Obligations

Obligations
by Wendy Darling (Wiebke)

Story Notes

Set a few months after the conclusion of Bewitchments of Love and Hate, this 18-chapter story stars, among others, Swift, and explores themes of Wraeththu family, committment and rites of passage. Also, there’s one heck of an althaia scene.

Characters
Swift, Seel, Ashmael, two main original characters, other original characters.

Spoilers
Containers spoilers for Bewitchments of Love and Hate, Book 2 in the Wraeththu trilogy.

Chapter 1

The forest was dense and shrouded in darkness. Somewhere high above, over the tree tops, the sun shone brightly. Swift squinted into the shadows ahead, looking for a path. Only by following Ashmael, on horseback ahead, could he be sure of his next step.

He glanced over to Seel, mounted on the horse beside him. Before he could even form a question, Seel nodded. “Yes, I’m sure. He knows where we’re going.”

Swift returned his attentions to following the invisible path. An hour earlier he and Seel had been speaking to Ashmael as part of a visit to Fogta, a former Varr outpost, when Ashmael had received an urgent summons via mind message. Two of his soldiers, on a mission to explore the surrounding land, had encountered a situation with which they needed guidance and, just in case, backup support.

In the heart of the forest, with no paths leading to it, the soldiers had stumbled across a small stone cottage. At first they had assumed the home was unoccupied, but as they came around to the front, they saw that curtains hung in the windows. The berry bushes to the left and right of the front door were trimmed and a narrow path ran around to the back.

Curious to learn who might be living in such isolation, the soldiers stepped up to the door to knock. Just as one soldier had his hand poised, both of them were blasted back, stumbling, into the yard by an impressive blast of defensive energy.

“Stay clear, Varr pigs!” a voice screamed from within.

The soldiers were dumbfounded. Inside the house was someone who had enough power to create shields but was afraid of the Varrs — who no longer held any power! Obviously they were dealing with an unusual situation. Hence they had summoned Ashmael.

Personally Swift wasn’t terribly interested in what they might find inside the cottage — until he saw it, a lone stone cottage stood in a small field. He remembered the old human children’s tale of the little boy and girl who had ventured into the forest. Was this the witch’s house? It was quite ordinary, yet at the same time, there hung about it an aura of mystery, something that tempted the imagination into conjuring all manner of strange and secret affairs taking place within its walls.

Following Ashmael’s lead, Swift and Seel rode their horses to the rear yard. As they passed close to the side of the house, Seel, slightly ahead, Swift felt a wave of menace crashed across him. He shivered and avoided turning his head. Who or what were they going to be facing?

The Gelaming soldiers rose from where they’d been seated in the shade of a giant oak. Brushing themselves off, they sauntered over towards the horses.

“Has there been any change?” Ashmael asked, dismounting and taking a stance, hands on hips, facing the back of the house.

“No change, Lord Ashmael,” the taller of the two hara reported. “However, we have received several additional jolts and admonitions to leave.”

“It’s most disconcerting,” the second har added. “Whoever is inside is very angry.”

“Angry?” Seel questioned, by now off his horse, standing beside Ashmael. “It can hardly be a Gelaming then. In fact, I wonder if it is not a human.”

“Seel, you fool yourself — when will you ever learn?” Swift stepped two paces towards the house before stopping and turning. “Gelaming have emotions — anger included — especially when provoked!”

“Ah, Swift, forever keeper of the Varr flame!” Ashmael chided.

“Don’t say that!” Swift shot back hotly. It had only been a few months since he had adopted the customs of the Gelaming, shedding his Varr skin, and yet the name of his tribe was forever being hung over his head. He returned his gaze to the house. “What now?”

“Now we go in,” Ashmael said simply, starting to walk across the field. “Ilga, Troniel, wait here with our horses.”

“But what about the blasts?” Swift asked, feeling apprehensive after what he’d felt a few minutes earlier but following along nonetheless. True, the blasts were only strong Wraeththu thought magic, but unlike the others, Swift hadn’t had years to grow completely accustomed to such phenomena. As a child, practically the only magic he had witnessed had been Cobweb’s. No matter the education he had received during his caste training in Imbrilim, he still felt somewhat intimidated by such forces.

Ashmael laughed. “What about them? Do you really think they can keep us out? We three are powerful and unless the angry one inside is Nari-Nuri, our magic will be able to overcome his.”

Swift gave Seel a searching look but received only a nod in response. He would have to trust in their judgement.

As they once again passed by the house, Swift her Seel softly gasp.

“Do you feel it?” he asked, taking Seel’s hand and squeezing it.

“Yes,” Seel said. “It’s not anger now. It’s fear.”

The three of them crowded around the small wooden front door.

As soon as Ashmael reached for the handle, they were hit with a violent, invisible force. It wanted to fling them backwards, away into the yard. They resisted and returned with their own power, pushing back the shield until Ashmael had the door handle in his hand. He turned it. The door was locked.

“Out of the way, you two!” Ashmael urged sharply. Here was the military commander taking charge. Seel and Swift stepped to the side as Ashmael delivered a swift, ferocious kick to the door.

“We’re sorry you’re not up for guests at the moment,” Ashmael shouted as delivered another blow, “but we really need to meet our new neighbor!” The door cracked in half.

A moment later, Ashmael had thrust himself half-way through the door and was apparently struggling with the strong arms and legs of the defender. Finally Ashmael beat the figure back.

Moving in with Swift, Seel took the remainder of the door and ripped it away.

There, inside the tiny cottage, stood a har with a look on his face that was absolutely heartrending: defeat. He was tall with wide-set eyes, a soft gray blue, and thick, dreadlocked brown hair.

“You broke through my shields,” he said simply, bewildered as he stared down at where Ashmael held him fast by the arm.

“You are strong,” Ashmael said, “but not that strong. We three are all Ulani, Gelaming.”

“Gelaming?!” the mystery figure gasped.

“Yes,” Seel confirmed. “What did you think we were — Varrs?”

The har nodded nervously and then slowly, tentatively smiled. “This is it then,” he announced, his voice full of wonder, the fear vanishing.

Ashmael released his grip and the har took his hand and ran it across the side of his head, pushing aside the strands of hair that were escaping from the top. “I… I have been waiting so long, years and years,” he explained in a soft voice. “I knew you would be the ones to free me and I even wanted to meet you, but I had to hide. Now I can finally come out.”

He bowed his head slightly for the sake of courtesy. “I am Tarra,” he said simply, extending a hand.

All three Gelaming took the hand and clasped it firmly. Tarra was shaking but obviously greatly relieved that he was — apparently — not about to meet his death.

“So,” Ashmael began. “What made you take to this life of solitude? Were you simply trying to escape the Varrs?”

Tarra nodded uncertainly. Ashmael continued. “I can understand that. The Varrs are gone now, by the way, and we are here only to talk with you, help you, not to harm you. Still, while wresting with you I had a strongest sense that you were protecting something within this house, not only yourself but–”

“Dad?” a voice called suddenly, cutting off Ashmael’s line of questioning. All eyes turned to a curtained off area in the corner of the main room. “Can I come out now — since they’re not Varrs?”

Tarra’s face had frozen and he stared at the three Gelaming before lowering his gaze to the floor. “Yes, Ranat,” he said quietly. “Come out to meet our visitors.”

After a moment the curtains parted and there emerged a young, blond-haired figure who looked almost exactly like Tarra in the face. Swift knew immediately that Ranat was human.


Chapter 2

The boy could almost have been har, or rather a harling — just on the verge of Feybraiah. He was just about the right size with a slight lingering softness in his face, the traces of childhood. What marked him as human, however, was not any major divergence but something subtle; his cheeks and chin were covered with curling reddish blond stubble, the beginnings of a beard.

Tarra stepped sideways to take Ranat by the shoulders. “My son,” he introduced. With one hand he gestured to the strangers. “Ranat, these are Gelaming.”

Ashmael was the first to introduce himself, followed by Seel and then Swift, who offered his hand. The boy took it gently without fear before stepping back.

Afterward teenager eyed the newcomers speculatively with the same light gray eyes as his father.

His father.

Tarra.

Swift wondered if the boy had any idea about his father. Did he know what Wraeththu were? Did he know the difference between har and man? They had been living in isolation. How long it had been since they had lived in society? So many questions.

It was Ashmael who finally broached the subject. With a quick glance to Tarra, gently he addressed the boy. “Ranat, do you understand what we are?”

He nodded. “Gelaming.”

“We are not like you,” Ashmael continued calmly.

“No,” Ranat replied confidently, “you’re Wraeththu. Like my father.”

It had been confirmed. He knew.

“Yes,” Ashmael confirmed. “Exactly.” He spoke this time to Tarra. “Now would you be interested in coming back to the village with us? We can offer you shelter and there is no chance of your coming to harm.”

“No Varrs to take my son from me,” Tarra said softly.

“Had they tried?” Swift asked.

The father nodded. “Many times.”

“They wanted to kill him,” Seel said flatly.

“Yes,” Tarra replied with a sharp intake of breath. “That was it. For years. But then recently it was too much — I had to get away from them all because the time was coming near… We needed to be safe.” His eyes fell on Ranat, the boy on the verge of becoming a man — or Wraeththu. “But this is a matter to discuss later. Right now, I’d be happy to come with you. The house isn’t ours — we were only hiding — but can you carry any of our things? We have clothes, books, inconsequentials…”

Ashmael nodded. “Of course. Let me have my hara bring the horses to the front.” With his mind he summoned the soldiers from the back yard. When he saw Tarra taking note of this, he chuckled. “Impressive show of powers, by the way. What is your level?”

“Acantha,” Tarra replied.

“Really?” asked Seel, who had been keeping quiet. “That display earlier seemed rather above that.”

“Perhaps.” He shrugged. “I’ve been alone out here for a long while — two years actually. I practiced some on my own and of course being so fearfully angry gave me extra power when I needed it.”

Presently Ilga and Troniel appeared in the doorway. “The horses are ready, Lord Ashmael, ” declared Troniel. Both of them eyed Tarra and Ranat with curiosity but kept their questions to themselves.

“We’ll be outside,” Ashmael said. “Just gather your things and come outside when you’re ready. If we leave within a half an hour we can make it back to the village in time for dinner.”

“Good Gelaming food,” Ilga added. Swift and Seel both noticed the special look in his eye as he looked over to Tarra, a har who had not been looked upon by Wraeththu in two years but was certainly getting eyed in the present.

Ashmael was already out the door. The others followed momentarily, leaving father and son the task of packing.

“I can’t believe it,” Swift whispered. “His son! He’s human!”

They were all facing one another but taking care not to huddle. The cottage no longer had a front door and if Tarra looked out and saw them whispering together he might be distressed.

“It’s quite possible,” Seel whispered back. “The boy’s probably about fourteen. Fourteen or fifteen years ago, Tarra could have been human, could have fathered a son.”

“And coupled with a human female?” Swift asked.

“That’s how it’s done,” Ashmael replied dryly. “You wouldn’t know about it — you’re pure-born — but I do. I… did that.”

Seel looked at him, surprised. “You did?”

Ashmael nodded. “I did. Not all of us had your predilections and,” he added, quickly, “anyway, at the time I must say I enjoyed it.”

Seel laughed and with that, the whispering was over. They waited a few more minutes and finally Tarra and Ranat emerged, travel bags in hand. Really they didn’t have much but it hardly mattered. After they left the little stone house in the woods, they would be starting a new life.

Chapter 3

There were five horses and seven riders, so when Ilga offered to take Tarra to ride with him, Swift quickly offered a spot on his horse to the young human. He was very curious about him. The boy looked to his father, who quickly nodded in assent. These hara, his look seemed to say, could be trusted.

Swift swung into the saddle and a moment later, Seel had helped Ranat up and strapped his bags onto the saddle as well. Once Seel mounted his own horse, they were ready to go.

“I won’t be sorry to leave here,” Tarra announced. “Thanks for protecting us, old house, but I think I’d rather return to the real world.”

On that note, they headed into the trees. At the front of the group Ilga chatted with Tarra, while Ashmael updated Troniel on what had transpired inside the cottage.

For his part, now that he knew what he was headed towards, Swift felt the forest had grown a little lighter. He was more confident and with Ranat leaning up against him in front so close, he decided to try and talk.

Seel rode beside him as he began. “So, Ranat, your father says you’d been living here for two years.”

“Yes. It seems like a long time — the longest I can remember ever staying anywhere.” He turned his head slightly, thinking to make eye contact. “We were always moving.”

“How long has your father been taking care of you?” Swift asked.

