a not at all subtle edge of doubt towards him as she carted them all to Camlann. Her resonance limited to only sound, it was still a far less trying trip than the one they'd taken before. Employed to assist him, Lailah and Zaveid remained in the back with Sorey while Edna took her turn within Hyacinth for what promised to be the better part of their journey. They were an interesting group of old friends and almost strangers, somewhat mingled but still, in many ways, apart. The fact that Leia insisted on talking to Hyacinth as though he couldn't discern her words made for amusing exchanges to overhear. Sorey could tell Hyacinth was more embarrassed than annoyed as her companion continued to insist on less than quiet conversation.
"You're absolutely sure?" Leia questioned one last time.
At least, it would be the last time as far as Hyacinth was concerned. She threw up her arms, almost smacking the roof, as she animatedly exclaimed,"No, I'm lying to you and thought it'd be fun to pick up some random guy for the hell of it to go joyriding to Camlann--also for the hell of it!"
"Whatever. Shut up," Leia retorted affectionately. "I just mean, ya know.. he's so young, though."
"Well, yeah. He was only, like... seventeen when he took down the Lord of Calamity."
"So he's like a thousand year old teenager?" Leia asked, again eyeing Sorey through the mirror. Sorey wished he was either asleep or able to melt into the seat as a big puddle of something that wasn't aware of his surroundings for a bit. She pitched a little closer towards Hyacinth as she leaned against the center column, her voice lower but not nearly low enough. "Ya know, he's kinda hot," she said.
"Leia, I had no idea you were a pedophile."
"Oh my god, shut up!"
Hyacinth shook her head, tutting at the disgrace as she crossed her arms over her chest. "This is why you can't be my Squire anymore. Your impurity offends my delicate Shepherd sensibilities."
"One word," Leia professed. "Gododdin."
The awkward pause suggested perhaps that one word was quite effective in its meaning. "... It was a religious experience," the Shepherd finally retorted, her chin raised haughtily.
"Oh, yeah, I bet," Leia said with a shake of her own head. "Half the inn heard your late night exultations."
Zaveid chuckled at Sorey's side, perhaps the only one in the back enjoying the semi-private back and forth. The louder Leia got, the more Sorey expected they were meant to overhear them. It was certainly a different sort of performance piece but... well, it was sort of nice to see more of what normal lives looked like in this new world. Since he'd woken up, everything seemed to have carried a sorrow with it in some respect. The two women up front, joking and teasing each other, were refreshing to say the least.
In rare ways, they reminded him of himself and Mikleo.
"Why did I invited you to help save Glenwood again?" Hyacinth asked, not so much to Leia but to any powers that be.
Leia knew quite well, though. "Because I'm awesome," she explained.
"I thought it was because you have a car."
"Sure. Awesome people know how to drive. Which makes me the most awesome person here."
Hyacinth sighed. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure that blasphemy."
Leia chuckled, glancing back over her shoulder at her other passengers--or at least the one still visible. "Shepherd Sorey doesn't mind, do you, handsome?" she asked, giving him a wink and a crooked smile.
Strange as they were, Sorey definitely did like his two new friends. "No. Not at all," he quietly assured her.
Leia smacked Hyacinth in the arm, beating on her playfully. "We should get that in writing. Let the clergy know we're totally Shepherd Sorey approved so they can take it easy on some of that taboo bullshit."
"Taboo?" Sorey couldn't help but ask.
"You know. The whole must be pure of body, mind and soul stuff. No sex, no masturbation, no cursing, no drunkenness, no having any real emotions of any kind. The usual," Leia summarized, not needing to add much to describe her feelings on the subject.
Sorey scrunched his face as he thought back to his first encounter with Lailah. "No one told me that when I became a Shepherd," he said, looking to the Prime Lord beside him who silently pursed her lips and said nothing, turning her head to look out the side window instead.
"Really? Man, you must have had it good. Traveling around, the only Shepherd in the world, meeting new people in far off places. Think you've got any decedents out there?"
He couldn't help but blush at the idea of himself as some kind of traveling stud, his eyes searching landscape for some kind of reply that wasn't either telling or rude. "Uh.. no. I mean, they didn't tell me not to do those things but, uh... I mean..."
"Oh, my god," Leia all but squealed. "You're too cute! I mean, I hate you because I'm guessing this bullshit is somehow all your fault, but, seriously, you're seventeen; we need to get you to live a little."
"He's not legal," Hyacinth chimed in from the side.
Zaveid was absolutely loving it.
