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Roen

Cigarettes and Fireflies

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Years ago...

 

Arasen was certain his lung had been punctured from the broken ribs. Every breath was coming harder and more painful than the one before. He could taste both copper and bile on the back of his tongue, and the stones beneath him bore the stains of his lifeblood, as more droplets continued to splatter onto the ground from both his nose and his split lip. His stomach was roiling with both nausea and pain; every movement felt as if something new was tearing inside of him.

 

His assailants were sure he would die this night. They had left him alive for three suns now, and after this last beating, the most savage one yet, even they pondered out loud the thought of granting him mercy by delivering a quick killing blow to his throat.

 

But then the Jhungids laughed, and Arasen still recalled the callousness to which they dismissed the idea. “Let his gods grant him mercy, since they didn’t warn him of this.”

 

How could those words hurt him more than all the injuries he had suffered? And yet, the thought that he had followed his vision here, that meeting with the sworn enemy of his tribe would lead to peace, it speared him deeply with both pain and anger. He had been so certain that this was the first step in paving the way for the end, where wars were no more.

 

Why did they not understand? Arasen believed wholeheartedly that this goal to somehow bring an end to the endless cycle of violence would be welcomed with open arms by both sides. After all, he wanted both Kharlu and Jhungid to prosper -- to share in the wealth of the land, and to live in unity, for they all were sons and daughters of Nhaama.

 

But the meeting proved to be nothing but a trap. Upon traveling out to this ancient ruins, a place that long held forgotten magic and history, Arasen was met with betrayal. The Jhungid who had sent secret missives agreeing to negotiate for a treaty, they only sought information from him that they can use to gain advantage over the Kharlu. Anything that would give them further insights into the preparation for the next battle, and the movement and encampment of the main tribe.

 

When Arasen refused, stubbornly clinging to his hope that an agreement could be reached, they resorted to interrogation through torture.

 

Now, too, Arasen wondered if this would be his last night. Were those visions for naught? Were his dreams of peace nothing but a fool’s errand?

 

The Xaela dragged his battered body to the center of the atrium, the only place within this entire ruins where the twilight irises could be found. If he would die here, he wanted to die with the flowers that bore the colors of the sun, its golden shimmer as faint as the hope that was dying in his heart. He could barely hear the echoes of laughter from the Jhungid on the far side of the atrium.

 

That was when his eyes came upon a faint white glimpse buried in the soil. A small thin bone, lying within the flower bed. Arasen didn’t know why, but he reached for it. And when his fingers curled upon the white marrow, the visions came.

 

She was so angry. Another had died here too, so long ago, a woman named Otsuyu. But the flowers gave her no release. Nor did death. She had known no rest for as long as she could remember. But she knew brutality and cruelty. And in her fury, Arasen felt it too, the same hatred stirring deep within. And as her form slowly rose, materializing through stones and shadow, he felt everything grow cold around him. The walls and the paved ground had become black as if ink had spilled over them. White breaths plumed from his lips as his breaths quickened, goosebumps racing along his arm. Fear struck him then, but so did something else: Recognition.

 

Arasen knew instinctively that they both shared one thing: suffering at the hands of wicked men. And as he stared up at her pale white pupil-less eyes behind a curtain of tangled black locks, he understood. He had the gift to unleash her wrath, and in return, she would devour his tormentors. She hungered for vengeance, and for so much more. The spirit’s loneliness was almost palpable.

 

The Xaela heard the cries of alarm rising from the Jhungid. But he didn’t care. He extended his hand out to her without thinking. In this forgotten place, he was her only connection, and she was his only means of survival.

 

The spirit’s head lowered, her milky eyes looking to his open palm. Her withered lips parted, revealing hundreds of needle-like teeth. She didn’t smile but Arasen saw the faintest wisps of breath drifting from her lips, as if there were words that went unsaid. Then her hand lifted, and her finger touched his.

 

There were no screams that followed. Only deathly silence.



 

Now...

 

Arasen fingered the baubles hanging from his necklace -- a leather strap strewn with various carved crystals and totems. He knew every single one of them, from their shape to the intricate runes carved onto their surface. He could pluck any number of items from his necklace without looking, they were as familiar to him as the appendages of his own hand.

 

So when his touch drifted to the spot where a certain small and thin bone used to hang, his movement slowed, noting its absence. It was where the bone of Otsuyu’s finger used to hang, between the oval shaped onyx and a jagged nuummite, just below his left collar bone.

 

How strange that he missed her presence now.

 

Arasen stared across the campfire, their small band huddled around a small pit in the ground, trying not attract attention in the middle of the Steppe plains. Ghoa had bedded down on the other side of the flames, and both Batuhan and Shael were off on their patrols. Anchor continued to keep his distance from the rest of the group, and Nabi, as usual, went to his side once the camp was made.

 

Things had not gone the way he had planned.

 

Arasen had brought the group to Otsuyu and per their pact, she had fed on those she took. She had been so hungry, for he had not returned to the ruins for so long. But the three that the spirit took, they all still lived. Arasen would have been satisfied with the deaths of one in particular, although not all, for the dead would not require healing. And as expected, Nabi called upon the earth to do what she could to help them.

 

What surprised him was his cousin’s ability to free them from Otsuyu’s spell. He had imagined that he would play the essential part in releasing them, but Nabi had done it on her own, using her mother’s teachings. And even amidst the confusion wrought by the ghost, Arasen still failed to achieve one thing: to kill Saltborn, Nabi’s strongest tie to her current life. It was for the Confederate that she took off the warding bracelet, and it was to free him that she called upon the aether without hesitation. Arasen could feel her drawing upon the energies of the flowers, and he couldn’t help but feel a pang of resentment when they responded so readily to her. When Otsuyu could not fully satiate her hunger by completely draining another, she turned on him. Her only ally.

 

Outrage still burned inside of him at the thought. The bond that was forged between him and Otsuyu had been incorruptible for years. Then suddenly the spirit would turn on him when she was unsatisfied with his offering? Was it that their pact was disturbed by her feeding on Saltborn’s cursed aether? Or was it Nabi’s doing? He did not know.

 

But despite the fact that they all lived, Arasen still considered himself fortunate. Nabi’s mark had undoubtedly grown as she used more of her abilities to aid her friends. Saltborn, by some odd stroke of luck, also did not recall the actions Arasen had taken against him, just before Otsuyu took him. The Xaela had been so careful not to reveal his true intentions to any of them. But when he cast a spell on Anchor, making him doubly vulnerable to Otsuyu’s influence, Arasen knew the pirate had to die. He could not return to consciousness to let Nabi know what her kin had done. But Batuhan and Nabi had foiled his own attempts at bringing his blade to Saltborn’s neck without becoming aware themselves of his murderous motives. But as fate would have it, Otsuyu had scrambled the pirate’s memories prior to him waking.