“For ten years. Ever since my mother was killed.”

Swift glanced over to Seel and could see that like him, he wondered what else the boy could tell them.

He decided to ask. “Ranat, could you tell us about yourself? I don’t want to rush you or seem rude, but I am very interested in hearing your story.”

“How it my father is Wraeththu, you mean?” he asked offhandedly. As before, it was clear that Ranat knew the state of affairs, had not been kept in the dark. How very unusual it was. Swift had never heard of incepted Wraeththu ever seeing their human children again, let alone caring for them.

“I’ve never told anyone before but I suppose there’s no reason not to tell you, ” Ranat began. “My father was, obviously, once human and… he had a son. The world was a mess, breaking into chaos, but he and my mother loved one another, although both of them were quite young. For six months after I was born, we were a happy family, or so my father tells me. Then one day everything changed — my father disappeared.”

“He was incepted,” Seel surmised.

Ranat gave a single nod. “Yes. They took him away from us.”

Seel followed up. “What tribe incepted him?”

“The Sulh. It was a desert tribe, nomads. Have you ever heard of them?”

Swift felt his heart skip a beat. “Yes, Ranat, my… hosting is Sulh.” How strange it seemed to talk to a human about his hostling. The only human Swift had ever really been close to was Byrony.

Ranat smiled. “Really? There are some that have survived? My father has told me there were all either killed or, as he said, ‘assimilated.'”

“Oh, yes, Ranat, there are many who survived. My hostling, though… he was taken as a consort by–” Swift suddenly stopped in mid-sentence. Mentioning the circumstances by which Cobweb had come to live in Galhea would certainly not be wise. Worse would be mention of his father. Terzian, who even in the grave held a power in many people’s minds.

“But, ugh… please, continue your story,” Swift urged. Ranat turned, curious about the change in topic, but he did not prod

As they rode through the forest, the boy filled in the rest of the story. After his inception by the Sulh, Tarra had been gifted with about two years of peace, time for caste training and education, before the Varrs had come. Many were killed, injured or enslaved. He could easily have been one of them. but he had managed to escape. He ran home to the human settlement he had come from. He had nowhere else to go and it was far enough away that he expected it to be safe. Ranat’s mother would understand, would take him in, ever after three years away.

When he arrived he found it was too late. The settlement had been destroyed, apparently quite recently. There were fires burning and the streets and fields and houses were filled with corpses, mutilated. Many women had been raped, killed by the poison of Wraeththu aruna. He found his house and inside, the woman he had loved. She was dead. Tarra had wept with grief, had gone half mad, until suddenly he heard a sound, a whimpering noise. He followed his ears and went to the closet. Inside he found Ranat, four years old, alive but orphaned. He would need a parent.

From that moment on, Tarra had resumed the role of Ranat’s father. He returned to Wraeththu settlements and tried lay low, stay out of war, and of course to conceal his son as much as possible. He often was forced to keep him inside. Strangers could not be allowed to know him, for if they did, they would surely discover the peculiar secret, and if that happened, they would be in danger. Varrs, who by now had taken over everywhere, would not allow such a situation to exist. Any human child was either to be slaughtered outright or eaten. There were no exceptions.

Two years ago, the situation had grown intolerable. Ranat was growing old enough to want to have some freedom, to want to know other people, and yet it was impossible. The Varrs were growing more and more touchy as the war against the Gelaming reached the final stages.

Ranat was also about to start growing, changing, and it would become noticeable, Tarra knew. It was time to hide and so his father had taken him into the woods, where the cottage stood, almost as if it had been waiting for them. There they had lived alone. Every few months they had gone into town to gather supplies, but that was all. They had grown their own food, provided their own entertainment. They had waited for their moment.

Six months ago, Ranat’s body had begun the change in earnest — the hair had grown and his body had felt new urges and desires. They had both lived in such fear that the Varrs would find him and either kill him or forbibly incept him into their way of life. Or they feared that the Varrs would never be defeated and by the time they could find Wraeththu to incept him properly, it would be too late. The beard had begun in the last month. Soon Ranat would be a man.

“So you’re fourteen?” Swift asked, as the boy came to the end of his tale. They had nearly reached the village; the forest had opened up and they were once again on a visible path.

“My birthday’s next week,” Ranat replied. “I’ll be fifteen.”

They rode for a short distance and then Ranat spoke up again. “How old are you two? There’s no way for me to tell and I was wondering…”

Even though the question was reasonable, Swift was taken by surprise. “Well, Seel is… Actually I don’t know since he prefers to keep that a mystery–”

“Old, Ranat.” He laughed.

“And you, Swift?” Ranat asked.

“My birthday is next week as well. I’ll be eleven.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized something he should have realized before. Here he was, treating Ranat like a boy when he was actually four years his senior! Well, he was a human and they did develop at half-speed and so technically he was 20 by human standards but still — it was something that hadn’t occurred to him.

Ranat was startled. “You’re younger than me!”

Swift laughed uneasily. “Yes, I am.”

Ranat shook his head. “This is going to take some getting used to. I’m not… I mean, being around other people or… really hara… anyone… it’s so different. Until now it’s only been what my father has told me, what I’ve read. Now everything is real.”

“Yes, it is, Ranat,” Swift responded. “And you may find this hard to believe, but I think I know some of how you must feel. I grew up in some isolation myself. The day I left my home, everything changed.”

“For the better?” Ranat asked.

“Mostly,” Swift answered. “Mostly.”

Chapter 4

As they arrived in town at last, the group came together in the main square. Ashmael brought his horse around beside Swift. “To your quarters for dinner, I presume?”

“Yes, Ashmael. Tarra and Ranat must be invited as well. They must have every accommodation.”

Ranat twisted around in surprise. “Oh, we’ll be staying with you?”

Swift nodded. “Of course. Now let’s go, Ashmael. Back to the house.”

They rode across the square and down the long, sloping street that led to the governing headquarters. It was a grand building at the foot of a large forested hill, with a yard of neatly trimmed grass and tall trimmed hedges framing the sides of the entrance. The horses trotted up the drive and were brought to a halt.

Ashmael sent Troniel and Ilga back to their own quarters. For a brief moment Tarra, who had dismounted from Ilga’s horse, stood watching them go, but once he saw Swift and Seel standing with Ranat, he rushed over in greeting. Embracing his son, his face lit with a smile of joyous excitement.

“Can you believe it, my little one?” He gestured wildly, indicating the house, the lawn, the town. “We’re free to join civilization!”

He straightened and let Ranat stand on his own. Ranat smiled. “It’s what you’ve always wanted, father.”

A look of concern passed over Tarra’s face and he crouched slightly, getting to his son’s eye level. “It’s what I’ve always wanted for you, Ranat.”

The boy nodded. “I know. It’s just that you have suffered so much on my behalf. For the most part, I don’t even know what I’ve been missing.”

Swift stepped forward. It was time to go inside. “Well, soon you’ll find out. Come now, I’m sure a dinner has been prepared. The cooks would have expected us, at least Seel and myself, for dinner.”

The meal was was an understated affair in relative terms, but as they gathered around the table, it was clear that the new arrivals were surprised by their surroundings. Servants brought in warm loaves of bread and bowls of fresh vegetables. From carved tureens they a spooned out bowls of rich, salty soup. As they began to eat, the silver candelabra in the center bathed the room in a warm glow that made it seem as if they had known one another for a long time.

Swift was at one end of the table, Seel to his right, Tarra to his left, with Ranat next to his father, Ashmael also at the end. At first there was only small talk, but gradually the conversation grew more personal.

“I wonder how Azriel is,” Seel wondered. Because of their positions, they often had to leave their harling behind in Forever, under Cobweb’s care.

“I’m sure he’s fine, playing in the garden the way I used to, maybe playing with Tyson.” Swift told him assuringly. “Our harling,” he explained to Tarra. “He is not with us.”

“Oh?” Tarra asked. “Where is he? You don’t live here?”

Swift was slightly startled. “Here? No, we’re based in Galhea.”

Tarra shrank. “Galhea. It is still a Varrish city?”

“It is now the capital of Megalithica,” Swift told him, suddenly feeling it again, that same tension-filled dread that had crept into his conversation with Ranat. How could he ever tell Tarra about Terzian?

“I see,” Tarra murmured, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of bread crust. “And who rules from this capital?”

Ashmael cleared his throat. “Actually, Tarra, Swift does.”

Tarra, who had looked over, now looked back to Swift and nodded. “I… thought perhaps… but I think you are very young — something about your manner and that somehow, I know you are pureborn.”

“I am, tiahaar — young and pureborn,” Swift agreed. “Nevertheless, the Gelaming chose me, trained me, to rule this continent. It is my duty to bring peace and order to Megalithica, to build back everything that was destroyed.”

“You have a great deal of work ahead of you,” Tarra said heavily. “Whole tribes have been slaughtered. My own people, the Sulh, for example, lost many. Eventually the Varrs held dominion over them and there was peace, but before that…” He shuddered ever so slightly.

There was silence in the room. Swift’s thoughts were on his father, on Ponclast, imagining them at the head of the Varrish armies, slaughtering everyone in their path. As a child, he had never had such visions, but now that he knew the truth, had seen the battlefields and what remained, such associations came all too readily, and even though he knew he had not been to blame for that shed blood, it made him angry and ashamed.

It was Ranat who broke the silence. “I meant to tell you, Dad.” They all looked over; obviously unused to such formal dinner and indeed company, the boy had been quiet throughout the meal.

“When we were riding through the forest, I was telling Swift about you — and myself — and I mentioned your tribe. Swift said his hostling is Sulh.”

Ranat’s comment had been completely innocent; he had no idea where the conversation would inevitably lead.

Tarra immediate turned and stared. “Sulh?”

Swift nodded. “Yes.”

“You were not raised Sulh,” he said slowly. “Are you Gelaming?”

“No,” Swift answered, knowing the truth was about to be unleashed. “I am a Varr.”

Tarra, still staring, clenched his teeth. His hands went to the edge of the table, gripping it hard, and he looked down. “You did not tell me this.”

Swift tentatively reached out and placed his hand on Tarra’s; the angry har did not pull away. “It wasn’t something I thought you’d want to hear.” He paused, searching for the right words. “Anyway, Tarra, I’m different, a new kind of Varr. I was never a soldier.Seel and I precipitated the Fall, after which I came to power.”

Swift stopped once more, willing himself to utter the potentially inflammatory sentence. “My father was Terzian.”

That was it. Tarra flew out of his chair and grabbed Ranat, tearing him away from the table by the arm. “Terzian!”

“Yes, Tarra,” Swift answered. What other reply was there? “I’m sorry.”

Tarra made for the door but stopped at the other end of the table. “Sorry?” he seethed. “Your father rode armies against my–” His voice, through passion, had broken. He took Ranat by the shoulders. “His father killed your mother, Ranat. His armies anyway.”

Ranat looked shocked; his lower lip trembled and he looked down, away. Slowly he walked over to the window and stared out. His hands were clasped tightly together as he stood, obviously turning the matter over in his mind.

At last he mustered the courage to step to the head of the table and speak. “Yes, father, but he did not murder, he did not maim. He is Swift and he and his friends have given us our freedom.”

For several moments Tarra stood dumbfounded as the words sank in. Then he took the boy in his arms.

“Oh, my little one,” he whispered, kissing the bright blond hair. “You understand so little but… you are right. I must remember how to… have forgiveness and fairness in my heart.”

He met Swift’s eyes. “I am sorry, tiahaar. Tell me the truth. How did you come to rule Megalithica?”

Chapter 5

An hour and a half later, the table had been cleared and Swift had finished telling the tale — his childhood, his trip south with Cal and Leef, finding his place with the Gelaming, the birth of Azriel, the fall of Fulminir, the death of Terzian.

Seel and Ashmael had added a few details towards the end, explaining matters with regard to the Gelaming, but other than that, it was Swift who had spoken, laying out the landscape for Tarra and Ranat, who had reentered a new world after years in a land with no map.

Tarra’s expression was thoughtful as he leaned forward, elbows on the table, hands clasped together under his chin. “Much has happened. It is not as I thought it was. Not at all.”

He looked to his son, who appeared exhausted, no doubt from hearing such a long, complicated explanation of Wraeththu politics. “You were right, Ranat,” Tarra said softly. “Swift did not deserve my anger. Terzian–” he looked back to Swift “is another matter, but he is dead.”

For Swift it had been an uncomfortable evening, talking about himself and matters he wished he could put behind him. Nevertheless, he was glad to have come clean while apparently still retaining the trust of one whose life had been so harshly affected by the ferocity of the Varrs.