Leia stuck her tongue out at her. "No one was suggesting anything bad! I just want him to have, like, one hickey right up on his jaw when we come back to the Shrinechurch. Just like some ugly, purple monster of a thing they can't even pretend to ignore."
"Have I apologized for her enough?" Hyacinth asked, turning around in her seat, gesturing towards their rather outspoken driver. "I feel like maybe we need to keep a list of why I need new friends who don't act like assholes in front of the most revered Shepherd of all time."
Sorey knew his face could not be any redder, physically able to feel the heat rising off his skin. "I think you're both great," he reassured her. Whatever his reputation in this world, he had great esteem for people who were genuine.
Leia laughed. "Fuck yeah! Shepherd Sorey thinks I'm great! Take that, Cardinal Banner," she roared. She struck out to her right again, knocking firmly at Hyacinth's side. "No, but seriously, we need to write this shit down."
"You need to drive so we can get to Camlann before anyone dies," Hyacinth reminded her, pulling away from the insistent knocks. "Not to be a downer or anything, but we've got some serious stuff to contend with tonight."
Despite her serious words, the tone in the vehicle remained the same as Leia simply shrugged it off with a short sigh. "I know. But you can't go into a tough situation without setting yourself up with rewards. Like, me? After we win, I'm making sure Sorey writes out some kind of statement for the establishment so I don't have to worry about losing my job every time I bone a seraph."
"You already lost your job, Leia," Hyacinth stressed.
"I can still be a champion for other Squires." Leia stuck out her tongue again, which seemed to be her preferred final statement to end an argument. She looked back towards the backseat. "What about you, Sorey? What's going to be your reward?"
Sorey didn't even hesitate, his answer at the forefront of his mind. "After we win? I'll have Mikleo back. There's nothing I'm looking forward to more than that."
"Gonna kiss him?" she asked, raising her brows with undisguised interest.
Sorey supposed that was how most people expected to greet their beloved. But it seemed in bad taste somehow. "I'm going to hold him," he said instead, his hands restless with the desire to embrace and protect. "No matter what it takes, I'm going to wrap my arms around him. I'll hold him until it sinks in that he's okay."
"Oh my god, you're too much. Hyacinth, I can't even. You're going to need to take the wheel. This is how I die."
"Only because I am going to kill you," Hyacinth groaned, facing forward as she fiddled with some nobs. "No more talking. Music now." And with a twist of her wrist, all conversation died. The sounds that filled the vehicle instead were sweet and soft accompaniments to the trees and fields that passed by. Even though much of the scenery was already things Sorey had seen, it was still amazing to know these places were there with poignant words to sing them on their way.
Sorey almost immediately missed the distraction of conversation though. Too soon thoughts he'd tried not to entertain came back to the forefront of his mind.
The world still needed his help to sustain resonance for those like Leia and Harland who had lost theirs after his sleep. Maotelus still needed someone to aid in his purification of the land. Sorey hadn't been meant to awaken just yet; he had not properly fulfilled his previous goal. But could he even afford to assume such responsibilities again? Could he really do that again to Mikleo?
He'd lose him. Not to malevolence, necessarily, or even to death but by the time they truly reunited, Mikleo would be someone he no longer knew. Healing alone of his invisible wounds would make something new, someone stronger but irreparably changed from the seraphim Sorey understood as an extension of his own being. They'd have sweet memories of the past they'd shared but so much of what Mikleo had seen and done would exist as a wall between them. If Sorey left him again, after all he'd been through, for the sake of the rest of the world, he'd be throwing away more than just his own future happiness. He'd have helped destroy something beautiful.
Mikleo was the one thing he could not leave to someone else to care for. But was this world okay as it was, left to fend for itself?
Sorey did not want to think about his choice or the consequences of it either way. If he dwelled on it to long, he'd surely lose sight of his answer. More than ever, he needed to go into this self assured.
It was hard to believe Sorey had only been out of Camlann for less than a fortnight, his adventures across the continent condensed into a matter of days where long ago he would still be on the road. There would have been several nights spent thinking about what was about to transpire in the old days; conversations and planning given time to develop into the kinds of things that inspired trust and confidence in their selves. Instead, they only had until the sun set behind the large mountains that had been Sorey's home. Hours had become the new standard of time and they were much too short in such straits.