 

Even in her death, the spirit granted him a boon. Arasen believed that this was yet another proof that he was on the right path. That the gods and fortune smiled upon him. The pains he had suffered was just the price he had to pay for his destiny. The fact that he had to shatter the bone, the only item that bound Otsuyu to him and to this earth, was unfortunate, but necessary.  He had to destroy the spirit, before she turned on him, or revealed to the rest that she and he shared a pact, that he had been to the ruins before. And none could know of the deeds he had committed there. Not if he had any hope of still convincing Nabi to abide by his council and return with him willingly to her people.

 

Otsuyu had to be sacrificed, for the better good. They all served a purpose, he himself included. He would help Nabi realize hers.

 

His amber gaze returned to the sleeping form of Ghoa. His thumb and index finger absently rubbed together, recalling the blood rune he had secretly inscribed upon her hand while he was tending to her wounds. Arasen’s face softened with regret. Batuhan cared for her. That much was obvious. His warden and kin by everything but blood, after all these years, was allowing himself to feel something he had not for a long time.

 

A pity that it could never be. There was a disheartened ache that saddened Arasen at the realization.

 

But he had decided since the night when he met Otsuyu, that loyalty and idealism had no place in his heart if he was to succeed. They were all gods’ pawns and everyone had to play their part. His own cousin, the spirit that saved his life, and even his best friend... he would give all that was asked of him and more.

 

Arasen narrowed his gaze as he stared into the fire, hardening his thoughts. There was no room for remorse. But his fingers still lingered by the necklace, between the two black stones, continuing to trace the absence there.

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Ghoa’s eyelids squeezed stubbornly shut against the sunlight filtering in through the openings in the blinds, a soft noise of irritation leaving the back of her throat as she turned her head to bury her face in the soft pillow beneath her. Yet try as she might to stall the inevitable, the damage was already done. Within moments, the Xaela was letting loose a frustrated whine as she turned her head out to face the window again, fixing the intruding light with a bleary, half-lidded glare for all the good it did. No matter how withering her stare, the first proud rays of Azim’s dawning light would not be dissuaded.

 

Knowing then that a return to sleep would be unlikely, Ghoa rolled onto her back and directed her eyes towards the ceiling above. Her stomach churned uneasily with the motion, and so too did her head begin to throb and spin. She set her eyes on some indistinct pattern in the woodwork above her, trying to bring her mind to a focus through the pain and discomfort. And slowly but surely, she started to remember.

 

Or not remember, as it were.

 

Ever since she had finally returned home from their venture to those gods-be-damned ruins, Ghoa’s slumbering had come in short and fitful bouts. No matter how exhausted she was – and gods, was she exhausted – she could only pass a few short bells in sleep at a time before the ever-present nightmares wrenched her harshly away from any semblance of meaningful rest. And once she was awake, powerless to stop the replay of awful thoughts that the dreams put into her head, it would be bells more before she finally calmed enough to try, however fruitlessly, again.

 

But now as she lie there staring up at the ceiling, no memories of awful dreams came back to the front of her mind to haunt her. Even when she tried to recall them, they refused to heed her. She remembered nothing but the deep, inky blackness of a dreamless sleep. And for the first time in weeks, despite her aches, Ghoa felt genuine relief.

 

For a time, she just lie there basking in the feeling of a somewhat restful night of sleep. A feeling that she had taken for granted all her life, but had recently missed all too dearly. A real smile, the first in countless suns, pulled at the corners of her lips. Things were getting better. Whatever horrors the ruins had imprinted upon her in their wake, it seemed, were finally beginning to pass.

 

Even the persistent discomfort and sickness lingering over her like a shroud wasn’t enough to bring her down from her oddly buoyant mood. Both could easily be whisked away by a curative and some warm tea once she managed to roll herself out of bed. But before that, there was another she had to rouse awake.

 

The smile still resting on her lips, Ghoa turned the rest of the way to face the other side of the bed. Lehko'a would undoubtedly be relieved to see that she had finally gotten some real rest, and that she hadn’t awoken into the same distant malaise that had plagued her since her return.

 

But as she finished turning, the only thing greeting her on the bed’s other side was a cold, empty expanse of crumbled sheets and blankets. The signs that someone had been there at some point in the night, but no longer. Her smile instantly faltered, at first replaced by a look of furrowed brows and confusion. Then, slowly but surely, the sickening worry began to steadily creep back into her mind. Was something wrong? Had something happened? Was Lehko'a alright?

 

The Xaela quickly pushed herself up into a sitting position atop the bed, instantly regretting the jarring movement. A sharp pain shot through her head in protest, and the whole world around her seemed to shift and move as if someone had spun it like a globe. One hand moved to splay atop the covers to steady herself, while the other pressed to her face. Her eyes squeezed tightly shut and a steady stream of curses, half in her mother tongue and half not, fell like a waterfall from between her lips. Panic rose like bile – or maybe it was bile? – in the back of her throat, silently pleading for the pain and dizziness to go away quickly so that she could go find him.

 

And sure enough, they slowly subsided enough for her to drop her hand away from her face and for her eyes to open again. Yet when they did, when she finally was able to look around the room, she found herself briefly frozen in confusion.

 

This room wasn’t her own, nor could she readily recall having ever stepped foot in it before. Empty bottles dotted the room, some turned over in the floor and others lingering half-empty on tables and counters. Joining the former, her clothes were strewn in haphazard heaps across the floor, scattered as if they had been tugged off in a hurry. In the very back of her mind, however, some distant voice told her something was missing. But what was–

 

No sooner had the question begun to form in the haze of her mind than did the answers all come flooding back to her at once, a raging deluge of memory washing over her. Once again her eyes squeezed tightly shut and her hands rose to clutch tightly at her head, and a soft gasp of distress tore from her raw, tight throat.

 

Suddenly she was elsewhere, not only in place but in time, shortly after midday at the rented suite that she and Lehko'a had been sharing. Her smile was hollow as she grasped at his hands and tried to give them a reassuring squeeze, placing a kiss on his cheek.

 

Nabi needs my help with something at the clinic,’ she’d told him. It was an excuse that she had used a lot since coming home. She used it when her head became so loud with dark thoughts that she needed to get away to calm her heart and clear her mind. When even just looking at Lehko'a for any length of time hurt her like a knife turned slowly in her gut, and she needed space just to be able to breathe again.

 

'It’ll likely be late before we’re done,’ she had told him. 'I’ll just sleep there, so don’t wait up for me.’

 

'Don’t worry about me,’ she had told him when she saw his concern. 'I’m fine, I promise.’

 

'I love you,’ she had told him when she saw the doubt and the hurt and the sadness on his face, and she had meant it. Out of it all, that she would never lie about. She just needed some time and some space to figure out how to put herself back together again.

 

The memories skipped ahead, and she was long gone from their temporary home. Yet nor was she at the clinic like she had assured the Keeper. In truth, not even one of the times that she had told him that that was where she was going did the Xaela actually end up at the House of Sparrows. After all, she was trying to avoid the others just as much as she was trying to avoid him. It all hurt the same.

