The Seducements of Chaos and Order

The Seducements of Chaos and Order
by Tessa

Story Notes

Editor\'s PickDisclaimer: All characters, the universe and concepts belong exclusively to Storm Constantine. I receive no profit and no gain from this amateur story. No harm is intended in any way.

Rating: NC17 – For adult themes and m/m content. Profanity. Violence. Rape. Please be warned. If you are under age in your area, or this subject matter offends you, please press the ‘delete’ key now.

Credits: Warmest thanks to Storm Constantine for creating these wonderful novels and characters.

Author: Tessa (tessa_5000@yahoo.com)

Please Enjoy.

The Seducements of Chaos and Order.

Chapter One.

The Present

Straightening his silken collar, Calanthe cast an apprehensive glance over at his son. Jaden.

Jaden was just over seven now, and he was about to go through his formal Feybraiha Celebration, which would mark him as a Har. Would mark him as an adult. And for some reason it was making Cal nervous. He released a breath, moving to stand in front of the long wall mirror. Its reflection only mirrored the concealed ache – confusion and pain in his soul. The knowledge that …

So much had happened in the last seven years, most of it good, but some he wished he could erase the memories completely. Forever.

It had now been almost eight and a half years since his whirlwind arrival in Immanion: since his confrontation with Thiede, and his transformation to Tigron with his heart’s desire, Pellaz.

Almost a life time ago.

So much had happened, and he could look back on the early memories now with pleasure, remembering how awkward and unreasonable both he and Pellaz had been during his first year in Phaonica. Initially they had accepted each other, not really knowing if their dreams of love were still valid, which ultimately had led to arguments. Yet as Tigron there had been no doubt of their unity, of their strength and power. Neither could deny the rightness of what Thiede had attempted, just his methods. And as a whole the Wraeththu nation had, and was still, benefiting.

Yet personally, he and Pellaz had lost their way. Thinking about it now brought a half smile to Calanthe’s lips, and he looked at himself in the mirror again.

Vividly, he recalled how things had gone wrong, how they had fought and argued privately, neither wanting to concede. It had amazed him as to how contorted Pellaz’ view of his life had been. How twisted the other’s memories had become. How well Thiede had manipulated them both so that when they finally did reunite, the dream had faded and bitterness had blossomed. He had moved out of the Tigron’s official rooms and into his own suite within the first month. The Hegemony had breathed a collective sigh of relief with his move, just as sick as he was of their private bickering. He just could not reconcile the image he had of his Pellaz with the creature who inhabited the body he desired. Pellaz’ cold, business-like attitude and finely perfected art of manipulation had initially horrified him until he forced himself to look under the facade. He found shock… Pure and simple shock at being faced with the past, and being given the unobtainable had devastated Pellaz’ exquisitely honed sensibilities.

It had taken them both a while to come to terms with everything that had happened, initially forcing them to remain apart. Ashmael had delighted in the change and seized upon him to tour in order to reinforce the new rulership changes. Ashmael and Arahal. Those two Hara seemed to be always working toward some hidden agenda which neither he nor Pellaz were privy to, and it had not taken him long back then to learn how to sidestep the strategist and exert his own control.

And of course, inevitably to add to the confusion already crowding his life, Tyson had arrived in Immanion to search out his Hostling. Even now Cal found himself cringing in memory as he looked around for a cigarette. Lighting it, he sucked in a deep breath, obscuring his image in the long mirror as he exhaled.

Tyson. His son to Tersian. A Harling he had consented to have for purely selfish reasons. Because Tersian wanted it so badly… Because Cobweb feared it so badly… Because he no longer cared.

Caeru, predictably, had had hysterics, feeling threatened by this new arrival. He had not felt too comfortable himself about Tyson’s presence, yet…. Yet it was Pellaz who had taken a perverse delight in the chaos created by the pure-born’s visitation. And that was only because Caeru had bitched to him about the Parasiel Har, making him curious. From there things had degenerated as Pellaz deliberately charmed his son. But what had started out harmlessly as another personal dig at him by Pellaz had turned out affecting them both more than either cared to acknowledge.

Just another spark in their privately created hell.

Of course Seel and Swift had turned up not long after that for the Annual Tribal Council, resurrecting more ghosts from his past. A lifetime of memories – curses – lay between them, but confronting Seel had ultimately cleared his mind about his feelings and he had found he could face Cobweb with utter honesty. He adored the mystic. Loved him even, yet going back and visiting Forever had closed that avenue of escape for him totally. He realized he could never go back, could never recapture the past, could never hide away from his destiny again.

That understanding had gone a long way to healing the rift between himself and Pellaz, and they had started to talk rather than bicker. That had left only Tyson to deal with. The son whom he had abandoned.

Stubbing out his cigarette, Cal frowned at his reflection, not really seeing himself as he allowed those memories to surface, reliving his meetings with his son. Nothing he said had touched Tyson, and the old memory still caused a stab of pain. Picking up another cigarette he studied the end intently, not really focusing, as he was caught up in the images of the past, seeing them as if they had only happened yesterday.

After Tyson’s first few encounters with Pellaz, his son had deliberately gone after the dark haired Tigron, and Pellaz being Pellaz had at first been intrigued and then polite. Knowing that the two had shared aruna still raised Calanthe’s blood pressure thinking about it. Only because it had worried him, still terrified him knowing how much Tyson resembled himself at a much younger age. How Tyson did not have the blood of a friend on his hands… the pain. A topic neither he nor Pellaz openly discussed.

Why Pellaz had invited Tyson into his bed still confused him. Had it been just a whim to provoke him? Or had Pellaz truly cared for the true-born?

A question that had nearly paralyzed him then and which predictably changed their lives forever. He had approached Ariaric in Sykernesse to have Tyson removed from Phaonica’s Royal Court and into Sykernesse’s Royal Court. A political alliance which also benefited their trade agreements had been drawn up and pushed through by the Hegemony. Tharmifex could be damn perceptive when he tried.

Pellaz had not appeared concerned by Tyson’s move, and their own lives had intertwined again, lighting up all the dark places in his soul. Slowly they had learned to concentrate on the present and not the past, and were surprised to find their love was still there waiting to rekindle.

War in Thaine had been imminent, and with the Kakkahaar reporting vague rumors of Man, no one had been given much time to think. And Lianvis had only complicated matters, adding to the distrust by the neighboring Tribes. Ultimately the Tigrons had been tested by the other Leaders for their duel strengths, a situation Ashmael had delighted in. And then, of course, Panthera had not helped matters – or maybe he had. Musing over that, Cal found his hands were unsteady as he lit the cigarette he held.

Panthera’s arrival in Immanion a second time had certainly stirred things up, both privately and politically. For some reason Pellaz disliked the Ferike, a chink in his perfect Gelaming armor, and Calanthe smiled despite himself as he remembered the brief, irrational show of unusual jealousy in his chesna. A bittersweet memory as the turmoil in Thaine had soon drawn all their energies. Apart from forcing Pellaz to be brutally honest with him for what seemed like the first time in over thirty years, Thea’s presence had had another unexpected effect. A bizarre effect on Vaysh, his and Pell’s personal assistant. Against all initial imaginings, the two Hara appeared to connect on an obscure level, forming an unlikely relationship. Of everyone, Ashmael had been the least amused.

A ghost smile touched and lingered in Calanthe’s eyes as he recalled some of the volatile encounters they had endured during that first awkward year together. After some of the strife in Thaine had eased, they had both relaxed, open and receptive for what had felt like the first time. A precious image of Saltrock.

“Gods,” Cal muttered with feeling.

Accidentally… Calanthe pulled a face, silently being honest with himself if no one else, as he remembered. Maybe not so accidentally on his own part anyway, Pellaz had conceived just as Tyson’s scheduled official visit to Immanion had loomed. His son had come to present new trade petitions from the Sykernesse Royal Court on Ariaric’s behalf. Coincidence? Calanthe doubted coincidences, and Pellaz had ended up Hosting. The Hegemony had not been pleased, and neither had his lover for that matter, as Pell had stated bluntly that it was the Tigrina’s purpose, not his, to Host.

He let his grin widen, recalling Ashmael’s face and Pellaz’ irrational behavior. The Hegemony had even gone so far as to forbid them from having more Harlings together… Yet, he conceded, with so much in the lands around them needing to be done, the Council had had a valid point.

Laughing softly to himself, picturing the Hara involved, Cal stubbed out his half finished cigarette. It had been an entertaining delight as Pellaz had shocked them all with his slightly bizarre behavior. And although he had protested vigorously about Thiede’s plan for Caeru to do all the Hosting, Pell had been just as excited after Jaden’s hatching.

Events then appeared to rush by as they had tentatively introduced the Kamagrian to the Council. A lot of work faced them all, yet life had returned to Phaonica with the birthing of Jaden. Oddly, the first Harling ever to be birthed within Phaonica’s walls.

Shaking himself, Calanthe returned to the present with a jolt and purposely contemplated his son’s slender frame. Jae was tall, as tall as himself, with thick, shoulder-length, blue black hair, and Cal’s own thinking faltered again as the image hit him. Jae was just like his – like Pellaz. He was just as pale, with those large eyes that conned and beguiled the world. His whimsical nature and mystical abilities made him appear vulnerable, touchable, so like Pell had been…. Yet on second glance the strength in him was just as visible, the deceptive face expertly hiding the stubborn streak that marked him so clearly as Calanthe’s son.

Resurrecting a shaky smile again at that, Cal considered his reflection critically. His blond hair was a little longer than normal, brushing his shoulders, its exotic style halloing his features. His face was tanned, mouth sensual, eyes clear, yet old in wisdom. Seductive, he was told. He straightened his neck then turned away and went to get another packet of cigarettes, wondering if he was nervous and apprehensive only because he was losing a son? Maybe it was because Jae would no longer be a Harling? Or was it because he was frightened that Jae was as scarred as… as…

He swallowed the sudden sharp spike of fear that lanced into his mind, finishing the thought with effort. …as emotionally scarred as they all were from the war with the Sorrandites…

It chilled him as he remembered, and he wished he could forget. Wished he could turn time back and prevent the fatal events that had shaken the entire Wraeththu world. But he couldn’t, and he was left trembling as he dropped his unlit cigarette, never once having ever believed that he could lose everything. Could lose the one being that kept him sane…

Somewhere a door was opened and music flooded briefly into the room, momentarily capturing his thoughts, and Calanthe looked up. He was damp under his shirt, and he turned away, wondering if he would have time to change. His composure was gone, his mouth dry as he imagined the Hara assembled downstairs in the spacious Ball Room. Imagined the looks, the scrutiny, and his insides knotted further. Could they all see his faltering confidence? Could any of them truly know how he felt?

“Father?”

Startled back to the present by the anxious voice, Cal steeled himself before glancing over at his son. “Yes?”

“Everything will be alright, won’t it?”

“Everything will be fine,” Cal whispered, wishing he could believe those words. “You just wait here, as I’ll be back in a moment.”

Hastily Calanthe exited the room, not wanting to look at his son and see the worry as he entered the Tigrons’ large bedchamber, shutting the door with relief. Moving stiffly, he stripped off his wet shirt and threw it on the floor, undoing his trousers and heeling off his boots before blindly stumbling into the bathroom. Freedom.

There he breathed in the scent of all the wild blooms as shrubbery decorated the spacious room, patterns of light playing across the freshwater pool from the skylight. In near-desperate relief, he glanced up at the high skylight and noticed it was almost dark outside, which would means the festivities would commence soon, and he would have to be present. Jaden would be honored and it would be announced he was Har – Kaimana level – before he disappeared with the Har chosen to initiate him in aruna. A Har Jae had chosen himself. A Har who was his half brother.

Tyson.

Why did it have to be Tyson!?! Why did it always have to be Tyson? Now with Jaden, and in the past with his… fuck, fuck, fuck…

Leaning back against the cold stone wall, Calanthe couldn’t smother or deny the memories any longer as they engulfed his mind, remembering only too clearly how his young, impressionable son had first met the older Tyson. It had been the final nightmare, and he slowly slid down the wall, seeing the repeated images in his brain of his hasty flight to Sykernesse. Then he had been only desperate to find his sons after the war… The war.

War… Cal remembered the dust, the cold, the blood and needless deaths. Brutal carnage. Tasted it. As Tigron he and Pellaz had worked hard, had verbally battled many of the Leaders sitting in council now. Forced reform. Pellaz with his diplomatic persuasion, and he with physical persuasion. They had done what Thiede had always pictured, what Thiede had wanted, by bringing in all the tribes. Wraeththu as a nation grew, and he had finally found peace in his soul. An end to torment.

That was until the war. The fear… then only to have discovered at the end of it all that Jaden and Korryn were… were…

He vividly remembered his hasty flight to Sykernesse to find his sons. He had not wanted to go, had not wanted the distraction of leaving… Of tearing himself away from… They, the Gelaming, had only been back a week from the desolated Sorrandite City when he had been told about his Harlings. Pure relief at knowing they were alive. The desire to get them and hold them, against the desire to remain in Immanion. To fret…

But that had been the end of the saga. The trouble had smoldered long before that. Had started years earlier. The evil had always been in the land, capable of taking control, festering and waiting like a mutated vulture. Subconsciously, Cal believed he possibly had expected it, had even understood it more than the others, considering his background, but still that had not prepared him for the reality of what had happened. Maybe nothing could have prepared him. For he had been so dazzled, so happy, so complete.

And they had both still been learning.

Pellaz and himself. Together again after so many years of heartache. Of struggling to find each other. They had pledged their hearts and souls.

Thinking about the past now, Cal admitted that time had been filled with a wistfulness. A certain naivete, masking the warning signs. Making them both blind.

Turning his eyes away from the skylight, Cal rubbed at them with the heel of his hand, fighting the irrational bubble of fear, deliberately searching his mind for a happier image. He came up with …the ghost image of a disheveled Pellaz, with dark eyes mocking him ever so gently as the cascading black hair slipped from his bare shoulders… The memory calmed his fear but produced a different kind of pain all of its own. In a way the war that had started with the Sorrandites had commenced then, as events around the Tribes had conspired against them. Manipulated them both.

Almost six years ago… six years of building agony and…

Six years.

The memory now was bittersweet, and Calanthe half smiled as he remembered the problems, the season and how Korryn, their second son, had been conceived. His mouth twitched up into a reluctant yet unrepentant smile. The Hegemony’s wishes had been forgotten when he had unobtrusively witnessed Tyson and Pellaz playing around, and had overheard his son’s persuasive and seductive words. Some things were just instinct, and he had acted accordingly. Contrary and unpredictable – that was his fate.

Besides, he and Pellaz were now blood-bonded, and he could – would – accept Pellaz’ flirtations with other Hara, but only to a certain extent. It was an unconscious, yet predictable, reaction that he just could not overcome but had learnt to accept, particularly since he knew they were now considerably more then blood-bonded. Soul-bonded. But at the time he had flown with his desires, smothering his lover and willfully disregarding the Hegemony’s harsh restrictions. He remembered back….

Flashback

… he raised a hand to his head in mock worry and then smiled wickedly. Pellaz just glared at him, totally unamused.

“Ash is going to kill us!” The dark haired Tigron was peeved, and he rolled across the bed, throwing cushions around.

“Not to mention the rest of the Hegemony! By the Aghama, Cal!”

“Well, don’t blame me,” Cal struggled to hide his grin, losing the battle as he got another dark-eyed glare of accusation.

“If I remember correctly, you were involved as well…” He ducked as a pillow was hurled in his direction.

“Besides, you were saying just the other month that Jae needs a brother.”

“That’s not the point!” Pell thumped the bed.

“And I wasn’t thinking of us, I was thinking more along the lines of Caeru.”

“What? You and Caeru? Have you both reconciled that much?”

“No.” Pell said concisely.

“I figured you…” He trailed off, frowning now.

“Why me?” Cal asked, shocked.

“Oh, what’s the use trying to explain anything to you!”

“Pell,” Cal slid across the sheet and dragged his smaller partner back, glad when he felt no resistance.

“What is done is done,” he whispered down, lightly kissing Pell’s dark forehead.

“It’s just-” Pell sighed, all his anger washing away as he raised a hand and traced one of Calanthe’s dark eye brows.

“Just what?” Cal asked, burying the image of Tyson with his lover. Watching the dark eyes before thick lashes covered the expression, he could totally understand how his son was so captivated with this creature. He was caught himself – willingly trapped. Stifling a groan, he leant down and kissed Pellaz’ nose.

“Just what…?” he repeated gentler.

“It will cause trouble, I just know it.” Pell’s brow drew down as if remembering something bad.

“I sense an unrest in the Tribes. They are all pushing at the borders, petitioning for expansion. But you know that, and-”

“And what?” Rolling a little more on his side, Cal studied his lover’s clouded expression. He had heard all the rumors that whispered of war as well.

“I just think it will cause trouble.”

Cal released a breath, considering the idea.

“I can’t see how,” he said eventually, sighing.

“We have no pressing issues at present,” his mouth turned up at one end.

“…just the party next month-”

“Hell,” Pell breathed then groaned.

“I’d forgotten about that.”

“You’ll just have to cut back on the alcohol.” Pell’s expression darkened.

“That’s not fair-”

“Who said I was fair?” Bending down, he lightly kissed his lover again.

“But apart from the party, we should breeze through the next few months. The ball isn’t scheduled until winter now. And we can sort out all the Leaders then.”

“It still doesn’t seem fair,” Pell cast a suspicious glance at the Har stretched next to him.

“Besides, if I remember rightly, it was your turn.”

Cal swallowed his snort at that, turning on his side and running fingers up his lover’s thigh, anything to divert his thoughts.

“I’ll send Arahal out to check with all the Border Guards.”

“But, my dear Cal, what about the Hegemony?” Pell persisted, then his expression lightened and he grinned.

“I could blame it all on you-”

“No. We just won’t tell them.”

“What?”

“We just don’t say anything to anyone.” Pellaz raised a skeptical brow at that.

“Yeah, I know you get a little irrational-”

“I do not!” Cal hid his smile.

“But we just don’t tell them. Besides, it’s none of their business anyway.” Pell pulled a face.

“If they guess, we just say we forgot to mention it.” Cal shrugged, starting to laugh again at the very idea of causing Ashmael or Tharmifex further ulcers.

Chapter Two

Present

That had been the start of all their problems, though at the time they had both been ecstatically happy. Resting his head back against the too cool wall of the bathroom chamber, Calanthe raised his eyes and studied the patterns playing across the skylight and ferns. The start of all the problems, yet the beginning of some beautiful dreams. Jaden had only been eighteen months and a parody of peace had touched the lands. Nothing could have been better, especially not in his personal life, as Pellaz had unreservedly given him the key to his lover’s soul, and he was high on achievement. Nothing could have dampened his enthusiasm for the progress of the Wraeththu, nor could have prepared him for what was to happen.

Nothing.

They had all been blind, ignoring the warning signs. It had initially all began with the dreams and then nightmares which Jaden experienced. Because he was so young, everyone had just put them down to his need for attention. It was true, Jaden did like to go everywhere with Pellaz and at times it just was not possible, and Jaden did have quite a temper. Pellaz had fretted the first few times, even putting off a meeting with Opalexian, who in reality had been Thiede’s equal, but female and High Priestess of the Kamagrian. That had seemed to settle Jaden, and everyone had breathed a sigh of relief as Ashmael went in the Tigrons’ place to Roselane. Calanthe himself had never been completely happy about going to Roselane anyway, never felt comfortable with taking Pellaz to meet Opalexian, for he had strongly believed the female should come to them. But she saw things differently, and was insistent on eventually meeting Pellaz. In truth, his partner had been just as curious about meeting her, but then Pell had always had this fascination with the female race. His co-ruler also didn’t seem to grasp the concept of danger. So the meeting had been put off, and other things quickly occupied their time. One concern being the approaching party. Another being Pellaz’ hosting, which neither had yet informed the Hegemony about.

It brought a small grimace to Calanthe’s face as he remembered the things they had done, picturing Pellaz in his mind, and recalling how erratic his lover’s behavior had been. It was a cherished memory now, and Cal raised a hand to his temple, pushing his blond hair out of his eyes.

WHY??? He cried mentally.

Why did things have to change? Why did he have to lose… Without realizing it, he let the silent tears fall, his vision blurring until he could no longer see the skylight above. Of course the Hegemony had eventually discovered Pellaz was hosting, having found out that tidbit of information at the private party they had arranged. He wiped his cheeks roughly, reluctantly permitting a smile to form.

The party had been more an indulgence, a celebration in reality, an excuse for Hara to get together in style and decadence and drink themselves into oblivion. He had inadvertently started the tradition the previous year, inviting just close friends of both, and the party had been so successful that they had decided to repeat it. Unfortunately, with Pellaz hosting, he had spent his entire night stopping Seel and Tyson from spiking his partner’s drink. Again the memory surged to life….

Flashback

“Here!”

“What?” Pellaz blinked up owlishly at his lover, then grinned, just stifling a giggle.

A little less than steady himself, Calanthe attempted to give him a reproving glare as he tipped the drink he had liberated from his lover into a wilting pot plant.

“Orange juice,” he said precisely, wondering if it just wouldn’t be easier to pack Pellaz off to bed.

“I hate orange juice, you know that.”

“Pell,” Calanthe started in warning then sighed, blinking around as someone ran teasing fingers down his spine. Half-turning, he almost fell as the pillar he was leaning against seemed to move. He glared at it, wondering absently if he shouldn’t be heading for bed also.

“I’ll be good,” Pellaz leaned close to him, whispering the words in a breathy caress filled with promise before he giggled again, raising a hand to cover the sound.

Helplessly captivated, Cal just shook his head, reaching out to touch Pellaz before he was embraced from behind. Struggling to turn, he found Seel snuggled up against him.

“Seel-”

“At this party,” Seel’s words were not as clear as normal,

“you are supposed to mingle. Remember, Cal? You made the ruling yourself last year.”

“Seel… I-” he leaned back against the pillar dragging his leech with him. Around them the music was almost deafening.

“That includes you as well, so leave Pell alone.” Seel tutted suggestively.

“Well then, I can break the rules-”

“Not fair. Besides, your presence is requested over here.” Seel pulled back, grabbing his hands.

Calanthe glanced around and spotted Pellaz sliding onto a couch, another drink cradled against his chest as he blinked up at Tyson. His black hair was loose, spilling over the soft cream upholstery, and he hid a yawn. He was tired, and Cal was torn between going to him or… before he could decide, Seel’s wide blue eyes swam in front of his again.

“Chrysm has taken aruna with half your guests already, plus I believe Ash and Cobweb are actually fighting.” Seel’s grin grew mischievously, as he purposely dragged the tall blond Tigron over to the other side of the room. Numerous Hara were laughing, dancing, lying and standing around in the smoke hazed room. Muted lights covered in silks and colored fabric added to the atmosphere as alcohol flowed, and food littered the large tables. Like last year, the party was proving to be highly enjoyable and controversial. Scandalous.

“What?” Cal asked, only half listening, his brows drawing down as he saw Abrimel and Seel’s son Briahaar sliding to the floor in a heap behind three urns of peacock feathers. Some things were definitely getting out of hand.

“Seel,” he tried to point out the fact, but his old friend didn’t seem concerned. Wondering at his own moral sanity, he ambled along, catching sight of Ashmael sitting between Panthera and Phylax, as Zobinek lay in an unconscious sprawl on the lounge next to them. No wonder Tyson was… Fuck, fuck, fuck…

“Cal?” Snapping around, Calanthe blinked as gentle fingers caressed down his throat.

“Cobweb?”

“You’ve been ignoring me.”

Shit! Where the hell was Seel??? He looked down again as knowing fingers pulled his shirt free from his waistband, and Cal decided he either wasn’t drunk enough or too drunk.

“What… what about Ash-”

“He can do what he likes,” Just a hint of anger colored the beautiful eyes, before Cobweb teasingly ran a finger up Calanthe’s chest.

“Just as we can.”

Suddenly desperate for a cigarette, Cal reached back to the seat behind him and sank down into it, not surprised when the Megalithician folded down in his lap.

“Ummm, Cobweb-” he didn’t want complications. And especially not in his own home.

“What’s wrong?” Cobweb leaned in close and kissed the tanned face, smiling as Calanthe’s arms came up around him instinctively.

“Abandon your inhibitions, I know you can.” he purred.

“Gods, Cobweb, don’t… not tonight,” Cal muttered, sighing, for Cobweb tasted of sweet wine.

“Why?” Cobweb moved back a little, his eyes clear, proving he wasn’t as drunk as he pretended.

“Pell won’t mind tonight.”

“Pell can be very-”

“Irrational and suspicious? Jealous even?” Cobweb asked evilly, lifting a single eyebrow.

“Surely not? Not our perfect little Tigron!”

Cal shook his head a little before he dropped his head back on the padded rest behind. Sharp teeth bit his exposed throat.

“He’s Hosting again, isn’t he?” Cobweb whispered softly. Snapping his eyes open at that, Cal lifted his head and stared at the smoky haired siren.

“Oh, Cal, you are so easy to read at times.” Cobweb teased lovingly, kissing him gently.

“How….” Cal mouthed the word.

“Because, my sometimes lover, you are only ever this reserved if you are concerned about him.” Cobweb let his smile stretch, an evil glint entering his smoky gaze.

“Why don’t you just let Ty have him tonight so we can disappear-”

Cal struggled to sit upright, not finding the comment at all amusing. It didn’t help, especially as he got the distinct impression Cobweb was laughing at him.

“I don’t find it funny, Cobweb…. not at all!”

“So serious? Why? Surely you are not still worried about Tyson and his infatuation with Pellaz?”

“Cobweb, don’t-”

“And why haven’t you told the Hegemony he’s Hosting?”

“It’s none of their business.”

“Everything is their business, or at least they make it their business. You should know that by now.” Calanthe shrugged, non-committal, glancing away and seeing Chrysm entwined with one of the Maudrahites. Arahal was going to kill him…

“Regardless of your efforts, you must know Tyson will discover the news. And when he does, then the Hegemony will find out.” Cobweb peered up through his lashes as he traced a finger suggestively down the blonde’s tanned throat and chest.