At least the plan was still simple enough not to require much stressing over. Hyacinth was in charge of keeping Mikleo busy while Leia took on the humans with the aim of securing possession of the jade earring. All this needed to be done while intervening in a sacrifice, but so long as Dr. Breton didn't have too much a head start, it was very much possible to get there in time. Lailah, Edna and Zaveid would readily assist their new Shepherd to keep their friend from destroying them all, and Sorey... well, Sorey would bear witness. It wasn't helpful in any way, but it made a point.
Sorey would not be bullied by desperation. They were going to retrieve Mikleo and put a firm conclusion to Dr. Breton's desires.
They found Joseph's car parked next to another vehicle outside the ruins of Camlann. Unlike the rest of the world, other than those small additions, the place hadn't changed at all, having been made into a secluded place by seals for centuries. Everything was exactly as Sorey remembered it to be. Rather disappointingly, there were quite a lot of stairs.
"Fucking ableist bullshit," Leia remarked as she dragged the empty wheelchair behind her.
Sorey sighed, happy to be strewn over Zaveid's back rather than jostled up the unending climb in the Squire's otherwise capable care. He knew it wasn't him they were at intervals annoyed with so much as the fact that so many things didn't take into account someone of his current limitations. He was very tired of being such a burden to the others, though. It wasn't a feeling that got better with time; it most definitely got worse. Even just ignoring simple mobility, he was a chore. More people had seen and touched parts of him that had previously not been seen or touched by anyone else than he really cared to think about. He felt guilty about that, and about bring carried and about wheelchairs being dragged along just so he wouldn't be seated on the floor. It was hard to feel like himself when previously he would have been the one leading the charge. 'Previously' was all of three weeks ago for Sorey and encompassed the first time he remembered climbing these stairs.
Hyacinth lead them this time, her short cloak trailing behind her. "You all know this place better than us. Where do you think we're likely to find them?" she asked, looking out at the scattered islands of the throne.
Sorey looked around, refreshed by the lack of malevolence there now but still amazed at how disjointed the whole place seemed. "There's a winding path across the islands than leads to a central structure," he recounted. "That's where we fought Heldalf back in my day. The inside was wrecked by the fight but the columns and everything else out front should still be there. It would make as much sense as anywhere else for a sacrificial ceremony."
The Shepherd nodded, taking a deep breath as she surveyed the chaos before them. Beside her, Leia almost sobbed at the continuation of uneven terrain.
Then everyone was shouting for some strange reason. Sorey would have wondered about it more but found he could not care. His entire body screamed in intense emotional agony, his mind drawn only to the source of the pain as a sinking feeling fell over him that suggested he was falling in more than one way.
He didn't strike the stairs but felt the percussion of his capture all the same.
Pain; so much pain. Loneliness, guilt and ebbing panic. Sorey could sense the malevolence drawing around him, suffocating him with its oppressive presence, as he gasped for breath and a way to escape the pressure squeezing around his heart.
"What's happening to him?!" someone was screaming, though the words seemed so far away.
Sorey clawed at his chest, imagining he could sense even Maotelus shrieking within him at the intensity of this new influence.
"We're too late. They've performed the sacrifice." It was Edna speaking but she sounded so old.
Regret. Fear. Remorse. Distress. Grief. Hatred. Anguish.
"Everyone, stand back. He's surrounded in malevolence."
Loneliness. Heartache. Rage. Misery. Torment. Mikleo?
Sorey choked on his breath as he tried to find a place of calm inside himself to anchor. These weren't his own feelings. This was not his burden to carry. He could not allow himself to be tainted by the weight of something outside himself.
"Look, the malevolence is fading," Hyacinth declared, bringing an edge of light to Sorey's consciousness as he fought to push the malevolence back. "Fuck, what the hell is going on? I didn't think it was supposed to work that fast! You said it took the last guy almost twenty years!"
"Heldalf's curse was to live forever in loneliness. Such feelings take time to envelop one's spirit. This is different," Lailah explained.
It was different. These weren't Sorey's own feelings, though the strength of them filled his throat with bile. "Mikleo," he said with a shudder and tears streaking down his face. "I... I think I feel... what Mikleo feels."
The collective quiet did not serve to make things right.
With trembling breaths, Sorey opened his eyes, finding himself on the ground, heaped on his side with a view of the segmented chaos of islands. The others he could more or less see as they circled around him, the seraphim standing several paces back. Even to his own eyes, he could still see the purple tendrils as they caressed him, beckoning him towards malevolence with their sinewy arms.
"Then they mean to push Mikleo over the edge and have him take Sorey with him," Hyacinth proposed, the words sounding just as likely as any other magic the scientists had employed.