 

Just as she had done each time prior, Ghoa had instead wandered her way back to Kugane, to the back alleys of Sanjo Hanamachi where drinks were plentiful and questions were few.

Wine and liquor helped, though perhaps not in the most constructive of ways. After a few glasses, she could feel the sharpest edges of the pain and fear begin to dull to a level that was almost manageable. Usually, she stopped there. Last night, she hadn’t.

 

Try as she might to figure out how to pull herself together again, she knew it was only getting worse. Turning off the awful emotions with drink during the day only did so much, and she knew that artificial numbness wasn’t a real, tenable solution. That she felt the need to hide it from those she cared about, out of both shame of her own weakness and a desire not to cause them concern, was proof enough of that. But even if she was aware of it, it still made it no easier for her to come up with a better alternative.

 

She had been several drinks into trying to puzzle it out when she had found her solitude suddenly interrupted. As she recalled it now, Ghoa could no longer remember what the man looked like in any explicit detail. A hyur, or maybe an elezen? Passably handsome, she thought, but that may have been either the alcohol or wishful thinking talking. She could certainly no longer recall his name but she did remember, however vaguely, that he had been a sailor of some sort. Not that that was hard to remember, considering that was seemingly half the city’s population at any given time.

 

Ghoa remembered being wary of being joined in her drinking at first. After all, it was far from her first time in a bar;  she knew exactly what a smooth-talking fellow approaching a lady in her cups was angling for. At first, she had only endured the conversation to be polite, trying to find a way to weasel out of it without incensing him. In this part of town, it was best to err on the side of caution.

 

Yet the longer he stayed, the more comfortable she found herself becoming. Whereas she had spent the last few days trying to avoid direct eye contact with Lehko'a and forcing herself to endure conversation despite the aching in her chest, both came easily and naturally to her with this stranger. He was charming, and he didn’t pry into why she was there drinking alone. Rather, he fed her drunken wonder with stories of his time abroad and had her in tears of laughter with the tales of his misadventures, all while making sure that neither of their cups ever went empty for more than a tick during the bells they had spent just talking about nothing.

 

The rest of the memories only came in disjointed fragments of limited recollection and phantom sensation with large gaps of time missing between them. Stumbling back to where the man was staying, and and both of them breaking down into laughter when she realized she had lost a shoe somewhere along the way. Her back pressed against the wooden door, breathlessly watching as the man tried to open it as fast as his drink-addled hands would let him. Almost tripping over her clothes in her hasty attempts to rid him of his between kisses steeped in desperation and longing.

 

But the very last thing she could recall – and in disturbingly vivid memory compared to the rest – was the feeling of peace that had settled over her like a blanket as she had curled in against him and rested her head on his chest. Of closing her eyes without fear of the nightmares that now lived behind her eyelids. Of the soft smile that had lingered on her flushed face as she drifted off to sleep.

 

Now, she had been released by the onslaught of memories and was left to sit there, dumbfounded in the present. Her eyes once again stared at the clothes strewn about the room, realizing now that what was missing was her nameless and faceless bedmate.

 

And when that realization dawned upon her, a tidal wave of loneliness broke over her with it. Loneliness that brought her back to other, more distant memories. A childhood spent largely alone, wishing only for the company of friends and family that the other children her age didn’t know how lucky they were to have. Years later, a night of peculiar joy that had turned to unexpected horror, afterward spent curled up in a ball in the back of a dark yurt longing for the almost motherly presence of Togene, her only friend among the Kharlu. Years later still, and she was right back at the days spent in the cramped and claustrophobic dark, with dried blood caked under her fingernails from hours spent desperately trying to pry her way free and her voice hoarse from screaming in hopes that someone, anyone, would hear her.

 

It was then that the realization hit Ghoa that the only thing that brought her any relief from the pain she was feeling – the only thing that she had ever wanted in such times – was the company of others. To not be alone. For someone to hold her and calm her fears and tell her that she was alright. Yet at the same time, she realized that the people that she should have longed to turn to for comfort the most – Lehko'a, Nabi, Batuhan, and even Anchor and Shael in their own strange way – weren’t the ones that she was wishing for now.

 

It was the man from last night, whose name nor face she could not remember and would most likely never see again. A man who knew nothing about her, who cared nothing about her, but because of that, one whose company it didn’t pain her to share.

 

Her stomach rolled violently with sickness at the thought, and hurriedly the Xaela scrambled to disentangle herself from the sheets. Her head was pounding in protest as she rose to her feet, unsteady steps causing her to trip over discarded clothes and to bounce gracelessly off of the door frame as she all but ran for the bathroom. No sooner had she set her blurred, tear-stained sights on the wastebin did she collapse with a hard thump onto the floor in front of it, her whole body heaving with sickness as she emptied the contents of her stomach.

 

Monster, the voice that had been ever present in her head since her encounter with Otsuyu whispered from the recesses of her mind. Monster, it chanted as its voice grew louder and angrier and more insistent. M̸͓͐Ŏ̶͍̤̆N̶̛̙͝S̷̱͔̎̚Ṯ̴̡̋̋Ë̶͔̿ͅR̴͔̅, it all but shouted at her, now an eerie, distorted chorus of all the accusing voices of loved ones that always came to her in her nightmares.

 

Another heave came, and another, until there was nothing left but sour, burning bile left in the woman’s stomach. She swiped the back of a shaking hand across her mouth as she leaned away from the waste bin. After a moment, drawing in a shaking breath, she all but crawled across the cold floor to the shower. Unsteady hands turned the knobs until water, almost scalding hot, began to spray from the nozzle. But she didn’t seem to mind as she crawled inside, even as the heat caused her skin to flush red.

 

“What’s wrong with me?” she wailed to no one but herself, curling into a ball on the tiles below. “What’s wrong with me…?

 

And though she stayed there, wracked with sobs, until the hot water had turned icy cold, no answer came.

 

 

Edited by Jaliqai

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Shael tapped on the tip of her cigarette, letting the ashes drift to the ground. She took another deep draw and exhaled the smoke into the air, watching the plume fade away into the dreary sky above. She leaned back against the stone wall, hooking one foot over the other, giving a sidelong glance to the building at the end of the paved pathway. She was just around the bend, out of sight from the front gates of the Imperial clinic.

 

Of all the places in the East, Nabi decided that bringing Saltborn to a Garlean facility in Shirogane was the best idea. And despite Shael’s deep-seeded aversion to anything Imperial, she couldn’t really argue. The gauntlet that was placed on the Confederate’s arm definitely incorporated magitek, and who would have the best tools to remove such a thing than the Empire who originated the technology?

 

Shael still hated the idea. And the thought of stepping into a building manned by Garleans darkened her mood quicker than the gathering rain clouds above.