“Pellaz won’t be able to keep it from him.” Lifting Cobweb away, Calanthe stood up and scowled at the unrepentant Megalithician, knowing the other Har taunted him on purpose with Tyson. He also knew there was a grain of truth behind the words, as his son seemed incapable of staying away from Pellaz, regardless of his displeasure and Ty’s bonding into the Sykernesse Royal House. He had hoped that had all ended… but Tyson seemed almost obsessed with Pellaz.

Ignoring Cobweb’s pout, Calanthe weaved through the mingling Hara, peering around, not seeing Pell where he had last left him. Instead Elisyin sat there with Lahela, both sporting outrageous hairstyles as they laughed over some poor Har’s antics. He pondered his choices, biting his bottom lip in indecision as someone grabbed his arm from behind.

“Cal-”

Stifling a groan, Calanthe turned at Tharmifex’s insistence, the older Hegemony member scowling at him disapprovingly.

“Thar… not now.”

“This can’t wait!”

“‘Course it can,” Cal lifted a suggestive brow, getting diverted easily as he caught sight of Abrimel and Briahaar disappearing behind some curtains only to appear again moments later with Chrysm and one of the Kalamahs from Galhea. Was he losing his mind, or just losing track of events and time? All four were in various stages of undress now, with Briahaar’s face lit up in amusement.

“Ummm, Thar, excuse me a moment-”

“Cal, this is serious!” Tharmifex insisted, refusing to release him.

“I’ve just been told Pellaz is Hosting. Is this true!?”

Bringing his gaze level with the other Har’s, Cal lost sight of Abrimel and the others. How did that piece of news get out so fast?

“Sort of-”

“Sort of?” Tharmifex pulled a pained face.

“He either is or isn’t, which is the case, Cal?” he demanded.

“Is.” Calanthe said after a long moment’s duration, nodding briefly.

“Now excuse me-” Tharmifex almost fell over trying to keep up with the long legged Tigron, as he spluttered out questions, finally cornering Calanthe by the sideboard.

“By the Aghama, Cal, don’t you remember what we discussed?!”

“Not really.”

“Calanthe, be serious for a damn minute!”

“Look, can we discuss this later?” Cal asked tiredly, his happy alcoholic haze vanishing under Tharmifex’s persistence.

“No.” Tharmifex said immediately.

“How long?”

“Few weeks,” he admitted, seeing Panthera’s approach and grinning at him blindingly.

“Few weeks!!!!” Tharmifex squeaked the words.

“Are you both insane?!?”

“Probably,” Cal muttered unconcerned, slipping an arm around Panthera as the Ferike sidled up to him. Seeing he was getting nowhere with the blond Tigron, Tharmifex glared at him one final time.

“I’m going to inform Ashmael.”

Wrinkling his nose as the Hegemony member marched away, Cal took Panthera’s glass off him and drank deeply.

“What have you done now to infuriate Thar so thoroughly?”

“I just forgot to tell him Pell was Hosting again,” Cal sighed flamboyantly, knowing their secret was out now and sending a mischievous smile his friend’s way.

“Oh, grand!” Panthera scoffed.

“At least that explains why he is more obnoxious than usual.”

“It warms me to know the two of you get on so well,” Cal muttered sarcastically.

“Now tell me what’s happening with Ash and Cobweb.”

Panthera rolled his eyes.

“Long story,” he whispered conspiratorially,

“and depending on who you listen to, it has about ten different plot lines.”

“Any of it scandalous?” Cal asked, only half interested as he saw Abrimel and Chrysm slip out of the side door together. He was really starting to worry about his adopted son. Not that Abrimel was a child, but….

“Are you listening to me?” Panthera poked him hard in the ribs.

“Yeah,” Calanthe swung his gaze around, nodding absently.

“What’s going on with Abrimel and Chrysm?”

“Chrysm is off his face, and as far as I am concerned he is the only Har really enjoying himself. You should take a leaf out of his book and relax a bit.”

“I am relaxed,” he protested.

“Then let’s go and settle somewhere quiet and I’ll explain the entire Cobweb saga,” Panthera breathed seductively. Very tempted, Cal studied the round face for a long drawn out moment.

“Can’t, Thea, not tonight,” he sighed regretfully.

“I really have to check on-”

“Bloody Pellaz.” Panthera ended peeved.

“It’s always him, isn’t it?” He glared at the other Har, feeling a little betrayed.

“You’re as bad as Vaysh.”

“Thea-” Watching the tall Ferike walk away in annoyance, Cal just closed his eyes, knowing nothing he could ever say would make his young friend understand. But then Thea should understand, Cal reasoned logically to himself. For the Ferike’s parents were soul bonded. He thought about that fact for a moment and pulled a face. Somehow Ferminfex and Lahela seemed to share a deeper bonding – longing – than he and Pell shared. As did Seel and Swift. What did they have that he didn’t? What did they know… and how could he get that with Pellaz? The only thing he was certain of was that he wanted that deeper binding. Craved it, but was at a loss to capture it.

Especially with Tyson pushing… and Cal stopped that dangerous thought. He was so insecure, scared that Pell preferred the younger, unscared, guilt free, blood free Har to himself. And try as he might, he couldn’t voice the question aloud. Too terrified of Pellaz’ honest answer.

Finding himself alone in his corner with this miserable knowledge, Calanthe pushed away from the wall and liberated a full glass of strong liquor from the drink table before ambling around the edge of the large room. The music, lights and atmosphere were now lost on him. He bumped into Ariaric and Swift next, the only two in the room who seemed to be totally sober. The Maudrahite Leader laughing expansively, leaving him with a knowing wink, while Swift hid his smile behind his drink.

“What,” Cal half cocked his head, indicating the Archon, gripping the back of the couch so he didn’t fall. Swift continued to smile.

“You are hopeless. Shameless.”

“Surely not. I thought I had out-grown that phase,” Cal teased, trying to recapture his earlier mood. Besides, he was genuinely fond of the young Megalithician Leader.

“Pure deadliness. Blatantly wicked. That’s you.” Swift mused, seeing the look of mock horror cross the magnificently tanned features.

“You should come with a warning.”

“You injure me.” Cal scoffed, pretending to be hurt.

Nursing his drink, Swift considered the Tigron levelly, dropping the banter.

“It’s all true you know.”

“Swift!”

“All Hara are in awe of you. Dazzled by you. Scandalized, yet seduced.”

“Surely not.” Getting an uncomfortable feeling as the pure born continued to stare at him seriously, Cal waved a hand, trying to lighten the subject.

“I never awed you-”

“Cal, I have always been in awe of you. You were my dream lover, my seducer.”

Having heard enough, Cal frowned, draining his glass.

“That’s rubbish. Look at you and Seel.”

“He is my life, yes, and I will not leave him. But you,” Swift dropped his head to one side, studying Calanthe openly, and hiding his grin as the other squirmed.

“You affect Hara of all tribes. Your appeal is universal.”

“Then I shall wear a bag over my head.” Cal concluded, wanting another drink. He glanced around.

“That won’t hide the appeal. Hara want to touch you. Possess you.”

“Swift,” Sighing, Cal looked back at him.

“I want to get drunk, not depressed. Besides, you are forgetting Pellaz is the perfect one,” he said with a sarcastic bite. That reminded him of his lover and he searched around for Pellaz’ dark head.

“Pellaz is pure beauty. He is irresistible, elemental, but not in the same way as you. Hara want his perfection. They want to talk to him, to stare at him, to be him. With you, they want to touch, bite, scratch.”

“You make me sound like a dog,” Cal concluded, disgusted.

“Light and dark. Thiede was right.” Grabbing another drink, Cal almost choked upon hearing that comment.

“Thiede!?”

“Pellaz is order, you are chaos.”

“God’s, Swift! Go get a stronger drink! You are ruining my night!”

“I was just-”

“I don’t care,” Cal cut him off, leaning in close.

“Pellaz is temperamental, devious, manipulative and probably drunk.” He listed, then reconsidered.

“And beautiful. I will give you that.” He conceded.

“Now, unless you are going to tantalize me with Forever gossip, I don’t want to hear any more in-depth psychology. My ego’s not up to it.”

Swift laughed, turning as Seel draped an arm over his shoulder.

“Cobweb’s not very happy with you, Cal,” Seel smirked.

“Fuck!” Cal said with feeling, turning and half staggering around the long couch, purposely avoiding the two and catching sight of Pellaz and Tyson almost by accident. That stopped him dead in his tracks and wiped the smile off his face. They were half lying on cushions, sharing breath, and he homed in on them, his expression darkening. NO!… please no… With a scowl he kicked the cushions Tyson was sitting on, drawing his son’s attention immediately.

“Having fun?” he asked snidely, and seeing Pell’s welcome smile as Tyson met his gaze.

“We thought you were busy with Cobweb,” Tyson replied sweetly, his smile false.

“Don’t ever think you know where I am because you will always be wrong.” Cal whispered, directing his words solely at his son.

“Now if you don’t mind, Pell and I need to have a little chat.”

Awkwardly getting up, Tyson glared at his Hostling one final time before leaving the couch.

Collapsing down next to Pellaz, Cal just shook his head, disgusted, as his chesna never even batted an eyelash. In fact Pell looked more asleep than awake and he leaned down to rouse him, smelling the sweet wine on his breath.

“Gods….” Cal muttered, feeling a headache start behind his eyes. If Pellaz wasn’t already hosting, he would be tempted to…

“Cal?”

Glancing back at his soul mate, Cal received a dreamy smile that was full of innocence, and it irritated him further.

“Pell, when are you going to learn to tell the difference between me and Tyson?!?”

“When you learn the difference between me and Cobweb.” Pellaz said smoothly, proving that he was still partially alert.

Narrowing his eyes Cal stopped the glass half way to his lips as he sent a disbelieving scowl at his partner.

“Cobweb and I might tease each other-”

“Tease!?” Pellaz injected cynically.

“-in public, but we at least have some common sense. Besides, you know he is only a good friend.”

“Liar,” Pell breathed softly.

Cal blinked and just looked at him.

“Pell, we might share aruna occasionally, but you know it means nothing.”

“Do I?”

“Well you should!” Cal cut back, moving away a little and forgetting to keep his voice down. He took a deep breath.

“If you would only return to Forever with me-”

Pell glanced away.

“Fuck, Pell, use your brain!”

“I do.”

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this,” Cal gave a harsh laugh.

“You’re irrational-”

“Am I?” Pellaz sat up slowly, his dark eyes hard.

“Well in that case, my darling chesna, go chase the Megalithician and let me enjoy myself my way.”

Cal’s jaw locked and he almost felt like hitting the succubus sprawled in front of him, clenching his free hand slowly.

“Don’t provoke me, Pellaz.” Elbowing himself up the cushions, Pell contented himself with just sending his soul mate a very dark, unreadable look, deciding it would probably be best to end the discussion now before Cal did something stupid. Like have a go at Tyson. Why his lover couldn’t understand he felt the same irrational fear about Cobweb as Cal did about Tyson was a mystery. Pulling his soft cotton shirt down, Pell opened his mouth to say something and hesitated when Calanthe’s violet eyes sparked angrily. In the end he just shrugged nonchalantly.

“I’m going to get a drink.”

Letting him go, Cal released his held breath into his own glass as he saw Seel weave towards him with a very inebriated Abrimel in tow. He didn’t know if he was up to facing Seel just yet, not after what had just happened with Pellaz, and he deliberately stood up, turning away and crashing into Glaves. The Gelaming was flushed as he gripped the side of the couch, tutting in an amused fashion as he shook his head.

“Naughty, Cal, very naughty.”

“Huh?” Trying to look elegant as he used the couch to steady his balance, Calanthe just blinked at the Hegemony member.

“You have ruined Thar’s evening,” Glaves grinned and it was obvious he was far from upset or worried.

“And put darling little Pellaz in a foul temper,” he sighed dramatically.

“They’ll get over it.” Cal judged, feeling far from happy himself.

“Maybe, but will Phaonica: and more precisely, will Caeru?” Glaves asked mildly.

“I mean, the illustrious Tigrina has just had a screeching fit when Dree spluttered the news about Pell’s Hosting and-”

“Fuck,” Cal rubbed his eyes tiredly. That was all he needed.

“…Pell has just stormed off in a mood – again.” Glaves gestured obliquely to the room around them.

“And, my dear Cal, you know what that can mean.” He ended with heavy emphasis.

“Just ignore him.”

“Precisely,” Seel added as he leaned up against the Tigron and placed his chin on Calanthe’s shoulder.

“I’ve been telling you that all evening.”

Settling his eyes on the slender Har beside him, Cal just pulled an expressive face. Why wouldn’t anyone just leave him alone so he could get happily drunk? Turning to his grinning companion, Cal gave in to the fingers teasing him.

“Seel, take me away from this nest of vipers.”

“With pleasure,” Seel breathed, delighted by the news and gossip. “You know,” he went on confidentially.

“…it really is all your own fault.”

“How did you work that out?” Cal asked, feeling injured and defeated as he allowed the long haired Megalithician to steer him away from the other Hegemony member.

“If you just stayed way from Pellaz as I suggested, none of this would have happened.”

“Oh, very droll,” he intoned sarcastically.

“That would be like asking you to stay away from Swift.”

“Ah, but Swift and I don’t argue like you and Pell, we communicate.”

Calanthe stopped, halting his friend as well and peering at him curiously. A feeling of deja vu swamped him.

“Are you saying Pell and I don’t know how to communicate?”

“Not out of bed – no, you don’t.” Seel replied just as seriously.

“Most of your problems would be halved if you only learned to talk with each other and trust.”

“We do trust each other.” Cal defended, a little shaken by the revealing comments.

“Do you?” Seel pushed.

“Do you really trust each other in the things which are important? In the attitudes that affect your own actions?” Seel saw the violet eyes cloud over in doubt.

“You must learn that trust, otherwise if something should happen to separate the two of you, you’ll both be lost.” Shivering at the very idea of such an event, it took Cal a long moment to realize he was standing alone by the large glass door. He turned away from the room behind him and stepped outside into the cool air. Seel could be right… he acknowledged privately and bleakly. Was that what they lacked? Did they truly not trust… and if so, then what could he do? Feeling eyes on his back, all the hairs on his neck prickled and Calanthe fluidly turned to see who was behind him, bracing muscles. A form detached itself from the shadows, stepping into the lights, and Calanthe breathed a sigh of relief.

“Zac!”

The dark haired Har just regarded his old companion and friend with an amused concern.

“Cal, what have you done now?” Zackala moved directly in front of the tall Tigron, meeting the wary eyes levelly.

“And when are you going to learn?”

Chapter Three

Present

But that had been back in the past, a precious memory now even, though at the time it had caused heartache and trouble. Caused doubt. He was in the present and Calanthe sighed. At least then he had been secure in the firm knowledge that he controlled his own destiny and experienced unleashed love. Cocooned and gripped in its strong embrace regardless of the petty arguments. They were invincible together and nothing could have separated them. Nothing! Not even Seel’s piercing words had dampened his confidence, or destroyed his – their – dreams. Nothing.

Or so he had believed…

Now his world was consumed with pain, and what Calanthe so desperately needed was…

Burying his face in his hands, Cal tried to deny the grief. Around him the room was darkening, the skylight blocking out the warmth from the summer evening, and he shuddered. Goosebumps rose on his skin and he ignored them, trapped and lost in the nightmares of his past. A maelstrom of emotions chased around in his bruised brain, and he wished fervently he could go back. Go back and just drag his reluctant soul mate into his arms and refuse to release Pellaz until they learned the circle of honest trust. They’d had everything else, overcame every other obstacle, but the past before Immanion had still inhibited their growth. Their personal growth…

“Gods… no-” Cal groaned the words almost silently, his eyes open but sightless as he stared across the bathing pool. He saw nothing… blood filled corpses… a dying land… Blinking, Calanthe remembered how careless and free they had been, shaking his head mutely, half denying the memories as they flooded his senses and vision.

It had been a week after the party, at a subdued Hegemony dinner, and all hell had broken loose. It had only amused him then, now it just scared him And he remembered….

Flashback

…Pellaz only glared at Calanthe; feeling out maneuvered and just a touch vindictive towards his co-ruler as the servants cleared away the dinner plates. As usual, neither he nor Cal had mentioned the subjects of Tyson or Cobweb since the party, and it niggled him. He knew and accepted the fact that Cal craved aruna like flowers craved the sun, and he didn’t object – well not really – to all the many other Hara that lusted after the tall blond. He didn’t even mind the knowledge that Calanthe spread his charms around discreetly, yet freely, knowing that he at least was prominent in the other’s mind. And he had no definite proof of Cal’s dallies with other Hara, just the rumors, which Pellaz felt he had no right to question his partner about. Not in their current circumstances anyway.

The only thing Pellaz felt at all apprehensive about were those liaisons that meant more, like Cobweb and the Ferike, Panthera. Those two, but especially Cobweb, reminded Calanthe of what he’d had before Immanion. Reminded him of carefree, happier times. Of his wild youth as a Har, and it was something Pell felt totally inadequate to fighting with, or dealing with.

And knowing Calanthe was pushing him to return to Forever, even on an official tour, horrified him. For he had lost Cal twice already to that house… twice… and he was terrified of losing him the third and final time. It was an unbearable nightmare that would wake him at nights when Cal was away. And Pellaz didn’t dare tell his chesna any of this, just in case the reality came true through the verbalization of his words.

So the unease remained, and Pellaz watched Cal with the Parasiel mystic, battling his emotions and sternly reminding himself that he was, above all, Gelaming. He could even hear Thiede’s ghost taunt him for his childishness, so that he turned to Tyson who always seemed so understanding and level headed. Considering that, Pellaz frowned. Now that really annoyed Calanthe, and he hid a sad smile. Yet he valued Ty’s company. And they were not intimate, regardless of what Cal said. He had resolved that part of his relationship with the pure born almost two years ago and had no intention of re-starting the affair.

If only Calanthe would accept that, accept his word. Trust him. But no. They argued instead, and Pellaz found himself purposely not confirming or denying Calanthe’s accusations.

Picking up his wineglass, Pellaz took a sip of the cool spicy liquid. If only he didn’t feel so threatened… he broke the thought off harshly. Taking a deep breath, Pellaz frowned into the bottom of his glass, vaguely listening to the muted conversation around him. He felt… The unease bothered him, and Pellaz looked at Cal again as the other sat beside him, talking with Tharmifex. Calanthe unreservedly gave everything of himself during aruna and he had a sudden impulse to brush the blond hair out of his partner’s eyes. Denying the powerful urge, Pellaz closed his eyes, battling such uncharacteristic emotions.

Instead he tried to think logically. He knew Calanthe had already Hosted a son to Tersian, and he knew Cobweb had approached Cal privately, asking for his seed so the mystic could have a second Harling. So far Cal had said no, but… And it was the ‘but’, the uncertainty which scared him. Yet he was almost positive Cal had manipulated him into Hosting their second child. Why?

Shaking himself slightly, Pellaz jumped when warm fingers gripped his thigh under the table, the hand gently working up his leg. Silently wanting to acknowledge the need for closeness, he covered the hand with his own. His fingers were caressed and Pellaz sighed heavily, glancing down. How was he to understand Calanthe? About Tyson – Cal distrusted his own son and had little to do with the pure born. About Cobweb’s request, Cal never outwardly showed any feelings. Yet with Jaden… and here Pellaz faltered. Cal seemed genuinely delighted with Jaden, actively involved in Jaden’s upbringing. Sighing again, he did not know what to think. What to believe. What to trust.

Life went on and Pellaz considered the party again and the argument they didn’t really have. The morning after the party he had woken with very little memory of how he had gotten to bed and had been relieved, despite himself, to find Cal sprawled next to him. Then, as usual, Cal had ignored the subject. So… And things had remained settled and relatively quiet until the dinner tonight, where it was obvious Calanthe had not forgotten a thing. Not a single thing.

Groaning silently into his single glass of spicy sweet wine, Pellaz berated himself for not remembering that his partner could be very perverse and contrary. Calanthe also was capable of holding grudges, despite his Gelaming training. Not that you could ever accuse Cal of being a willing convert to Gelaming ways. That made him grin, and Pellaz refocused on the conversation around him, hearing Tharmifex’s voice.

Tharmifex cleared his throat and leaned forward in his chair, his direct gaze touching Calanthe first before swinging to Pellaz. He noted the latter was lost in a word of thought.

“As far as I am aware, Ariaric has decided to present the Sykernesse development proposal in the Hegalion next month, rather than Tyson. I got the impression you had already discussed this with him.”

Cal smiled happily, brightening almost instantly, his hair a riotous display of elegance.

“I wasn’t aware of that, but I must thank him, next time I see him, for his astute nature.” Pell sighed again, almost blowing bubbles in his wine as he refused to meet his co-ruler’s amused violet eyes. When Cal was of a mind to be spiteful, he became impossible, literally dazzling, and at present every eye in the room was locked on him. Poor Ty….

Glancing around, cheered by Tharmifex’s unexpected news concerning his son, Calanthe grinned at the other members seated around the table. It was not that he hated, or even disliked his son, rather, he just wished Tyson would stay away from Immanion, away from Pellaz – indefinitely. With his grin widening he sent Pell a blinding smile, gently squeezing the slender leg he held again before releasing Pellaz totally.

Life was good, Cal decided, and regardless what Pellaz wanted to believe, he was happy and content to share his bed only with his obstinate co-ruler. A memory of Saltrock, where they had first learned each other and had kept to each other for a glorious eighteen months, was paramount in his mind. A blinding passion and one he would not fight against, if only Pellaz would not believe every rumor circulating Phaonica and the neighboring lands. After thirty years he longed for that stability. Trust… for there was more to life than sex. Dismissing the image, Calanthe swept his gaze around the table again. Most of the Hegemony was present, with the exclusion of Chrysm. Apparently Arahal had dragged him down, unceremoniously, to see Phaonica’s physician for some reason or another. The tall, silver-haired Gelaming Captain had only been back a few hours from Megalithica and was stated to be in an uncharacteristically foul mood. Contemplating that, Cal listened to the conversation around him, feeling Pell squirm beside him. He ignored him with ease. He enjoyed these weekly communal dinners for it gave him a chance to study the Hara around him and catch up on any news he might otherwise miss.

Glancing around, Calanthe saw Ashmael was seated further down the table than usual. The strategist was reaching across and offering to fill Vaysh’s wineglass. As always, Ashmael was attired in classic silks, his golden mane contained in long black ribbons which trailed down his back seductively. Across from him was Vaysh. And Vaysh was shaking his head, red hair feathering softly around his chiseled features. His eyes were oddly hesitant as he refused the offer without a word, sitting back in his chair and looking everywhere but at Ashmael. It was puzzling, Calanthe mused, especially since Panthera and Ashmael had argued the previous day, ending with the Ferike returning to Jael. The complexities of Ashmael’s actions…

Curiously amused by the play unfolding, Cal dwelt on what he knew. He had eventually cornered Panthera and dragged the story out of him about Ash and Cobweb; amazed he hadn’t been aware of all the convoluted rumors. It seemed on the surface to be nothing more than a lovers’ tiff, yet… and here he hesitated, knowing Cobweb far better than anyone else did. Probably even better than Ashmael knew the mystic. Something significant was brewing in the Ash/Cobweb camp, he just knew it. Could almost taste it, especially as he watched the strategist now. The tall, blond Gelaming was frowning, his eyes still centered on Vaysh as the smaller Har studiously concentrated on something else. Vaysh’s disdain was obvious, his beautiful face cold, shoulders rigid, knuckles white.

And then there were Panthera’s reactions. He and Vaysh were still together… weren’t they? Cal had to admit that over the last year Panthera had done a lot to bring the true Vaysh out from behind his protective shell. The redhead was now infused with a passion for living again, his responses slightly tantalizing, that basically had everyone glancing at him twice now. May be that was why….

Calanthe sat up straighter in his chair as the sudden thought hit him. He knew Ash and Vaysh had been considerably more than chesna before Thiede had intervened and destroyed them, in much the same way Thiede had tried to destroy himself and Pellaz. So now, what if Ashmael was starting to see some of the original Vaysh again? What if Ashmael was being drawn by more than curiosity? What if he was sick and tired of constantly being held at bay by Cobweb and now wanted more? What if Ashmael now wanted to… now wanted Vaysh? It was a disturbing idea, and Calanthe wasn’t certain he liked the implications involved. The last thing he needed – from a purely selfish point of view – was Ashmael losing his perspective, or even going off the rails slightly. For he remembered only too clearly his own irrational behavior where Pellaz was concerned, before they had solved their differences. And although the Gelaming professed loudly to be beyond the forbidden entrapments of sinful love, he knew differently, and had pounded that knowledge into Pellaz’ reluctant head a second time just over a year ago. No society was perfect.

But at present, nothing was clarified, and Panthera might have only returned to Jael because of other commitments, and Cobweb might have left for Galhea because… well because he was just Cobweb.

“Cal?”

Turning his gaze back to Tharmifex, Calanthe pushed his speculative thoughts aside. One thing was for certain; thinking about Ashmael’s problems definitely took his mind off his and Pellaz’ predicament. Not that it was life threatening, only that neither of them had addressed the difficulty. That silent question of honest trust again and Seel’s words haunted his mind.

“Yes?” he asked pleasantly.

“You do realize that Opalexian of the Kamagrian was expecting Pellaz to visit Roselane before the Winter Ball and talks, don’t you?”

“Can’t.” Calanthe shook his head.

“Pell’s Hosting.” Tharmifex gritted his teeth.

“I know that, and I am starting to wonder if you did this on purpose just to get out of this visit.” He looked briefly towards the smaller, dark haired Tigron.

“Look, I know you are not happy with all the arrangements, but the sooner you comply with her requests the sooner she will join the Tribal Council.”

“We don’t need the Kamagrian to sit in on a Wraeththu Council.” Cal frowned back at him, noting how Dree and Eyra turned to listen in on the conversation. Next to him, Pellaz sighed, rolled his eyes and stood up, walking away to go and talk with others of the Hegemony. Calanthe guessed that Pellaz was in no mood to be dragged into the discussion.

“It is enough that we are aware of them and that we have an alliance with them.” Cal ended, briefly watching Pellaz a moment longer before turning back to the Hegemony members.

“Is it?” Eyra asked softly.