Edna nodded. "A surefire way to taint even the purest of hearts. Even if the source of the malevolence isn't his own, an empathetic soul like Sorey's will be drawn by such intensity to ruin."
Sorey shook his head, swallowing the pain as he tucked it away, trying to deny it its conquest even as his love for Mikleo made it a source of vital interest. "I won't let it happen," he swore, gritting his teeth against the strain. Mikleo needed him; getting lost in his emotions wouldn't bring him any peace.
Slowly, the remaining tendrils of malevolence faded away though Sorey could still feel the echo of torment throughout his body. Mikleo needed him; he needed him months ago. His pain was raw and screaming in Sorey's heart though he knew he had to push on.
Even with the amethyst menace no longer physically pronounced, no one approached.
"We can't take him any further," Zaveid advised, his voice reminding Sorey none too happily of conversations at Rayfalke Spiritcrest and of the burden carried by those who loved Eizen.
"We don't have a choice. It he falls, someone's going to need to purify him. That doesn't happen if we carry on and leave him here."
"This isn't a rescue mission anymore, Lailah," the wind seraph announced. "If Sorey goes, so does Maotelus. Even if we got his vessel, the kid's not just going to snap back to normal. If he's the source of this malevolence, we've got to wipe it out."
Lailah shook her head, standing firm. "It might not be too late to purify him as well."
"Purification doesn't wind back the clock. It just sets the timer back to zero." Zaveid sounded angrier than Sorey had heard him in a long time, his voice strained as he growled deep in his throat. "I've got a bad habit of not listening to friends who ask me to kill them for their own good; a bad habit of making them suffer when there's nothing else we can do. I don't want to keep making the same mistakes, Lailah!"
No one spoke or hardly even breathed. Sorey himself felt hyper-focused on keeping the intruding emotions at bay, no longer overwhelmed by their presence but nevertheless weighed down by them all the same.
"... We'll see how far gone he is," Lailah carefully committed.
Sorey shook his head but could not manage further words. The grief and loneliness were suffocating, self-loathing ripping at his emotional core. But there had to be a way back from this. There wasn't yet despair. There still, somewhere buried deep, had to be some form of hope.
Hyacinth sighed loudly, kneeling down to gently press her hand to Sorey's warm and moistened face. "We don't have to go after them, you know. We know where they parked; they have to come back this way and they're already done. We can wait in ambush and give Sorey time to settle. If we're still going after that earring, a surprise attack may be our best bet anyway."
"So back down the stairs?" Leia asked, still holding on to the folded up wheelchair.
Hyacinth nodded, tucking Sorey's bangs behind his ear. "Back down the stairs."
Leia sighed but did not bother to comment as she helped heave Sorey onto Hyacinth's back. Even contained, the malevolence could become too strong for the seraphim to touch.
Sorey cringed with guilt, a wave of malevolence rippling over him before, through sheer determination, he pushed it back aside. That one, at least, belonged to him. He had grown used to struggling with it.
Back in the charred ruins of a life he'd never lived, Sorey found himself in his new chair tucked inside the half-there walls of buildings long destroyed. Leia stayed by him, quietly taking care of the fever than boiled within in as every piece of Sorey's being struggled against the invading depression. Hyacinth and the others waited on higher ground for their moment to strike. It was a good plan, even if Sorey despised several improvised takes on it. Mikleo could still be saved. He was sure of it, even as he struggled with the darkness the seraph bestowed through their connection.
It didn't take long, an hour at best, before the awaited procession arrived at the bottom of the lengthy steps. Sorey could see Dr. Breton as he moved with a cane in one hand, a splash of blood against the front of his shirt and nothing dangling from either ear. He was old and moved in such a way as to convey the age of his bones, his movements slow but purposeful. And to his side walked a monstrous form that continued to obediently follow.
One of Mikleo's arms had mutated into something massive, a scaly, giant of a limb that dragged on the ground beside him. It wasn't the pale color of his skin but a dark, earthy shade of brown with an iridescence that caught levels of green in the moonlight overhead. His hair was no longer pulled back but left flowing, hiding his face in a way that spoke of intent, and back bent as though a hook were pulling up on his spine, putting his shoulders almost at the same level as his head. But it was Mikleo. The purple mist that coiled around him ebbed and grew like a living thing, the twitching of his talons on the monstrous arm in time with the fluctuating malevolence.
Sorey could not hear what the doctor was saying to his beloved, but he could feel the sadness growing stronger in the echoes that plagued him. This was what the vile man had wanted. Mikleo hated himself for not being strong enough not to give in. He was now a hellion.