 

The Highlander scowled. She thought she had put all that rage behind her, or at least shoved it into the furthest corners of her mind where it didn’t make her want to take up her gun every sun and storm the Garlean Consulate. She had even made deals with one Imperial soldier in particular, filling the power vacuum that Grave had left behind in black marketing Garlean weapons. Using his contact within the Consulate to skim off the top of each shipment, smuggling Garlean weaponry was turning out to be a very lucrative deal.

 

But after the ruins, that twitch of her trigger finger came back whenever she crossed any Imperial’s path. She found herself tensing whenever she spotted their black and gold uniform walking along the streets of Kugane, that not even bottles of sake would soothe her ire. And her hands felt slick and coated with something warm at the most random times, that it made her look to her palms to make sure she hadn’t spilled something on them.

 

Shael almost expected to find them covered in blood each time.

 

"Soddin’ ghosts…" Shael muttered to herself as she impatiently sucked on her cigarette, her annoyance not abated by the time she let out a harsh forced exhale. The visions of the nightmares were still fresh in her mind, and they returned nightly. Only, unlike the time when she had lost Shooey, she didn’t wake up in a cold panicked sweat from these. No… it was much more akin to something dead and heavy inside, like a part of her mind shut itself down so she could go through the motions again.

 

The dreams always started with Remus, the first person she’d ever killed. But soon, the rest became faceless silhouettes, all bearing the metal insignia with the rank of the Imperial army emblazoned on its polished surface. At the start, there was always horror that twisted her insides at all the bloodshed. But by the time she woke, it didn’t bother her anymore. It felt almost cathartic. Like she was doing exactly what she was good at.

 

“This isn’t who you are, lass.” A familiar voice echoed from the depths of her memory. Aylard was kneeling before her, and she found herself back in one of the Resistance camps, surrounded by tents and armored men. Many were glancing in her direction, but the only pair of eyes she cared about were the ones that were leveled with hers, aged lines growing at the corners as the older man’s visage softened. His weather-worn hands came to lay upon her shoulders.

 

“I see a ball of anger, with plenty of rage to be unleashed onto the world.” It was odd to see his gruff expression crinkle into a smile. Shael didn’t remember being moved by it back then, so determined was she to become the greatest soldier the Resistance ever had. His warmth and patience had confused her, making her restless. “But you’re not a weapon, Shaelen. You think you want to be, but you’re just lost in grief. Hating those that took from you. But I’m not looking for a killer.” Shael remembered his voice so clearly now. It always sounded so certain and commanded authority. Even when he was speaking softly to a child of twelve summers. “I need a fighter. Someone who’d fight tooth and nail for what she wants to protect. Y' be a daughter of Ala Mhigo.”

 

An irritated snort huffed out of her nose along with more smoke. Only if Aylard could see her now. Once a proud Resistance fighter, she was now about to walk willingly into a Garlean clinic and surrender her weapons, all to help an Imperial tinker with illegal magitek. Aylard would be so proud, she thought bitterly.

 

Shael leaned slightly forward, briefly glancing at the pale haired hyur waiting by the gate. She could still change her mind right now, if she wanted. Her index finger twitched by her side, and her mind wandered to the quiet hum that Jolene would make in her hand. It would just take one shot through the head. Shael could imagine it so clearly. After all, she’d seen it more times than she could count in the visions induced by the whore of a ghost.

 

What the fuck am I doin’...? she asked herself, frowning suddenly. Every since their departure from the ruins, her mind would just slip back into those nightmares, where she killed and killed again. Even now, standing leisurely within the quiet streets of Shirogane, she was daydreaming about murdering a man.

 

No, another voice whispered in her head. He's a Garlean.

 

Shael shook away those thoughts, reminding herself yet again why she was here. Killing an Imperial guard that would put everything in jeopardy. Not just her freedom or her smuggling business, but also Nabi’s chances at helping Saltborn. Even if she could pin the Garlean's death on someone else, Nabi would be implicated since she arranged this meeting. And while Shael had no love for the the Confederate, she saw how his suffering caused the Xaela woman equal measure of pain. And Saltborn, was certainly suffering.

 

You can get this off o’ me, aye?” She had never seen him so… desperate, his wide eyes rimmed with fear. He had never allowed himself to show such weakness before, at least not in front of her. But in the middle of the plains of the Steppe, in the dark of night, he held out his left hand to her, one that had been trapped in Grave's enhancement for months. “Anything.” His anguish was laid bare. “Jus’ do anythin’.”

 

Soddin’ hells. Shael exhaled, almost relieved to focus on those memories rather than the violent compulsions that speared her thoughts without warning. She inhaled deeply of the cigarette until the grey cinders reached her fingertip, before flicking the remnant to the stones beneath her feet.  She exhaled again, as rain drops began to pitter patter over the rim of her hat. She pursed her lip with a displeased look, glaring balefully to the skies above.

 

I ain’t a killer no more, Shael told herself. Aylard’s ghost was long gone from her mind’s eye but there was a part of her that still wanted him to know that too. Turning her back to the Garlean building and the Imperial that stood in front of it, she reached for another cigarette in her chest pocket.  But as she stood there and watched the stones around her started to become darker with the raindrops, an image of crimson splatters flashed before her eyes in an instant. Then in a blink it was gone again.  

 

Shael froze, her eyes staring at the ground. Then in another beat, she mechanically continued to light the new roll hanging between her lips. You’ll see, she swore to a man long dead and mayhap to herself. Nothing was going to turn her back into that wild and angry child that knew naught but violence as a way to cope. Certainly not some soddin’ ghost.

 

I’m a fighter, she reminded herself for the thousandth time as rain began to fall more in earnest. And she would keep doing so, for as long as it took.

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The last of the lanterns were starting to blink out in the streets of Shirogane, the residents bidding farewell to the day as they readied themselves for the respite of slumber. The crickets’ quiet chirps filled the night air, and the stars littered the sky, matching each light that had been extinguished below by waking ten more above.

 

But the beauty of night was lost on Nabi, her gaze solely upon the man she was laying next to. This was her usual nightly ritual, to drink in the view of Anchor Saltborn as he slept. They would murmur quietly about something or another, and slowly but surely his eyelids would grow heavy. Sometimes he would stifle a yawn, trying to continue to listen to her usual rambles, but as her voice grew softer, Nabi could see in the corner of her eyes his blinks growing slower until finally, sleep claimed him. She was usually soon to follow, but just for a bit, she relished in watching him, as peace settled over his features.

 

But this night, it was not so. Her eyes didn’t leisurely roam over him, carefully tracing the scar that traveled across his face, wondering how old he was when someone marked him so. She didn’t marvel over the tattoos on his cheeks, those that still resembled thorns on a stem of a flowerless rose. Nor did she lean in, almost bringing her lips to press against his, so slightly parted. It looked as if there were words held just within, waiting to escape. Perhaps if she kissed him, she would learn what unspoken sentiments were on the tip of his tongue. But she didn’t want to wake him, so only her breath was allowed to brush his lips. But there was always tender affection that swelled her chest as she lingered just a finger’s breadth away from him. She usually found herself beaming, remembering how soft the tip of his nose was. Despite his scarred face and weathered skin, when she lightly grazed the very tip of his nose with her own, it was always surprisingly soft.