“We know Wraeththu live in Roselane, live with the Kamagrian and have become part of their tribe. So I am not sure we can just ignore them.”

“I don’t suggest we ignore them,” Cal cut back, not understanding why everyone was so eager to drag the female Kamagrian into their society.

“Rather I just say we should leave them to their own Council. Or are you forgetting that they have existed for years? Opalexian is as old as Thiede. And the only reason we are aware of them is because they wished it.”

“None of us are forgetting that, Cal,” Tharmifex put in,

“but I am concerned about your attitude to them.”

“I don’t fully trust Opalexian.” Calanthe stated bluntly.

“But I have never trusted anyone with that amount of power.”

“So you purposely got Pell Hosting so he would not have to…” Dree trailed off as he thought the implication through.

Cal gave a short, harsh laugh.

“No.” The Kamagrian had nothing what so ever to do with Pell’s Hosting…

“Pell makes up his own mind on things, you should all know that by now. Besides, he has this fascination with the Kamagrian.”

“Yes,” Tharmifex bit his lip.

“He was looking forward to the meeting with Opalexian.”

“Fine, I say. Bring the female here.” Calanthe grunted.

“Cal,” Dree said in mild reproof.

“Whatever,” he dismissed all their words. “It will have to wait now ’til after the Annual Talks.”

“That is another thing,” Tharmifex continued in the same tone.

“I hear four of the Tribal Leaders in Thaine will not be attending the talks.”

“There is more work to be done there yet.” Dree agreed.

“Until we stamp out the slavery and black arts in Thaine, they will never willingly join the Council.” Eyra predicted.

“There is more to it than that.” Cal reminded them, an image of Fallsend haunting him.

“You have to find something to replace the hopelessness. We have to give the Hara hope.”

“Don’t get romantic, Calanthe,” Dree warned.

“Removing the black arts from Thaine will improve their lives. Introducing Gelaming rule will then give them a purpose.”

“What if they don’t want Gelaming rule,” Cal asked tightly, seeing all too clearly in his mind the Hara involved.

“They will learn the benefits.” Eyra dismissed casually.

“As will Florinada.” He turned to Tharmifex.

“I believe Arahal has reports from scouts down in Florinada?”

“Yes, it appears a lot of Hara from the earlier times flooded into Florinada, and they are living deprived existences.”

“And the Sorrandite Tribe which we have been hearing whispers about?” Eyra asked.

Tharmifex raised a pointed brow.

“Not Uigenna as we had originally thought. Nor are they infesting the eastern lands of Florinada. Rather they are rumored to be north of Jaddayoth.”

“But there is nothing but desert north or east of Jaddayoth.” Cal put in, picturing the maps in the study.

“Nothing could survive up there. Have Arahal’s scouts made definite contact with the Sorrandite Tribe?”

“No,” Tharmifex shook his head.

“It is only rumors from Florinada at this point. No such Tribe has ever been identified north of Jaddayoth. The Garridans eke out a living in the desert conditions as it is.”

“Where there’s smoke…” Cal reminded them all.

“Again it may just be a lure to distract us from the problems in Thaine and Florinada.” Tharmifex answered just as seriously.

“So first we concentrate on Thaine,” Dree decided.

“What of the Kakkahaar and Lianvis?”

“I don’t trust Lianvis and his-” Cal started.

They were interrupted as the doors opened and Chrysm walked in. For once he appeared subdued, even pale and slightly wide-eyed. His normal provocative swagger was gone. And a few paces behind him came Arahal – and the Captain looked murderous. The glint in his eyes dangerous.

“My dears, what’s wrong?” Glaves asked aloud. He was standing next to Cedony as Pell sat on the spacious lounge next to Abrimel and Caeru.

“Don’t tell me you’ve had another fight?” Chrysm resurrected a strained smile, giving up the pretence of elegance as he sagged into a chair next to the Tigrina, not saying anything as he gestured for servants to bring him a drink.

“Arahal?” Tharmifex spoke up next, concerned by the Captain’s aggressive stance.

“Is there trouble?” He stood and approached the noble Captain. Arahal’s tattered leathers were travel stained, his silver hair trailing down his back in a half plait, even his elaborate feathers appeared dull.

“Minor misunderstanding, that’s all.” Chrysm dismissed all the curious questions.

“Minor-” Arahal started, then stopped, taking a step towards the slender adept.

Ashmael was moving now towards his friend also.

“Arahal?” Taking a deep breath, the tall Gelaming attempted to relax, straightening into his full height of over six-foot.

“He is Hosting,” he half whispered the words, but they carried to Glaves and the others – just.

“What?” Glaves laughed.

“Well, congratulations!”

“Glaves, shut up,” Chrysm said ferociously. Arahal closed his eyes and looked away.

“It’s not that amazing under the circumstances,” Eyra quipped.

“For it seems to be going around.” Cal sent him a sour look, glancing back at the usually immaculate Captain. He got the strange feeling a lot wasn’t being said.

“I think we should definitely cancel all Hegemony meetings now,” Glaves stated in amusement.

“What with two of them Hosting, by the Aghama!, who do you think will be next?”

“You are loathsome,” Chrysm said with precision, keeping his back to Arahal.

“He has a point,” Cedony acknowledged.

“What? That I’m loathsome, or that I’m right?” Glaves injected lightly. Cedony just sent him a glare then shook his head, also starting to grin.

“How long?” Dree asked quietly, picking up on the tension. Chrysm opened his mouth to answer, but Arahal beat him to it.

“Since the party!”

“Oh well, that explains it,” Glaves nodded knowingly. He got a number of chuckles from that, and everyone slapped Chrysm on the leg, returning to previous conversations.

Cal’s brows drew down further and he met Ashmael’s eyes briefly.

“But Arahal wasn’t at the party,” he pointed out, catching a number of attentions again. Chrysm groaned, swearing under his breath. Pell sent a scowl Calanthe’s way as he walked back around the table to get a new glass of wine. Glaves of course picked up on that point with delight.

“Chrysm!” Glaves ignored Arahal’s scowl.

“Who did you entertain?”

“Half the party if I remember rightly,” Abrimel piped in. Swinging his gaze toward the young pure born, Chrysm spiked him an angry look.

“You were in no better shape, if I remember correctly.” he snapped.

“I was fine until you arrived.” Glaves laughed, delighted, as other Hegemony members turned away, hiding their amusement.

“Chrysm, are you telling us you have no idea who the father is?” The adept didn’t answer, but his silence spoke louder than any words.

“It could have been anyone.” Dree muttered.

“Now, let’s see who was there,” Glaves mused.

“Glaves, don’t,” Pell warned softly, knowing how the older Hegemony members teased the adept. About to go back to the lounge, he was stopped as Calanthe touched his arm and patted the chair beside him.

“It probably was anyone.” Abrimel injected, frowning also now.

“Shut up!” Chrysm stood and glared at them all as numerous voices reached him offering suggestions and names.

“There is only one person I am certain it wasn’t,” Glaves stated, ignoring the adept, speaking to everyone around.

“That’s Pell. He’s already Hosting.”

“Pell and Arahal,” Cedony added helpfully. Pellaz sighed as Chrysm stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him in a display of temper.

Arahal didn’t say anything, his eyes boring into the snickering Hegemony member until Glaves sobered with effort.

“Sorry, Arahal, but he lends himself to it.”

“Which reminds me,” Tharmifex changed the subject, drawing everyone’s attention a second time.

“We have to commence the rituals in the sanctum for Pellaz.” Calanthe groaned inwardly, sending a look towards his blood bond. He knew what that meant and knew how much Pell hated the idea of all the rituals.

Chapter four.

Present

“No, no, no, no-” Calanthe whispered again and again into the damp darkness, the eerie shadows from the skylight now throwing patterns across the warm spring pool. He didn’t want to think. Didn’t want to remember the events after that, because they would only lead him to…

“Gods!” He choked on a breath.

“I don’t want this. Don’t need this now,” he appealed into the silence. But his plea returned only to taunt him, and he shook his head, denying the persistent images. Words were useless, for now he had allowed the memories to surface, and they would unfold despite his efforts to banish them. Pictures and voices whispered into his head, glimpses of beauty as time shifted again for him, and he was caught. An unwilling passenger dragged through his own past. Blood filled corpses… a dying land… a rebirth… and death.

Two months had passed. Two months later and winter had just started. Pellaz had recovered from the birthing of their second son and within a week Pellaz had been torn from him by Ashmael’s brutal scheduling before they had even had a chance to talk. If only he had known then what he knew now. Winter. The season had already proven to be one of the coldest any of them had experienced, and Calanthe remembered standing out in the snow clutching his leathers while Pellaz struggled with Peridot’s saddle fastenings. He saw the images vividly – could even smell the fresh snow in the air….

Flashback

… Cursing the uncharacteristic snowfall and the cold, Calanthe walked over to his co-ruler and tried to see what Pellaz was doing. His lover glanced up, snowflakes falling on thick lashes as Pellaz pushed back a fur-lined hood.

“What are you doing?” Cal asked, deciding this was a horrible day and very tempted to drag Pellaz back inside and cancel the entire tour, regardless of how important it was. Failing that, he’d go with his partner.

“Just checking the fastenings.”

“But surely Alrone would have checked them?” He glanced around, looking to the Stable Master who tended his and Pell’s Faraldiennes, and saw the Har hurrying towards them.

“No doubt he did, but I just like to be sure.” Pellaz muttered, pushing the strap back through the holding loop.

“I just sensed Peridot was a bit uncomfortable and-”

“You had to fix it yourself.” Cal ended knowingly. His chesna was so arrogant and impersonal with some tasks, but at other things Pellaz was so naively endearing.

“Idiot,” he chastised lovingly, lifting the fur-lined hood back up over the black hair to protect Pellaz from the cold.

“My Lords?”

Cal turned to see Alrone’s worried face.

“Is something wrong with Peridot?” The Stable Master asked anxiously.

“Nothing,” Cal dismissed, turning back to his lover and seeing Arahal move his Faraldienne over to them. No doubt to inquire about the delay as well. Hating this feeling of nervousness, Calanthe made an instant decision and glanced at Alrone again.

“How long would it take you to saddle Omar?”

“Cal!” Pellaz cut in abruptly, his brows drawing down in annoyance. Lifting a hand, Calanthe stilled his partner’s instinctive words.

“I know the arguments, but it might be nice if we did this tour together.”

“Nice, yes, but not possible. You know that, as you heard Thar and Ash.”

“I heard, but I don’t necessarily agree.”

Pellaz’ expression softened.

“This won’t take long, I promise. I’ll only need to be a day or so in Kalamah, as Lehonhar is very organized. I wish others were more like-minded. Emunah might take a bit longer, but I still shouldn’t be gone longer than a week.”

“That depends on the reception you get to the new proposals. Not to mention the banquets they will hold in honor of your visit. Especially since it is so rare for you to leave Immanion.”

“Mmm,” Pellaz didn’t comment as he gazed up at the enchanting blond before him.

“The Garridans are making strange noises again, have you noticed that?” He changed the subject.

“So?” Cal asked, suddenly knowing what the other was going to suggest. He wondered whose idea it was, Ashmael’s or Arahal’s.

“No, Pell, ” he cut in quickly, “don’t even think of detouring up into Garridan.”

“It would be warmer than here,” Pellaz gave a small impish smile.

“Carrollion is devious, and these last minute invitations of his are suspicious.” Calanthe warned seriously, lifting a hand to grip Pellaz’ shoulder. He could feel Arahal behind him, listening to every word.

“We’ve made arrangements before to visit Nightshade for talks with Carrollion, and he’s turned them down.”

“I know, that’s why I wonder if it might be worth going there now when he has extended an invitation?”

“You do and I’m coming with you.”

Studying the serious expression on the tanned face and direct eyes, Pellaz reached up and lightly touched his lover’s cool lips. *It was just a thought.* He sent mentally. And a dangerous one…. Cal replied silently. Every time they had proposed to visit the Garridans, Carrollion had produced an excuse. Yet whenever Pellaz left Immanion on official business suddenly Carrollion extended warm invitations.

The implications were unsettling, and although Cal knew intellectually that Pellaz was more than a match for anyone, he still refused to let his co-ruler go there alone. An unnecessary caution perhaps, but one he had no intention of changing, despite Ashmael’s arguments. Besides, he knew the Garridans, understood them. Particularly as they were the remnants of the brutally fierce Uigenna Tribe. Just as he was.

“Look, when you get back we’ll officially extend another invitation to Carrollion.”

“He’ll refuse.” Pellaz said simply.

“For some reason, Cal, he just doesn’t like you. Or trust you.”

“The feeling’s mutual.” Pellaz lifted his eyes at that in mild reproof.

“Are you suggesting that I’m incapable of handling-”

“Never,” Cal cut him off, shaking his head and shivering as a cold draft of air entered around his neckline.

“I’m saying Carrollion is playing a devious game. He’s singling you out-”

“So?”

“He obviously is after something.”

“I know that.” Pellaz replied tartly.

“Look, can we continue this inside as you’re turning blue and I don’t feel much warmer.” Cal tried for an intimate tone but it came out wrong as his teeth started to chatter. Pellaz looked at him for a long moment then smiled, warming the space between them. Like seeing the sun after rain, dazzling. Beautiful.

“I’ll see you in a week.” Pellaz whispered

“I’m looking forward to this as it’s been months since I’ve been out of Phaonica.”

“Alright.” Cal nodded resigned. He glanced around and saw Arahal waiting impatiently now over by the steps with Ashmael. No doubt relating what had been said. Was nothing he and Pell discussed private?

“If I get a chance I’ll bring you back something exotic from Sykernesse,” Pellaz added in a husky tone before swinging up into Peridot’s saddle. The horse stepped forward and lifted its head, very unhappy to be out in this cold.

“What!” Calanthe’s head snapped around and he grabbed Pell’s reigns.

“You’re going to see-” he almost said Tyson, but changed it at the last moment, “…Ariaric?”

“It would be silly not to since I am so close.” Pellaz smiled down, doing up the ties on his fur hood, his gold earrings glittering.

“I’ll contact you via the thought transference machine.” Then he turned Peridot away and got the Faraldienne moving. The Palace guards flanked him immediately, Arahal moving to the front of the group. They would go to the bare courtyard beyond the stables and from there enter the magical lane.

Left standing in the softly falling snow, Calanthe simmered in unvented anger. He knew Pell hated being imprisoned and that Pellaz never felt more trapped than when he Hosted. That feeling was probably only a by-product of his irrational behavior, or so the Doctor stated. But to have Pell openly state he was running off to Sykernesse first chance he got riled Cal. It was almost like a blatant challenge and he chewed his bottom lip in worry. What had Tyson been saying to Pellaz now? he wondered. He had seen the letters from his son, which Pell kept in the study, but had never worked up enough courage to read them. Nor had Pell volunteered to read them aloud. So was Pell running to Tyson because of those letters or because of the argument they’d had months ago? Surely not. True, Calanthe had not seen or heard from Cobweb since the party, but that was not unusual. His mind had mostly been taken up with Immanion business and Pell’s Hosting, and then with the arrival of their second son Korryn. Even after that, this was really the first time he’d thought of Cobweb, and that was only because Pellaz had just reopened all the old arguments. Could nothing be resolved?

Turning around at the sound of his name, Calanthe slowly walked back into the warmth of Phaonica, feeling colder inside than he had for a long time. A foreboding iciness – and he closed his eyes briefly. Pellaz wouldn’t leave him, would he? It was a hard question to ask of himself, but he forced his mind to address it seriously. Pell had been seduced once already by his son, and when they had talked about that years ago, Pell had admitted that Tyson reminded him very much of a younger version of himself. A scary realization. Because that younger Cal from years ago was what Pellaz had first been attracted to, had first been captivated by. The wildness, the freeness, the wicked innocence and the adventure. Not by this now older, physically and mentally scarred Har who was still so inwardly driven and uncertain of his worth. So what if Pellaz wanted… No! he just couldn’t let that happen. A soul bonding could not be broken. Even Thiede could not break bonds like that, and Thiede had tried. So could Tyson?

Climbing the hard, cold steps of Phaonica, Calanthe knew that he would fight for what he wanted. It was the first positive action he had decided upon in months, as he acknowledged the possible threat. Let Pellaz return safely and then they would talk.

“By the Aghama, Cal, I thought you would never come in!” Ashmael admonished as he drew the blonde Tigron further into the warmth so the servants and guards could shut the cold out.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine.” Cal didn’t look up, allowing one of the Palace servants to unlace his winter leathers and remove the heavy coat. He didn’t protest. A warm drink was shoved into his hands as he warmed up, and he turned his head to eye the strategist. There was something the other Har was battling to say and he just waited.

“You know, Cal…. Pellaz is more than capable of taking care of himself in Nightshade.” Ashmael started conversationally.

“The topic is not up for discussion.” Cal growled before turning and walking back towards the lower council chambers inside the palace. The long, splendid halls were decorated with vivid colors as vases of flowers lined tables and ledges, giving the impression of summer. Still Cal didn’t shorten his strides even when he felt Ashmael hurry to keep pace with him.

“We need to talk to Carrollion.”

“Granted. But when we do I want to be there.” Cal returned. So Ashmael was the instigator behind Pell’s suggestion of going to Garridan? He should have known.

“Carrollion doesn’t trust you,” Ashmael started.

“Have you meet him before? Like before Immanion?”

“Would it matter if I have?”

“It could explain things.” Ashmael’s expression became speculative.

“In that case then, I could always go in your place to the meeting.”

“No.”

“Calanthe-”

“No.” Cal stopped at the foot of the stairs that led up to the top floors of the Palace. His private rooms.

“Ash, I am Tigron and my personal life before I became Tigron should not have any bearing on Official State issues.” Ashmael just gave a sly smile, his eyes lighting up.

“So when we can get a meeting organized with the Garridans, I will be there also.”

“As you wish.”

“So stop trying to manipulate Pell and myself. And if I so much as hear that Arahal managed to talk Pell into going to see Carrollion, you had better inform the impeccable Captain not to bother returning to Immanion.”

Ashmael just raised an amused brow as Calanthe gracefully pivoted on his toes and moved away, climbing the stairs three at a time until he disappeared on the next landing.

“My, my-” Chrysm said softly from behind him, and Ashmael turned, his expression not changing.

“I can see that you certainly convinced him of the advantages of Pellaz visiting Garridan.”

“Shut up, Chrysm.”

“What went wrong?” Tharmifex asked, frowning also. Neither he nor Chrysm had been far behind the two, and neither had missed Calanthe’s raised words.

“I don’t know…” Ashmael admitted slowly.

“Arahal and I talked with Pell this morning and he was concerned, but willing to go to Nightshade at Carollion’s unexpected invitation.”

“We already knew that,” Chrysm intoned.

“But then Pell talked to Calanthe out in the stable yards about the visit-”

“Mistake number one.”

“-and as you see, our stubborn Tigron is adamant they should talk to Carrollion together.”

“So is Pellaz going or not?” Tharmifex asked, keeping his fingers crossed that the answer was still yes, for they needed to get the big Garridan on side for the up and coming Tribal talks.

“What do you think?” Ashmael asked pointedly.

“I wouldn’t ask if I knew, would I?” Tharmifex cut back.

“He won’t go,” Chrysm ventured shaking his head.

“If Cal says no and is convincing, Pellaz won’t go. Am I right, Ash dear?”

“As always,” Ashmael sighed. He rubbed his chin in speculation.

“Maybe I can get Ariaric or even Swift to talk with him before Pellaz heads back. We do have a few days, and Arahal will be checking with me daily.”

“That would be mistake number two,” Chrysm predicted. Tharmifex muttered an oath under his breath.

“It’s just so… so annoying! In some matters they are so blase yet in others they are infuriatingly obstinate!” He looked up, his brown eyes narrowed in frustration before they centered on the strategist.

“Do you think they do this to me on purpose?”

“If it involves Cal, I’d say it was a definite possibility.” Chrysm nodded. Ashmael ignored the adept easily, meeting Tharmifex’s eyes.

“Remember Pellaz has been well taught by Thiede.”

***

Entering the Tigron’s suite of rooms silently, Calanthe released a harsh breath as he caught sight of Vaysh sitting at the breakfast table, a pile of documents in front of him and pen in hand. He relaxed a bit; glad no one else was waiting for him, and he closed the doors softly, purposely quiet, not alerting the other Har. Shelving some of his own worries Cal let his eyes settle on the slender assistant, an evil smile half forming as he thought about Vaysh.

Ever since the incomparable Ashmael had drawn the battle lines, so to speak, the slender redhead had opted to spend most of his time engrossed in Immanion’s accounts. Using work as an excuse to retreat, or to hide in Pellaz’ private study. But if the redhead felt safe within the Tigron’s private quarters then he was wrong. For Cal fully admitted he was not averse to offering Ash the use of the same study just to annoy the bad-tempered Vaysh. Besides, Vaysh was always so annoyingly cocky these days that it was nice to give a little of his own medicine back occasionally. Not that Pell agreed with the actions, but then his beloved had always been a little one-eyed about his surly assistant. Another ghost from the past who insisted on influencing their lives.

Calanthe straightened and shook off the ill thought. Vaysh was just Vaysh and if he was feeling uncomfortable because Ashmael was starting to make overtures of interest, what would he be like when the determined strategist pushed the relationship harder. Like leaves in the wind… was the way Pell verbalized the emotions and Cal had often wondered if that was how his partner had felt with his arrival in Immanion. Putting all that aside, Vaysh was still a very close companion to Pellaz. They seemed to share something that no one else understood and Vaysh was damn protective of Pellaz. Over protective at times, even going as far as shielding Pell from him – his chesna – which was unnecessary.

Yet, Cal acknowledged, he trusted the fiery assistant and had welcomed Vaysh’s support with the hatching of their second Harling. Korryn…. and Calanthe smiled happily. It was hard to believe at times that he was turning into an adoring parent. Then he recalled how Caeru had been the hardest hit by this second child. How isolated Caeru appeared – only Cal no longer knew what to do with their Tigrina. How to help him… Korryn on the other hand had slipped in wonderfully with their schedules. Not like Jaden, who had done nothing but disrupt the Palace. Maybe they were just better prepared, or maybe it was just the way of Harlings. Calanthe didn’t know and had to smile as he suddenly thought of Chrysm and Arahal.

After their initial arguments, Arahal had claimed responsibility for the pearl Chrysm was carrying, and took to the role of father after the hatching of the newborn with a certain mixed pleasure. Zalierr was not yet a week hatched and appeared to be a spitting image of the adept, dashing most of the Hegemony’s hopes of discovering the real father. It was entertaining, especially as Arahal still wasn’t amused, yet lulled by the Harling, and Cal was starting to wonder if Ashmael would mellow with a Hosting.

It was an interesting idea to play around with and would certainly stop the interfering strategist from trying to run his and Pell’s personal life for at least two months. Ahh, just the concept of some free time, alone with Pell and away from this place…

Calanthe dismissed the thought, coming back to the present with a jolt as he remembered Pell was away on a rare tour with Arahal. Pellaz was planning to visit Sykernesse… visit Tyson. Frowning in annoyance, Cal focused his eyes back on Vaysh’s seated form. The assistant was still unaware of him and he silently moved away from the door to the partition of plants and bamboo, observing the redhead in speculation. Would Pellaz leave him? Would Vaysh know the answer?

Pushing back the shrubbery Calanthe studied the smaller Har, suddenly noting the absence of his two Harlings in the room beyond. When he had left this room earlier Jaden had been driving one of the House Hara to distraction with the new electronic toy Glaves had given him, while Korryn had been asleep on the sheepskin. Now there was just silence and no sign of his Harlings. It worried him slightly, his brows drawing down as Cal pushed the plants out of the way and moved towards the table. Vaysh was still so engrossed in his reading that he was unaware of the frowning scrutiny until Calanthe picked up his wineglass.

“Oh, you’re back,” Vaysh sat up straighter, collecting himself quickly as he eyed the tall, immaculate Tigron. Over the last few years since the two rulers had resolved most of their differences Calanthe now struck him as the strength, the direction, the obvious power behind the throne of Wraeththu. Yet he knew it was all an illusion. Knew Pellaz’ strengths. But seeing Cal this morning dressed in his dark winter leathers and with a cold expression on his face only re-enforced the image, especially when those unreadable violet eyes pinned you expertly.

“I take it Pellaz has departed?” Cal’s eyes just narrowed a little more as he nodded slightly, moving away from the table to look into one of the adjoining rooms. Cold winter sun lit the rooms, adding no

warmth. Vaysh watched him, dropping his head to one side as he tried to read the mood of the uncommunicative Tigron. Calanthe was as bad as Pell when it came to being left behind alone. Coming back from the breakfast area, into the private study, Cal scowled.

“I suppose you are aware of the fact that Ashmael and Arahal wished for Pellaz to extend the tour to take in Garridan?”

“Yes,” Vaysh said slowly, carefully.

“Why didn’t you mention it last night?”

“I assumed Pellaz or Ashmael would inform you after they had discussed it.”

One corner of Cal’s mouth curved up in a travesty of a smile. The expression never reached his eyes.

“You’re as calculating as Ashmael. In fact the two of you are perfect for each other.”

Vaysh felt the heat rise in his cheeks and stood up slowly when Calanthe gave a mirthless laugh. He wanted to say something cutting, but his brain just wouldn’t connect, so he contented himself with gathering his papers. The Tigron had turned away now and was standing by the large, picturesque door, his stance amazingly looked vulnerable in the winter sunlight. Walking to the doors of the chamber, Vaysh stopped as the taller Har spoke again, his words reflecting a little of that illusive vulnerability.

“Where are my Harlings?” Taking a deep breath, Vaysh let some of his annoyance drain away.

“Caeru arrived after you and Pellaz left this morning. He seemed under the impression that you would not have the time to care for them. I think he took them back to his own quarters. I did not think to stop him.”

Feeling oddly abandoned, Calanthe looked to the timepiece on the wall. He had a meeting in less than an hour and after that Dree wanted him to go down to the docks to look over the new extensions. That would take care of his entire morning and then he was meeting the three Tirthas of Gimrah for lunch before he and Caeru attended a banquet in the Tigron’s honor in the festive center of Immanion. So maybe the Tigrina was right? Maybe he did not have enough time to care for his Harlings? Everything just seemed so much easier when Pellaz was around, and Cal wondered how his lover coped when he was away on tour. Somehow he could not see Pell letting Caeru rule his private family. Sighing, he turned back into the room and saw Vaysh watching him in worry.