"Oh my god, is that him?" Leia asked.
Sorey nodded mutely, unable to look away as through the aquamarine hair he caught a glimpse of the face as the former seraph turned his head to look among the charred remains of his birthplace. His right eye was was a bulging red slit paired unevenly with the normal violet one on his left. The skin around it mirrored the flesh of his arm. The disfiguring unevenness of his features was mortifying.
But he still felt like Mikleo. His emotions still rang true, even if they terrorized Sorey from within. He took no satisfaction in destruction, felt no malice towards anything but himself and his companion. Mikleo was still in there, no matter what malevolence had begun with him.
Hyacinth made a quick attack.
Sorey had almost forgotten in his trance of awe that that was what they were waiting for. The Shepherd leapt towards the hellion, fiery sword raised high, as Dr. Breton shouted and Mikleo's massive arm reached out to defend.
Distress. Guilt. Fear. Misery. Torment. Anguish. Hate.
Sorey convulsed on it, losing his sight momentarily as the pain inside him flared.
Leia slapped him across the face. "Not on my watch!" she shouted, backhanding him again for good measure.
Physical pain helped focus his mind while what was inside him screamed for release. Sorey blinked at the Squire, taking a few steadying breaths as he nodded, breaking free of it once again. "Thanks," he whispered, his attention quickly redrawn to the battle going on on the path below. Hyacinth was a powerhouse of quick and successive strikes, switching between forms to keep Mikleo on his toes. While Mikleo fought and swatted her away, Dr. Breton hurried to find shelter of his own.
Sorey nodded to where their enemy cowered behind a wall of broken stone. "If he's commanding Mikleo, then the jade's on him somewhere."
Leia glanced through the cracks of their own structure, following his gaze. "I could so take that old bastard. But what about you?"
"I'll be fine," he lied. There was nothing fine about watching this fight. There was nothing fine with having to sit and witness and do nothing but pray and wait.
The fight ended with possession of the jade, though. In that respect, he could be fine.
Leia looked concerned but quickly nodded, scurrying around the debris as quietly as she could. With her on her way, it was hard for Sorey to decide what part of the battle to watch. The action between Hyacinth and Mikleo was an eruption of flashy spells and cries but it was Leia's mission that promised a solution as the old man looked to his own survival. Sorey watched her as she moved forward, taking shelter to keep herself concealed along the way. Dr. Breton seemed clueless as to the impending ambush, his attention solely on the battle before them with something shinning in his own unsteady hand.
For some reason the old man turned his head, be it due to sound or simply paranoia. He swiveled in his crouch, his hand pointing out towards where Leia had ducked, and Sorey realized the shinning metal thing had been a gun. Dr. Breton fired off a shot, the noise many times louder than the fight, and Leia stayed down to avoid the weapon's reach. She wasn't going to be able to get close enough to get him, then. Not unless Hyacinth, somehow, distracted him instead.
That was it, then. Sorey couldn't aid either of them. All he could do was sit and watch and try not to become corrupted by the devastating feelings tearing his beloved to pieces right in front of him. He'd never imagined a greater threat to himself could be found after fighting so hard against Heldalf. Things were supposed to be better when he woke up. He supposed to get to live his life. He was supposed to be able to save everyone. He wasn't supposed to just sit and watch.
Distress. Guilt. Fear. Misery. Hope. Peace. Peace?
Sorey's eyes widened as he watched Mikleo heave with breath, his body shaking. He was flagging; too weary to win this in a form that hadn't yet begun to set. So ready to accept the strike of Hyacinth's fiery blade knowing his own swing would not intercept in time. Mikleo had been looking for his death for ages, finding nothing but perseverance at every turn. Death, at last, was in his grasp again. All he had to wait for was one last strike.
Sorey stood up from his wheelchair and vaulted out of his hiding spot. He slid across the dirt, feet uncoordinated and body unwilling but threatened into motion all the same. He was there within moments, his arms outstretched in order to guard against the final attack.
He felt the blade as it passed through him, the warmth of his own blood seeping through his shirt.
AGONY! HORROR! MISERY! MISERY! MISERY!
Sorey fell forward off the blade into Mikleo's chest, the hellion's human arm holding him tight. He could feel Mikleo's heartbeat, smell the familiar fragrance of anemone that still clung to him even after all these years. Mikleo--his Mikleo. At last, he'd finally found him. Sorey smiled and let his head rest against the bony shelf of his disfigured arm, whispering words that he feared had come too late into the last of Mikleo's perfect ears.