The ruler of Megalithica rose. “And now, my friends, let me take you to your rooms for the evening. You deserve a thorough rest.” Everyone, Seel and Ashmael included, rose. Swift waved his hand. “Just Tarra and Ranat come with me. I will return to speak with you two afterward. Meet me in the salon.”

Swift led the way out of the room, down the hallways and up the stairs to the chambers he had reserved for his new guests. He had chosen two rooms but as he stood outside pointing them out, he explained to Tarra that obviously he and his son could share if they so desired.

“Oh, I think separate rooms will be fine,” Tarra said, putting his hand lightly on his son’s shoulder. “Ranat hasn’t had his own room to sleep in for a long time and neither have I. Anyway, I wasn’t planning on going to bed myself. Once I settle him in and… talk to him a bit,” he said, squeezing Ranat’s shoulders, “I’d like to go back with you and talk some more.”

Swift understood. There were matters to be discussed that belonged among adults. He told Tarra to return to the salon at his convenience; he and the two others would be waiting to talk. Tarra thanked him, Ranat said good night, and they parted.

In the salon Swift found Seel and Ashmael enjoying a drink and having an animated discussion. Swift reached out his hand and Seel took it, kissing it gently. “They’re settled in bed?”

Swift sank down on the sofa next to him. “Tarra is coming back here. Right now he’s having a ‘talk’ with Ranat but afterward he says there are matter he would like to discuss with us.”

Ashmael chuckled but his face was serious. “Yes, I can imagine.”

Swift looked at him questioningly. “Ashmael?”

“Well, obviously there are at least two matters which are crying out for resolution. First, his son’s inception. I would assume that would be Tarra’s foremost concern at this moment.”

Swift nodded in agreement. “Yes. But the second matter?”

“The second,” Seel said, “as Ashmael and I were just discussing, is Tarra himself. He hasn’t taken aruna in at least two years.”

Swift was dubious. “Oh, but that can’t be!”

“It’s the truth, Swift,” Seel assured him. “He said himself they never left the cottage except to pick up supplies every few months. I hardly think Tarra went into town and had aruna while his son waited in the next room. And certainly no one ever visited him in the cottage.”

Swift thought this over. It made sense but what about the caste progression? How could that have occurred without aruna? He asked his companions.

“We will have to ask him about that,” Ashmael said. “Perhaps he only discovered a caste he already had or perhaps there is another explanation. In any case, he hasn’t had aruna in all that time and that, Swift, is unhealthy, more so than you probably realize. We must see to it that he is properly taken care of.”

They had spoken for about 20 minutes further, discussing Tarra as well as other matters, when Tarra entered the room. He looked a bit on edge. Swift wondered if the lack of aruna was beginning to become unbearable.

“Ah, welcome back, tiahaar. Please have a seat,” he offered, gesturing to the armchair beside him.

“Thank you, tiahaar.” Tarra slipped down into the chair. “Seel, Ashmael, I am glad you are here as well. There are some matters which I feel I must go over with you immediately.”

When no one spoke and there was an awkward silence, Swift said, “Go on, Tarra. Don’t be at all intimidated. We all want to hear what you have to say and to provide any assistance we can.”

“Thank you.” Tarra smiled, his nervousness again shining through. A moment later, he had schooled his face into an expression of determination. “First, I have just had a talk with my son. As you can imagine, we discussed inception.”

“I can very well imagine you did,” Ashmael replied, leaning back somewhat lazily in a chair at the other end of the sofa. “Although the concept of a father discussing inception with his own human son is rather remarkable in itself.”

“Yes, Ashmael, it is remarkable, but such are the circumstances. He and I have discussed this many times before, of course. Tonight I asked him if he was sure it was what he wanted.”

“You had to ask him?” Seel questioned.

“Yes, tiahaar. Many times before he had said yes, told me that it was something he looked forward to, but until today, it had never been a real possibility. He had not come of age, had not been out in the world, had not met Wraeththu such as you. I had to know if he had changed his mind.”

“And had he?” Seel asked.

Tarra shook his head. “No, he had not. In fact, he is more eager than ever. He has been dazzled completely. He says he wants to be strong and beautiful and live among creatures such as you.”

“That’s wonderful,” Swift said, pouring out a drink. “But tell me, what are your plans?”

Tarra accepted the glass Swift offered. “That is what I wanted to discuss. My plan, all along, has been to incept him myself. Can any of you think of a reason that might be unwise?”

Swift had no experience in such matters and so he left it to the two older hara. They both agreed that there was no prohibition against such a transfer, from father to son, and they were aware of no physical reason why such an inception would be unsuccessful. There was, however, a question they wanted an answer to.

“I can perform the ceremony for you, if you like,” Ashmael explained, “but while you would be the giver of the blood, you are not the only participant. Three days later, or however long it takes the Althaia to come to pass, someone must come to Ranat and seal the pact he has made. Who will it be, Tarra?”

Tarra, who in the proceeding few minutes had seemed more assured, once again looked nervous. “That is something I just discussed with him actually.”

“And?” Swift asked. “Do you have someone in mind?”

Tarra nodded, the look of slight trepidation still intact. “I didn’t exactly, but Ranat did.”

Swift, Ashmael and Seel waited. Who would it be?

“He wants it to be you, Swift.”

Chapter 6

Swift felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him. “Me?”

Ashmael and Seel were both looking at him appraisingly, as though they were measuring him up.

Tarra nodded. “Yes, Swift, you. Is this unwelcome news?”

Swift tried to quickly gather his thoughts. He didn’t want to seem upset, but he was in fact quite surprised. “Unwelcome, Tarra? No, not at all. It’s just that I, I–” He cut himself off, wanting to choose the right words. “It’s just that I’ve never been chosen for something like this.”

“You’ve never participated in an inception?” Tarra asked. “Well, that makes sense. You’re very young and pure-born besides. Still, that shouldn’t matter, should it?”

“No, I’m sure I can manage it and,” Swift finally managed, having gathered up his mind on the matter, “I’d really like to. One question I have, however. Did Ranat say why he had chosen me?”

Tarra gave an emphatic nod. “Yes he did. What happened is that I explained to him that we needed to find someone he and I could trust. As soon as I mentioned trust, it was Swift, Swift, Swift.”

Seel laughed softly. “Swift will be good for your son, Tarra.”

“Absolutely,” Ashmael agreed. “And if you agree to it, Swift, I think it will be good for you as well. It is an important rite, the passage into Wraeththu, and I think it is important, as ruler of Megalithica, that you have some experience with it.”

By this time much of Swift’s initial confusion and shock had subsided; he was once again able to align his thoughts and word with his position. “I agree — that goes for what all of you have said. Tarra, I would be pleased to be the one for your son.”

Tarra’s eyes were wet. “Thank you.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair, gripping the arm rests. “One matter settled.”

There was a silence lasting about a minute as Swift and the others waited for the other shoe to drop. Tarra was clearly tense but was attempting, not too successfully, to look as if he had time to sit around all night.

Finally Ashmael broke the silence. “So, Tarra, how about you? How do you feel about all this?”

“I’m happy,” he said. “Of course.”

“For Ranat, I’m sure,” Ashmael agreed. “But what about yourself? How are you feeling?”

“Oh, like I’ve finally come to end of things, the light at the end of the tunnel and–”

“Tarra,” Ashmael interrupted, meeting his eyes, all seriousness. “No. I don’t mean that way. I mean… Oh, how to put this?”

“How about directly…” Seel murmured.

“All right,” Ashmael concurred. “how about directly?” He paused a beat. Tarra didn’t blink. “Aruna?”

Swift felt uncomfortable having to witness this questioning, but not as uncomfortable as Tarra appeared to have become. Breaking away from Ashmael’s stare, he seemed to be waging a battle within himself, an impression that very likely mirrored a physical reality. It did not even need to be said that Ashmael and Seel had been correct in their assumption. Tarra had suffered forced abstinence for years.

“Tarra?” Ashmael prompted. “We are hara. It is proper – essential — that we discuss such matters. You have been away a long time and–”

“I know I’ve been away a long time!” Tarra snapped. “Don’t you think I know? I’ve been alone so long, no one to touch me, no one to touch, for so long that I’m in pain. Every moment it grows worse. At dinner I thought, ‘Oh, no…’ and then afterward, I wanted to run into town, then I had to settle matters here and sitting here, with the three of you, so beautiful all, discussing it…” He shook his head and covered his face with his hands. “It’s making it unbearable.”

Ashmael rose and crouched beside the now weeping har. “I can’t begin to imagine. Now would you like for me to summon Ilga?”

The sobs continued a moment longer, and then Tarra wiped his eyes with the heel of his hands and looked up. “Ilga?”

“Yes, Tarra. I saw you two on the ride back from the forest. He is only a short distance away, over in our army quarters, and I know he would be happy to come over and visit you here if I sent him an invitation — tonight.”

Tarra was floored. “You– you’d do that for me?”

“Of course, Tarra. These are extraordinary circumstances. Why, it’s a medical emergency!”

Ashmael called out and quickly a servant appeared. He issued orders for an invitation to be sent out to Ilga immediately. If Ilga was available and willing, which was expected, he would arrive in under a half an hour.

Swift decided that the waiting time would be the perfect opportunity to ask Tarra another question. Obviously the powers Tarra had employed while defending the cabin ran beyond those of Acantha, which meant that somehow or other, he had undergone some sort of caste progression. However, since he’s been alone all that time and without aruna — necessary for caste progression — it didn’t seem possible. Could Tarra explain this small miracle?

“You’re going to think this is funny — no, no, I should say strange or… perhaps wrong, but I had a special method for raising my own caste.” Tarra took a deep breath. “Self-gratification.”

Seel, who rarely appeared shocked by anything, was obviously taken aback, but he nodded nonetheless. “Ah, I see. You took yourself to the higher spheres?”

“Yes, exactly, Seel,” Tarra answered, his tone matter of fact. “I knew I couldn’t last without aruna. I also knew that self-gratification would help me to some degree, to keep in touch with my essence. One of my tutors in caste-training had taught me that self-gratification could be a form of self-healing meditation. Of course, it wasn’t until forced by circumstance that I realized how I could use it to improve myself. I forged my own path really. Probably some would find fault with me, but there really wasn’t much choice.”

On that they all agreed. There had been no choice and as it was, the effect of Tarra’s method had been beneficial and certainly must have gone a long way toward keeping him at least marginally healthy. Now, however, the fast was coming to an end. A servant entered the room announce Ilga’s arrival.

Ashmael rose. “Ready, Tarra?”

“As ready as a body can be,” he answered, following Ashmael out of the room. He forgot to say goodbye to Swift and Seel, focused on one thing and one thing alone. Ashmael would show him back to his new room and soon the fire would commence.

Chapter 7

Gelaming or not, almost as soon as Tarra and Ashmael were out the door, Seel and Swift both collapsed in a fit of giggles. By the time they were through, Swift had arranged himself across the sofa with his head in Seel’s lap.

“He didn’t even say goodbye!” Seel burst out.

“Yes, and we might not see him again for days!” Swift smiled up at Seel. “I suppose I can’t blame him, though.”

Seel’s expression became bit more serious, the amusement wearing off. “No, no, that must have been terrible. Abstinent — for that long! Can you imagine that”

Swift rolled his eyes. “Well, just think, Seel, remember Imbrilim? I was really getting uncomfortable towards the end; they were keeping me so chaste. And that wasn’t nearly as long.”

“Ah, yes,” Seel recalled, fingers running through Swift’s hair. “Both of us were waiting for one another, although we didn’t know it for the longest time.”

Swift sighed. For a minute or so, he laid back remembering. It had been a long day of too much talking.

Finally Seel brought an end to the quiet and a start to yet more discussion. “So, Swift, now that we’re alone, tell me more about this inception coming up. Are you nervous?”

Swift started to say “No,” but then he stopped. Seel always knew when he was lying. They had been bonded in blood and shared the same soul. There was little inside Swift that Seel did not know.

“A little,” Swift confessed. “As I said, I’ve never been called upon before. And despite everything we talked about earlier, there are just some things that make me feel funny about it.”

“Funny?” Seel queried. “What do you mean? Someone is needed, you were suggested, you were accepted, you will do it. It’s perfectly natural. What’s funny about that?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t understand.” Swift swung his feet back onto the floor and sat up.