“Do you want me to send your House Hara to the Tigrina’s quarters and retrieve the Harlings?”

“No,” Cal said slowly, he would get them himself later. For the moment they were better off with the willful Tigrina. Reaching for a cigarette, he saw Vaysh shrug, then leave the room. What the hell did Carrollion want with Pell anyway?

***

Nine days later Pellaz arrived in Sykernesse, feeling tired but pleased with the outcome of the tour. Standing next to him on the wide balcony of the luxurious Palace that over looked the city of Oomadrah was Arahal, and Pellaz let his grin widen as he caught his associate’s scowl. The tall Captain was not amused, and particularly so since during the last eight days he had been unable to convince his Tigron of the need – the necessity – of detouring up to Garridan briefly.

Despite the fact that he understood the importance of visiting Carrollion, Pellaz felt they still had time on their side and therefore was more interested in Cal’s gut instincts than Ashmael’s schedules. His chesna, co-ruler and friend had been very adamant about the Garridans, and when he returned to Immanion he would see that they discussed the situation. But meanwhile, he was content with letting Arahal brood, and Pellaz cast his eyes out further across the sprawling city below.

The customs of the Maudrahites who lived outside the city always sent a chill through Pellaz, and he prayed that one day it would all change and that Hara throughout the entire lands could co-exist in peace and openness. Cal often laughed at this, thinking his plan was naive, especially after all the restrictions he and Thiede had placed on other tribes outside Gelaming rule. But that had been a necessary evil, just as the restrictions in the city of Oomadrah was a necessary evil. Restrictions Ariaric insisted were essential, yet Elisyin scoffed at. But then Elisyin was a Ferike, and they were perverse and excessive – just like a particular dark haired Ferike whom Cal was extremely fond of. Cal and Vaysh both.

Shaking his head a little, Pellaz wondered why Panthera annoyed him so? It was nothing he could pinpoint exactly, and he was very aware that Panthera felt the same about him. Which was laughable! Yet until Calanthe had returned to his life and disrupted it with his arrival, his mind, decisions and reactions had been so perfectly ordered. So strong and precise. Then Calanthe had injected color into his world, had brought back the feelings and emotions Thiede had banished from his existence, and despite the occasional heartache, he had to begrudgingly admit that he was enjoying life more.

He shook his head again and exhaled slowly, deeply. A loose strand of his black hair swept in front of his eyes, distracting him from the view below. A wintry morning made colder by the bleak, dark city below.

“Are you going to stand out here all morning?” Arahal’s tone was polite and soft, yet Pellaz still detected an edge behind the words. He turned and leant back against the cold banister.

“Don’t let me detain you, Captain, if you have other duties. I will return inside presently, and you can be assured I do not need a guard.”

Arahal’s expression didn’t alter as he met the dark eyes of the Tigron and decided against commenting further. Nodding marginally, he backed away and returned inside.

Watching him go, Pellaz saw Cedony and Dree stop Arahal, and wondered what was being said. He’d known Cedony was planning to contact Immanion with details of the discussions they’d had in Kalamah and Emunah, and he dismissed the worries, knowing he would get a fully detailed report later. At the moment the sun was too nice and the view too enchanting to let members of the Hegemony unsettle him. Besides, this was an unofficial and informal visit to the Sykernesse Court, and he wanted to make the most of his brief free time. He also wanted to find Cal something nice, as the other had been a bit down lately. And why, he did not know, only knowing that when his partner needed a break, Calanthe went to Forever for a day or so. And as much as he did not want to admit it – that reaction hurt, especially when Cal was so eager to leave him for the household in Forever. It made him feel inadequate somehow, which was stupid, but the unease remained. That Calanthe always asked if he would like to accompany him was a small point, for he felt like an intruder, like something ancient, or unspeakable evil would happen if he returned to that place. The fear of enchantment…

Pushing the images behind him forcibly, Pellaz turned back to the view of the silent city below. Admit it, he chastised himself severely, it is Cobweb and his magics you fear… Or is it?

“By the Aghama! It’s good to see you!” Startled out of his dark thoughts, Pellaz turned at the new voice and warm hand on his arm.

“Ty-”

“I didn’t know you were planning to visit. You should have told me! I could have arranged a tour or something. But whatever, it’s great to have you here at last. You work yourself too hard and refuse to relax, but I’ve been telling you that for months, haven’t I? So how long can you stay? And is this an official visit, and if not, I’d love to take you down the canals into the Sykersade lakes-”

“Ty, slow down,” Pellaz smiled, delighted to see his friend, yet overwhelmed by his enthusiasm. Tyson leaned in closer, his eyes searching the dark gaze watching him, quick to notice the slight weariness before his smaller companion moved away slightly and leaned back against the railings again.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine…”

“You don’t look it.” Tyson judged darkly, thinking of his disapproving Hostling for a moment.

“I’ve heard about this tour from Elisyin, and it’s grueling. Why can’t Ashmael or Calanthe handle the workload for a change? Why must you always push yourself so hard? It’s not necessary, you know.”

“Ty, I’m fine. And my workload is no heavier than Cal’s, or Ashmael’s for that matter.” Tyson just scowled harder, not believing a word of it as he moved closer again to lean against the railing with the Tigron. His fingers gently caressed the material covering the Tigron’s arm.

“You’re too soft on them…” he trailed off as he saw the perceptive gaze drink him in for a brief moment, before Pellaz looked away towards the rooms beyond.

“Pell-”

“I’m not here officially, so I do not want to discuss business.” Pellaz said mildly, letting the soft reprimand linger in the air between them before he gave a small smile and started towards the enclosure.

“So tell me, where is the Archon this morning? For when I arrived Zobinek was a little panicked. I hope nothing is wrong?”

“Zob always gets panicked when things don’t unfold as scheduled. Your turning up has unsettled him and it might take Elisyin a week to calm him again.”

“Elisyin? Surely that is your privilege,” Pell mocked gently, stopping inside the doors and seeing his own guard stationed silently around the room. Wine and food was sitting on low tables, as were flowers and gifts. So no matter how rattled Ty said Zobinek was, the young consort had obviously remembered his manners very well.

“He and Elisyin get on better.” Tyson muttered.

“Tyson!” Pellaz started, then stopped as he saw Tyson drop his head down and a wince of pain colored his blue eyes.

“Ty?”

“Sometimes I think all this was a mistake.” Licking his lips a little, Pell brushed the pure-born’s cheek softly with the back of his fingers.

“All what?”

“This,” Tyson gestured to the room in general, looking up and meeting the compelling liquid gaze of the other Har.

“I have lost myself, and I am making Zob’s life horrid, I feel. We should not have been bonded. He deserves better.”

“In what way?”

“Our bonding was for politically reasons only. And although Zobinek and I are friends, we will never be anything more. And it hurts him.” Tyson paused as if trying to decide whether to say more.

“Don’t you ever feel that sometimes you have made a mistake in blood bonding with my Hostling, Cal? Don’t you wish that you could be free….” he whispered whimsically.

“Well, that is how I feel.”

Lifting a brow at that, Pellaz just watched as Tyson walked away, going to the doors and speaking to one of Sykernesse’s attendants. This was the first Pellaz had heard of the disquiet between Ty and his blood bond and it shocked him a little. Didn’t Tyson get on with Ariaric and his court? Or was it Zobinek? He had assumed they were well suited. Pushing the information aside, he reminded himself that it wasn’t his affair and that he should not interfere in the young pure-born’s life. Tyson would not appreciate it.

“Both Cedony and Dree are waiting for you in the inner chambers, and Ariaric should arrive within the hour. He apologizes for the delay.” Tyson said as he returned to the Tigron’s side, steeling himself to meet the other’s eyes. He saw no judgement there and it relaxed him.

“No apology needed,” Pellaz dismissed.

“Would you like me to escort you?” Tyson couldn’t quite keep the warmth from his eyes.

“At present, I would much rather go down to the lower level and have a look at the artistic workshops there.”

Tyson pulled a face, picturing the place, and the delicate glass, gold and silver designs crafted there. It had always seemed like a waste of time to him, even though Sykernesse drew a lot of revenue from the creative talents there. Again it was an influence from Elisyin and his Ferike cousins.

“What about the two Hegemony Lords?”

“I am sure they are not going anywhere for a while.”

“Too true. Well let me escort you to the craft work shops then.” Tyson held out an arm to the smaller Har, but Pellaz just smiled in amusement and preceded the blond to the door. A little disappointed, yet hiding it well, Tyson quickly moved so as to catch up with the enchanting Tigron. He swallowed a sigh, awed by Pellaz’ perfection, a shining beauty which radiated from his spirit. Pellaz’ soft, luxurious black hair was braided at the ends with fine pearls, and he curled his fingers into a fist to stop the urge to just reach out and touch the bewitching Tigron. Like he used to…

Behind them Pellaz’ elite personal guards fell into position silently, their long golden-white hair as distinctive as their uniforms. Their presence wasn’t really needed inside the Palace of Sykernesse, but Tyson wasn’t going to dismiss them if Pellaz wasn’t concerned. Eyeing the silent Har beside him again, he let his smile grow pleasurably. Pellaz was just so… so… he was so captivated by the Tigron that Tyson could no longer even describe the feelings Pellaz’ presence caused in him. And just wishing he could demonstrate those feelings drove him insane at times, particularly as he believed Pellaz would not object. Could not object – that Pellaz wanted what he craved just as much, but was trapped behind his status as Tigron. Just like he was trapped by his position in the Sykernesse court.

He wanted to touch, embrace the slender Har. Obsession and desire torturously mixed, and Tyson flexed cramped fingers. It was pleasure and pain both as he walked along silently, absorbing the sight and smell of his smaller ex-lover. If he’d had his way, their relationship would never have ended. The thought tantalized him, and his grin widened.

“What in the name of Aghama are you thinking about?” Pellaz asked with a laugh, catching Tyson’s happy smile.

“Why?”

“Just the look on your face was-”

“Pell, I have an idea that’s better than the craft shop. Besides, you can see that place any time. So why don’t you let me take you somewhere peaceful so you can relax? I’ll order us some lunch and we can-”

“Tyson,” Pellaz broke in gently yet firmly.

“I have very little free time these days, and especially so when I am out of Immanion. So that when I do get time to myself, I really like to see how Hara are developing without the added hype of a tour. Do you understand?”

“No.” Tyson said bluntly.

“I was looking forward to some free time alone with you, and I thought you felt the same. Why can’t you take off the mantle of Tigron for just an hour?” Disconcerted by that, Pellaz just stared at his friend for a long moment.

“Being Tigron is not a mantle, Tyson, and you should know that.”

“I remember a time not so long ago when you used to relax. What has happened to that Har?” Tyson asked softly, reaching forward to take Pellaz’ cool hands.

“What has happened, Pell?” The words produced an image in Pellaz’ mind of him before Calanthe, and he shivered as an icy wind touched him. Banishing the memory, he met Tyson’s eyes, seeing his lover mirrored eerily there. No… Tyson was not Calanthe. That was over… Resolved… Shaking himself, Pellaz gently pulled his hands free of the warm embrace. Behind him stood his tall elite guards, and he turned away, tightening his coat absently.

“You were going to show me the work shop area. Yes?”

“Pell?” Tyson blinked at him, having read the emotions that chased across the unguarded face briefly.

“Tyson, we have had this discussion before, and I don’t want to open old-” He stopped and straightened his shoulders.

“The subject is closed. Is that understood?” The dark direct gaze that turned on him with those words chilled Tyson and he nodded, holding his tongue. He was far from satisfied, but speaking now would only isolate the Tigron more. Cursing his Hostling, he wondered what Calanthe had being doing to this gentle Har to make Pellaz so cold and uncommunicative.

Seeing his words have some effect, Pellaz watched Tyson worryingly. The other Har was obviously very unhappy, and he wondered if the problems were only with Zobinek. Tempted to offer help, he blocked the thought, thinking of Cal’s predictable reaction to that suggestion. Calanthe had not appreciated his interference with Briahaar, and neither had anyone else for that matter. So would Cal understand his desire to aid Tyson? Somehow he doubted it, could almost hear his soul-mates words… Tyson must learn to deal with problems himself… and of course Calanthe would be right. Pushing the very idea away again, Pellaz looked back down the corridor, seeing Cedony’s approach.

“Pell, my dear, Arahal said you were still out on the balcony and well, I was umm, worried.” Cedony tried to say tactfully.

Hiding his smile, Pellaz doubted certain Hegemony members would ever cease to worry about him and it warmed him as he lay a gentle hand on Tyson’s shoulder.

“Tyson has offered to show me the craft work shops.”

“I figured as much,” Cedony sighed, eyeing the young pure-born distrustfully. He had heard some of the rumors and it troubled him.

“I would be interested in seeing some of those supposedly magnificent sculptures also.”

“Fine. Tyson?” Pellaz let his voice soften slightly.

“This way, my Lords,” Tyson said respectfully, still stinging from Pellaz earlier words.

“Do you know where Ariaric is?” Pellaz asked as they followed their silent guide.

“I believe he was actually meeting with Gondrain on the Natawni border check-point. Something to do with custom payments,” Cedony waved a hand, not bothering to hide his disgust at the continued arguments between the two tribes.

“Ahh,” Pellaz nodded knowingly. You learnt a lot from unofficial visits…

“I contacted Phaonica.”

“Any problems?”

“None of importance. I believe Seel is currently visiting, as he and Swift have had a chance to meet for the first time with one of the Thaine Leaders.”

“Good.” Pellaz breathed.

“The Lands need to open further.”

“As I keep stressing, my dear, Thaine will not be the problem – it will be Florinada.” Dismissing that, Pell asked, “Any other news?”

“Jaden’s had another nightmare, but don’t worry as he is fine now.” Cedony ended hurriedly. He looked pointedly at the smaller Har.

“If you didn’t pamper the Harling so, he would not be so delicate.”

“That is not Jae’s problem,” Pellaz answered absently, not offended by Cedony’s words. He had heard the same too often from other Hegemony members.

“Anything else?”

“Nothing of importance.”

“We’ll be returning after I speak with Ariaric then-”

“I believe Elisyin is already preparing a banquet in your honor and I would strongly suggest you stay and be honored.” Seeing the slight scowl that marred the Tigron’s face, Cedony continued patiently.

“Think on it, Pell, how often does the court of Sykernesse get to see you? This will be only the third time, so resign yourself to the stay.”

Conceding the point, Pellaz nodded and saw Cedony’s small smile. Was this what the shrewd Hegemony members had been planning since their arrival? Releasing a breath, he prepared himself for a long evening.

“So my dear, what are you looking for in the Sykernesse workshop that Immanion doesn’t already own?”

“Something unique and special.” Pellaz let a secretive smile form.

“Special?” Tyson turned back at those words, hope beyond hope in his heart stirring to life again.

“Yes,” Pell let his smile encompass the tall blond who resembled his partner so eerily.

“Something for Cal.”

“Oh,” Tyson blinked then looked straight ahead, hastily hiding the sliver of pain those words caused. It would seem he still had a long battle in front of him if he wanted to win Pellaz’ heart.

Sitting back on the silken pillows, Pellaz gazed around the room in admiration. He was inside Ariaric’s and Elisyin’s private meeting quarters, and the room and attending Hara displayed the elegance and wealth of the household. It was stunning and Pellaz felt warmed sitting near the grated fire while he listened to the Archon explain to Dree what had occurred between the Niz police and the Natawni guards. Ariaric had only been back an hour, but he was attired as the perfect host, looking relaxed and pleased. Pellaz said nothing, listening to the explanations and covering his own smile when Ariaric turned to grin at him.

“These impromptu visits you and Calanthe spring on the tribes are a little disconcerting, Pellaz.”

“Why? Do you have something to hide?” Ariaric laughed, his voice a roar, reminding Pell of his host’s title – ‘The Lion’.

“Hide? We all have something to hide, even in Immanion I would wager.”

“Perhaps,” Pellaz let his amusement show, just slightly. It was enough to sober Ariaric, and the Archon cleared his throat, remembering that Pellaz was definitely not Calanthe, and that the strength in him was not as easily detected. A velveteen cord around one’s neck killed as easily as a sharp blade through the heart.

“I was pleasantly impressed with your arts workshop on the lower levels. The diversity of the skills of your Hara is very formidable.” Pellaz continued, noting Elisyin’s proud smile.

“The influence of the Ferike. I don’t have much time for it personally, but it supplies revenue. Elisyin and Zobinek detail the running of the area.” Ariaric motioned the servants for more wine.

“I hear you even contributed some Gelaming wealth to the store holders?”

“I collect art.” Pellaz dropped his head slightly to one side, studying the Archon.

“Tell me, if you don’t mind me asking-”

“Pellaz, you can ask anything.” Ariaric said smoothly as the Tigron paused.

“Can ask, but will it be answered?” Pellaz shot back seriously, used to these word games from Vaysh. Ariaric shrugged, his lids veiling his expression briefly, before he smiled generously.

“It depends if I know the answer. Some things are never meant to be answered.”

“And some things are never meant to be asked.”

“Exactly.” Pellaz swallowed his smile, watching Ariaric carefully and ignoring Cedony’s frown. Ariaric was once Uigenna, like Calanthe… “I was just concerned-”

“Concerned?” Ariaric broke in, thinking about his previous conversation about his Natawni neighbors.

“A personal concern only. Tyson said something earlier that made me feel all is not well between him and your son.”

“Ahhh…” Ariaric sighed.

“For a moment, my dear Pellaz, I had thought you were going to negotiate something new between myself and Gondrain.”

“I will if you’d like. I can see a thousand alternatives to your problems with the Natawni, if only you’d both be reasonable.”

“Some things are impossible to find reason in.”

“Yes, so I have heard.” Pellaz said in mock sympathy, not bothering to hide his grin, and was pleased when Ariaric eventually smiled also. It felt like some tension had just been released.

“You are disarming, Pellaz, but I suppose you are aware of that.” Ariaric said matter-of-factly and with no hesitation.

“Between you and Calanthe, I don’t know what to think any more. Tell me, do either of you ever find time to agree?” Dropping his head on the pillows, Pellaz laughed.

“You’d be surprised.”

“Yes, I probably would.” Ariaric agreed.

“Now with Tyson and Zobinek, I don’t really know to be honest. I see them both separately and usually for some reason or another.”

“Separately? Don’t they work together?”

“Tyson as you know is very like Calanthe. His mind is sharp, and I am having him trained in military areas. Zob on the other hand will be an administrator. I want him to rule Oomadrah in my absence.” Ariaric scratched his head and looked at his silent consort. Elisyin was just studying the wine in his glass, his fringe falling across his eyes.

“Ely?” Looking up, Elisyin first looked at Ariaric then at the Tigron. Pellaz’ expression wasn’t critical, in fact he seemed generally concerned as he lounged across the silk pillows, and Elisyin took a deep breath.

“There is some problem, but neither have spoken to any one about it. I suppose Tyson is more likely to open to you than any one here. But from what I can gather, Zobinek wants a Harling and because Tyson is officially his consort, he wants Tyson to host.”

“Oh,” Pellaz sat up seeing the conflict almost immediately.

“And Ty refuses, I take it?”

“Not only does he refuse, but he is adamant that he won’t get Zobinek hosting either. Ever!”

“They are young,” Ariaric broke in.

“… and as time passes they will change their minds.”

“Tyson is stubborn and pig headed.” Elisyin corrected.

“I am sure he would rather die than change his mind about anything!”

“I thought the same about Calanthe once, and look how he has matured.” Ariaric reached over and cupped his consort’s face.

“I am sure both will see sense.” Pellaz just bit his lip in thought wondering if Swift was aware of this little problem.

“It is just a minor family problem and I am sure you have similar concerns in Immanion.” Ariaric went on, looking back at the Tigron.

“I hear that Jaden is still experiencing nightmares. This has been going on for over a year now hasn’t it?” Pellaz just nodded marginally.

“If you ever need assistance, you know we are always willing to help. Family is family.”

“Thank you.” Pellaz acknowledged. Family is family? He kept forgetting that with Tyson’s bonding, through Calanthe, he was now technically related to Forever, Sykernesse and Zaltana. It didn’t make life easier, just more complicated.

“How is little Korryn?” Elisyin asked.

“We haven’t seen the official pictures of him yet, but have heard he is so much quieter than Jaden.”

“In a way, yes.” Pellaz admitted guardedly.

“Tell me, what are your impressions of Carrollion?”

“The Garridan?” Ariaric whistled out a breath.

“Pell,” Cedony glared at him.

“Don’t worry so, my old friend,” the Archon dismissed the Hegemony member’s concerns with a wave of his hand.

“Now that you mentioned it, I have been hearing quite a bit about him recently.”

“From where?”

“Oh Pellaz, the same place you probably hear it from. From my border patrols. He has made a good name for himself over the last few months, and he keeps it no secret that he wishes to open negotiations with the Hegemony and to speak with you.”

“He has an open invitation to Immanion.”

“He is Garridan.”

“Uigenna.” Pellaz corrected.

Ariaric stopped a second and gave a slight nod of his head in acknowledgment.

“Granted. And because of that he will not be able to accept your invitations. Rather I feel you must go to him. And I strongly doubt he will try to kill you so openly, not when he knows the entire Wraeththu council will exact a vengeance.”

“That fills me with reassurance.”

“Pellaz, were is your sense of challenge?”

“Buried with my sense of adventure.” Ariaric’s laughter filled the room.

“Then if he worries you so much invite him to meet on neutral grounds. Invite him here, as I have no objections to holding a Hegemony council in Sykernesse.”

“He does not worry me, Ariaric, he puzzles me.” Pellaz corrected firmly.

“But thank you for your offer, it will be considered.” And judging by the look on Cedony’s face, Pellaz mused, it will also be rejected. Ariaric was definitely spreading his wings, he would have to warn Cal of his friend’s ambitions.

A door opened at the far side of the room and a rush of cool air flooded the warm atmosphere briefly. Settling back down against the cushions, Pellaz watched as Tyson entered with Zobinek, the latter very subdued and not meeting his eyes. It was not like the Zobinek he had quietly spoken to six months ago. Something more was definitely wrong there… but what? And was it his place to interfere?

“Some business, I’m afraid. So please excuse me, Pellaz. I will see you again at dinner tonight, meantime please feel free to go where you wish. It is truly a pleasure to have you here.” With that Ariaric bowed and left the room. Zobinek went with him and Pellaz was left with Elisyin and Tyson, who settled himself on the pillows next to the Tigron.

“So Pell, tell me – is there anything in particular you’d like to see tonight in form of entertainment?”

***

Calanthe placed his wineglass down and considered Seel’s grave features.

“You’re not serious…”

“Cal,” Seel glanced at his hands, considering his next words carefully.

“I know Cobweb has personal – and private -” he added hastily, “problems, but I feel this goes even beyond that.” Letting a cynical smile touch his eyes, Calanthe exhaled loudly.

“Problems with Ash, or is his problem Vaysh?”

“Ashmael has never been anything more than a convenience for Cobweb, a tool he could manipulate. Hell, you’ve known that for as long as I have.” Seel said with a slight bite in his voice.

“No, that is not the issue here. Look, I just thought it was important enough to mention. Besides, it would not hurt if you came to Forever for a day and visited.”

“Can’t,” Calanthe dismissed with a shake of his head.

“Bring Jaden if you are worried about his dreams.” Seel offered.

Frowning, Cal asked, “You’ve heard about Jae’s nightmares?” amazed though not totally surprised. Nothing was private in his and Pell’s personal lives. Nothing.

“Most of the Royal Courts have heard of the nightmares he suffers.”

“He could be another Cobweb, with all the dark dreams he has.” Calanthe sighed.

“All the more reason to bring him to Forever.” Seel concluded.

“He can share Verian’s room and they can dream together.” Seel put in a little sarcastically, picturing his oldest son’s young Harling.

“Besides, Cobweb’s not well…” Calanthe ignored the dig, looking hard at Seel, trying to discern his meaning.

“Physically, mentally, spiritually or emotionally? Or all four in his case.”

Seel bit his lip as if debating saying more, glancing up and seeing Calanthe’s shrewd violet eyes pinning him expertly. The tall blond Tigron missed very little, and Seel shrugged his consent to the silent question.

“He claims to have spoken to Tersian.”

“Tersian!” Calanthe’s gut twisted in both pain and desire as he remembered the Varr.

“He’s dead.”

“So Thiede said.” Seel raised a pointed brow.

“No, that’s impossible…”

“You wish or know?”

“Cobweb’s just unsettled because of Ashmael.”

“You are sounding more Gelaming with each passing month.”

“You can speak!” Calanthe shot back appalled.

“Come to Forever, Cal, and talk to Cobweb yourself. See for yourself.”

“Maybe after the Talks-”

“That’s two months away still!” Seel stood up and poured himself more wine.

“Swift thinks he will be dead before then.”

“Seel-”

Sighing heavily, Seel leaned back against the drink stand and watched the contained blond Tigron. Something was eating at Calanthe, and he wondered what it was. Was it the pressures of being Tigron? The continuous tours? Or Pellaz?

“When’s Pell due back?”

“Soon,” It was non-committal.

“Where is he?” Seel pushed, debating whether to ask more when he read the look on Calanthe’s face.

“Sykernesse,” Calanthe said shortly, hand on hip as he challenged Seel to comment.

“Oh,” Was all Seel said, his mind filling in the missing details easily. He glanced out the large window framing the darkening sky.

“He will stay the night, I imagine. Elisyin and Ariaric’s hospitality is like that. How long has he been there?”

“Two days,” Calanthe told him, not meeting the almond shaped eyes as he lit a cigarette.

“It cannot be an official visit then, or it would have made the news.”

“It’s not.”

“Oh,” Seel said again, not liking Calanthe in this mood. He was far too contained and unpredictable.

“Come to Forever, Cal. Just for a night as I really think you need to speak with Cobweb. He is asking for you.”

“It can’t be helped. So tell me, is a delegation from Thaine going to be attending the Council?” Calanthe asked, smoothly changing the subject, keeping his expression and tone neutral.