If it all came to nothing in the end, at least he'd tried to save his love. Perhaps, someday, they could meet again on the green mountain slopes of their Elysia.
Mikleo stared ahead in a numb silence, unable to comprehend the words Sorey had spoken though he could feel them running through him. He felt Sorey slowly slide out of his grasp, heard him crumple to the earth below, but could not make sense of anything outside the ringing in his head. The Shepherd was looking to the body in alarm, voices were calling out angrily. It was all just noise next to the words Sorey had spoken. His Sorey. The man who was now dead at his feet and had died to protect him.
"You idiot!" Dr. Breton was screaming, his gun pointed at the Shepherd while he drew closer to survey the carnage.
The ground shook as the final seal lost focus, Lord Maotelus no longer confined to his cramped vessel.
Dr. Breton steadied himself on Mikleo's arm. "Look what you've done!" he roared, kicking at the corpse that lay at their feet. "How dare you stand in the way of progress! Luzrov Rulay, kill this murderous bitch."
Mikleo looked down at the body he was unfit to hold. Had Sorey ever really been that small? Or did things reduce when their substance was gone? Was he still warm, he wondered. Was anything left of him but this?
"Luzrov Rulay! I order you to kill her!"
Mikleo shook his head. "That's not my name." He took a step back, not wanting to be near the rancid excuse for a human being that thought to command him. No one had that power anymore. Mikleo picked up his large hand, flexing the pointed fingers into a fist. "Sorey gave me a new name," he told him. "And you will never know it."
Mikleo's hand cut through the old man effortlessly, slicing him in three with a single strike. He didn't care to watch as to where the pieces fell. It didn't matter. All he cared about was revenge. Vengeance for the thirty-two seraphim; vengeance for the more who died when the lighthouses fired. Vengeance for the lantern deaths, for the obstruction of Sorey's ideals, for the perversion of a name he'd once taken pride in. Vengeance for waking Sorey from his peaceful slumber only to cause him suffering and lead him to his death.
Nine hundred and sixty-three years of waiting only to bury him now.
Mikleo embraced the rage he'd tried to conquer before, letting the satisfaction of his tormentor's death seep through him like the blood dripping thickly from his claw. He raised the heavy limb to lick at the red trails that coated his scales. Humans tasted so much like metal it was almost funny to consider their existence as alive.
The cool blade of a sword pressed firmly to Mikleo's throat, causing him to pause in his carnivorous indulgence. Others were still there; how had he forgotten? His sensitive slit eye followed the length of the blade to the Shepherd holding it to his skin. He didn't know her. He didn't care about her. It would be quite alright to kill her too. He made no move to strike her, though. Part of him still felt far more inclined to simply sever his own flesh on her sword.
"Are you still there, Mikleo?" she asked. To her sides Edna and Zaveid appeared. The traitors had joined yet another feckless Shepherd. They didn't care. No one else cared like he did about Sorey.
With the sword to his throat, the purification flames seemed hotter as they traveled down the steel and to his body. They hurt. He was tired of living in constant pain. Mikleo smacked the sword away, stepping back with a snarl as his malevolence fought back against the attempted purity. No. He was not going back. He wasn't finished. There were countless humans left to destroy for what they'd done!
The Shepherd pulled her sword back into a more defensive stance, her dark features softening with a frown. "It didn't work," she said, and the seraphim beside her looked on in silence. Traitors all of them. He'd make sure they paid.
Mikleo growled, saliva spilling out from curled lips. "You're unworthy to hold something tempered by the blood of my Sorey," he challenged, finding speech more and more difficult to pronounce.
Edna raised her umbrella, turning her shoulders towards him as it further obscured her from his sight. "He's not yours," she said. "If he was anyone's, he's was Mikleo's."
The hellion roared, his claws digging firmly into the ground. "I am Mikleo!" he shouted, feeling his spine snap as it continued to rearrange.
Zaveid shook his head, his pendulum held at the ready. "Sorry, kid. It'll all be over soon."
Over soon? I was over long ago. It was over when he realized the Celestial Record was lost. Every day since the human scum had learned to speak his name, it had been over. Sorey had awoken to find his friend a monster in seraphim skin. What did it matter if that now was reversed? Sorey was dead. A lifetime of loving and of longing was over and in the end it all came down to his defeat.
Arms came around and held him tight from behind but Mikleo did not strike out as instinct called his body to pause. Two strong hands of a feint golden glow holding tight against his chest pulled him gently into a body pressed close to his own. He wanted to scream at the care with which the arms held him. It'd been so long he couldn't remember what kindness felt like anymore.