Sensing an attempt at creating distance, Seel reached out and took his partner’s arm. “I wouldn’t? What is it? If there’s something that’s bothering you, something you have a question about, of course you can tell me. I know you haven’t done this before, but I have enough experience for both of us. We both know I’m old enough to be your father, maybe your grandfather.”

“That’s just the trouble, Seel. You’re so much older…”

“This is a problem?” Seel asked.

Swift glared at him. Holding out was going to be impossible. “All right. Fine. But this is for your ears only: Just a couple of years ago, I was just a very young har. I was just Swift. And now, since then, I’m still Swift, but now I’m a great ruler, qualified to make decisions and fight battles and even father a pearl!”

“You went from childhood straight into adulthood, and not just adulthood, but a heavily responsible adulthood,” Seel observed sympathetically.

“Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. And with this inception, I’m moving onto another layer of responsibility and what’s more, I’m wielding that responsibility — directly, not just as a ruler — over someone older than I am. Ranat is 14, Seel.”

“Human years, Swift, human years.” Seel smoothed his hand over Swift’s arm. “He’s still a child.”

“Oh? And when will he become an adult?” Swift demanded. “A week from now, when he’s har like us?”

“Oh, Swift. You’re being difficult.” Seel sighed. “That’s not how it works. How it works is this: Ranat will be incepted. Shortly afterward, he will begin his caste training. In the training, he will learn the ways of Wraeththu. His mind and body will be schooled into adulthood and he will become mature — mentally and physically. It will not take long — in a year, most of the work will be done. Just as your early education with Swithe and Moswell made it easy for you to make the transition, so I suspect Ranat’s having grown up with a full-grown har will have prepared him well for the disciplines of caste training. And think, too — Tarra will certainly be an inspirational role model!”

“True enough,” Swift admitted, “but what I worry about is… are hara like you and Ashmael — older — are you more ‘adult’ than I am? Do you look down on me?”

“Swift!” Seel exclaimed. “The notions that get into your head. Look down on you? Swift, we treasure you. You and your generation — you are our first pure-born generation, our precious line of pearls. You may not have our long years, our battle scars, but you have other visions, other things to share, other kinds of knowledge to impart. And because of that, for all your youth, you are just as adult as I am.”

Swift blushed. “Thanks. That’s what I needed to hear.”

They talked for a few more minutes and then, noticing the hour on the large clock on the fireplace mantle, decided it was high time for bed. Rounding the corner to the wing of bedrooms, Swift took hold of Seel’s arm, slowing him down. “Third door to the left is Tarra’s room,” he said quietly.

He needn’t have made the announcement, as the long-anticipated aruna made itself known, loud and clear, to the ears. “Perhaps we should have given Tarra our bedroom — it’s in the corner with thick walls,” Seel whispered.

“Oh, really? And who’s to say we won’t be needing the extra sound protection tonight?” Swift giggled and ran down the length of the hall, all his tension gone. He flung open the master bedroom door. “Come on!”

Chapter 8

Swift woke up at least an hour earlier than usual, struck by a feeling that there were matters he’d like to attend to early, before Seel woke up or anyone came to him and presented the day’s official agenda. He slipped out of bed and made his way into the attached bathroom. Enjoying the warm water, it occurred to him that his new guests would surely appreciate being shown similar facilities. He would make a point of seeing to that later on in the day.

Silently he dressed himself in fine green silk and made up his hair in a manner that was refined but informal enough to avoid being overly dressy. He was supposed to make an inspection of local markets that day and would need to be amongst the people. While his service to Megalithica had already brought him more into contact with day-to-day life than during his more secluded youth, Swift was still careful about presenting the right image. Cobweb had taught him much, and the importance of image was certainly one of them. He did not wish to be thought of as either aloof or disdainful of his people, to good to walk amongst them.

He’s made his preparations quickly, mostly so that Seel wouldn’t wake up, and with a feeling of satisfaction — still ahead of the game, he thought — he cracked open the bedroom door and escaped into the hallway. Two doors over, he saw Tarra’s bedroom door, still closed. Cautiously, he sent out a tendril of thought. Tiahaar Tarra, are you awake?

After a few moments, there was a fumbling noise and the door was pulled inward by a very different Tarra, hugging a robe around himself. His expression had greatly softened since the night prior and his eyes sparkled with renewed radiance. Clearly his essence had been restored to health.

“I’m awake,” Tarra whispered. “But Ilga isn’t.” He smiled conspiratorially. “I’m afraid I wore him out.”

Swift smiled and nodded. “Good, Tarra, good.” He raised his hand. “Now don’t feel you have to get up right away. Stay in there half the day if you like. I’ll make sure you get a bath, clothes, lunch, whatever you need.”

“Thank you, Swift, but Ranat–”

“Will be taken care of,” Swift assured. “I thought of it in the bath this morning. I’m supposed to go out and do an inspection of local markets. I thought perhaps I could take Ranat with me. He could see the town and I could also find him some clothes. We’ll be back by lunchtime.”

Tarra thought over the proposal. “I’m a bit reticent about this — I’ve never let anyone else protect him before — but I think that sounds like a fine idea. I really would appreciate some more time,” he glanced behind him, apparently towards the bed, “to myself.”

“That’s what I thought. Just don’t worry, as I said, we’ll be back by lunchtime.”

Swift waited for Tarra to disappear back into the bedroom before approaching the next door over. To his surprise, just as he was about to knock, the door opened. Ranat was dressed, his hair brushed back, and looked very pleased at his timing.

“Well, Ranat, it looks like you’re ready to go,” Swift said, stepping back.

Ranat smiled. “Yeah, well, I was about ready when I heard you and my father talking.” He looked down somewhat sheepishly. “And I know it was probably rude, but I listened in on as much as I could. When I heard you saying you wanted to take me into town, I brushed my hair and made ready.”

“Very good, Ranat.” Swift was impressed with the boy’s self-possession as well as his hearing. “Come and have breakfast with me.”

“Thanks, I will. But just a moment,” he said, darting back inside the room. He came out with a backpack. “For shopping,” he explained.

Together they headed down the hall and into the small breakfast room. Sunlight streamed in through the large windows and the table was warm and shining as they settled into their seats. Swift gestured to the assistant cook. Would he bring something for himself and the boy? The assistant nodded and disappeared.

“So, Ranat, did you sleep well?” Swift asked.

“Well, actually it took me a while to fall asleep,” Ranat confessed.

“Had a lot to think about,” Swift surmised. “A lot has happened.”

The assistant appeared with a bowl of fresh cut fruit, a plate of rolls and butter, and two glasses of spring water. Swift thanked him and looked back to the boy, whose expression had shifted slightly.

“Yes, a lot,” he said.

Now Swift saw it. Ranat was nervous. No doubt he was thinking about the inception and the choice he had voiced to his father, but apparently it wasn’t something he wished to discuss. Swift understood that perfectly.

“A lot of things happened that my father and I have been waiting for. And so, yes, it was difficult to sleep.”

Swift had a sneaking suspicion that something other than simple worry had kept Ranat from rest. Surely the boy was old enough, well acquainted enough with Wraeththu ways, and certainly equipped with good enough hearing, to have been aware of what had transpired in the room next door.

Swift decided to place trust in Ranat, to begin to treat him as an adult. “I can imagine, especially with all that noise on top of everything.”

“I know!” Ranat burst out.

“So you heard,” Swift teased.

“Yes, I did,” the boy confessed. “I couldn’t help it. I was hoping, praying he would be alright.”

“You were worried? About your father?” Swift queried. “You knew what he would be doing, or at least you knew something of it. It frightened you?”

Ranat shook his head. “No, it didn’t frighten me, but I was worried. You see, my father hadn’t been well. He wouldn’t talk to me about it, but I knew he was worried. He explained to me a few times that he was afraid his powers were waning, that he wouldn’t be able to protect me, and I know it was because he was missing– that.” Ranat had ended his explanation abruptly. As unhar, he clearly felt no inclination for further discussion of the matter, especially not with Swift. His face gave everything away.

Swift didn’t want the boy to be uncomfortable and so he smoothly moved to another topic. Finishing up their breakfast, they headed into the administrative area, where Swift found Ashmael directing groups of hara towards their morning assignments.

“Ah, up so early!” he exclaimed. Then, eyeing Ranat, he added, “And you as well!” He looked back to Swift. “What are you two planning? I thought you had a market inspection coming up?”

“We do,” Swift agreed. “Ranat is coming along with me. I thought we could both go into town — with any escorts or guides you’d prefer, of course — and while doing my work, I could help him pick out some clothes for himself and just show him, you know, life.”

Ashmael was looking at Swift strangely. “Sometimes you really surprise me, Swift. But I suppose it will work out.” He shrugged and turned, only to snap back a moment later. “But what about Tarra?”

“Tarra’s occupied,” Swift replied with a wink.

“Yes, he’s really tired.” Ranat copied Swift with a wink of his own.

Ashmael grinned. “Mmmmmm, I see. Alright, get going then. We’ll talk later. Right now I have these hara to manage.” Ashmael’s eyes were smiling as he carried on making assignments.

Swift turned to the boy. “Come on, Ranat, let’s go.”

Chapter 9

When Swift and Ranat returned to the house at midday, it was to find Seel and Tarra in the salon, deep in discussion. As soon as Tarra looked up and saw who had entered the room, he was on his feet, embracing his son.

“I’ve missed you, little one,” Tarra said softly. Swift wondered if Ranat found the appellation annoying or endearing, but he personally found it quite charming.

Knowing lunch would soon be on its way, they all moved into the dining room. Ranat couldn’t stop smiling and was obviously bursting to tell his father about his morning in town.

A servant came in and asked what they’d like to drink. When it was Ranat’s turn, Tarra ordered a glass of water for him. Swift guessed this was the start of the Forale purification, but Ranat merely shrugged, not caring one way or the other what he drank.

“Dad, you wouldn’t believe what I did today!” the boy burst out as soon as the servant left. “Swift took me into town and we went all over. We got to see all the different merchants and markets. There was food, rugs, jewelry, furniture, books — just everything!”

Tarra looked amused. “Our spare lifestyle,” he explained to the other hara, “makes town seem more exciting that it really is, I’m sure.”

“Oh, no, it was really incredible,” Ranat disagreed. “I didn’t even tell you — Swift bought me clothes.” He grabbed his backpack and brought it onto his lap just as a servant presented him with a bowl of soup. “Thanks.” He opened the bag. “Look at this shirt!” he exclaimed. It was fine linen with full sleeves.

For the inception, Swift told Tarra, mind to mind. Tarra nodded thoughtfully, approving.

“It’s beautiful,” Tarra said. “You can wear it tomorrow. You thanked our host, of course?”

“Yes, Dad, of course I did!” Ranat put the shirt back in his bag and began to eat his soup.

Seel, who hadn’t spoken, asked Ranat how he had been treated. Had anyone given him odd looks, stared at him?

Ranat looked at him blank-faced. “I really don’t know. I mean, I don’t have much to judge on. I haven’t had a lot of experience anywhere and so to me, I always think people are looking at me funny. Maybe if I’d been alone it would have been scary, but I was with Swift and two escorts. I just kind of walked to the side and they all left me alone.”

“If only it could always have been so easy,” Tarra remarked wistfully.

The rest of the meal was accompanied by light conversation. Swift reported the results of his inspections and the plans that had been made for the future. Seel explained to Tarra some of the work they had been doing in the town as well as other towns in the region. Tarra mentioned that he might someday like to rejoin the Sulh, who, Seel had told him, still existed out in the desert lands. He’d lost touch with his tribe years ago.

It was once all the plates had been cleared away that Tarra looked across the table and said, “Ranat, you just had a very good meal. But as I think you know, it’s the last meal you will be having for a few days. Today you begin the Forale, the fast.”

Ranat stared at his father, unblinking. “I know,” he said. There was a pause then during which neither of them spoke. “Are we going to talk about it now?” Ranat’s voice was remarkably calm.

“Yes, Ranat. Let me explain.” Carefully, with gentle, honest words, Tarra outlined what was to occur. That afternoon Ranat would begin the Forale; no food or drink was to pass his lips. He would be left in his bedroom and there he would rest and consider his future, the decision he was making.

After a full day, when the next evening fell, he would be bathed and prepared for inception. They were planning a ceremony, at which Ashmael would preside and during which Tarra would grant Ranat the blood that would change his nature forever.

Once the cut had been made, Ranat would endure the Althaia. Ranat, who had heard some of the details before, went pale even at the most basic description of the process. Tarra left many of the details vague and attempted to emphasize the positive, that out of pain would come delight, would come a new har. Finally Tarra confirmed one lingering detail.