Seel eyed him knowingly before seating himself again in one of the plush chairs.

“Swift’s working on it. Mind you it would make life easier if they would just agree to meet with you and some of the Hegemony.”

“Easier but not as nearly exciting.” Calanthe flashed an insincere grin. It disappeared quickly.

Looking up at him in the bright lights from the room, Seel was reminded suddenly of a younger Har. Bruised and slightly vulnerable. Worried, his mind still tried to work out a logical reason as to why Calanthe was acting like this. It had to be more than his insecurities regarding Pellaz and his visit to Sykernesse. A long time ago he had been chesna with both Tigrons on different occasions, and Seel believed he understood both Hara to a certain degree. So what now was going on in Cal’s beautiful head?

“I hear the tour Pell did in Emunah went particularly well.”

Turning away from the perceptive gaze, Calanthe just shrugged.

“Is it true that he went to Garridan?”

“No.”

Seel raised a questioning brow at the clipped answer. It was obvious that was a sensitive subject.

“No?”

“He went to Kalamah and Emunah only. With a stop at Oomadrah.” Calanthe concluded on an after-thought.

“Is the Hegemony having another problem with Ariaric again?” Seel asked tentatively, trying to draw Calanthe out.

“No.”

Again it was clipped, and Seel studied the ridged back present to him. Surely it couldn’t be the rumors about Ty which worried Cal…

“Cal, what’s eating you?” He asked carefully.

“You can not be worried about Pell and Tyson, surely?”

“Seel, you once said….” Calanthe trailed off, turning away again.

“What?” Standing, Seel followed him. Pushed a blond plait behind one ear as he studied his friend’s face.

“Cal, you know Pellaz. He ended that affair years ago. Not that is was ever anything substantial. They are only friends, like you and I.”

“Not like you and I.” Calanthe corrected softly.

“I think you worry too much. Besides, Ty is blood bonded to Zobinek, and can you imagine the political mess and broken alliances that would occur if Tyson dissolved that bonding for another. It would affect three royal households.” Seel smiled gently.

“It won’t happen, even if there was something going on between the two.” He placed a long fingered hand on the other’s shoulder.

“Aruna is aruna, remember we are Hara…” He waited for a response, and only got a grunt in reply.

“Look, you need to learn to trust Pellaz. He can be hard to take at times, but so can you. By the Aghama! He’s a Tigron, Cal. Lighten up, as he’s been disemboweling Hara for twenty odd years before you came to Immanion, so I think he’s big enough to look after himself. You should stop trying to shelter him-” he admonished as he drained his wineglass.

“… and come to Forever for the evening.” He walked over to the table and placed his wineglass down softly.

“I have to get back there myself. Come with me?”

Calanthe looked sideways at the other’s face. Was it true what Seel said? Was he being stupid? Over possessive? Except the Pellaz he knew seemed different to the one everyone else talked about. His Pellaz would not consent to take one step near Forever with him… So why was he being so paranoid still? Why was he worried? Why was he dwelling on the past? The Hegemony was a well-oiled machine, which did not need him, and his Harlings were with Caeru, and Pell was with… No he didn’t need this doubt. If Cobweb had truly had a vision… He had seen too much and heard too much to not believe in the talented mystic.

“Alright, just for the night.”

***

Arriving in Galhea a short time later, Calanthe was reminded of the peacefulness of the place as he handed Omar’s reins to the Hara waiting and glanced up at the mountains, watching the sun setting. It produced a beautiful burnt orange glow that warmed the snow-covered land.

“It’s freezing out here.” Seel mumbled.

“You coming?” Following the other into the huge mansion known as Forever, Calanthe was still lost in thought. Over the last year or so he had been spending more and more time considering the past – glimpsing images which were pivotal points in his life. None of the dark days – the days of blood – haunted him any longer, or hovered on the edge of his conscious mind. They were purged, but rather now he was able to consider his whole life, catalogue everything rationally and appreciate the experiences. It seemed as if his life was flashing before him, building to something vital, only he as yet could not identify it. He had experienced these slow, building feelings before when he had chased across Jaddayoth, and back then it had mostly frustrated him. Now he felt that frustration again, making him edgy. Images, memories, places and time… preparing him… That in itself was sobering. But what was about to happen?

Once inside the immaculate mansion, warmth hit him and Calanthe watched how Swift greeted Seel affectionately before handing him a glass of hot spiced wine. This wine was Pell’s favorite drink, not his…

“I’m glad you came. Cobweb was very insistent.”

“What’s this about, Swift. I don’t have times for games-”

“This is important. Very important.” Swift gestured the servants away, saying something quietly to Leef, the new head of Forever’s security, before turning back to him and motioning him to follow them.

Intrigued, and not as nearly upset as he made out, Calanthe followed them up the wide stairs and into Cobweb’s morning parlor. As always, the rooms were bright and warm, the rich furnishings only adding to the elegance of the house as servants melted out of his way. He glanced back at the four elite Gelaming guards which followed him, absently dismissing them before following Swift and Seel into the spacious room. It was hot inside the parlor. Shadows danced above the mantelpiece from the burning fires, soft music, rich drapes and furnishings adding also to the feel of heat in the room. Walking over to the long couch, Calanthe was shocked to see Cobweb looking so… so ill. He knelt down beside the couch and touched a too thin hand. It was paper dry and deathly pale.

“What’s wrong with him?” Calanthe asked horrified as he looked up anxiously, seeing his fears mirrored in Swift and Seel’s faces. When Seel had said he was not well, he had imagined a ruse. But now…

“It started about a week ago. He awoke screaming, speaking in riddles and has refused to eat or drink since.” Swift explained.

“Cal…”

Cal turned at the raspy voice, unable to acquaint the normally sensual and beautiful creature with the Har lying before him.

“Cal… I’m glad you came…”

“Cobweb, what’s wrong?” He looked back at Seel and Swift.

“Have you called the healers!”

“No.” The word was harsh and drew Calanthe’s attention back to the sick Har.

“No, Cal.” Cobweb repeated. He gave a half-hearted smile, drawing the other closer.

“Not until I can tell you what I perceive… or I may lose…”

“But you need healing.” Calanthe reasoned, leaning down to brush fine dark hair from smooth skin.

“Like that time, years ago, when you found me broken and dying…”

“Cobweb-”

“…even then you allowed – no insisted – a naively young, talented, yet extremely inexperienced Har heal me….”

“Pell did what was necessary.” Calanthe smiled, remembering the time also. A life time ago.

“And so is a healing now.”

Cobweb waved a dismissive hand.

“Later. First I must speak with you privately, while I remember it all.” His eyes briefly touched the other two standing behind Calanthe and he gave them a silent command. Both Swift and Seel reluctantly turned and moved away.

“What can be so important that you refuse healing?” Calanthe chided softly, taking the cool long fingered hand in his own.

“I had a waking vision.” Cobweb declared, his eyes taking on a clarity that had not been evident before. Frowning, Calanthe stared at him.

“Seel told me you saw Tersian.”

Cobweb shook his head.

“Yes and no.”

“Which?”

“The matter of visions are part physical and part spiritual, and all solely at the mercy of the reciprocant.” He closed his eyes briefly, as if gathering strength.

“Cobweb…”

“Be silent!” His voice cracked Calanthe to attention.

“I saw horrors, Cal. Deathly horrors. We Wraeththu are too secure, too sure, and we have become lax… forgotten what it means… A cloud of blood approaches, disguised… from where I do not know. I only know it means death. I hear a voice screaming over and over, a piercing cry. Such desolation… I feel insanity engulf us all… It is our destruction, our savior.”

Cal frowned harder, trying to make sense of the whispered words.

“A war?”

“I do not know. I see no faces, I just experience a sweeping insanity.” Cobweb suddenly turned his hand over and gripped Calanthe’s wrist painfully hard.

“You must prevent the madness. You are the only one capable of stopping it. Stop it before it touches everything and destroys the world as we know it now. For if it should happen nothing can ever be the same again.”

Disturbed more than he wanted to admit, Calanthe watched as Cobweb closed his eyes again and appeared to settle into a sleep. His chest rose gently, his face relaxed as if a great burden had just been lifted. Staring at him a moment longer, Calanthe slowly lay the hand he held down and stood. Glancing up, he found Swift and Seel standing near the door. Two of Cobweb’s personal servants hovered nearby and he gestured them over as he walked towards the two Megalithicians.

“Did you hear?” Cal asked quietly as they left the room.

“No.” Swift said.

“But I’ve heard his predictions before, and I must say, he’s rarely lucid.”

“Prediction!” Calanthe scoffed.

“He talks of total destruction of the Wraeththu world. Of a war,”

“Figuratively, or physically?” Seel asked.

“Does it matter, both are as bad as the other.” Swift reminded them.

“What can we do?”

“Has he seen a healer?” Calanthe asked.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“They say he will recover with food and rest.” Calanthe nodded.

“Look, not a word of this to anyone. Can you keep Ash away until he’s better?”

“Ashmael hasn’t been here in two months, so I don’t think that will be a problem.”

Looking back at the closed door, Calanthe thought again on all that Cobweb had said.

“If he says anything else….” He left the rest unsaid, knowing he could trust the two Megaliticians.

***

Throwing his heavy, fur-lined coat across the back of a chair; Pellaz looked around the room. He was not surprised to find Cal gone – visiting Forever again… he was just a little hurt that his blood bond couldn’t wait ten days. Couldn’t wait before running off to Cobweb.

But it didn’t matter, he told himself, he would not let it matter, sinking himself into the problems at hand. Professionally, they worked extremely well together. Pulling the ties of his silk shirt loose, Pellaz gulped his drink down, walking towards the partially open door. In the other room two of his personal elite guard waited and he gestured one over.

“My Lord?” The immaculate guard spoke softly, a perfect Gelaming in every sense of the word, his eyes not meeting the Tigron’s.

“Find Ashmael and Cedony. I want them here in less than an hour.”

“At once, my Lord.” Seeing Attica, Pellaz asked, “My Harlings?”

“My Lord, Tigrina Caeru took charge of them after you left. They are probably asleep by now… do you want me to bring them to your rooms?”

Worried, and wanting them close, Pellaz never the less saw the practical nature of Caeru’s foresight, and he sighed. Attica, he knew, would of course have brought them if he could, and he smiled gently for the first time at his house Har.

“No, leave them, I will go to them later.” Besides, it wasn’t their fault he was disgruntled. Restless… upset?

Ashmael and Cedony found him within the hour, seated in front of the fire sipping his hot wine. His plate of food barely touched as he lounged back, long hair spilling over the white cushions, Pellaz resurrected a grin for his two old friends, and Hegemony members.

“Could this not wait until tomorrow.” Cedony bitched.

“I am shattered.”

“You are lazy,” Ashmael growled, though he too would have liked a day’s rest. Pellaz could be a harsh taskmaster when he set his mind to it.

“The reports Arahal sent back were very informative. It would appear, my dear Pellaz, that you have won a friend for life in the Garondel of Emunah.”

“Trust, Ash. Just pure trust. It is what we need to develop with the other tribes.” Pellaz let his eyes encompass the two older Hara.

“He will come to the council with a number of the ruling Nasnan.”

“It was to be expected.”

“Better, it is confirmed.” Ashmael nodded in agreement at the Tigron, moving across the room to the drink cabinet.

“And Kalamah?”

“Committed, more for the trade lines than anything else.”

“Their wines, tiahaar, are exquisite.” Cedony sighed.

“Which you sampled extensively,” Pellaz reminded him pointedly.

“They also will fall into line, if only to protect their borders from Wursm’s hunger for land.”

“Which no doubt you pointed out?” Ashmael grinned down at the relaxed sprawl of the dark haired Tigron.

“Diplomatically of course.” Cedony added.

“Of course,” Ashmael purred the word as his eyes found Pellaz’, seeing the seductive smile spread across the other’s beautiful features.

“And Oomadrah?”

“Sykernesse is as secluded from Oomadrah as Phaonica is from Jaddayoth.” Pellaz said sarcastically.

“The Niz see to that.” He waved a hand extensively.

“Pellaz, you can not mean that,” Ashmael mocked.

“Ariaric and Wrark Fortuny would be mortified to hear you speak so.”

“Wrark Fortuny holds too much sway over Ariaric. His Niz are not answerable enough.”

“Ah Pell, my dear Pellaz, I thought Thiede purged those unhealthy thoughts from your brain years ago.” Ashmael shook his head insincerely.

“He tried.” Pellaz shrugged.

“Get Arahal to keep a closer eye on the borders between Maudrah and Natawni, as I think Ariaric’s up to something.”

“Revenue?”

“Maybe, but he also knows a lot more than he’s letting on about what’s happening in Garridan.”

“Interesting.” Ashmael murmured.

“Very interesting.”

“Is that why you were baiting him?” Cedony asked, looking at Pellaz and noting his smile.

“Sneaky, Pell. You’re spending too much time around Cal-”

“No,” Pellaz corrected, “Ariaric was just a little too familiar, and Elisyin was a lot more nervous about something other than his son’s troubled bonding.” Cedony glanced up at Ashmael and nodded in agreement.

“Pell’s right. He was very casual, even invited Pell to hold a Hegomony session in Sykernesse with the Garridans.”

“I’ll get Arahal to have someone look into it.”

“Good.” Pell pushed himself up, stretching as he stood.

“I’ll call a Hegomony session tomorrow morning. Ask Arahal to gather all his reports from his patrols, as the Tribes are restless, and I want to know why.”

“And Calanthe?” Cedony asked quietly.

“He’s in Forever, I hear,” Pell dismissed.

“He apparently only left a few hours before we got back. I’ll have him notified.” Cedony decided, knowing Pellaz’ stubborn moods very well.

“Do it in the morning.” Pellaz decided.

“Make sure Caeru is at the Hegalion tomorrow, as I think it might be a good idea to go into the Sanctum and consult Thiede.” Cedony nodded, eyeing Ashmael briefly and seeing the other Har was making no move to leave. He sighed resignedly, wondering if it would not be wise to call Calanthe back tonight. Trouble was brewing. If it was left to Pellaz, he knew the other would conveniently forget to inform Calanthe of the Council.

“Goodnight then,” Cedony muttered, turning and leaving the two.

Understanding Cedony’s half hearted glare better than he let on, Pellaz just settled back against the cushions of his large sofa and watched Ashmael.

“So…” Feeling the undercurrents in the room around him strongly, Ashmael smiled slowly at the other Har, closing the door softly behind Cedony. He ambled over to the drink cabinet, refilling his own glass and one for the sprawled Tigron. Going back to Pellaz, he offered it to him.

Letting his smile become seductive, Pellaz accepted the glass, never taking his eyes off the tall blond strategist.

“So… Ash, do you by any chance know why Calanthe went to Forever this time?”

“I could guess, but then you’re not stupid either.” Pellaz raised a brow acknowledging the point.

“So what has happened between you and the mystic?”

“Nothing.” Ashmael shrugged casually.

“We are friends-”

“Friends?” Pellaz drew the word out. Placing his glass down, he pushed himself up and went to stand in front of the taller Har. Raising a hand he gently traced a finger along Ashmael’s smooth jaw.

“I thought you two were-” Catching the slender wrist, Ashmael held the hand firmly, locking eyes with the mischievously darker ones of the Tigron. He felt a wash of alluring anticipation and slowly let a smile grow as he studied the up turned and bewitching face. Only once before had he tasted the hunger of this Har, and then that too had been totally unexpected.

“Friends…” He breathed the word.

“And Vaysh?” It was teasing.

Knowing Pellaz was toying with him only increased the thrill and Ashmael shifted his body closer so they lightly brushed.

“Is none of your business.”

“Oh, but it is.” Pellaz let his amusement show, as he attempted half-heartedly to twist his wrist free. The strategist increased his grip, and Pellaz licked his lips suggestively seeing the clear blue eyes dilate in the muted light.

“You see, Thiede gave him to me…” Pellaz let the thought hang, pleased when he felt the tall, over-confident and irritatingly smug Har tense against him. He liked getting this attractive Har off balance, and he dropped his eyes to hide his thoughts.

Caught in the other’s enticing web, Ashmael reached over and turned the other’s chin up, intrigued by the veiled lashes and reading what Pellaz wanted. He wanted it too. A rare pleasure, seldom tasted, and hungrily desired. He claimed Pellaz’ mouth and body.

Celebrating their freedom and floating high on the intoxicating after-effects of aruna, neither spoke. Around them the fire crackled, breaking up the muffled sounds in the warm room. Reaching down, Ashmael touched the swollen lips under his, delighting in the hot spicy breath, which assaulted his senses, prolonging the sharing. Time seemed to still until Pellaz stretched, retrieving his forgotten drink from a low table. His pale skin gleamed in the firelight as he thoughtfully offered his companion a sip of the tepid wine.

“So will you tell Calanthe about this?” Ashmael asked, more curious rather than worried as he traced a finger across Pellaz’ chest. Last thing he wanted was an argument with the blonde Tigron.

“None of his business,” Pellaz half shrugged, sipping his wine.

Accepting, but not believing that, Ashmael rolled away, settling back on the furs to stare at the ceiling.

“And Vaysh?” Pellaz asked, following him over.

“None of your business.” Ashmael repeated, turning his head and watching the alluring Tigron.

“Wrong.” Pushing a long strand of hair behind one ear, Pellaz considered the other Har seriously.

“Ash, Vaysh is closer to me than…”

“Than Cal?”

“No, and yes. Vaysh is my family.” He attempted to explain.

Shifting to lie on his side, Ashmael frowned, realizing Pellaz was not toying with him any longer, but serious.

“Go on.”

“Thiede attempted to do to him what he did to me. Only Thiede burned him. Irretrievably burned him. Vaysh is fragile for all his show of strength, and I will not see him hurt.” The words were soft, yet the promise behind the words was iron, and Ashmael knew enough about Pellaz to know that his deceptive looks hid a very strong and powerful Har.

“I do not wish to hurt him, I just want…”

“Want what?”

“Want to know him again. We shared…” Ashmael broke off and exhaled loudly.

“You shared what Cal and I shared before Thiede wrenched us apart.”

“How?” Ashmael swung his eyes back on the Tigron.

“Vaysh told me years ago. Within my first few months here in Phaonica in fact. I’ve known for years how he feels about you…”

Feeling his heart tear at that, Ashmael sat up and abruptly turned away from the dark eyed monster before him.

“You’ve known!”

“Yes.” Sitting up also and drawing his knees to his chest, Pellaz reached out and placed a firm hand on the strategist’s tanned back.

“As I said, we are family. As close as two Hara birthed from the same Hostling… Closer, even. Except our Hostling was Thiede, a cold and unrelenting father.” He dropped his head to one side, as if debating to say more.

“If you decide to pursue Vaysh, it must be whole hearted.”

“What!” Swinging back, Ashmael stared at him in disbelief.

“You’re Gelaming, how can you say that! You sound like… like Cal!”

“Calanthe is our conscience, our reminder that we still live. And live not just physical lives but emotional lives as well. He is chaos…”

“Pell-” Ash shook his head, never having heard such words from the normally level headed Pellaz.

“If you go after Vaysh, you must do it completely.” Pellaz repeated, a hard edge coming into his voice, his eyes holding the other Har’s and not releasing him.

“Anything less would be cruel.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then I won’t let you near him.” It was said so simply, yet it held a promise that even Ashmael had to acknowledge. He knew Pellaz could do as he implied.

“You can’t…” it was half whispered and Ashmael trailed off, feeling himself at a crossroad. He felt lost for the first time in over forty years, anchorless and incomplete as he stared at the other, sinking into the liquid gaze.

Pellaz saw the fear in the handsome face and pitied him, understanding that desolate emptiness. He watched, knowing the other must give him an answer.

Considering all that had been said and all that Pellaz left unsaid, Ashmael lifted his eyes to look anywhere but at his persecutor.

“Pell,” he licked suddenly dry lips, dropping his gaze back down to the astute one which greeted him.

“Completely…” It was just one word, but it held the fate of two Hara, and Pellaz gently reached forward and drew the other to him, enfolding him in his arms. Offering comfort.

***

Striding up the wide marble staircase which led to the third level of the Phaonica, Calanthe cursed Tharmifex and his blatant questioning. So far since arriving back in Immanion that morning, he’d had hardly a minute to himself. Ushered into the Hegalion by Cedony first thing, he and Pellaz had no time for more than a formal hello before politics had taken over. Then into the temple, where with Caeru, nothing again had been said and he felt he was behind everything by about half a day. Of course Pellaz had done nothing to make life easier, a sure way of knowing his soul mate was displeased with his venture back into Galhea. Then to end it all off – Tharmifex had introduced him to the three new members of Immanion society who would sit in at this year’s Council talks. Pellaz had left him, as his irritatingly stubborn co-ruler had already met the three Hara.

Reaching the top level of the immaculate Phaonica, Calanthe took a deep breath and turned to his and Pellaz’ private rooms. Inside, Vaysh, who was always present, was bitching about something to Pell, and he abruptly stopped when Calanthe appeared. Pellaz was wiping Jaden’s face, and didn’t bother to look up as other Hara fussed around their youngest Harling, Korryn.

“Cal.” Vaysh straightened. He looked flushed, angry, but as always declined to say more when Calanthe was around.

“Vaysh, don’t worry so much,” Pell said absently, as he turned away from Jaden and spared Calanthe a tight smile. Watching him, Calanthe put his hands on his hips and waited. Giving up after a minute, because it was useless, he took control.

“Attica! Cleis! Take the Harlings and go. Vaysh, you too and take all the servants with you. Tigron Pellaz and I need to discuss a few topics.” Calanthe dismissed them all, feeling Pell’s displeasure but knowing the other would not say a word. At least not in public…

When the door had finally closed behind Vaysh, Calanthe breathed out explosively, eyeing his chesna distrustfully.

“Why, Pell?”

“Why what?”

Total innocence and it infuriated Calanthe even more.

“Why the fuckin’ games!? And WHY a Hegemony session now when we had one scheduled next week?!”

“Arahal had information from his patrols which I wanted raised. There is trouble out in the lands and I want it pin pointed.”

“Fine! But at least you could tell me.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you last night…”

“Fuck it, Pell!” Calanthe strode across the space between them and glared at the smaller Har.

“I went to Forever just before you got back here because Seel was worried about Cobweb.”

“Naturally.”

“Listen!” Calanthe admonished, raising a hand and rubbing his face.

“I don’t want to argue, and what I tell you now must not reach the ears of the Hegemony. At least not until we know more. Promise?”

Blinking at the blond Tigron, Pellaz frowned.

“Not tell the Hegemony? Cal, what has Cobweb got you involved in now?”

“Promise?” Calanthe asked again.

“It is important, Pell. Please trust me?” Studying him a moment longer, Pellaz nodded once.

“About a week ago, Cobweb had a waking vision. Scared the life out of Swift and Seel. Now considering Jae’s nightmares, I felt it might be an idea to find out more.”

Sighing at his partner’s twisted logic, Pellaz stepped away from Calanthe and sat down. He looked up at his lover and crossed his legs.

“Go on. I suppose Cobweb could only tell you this vision?”

“He doesn’t trust many people.” Calanthe defended, sitting on the low table in front of the other Har.

“He saw blood-”

“How unusual.” Pellaz quipped.

“Did this walking corpse have a name?”

“Pell, please,” Calanthe stressed, forcing patience.

“He also saw a cloud of darkness and insanity engulfing the Wraeththu tribes.” He watched as Pellaz frowned, his dark eyes searching his. It was a good sign, at least the other was starting to thinking. Starting to consider.

“War?”

“That’s what I asked, but he did not know. He says it is soon.”

“There is unrest out there, Cal. I felt it this time. An uneasiness, like the land is drawing in a large breath and holding it.”

“I know.” He looked at his hands.

“But we are aware of it, so that is an advantage.”

“So why must the Hegemony not know of Cobweb. He is a known mystic and respected for that.”

“I do not want to panic them. I have seen predictions like this before, for fucks sake, they dogged my every move a few years ago, and until we work out a strategy, I’d like to keep this bit of information to ourselves.”

“Be one step ahead,” Pellaz asked slyly.

“Why not.” Calanthe moved across to sit next to his companion.

“How was Sykernesse?”

“Informative.” Pellaz offered, then seeing Calanthe’s face pale, relented.

“Ariaric was hospitable. He is a shrewd one, Cal, and knows more of what is happening in the surrounding lands than he offers.”

“Naturally, it’s all in his background.”

“Uigenna?”

“That, plus he always has to be in control. And don’t forget he has Wrark Fortuny and his Niz.” Calanthe glanced sideways at his lover.

“I’m continually amazed that Thiede and the Hegemony allowed Wrark Fortuny so much control.”

“He was no danger.”

“He does not have the Gelaming’s finely honed sense of honor. He can be very ruthless, like Ariaric.”

“With a Uigenna background…” Pellaz mused.

“I think he knows what’s happening in Garridan.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.” Calanthe agreed. He took Pellaz’ hand and squeezed the slender fingers and was reassured when the gestured was mirrored.

“Is Arahal on it?”

“Yes.” Pellaz sighed.

“And Thaine? What did Swift say that you did not mention this morning in the Hegalion?”

“That there are not as many tribes, pockets of Wraeththu, living out in the wilderness as we were first led to believe. He feels Florinada will be a bigger problem.”

“So I keep hearing.” Pellaz stood up and walked over to an ornate table, opening a draw.

“Oh yes, last night your friend Tel-an-kaa contacted Ashmael. It seems Opalexian will be unable to attend the Council in two months.”

“Our friend.” Calanthe corrected mildly.

“And the news was expected. She wants us to go to her.”

“I would not mind going to Roselane.” Calanthe smiled as the other gave him a mock pout.

“You just want to see what the females are up to.”

“Kamagrian.” Pellaz reminded, always amused at Cal’s narrow-minded view of their sister race. For as long as he could remember, Calanthe had never liked or trusted the women.

“Kate says Shilalama is beautiful this time of year.”

“You can’t go.” Calanthe repeated tiredly, used to this discussion.

“Not with the talks so close and the problems in Garridan. Then there is Florinada to content with and this Tribe called Sorrandite. Besides, when we go to Roselane, we go together.”