"Shhh," Sorey's voice whispered as he fearlessly held him tight. "I know it hurts. I'll help you let it out. You're not alone anymore."
Mikleo shook his head, wanting to run away from his tenderness. He didn't want to be helped; he only wanted his revenge. He did not want a future that would force him to remember the things that now only fueled his rage. Sorey was dead; the human he'd grown up with and loved was dead by a foolish act of self-sacrifice. This seraphim was an incomplete copy; he wasn't his love and he would not give up his mourning for something false. "Let go," he growled though he did not move to dislodge the arms from himself.
"I'll die again before I ever let you go," he promised.
Mikleo screamed with the impotence of his rage, the sound erupting as an incomprehensible shriek. It startled him to know such a sound emanated from him as it rang like a nightmare in his ears. He'd heard that sound before. He'd heard it thirty-two times while the seraphim thrashed in anguish. It was a sound that haunted him like a foul odor clinging to one's self. Did this make thirty-three?
Sorey only held on tighter, his heavy breath felt against Mikleo's back. "I've got you now. Just lean on me. You can cry if you want. I'll cry with you."
The hellion shook his head though he felt his strength failing. He hadn't the vigor left to resist as Sorey gently pulled them both to the ground. Turning his head he could see the stain of blood still soaking through Sorey's shirt. His hair faded to white along its ends, though. He'd been remade from what was left.
Sorey pulled him close until Mikleo's head rested against his shoulder, the jumble of his parts making the position awkward with his mighty arm left limp against the earth. With the softest of touch, Sorey gently stroked his fingers through Mikleo's hair and over his cheek. Mikleo flinched from every kind caress until at last the feeling no longer startled him. It felt.. good. It felt loving. It felt like everything he no longer deserved. Mikleo turned his face into Sorey's collar, breathing in sweetness of sweat and blood. It reminded him of scraped knees and sore noses after an adventure inside their childhood ruins.
"Try again," Sorey asked, no longer speaking to Mikleo. So long as his fingers still carded through his hair, Mikleo didn't care to whom he spoke. He did care about the fire, though, that set his teeth on edge. His heart cried out with thoughts of betrayal, but Sorey stayed there, never letting him go.
When the pain retreated, it left in its wake a wave of numb distraction. Mikleo didn't feel relieved or happy even. It just didn't feel like too much anymore. He curled up closer into Sorey's chest, his arm cold and naked beneath the tatters of his sleeve. His whole shirt seemed to be more missing than there but it just meant he could feel the warmth of Sorey's touch without anything left standing in their way.
"Welcome back," Sorey laughingly whispered, his lips granting Mikleo's forehead a kiss.
Back? He wasn't the one who left. "Good morning," he corrected him with a tired sigh.
After seeing the world that existed now, Sorey had never before appreciated the simple quiet more of the mountain slopes of Elysia. Time hadn't reached those heights yet, preserving the tranquility and peace of the open air. Sorey's house was still present though the trappings within where weakened with age. They took up residence in Mikleo's old home. It was at least attended to with simple upkeep in the expectation of his return once a year.
It was much different from what Sorey remembered. The walls were covered in maps of strange places, shelves decorated in knickknacks and frames which contained vast landscapes of ruins. There were rows of staffs all carefully suspended and bookshelves crowding the what little else space the room could afford. It was a hovel of memories, centuries of living all condensed within the small, domed structure. Sorey couldn't imagine a better home for them to share. This one had Mikleo's heart written out on every surface.
It was a place for only them.
Sorey had said goodbye to the others in Camlann, choosing to take the path back home rather than ride back with them to Gwenhwyfar. He knew Hyacinth and Leia wanted more from him than a simple goodbye, some kind of promise to be their champion still in what waited in the politics of Pendrago, but they were kind enough to let him go saying only that they'd see him again someday. They could handle things; he believed in them. More importantly, they believed in their answer. If he was really needed, they knew where to find him, but with Lailah, Edna and Zaveid still moving forward, he could not fathom what need he could fulfill.
Sorey was a freshly remade seraphim without any real grasp of his own powers. He was also a freshly deceased human being. It was quite a bit to get used to. For both of them.
Looking up from the history book seated in his lap, Sorey watched as Mikleo slept in the bed beside him peacefully, his long hair strewn across both their pillows and somehow creeping upon him still. For now, at least, there were no nightmares. But they would come. They always came. Out of the quiet Mikleo would scream, surging up with his staff suddenly drawn and eyes staring sightless dead ahead. Calm words, gentle touch, reassurance by whatever means necessary; Sorey did his best to dispel the terrors of night and remind him of the new lives they were living. It was hard, though to let the memories fade. A part of both of them had died that night. It was okay for things to not be the same.