“At the end of all this, you will be bathed again and prepared for a final ritual,” Tarra explained. “You know the nature of this ritual and you also know that before, when we discussed this, you had a wish. That wish will be granted, Ranat. It will be Swift.”

Ranat flushed red but appeared quite pleased. “Thank you,” he said. He stole a quick glance over to Swift, then looked away.

Tarra held back with further details, promising that he or someone else would come to him during the Forale and give him further instructions.

“Speaking of the Forale,” Swift announced, rising out of his chair. “I want you to come with me now so I can begin arrangements.” Ranat got up, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. “Seel, Tarra, just stay here. I’ll be back soon with, Ashmael, if I can get him.”

Swift led Ranat down the hall to the master bedroom, then into the bathroom. He had not forgotten about the bath. He turned on the hot water and found a warm robe that would fit the boy. He told Ranat he could stay for a long time if he wished. Afterward he was to return to his bedroom. He would not be alone for long, but he should be prepared to wait.

Ranat listened attentively, not interrupting. Suddenly all the words and promises his father had made to him were becoming very real. Swift sensed that for all the calm Ranat had shown earlier in the dining room, the fear was beginning to rise. Knowing what he did of the Althaia, Swift suspected the fear was justified.

“It’s going to be all right,” Swift assured as he stood at the door to leave. “Enjoy your bath, Ranat.”

Chapter 10

Ashmael was leaning back in his chair reading a book when Swift came by to find him in his office. In contrast to that morning, the area seemed to have been abandoned.

“Very efficient, Ashmael. Everyone off working?” Swift asked. While Ashmael did not work full time in Megalithica — he was a strong player in life in Immanion and Almagabra — in the time he did spend, he had been of tremendous assistance.

Ashmael set down the book and took his feet off the desk. “Yes, Swift, they’re all out. Meanwhile I was just getting in some reading — never know when I’m going to find myself at loose ends. Speaking of which… you’ve come to me about the inception?”

Swift nodded. Ashmael was sharp as a tack and he wasn’t surprised to see he had been expected. “I wanted to know if you could arrange some things for this matter,” Swift began confidently. “First, I understand that we will need to find some trained attendants to care for Ranat during the Althaia. Second, we must have a room properly prepared downstairs — whatever that amounts to. Third, I’d like to know what is planned for the inception ceremony itself.”

“Such an air of authority, Swift!” Ashmael exclaimed mockingly, then laughed. “I like to see that. You have done an admirable job, I will admit, but occasionally I think you’re a little soft. Three-point statements like you just gave, however — much better.” Ashmael straightened up. “But don’t let me patronize you. Let me address your points. First, I can arrange for the attendants. That is a simple matter. As to the issue of the room, that is something I believe you should be responsible for, at least in some measure.”

“But, Ashmael, I hardly know where to begin,” Swift protested. “You know I’ve never seen this happen — I have no idea what is needed, in practical terms.”

“Ah, but you should have an idea,” Ashmael countered. “That’s what I’m saying. Not that you’ll need to learn it all on your own, but I want you to be part of the planning. Later this afternoon you’ll come downstairs with me and we’ll discuss what needs to be done. I believe it should be fairly simple to transform one of the workrooms, but I want you to be there as part of the discussion.”

“Thank you, Ashmael. I agree — I need to know as much about this as I can.” Swift tried to avoid admitting too much weakness, but in his experience, Ashmael’s advice was almost always sound and certainly, even if was delivered with somewhat of a paternal flair, it was made with the best intentions. “And the third point — the ceremony?”

“That, Swift, is something we need to discuss with Tarra,” Ashmael replied.

“Good,” said Swift, “because that’s what I was really coming to ask you about. Tarra and Seel are in the dining room waiting to speak with us.”

“Ah, Ashmael!” Seel called out from the table. “Tarra and I have been having a discussion and we need your input.”

Ashmael took a seat next to Seel, while Swift took the spot next to Tarra. “Oh, and what is it? Inception-related, I gather?”

“Yes, and it’s something Tarra and I can’t seem to resolve,” Seel explained. “Perhaps, Tarra, you ought to present it?”

“Thanks and of course thank you, Ashmael, for agreeing to officiate.” He reached out and took a sip of the coffee remaining in his mug after lunch. “I’ve heard that you have a great deal of experience in conducting the Harhune. It’s because of this that I hope you will be able to resolve a question that has been spinning around in my mind for a long time now.”

“Which is?” Ashmael asked.

“Really it’s a strange thing, but the problem is… I don’t know what tribe we will be incepting Ranat into. I am Sulh or — I was. I haven’t been with the Sulh for years. Should it be a Sulh ceremony? I’m not sure where we’ll be living — here or in the desert. Maybe a Gelaming ceremony? I don’t even know what’s involved in that. And a Varrish ceremony?” He looked to Swift. “No offense intended, tiahaar Swift, but I don’t think I could see Ranat incepted as a Varr, however much they have changed. After his mother — no.” Tarra appeared truly perplexed. “So you see the conundrum?”

Ashmael had his chin between thumb and forefinger. “It is interesting, tiahaar. I can see your point — you haven’t been living with a tribe, your tribe isn’t here, the tribes who are here aren’t your own… You really have your pick, I’d say. Which would you prefer?”

“That’s what I’m asking you,” Tarra replied. “Except for what I said about Varrish inception, I don’t have a preference. Actually I want to know if I have to have one. Can there be an inception without having to join a particular tribe?”

“Of course there can be, Tarra. But do you think it will be possible for Ranat to exist outside a tribe?” The question wasn’t confrontational, but seemed to spring from curiosity.

Tarra scoffed as this question. Of course Ranat would be part of a tribe, but right now that decision hadn’t been made. Couldn’t they wait until later on, and in the meantime, have a rather more open inception — something that blended together different traditions? This inception already presented one striking non-traditional element — a father incepting his own human son — so wouldn’t it be fitting to have a ceremony that was something special?

“I see you point,” Ashmael conceded. “I can come up with… an ecumenical ceremony, something tribeless, more universal. Will that suit?”

Tarra nodded. “Admirably. Again, thank you, tiahaar.”

“You’re welcome. And now, Tarra, since you just touched on it yourself, let me bring up a matter that occurred to me today. I didn’t think of it yesterday but as I thought through the inception process, it became more and more obvious.”

Tarra wasn’t the only one whose ears immediately perked up. What didn’t they already know?

Ashmael ended his pregnant pause. “Tarra, you, as we all know, will be donating your blood to your own son. This, as we’ve already discussed, in not an issue in and of itself. What is an issue, or what may be, and what is something you may not have considered, is that once the cut has been made, you will need to be kept away from here.”

“What are you talking about?” Tarra snapped. “I’m not going anywhere. My place is by my son, seeing him through this.”

Ashmael refused to be rattled. “No, Tarra, that’s not your place.”

“But it is!” Tarra cried. “You and Seel both know what Althaia is like. I can’t just leave him alone!”

“He’ll be well attended, Tarra. I’ve already arranged for–”

“Servants! Not good enough! I’ve cared for Ranat for most of his life. And now at this moment, you tell me I’m not qualified, that I have to go? Why are you saying this?”

“Yes,” Swift said carefully, avoiding siding with either party, “why are you saying this, Ashmael?”

“Two reasons. First, Tarra — and don’t interrupt,” he began raising his hand for emphasis. “First, you think it’s your place to be with your son but in fact it’s the last place you should be. You think Ranat needs you? Maybe, but he won’t know it. No, Tarra, he won’t know anything. He’ll be mad, a lunatic. That you’re his father — that won’t mean anything to him except that it’s your fault, and your fault alone, that he’s writhing in agony, tearing at his own skin, wallowing in his own filth.”

Ashmael paused and reached for the cup of coffee that had been poured for him as he spoke. “I know it’s distasteful, Tarra, but it’s the truth. I’ve seen this through many times and I’ve seen what can happen. You could walk in there and far from comforting your son, you’ll find him attacking you. He won’t hurt you — he’ll be too weak — but it will upset him. Do you understand?”‘

Tarra was silent.

“No answer? Well, let me give you a second reason. It’s a simple one really. It is this: You should avoid seeing your son in pain. It sounds heartless, I know, but I say this from experience. I have incepted many with my own blood, and when I’ve seen the result, the Althaia, I have felt sorry, guilty. Yes, there is a greater purpose, but you can feel regret, you really can. And if I felt it for people who are strangers to me, then how would you feel? To know that you had caused that suffering to your own flesh and blood? I think it would be ill-advised.”

Tarra was staring, eyes wet. “I’m sorry, Ashmael–” he began, then had to stop to clear his throat. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think.” He took a deep breath and lapsed into silence for a minute, the others waiting patiently. “But just as you saw the point of the ecumenical service, I see the point of this. You mean well and, truly, I wasn’t thinking — not with my head. Excuse me.”

“It’s all right, ” Seel soothed. “You’re in a difficult position.”

Reluctantly Tarra conceded. He would stay away from his son. Ashmael suggested that he might plan on staying in a neighboring house, as the Althaia could be loud enough to be heard upstairs. Seel disagreed; the third floor would be adequately distant.

Once again, Swift began to feel nervous. The only inception he’d ever been close to had been Peter’s and he had been a harling and totally uninvolved. The only thing he remembered, besides the ceremony, were Peter’s screams. It had taken far longer than the usual three days.

“So, are we through then?” Swift asked, standing up. He was through. “Ashmael, we’ll take care of the room downstairs?”

Ashmael rose as well. “Yes, Swift. I believe we’re all settled for the moment.”

Seel glanced over to Tarra, who was still looking somewhat dazed and shaken, reconciling himself to the decision that had been made. “Tarra, would you like to come into town with me?”

Tarra looked up abruptly. “Town? Sure. I still haven’t seen what life is like nowadays, and I may as well see it. The next few days certainly won’t be a time for enjoying a similar trip.”

Chapter 11

“The caste-training you’ve received has done much for you,” Ashmael told Swift as they descended the staircase to the basement, “but a little practical knowledge and experience would assist you greatly as well.” They arrived the bottom of the stairs and Ashmael flicked on the light switch.

“I agree,” Swift said, following closely behind as Ashmael led the way down the hall. The basement was large, mostly filled with stored goods like administrative supplies and food, but also with leftover furniture, some of it remnants from the building’s former inhabitants, humans, who of course had occupied the house before the Varrs. Furniture and goods, much like that found in the upper floors of Forever, Swift thought.

“I was just telling Seel,” he continued, “that I’ve been thinking that myself.” He decided to share the gist of the earlier conversation, which he’d told Seel to keep private. “I’m so much younger and I feel that I need to make up for it. Not just for this inception, but in general. This is a start, however.”

“It is indeed, Swift.” Ashmael had stopped before a heavy wooden door. “Here we are.” He withdrew a key from his pocket and turned it in the lock.

The door swung inward. Ashmael found another light switch and flicked it on as he stepped over the threshold. The room was small and, except for a small table and sink, empty. The air was slightly musty but not unbearably so.

“A workroom,” Ashmael noted. “I remembered it from our initial inventory. It should be just what we need.” He stepped over to the sink and turned a handle. When the water had been running for half a minute, he checked the temperature. “Good. Hot water. We can use this to supply the tub.”

“We need a tub then,” Swift inferred. “For bathing?”

Ashmael shut off the water and turned, pacing to the other corner. “Not really for bathing, Swift. More like cleaning, scouring.” He paused, running his forefinger along the wall and inspected it. “Dusty. This must all be sterilized.” He looked back to Swift. “Althaia is very messy, Swift. Everything that is not needed — old skin, old tissue, old fluids, is expelled. The sickness is powerful, nearly deadly. Blood, bile, vomit — they will spray everywhere. It cannot be helped.”

Swift was repulsed but tried to hide it. He did not wish Ashmael to know how relieved he was that he had never had to endure such a hellish experience. Feybraiah had been hard enough — the night sweats, the itching skin, the maddening cravings — but this Althaia was something altogether worse. Ranat’s entire organism would be changed from one species to another. That such a thing was even possible was quite incredible, even though to Wraeththu it was a fact of life. This is how Wraeththu had begun. Thiede had done this thing to a human by accident and thus began the new race. Still, it was incredible and on top of that, incredibly frightening.

“Thank you for telling me this,” Swift said, turning to examine the room further, although he didn’t really have any purpose for doing so. Ashmael seemed to have all well in hand.