 

But Nabi didn’t revel in any of these things. Not this night.

 

Instead, all she saw were the dark circles under his eyes, lending his sallow cheeks a more ashen hue. Even in sleep, the lines between his brows didn’t diminish. Was it exhaustion? Pain? Fear?

 

All of them, Nabi told herself, and there was a cold shudder that rose from deep within. All those nights she doted on his sleeping visage, she had never thought that parts of him were suffering, his arm slowly becoming lost to the energies of the mutated crystals unseen beneath the enhancement.

 

How could she have been so negligent? She was there when the Curator brutally drove the metal rods into the bones of his forearm, so that they could make him a more deadly killer, a pawn in their bloodsport.

 

Why did she allow him to keep it this long? Anchor needed to get stronger before another surgery, she told herself. Then they both put Batuhan’s needs first, because the Xaela’s condition was much more dire. But after that? Shouldn’t she have insisted that Anchor not return to Ironsong until the enhancement was removed? Why didn’t she beg, plead, or say anything to get him to agree to do away with that cursed gauntlet, before they set out for the ruins deep in the heart of the Steppe?

 

Nabi already knew the answer. She had grown too complacent. Too happy.  She was busy making him a nameday cake. Planning beach picnics. She wanted to cry and laugh ruefully at the same time. While she was sharing sunsets and fireflies, his arm was slowly being corrupted and warped. So when Anchor stepped up to protect her, when he took it upon himself to become her shield against an angry spirit that haunted the ruins, it costed him dearly. The ghost drained his aether and scrambled his memories, and destabilized the crystals beneath the metal, causing them to shatter and embedded themselves further along his arm.

 

Shael blamed Otsuyu, the ghost of the ruins. But Nabi knew better. She herself allowed this to happen. She was the reason that the gauntlet was on Anchor in the first place. He was forced to use the gauntlet and his aether because of what he did for her. And they had all volunteered to travel to the ruins for her sake.

 

None of it would have happened, if it weren’t for her.

 

Nabi could look on him no longer. Her eyes were spilling over with hot tears, her chest starting to burn. She had refused to show her despair during the surgery, and even after. Anchor couldn’t know of her guilt. He would only be upset, and he needed to focus all his energies on his recovery. For unlike after the escape from the mountain, Anchor now seemed more frail than ever. At least in the fighting pits, his tenacity always burned stubbornly behind his gaze, no matter how broken his body was.

 

But after the ruins, racked with pain and exhaustion both physical and mental, Nabi watched as the man before her struggle with keeping his thoughts in the present. Otsuyu had ravaged his memories, and Nabi wasn’t sure if all could be regained and when.

 

Nabi quickly brushed away the moisture from her cheeks, pulling her brows into a tight frown. She couldn’t let Anchor see her like this, just in case he accidentally woke. She pressed her lips in a determined line instead, and curled in closer to him. She almost listened for his heartbeat, a sound that used to bring her comfort in times of darkness. But now she could only hear that distant thrum, that other presence that beat and hummed alongside his heart.

 

Nabi shut her eyes, burying her face into the pillow as more tears began to flow. Not even the sight of the fireflies taking flight would give her peace. She balled herself up beneath the blankets, thankful that the sheets muffled her quiet sobs through the night.

 

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A drop of blood spattered onto the dried marrow, a thick crimson trail left in its wake as it flowed down the length of the bleached bone.

 

Arasen squeezed his fist harder as he held it hovering above the ground, forcing more droplets of his lifeblood onto the carefully arranged stones and bones before him. The pain of the clean cut upon his palm barely registered in his mind, his focus solely upon the arcane patterns and symbols forming before him.

 

It was not an easy task to find a completely isolated area to perform the augury. Ever since their return to Hingashi, he had withdrawn from the company of others, save Batuhan who was insistent upon checking in on the Xaela. The fact that the rest of the group that had traveled to the ruins cared little on what Arasen did or where he went was no surprise. It was plainly clear that the three that were taken by Otsuyu were each struggling on their own to recover after the ordeal. And Nabi was too engrossed in Saltborn’s illness -- for the Confederate seemed to be in the worst state of them all -- to mind the affairs of her cousin.

 

And this suited Arasen just fine. He needed time to contemplate his next steps. He had thought that the ruins would bring him so much closer than it had to bring Nabi to his side. But his cousin seemed to be solely devoted to aiding in Saltborn’s recovery. Whatever it was that plagued the Confederate’s health, Nabi seemed to prioritize above her own well-being. He thought for certain that the growth of the mark upon her skin would have alarmed her, and that she would turn to him for answers. But it was all but forgotten in face of the hyur’s pain.

 

Arasen reached into the alter, a circular arrangement of white sand upon the ground encircled by a thin copper wire, his bloodied finger starting to trace lines and symbols upon the granular canvas. As the crimson smeared in between the formations of crystals, each rock started to emanate a subtle glow, as if awakened from a deep slumber. And with each additional illumination, the Xaela’s clear amber eyes began to shimmer.

 

Questions floated through his mind. Would killing the Confederate be the answer? It would be a difficult task, especially amidst the serenity and security of a place like Shirogane. But it was not impossible. But as his fingers became more coated with stained soil, the bloody patterns on the ground began to whisper to him. His answers laid elsewhere. Saltborn in peril as well as the suffering of the rest of her friends only seemed to motivate Nabi into further devoting herself in aiding them, rather than instilling fear and uncertainty in the Xaela.

 

The movement of his hand quickened with the next stroke, some white sand thrown into the air as Arasen’s tracing upon the earth became more frantic. He needed to know. He needed to see.

 

With another flick of the wrist, more flecks of his blood were scattered over more bones, and it was then that Arasen’s eyes flared bright for an instant. There he saw a scene he should not be privy to, except for his Sight. Saltborn was screaming at Nabi, trapping her against the wall. Arasen heard not the words. But the Confederate had a maddening look to his eyes as he spun and reached for a knife. Arasen was both horrified and enraptured at the scene. For an instant, he thought the pirate would do Nabi harm, but he turned the blade towards himself, about to plunge it into his arm. Arasen squinted, as he only saw a glimpse of the man’s flesh, but where once a metal gauntlet used to be, now his limb was dark and marred. Nabi bolted forward and screamed something, though no sound reached Arasen.

 

With another blink of the eyes, the vision faded, giving way to another. Ghoa and Batuhan were seated on a large rock, overlooking the ocean. She was handing him a small ring, and the woman’s features held both melancholy but also tenderness. The ease in both their forms as well as their proximity to each other, Arasen knew that the two had grown much closer since their first meeting. Despite the wistful pang that clutched at his chest, Arasen’s hand moved again to continue the tracing before him, the deep red diagram becoming more intricate and chaotic. Another flick of the wrist, and that vision too left him.