Sorey let a hand gently caress Mikleo's cheek, still amazed sometimes to know he was there. They could have lost each other at so many stages. But they hadn't. They'd left Elysia with the simple task of ensuring a friend knew she was in danger and now, nine-hundred years later, they were back with battle scars in abundance from the hardships of their path. Such simple beginnings had taken dreams and built empires out of them. As proud as Sorey felt of them both, he regretted some of the sacrifice. Not his own; he didn't feel he'd lost much except for the passage of time. He regretted leaving Mikleo alone, though. He wished he'd never forced him to accept a life in which Sorey willingly abandoned him.
With a deep breath, Mikleo's eyes fluttered open, lavender irises peaking out from the webbing of his lashes. He leaned his face into Sorey's hand, rolling over onto his back with a quiet exhale as he stared up at him with a vacant tranquility that never lasted. He'd always been attractive but moments like these Sorey found him truly stunning. Knowing he was so much more than just a pretty face made his heart burst with gratefulness that of all the people in the world it was he who was permitted to be this close to him.
Sorey bent an apologetic kiss to his forehead, brushing his bangs from his face as he did. "Sorry to wake you," he whispered. "Everthing's just fine. Go back to sleep."
But his beloved shook his head, arms wrapping around Sorey's waist as he pulled him close. Mikleo leaned his head against Sorey's hip, eyeing the book in his possession. "The Life and Trials of Shepherd Sorey," he read, pulling a face. "Why are you staying up to read that one? You already know how goes."
"It's fun to see what people say about me," Sorey explained turning the page slowly. "I heard some things from the people I met that made it sound like I was thought of as some kind of saint. Just trying to see if the history books mention how big of an idiot I was too. Would hate to discover I popularized being stupid as well as institutionalized a restrictive concept of purity."
Mikleo giggled, the sound ending on a pleasant hum as he breathed softly, still hanging on the edge of sleep.
Sorey put one hand to his head, gently stroking his hair, tracing the curve of his ear with the pad of his thumb. Quiet evenings were plentiful in Elysia but there were some things he never got tired of. Mikleo's lazy, contented smile was easily top of the list, with a few corresponding items bellow. If they spent the rest of their lives in that house, doing nothing more than conversing and sleep, Sorey felt sure he'd still be happy and call it all a good life.
The water seraph squeezed him around the waist again, feeling up along his side. "Did you get bigger again?" Mikleo asked, turning his head to peer up.
Sorey blushed, feeling self conscious when confronted by his vanity. "Obviously. I have to catch up to you."
"Don't change too much. I'm use to this face."
Sorey frowned though he understood. His Mikleo, the one in his mind, was a petite young man with short, straight hair who wore a very particular outfit. When he thought of his friend, it was always that image that arose. That was the Mikleo he remembered; the Mikleo he knew. He didn't dislike the new changes by any stretch of the imagination but it was still something to adjust to. But even if he wanted to, Sorey didn't think he could stop himself from aging. He and Mikleo had always been the same and this body felt inclined to match him. It was nice to spoon against the other's back and feel him filling in the gaps that he had once occupied. He couldn't do that with a seventeen year old body. Even if he wasn't any older than that, he'd reconciled that his body would be.
"I'll probably change just enough that we look the same again," he consoled him, twisting a lock of hair around his finger. "After all, It's weird for you to be older than me."
Mikleo nodded, cheek nuzzling Sorey's thigh. "It's weird for you to be back again," he challenged. Really, there were a lot of things that still felt weird.
"Yeah. The best kind," Mikleo granted him as he slowly retreated back to his side of the bed.
Sorey contemplated the book in his lap in his absence. If Mikleo had already woken up once, perhaps there wouldn't be time for bad dreams. As curious as he was to read what history thought of him, there was all the time in the world for that. There was only now with Mikleo. It wasn't as though he expected him to disappear but time was much more precious when spent in love. Every moment was an opportunity and now were the moments not to be wasted.
Sorey closed the book and put it aside, snuggling up with his face over Mikleo's shoulder, arms wrapped around him to pull him close in a protective hug that promised everything would someday be alright. No matter how long it took, they would both learn to adjust and accept and simply be.
Because it was this place, this moment in time where there was nothing in the world but the two of them that truly felt like home.