“You’re welcome, Swift. Now I’ll tell you what else we need.” He gestured to the center of the room. There would need to be a bed, something low so that Ranat could avoid hurting himself when he fell. And he would fall. He would try to escape, would crawl to the walls, pound on the door, would flail about like a wild, wounded, mad animal. The bed should be low. If possible, there should be straps or cords for tying him down; it was sometimes necessary.

Aside from the bed there needed to be sheets, blankets pillows — a dozen sets, for they would be covered in filth and need to be cycled out regularly. For the attendants there would be chairs. The table would stay; the attendants would use it to lay Ranat out for cleaning or while they removed him from his bed to change the dressings. For the bathtub there would be implements — scrapers, pitchers, sponges, other small items. The attendants would also require medical supplies, a regimen of herbs, ointments, and bandages.

“Aren’t there any drugs he can take, something for the pain?” Swift asked.

Ashmael said no. “They interfere with the process, unfortunately. Nothing internal can be taken. Ointments, yes, but nothing can be injected. There is a shot during the Harhune, to dull the pain of that cut and the initial shock, something to make the incepted sleep, but that is all. For the rest, there is no relief.”

Swift studied Ashmael. There was a question he wanted to ask but it refused to be spoken aloud. It didn’t matter, however, as Ashmael seemed to intuit it on his own.

“He won’t die, Swift,” he said, stepping close and placing his hand on Swift’s shoulder. “It will be done well. Ranat is strong and he will fight to live. He will.”

Swift clenched his jaw and swallowed. He hoped Ashmael was right. What if he wasn’t? Impulsively, he grabbed the hand on his shoulder. “You promise me, Ashmael?”

“I promise I am telling you the truth and that we will do everything in our power to bring this inception to a successful conclusion,” Ashmael vowed.

Swift appreciated the frankness and loosened his grip. “Thank you.” He went to the table and took a seat on the edge. There was something else he wanted to ask, something tickling at the edge of his mind. “Ashmael, could you tell me about how it was for you?”

The question had obviously come as a surprise. Ashmael looked away for a moment before replying. “Terrible, Swift.” He went to the wall by the sink and leaned against it. “Nothing like this. This is civilized, controlled. There is ceremony, a process. The boy will be cared for. It was not always this way, Swift.” He drew in a long breath and exhaled. “Long ago, when I was incepted, it was a crude thing. For me there was almost no ceremony and then I was abandoned to endure the change almost completely on my own. At that time it was said that we had to cull the weak and that anyone who needed care during the change was not meant to be Wraeththu. I was lucky to have survived.”

Swift was rather awed to have received such an answer. “Thank you, Ashmael. For telling me and for everything else.” Glancing about, he thought to himself that despite the occasional feeling that he was too young, having such a strong group of senior advisors was a blessing. “Do you think you know everything we need?”

Ashmael nodded and went to the door. Swift followed, switching off the light. In a little more than 24 hours, the Harhune would begin.

Chapter 12

Upon returning to the main floor, Ashmael invited Swift to come to his bedroom. What he had to say, he noted, was a matter he wished to remain private. Swift wondered what could be more private than what had just been shared, but he didn’t question Ashmael’s motives. He needed all the help he could get.

Ashmael’s room happened to be just across the hall from Ranat’s. Swift glanced at the door, wondering if he should go in and check on the boy. Even if he’d enjoyed a long bath, he should have been in his room by that time. In all likelihood, he’d been sitting there waiting alone for some time. He was probably worried.

“You must let him be, Swift,” Ashmael softly advised, apparently having guessed his concern. “He should face the Forale on his own.”

They entered Ashmael’s bedroom. On the far side was a large window with a window seat. For a short moment, Swift was reminded of his room on the night of his Feybraiah, he and Cal sitting together naked, talking. Strange how the old house brought up memories of Forever.

Ashmael took a place on the cushion and gestured for Swift to join him. “So, Swift, tonight you and I can have it all arranged — the room, the attendants, the ceremony.”

“In other words, my three-point plan will be implemented,” Swift noted.

“Just so,” Ashmael replied, looking out the window into the back yard. “I will perform the Harhune in the open air. As you know, there is no temple here.”

“We didn’t have one in Galhea either,” Swift said. “We had an inception at Forever once, out in the yard.”

“Did you?” Ashmael asked. Swift realized that his companion had no way of knowing about that particular event, although it was true the Gelaming were aware of many events in Swift’s past.

“Yes, when I was a harling, not long after Tyson was born,” Swift noted. “Peter…” The words died on his lips. He didn’t want to think about Peter, because to do so would force him to think about Gahrazel. Now was not the time. He shifted his answer somewhat. “A human was changed through Cal’s blood.”

“Cal’s?” Ashmael sounded surprised. “He was busy in those years, it seems — he took you at your Feybraiah, didn’t he?”

As usual, a prickly feeling began to creep inside of Swift; they were speaking of Cal. For all Swift knew, save for the night he had appeared at Forever to see Terzian, Cal had vanished from the face of the earth. Swift had repeatedly asked about his whereabouts but no one — not Thiede, Ashmael, Seel, nor Pell — could (or would) offer an answer.

“Yes, it was Cal,” Swift replied unashamedly.

“Hmmmm, well we needn’t dwell on that,” shrugged Ashmael. “Although what I wanted to talk to you about is related.”

All at once Swift realized why Ashmael had desired privacy. “My role in the Althaia,” Swift guessed.

“Exactly. I simply want you to understand how it will be.” He shifted to sit sideways against the window frame. “This isn’t a lecture about aruna, Swift. You are a har and require no instruction in that. What you do need to know, however, is that the act you will engage in is more than aruna.”

Swift listened attentively. He could hardly believe Ashmael was going to spell this out for him.

“It is very important to remember that you will be dealing with a new creature,” Ashmael continued. “Ranat will not have had long to discover this, but his body will have changed, become something that is alien to him. He will never have been touched, he will never have felt the feelings of a har body.

“He will be filled with longing, a deep craving. He may be confused or despairing. When you come to him, he may be shy but you must always bear in mind that he desires you. His body needs you to become complete. His heart will cry out to you. He may not be able to speak, but his heart will cry out.

“Be gentle with him, Swift. It sounds obvious but of course this was not always the way. Some of us were rushed. I have met hara for whom the experience was like pelki. Be gentle. Every part of him you will touch is new and yearning. He will be in pain, Swift, as you take him, but it is a necessary pain.”

Swift nodded, understanding exactly what Ashmael meant. His own first time was still so vivid in his mind. “Make him rise above the pain and give him the gift of pleasure,” he said.

“Yes, Swift, but remember, as I said, that the gift will be received with new flesh. When he becomes soume, he will realize in a new and deeper way how much he has changed. He may be frightened; do not let the fear last. Be assuring. And be gentle.”

“Of course,” Swift replied. “I understand completely. And then later?”

“Later I suggest you let Ranat take the lead. He may be gentle with you or he may not be. Everyone has their own style.”

Swift nodded and smiled but said nothing. He would not tell Ashmael about Cal, how he had gone wild with Swift that first time, gouging and chewing on his shoulders and neck as he writhed beneath him.

Ashmael slipped up off the window seat. “That’s all I really wanted to tell you, Swift. I know you haven’t had the sort of guidance you might need and obviously without Cobweb to help you and–”

“My father dead,” Swift finished for him. “Yes, I know.” He rose and walked to the door, wanting to go back to the master bedroom and rest, think awhile, before dinner. “Thank you, Ashmael. I sincerely appreciate your guidance.”

Chapter 13

The next 24 hours seemed to drag on forever.

The evening meal was the first time they’d all met together without discussing inception, although Ranat’s absence was certainly palpable. Seel appeared to have become good friends with Tarra, Swift noted, and they spent most of the meal exchanging observations with Ashmael about various tribes and towns in the area. Tarra had spoken at length about the Sulh. Swift had suggested that perhaps one day he might meet Cobweb, although Tarra confessed that he might not be up to that for some time. Presently he would be far too intimidated. He guessed that it would be a challenge to adjust into life within society.

After dinner Swift assisted Ashmael in making the arrangements for the coming days. Swift also agreed to a schedule for the following day; he still had duties to attend to and, with nothing to be done until the evening, there was no reason to put life on hold. The Harhune would take place just after dusk, preceded by a light dinner, Ashmael explained.

From that point on, Ranat would be placed in the hands of the Althaia attendants. Ashmael and Seel would check in regularly to observe. Swift, like Tarra, was told to stay away; until the final ritual, it would be best for Swift to remain a mystery to Ranat.

On the way back to the master bedroom, Swift caught Tarra slipping out of Ranat’s bedroom. Before going into his own room, Tarra nodded in Swift’s direction. Swift took this as acknowledgement that Tarra had just had a talk with Ranat about aruna. He was and was glad to know that matters had been explained. When he reached his bed, Seel was waiting for him.

When the hour at last arrived, Swift stood waiting at the makeshift altar in the yard, the house hara, various administrators and townsfolk gathered along with him. Two hara stood to the side, one banging a drum, the other blowing on a low-pitched flute. The sun fell behind the hills and dusk settled upon the land.

In the bluish light, the procession arrived. First came Ashmael, who had chosen robes of deepest crimson, fully in the role of priest. It seemed to Swift that he had aligned to the elements, pulling magic energy in his wake as he ascended the hillside and took his place beside the sacred flame. The drumbeat pounded as he began the first series of incantations, asking the assembled crowd to join with him in welcoming a new spirit, guiding it onto the path of Wraeththu via a transformation of the flesh. Did everyone assent to the Harhune? Yes, they did, they did, was the reply.

It was time. Tarra appeared, clothed all in white, Seel at his side, and he rose up the hill, his footsteps confident, his expression one of deep concentration. He had been meditating for hours, Swift knew. Tarra took a place beside the table, the orange yellow glow of the flames flickering against his fine features as he tuned into the music, awaiting the final arrival.

Seel stood beside Swift as a horse was led from the house up to the hill. On the horse sat Ranat, also clothed in white, the fine linen shirt, but not confident like his father. His face was pale and he was weak from the Forale, that much was obvious. He was assisted in his dismount.

There was fear in his eyes. Swift looked to Seel and then to the boy. He was a friendly face, a promise that would bring him through the coming days. He gave Ranat a smile and, not knowing whether or not it would have any effect, a wave of confidence: You will survive. To his great satisfaction, the boy’s expression seemed heartened.

Seel stepped forward and walked Ranat to the table. There he was made to lie down. It was time for the Harhune.

The drum beat louder and louder and voices rose — Ashmael’s, Seel’s, Tarra’s, and finally Swift’s. The words and melodies seemed to spring from nowhere as the sparks crackled and Ashmael spoke of the Harhune, the history of the race, and Tarra’s commitment to his son. In taking the blood, Ranat was taking a vow, a very serious vow, one that would tie him to a new people forever. Did he consent? Ranat said yes.

Finally came the moment Swift had dreaded. Two servants were summoned forward; they took away Ranat’s clothing. Ashmael, still chanting, took Ranat’s arm in his hand and rubbed up and down its length. Finally he drew an instrument from a tray on the table, a glass syringe with a long needle, and he shot it into the purple vein of Ranat’s arm. The boy tensed, but after a few seconds his body grew slack. The drug had taken effect.

Tarra stepped close to the table and from the tray drew a sharp knife. He delivered a prayer to his son on the behalf of the Aghama and on behalf of Ranat’s mother. He prayed for a relief from pain, that the Althaia would not be too much, last too long, be too great a torment. At last he drew the knife across his own flesh and then, grimacing, he cut into Ranat’s arm.

Tears ran from his eyes as Ashmael pressed their flesh together.

The drum beat louder and louder, faster and faster, the melody of the flute leaping into the air, as the moments turned to minutes, the blood passing from father to son. Swift felt the power of that moment, the potency of that blood, which would change Ranat’s life. He had never passed through such a fire, but he could appreciate it.

It seemed an eternity before Ashmael released the arms. Tarra staggered backwards, pale, quickly grabbing a bandage to wrap around his arm. Ashmael meanwhile inspected Ranat’s wound and bound it with a bandage while evoking further prayers. Four hara, including the two Althaia attendants, stepped up and, signaled by Ashmael, carried Ranat back down the hill. He was now destined for the small windowless room in the basement. There was no turning back.

How did it go? Swift asked Seel silently, watching the figures disappear in the house.

Only time will tell, Seel replied.

Chapter 14

Tarra stared at the ceiling, his left arm clutching his right shoulder, his right arm lying limply on the bedspread, the bloodstain on the bandage turned brown. It had been roughly six hours since the Harhune and in that time, he had been lying in bed, seemingly in a state of shock. In the beginning Seel had been there as well, but since that time, Swift had been the only one in the room, sitting beside the bed.