 

He needed more. He knew he had not yet found that one thread, that singular vision to guide him on what his next action should be. That glimpse of a possible path that could bring about the destiny he so longed for. His breaths were becoming heavier, more hungry, his limbs trembling from the strain. The Sight was both a great gift and a great curse. Its price was never an easy one.

 

Then he saw a crackle of yellow energy across the darkness. Arasen’s movement stopped, and even his breaths ceased for a moment, as another vision unfolded before him. The Xaela’s amber eyes widened, shimmering bright within the black paint that crossed his features. His pupils darted aimlessly, seeing and unseeing at the same time.

 

When the vision finally released him, Arasen gasped, tumbling forward, both hands clutching at the ground as he struggled to stay upright. He gulped for air and his entire body stumbled with weakness from both blood loss and what the Sight took from him. It was a cost he had paid many times before, but each toll seemed pricier than the last.

 

But he finally had an answer. How to proceed. If all went well, it would require no bloodshed -- only the sharing of truths.

 

After all, that was his sole purpose here: to achieve the ultimate truth of peace, and through that save countless lives.

 

Now he had a way to make Nabi realize it as well.

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Once the door clicked softly shut behind her, Ghoa leaned against it, letting her head tilt backwards and her eyes fall shut. A quiet, drawn out sigh escaped from between her parted lips. The arm from which the bag of foodstuff hung shifted to let it gingerly slide down to rest on the floor by her feet, and then returned upwards to clutch tight around the small box she still held within her grasp.

 

For a moment, she simply listened intently for any sounds of life present in the apartment. Yet the only sound that reached her was the almost inaudible ticking of a clock hung upon the wall nearby. Her eyes batted open again a moment later to look around, to find the space just as bereft of movement as it was sound.

 

“Lehko'a..?” the Xaela called softly, uncertainly, and waited.. When a few ticks passed and the silence and stillness continued, she was convinced that the other must have stepped out for a time. And for that, for having the apartment all to herself for a short while, she was relieved.

 

Ghoa still had secrets of her own, things she hadn’t told him. Things she didn’t want to tell him, though not for lack of love. There were skeletons in her closet that she didn’t care to dwell upon in her thoughts, much less breathe life into all over again by speaking of them aloud. Yet Arasen’s prodding but a short while ago had her doing just that very thing, and now she needed some time alone to think, to stuff all the skeletons back into the closet they belonged in.

 

And she could not do that with Lehko'a about, with how well he could read her even when she was trying her best to put on a front. She couldn’t pack everything back into the boxes they had come out of if he was there, worrying over her. Even if he wouldn’t push her to tell him what was on her mind, she wouldn’t be able to handle the guilt tying her stomach into knots if she once more subjected him to such concern without telling him why. Not when her botched attempt at dealing with the aftermath of the ruins by herself was still such a fresh, barely healed wound between them already already.

 

Finally pushing away from the door, the petite Xaela grabbed the bag from its resting place by her feet and moved to the small kitchenette, setting it down again alongside the box of reagents atop the table. She would worry about sorting everything away into its rightful place later. Right now, she felt the water – with all its safety and warmth and comfort – calling for her.

 

Hurried footfalls brought Ghoa to the bath, and there she wasted not a single tick in turning the knobs of the ivory tub to get the water going. With the temperature set, she added a healthy pour of bath oils and soaps coax it to life in a fragrant froth. It took but a moment for her to peel off clothing and toss it haphazardly aside, and only once the bath was almost too full did she slowly, carefully step inside and sink into its depths. A soft sound of contentment left her as she leaned back comfortably, until her head came to rest against its edge.

 

Warm bath water may not have been the same as the cool, refreshing touch of the sea against her skin, but it was a comfort nonetheless, not to mention far more private.

Her head tilted back further still until her eyes, half-lidded, were staring upwards and unfocused towards the ceiling. Her mind began to drift back to the conversation still fresh on her mind. To the request that had been made of her:  convincing Nabi to return with her cousin to the coastlands to avoid the ill fate he had forseen. To convince her that the pain of choosing to leave those she cared for now would be far less than the heartbreak of losing them for good, and knowing that she could have prevented it by leaving them sooner.

 

Yet somewhere in the back of her mind, a distant little voice tried to coax her to reconsider. ‘Haven’t you already tried that very thing before, yourself?,’ it whispered.'Don’t you remember how poorly that always ends?’ Her brows furrowed at the thought, at the uncomfortable memories that those silent words tugged at. 'Don’t you remember..?

 

But then there was Arasen’s voice, following quickly on the heels of that faint flicker of doubt.

 

I… sense that you have experienced something similar. You survived. You are a stronger woman,” he had told her. “My cousin… she is a delicate thing. I don’t know if she would live through this.

 

He was right, of course. Ghoa had survived Ino’s death and all of the guilt that it had laid upon her shoulders, though the process had been far from easy and certainly not pretty.

 

She had had to flee the memories to another land, spending several moons – cycles, even – just barely coping. And there had been no few times then that she had wondered if there would ever come a time that she no longer felt the crushing weight of guilt and sadness upon her. On more than a few occasions had she laid awake at night and wondered if it were even worth trying, if giving up would hurt less in the end. But she had come out of it eventually, even if the scars it had left behind were still tender to this day.

 

Could Nabi survive that same ordeal? It was hard for Ghoa to imagine. Her stubbornness and ever-present refusal to just lay down and suffer quietly had eventually carried her through it. Yet would Nabi have that same instinct, or would doubt and sadness swallow her whole like it had almost done to her? Somehow, the latter seemed more likely an outcome.

 

So, Arasen was right again, it would seem. It was best that Nabi go with him, for her own sake. Yet that didn’t make the thought of her leaving them any less painful. She was a dear, dear friend;  at this point, she might as well have been family to Ghoa, or the closest she had ever gotten to having one.

 

And to think that she would be encouraging Nabi not only to leave them, but to go somewhere that she would be right under the nose of two of the men that Ghoa hated and feared most. Men whose cruelty had left her with injuries that, over ten cycles later, still showed no signs of healing completely. What if she encouraged Nabi to go, only for her to befall some similarly foul fate at their hands? The thought of that alone terrified her, making her stomach roil with nausea.

 

But.. Arasen’s plan was a solid one, admittedly. Sow the seeds of anger, suspicion, and humiliation between the two most powerful and influential of the Kharlu, and let the chaos that ensued provide a distraction to keep their eyes upon each other, rather than Nabi’s presence.

 

And the lie – or, for all she knew, potential truth – that Ghoa had given him to use to instigate the conflict was a solid one. The likelihood that it would work was high, she felt. And though she herself had never really lusted for vengeance or justice from either of them, it was still oddly cathartic to think of the possibility:  to weaponize the hurts they had inflicted upon her to not only put them at odds with one another, but if all went to plan, indirectly leading to their downfall once the yearly war was ended and peace reigned. But most important of all, without a doubt, was ensuring that Nabi was safe and protected.