“Summer.” Pellaz decided, walking back over to his partner and holding something behind his back.

“We’ll go then, and we can take the Harlings.”

Looking up through his lashes, Calanthe shook his head, but had to smile as Pellaz pushed him back against the cushions and sat astride him. He relaxed further and watched his chesna.

“While in Sykernesse I visited the craft workshops. They are magnificent.”

“They’re run by a Ferike, so of course they are, my precious.” Calanthe purred, liking Pellaz in this forceful mood.

“Mind you, I did not say much as it is not good to tell a Ferike he is good.” Calanthe scoffed, “I thought you liked all Hara…”

“Some are less likeable.” Pellaz teased, bringing the wrapped present out from behind his back.

“But I found this for you.”

Taking the gift, Calanthe mentally regretted all his nasty thoughts of the last three days about Pellaz and his reasons for visiting Sykernesse. He carefully unwrapped the parcel to find an exquisitely hand crafted gold woven belt. It was beautiful, and just weighted enough to sit wonderfully on his hips. He glanced up and caught the smile in his partner’s eyes.

“Pell, you shouldn’t have…”

“I wanted to.” And it was as simple as that. And to the point, totally honest, touching him in a way few things could. Reaching up, Calanthe mingled their breaths, fingers sliding under Pellaz’ shirt.

“So what did you do last night when you returned to Immanion?”

“Nothing-” Accepting that and feeling the stress of the last ten days leave his body, Calanthe relaxed back as Pellaz’ teeth nipped him lightly on the neck. Mentally he considered what was happening around the Palace, then dismissed the thought, delighted to have Pellaz all to himself for a change, and he lifted the smaller up as he stood.

Laughing, Pellaz glanced at Calanthe’s flushed face as he was roughly carried into their adjoining bedchamber and unceremoniously thrown on the large bed.

“Cal!”

“Shut up, and come here,” Calanthe whispered, lazily pulling off his shirt and discarding it on the floor. Pellaz, giggling now, his co-ordination gone, watched his lover lever off warm boots and unbutton snug fitting leather pants.

“These are new,” he observed, reaching over to feel the soft leather, his large eyes rising to meet sensual amusement.

“Picked them up in Galhea a few months ago, and just remembered to wear them home this morning.” Calanthe leaned over the sprawled figure on the bed and leered at him suggestively.

“Are you going to undress, or have you finally turned kinky on me?”

Giving another breathy laugh, Pellaz slowly attempted to undo his shirt buttons, feeling his cheeks burn as he was swamped by Calanthe’s open and blatant stare.

“Cal..?”

“Do you think Jae and Korry are lonely yet?” Eyes widening in disbelief, Pellaz just blinked as the teasingly enticing mouth twitched into a smile, and he reached up to grab a handful of blond hair. He dragged the other down and whispered suggestively –

“Why, are you offering?”

Smiling, Calanthe bit the moist lips, settling heavily on the partially stripped body, fingers tangling in long silky hair.

“No… not at the moment anyway… I was just wondering-”

“Forget it.” Pellaz advised. He squirmed delighted, feeling Calanthe’s lazy passiveness and openness.

“That reminds me, I have a bit of gossip from Sykernesse.”

“Gossip ahh?” Only half interested, Calanthe leaned up on one elbow and yanked the ties loose on Pellaz’ silk outfit.

“What has Elisyin done now?”

“Not Elisyin,” Pellaz purred, lifting up slightly so his clothing could be removed, one hand settling firmly behind Calanthe’s neck to draw him closer. Pausing, he hesitated, considering his words carefully as he watched Calanthe through long lashes.

“It’s Zobinek.”

“Zob? What’s he done now? Caused another war?” Calanthe snickered, fingers running down the smooth skin beneath him. How he loved Pellaz…. Exerting a little pressure, Pellaz half turned them over, his hair trailing across them both as he shook his head marginally.

“No, but he’s very upset with Tyson.”

Raising a brow, Calanthe blinked, focusing harder on the face above him, reading the fleeting emotions easily. Why was it always bloody Tyson?

“Why is Zob upset?”

“Family squabbles. It seems Tyson is being a difficult Consort and refusing to Host.” Pellaz smiled down brilliantly, thinking about what the pure born had and had not said to him. Stubbornness seemed to run in the family…

“Really,” Calanthe did not find the information at all amusing and he tightened his hold on the slender body.

“He can be perverse.”

Pellaz gave another breathy laugh,

“Don’t I know it-” Roughly rolling them both over again, Calanthe pinned the smaller body under his expertly, silencing the protests. With his pulse deafening in his own ears he pushed all feelings of passive laziness aside as an evil glint entered his violet eyes. Sweep along by the sudden change of intensities, Pellaz gasped in mixed shock and startlement, igniting a wildness reminiscent of the old days. He drew blood as his nails embedded in Calanthe’s shoulder, his teeth locking onto the tender flesh.

Possessing the body and experiencing the exhilarating wantonness, Calanthe laughed delighted, hands pinning his captive down by long stands of damp hair as he bit an exposed ear, removing the heavy gold earrings one by one. Shimmering colors of gold and emerald were reflected in the eyes that locked on him and Calanthe laughed again, very pleased. The magic was still there, mingled liberally with love, need and desire, settling his spirit. Pellaz was definitely his. Let Tyson try and emulate that!

Chapter five.

Present

“Fuck…” Calanthe breathed the word, shaking off the lingering images in his brain with difficulty. Pain engulfed his loins, his abdomen constricting, and he dry-retched. Why now… why now of all times when his son needed him. When Jaden needed him… was waiting for him…

But that was nothing new either, as he had not been there for Tyson, so maybe he was to blame for Tyson’s behavior? Shaking his head he wiped sweat – tears – from his face and studied his trembling fingers. The niggling fear, paranoia ate at him still as he remembered the events of six years ago. Everything was fresh and raw in his memory like yesterday. The coldness of that winter, paralleling with the heat of the following summer, for nothing seemed to resolve itself. His and Pellaz’ personal problems had been nothing… hindsight now was wonderful, but back then he…

He wished he could go back, take it all back, stop the events unfolding. Heed Cobweb’s warning – but even that whispered caution had got lost in the following months. Four years had passed. Jaden had turned five and Korryn three and a half years old. The distrust and unease in the land had increased and no matter how many tours Ashmael and the Hegemony arranged, nothing seemed to lessen the growing tension in the twelve tribes and surrounding lands. Swift had also started to express his concern about Tyson and the fact Ariaric had pulled the pure-blood off all diplomatic tours out of Sykernesse.

“No…” Gripping his temples, Calanthe looked across the pool into the gloom. He was a nervous wreck, yet still the memories consumed him. They could not be stopped. He wanted to deny them, refuse to succumb to them, but he could picture all too easily the then approaching storm. ‘Storm of Blood,’ just like Cobweb had predicted. A storm rolling down to engulf him again.

Jaden had been growing fast – but wild. The developing child suffered from nightmares, sometimes nightly and Pellaz had refused to leave Immanion because of Jae’s dreams. Pellaz had been worried, distracted… and he had needed Pell’s full attention.

“Fuck!” Calanthe whispered. He remembered their arguments. He had needed Pellaz’ assurances. His love. His comfort…. his touch so badly.

He remembered Pellaz’ adamant refusals to leave Phaonica. His lover’s refusals to go with him even to Forever. He remembered it all. He remembered arguing. He remembered the pain. He remembered he had gone to Forever alone.

He had gone to Cobweb and left Pellaz behind.

Flashback

Gulping down his third straight drink, Calanthe let the alcohol seep into his system, pleased when he felt the tingle start in his toes. Rarely in Immanion was he able to revert to old vices without feeling guilty, but here in Forever it was as if he had come home. He could relax without being watched constantly. And if it wasn’t the Hegemony watching him then it was the damn journalists. He felt their lives were under a microscope, and he just wished Pellaz would consent to escape with him.

“No!” Calanthe said aloud, filling up his glass again. He wasn’t going to think about that. Wasn’t going to think about Pell tonight.

“What?” Sitting across from the strikingly seductive Har, Cobweb watched the ritual as Calanthe dulled his senses with alcohol. It was his normal routine when unofficially visiting, a habit he had gotten into over the last three years.

“Just thinking aloud.” Calanthe offered as he slumped heavily back in his spacious chair, savoring his drink now. He felt marginally better, even if everything was in a temporary haze. He had dismissed his elite guard back to Immanion, ignoring Arahal’s standard orders, knowing he would hear about it again… in triplicate.

“Things must be-” Cobweb paused, choosing his next words carefully as he saw the violet eyes raise to watch his warily.

“…tense in Immanion. For this is your second visit in less than two months. Unofficial visit that is.” He ended shrewdly.

“I just needed a few hours away.”

“Cal, you can not always run from problems.”

“I’m not.” He said concisely.

“Merely stepping sideways for a while. Besides, they all take themselves too seriously.”

He drained his glass and reached for the bottle.

“And Pellaz?” Cobweb ventured. He found it was usually safe to ask that question after Calanthe had already consumed half a bottle.

“Refuses to venture outside his polished walls.” It was spoken in disgust. “He and Vaysh would probably die of shock if they had to view the outside world without protective glasses.” It was cruel and he knew it.

“Pellaz is not sheltered.” Cobweb said softly, more aware of the smaller Tigron’s fears than Calanthe would ever knew, or guess. He understood Pellaz. He had a very clear memory of Pellaz walking away from Forever as a young, naive, vulnerable and impressionable Har. He had seen the look of fear in those dark eyes – in fact he had deliberately planted that fear deep in the other’s subconscious during aruna. For he had wanted Pellaz to leave and take Calanthe with him. That Cal had come back a year or so later must really have hurt the dark eyed and dark haired young Har. And the fact that Calanthe willing continued to return even now must cause Pellaz considerable pain – even the older, wiser Tigron Pellaz. Oh yes, he understood Pellaz far better than many believed.

“You should not push him so.” Cobweb whispered.

“He’s an idiot. A royal pain in the ass-” Calanthe swallowed the last word on a laugh.

“He’d love it here. Hell, I remember when he loved this place…. It was a world away from everything else.”

“Maybe his memories are different.” Cobweb offered carefully.

“No,” Cal dropped his head back.

“He just listens too much to Vaysh. Damn Vaysh! He’s Ashmael’s problem, not Pell’s!” Scowling at that, Cobweb studied the nails on his hands intently. He hadn’t seen Ashmael for months, even though their affair had ended years ago. Yet, still it niggled him.

“Fuck it, Cobweb, don’t play coy with me! You couldn’t really give a damn who’s fuckin’ who, so don’t get all temperamental.” Calanthe pointed out bluntly.

“Ashmael is driving everyone crazy! He’s functioning on only one level, and he floats around Phaonica in a total daze, acting more inept than usual. Vaysh hides in our private rooms, and Pellaz delights in involving himself in the chaos.” He swallowed another mouthful of the potent drink.

“Makes my hair stand on end.”

“Well, that would explain it, I suppose,” Cobweb sighed casually.

“Mind you, it sounds like another blond, yet totally inept Har I knew a few years ago. He had the same smug, over-confident attitude, too sensual for his own good, yet that Har made a complete idiot of himself over another stubborn dark-eyed Har. Made the international papers even.”

“You trying to be smart?” Calanthe tried for belligerence and failed. He remembered his own past far too well and how he’d chased Pellaz. Looking around, his eyes settled on a small round table beside his chair.

“Where does Seel hide his cigarettes now?”

“He’s given up.”

“Gods, not again, how can he do this to me!”

“Cal, I’m curious,” Cobweb ignored the glare leveled at him as he leaned forward and met the wary violet eyes. There was caution and bewilderment in their depth.

“What is driving you? It has to be more than just the stress of being Tigron – and Ashmael’s pathetic attempts to gain Vaysh’s attention.” He ended with a strained smile.

“Is it Pellaz, and the rumors I hear about Tyson? Or is it Jaden?”

The voice was hypnotic, and Calanthe shook his head, feeling the slight use of occult magic Cobweb wove into his words.

“Don’t try your tricks on me, Cobweb, it won’t work.”

“Cal, you need to talk sometime, why not now? We are alone, and my house Hara are very discreet.” He let the smile grow, moving a hand to rest it on the other’s firm warm thigh.

“Cobweb no.” Getting distracted, Calanthe was surprised to find the mystic had moved and was now sitting next to him. Warm hands softly caressing his chest.

“What I need is a cigarette…”

“You know you shouldn’t listen to the rumors,” Cobweb whispered seductively.

“Rumors are rarely accurate.”

“What rumors? What do you know about Tyson and-” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. To verbalize his fear.

“Do you honestly think Pellaz would chase Tyson?”

It was said so reasonably that Calanthe found it had to think otherwise for a moment.

“But he is not scarred,” Where the hell had that come from… he wondered, and Calanthe frowned, turning to meet the hypnotic eyes of the mystic.

“He is not damaged… blood stained-”

“You are blind. In Pellaz’ mind you are whole.” Cobweb leaned closer and touched hesitant lips.

“Not even Thiede with all his resources could alter the image Pellaz had of you in his mind. I know, because I saw that image inside his mind. His faith and belief in you made you walk away from Tersian the first time. Remember?”

Trapped by the words, Calanthe just stared at him. His soul was exposed, yet caught safe, and he relived that time when he had first declared his love for Pellaz. When he had first pledged his heart. And yes, he remembered the image Pell had of them both. Was Cobweb right?

“Dispel the fear, Cal, as it does you no good.” Fingers traced a pattern on his forehead, over eyes and down mouth.

“Do not listen to rumors.”

“Cobweb, how?”

“How?” The other moved away a little and considered his answer.

“How do I know, or how do you learn to trust?”

Licking his lips, Calanthe suddenly wished he had not drank so much for it was not often Cobweb revealed so much.

“How do you know everything?”

“I have my ways of seeing. Which also reminds me. Jaden. What are you doing for him?”

Confused by the abrupt subject change, Cal blinked owlishly at the smoky haired Har next to him.

“Wait a minute, we were talking about Tyson.”

“Have you not been listening again, Cal? Tyson is not your problem. Never was a problem, so leave him alone.” He dismissed the pure-born easily. Picking up the bottle of sheh, Cobweb poured Calanthe another drink.

“Jaden is your problem.”

“Jae,” Calanthe repeated the name, lost in the conversation as he hugged his drink to his chest. Never had he been more confused by Cobweb’s twists, and his mind turned sluggishly.

“It’s Pell… Ty… maybe I should just get him Hosting again….”

Raising a curious brow at that, Cobweb studied the face close to his.

“Getting Pellaz Hosting every time you feel threatened is not the answer, Cal.” He swallowed his amusement, wondering if the Har concerned knew what Calanthe did so deliberately in reaction to stress.

“I want to know about Jaden.”

“Jae,” Calanthe muttered, stifling a yawn. Gods he was tired.

“He is under the care of healers in Immanion and-” Cobweb scoffed.

“Healers bah! What do they know? Your Harling is experiencing nightmares.”

“They have settled. He has not had one for months.” Calanthe defended.

“Cal, Hara dream for a reason. You should take him to Roselane. To Opalexian. She could help Jaden.”

“No.” Calanthe shook his head, then instantly wished he hadn’t.

“The Kamagrian can come to us. Neither Pell nor I have time to run after them.”

Bemused by the answer, Cobweb studied the suddenly closed face. It was obvious Calanthe was decided on this issue, but why? And what did Pellaz think?

“She could help Jaden. Besides, I believe she is still eager to meet Pellaz and both your Harlings.” He settled a hard finger on the Tigron’s chest, his nail biting in slightly to hold the other’s wavering attention.

“You should know better by now, Calanthe. So stop trying to control fate. Don’t attempt to be another Thiede.” Shocked and mildly insulted by the blunt statement, Calanthe wondered if it would not have been better to stay in Immanion.

***

Pacing the floor, Swift ignored the immaculate surroundings as he impatiently waited for Tyson to appear. He had sent Hara after his brother more than half an hour ago and suspected the pure-born was deliberately keeping him waiting. He had not planned to be in Sykernesse this day, having left Zaltana with his son Azriel and his son’s Kalamah consort Laydreni. But he had made the last minute decision after reading between the lines the message Zobinek had sent to Seel. Tyson was taking things too far and the last thing his house and Ariaric’s household needed was a scandal. Especially not with all the delicate negotiations he and Calanthe were presently doing with the leaders in Thaine. They were on the verge of uniting Florinada and bringing them under the Gelaming Council. Why couldn’t Tyson just see reason and forget about Pellaz?! Why his brother was being so stubborn about the Gelaming Tigron, he didn’t know. Not even Cobweb could explain Tyson’s erratic actions and from what he’d personally observed, Pellaz didn’t reciprocate any of Tyson’s desires. It was insane. The whole situation was laughable, except for the status of the Hara involved. And short of making a public spectacle of the whole issue, he had been trying to deal with the problems behind the scenes.

But Tyson was making life increasingly difficult. Ariaric was concerned, which in its self was an indication of the problems, and Zobinek was so introverted that Swift barely recognized the Har any longer. It didn’t help that Calanthe always had a tendency to over react where Tyson was concerned and that for some reason Calanthe believed half the rumors. A point which he hoped his unpredictable Hostling was sorting out presently. Seel had sent word saying Calanthe was visiting again… without Pellaz.

Glancing up at the timepiece, Swift was just about to go and send more Hara after Tyson when the large polished doors swung open silently.

“About time! By the Aghama, where have you been!?”

“I have duties too, you know. I just can’t come running whenever you raise a hand.” Tyson snapped back.

“What are you doing here, anyway? Did Zobinek call you again?” He asked sarcastically.

“You are treating him appallingly.”

“What would you know?! He’s no angel either. His older brother Ostoroth tormented Lissilma to the point where Lissilma murdered him.” Tyson scoffed.

“The whole family is tainted in blood. Warped.” He laughed mockingly.

“And other Hara think they are fit to rule!”

“Tyson, you have no idea what you are talking about. Open disrespect of the Archon and Royal Household is still punishable by death, so watch your tongue.”

“But it’s all true, brother mine,” he mocked.

“That’s a lie and you know it.” Swift counted.

“Ariaric has worked hard to open this land and if his hands are blood stained, than it is no more than mine, or Pellaz’ for that matter.”

Tyson turned sharply at those words and stared a moment at his brother.

“Don’t associate Pell with the likes of Ariaric!”

“It is true, even if your blind and limited intelligence refuses to admit it. Grow up, Ty! You surely can’t believe Tigron Pellaz attained and maintains his position through weakness?” He challenged.

“He is harder than Calanthe in a lot of ways, and it is about time you realized that! He is Tigron. He is blood-bonded. He jointly rules the Wraeththu world as we know it. He communes with Thiede. He even has a Tigrina and possesses more raw power than you and I both. And I suggest you accept that fact – as unwanted as it might be – and settle into your position here. With Zobinek.” Swift walked over to his bother and saw the hostile expression in the narrowed eyes. Eyes so like Calanthe’s. Tersian would have been proud…

“You do not understand-”

“I understand more than you imagine.” Swift cut him off, not wanting another screaming match like last time.

“I will say this plainly, Ty, so even you cannot misunderstand. Tigron Pellaz-har-Aralis is not for you. He never was and never will be.” He took a calming breath.

“As for Zobinek, he is your blood-bond and you do him dishonor. Ariaric is your Lord, and you insult his hospitality. You are a Consort,” he stressed the word, “and I strongly advise you think about the meaning of that word.”

“Don’t tell me how to live my life!” Tyson spat.

“I do,” Swift grabbed the front of his shirt, shaking his brother. For all of Tyson’s height, Swift still caught him off balance.

“And I will continue to tell you!” He abruptly released him and pushed him away.

“Do not disgrace our house!”

“Our house,” Tyson mimicked scornfully.

“What a joke-” Swift slapped him and slapped him hard, drawing blood.

“That is a warning. Your first and last! Do not make me come to Sykernesse again!” With that he swiveled on his toes and exited the rooms, battling to control his anger as he made his way down to the Royal stables. Tyson was going to be the death of him and he wondered if Seel might not right in dragging in the aid of the Hegemony to control Tyson before he damaged the Council and Ariaric’s position. Damaged Pellaz’ reputation. Ignoring the Hara around him, Swift dismissed the Royal Court aids who invited him to stay. He would send apologies to Ariaric and Elisyin later.

Now he just wanted to get back to Forever and talk with Seel, and see if his Hostling had any luck with Cal. Why Pellaz did not just deny the rumors to Calanthe he couldn’t understand either. What was the problem?

***

Vaysh stared white-faced at Ashmael, as if seeing a serpent.

“Vaysh? Are you alright?”

“You go too fast,” he hesitated.

“I can never-”

“Why?” Ashmael asked gently.

“I see nothing about you that indicated damage.” He leaned in.

“I see desire, and I remember a time when you allowed your emotions to escape.”

“No,” Vaysh shook his head. He looked around the room almost in a panic, wishing Pellaz had not left him. He could call him…

“Pell will not interfere,” Ashmael offered, seeing Vaysh’s eyes spear him in fear.

“How…” Could Ashmael now read his thoughts?

“He fought his own fear with Cal and knows this is for you and I alone.”

“But,” He seemed unable to get a single coherent thought out, and Vaysh blinked helplessly at the appealing Hegemony member.

“Trust me,” Ashmael breathed, reaching out and taking the other’s cold hands.

“You used to-”

“Ash-” Smiling encouragingly, the strategist drew the hesitant Har into a private room and closed the door firmly.

Delicately peering around a hand-crafted urn decorated with peacock feathers, Pellaz bit his bottom lip as he saw the door close on Vaysh’s private rooms. He was sorely tempted to follow… but his better judgement prevailed. So far as he could see, Ashmael was keeping his word and was being remarkably restrained and patient. He doubted he could have shown the same moderation were he in the Hegemony member’s position. Still Vaysh was playing hard to get. He knew Vaysh’s resilience and stubbornness extremely well and wished Ashmael luck. In buckets full.

Turning away, Pellaz slowly walked back to his private balcony. Picking up a glass of wine on the way, he strolled though the hanging plants and shrubs to reach the outdoor area. Warm sea breezes touched his skin, making him shiver as he gazed out across the bay. It was a beautiful sight even at night and subconsciously his thoughts turned to Calanthe. Sighing, he looked away from the view and settled onto a comfortable divan, sipping his drink as he mentally dismissed Cal and his trip to Forever from his mind. He couldn’t let it worry him… distract him, as they were too busy at present with Thaine and Florinada. Too busy gathering in all the lost tribes, bringing order to the lands beyond and exerting a Gelaming presence. Hopefully at this Council the Thaine representatives would be attending officially, sealing their alliance with Immanion and Jaddayoth’s Council. Years of delicate negotiations were finally paying off and Pellaz reminded himself to thank Swift for all his persistence and insight in that area. Thiede had been right about that young Megalithician.

So with all the negotiations at a workable level, Pellaz knew their next problem was still Florinada and Garridan. What to do about Carrollion? So far nothing had worked, and sooner rather than later they were going to have to make a forceful decision to persuade the Garridan Leader into Gelaming line. Carrollion controlled a vast area with some of the most reputedly violently-inclined Hara in Jaddayoth. The fact that the Garridan’s main export was lethal poisons didn’t improve the picture the Hegemony was getting lately either. And he was positive Calanthe knew the Garridan Leader, even if he denied it. Why else would Carrollion refuse to meet with his blonde counter-part?

They had to set up a workable plan and settle the unrest up in Garridan before more Hara disappeared or lost their life in the surrounding lands. And no, he wasn’t blind or stupid, as he knew Carrollion was attempting to entrap him. But being forewarned and prepared with your own mechanisms in place was equally as effective, if not more so. Or so he had learnt from Thiede.

Which just left the time and place for the meeting. Calanthe would argue against it as he had done repeatedly, so he just had to find a way around his stubborn co-ruler. Besides, he already had Hara up there…

Taking another sip of his wine, Pellaz placed the glass down. He tried to see the arguments from Calanthe’s viewpoint, remembering their heated discussion and his lover’s mulishness. Calanthe even argued about visiting Roselane. But that topic was not a priority. Jaden needed to see the Dream People because his nightmares were getting worse. Nothing anybody said or did could explain why the child suffered so badly, or why Jae’s dreams turned violent when either Tigron left Immanion on a tour to Jaddayoth. Because of that he rarely left Immanion. He let Calanthe work off tension by subduing difficult Leaders in his uniquely winning style…

Pellaz jumped as Katling, his cat of ten years, landed on his chest. A loud purr started as the feline butted his chin with determined force, demanding to be petted, and Pellaz obliged, pleased when the cat settled, stretching out a paw to knead his shoulder rhythmically. Releasing an audible breath, Pellaz absently stroked Katling, going back to his pensive thought. Oh yes, he was thinking about Cal…

No, thinking about Roselane, he corrected.

He wanted to take Jaden to the Dream People – the Kamagrian. As far as he knew, himself, Vaysh and Chrysm were the only three members of the Hegemony who had not traveled to Shilalama and met with Opalexian. Nor Caeru… but somehow his Tigrina didn’t count.

Pellaz admitted that he wanted to meet Opalexian, especially since Kate – his female friend of more years than he cared to remember – had told him so much about her home and people. And the few Kamagrian whom he had met at Council seemed intriguing. Also he felt it would benefit Jaden. Besides, Opalexian had extended an invitation to the Tigrons and Harlings over three years ago. Well over.

So if the up and coming session within the Hegalion was settled, then he would initiate plans to visit Roselane and maybe sweep around through Garridan in the process. Smiling to himself, Pellaz leant forward slightly and kissed Katling on the head lightly. The cat respond lovingly. And if Cal protested again, then his lover could just go back to Forever… he decided.

***

Vaysh watched spell bound as the last of his clothing glided to the floor. Before him on the white sheets was Ashmael, his tormentor… yet…

“You go too fast.” He whispered again.

“This is long over due,” Ashmael replied, glad when he encountered no real resistance.

Vaysh closed his eyes, scared and uncertain, feeling fingers lift his chin, sensing the other Har as his soul responded to the closeness, traitorously, and he lifted his lashes to meet the very blue eyes of the Hegemony member.

“I won’t force you, Vaysh.”

“I know.”