Swift prayed that the screams would not reach the upper floors. Tarra didn’t seem in a state to handle that, the sound of his own guilt. He had meant well, but clearly he was having second thoughts. Why else the ghastly pallor, the constant weeping, the eyes that would not hold Swift’s glance, but only dart away?

After years of caring for his son, protecting him from harm, he had initiated a process guaranteed to cause him pain. Swift had a son of his own and he knew that to see him go through something like althaia would break him. Hurting someone you care for — it always seems to violate a rule, no matter the circumstance.

Over the course of the hours Swift wondered if perhaps it would have been better had someone else donated the blood, but he knew that Tarra would not have wanted it any other way. He was the boy’s human father, and wanted to be the boy’s Wraeththu father as well.

Finally there was a knock at the door. Seel. “It’s begun,” he announced softly.

Tarra looked over and sat up weakly against the pillows. “How is he?”

“As one would expect,” Seel replied, moving toward Swift. “Swift, come downstairs with me, it’s time to sleep. Tarra, I’ll send up a servant to look after you if you wish.”

Tarra shook his head vaguely. “No, I’m fine.”

Seel leaned over the bed and examined the bandaged arm. “What about your arm? Shouldn’t we change the bandage?”

“I said I’m fine,” Tarra growled, his left hand bunching into a fist, then dropping down on his lap. “I’m sorry, Seel. I– no, I’m fine, please you can just leave me.”

“We’ll be back tomorrow, Tarra,” Swift assured, following Seel out the door.

As soon as they reached the landing of the ground floor, Swift heard the screams. He hesitated for a moment, then headed for the master bedroom.

In bed Seel kneaded his back and said soothing words — it would be over in a few days, there was no need for worry — but Swift was not persuaded, remaining painfully awake. Finally Seel fell asleep and Swift was alone, listening to the pattern of pain. The screams were hardly constant. There were long periods of quiet, each one in the end shattered by wretched wails, howls and shrieks.

Swift managed to sleep in fits, finally rising with the gray morning light. It was a period of quiet as he crept to the closet and changed into fresh clothes, fixed his hair. His hand was on the doorknob when he heard Seel stir. “Swift…”

He turned around and headed back towards the bed. “Good morning, Seel. I have to go. Have to get out of the house.”

Seel nodded. “I understand, Swift. Don’t stay away too long. Come back and have lunch with Tarra upstairs.”

Swift forced himself into the morning routine. He went to Ashmael, met with various leaders, met with townsfolk, hashed out plans. A couple of hours after noon, when he should have already eaten, Swift arrived back in the house. There were no screams this time but still he went directly upstairs, to join Tarra in the safety of the topmost floor.

Tarra had improved slightly. Now he was sitting in a chair, staring out the window. A half-eaten meal sat on a table to the side.

Swift said nothing as he entered the room and sat on the end of the bed.

“Someday I will have a son,” Tarra said quietly.

“You have a son, Tarra,” Swift said, uncertain that any response was expected.

“Another son, Swift. I meant someday I will have a pureborn son — like you.” His eyes were wet with tears. “A son that will never have to go through this. I treasure him so much and I want this so much but–” his voice broke, his body shuddering with sobs.

Swift came up behind him. To countenance such suffering was unbearable. There had to be a way to stop it.

“Tarra, please. You can’t keep this up. Come, lie down.” He offered his hand. “Just lie.”

Reluctantly Tarra flopped onto the bed. “Now what?” he asked, sounding hopeless.

“Now…” Swift stalled. He really wanted to say something but no words would come. “Everything will be all right” was certainly too trite a sentiment. “It’s all for the best, ” “Don’t blame yourself,” “It’ll be over soon” — what could he really say?

Perhaps this was the key. Maybe words weren’t the right way to start. Swift sat down next to Tarra’s shoulder, bent down, and pressed his lips to the distraught har’s mouth.

The sharing of breath can be powerful, Swift knew, a way to share, a way to give. As he moved against Tarra’s lips, he tried to give him hope, sweetness, love. At first Tarra was reluctant, shying from the contact, but soon he gave in, realizing what Swift was offering.

With his good arm, he ran his fingers through Swift’s hair, and soon Swift was on top of him. He was sorely tempted to give Tarra the full version of the true wordless gift, but before he could move in that direction, Tarra had pulled out of the sharing.

“No, Swift, that’s all right,” he soothed. “That was enough.” He sighed. Swift knew that Tarra’s body still longed for the aruna he had been denied for so many years. Still, he gently pushed Swift away.

“I’m sorry, Tarra,” Swift apologized. “I wish I could do something.”

At last there was a smile. “You have, Swift. And you will. Save yourself for my son downstairs.”

Afterward he met Seel coming from the direction of the basement stairs. His expression was grim. “The Althaia is never any easier, Swift.”

Swift walked over to the entrance to the stairway. He suddenly needed to see.

“No, Swift, we already agreed.” Seel’s tone was one of warning. Swift didn’t have to obey him, but it was clear that Seel would not appreciate any defiance.

Suddenly the door opened. Ashmael. “It’s all right, Swift.” He looked to Seel. “He can come down.”

Seel threw up his hands as Swift followed Ashmael down the steps.

“I thought about what we agreed, Swift, and I decided I was wrong. You need to see it. Besides, at the moment he’s hardly in a state to recognize you.” Ashmael gestured for Swift to walk ahead of him as they passed down the stairs. Seel followed close behind.

Chapter 15

The basement seemed a different place, transformed. Mostly it was the smell. It was the smell of sickness, reminding Swift faintly of Fulminir. As they approached the door, one of the attendants was bringing out a load of filthy, stained sheets. Stepping ahead, Ashmael nodded to the attendant and ducked inside. Knowing he would not like what he saw, Swift stepped in behind him.

The second attendant stood indistinctly in the foreground, busily remaking the bed. In the corner, on the table, lay a thing.

Ranat.

Ashmael reached back and grasped Swift’s hand tightly. “Come slowly. His eyes are closed.”

“For the moment, he has lapsed unconscious, sleeping,” the attendant noted softly.

“Still, come slowly, Swift,” Ashmael repeated.

Swift looked upon the creature. Twenty-four hours past, he had been a human boy. Now he was a collection of leaking, oozing, bloated tissues. His limbs and face were swollen, bulged out of all proportion. Blisters and sores covered his skin like a creeping fungus. Deep scratch marks scored his thighs and chest, his arms.

“He attacked himself,” said Seel quietly, standing off to the right. “There was an itching, a pain — he tried to scratch it. But as much as he dug into his flesh, he could not make it stop.”

Ashmael leaned close to Swift’s ear. “See the mess between his legs?” Swift nodded his head a fraction. He saw. He did not want to see but he did. “At the front is the old human phallus, breaking down. Farther back is where his waste is being expelled. His internal organs are changing and as they do, all their waste, all excess tissues, are being forced out — through the new cavity that is forming, the soume-lam. Now it only bleeds, the exit way for bile and filth, but in a few days, it will be something else altogether.”

Swift wanted to turn away, wanted to deny what he was seeing, but he could not. He had to know. He should know. To look away would be to deny the truth. Ashmael had gone through this. Seel too. Cobweb. Terzian. Cal. The Tigron. The only ones who had avoided this agony were the pureborns — and of course Thiede, who had been born a mutant. Most of the others, though, the ones that survived, had gone through this fire and somehow emerged whole.

The attendant came to the head of the table. “He must be washed before we return him to bed. Can someone help me?” The other attendant had disappeared, no doubt carrying away the wash.

Swift knew it had to be him. Ashmael wanted him to learn — “practical experience” — and so he would. He stepped forward.

The attendant took hold of the legs, while Swift carried the shoulders. He felt the skin sloughing off into his hands, like soft wax. Ranat’s body was settled into the tub. The attendant turned away to reach for a rinsing pot and a sponge.

That very instant Ranat let out a piercing scream. “Don’t touch me!”

He bucked and with a kick of his legs, catapulted out of the tub, shooting backwards and flinging himself at Swift.

No one had time to stop him before he began to claw, growling, latching on to Swift. “I’ll kill you all!” he screamed.

Ashmael was fighting to pull him off but Ranat fought back like an animal, pushing Swift up against the wall.

Madness it was, his screaming. “You think I can’t take care of myself, but I can, I can!”

Ashmael pulled on his arms and shoulders while Swift desperately tried to free himself. It was a tug of war, ended only when Seel stepped in and smacked Ranat across the face.

In an instant, Swift was dropped against the wall, Ranat now charging at another enemy.

“You’re trying to kill me!” he roared, slapping at Seel wildly, missing the mark as he suddenly veered toward the door. The attendant was just locking it. He would try to escape, Ashmael had explained.

Ranat ignored the attendant and took the door knob in his hand. “Open! Let out!!!!!!” He pounded on the door, bits of his blistering flesh sticking to the wood. “Let me out!!!!!!”

His legs began to falter. The attendant gestured to Swift. It was time to finish the cleaning. Quickly they rushed him back into the tub. As the attendant flushed Ranat with water, the devil of pain spoke with Ranat’s tongue. “You Varrs, you Wraeththu, you hara, my father said… Kill me. You want to kill me… God, let me out. Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.”

Finally the words had died down. From mania Ranat had fallen back to sleep. Or so it was for a moment. As soon as they began to pick up the body to move him, Ranat convulsed, a great arc of vomit shooting all down the front of Swift’s shirt.

That was it; he had to drop the body. He staggered back. Let someone else take care of it, someone else inured to this horror. Ashmael stepped in. After the vomit had been removed, washed away from the body, Ranat was lifted onto the bed. Straps were pulled out from the sides and fastened across.

Swift had begun to weep. He tore at the buttons on his shirt, fumbling, wanting to take it off but unable, it seemed, to make his fingers work. A second set of hands, Seel’s, appeared, and soon they were doing the work, pulling over the shirt and wadding it up, leading Swift out the door and into the hall, leaving the shirt in the hallway to be picked up later with the next load of sheets.

Swift stole one last look at Ranat before the door closed. His body was splayed across the bed, swollen and blistered, almost unrecognizable. Flesh transformed, one species to another. It was a miracle; it was a curse.

They walked out of the basement in silence. In the hallway on the main floor, Swift walked to the window, late afternoon light streaming inside. Ashmael came up beside him. “I’m sorry, Swift. I didn’t think–”

“No,” Swift interrupted. “It’s– it’s alright. Thank you. I needed to see that.”

Ashmael turned and left.

“Come,” Seel offered softly, “let’s take a bath.”

“A cleansing,” Swift replied. “How appropriate.” He followed Seel to the bedroom, shirtless and certain that he would not be revisiting the basement for a few more days, until it was time. He had borne witness, but once was enough.

Chapter 16

The Althaia showed no mercy. By the end of the third day, so Ashmael reported, there was no hope Ranat’s transformation was complete. His ceaseless fluid loss was forcing the attendants to take drastic measures, snaking tubes down his throat to give him water, all the while having to keep him strapped securely to the bed, lest he attack. No, three days would not be enough.

Having been cured of some of his melancholy by Swift, Tarra had borne the first three days reasonably well. On the second night, with Swift’s encouragement, he had invited Ilga to revisit. The soldier had shuddered upon entering the house, hearing a distant scream, but when he emerged downstairs the next morning, he was smiling.

After that one visit to the basement, Swift decided to place some distance between himself and the house. He felt that getting away would help to get him into the proper frame of mind for the duty to which he had committed himself. Useless to dwell on the suffering he had witnessed, to sit worrying or agonizing. Seel and Ashmael gave their updates; that was enough.

The third day came and went. Then the fourth day passed, Swift spending it away from the house, visiting a neighboring town, coming back late. It would not be that night either, he was told. Tarra was inconsolable, as he had been from the third night onward.

Finally on the morning of the fifth day, Swift went to Ashmael. What was his daily schedule going to be? No work for the ruler of Megalithica that day, save for one duty, Ashmale told him. Go to Seel and he will know what to do.

Seel prepared a bath and bid Swift to get in and soak. Fragrant oils swirled in the water as Swift leaned back, knowing that on this day, he was not a ruler, he was a lover, a body, and the bringer of gifts, of wonder.

It was perhaps an hour later that Seel, smiling, entered the bathroom, a small ceramic plate in his hand. Swift could not see what was on it until Seel kneeled down and balanced the plate on the edge of the tub. A crimson orchid and two putiri buds.