 

Still, as she lingered upon the thought, the frown she wore began to tug the corners of her lips further downward. Her brow knitted, and after a moment, there was a faint trembling to her bottom lip. The hurt was beginning to blossom anew in her chest, even keener than before.

 

All of this was too much. Arasen might have complimented her strength earlier, but even Ghoa had her limits. Now that she was alone with everything – the pain of a loss that had not happened yet, the uncertainty of what it would bring, and the sickening phantom feeling of hands upon her body – she could feel that defensive wall quickly beginning to crack under pressure.

 

Yet before Lehko'a made it home, she would be sure to put that back together, too. And then, come the next day, she would find the strength to do what needed to be done.

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“I need more time.”

 

Arasen was trying his best to keep all contempt from his voice. He had practice with it over the years, but each time he had to “negotiate” with Kiratai, it had always ended in an extreme test of patience. Toragana was shrewd enough to bear witness to all the meetings between them, for Arasen dared not try something in her presence. While she was not as old or skilled as Siban, Toragana still had years of practice over Arasen.

 

Not that such a thing would grant any further clarity over the Sight.

 

If anything, it only entrenched the older udgans deeper into their traditions, making them rigid and single-minded. It was the elder voices amongst the shamans that continued this blood war between the two tribes. But Toragana, much like Siban, was different. They saw possibilities outside of the single path that was laid out before them.

 

Arasen should be thankful he supposed, for if it wasn’t her counsel to an influential warlord like Kiratai, he would never had an ally within the Jhungid. And despite what web of influence he himself had fostered over the years, all that had been accomplished so far would not have been possible without further aid from someone outside of the Kharlu. Even as patient and careful as he was, Arasen knew that he needed accomplices that would not fall under the auspice of his father or Bayanbataar.

 

But despite this alliance that defied the age old beliefs of their people, here Arasen was, again pleading his case. His frustration simmered behind his placid mask, his voice still never rising above a calm and reassuring tone.

 

“It is nearly done. She will return with me, any sun now, willingly.” Arasen’s amber eyes flitted between Kiratai and his udgan, then to the five other Jhungid around them. One stood next to the warlord, while two stood guard at either side of the cave they were in. They might still be in the isle of Shirogane, but Arasen had no doubt that these warriors would be able to dispatch of him quickly and silently should they deem him a threat, without a single Sekiseigumi being the wiser. Every time he was surrounded by the Jhungid, Arasen couldn’t help but recall the first time he had been lured out into that ruin. He'd nearly died. Those fears had long been dismissed, but the memory never quite left him, lingering in the furthest recesses of his mind.

 

“It has been moons already, son of Tugan.” Toragana narrowed her eyes on him, and the light silver limbal rings seemed to burn a bit brighter against her black irises. While his lighter eyes were set within the black tribal markings, her face was the opposite. White dots lined her dark brow, set like stars in the night against her near black complexion. It was almost an eerie sight, and Arasen couldn’t help but appreciate the intimidating appearance of it. Even if she called him by his father’s son, purposefully trying to dig under his skin.

 

Kiratai flicked a glance in the udgan’s direction, and Arasen knew that it was Toragana who needed convincing, not Kiratai. But he was astute enough to show deference first to the warlord, then to his udgan with a low nod.

 

“The lost daughter needs to come of her own accord, I’ve told you this,” Arasen reminded them patiently, yet again. “She needs to give herself willingly for the mark to be fully realized. And only then--”

 

“So were Siban’s words,” Toragana cut him off sharply. “That was her vision. But you and I know that the power is in the blood. The mark is only a tether. We can harness the power ourselves.”

 

“You saw what happened when we tried to recreate the mark using only blood. It was utter failure!” How could they be so blind? Arasen clenched his teeth to keep his temper at bay. It was greed for power that always made them arrogant. This was why they had always failed in generations past. None had the foresight. Or the patience.

 

“That was because none of them was gifted with the mark. She is the bearer.” The udgan sounded so sure, so confident.

 

“And what if we fail again? We can’t just feed her to the worm and start all over. This is our only chance we will have in our lifetime!” Arasen felt his mark starting to falter. All the females that have died so far, they were all Kharlu. The Jhungid had yet to bring an offering to the altar. They knew nothing of sacrifice. The warrior next to Kiratai brought his hand over his sword as if in warning, a sight that Arasen had become so accustomed to over the years. They have never trusted him, nor he them.

 

Toragana was about to retort, but Kiratai stepped forward, silencing the udgan. “You had enough time. Let her breathe the air of her homeland to be fully convinced, and be reminded of her path.” There was no changing the warlord’s mind, this Arasen saw in the Jhungid’s green eyes. “We have done it your way long enough. Sacrificed our own men in that attack outside of the Reunion. We could have killed your warden for what he did to my men. We let him recover here at your request.”

 

Kiratai stepped within ilms away from Arasen, his hissed words washing over the Kharlu’s face. “You’ve played your games long enough. Don’t think we don’t know about the escaped wife. I can pluck any of your pieces off, whenever I choose.”

 

Arasen bared his teeth. “I’ve already told you the use she will have. If you want to topple the powers within the Kharlu, she is essential.”

 

Kiratai held up a hand, silencing him with but a gesture. Arasen knew better than to contest his authority. How much this warlord reminded him of his own father… it brought a hint of bile to the back of his throat. He just had to remind himself yet again that the male was useful. A means to an end. For peace.

 

“We are leaving with the lost daughter. If she isn’t convinced yet, then you will make sure she is by the time we reach the ruins.” The warlord spun away from Arasen, unwilling to accept anything else other than silent obedience. “Send word to your people to make ready the preparations.”

 

Kiratai nodded to the Jhungid standing behind him, who returned the same and darted off toward one of the ends of the cave. With a single hand gesture, the three raced off into the streets of Shirogane. Toragana lingered a few moments, as her warlord exited the cave in the opposite direction.

 

“I thought you would have stepped out of Siban’s shadows by now,” the udgan said with a smug narrowing of her eyes.

 

“And I thought you stopped trying to prove yourself better than her,” Arasen shot back cooly, meeting her gaze with a venom of his own.

 

“Siban?” Toragana scoffed as she began to make her exit. “The old woman is dying and delirious. I have long passed her skills.”

 

“No,” Arasen called out after her. “Chanai.”

 

That stopped Toragana in her tracks but only for an instant. She said nothing as she resumed her pace a tick later, her stride more brisk than before.

 

But that jab gave Arasen little satisfaction. He had so little choice now, and the Jhungid was about to topple the careful house of lies he had erected. After waiting for what felt like forever, he finally started to make his own exit out of the cave, when another figure appeared to darken the mouth of it. Another Jhungid? Perhaps Kiratai finally decided to dispose of him? Wild thoughts began to swirl in his head. With Toragana’s interference, it was difficult to foresee what they would intend. But when Arasen approached closer, recognition began to settle upon his features, and his amber eyes widened.