“Can you trust me? Trust me like you used to?”

“That was almost fifty years ago…”

“What is time to us? To Wraeththu?”

“Ash-”

“Hush,” Enclosing the other Har in his arms, Ashmael soaked up the feeling, sensing the hesitation. So much had changed, yet he could still detect a part of the old Vaysh in the slender form. He felt fear, fragility and apprehension, like a young Harling going through his Feybraiha. A newness, an oldness. A longing.

“Ash,” There was fear and desire mingled in the whispered word.

“It is alright,” Ashmael breathed, his existence strangely coming alive again after so many years. An awkwardness which startled even him.

***

Walking into their private living area the following morning, Calanthe approached Pellaz and just folded him into an embrace. He loved doing it and the contact usually forestalled any arguments and placed his partner in a responsive mood. It was something he had learnt to do years ago and it always gave him an advantage. Drawing back he kissed the upturned nose and grinned down, pleased with the welcoming smile in his lover’s gorgeous dark eyes.

“How was Forever?” Pellaz asked with none of his usual bite to the words.

“As always. Cooler than here.” Reaching up Pellaz captured his lips briefly in a sharing of breath and smiled again.

“I taste sheh-”

“I drank too much last night.” Calanthe pulled a face, moving away from Pellaz to pick up a piece of fruit. He bit into it.

“And Swift? Seel?”

“Swift wasn’t there.” Calanthe shook his head marginally as he took another bite, before offering the fruit in after-thought to his chesna.

“He’s visiting Sykernesse – or so Leef said.”

“Curious,” Pellaz said, eyeing the fruit and declining the offer. Glancing around, Calanthe asked –

“Where’s Jae and Korry?”

“Down with Glaves and Abrimel overseeing the arrival of the new Faraldiennes.” Pellaz sent his partner a pointed look.

“I think Jae is hoping to claim one.”

“Not this season.” Calanthe shook his head, disposing of the remains of his fruit in the bin. Picking up a towel he wiped his hand before walking over to sit next to the other Har.

“Maybe next year he can pick a colt.”

“You can explain it to him.” Pellaz offered sweetly, handing over a report from one of Arahal’s patrols.

“What’s this?” Calanthe frowned scanning the sheet.

“It seems over thirty Hara have mysteriously vanished from Roselane’s northern borders, Garridan and Natawni’s eastern villages in the last four months. The Frodinne, numerous Askelan and even Carrollion’s Garridan patrols are expressing concern as there appears to be no explanation, or remains to be found.”

“There is always an explanation.” Calanthe muttered, re-reading the report.

“Thieves, slavers, border disputes.”

“Unofficially, slavery still thrives in Natawni and Hadassah, and probably other tribes. But this does not sound like the work of slavers. Notably, most of the Hara have ‘vanished’,” Pellaz emphasized the word, “from Garridan. Though Carrollion denies this report.”

“Naturally. He probably takes a percentage from the slavers passing through his borders.”

“Probably.” Pellaz watched the tanned face, amusement touching his eyes.

“We should talk to him. Bind him to the Council. Make him accountable.” Calanthe scoffed at that.

“Has he finally agreed to come to Immanion?”

“No-”

“I didn’t think so. He may appear polished, Pell, but deep down he is still an animal running wild, glorifying in blood and the burning cities of the past. When we go to him, we go as a combined Tigron with the Mojags troupe, and we’ll do it after the talks.”

Sitting back, Pellaz considered that, deciding it would be useless to argue at present unless the current situation changed. Besides it would be late autumn after the talks, and the land less traveled.

“Alright. Put it to the Hegemony.” Pellaz picked up another folder.

“Roselane.” He said just the one word and saw Calanthe’s expression twist in disbelief.

“What do they want?”

“Courtesy.” Pellaz quipped.

“Cal, I want to take Jae to them. Kate has told me-”

“The female?!?” Calanthe interrupted.

“Of course she would tell you what you want to hear.”

“Why are you so unreasonable about this? I want to meet Opalexian. I have that right. I also want to take Jae to the Dream People, as he needs help. I understand the Frodinne Har Edolie has even offered to dream with Jae.”

“Then invite them here.”

“For one, the Dream People have never left Roselane, and even your friend Zackala says it is best to go there to achieve the most benefit of their healings. Jae needs this.”

“Zac was here?”

“I contacted him and asked him to broach the subject with Edolie.”

Digesting that, Calanthe just stared at his soul-mate for a long moment, wondering what else Pellaz got up to that he didn’t mention.

“Then if Jaden needs this, send him with Ashmael, or Caeru,” His said slowly, letting his smile spread wickedly.

“I’m sure the Tigrina would love a field trip out of Phaonica in autumn.”

“I want to go.”

Turning in his chair, Calanthe grabbed his lover’s shoulder, holding him fiercely.

“Pell, Opalexian is…” He searched for the word.

“..dangerous.”

“So are we. So am I.”

“Not in that way. I don’t trust her.” Pellaz closed his eyes briefly. It always comes back to that.

“I do not believe she would endanger the Wraeththu. Especially not after all the trouble she went through to bring us back together. She sent you to me. She would not separate us now.”

“No, but her power is more elemental.” Calanthe studied Pellaz’ worried face, willing him to trust.

“It fills me with apprehension every time you mention travelling to Shilalama.”

“Cal-”

“So call me paranoid, but I will not willingly endanger us with something so simple as Jae’s nightmares.”

“These nightmares are no longer a simple matter. I think he is sensing a possible future, encroaching dangers. I am no longer certain how to help him.”

“I do share the worry, only there must be an alternative.”

“Nothing we have tried has worked.” Pellaz reminded him gently, appreciating Calanthe’s concerns if not fully understanding them.

“You said you would ask Cobweb. Did you? Or did you get sidetracked?”

“He went mystical on me.” Calanthe said in disgust, releasing Pellaz and ignoring the blatant question. Talking of Tyson…. “He mentioned the aid of Opalexian, but then again his judgements are colored by his strange bond to Tel-an-kaa.” Sighing, Pellaz rested back against the cushions.

“Look,” Calanthe offered, “let’s wait till after the talks and till after we sort out Carrollion before making a definite decision about Roselane. Jaden might even grow out of the dreams.” He saw the dark brows draw down in consideration and wondered if Pellaz would abide his requests. If not, he could always try and get his temperamental tease hosting again…

Chapter Six

Present

…If only…

If only he had gotten Pellaz Hosting again. Calanthe groaned inwardly. Though that probably would have only prolonged the… the…

Calanthe blinked open his eyes and found he was huddled in a corner on the tiled floor in his own bathroom. Around him the room was dark and he could hear water running from the waterfall at the end of the large pool.

Dropping his head down, Calanthe rubbed wet eyes. He should have seen the trouble coming… should have known. Should have read the danger signs. Listened to Cobweb. But no. He had been blinkered, safe in the knowledge that Pellaz would always be at his side. That he could protect his lover better the second time around. That no assassin’s bullet would touch him ever again.

“Gods…” Calanthe whispered, staring at his trembling hands. Six months after listening to Cobweb’s warnings his world had shattered. Blood stained corpses… and a dying land…

“Six months,” Calanthe whispered, his voice thick with emotion. It had happened, the unthinkable… but it had happened.

Six months later, after the annual Tribal Council in which Thaine had been successfully integrated into Gelaming society and Florinada had become approachable – his world had exploded.

Insanity…

Forcing himself to continue – to allow his memories to finish their journey – Calanthe closed his eyes and pictured how Carrollion of Garridan had refused to attend the Council Talks. Jaden had been five and half years old and Korryn had just turned four. Insanity…

As Cobweb had predicted, a storm of blood approached, devouring them all, until only a single voice could be heard screaming over and over. Insanity…

That voice had been his own. And insanity was his future…

Flashback

“What’s the problem?” Calanthe asked as he strode into the smoke-filled room. It was always a good indication of major troubles when most of the Hegemony members were smoking obsessively. Transparent lot.

“Cal,” Dree stood up and inclined his head.

Ignoring him, Calanthe made his way to the head of the table, seeing Pellaz sprawled in a chair eyeing the members of the Hegemony with amusement. Acknowledging the look, Calanthe sat down and briefly touched his partner’s leg. The brief contact told him a lot. Pellaz was tense, yet not overly so.

“Arahal,” Pellaz gestured to the immaculately dressed Captain whose leathers appeared tattier than usual.

“You have our undivided attention.”

Ignoring the slight jibe, Arahal placed a round globe over the sophisticated thought amplifier. It hovered before unscrolling its pictures. It showed Hara deformed and dying from a horrible scourge.

“Where?” Calanthe asked before the globe stopped its rotation.

“Thaine.” Arahal stated.

“Typical,” Chrysm intoned.

“Just when they join the Council, they get plague and now expect us to fix it.”

“It is part of the treaty,” Pellaz reminded him.

“Why couldn’t they find gold instead.” Chrysm asked sarcastically.

Ignoring him, Tharmifex turned to Eyra.

“What has been initiated?”

“We have gathered what information we could from some of the survivors and sent two of Arahal’s strongest pairings for a Grissecon. It appears to have worked, yet at this stage we do not know how isolated the virus is.”

“Or where it originated from.” Ashmael put in as he entered the room. He tossed an envelope full of photographs on the large polished table.

“Harlines, the capital of Thaine, seems unaffected as yet and the Harroon – Margron – has sealed the city and quarantined the area.”

“At least someone is thinking.” Glaves commented.

“His effectiveness is untested,” Eyra reminded them in a curt tone.

“Pessimist,” Chrysm accused.

“Realist.” Ashmael cut back.

“Someone needs to go and control Margron before he undoes everything we have worked for.”

“And the virus?” Tharmifex asked, absently lighting another cigarette.

“Will burn itself out given time.” Arahal offered.

“As long as the cities are protected.”

“Cruel,” Chrysm said mockingly.

“Hundreds could die.”

“Thousands.” Ashmael corrected.

“But it is the only way to protect the rest of the Hara and safeguard Jaddayoth, Megalithica and Almagabra.” Ashmael turned his eyes on the silent Tigrons, shifting his gaze to encompass Calanthe.

“And spare Florinada from infection, so we can move into there next.” Dree pointed out casually.

“It is politically sound.” The blonde Tigron sent the strategist a look of pure dislike.

“I suppose you mean that someone is me.”

“Margron know and trusts you. I would send Swift but he is tied up in Sykernesse.” Ashmael smiled, his eyes remaining untouched.

“Pellaz is needed here to control Jaddayoth, and besides, Thar and Glaves are just dying to accompany you.” Already having guessed that he would be going before Ashmael raised the subject, Calanthe mentally calculated the other issues resting on his and Pellaz’ shoulders at present. Nothing urgently required them both, and he knew he was the more suited out of the two of them to tackle Thaine.

“I want a couple of healers as well, and another strong pairing for a Grissecon. Also find me a competent adept. Plus – I’ll want Arahal’s company.”

Frowning, Arahal turned to Ashmael and saw the other nod in agreement. It wasn’t what the Captain had wanted.

“Brilliant, just don’t come home and infect us all.” Chrysm muttered as he pushed away from the table.

***

Watching Calanthe dress warmly, Pellaz wished they could both go to Thaine. Just for once it would be nice to go together rather than be pulled apart by Ashmael’s private little scheduling.

Outside was winter, the summer having passed too quickly, seemingly only a distant memory as snow covered the ground again. Korryn had just celebrated his fourth birthday and was tucked up in bed, warm and snug while Jaden was hiding in Caeru’s quarters watching the Tigrina entertain a group of artists from Ferike. Turning from the mirror, Cal found those large dark eyes locked on him in dismay.

“What’s this? Worry?” He joked, going over and touching Pellaz’ cheek gently.

“Yes I worry. You take too many unnecessary risks. You are not indestructible.”

“The treaty with Thaine is important. You know that.” Calanthe reasoned, settling on the arm of the chair in which Pellaz sat. He stretched out his long legs, wiggling his toes inside his black leather boots.

“The entire content of the negotiations with Florinada rests on the success of Thaine.”

“I am more than aware of the issues involved.” Pellaz reminded him, getting up and putting distance between them.

“Plague,” Pellaz shuddered, remembering a time many years earlier.

“…it is unpredictable. Vicious and deadly.”

“Granted. Yet it can be beaten with Wraeththu magics.

You’ve witnessed that before. Have more faith.” He followed Pellaz standing behind him, close enough to feel his warmth.

“Margron is a little unstable-”

“That is an understatement.” Pellaz put in.

“-he needs direction.” Calanthe continued smoothly.

“It should not take me long with Arahal’s patrols to isolate all outbreaks of virus and settle the political turmoil.” He placed cool hands on slender shoulders.

“Wish me luck?”

“You know I do.” Pellaz replied, turning around abruptly and embracing the seductive siren. He felt the warm energy within his chesna, so alluring and he initiated a deep sharing of breath before pulling away.

“Let me know how things go.” Nodding, Calanthe studied him for a long moment, not saying a word. He drank in the sight of Pellaz’ slender frame as the other Har stood silently – isolated. The dark eyes strangely unreadable as the thick long hair was pushed back elegantly to reveal high cheekbones. Warm firelight from the open blaze reflecting off Pellaz’ skin and hair, almost giving him a mystical glow. Then just as swiftly Calanthe turned away, picking up his pack and exiting the heated room. Outside his personal elite bodyguard followed him down the wide marble staircase to where the other Hegemony members waited. He did not look back. Couldn’t. Otherwise he would never leave. Behind him, Pellaz watched him walk away, a prickling of apprehension hanging in the silence of the room around him.

***

Three days later Pellaz was studying the reports sent in from Thaine. The figures did not look good as many Hara had lost their lives and the virus was still not completely eradicated. It would be another week before Calanthe and the two Hegemony members could safely return to Immanion. Swift had been in contact with him also, supplying more background information on Margron and the surrounding cities in Thaine so that Pellaz now felt he truly knew the diverse culture. Along with Swift’s note, Seel had also sent word – gossip – about Forever’s Household. Notifying him of Briaharra’s bonding to one of the Hara from Gimrah. He was happy for the young pure-born, and made a note for Attica to send a gift on his and Calanthe’s behalf. Seel had ended his note with a brief yet oblique remark about Tyson, and Pell frowned over it, not understanding the reference. It had read… ‘things could not be worse and I strongly suggest you reconsider telling Cal the unabbreviated truth.’

Re-reading the closing remark, Pellaz was considering whether to call Seel via the transference unit to get a proper explanation, when the door to his private study opened and Ashmael swept into the warm room. The strategist was dressed in expensive leathers, his hair loosely pulled back and tied with ribbons. He was also smiling.

“Pellaz.” Glancing up, Pellaz caught Ashmael’s expression of smugness mixed with amusement.

“More news?”

“Only from Garridan.” Raising a brow, Pellaz gestured for the tall Hegemony member to sit down.

“It seems Carrollion is becoming more than just a stubborn annoyance. He is claiming – and claiming loudly I might add -”

Ashmael poured himself a drink as he spoke, emphasizing the last few words, “that the Tigrons in Immanion and the Hegemony Council are scared of him. That we timidly refuse all invitations to meet and are refusing to allow him and his Hara to re-enter the Council. He is crying discrimination!”

“What nonsense!” Pellaz stated, getting annoyed.

“He is an arrogant pompous ass, a menace to all intelligently inclined Hara!”

“I won’t argue but, my dear Pellaz, what are we to do?” Pellaz eyed the strategist, knowing the ‘we’ was a very definite a ‘you’. Pursing his lips, Pellaz mused,

“Calanthe will not be back for ten days at this rate, and I suppose there is no way of dragging Carrollion’s arrogant carcass to Immanion?”

“None I’m afraid.” Ashmael shook his head.

“He has protected himself quite well. And I would be surprised if his scouts have not stumbled across a new tribe on their borders, from what I gather in Arahal’s reports.”

“A new Tribe?” Pellaz questioned.

“The fabled Sorrandites about whom we have been hearing whispers for years? Is it possible?”

“I would not go that far.” Ashmael waved the idea away.

“But the land up there is barren, and with all the diverse factions of Uigenna…” He left the rest unsaid.

“A war.” Pellaz concluded.

“We could be faced with internal war in Jaddayoth.”

“As I said, something need to be done about Carrollion.”

“He’s setting a trap. Forcing us to play by his rules.”

“So it would appear.” Ashmael agreed, grabbing a handful of nuts, seemingly unconcerned.

“And if we do not shut his fat mouth and force Garridan back into the Council we may lose Florinada.”

“Quite possible.” Ashmael grinned at him.

“Seems you get your wish after all, my dear, and go to Garridan to dissect this particular worm.”

Smiling ruefully but feeling far from happy with events, Pellaz nevertheless was looking forward to meeting the Garridan and evaluating his potential. He glanced out the large windows, seeing the snow that had started to fall again.

“Can you arrange things for tomorrow?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem.” Ashmael stood up, pleased with himself. Noting the other Har’s contented smile, Pellaz waited until Ashmael had reached the door before bursting the over-confident strategist’s bubble.

“I want Dree, Chrysm and Vaysh on this tour.” Ashmael stopped at the door and just turned, his smile gone.

“Abrimel can guide the Hegemony with Cedony and Eyra while I’m away and Caeru can have the run of Phaonica’s social events.” He smiled sweetly.

“And of course you, my dear Ash, will be accompanying me as well.”

The door closed firmly and Pellaz sat back, delighted by Ashmael’s disgruntled expression. He loved cutting down Ashmael’s supremely over-bearing and self-assured persona. Sobering slowly, he ordered his thoughts and started to determine a strategy for bringing down another misguided Har. Only this one was far more deadly in nature and intent.

*

Packing a few items, Pellaz looked up when he felt a slight draft enter his bedchamber. He had checked on his Harlings and dismissed all his House Hara earlier, so now he was not surprised to see Vaysh’s slender form lean against his door.

“Vaysh?”

“Ash just told me about Carrollion.”

Turning from what he was doing, Pellaz collapsed inelegantly down on the spacious bed.

“This could not come at a worse time.”

“What about Cal?” Vaysh asked as he slowly walked towards the bed and sat on its edge.

“Will you send word to him?”

“No time,” Pellaz shrugged. Vaysh frowned at that.

“We do not go until tomorrow.” Pellaz sighed again, obviously having given this point a lot of thought.

“If I tell him, he will worry and want to return to Immanion immediately. That is not necessary. It is more important that he concentrate on getting Thaine sorted out. If Thaine comes back in line then Florinada will follow.”

“You sound like Thiede.”

“Vaysh!” Pellaz said, shocked.

“I am nothing like Thiede!”

“Sometimes I wonder.” Vaysh looked archly down his straight nose to the scowling Tigron.

“Ash told me what you said to him a few years ago about me-”

“And?” Pellaz asked carefully, remembering the night very well. He had never told Calanthe and wanted it to stay that way.

“You had no right.”

“What? No right to protect you?”

“I don’t need your protection!” Vaysh cut back, color starting to stain his cheeks.

“I can make my own decisions!”

“I did not want to see you hurt.”

“Hurt! How could I get hurt any more than I already was! Surely you should have understood that!?”

“I understood all too well. My life was torn apart also, and you could have helped me if you had wanted to. I would like to think that Thiede left my compassion intact, if nothing else!”

“I could not have done anything for you.” Vaysh snapped, relenting only slightly.

“And by the time Cal came to Immanion, I did not need to interfere, as he took matters into his own hands.”

“Exactly. Ashmael needed help, and I nudged him along subtly. He was not even aware of my intentions.” Pellaz locked eyes with the indignant red-head.

“I trust you will not tell him.”

“No.” Vaysh said after a long drawn out minute.

“I thought you would be happy.”

“I am.”

“You do not look it,” Pellaz judged, peering closer at the icy expression as Vaysh’s eyes spiked him.

“I just do not want any more interference from you.”

“Fine.” Pellaz agreed.

“I would ask the same from you and the rest of the Hegemony in my life.”

“Do not twist things, Pell-”

“Then do not hide gratitude in anger. I had thought we trusted each other enough by now. Do not hide from me.”

Releasing a sharp breath, Vaysh slumped a little and tried to glare at his dark haired companion.

“I am not, it is just-”

“I know.” Pellaz assured him. Standing, Vaysh started to walk back towards the door, stopping and turning hesitantly.

Levering himself off the bed, Pellaz hid his smile as he slowly approached his ex-lover. Reaching out he embraced the shivering Har, offering affection and comfort.

“It is all so new, Pell, that sometimes I do not know what is real. Ash is as I remember, yet so different that I… I…”

“I know.” Pellaz soothed gently again.

“It will all work out. Maybe not the way we always plan, but it will work out.” Sniffing, Vaysh lifted his head and wiped his nose, nodding as he pulled away from the warm embrace.

“I will see you in the morning.”

Watching the door close, Pellaz swallowed his smile, pleased the way things had turned out. Vaysh deserved happiness, as did Ashmael. As did half the misguided members of the Hegemony.

***

Having arrived in Nightshade the previous afternoon, Pellaz had ignored the splendid surroundings, sensual Hara and over-bearing hospitality, instead focusing directly on the Garridan ruler, Carrollion. Carrollion was referred to by his subjects as ‘the Archon’ – a title Pellaz disagreed with, though he said nothing, testing the Har’s ego. But Pellaz did notice how magnificently attired Carrollion was and how, like the rest of his tribe, he was notoriously handsome with long limbed elegance, startling tallness and smoldering grey eyes. It was easy to see from which gene stock Calanthe had also originated as a new Har. But pushing all that aside, Pellaz did not care for the Archon’s show of pleasure at his arrival, nor did he care for the Lords of Carrollion’s court, many of whom wished to meet him. The ceremonies, the music, the false laughter and exotic displays annoyed him. For he had no wish to linger in his stay. Only wanted to get Carrollion alone long enough so as to remind him of Garridan’s political, economical and social standing amongst the Wraeththu Tribes of Jaddayoth.

Looking around from his mirror as he dressed for the day’s activities, Pellaz saw Vaysh enter his room. Carrollion had agreed to a private meeting that morning and Pellaz was not going to let the manipulative Har wiggle out of the engagement with supposed Garridan customs. He had no wish to visit the city outside and view the splendid lakes or watch staged displays.

“You are early.” Pellaz said by way of greeting, his mind too preoccupied to notice Vaysh’s disgruntled expression.

“I’m amazed we are all still alive and not poisoned in our beds.”

“That is not Carrollion’s way. He would use a more exotic method rather than just simple poisoning.”

“Charming!” Vaysh eyed the Tigron’s immaculate back.

“How can you stand his falseness?!”

“I ignore it.” Pellaz gave a tight smile, turning around to present himself to his closest adviser.

“How do I look?”

“You don’t need to impress him, Pell, he already had you stripped naked yesterday just by the look in his eye. He is a barbarian, and he views you as a tender piece of meat to be savored.”

“A savage.” Pellaz shrugged, unconcerned by Carrollion’s opinion of him. Rather he remembered Calanthe’s word on the subject.

“He lives in the past, I feel.”

“He is dangerous.” Vaysh shook his head. Getting up, he went to Pellaz’ cabinet for a drink of water.

“I don’t know, Pell, there is something in the back of his mind which does not bode well for us. Chrysm is not happy with what he senses.”

“Nor I. It does not bode well for the Wraeththu in general I’d say.”

Vaysh nodded.

“And what do you think he meant by that remark last night about Jaden?” The red-head continued, suspicion coloring his tone.

“I mean, how does he know that Jaden has been so ill with recurrent nightmares? And that you have been invited to Roselane so he can dream with the Dream People?”

“He probably read it in one of those Enquirer newspapers. Nothing seems to be private anymore.”

“But Pell, Jaden has not been ill for almost six months.” Vaysh reminded him pointedly.

“So, he receives old news.” Pellaz shrugged, his mind clearly on other matters.

“And the Roselane information? For as far as I was aware, that tidbit of information had not been made public.” Vaysh stressed.

“It must have been.” Pellaz sighed heavily, picking up his coat.

“Where’s Ash, and the others?”

“They went to check out the Meeting Chambers Carrollion indicated last evening.”

“Good, let’s go join them and clear this mess up so I can return to Immanion.”

“What? You don’t intend to stay for the evening banquet?” Vaysh mocked, giving a smile for the first time.

“He has three days of festivals planned from what I hear.”

“I don’t intend to stay for breakfast. Not if I can help it.” Pellaz stated with no hint of amusement in his voice. Noting the seriousness of the Tigron, Vaysh followed him out of the room.

Entering the large formal Meeting Chambers, Pellaz saw the tall Archon already seated at the far end of the room. Giving a brief command to his personal guard, Pellaz dismissed the show of splendor around him as he approached the assembly of Lords and Officials, wondering if this discussion was going to be another farce.

“Good morning, Pellaz.” Carrollion smiled, neglecting to use the Tigron’s official title. His grey eyes traveled up the slender frame of the Tigron as he stood and gestured for Pellaz to sit in the luxurious chairs opposite. Ashmael was already seated with Dree, while Vaysh hung back to remain with Chrysm.

“Carrollion.” Pellaz nodded his head, his gaze briefly taking in the six Lords seated with the Archon.

“Now, I believe you all know my Advisers, having met them last evening. I trust the hospitality has been to your liking, and my house Hara’s service impeccable?”

“Thank you for your hospitality.” Dree put in before Pellaz could reply.

“Excellent.” Carrollion beamed.

“Now I believe you wish to discuss our requirements for re-joining the Tribal Council? I have heard our presence has been sorely missed these last few years since Archon Hillelex’s tragic death.”

“Tragic?” Pellaz repeated, no emotion showing in his face or voice.

“Archon’s Hillelex’s untimely death was never fully explained. Maybe you can clear that point up first.”

“It was a boating accident on the lakes.” Carrollion smiled, then sighed.

“We lost both Hillelex and his chesna Foramlion. And it was doubly tragic as Foramlion was Hosting.”

“How unfortunate and unusual.” Pellaz intoned.

“And you?” Carrollion eyed him suspiciously for a moment before smiling again.

“I was Hillelex’s closest Adviser and maintained a working government until the elections could be held. Pellaz, you know all this,” the Archon joked slightly,

“for Immanion was invited to my coronation as Leader – as Archon.”