“In Saltrock, we swore off stimulants for this occasion, but knowing what I do of putiri…” Seel dipped the orchid into the water and drew it up over Swift’s smiling face, so that a trickle ran from his forehead, down his noise, and into his mouth. “I thought you might appreciate it.”

“I do.” Swift’s hand went to a bud. “Could you get me a glass of water?”

He held the bud between thumb and forefinger, remembering how Arahal had used it to prime him for his first night with Seel. Seel returned with the water and Swift popped the bud in his mouth, grinding it in his teeth and downing it with as much water as possible. The taste was bitter and foul, but he knew it would free him up, open channels and energies.

The rest of the day glided on smoothly — a leisurely walk in the yard, sitting beneath a tree with Seel, a lunch of thin-cut meat and cheese. Afterward Swift went upstairs to Tarra, who was sitting on the bed with Ilga talking quietly. Swift hadn’t even known Ilga had come by.

“Oh, forgive me,” Ilga apologized as he rose, giving deference to the ruler of Megalithica. “You wish to speak to Tarra; I will go.”

Swift gestured for him sit back down. “No, tiahaar Ilga, I’ll be but a moment.” He addressed himself to Tarra. “Tonight is the night. I am honored that you trusted me with this responsibility.”

“I am honored you accepted, tiahaar. Thank you.” A light embrace and Swift returned downstairs. It was good to see that Tarra was not alone.

Hours later, Swift stood in his bedroom, wearing a satiny, belted robe Seel had bought for him in town on the trip with Tarra. His hair had been brushed back, fixed up with carved wooden combs. He wore no makeup, no jewelry. “Your eyes sparkle enough,” Seel had told him. After offering the second putiri bud, Seel had given him another bath, massaged oils into his skin, anointed him, delivered words of blessing. He was calm, clean, and ready.

“It is time,” Seel said softly, opening the door.

Swift’s feet fell onto the destined path, down the hallways until he reached the basement door, descending the staircase.

The hallway had been lit with candles, each set in a holder of red glass. At the door to the chamber, the two attendants stood on guard.

“He has been prepared,” they announced in unison, immediately peeling away, disappearing up the stairs.

Swift took the key from his pocket and guided it into the lock. Turning the knob, he pressed the door inward, and slipped inside.

Chapter 17

Like the hallway, the room was lit with candles, dozens of them lined up all along the edge of the floor, plus two sconces on the wall, flickering slightly with the opening of the door. The air was warm and comfortable, scented with perfurme, all trace of sickness flushed out. Swift heard the click of the lock behind him.

Ranat stared up from the bed, his hair set with crimson orchids, his body covered in a sheer white sheet. Swift recognized the face — it was no longer the swollen face of Althaia — yet at the same time, the face was new. Changed. Gone was the beard, gone along with the boy. Ranat’s beauty had been transformed, smoothed, coached into a new and finer form; except for the blond hair, he looked just like his father. His new skin was virgin, newborn.

Swift came to the foot of the bed. “Hello, Ranat. May I?” he gestured to the space by Ranat’s feet.

“Yes, of course,” Ranat replied nervously, shifting his legs over in a jerking motion to make room.

Swift sat down. “I’m glad you’re all right.” It seemed the best way to start — gradually, casually, no great ritual.

“Yes, I’m fine now, although still a bit tired,” Ranat agreed. His eyes were staring at Swift, taking him in until, as Swift expected, they darted away in embarrassment. “I’m glad you–” Ranat began.

Swift waited for him to continue, but the sentence hung. Ranat’s hands were clasped tightly around the edge of the sheet.

“You’re glad…?” Swift prompted. He kept looking, waiting for the grey blue eyes to turn and make their admission.

Finally they did. “I’m glad you came.” Ranat smiled and laughed nervously. “I’m sorry I have to put you through all this trouble, that you had to take care of me and now you have to–”

By the end of the sentence, Swift’s hand was on Ranat’s sweet red mouth. “No, Ranat, don’t be sorry. I’m not sorry. I’m glad to be here. I want to be here. I am here for you.”

Now was the moment. With his right hand, Swift pulled the tie on his robe; pulling his arms out of the sleeves, he let the garment drop. With his left hand, he moved aside the sheet. Ranat’s eyes followed every motion, his face giving away not so much nervousness as intense concentration, a desperately heightened curiosity, heightened senses working to catch every detail.

Ranat was completely naked, his new flesh catching the yellow warmth of the sconces above, the sheen of new fine fur inviting Swift for a touch. Swift leaned over, sliding his chest against Ranat’s, running his hands up his arms, onto the shoulders. Ranat’s body shivered and then, as Swift’s mouth came forward and met the other soul, for a full second Ranat froze, and then, yes, then, melted. Swift began the sharing of breath, thinking that at first Ranat would only receive, but almost immediately, Ranat deepened the kiss. Swift could feel the newborn need, expressed through the pulling lips, the closed eyes, and finally the hands that rose and wrapped around Swift’s back, clinging tightly, yearning. It was all just as Ashmael had said.

Swift was the one to move his face away, only a few inches, enough to speak, eye to eye. “The sharing of breath, Ranat.”

“Share with me again, Swift.” Ranat was smiling but for all of that, he was still nervous. He was so new at this; he knew nothing except that he wanted. “Please?”

“Oh, Ranat, of course,” Swift promised, leaning forward once more. In the lead, Swift suddenly realized that he felt like an adult. He was an elder, teaching a new member of the tribe. He was not too young, he was only young.

This time it was Ranat who pulled out, grinning.

“What is it, Ranat?” Swift asked.

“Oh, just something I remembered,” Ranat said. “Today’s my birthday.”

“Prepare for a present then, Ranat!” Swift teased, not pouncing, but shifting his legs onto the bed so that he lay pressed against the new har’s side. With his hands he began to explore the firmness of Ranat’s chest, his flat stomach, and finally the instrument Ranat did not yet know how to play.

As the moments passed, Ranat trembled. “Swift?” His body had been signalled, Swift knew at once. Within the newborn har, the burning had begun, the fire lit at the center of his being.

“Yes, Ranat?” Swift whispered, dragging his left leg up across Ranat’s thighs, moving his lips against Ranat’s ear, stroking with his hand insistently until the body bucked.

Ranat squealed. “Oooh, Swift, Swift, I–”

“I know.” Swift shifted onto his knees, slipping one leg to the other side, straddling the slim hips, his eyes meeting those crystalline grey blues. Beneath him he felt the shifting and following Ranat’s gaze, he looked down to see that Ranat’s new Wraeththu instrument had disappeared, made the way clear.

“You feel that burning inside of you?” Swift asked in a whisper, gently lowering himself down.

Ranat whimpered and bit his lip, his back arched, straining his body upwards.

“You need me, Ranat,” Swift continued, “and it is causing you pain, will cause you pain, but the pain will be short lived, I promise.” It was then that he brought their bodies together.

Ranat tensed in surprise, then pain. He cried out, but all at once the muscles clenched, flexed, discovering the extent of the sensation, deciding that no, he wanted the pain. He wanted it because beyond the pain was the pleasure. Oh, exquisite pleasure.

“Focus on that flame inside,” Swift murmured, the barest touch of words as their bodies continued to move together. “Let it consume you, let it overwhelm you, and become one with it.”

The fire inside threw sparks, hungry, consuming. Such sweet moans, gasps, and then he was crying out. Swift. Please. More. Yes. YES!

The fireball pulsed, grew larger, denser, hotter, and suddenly exploded, heat rushing outward, pushing the bodies so that they were shuddering, and then, a final release, a white hot liquid lava that exploded and bubbled. It was the seal of Ranat’s pact. He was now, and ever would be, Wraeththu.

Chapter 18

A few hours later, Swift was gently drying Ranat off with a towel. The Althaia attendants had thoughtfully exchanged the scrapers and scrubbers for soft sponges and sweet oils. The bathtub itself wasn’t very large but the two of them hardly minded being crowded, so it had been perfect for them. They had lain together close, half-dozing, half exploring one another still. Eventually the water had grown cold but their bodies were certainly heated.

Ranat took the towel and rubbed it into his hair as he made his way to the bed and sat down on the edge, Swift settling in behind him, brush in hand, ready to work out the tangles.

“So,” Ranat began, dropping the towel, “are you going upstairs now?”

“What makes you think I’d want to do that, Ranat?” Swift asked, surprised. He made the first swipe through the long, blond hair.

“Well, we’re through here and you have Seel and certainly other things waiting.” Ranat shrugged.

“Through here? Do you really think so?” He kept on brushing. Ranat was so modest, so unselfish — overly so. He needed to understand that he was just as worthy as everyone else. “I thought I would stay down here with you, stay the night. It’s nice and warm. We should sleep together.”

Ranat strained around to look at him. “Won’t Seel miss you?”

“Ranat, turn you head back,” Swift said, continuing to brush. “Seel understands. We are Wraeththu and we do not allow selfishness to motivate us. It is important that we share with one another.” He took a section of hair, now tangle-free, and draped it over Ranat’s shoulder, out of the way. “Seel and I have been together for over a year now and were destined for one another long before that. We have a child. We are together almost every night. We are bonded in blood. What I do with you, what I have done, will not change that — certainly not in a negative way.”

Ranat twisted around a second time, this time quickly enough that the brush was left hanging in his hair, yanked out of Swift’s grasp.

“Oh, Swift!” he cried and then in pure gratitude, grabbed the ruler of Megalithica for a big hug. “You’re so good to me! I knew as soon as I saw you, right there in that cabin, that everything would be all right. I’d never had much reason to trust anyone before, but right away I knew I could trust you.”

Ranat pressed his lips to Swift’s. He was clearly adjusting to the new metrics of his body. This har would make a fine partner to someone someday, Swift thought as he enjoyed the sharing yet again.

Later, as they lay curled around one another in bed, Ranat had a few more questions. “You and Seel are bonded together in blood. What does that mean?”

Stroking Ranat’s back, Swift replied, “It means that he and I are as close as two hara can get. We will be together always.”

Ranat thought about this and then wondered, “Do you think my father will ever have someone like that? He’s been alone for so long.”

“Oh, I’m sure your father will find someone,” Swift assured, thinking of Ilga. “Blood bonding would be up to him, if he found someone he was truly committed to, whose soul fit together with his. You’ll understand what I mean in time.”

“I hope so. I love my father, Swift.” Ranat’s voice was passionate, full of pride. Swift felt a sting, thinking of his own father, but he hoped that in fathering his own son and taking good care of someone else’s, he could overcome that pain.

“I know,” said Swift, maneuvering their bodies so that they faced one another, flesh pressed against flesh. Their conversation continued without words

At morning breakfast in the dining room, they arrived clean and fresh. Tarra’s fork dropped to the table with a clatter.

“Oh, Ranat!” he cried, jumping out his chair. Seel raised an eyebrow at this display of emotion but Swift simply stepped aside, taking a seat and picking up a glass of juice.

Tarra was embracing Ranat tightly, petting his hair. “Oh, my little– my son!” he declared. “I’m so glad, so glad…” Tarra was obviously a very emotional creature and to Swift it seemed healthy after all his years of repression, responsibility, and fear. Finally the two came to the table and sat down.

“How are you this morning, Swift?” Tarra asked, reaching out for a roll.

“Oh, excellent. And yourself?”

“Perfect, now that Ranat has made it through.” He bit into his roll and winked in his son’s direction.

Swift noted that Ashmael was absent and decided to ask about it, just out of curiosity.

“At the moment, he’s having a talk with Ilga,” Seel offered.

Swift looked at Tarra, who was finishing off his roll. “Really? What’s he talking to him about?”

Tarra cleared his throat. “Actually, it’s Ilga talking to Ashmael. He’s going to be taking me — and Ranat, too — to find the Sulh,” he explained. “Can you believe it? He knows the way there and says it shouldn’t be difficult although… he wants to lead me there all the same. I want to join them for Ranat’s caste-training, I’ve decided.”

Seel thought it was an excellent idea and Swift tended to agree. Ilga was apparently petitioning Ashmael to not only allow him to travel to the Sulh, but to remain there, collecting information for the Gelaming.

They wouldn’t be leaving right away, Tarra explained, as it would be nice to remain in town for some time before embarking on the trip. Ilga had offered to pay for a room at an inn.

Swift scoffed. “No inn, Tarra. Stay here. You’re welcome. Seel and I will be leaving in a week, returning to our home in Galhea, but you stay as long as you need.” He looked over to Ranat. “I miss our son and my hostling.”

It had been a long week and to Swift, a very important one. He had healed a family and met his obligations, as a ruler and as a har.

The End

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