 

“What were you doing here?” Batuhan asked in a voice that rumbled with both disbelief and suspicion. “What were you doing with the Jhungid?”

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“How come you’re not afraid of blood?”

 

A pair of amber eyes peered up at him, wide and curious. The summer skies lit his pale irises even more brilliantly, like jewels that had caught the ray of the sun and trapped it within its facets.

 

Batuhan regarded the young Xaela with equal interest, a small smile quirking up one corner of his lips. He was older than the boy by eight summers and easily towered over him at his full height. “Should I be afraid of it, boy?”

 

Arasen smiled wide, white teeth gleaming within the tanned complexion. “Not at all! It’s only that there are others who don’t like seeing it. Their own anyroad. It might be that aether makes up our soul, but it’s our blood that gives us our strength.” The younger boy puffed out his chest and proudly pounded his fist against it twice. “It’s our passion and life, pumped through our veins.”

 

The older Xaela tilted his head with amusement. The boy had enthusiasm of his youth, but there was wisdom and knowledge in his eyes. Confidence in his words. “Is that why you are studying in the ways of the blood shaman?”

 

Arasen bobbed his head excitedly. “I am going to be the best there is.”

 

Batuhan huffed, laying his larger hands on top of the boy’s head, tossing his braids about and letting the beads at the ends of them clack around playfully. “I guess then I better look after you very carefully.”

 

The younger Au Ra pouted, frowning and waving off Batu’s hand. He clearly didn’t appreciate being treated like the child that he was. “Well, good thing you are not afraid of it then,” he muttered. “Since we will be bound by blood. Through a ritual.”

 

Batuhan nodded sagely. “Until the end of all suns. I, as your warden, will always be able to find you. And know if you are in danger.” There was an odd twinge in the back of his mind, that after the ritual, he will forever be linked to this young boy. And yet Arasen belonged to a strong and important bloodline, and Batu had been watching this boy from afar. Unlike so many others of his age, Arasen always looked to the stars and to the distant horizon. As if looking to a life and possibilities beyond what was right in front of him.

 

That was something worth protecting.

 

“You are not afraid of it are you?” The older Xaela teased, eyeing the boy. “It is not an easy rite. You will shed as much blood as I.”

 

Arasen paused before answering, a frown pinching his young face. When he did look back to Batu, it was after a good amount of thought, and there was new eagerness to his expression. “I am not afraid. I want to know firsthand what it’s like, to feel blood magic. Runes written in blood are far stronger, you know. I already know what summoning and weaving aether feels like, but using blood… that is going to be something else.” The young Xaela grinned from horn to horn in anticipation.

 

Any other might have doubted the wisdom of being bound to a boy that spoke such nonsense and with such fervor. But Batu saw the dreamlike idealism on Arasen’s face, the boy continuing to talk about endless possibilities of blood magic. Of how it can change the properties of runes, promising to find ways to enhance even the oldest and simplest of spells, of healing what was incurable before, and many more that was beyond Batuhan’s limited understanding of such magic.

 

The boy wanted to better the world. And Batuhan wanted to see that world.

 

“I am sure even our bond can be improved…”


 

~


 

“How long?” Arasen stuttered, his eyes wide. It lacked the light and clarity that Batu was used to seeing. “How long have you been here? Were you following me?”

 

Batuhan narrowed his eyes, tilting his head slowly as he scrutinized his ward. “Long enough to know that you and they were not strangers.” His jaw was set, and his tone hardened. “You were hidden from me.” The older Xaela never liked it when Arasen dampened their link, making it impossible for him to use their bond to track him. It was something that should not be possible, and yet for Arasen, almost anything was possible when blood magic concerned. Batu had learned this long ago.

 

“As long as I have been residing here, I have been patrolling the area regularly. I became aware of more Xaelas on this isle in the recent suns, so I followed them. And after scouting them, I discovered they were Jhungid. They wore no obvious markings, but I recognized their scent upon the wind. The udgan of various tribes often carry a unique totem on them that they would never discard. And with the Jhungid, it is a peculiar mix of herbs. I would recognize it anywhere.” His gaze and tone sharpened slowly as he looked over the younger Xaela. “I followed one of them here, to discover that you were meeting with them.”

 

There was a pause as Batuhan lowered his chin, locking his gaze with his ward. There was a keen and almost accusatory edge to his expression, one that would brook no lies.

 

“...How do you know them?”

 

What happened next was something Batuhan was wholly unprepared for. His eyes flickered to Arasen’s hand, one that rose with the palm facing him. And in that instant, he felt a sharp piercing pain on his chest, beneath his shirt. When he pulled the fabric away, Batu saw the mark. It was the one that was branded upon him years ago, the rune that bounded him to his ward. Only now, it was bleeding like it was a fresh new wound. Droplets of blood began to seep through the pores that had long sealed over with scarred flesh.

 

And suddenly, this sensation was familiar to him. Batuhan remembered that this had happened before, these old tattoos from the rite of binding coming to life again. It had involved the Jhungid back then too. But somehow, that memory had been hidden away, until now.

 

Batuhan’s hand locked around Arasen’s, and despite its weakened state, the grip was firm, fueled by outrage. “What are you doing?” Again the memory returned, he had asked this very thing before. Years ago. Back then, Arasen had worn a sorrowful smile. He shook his head and whispered words that were still lost to him.

 

The ward that looked back to him now, however, wore an expression of panic and frustration. “I am sorry, my brother, that I must invoke this mark once again.” His hand pressed against Batu’s chest, the crimson stain spreading across his splayed fingers. “Three commands you will abide, you will not question and you will not remember. You will only obey the will of the one who bound you.”

 

Batuhan’s hand shook, with pain as well as a newfound rage, as rivulets of his own blood began to trail down over his knuckles. But his body couldn’t move. It was as if invisible chains had sprouted from where Arasen’s hand laid against the mark, and held him still where he stood. The whites of his eyes surrounded the deep green pupils as the older Xaela glared down at the ward he had trusted all his life.

 

You bound me…” he hissed, furious and incredulous.

 

Arasen’s visage softened where Batu’s was riled. “I did,” the younger Xaela said quietly. “Long ago. When I thought I would use this to save you.” But the flicker of tenderness didn’t last long as Arasen bore into him, his voice turning cool and losing what little remorse it had. “I am lucky I had the foresight to bind you thrice.”

 

Batuhan glared at Arasen, and barely managed to shake his head. “What are you planning to do?” he demanded hoarsely.

 

“I will ask you to believe me, as you have always done.” Arasen’s voice was calm and his words were slowing impossibly. Batu saw the younger Xaela blink, but when those eyelids opened again, his eyes were shining like the brightest sun, blinding all else from his sight. His words echoed loudly, almost painfully, as if reverberating within the cave walls.

 

“And help me get my cousin back home.”

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