“Unfortunately Tigron Calanthe-har-Aralis and myself were unable to attend.” Pellaz stated, watching Carrollion carefully.

“I noticed.” He said slyly.

“But that was years ago and you are finally here. And Tigron Calanthe? I hear he is in Thaine. Harlines to be precise, dealing with plague?”

“Officially there is no plague, and there never was.” A bite came into Pellaz’ voice.

“And since you ask – that is Immanion’s first and final word on the subject.” Carrollion continued to smile, yet his eyes hardened. Beside him, the other Garridan Lords frowned and glanced at the Gelaming nervously.

“Which brings me to the business at hand.” Pellaz continued curtly.

“You have been invited numerous times to attend the Council of Tribes, which you chose to ignore.” Carrollion opened his mouth, but Pellaz dismissed his half-voiced protests with a wave of his hand.

“Tigron Calanthe-har-Aralis and myself, along with the Hegemony, have also invited you to Immanion, or offered to visit here which you also declined. So Archon, tell me now, why I should extend a further invitation to you when you show none of the intelligence, insight, respect or manners your predecessor possessed?”

Startled by the blunt clippedness, having expected Gelaming pleasantries from this Gelaming Tigron, Carrollion was taken back for a moment.

“You do me an injustice-”

“Do I?” Pellaz demanded.

“I am not here for pretty speeches, for festivals or banquets. I am here to bring you to your senses. You are a menace to Wraeththu society, as we currently know it. You are single-handedly inhibiting the growth of Garridan Hara by playing petty games which I no longer have time to allow your indulgence in. If you will not bring your tribe into line and re-take your seat on the Council then you will force the Gelaming’s hand.” Pellaz leaned forward in his chair.

“And I would not advise that! There has been enough unexplained tragedy associated with the position of Archon in the Garridan tribe to last a lifetime. Do you not agree, Carrollion?”

White-faced, Carrollion stared firstly at the hard yet serious face of the Tigron. Nothing but cold beauty stared back at him. A strength bound within a deadly and dangerous Har was suddenly visible in the deceptive Tigron. He had not bargained for this turn of events, as this would alter his plans. Shifting his eyes, he saw the renowned Hegemony Lord Ashmael smile mockingly, while the third Hegemony member’s face remained neutral. He would get no appeal from any source, and he cursed silently under his breath. He should have listened to the rumors that stated Pellaz’ beauty only covered deadliness.

“It would seem you have a persuasive argument, my Lord Tigron,” Carrollion murmured obediently.

“And impeccable logic. Of course Garridan does not want to be seen lacking, so we will willingly return to the Council.”

“A wise decision.” Pellaz stood up, followed by the other two Hegemony members.

“I must return to Immanion. Thank you for your excellent hospitality. I trust I will not be forced to return to this fair city unnecessarily in the near future?”

“Only by invitation.” Carrollion nodded his head marginally, rising also, showing a measure of respect.

“Excellent!” Pellaz smiled coldly.

“We will not detain you further. Give my apologies to the rest of the Nightshade Royal Court for our abrupt departure.” Watching him go, Carrollion’s hands balled into hard fists. He would have to act quickly now if he were not to lose everything.

Outside the Meeting Chamber Pellaz ordered his guard to retrieve his belongings, not wanting to stay in Nightshade one minute longer than absolutely imperative.

“That was a trifle abrupt, Pell,” Dree complained, also sending Hara after his few items.

“I doubt it.” Pellaz sent Dree a sideways look.

“I thought I was remarkable restrained.”

“I suggest we leave.” Ashmael advised, noting some of the Lords leaving the Meeting Chamber.

“Now.”

Gesturing, Pellaz nodded for Ashmael to lead the way. Only when they were out of the Palace’s walls would he start to feel safe again.

***

Arriving back in the grounds of Phaonica after a horrific flight through the magical lanes, Pellaz was still explaining to Dree his motives for bluntly forcing Carrollion to re-join the Council.

“His mind was a sewerage vat.” Chrysm emphasized repeatedly.

“He had his own hidden agendas, reasons for wanting you in Garridan. And those reasons had nothing to do with the lack of his attendance at the Council.”

“I had worked that out,” Pellaz admitted sarcastically.

“What I want to know is what exactly were those hidden agendas.” He looked pointedly at the adapt.

“Chrysm?”

“What?” The blonde turned.

“Well?” Pellaz asked again.

“Did you pick up anything else besides vague feelings?”

“Nothing helpful.” Chrysm shook his head.

“His thoughts were too well protected, except for his sexual fantasies about you. The only other thing I did overhear was that big ostentatious red-head – what was his name?”

“Gariond.” Ashmael supplied as he handed the reins of his horse over to the stable Hara.

“He was Carrollion’s political adviser.”

“Yes, him.” Chrysm nodded.

“I overheard him talking to Carrollion before you arrived. And he mentioned the name ‘Sorrandites’.”

“Sorrandites?” Pellaz frowned, starting to walk up the slope towards Phaonica’s side entrance. He could see servants and Abrimel waiting for them on the icy steps and he shivered.

“Isn’t that the name we have been hearing for years? A lost tribe? Surely they are not affiliated with Garridan? Ash?”

“I would not have believed so, imagining the Tribe more towards the boundaries of Florinada. But I will have it checked out.” Ashmael said.

“Also see if you can find out what trade Garridan is doing. Legally and illegally. We must know what he is planning.” Pellaz tightened his coat in the cold breeze.

“And why were the lanes so hazardous today?”

Before Pellaz could reach the wide snow covered stairs, Abrimel rushed down to meet him.

“Thank the Aghama!”

“Abrimel?” Pellaz grabbed his son’s arm, pulling him around.

“What is wrong?”

“It’s Jae-”

“Jaden!?” Releasing his son, Pellaz rushed up the stairs, Abrimel beside him.

“He’s so ill… After you left he had a waking nightmare. Oh father!” Abrimel shook his head.

“I have never seen anything like it.”

Not waiting for the disjointed details, Pellaz mentally reached out for his younger son’s mental presence and found him on the third floor. He discarded his coat as he ran, making the third level minutes later as he pushed the door open breathlessly.

News of his arrival had spread and Caeru, Cedony and the physician Rayhala waited for him – holding up hands to stop him.

“What happened? Where is he?”

“Pell, please, slowly,” Cedony cautioned as Caeru stood back just wringing his hands. He looked wrecked. Moving more slowly to his son’s bedroom, Pellaz opened the door and found his House Hara sitting with his Jaden. Korryn was curled up asleep in a nearby chair. He approached the bed and Attica and Cleis stood as Jae woke. He gathered his son up into an embrace, comforting him as fresh young tears fell and Jae tried to explain his fears. It made no sense.

Afterwards when Jaden relaxed and settled into a more natural sleep, Pellaz turned to Rayhala and Caeru for explanations.

“Just tell me what happened.” He admonished.

“It was within hours of your leaving,” Caeru started, seating himself near Pellaz.

“He was okay one minute, then the next instant he collapsed, predicting death and destruction.”

“Death and destruction?” Pellaz questioned, he frowned.

“Those were his exact words. He kept saying ‘death and destruction was coming’ and nothing any of us could do would settle him.”

“Did you not try to wake him from the dream.”

“Pell, how can you wake someone when they are not asleep.”

Caeru asked.

“Cedony tried to reach you last night, but the lanes around Garridan were strangely distorted. Then he tried to call Calanthe, but Arahal took the message and said Cal could not be disturbed and that if they had no luck contacting you than to call Swift and Seel to come here.”

Pellaz blinked, then turned his eyes on the silent Hegemony member. How dare they make a decision like that?!

“Not to notify Cal?!?”

“It seemed the best decision at the time. And Jaden did not get any worse.” Cedony shrugged.

“Then we heard you were returning, so the problem was academic.”

Shaking his head, Pellaz bit his bottom lip, ordering his chaotic thoughts. At times like this he resented Thiede. He resented the position he was forced to accept, resented what it did to his and Cal’s life and now what it was doing to his Harling. Gently he placed a warm hand on Jaden’s brow, sensing his settled slumber, knowing the dreams/nightmares were past for the moment. Yet the child looked so… so fey.

“I want to take him to Roselane.”

“You cannot surely mean now? Not in winter?” Cedony protested.

“I will take him to Roselane as soon as he is up to travelling.” Pellaz speared Cedony with an uncompromising dark-eyed glare.

“Contact the Dream People in Shilalama and tell them we will be coming.” It was an order, not a request.

“Pell, surely this…”

“My Lords!” One of the guards burst in, flustered and red faced. Cedony and Caeru turned as Dree also entered the Harlings’ bedroom.

“What is it?” Cedony commanded of the Guard, not appreciating the rude interruption.

“My Lords-”

“It’s alright.” Dree dismissed the guard. He waited for the door to close.

“It seems we have a minor problem.”

“What sort of minor problem.” Caeru asked, not feeling up to more stress.

“We just received an urgent message from Sykernesse.”

“And!?!” Caeru demanded.

“Trouble?” Cedony interrupted.

“In a way. It seems Tyson just killed two of Ariaric’s guards and is now heading here.”

Pellaz closed his eyes again. That was all he needed now,

Tyson arguing with Zobinek and the Royal Court of Sykernesse. It was sure to make all the international papers. A scandal they did not need before the Tribal talks.

“Clap him in chains and send him home.” Caeru suggested, never having liked the pure-born very much.

“Ah – that is were the problem lies.” Dree said carefully.

“You see, Tyson is claiming to be coming here at Pell’s invitation.”

“What!” Pellaz stood up, gently checking to make sure he had not woken his sleeping son.

“Has the whole world gone suddenly mad or something!” He asked no one in general.

“Gods…” he glanced around, feeling far from calm.

“When is he due to arrive?”

“I umm-”

“Dree?”

“He’s already here. Ariaric didn’t find out about the problem until too late and then he contacted Swift. By the time Swift responded, Tyson was long gone…” Holding up his hand, Pellaz sighed.

“I get the picture.”

“As far as I can make it out, Tyson has already caused a large stir outside Phaonica, claiming he is denied access to you,” Dree rushed the next few words, not daring to meet Pellaz’ even gaze.

“…his chesna… and currently I believe Ashmael is bringing him into the palace while Vaysh is dealing with the reporters outside. Vaysh is telling them you are not even here.”

“I am Tyson’s – what?” Pellaz asked in disbelief, certain he had heard wrong.

“Chesna.” Caeru repeated with relish.

“You do know that he never completely recovered from your little affair, don’t you?” He reached out a hand and patted Pellaz’ cheek.

“Bitch.” Pellaz said without venom. His mind was reeling. First the Garridans’ insolence and deceitful behavior, then Jaden and now Tyson? He wished he had been the one to go to Thaine and deal with the plague. It appeared to be the lesser of the two evils.

“So where will Ash take Tyson?”

“The second level. Main library. Away from the press.”

“I’ll go.” Pellaz decided tiredly, standing and smoothing down his clothing.

“I’ll clear up this mess and misunderstanding quickly and quietly. Dree – get a message to Ariaric that Tyson will be returning presently to Sykernesse. And tell him that Immanion wants nothing to do with Sykernesse affairs, and will not interfere in any way.” Nodding, Dree left the room.

“Cedony – I still want you to contact Roselane and then talk to Ashmael. Get him to give you a complete report on Garridan, for we need information fast concerning them and their possible new alliance with a tribe calling themselves ‘Sorrandites’.” Pellaz looked over at Caeru.

“Can you please stay for a while with the Harlings while I deal with Tyson?”

“Of course.” Straightening his shoulders, Pellaz glanced one more time at his sleeping sons before following the older Hegemony member from the room.

***

Arriving in Forever with most of Arahal’s Palace Guard, an exhausted Captain and two near fatigued Hegemony members, Calanthe slid off his horse with an inelegance underlining how tired he was. The virus was settling and the major cites were protected. Yet the deaths…. He shook his head, amazed that anything still remained so shocking as to stun him. Yet seeing all the gruesome, needless deaths had filled him with horror. So they all needed a break for a day. Time to sleep undisturbed, and in Calanthe’s mind Galhea was far closer than Immanion. It was also quiet, and so Calanthe had followed Arahal’s suggestions. It had just sounded so good at the time. Awaiting their less than energetic arrival was Seel and Leef, and Cal just smiled at them both, happy to enter the spacious house and settle into a comfortable chair in front of a fire. He was bone-weary and bone-cold. With a glass of sheh in one hand and a freshly lit cigarette in the other, he started to feel vaguely normal again. Lifting his head he eyed the occupants in the room. Tharmifex had disappeared up the wide staircase, just leaving him with Glaves who was stretched out on a lounge. Glaves – and of course Seel and Cobweb, with the latter pacing the room quietly.

“So where is Swift?” He asked savoring the warming affects of the alcohol.

“In Sykernesse. On business.” Seel added as an after thought.

“How is Thaine?”

“Recovering. Though the process will take months. Or so Arahal tells me.” Seel shook his head marginally.

“After all the negotiation, it seems odd that plague should strike now.”

“Nature is never kind.” Calanthe agreed.

“No it isn’t.” Seel said distracted.

“I was sorry to hear that Jaden is so ill again.”

Opening his eyes at that, Calanthe frowned as he studied Seel’s face. Behind him, Cobweb said nothing.

“Jae hasn’t suffered a nightmare for almost seven months. He’s fine. Over those dreams-” Cal stopped as Glaves raised his head off the pillows and blinked at him.

“Oh. I thought…” Seel trailed off, covering his mouth with long fingers.

“Forget I mentioned it.” Sitting up straighter in his chair, Cal spiked Glaves a hard look before turning back to Seel.

“Jae’s been sick? When?”

“Cal-”

“When!”

“All I heard was-”

“When, Seel?! Don’t fuck me around, I’m not in the mood for games.”

“Last week. When Pellaz was forced to go to Garridan-”

“What!?!” Standing in a fluid motion, Calanthe turned on the slowly rising Hegemony member.

“You knew about this?!” Glaves sighed and rubbed his face tiredly.

“Glaves!”

“I had heard.” Glaves looked up, meeting the Tigron’s angry glare.

“Heard second-hand I might add. And by then Pellaz had already left for Garridan.”

“Why!” Calanthe grated the word out, not believing Pellaz would disregarded everything they had discussed and arranged.

“Why neglect to inform me!?”

“A problem arose with Carrollion that needed to be dealt with urgently.” Glaves gestured appealingly, his tone soothing.

“You would not be back for weeks, so Ashmael decided Pellaz should tackle Carrollion alone. By the Aghama, Cal, Pellaz is more than a match for any Har, let alone Carrollion!”

“That is not the issue here.” Calanthe cut back.

“I hate being manipulated, lied to and shut out of all the news!” He took a calming breath.

“So where is Pell now?!”

“Last I heard was that Ashmael was hoping to return to Immanion sometime today.”

“And Jaden?” Calanthe pressed, sensing more than hearing Arahal enter the room behind him.

“I don’t know.” Glaves offered.

“He became ill after Pellaz left for Garridan, but Cedony did not think it was life threatening, so we did not trouble you with the news.”

“Trouble me, that’s rich! Fuck!” Calanthe gave a mirthless laugh.

“My lover and co-ruler goes into Uigenna territory…. my son is ill enough to recall him urgently…. and you think it does not concern me!?!” He finished with a yell.

“Cal, you can relax,” Arahal broke in.

“I have contacted Immanion. Pellaz has returned safely and Jaden is over his illness.”

“That is beside the point, Arahal! I expect to be informed!” Calanthe stopped, knowing it was useless talking to the Captain, as the other Har – like Ashmael – followed a hidden agenda. Picking up his glass again, he controlled his anger and turned to leave the room.

“Cal…” It was Seel.

“I’m going for a bath, and then I am going to call Immanion and find out what else you are all sheltering me from.”

Refreshed after a long soak in the warm water Calanthe sat staring at the thought transference machine. He had just attempted to speak with Pellaz – but had gotten Ashmael’s smug face instead. The strategist had stated that the problems with Garridan were being pursued and that Carrollion had agreed to return to the Council. Jaden appeared much better, Rayhala was still with him and that Pellaz was now finalizing some internal Immanion business.

When he had asked a second time to speak with Pellaz directly, Ashmael had expertly diverted him, until he was now left looking at the blank screen of the machine. And Calanthe had been told nothing he had not already learned from Arahal. Infuriating….

***

As evening approached, Seel cautiously walked down the stairs, knowing Calanthe was around somewhere. Reaching the bottom he stopped, hushing the house servants and dismissing them quietly as he moved toward the front room. It was the main family living area, spacious and grand, with polished floors, high ceilings and enormous glass doors which opened on to the gardens. Somewhere soft music was playing.

Standing silhouetted in the doorway, Seel looked into the dark room, just catching sight of Calanthe as the other prowled around the far side of the room, halting in front of the glass doors for a moment before continuing his pacing. It was as Seel had guessed, and he slipped away before Calanthe became aware of him, moving back into the lit entrance hall and leaning back against a cool wall. He pushed a heavy plait from off his shoulder, his almond shaped eyes narrowing in thought. What was he to do? He glanced down at the parchment in his hand from the thought transference machine and debated his choices. Should he tell Cal, or just let things lie? Would this information help or hurt the other Har?… Thinking on how weary and angry Calanthe had looked hours earlier, he doubted this sort of news would do his friend any good. Besides, Calanthe would be heading out again tomorrow morning with Arahal. Going back to Thaine. Ideally, Calanthe need never know about Tyson.

With that, Seel crushed the parchment in his hand, screwing it into a ball before placing it in an ashtray and burning it. End of debate… but now, what was he to do? Should he go or stay? Would Swift want his help? Glancing up at the timepiece, Seel knew he had already made the subconscious decision, and he sighed, accepting the fact. He pushed away from the wall and went to find Leef.

***

Entering the dining room, Calanthe swept his gaze down the long polished table. Only Leef, Cobweb, Azriel’s Harling Karnias, and Seel’s Harling Tyler were present. The former Harling threw him a look, resembling his Hostling Azriel so eerily. Not even Arahal, Tharmifex or Glaves had honored anyone with their enlightening presence.

“Cal, come sit down. We were not sure if you wanted dinner here or in your room like the others.”

Exhaling loudly, Calanthe took a seat offered and studied Leef. The Har had changed, but then so had he.

“So where is Seel? Surely he is not eating in his room also?” He asked mockingly.

“No,” Leef took a breath, placing his spoon down and wiping his mouth with a serviette.

“He got called away on Parasiel business suddenly.”

“At this time of night?” Calanthe asked incredulously.

“Surely here in Galhea – the perfect city – you have no problems.” He mocked.

Leef did not answer immediately, which pricked Calanthe’s curiosity even more.

“He does not tell me everything.” Swinging his eyes over to touch Cobweb, Calanthe saw the mystic give a look of feigned disbelief.

“Leef, are you saying Seel is out in your city somewhere and you don’t even know where?” Calanthe pushed.

“No.”

Ignoring the food, which was placed in front of him, and not taking his gaze off Forever’s Chief of Security, Calanthe’s lip twisted sarcastically.

“So where is he?”

“Cal, eat your food before it gets cold.” Cobweb suggested before scowling at the two Harlings who were asking to leave the table.

“Where in Galhea is Seel?” Calanthe persisted. The Chief of Security squirmed for a moment before looking up to meet the Tigron’s demanding gaze.

“He’s not exactly in Galhea.”

“Not exactly?” Calanthe repeated incredulously.

“Have you finally lost him or something? What the fuck does ‘not exactly’ mean?”

“He went to Immanion.” Leef’s voice took on a hard edge, never having enjoyed being made fun of. Especially by Calanthe.

“Immanion?” All humor fled Calanthe’s face.

“Since when is being called away on Parasiel business translated into ‘going to Immanion’?”

“Cal, please, you are upsetting the Harlings.” Cobweb reprimanded slightly.

“Shut up Cobweb.” Calanthe leaned across the table, homing in on Leef.

“What are you not telling me? What schemes has Arahal involved you in?”

“Nothing.” Leef shot back just as strong.

“Lord Seel has gone to Immanion on Lord Swift’s request. On Parasiel business. Nothing to do remotely with you, I am afraid.”

“Swift’s in Immanion,” Calanthe repeated, all his anger draining away suddenly as a coldness hit him.

“You told me he was in Sykernesse…”

Leef fidgeted again, stirring soup around his bowl as Cobweb glared at the Security officer in disgust.

“Why is Swift in Immanion?” Calanthe pushed away from the table.

“Cal, where are you going…?” He didn’t answer, rushing up the wide stairs three at a time until he reached the communications room. Bursting in, he saw a young Parasiel Har jump before exhaling loudly.

“My Lord, you startled me.” The Har attempted a smile.

“May I help you, Lord Tigron?”

“You’ve been here, this evening, how long?” Calanthe asked curtly.

“My shift started three hours ago, my Lord.”

“Did Seel receive a message from Immanion within that time?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Have any messages come in at all?” Calanthe walked around the machine, idly watching how the young Har shifted nervously.

“Lord Arahal was here not half an hour ago. He asked me to leave the room, my Lord.”

Calanthe nodded.

“Anything else?”

“Only a brief message came from Lord Swift as I arrived this evening. Lord Seel was here-”

“Do you know what the message said?”

“No, my Lord.” The young attendant shook his head firmly. Licking his lips, Calanthe smiled. It never touched his eyes.

“Do you keep records of all messages?”

“All routine ones, yes.” He glanced down at his controls.

“If the confidentially switch has been pressed, then no recording is made. My Lord.”

“Show me the copies then which you do have.” Standing, the Har straightened his vest, his eyes not meeting the Tigron’s as he opened the back of the machine and removed the scroll.

“Here they are, my Lord.” Eyes searching the script, Calanthe saw routine reports from Galhea’s patrols, nothing more. Glancing down further he caught a slightly different typeface and unwound the scroll a bit more. The message was three hours old. It was short and not addressed to anyone in particular. It just read, ‘Trouble. Have gone to Immanion.’ The code on the end represented Sykernesse, meaning the message had originated from there. Standing up straight again, Calanthe’s mind whirled. What could be the trouble? And why all the cloak and dagger…

“Thank you.” He muttered to the young attendant, and left the room.

The message must have been sent from Swift and Seel must have understood its meaning plainly if he had left for Immanion immediately. And what else had the young attendant said… ‘Arahal had been there half an hour ago’… Yet when he had talked to Ashmael in Immanion the Gelaming strategist had said nothing of trouble… but he had also been unable to speak with Pellaz.

“Fuck,” Calanthe whispered. Was the trouble Jae… or something worse they were now sheltering him from? And what did Sykernesse have to do with it? The only concern he knew of with Sykernesse was…

Calanthe stopped dead in his tracks, going suddenly numb from head to toe.

“Tyson.” He mouthed the name. Oh Fuck! Hastily picking up his coat, he exited the house and headed determinedly towards the stables.

***

Dropping the lace curtain gently back into place, Cobweb took another sip of his wine and turned around to sigh dramatically.

“Cal’s just ridden off.”

“You don’t think-”

“Leef, try and exercise your intelligence occasionally.” Cobweb chilled slightly.

“Of course he has guessed. You don’t think he is stupid, do you?”

“That wasn’t what I meant.”

“Go tell Arahal… no,” Cobweb raised a hand, halting the Chief of Security.

“Tell Tharmifex instead. He is more intelligent than the immaculate Captain.”

Nodding, Leef turned and left the room.

Alone, Cobweb glanced out the glass window again, watching the snow fall softly against the sill.

“Cal, Cal… my darling Cal… when are you going to learn?”

***

Dismissing the aids as they rushed to meet him, Calanthe even ignored Dree when the Hegemony member hurried down to intercept him.

It was not going to work. They were not going to stop him, and he glared once at the older Har, curling his lip marginally and letting his eyes speak, gratified when Dree raised an apologetic hand and moved out of his way. He was irritable… more than that. His emotions passed anger as he strode into the large room on the second level. Hara turned, some stood in disbelief and shock at seeing him, and he smile nastily.

“Having a small party, I see. Didn’t think to invite me, I know.” Calanthe’s smile dropped abruptly.

“How inconsiderate.”

“Cal,” Ashmael stepped forward, looking just as annoyed.

“What are you doing here? You are supposed to be in Thaine.”

“Well, surprise surprise, but I think I live here, just in case you hadn’t notice!” He jabbed out a finger and pinned the strategist, letting some of his anger show.

“Make a note of that point in your scheduling!”

“Calanthe,” It was an attempt at reasonableness.

“Fuck off, Ashmael, as you make me ill!” He swung his uncompromising gaze around to the other Hegemony members and Officials in the room. His eyes stopped on his old friend Ariaric.

“Ariaric! Have you somehow mistaken Phaonica for Sykernesse? Dear me, but you are getting forgetful.” He said with heavy sarcasm.

“And Swift,” he gave a harsh laugh, looking next at the Megalithician ruler.

“I see you have finally found Seel?! Are you both playing a game of Parasiel hide and seek?”

“Cal, this is not what you think,” Swift offered.

“You are right!” Calanthe continued to mock, pinning the blonde with an angry glare.

“It is not what I think!” He swung around seeing the another Hegemony member slipping quietly into the room.

“You are a bunch of fuckin’ vultures, every single one of you!”

“Calanthe, calm yourself. You are tired, and no doubt stressed from the tour-”

“Spare me your Gelaming crap!” He spat at Ashmael.

“And don’t ever presume again that I do not need to know when Jae is ill! Or I’ll gut you were you stand! Have I made myself clear!?”

“Cal-”

“And where the fuck is Pellaz?!”

***

Taking a steadying breath, Pellaz refused to relent as he listened to Tyson’s disjointed explanation of the last few days. The pure-born was a mess, his energy lines were erratic, and as far as Pellaz could determine, Tyson was crippled by mental stress and anguish. He cast a glance at the other Har in the room with him and knew his own judgements were confirmed by the expression on Chrysm’s face. Pity, concern and sadness. Apart from disrupting the Sykernesse Royal Court, insulting Elisyin and killing two of Zobinek’s personal guard, Tyson was also under the illusion that Pellaz was still his lover. His chesna. And a caged lover who was now in danger from Calanthe – Tyson’s callous Hostling.

“Tyson, slow down,” Pellaz stressed, sending threads of calm around the younger Har, wanting to help.

“I have tried, Pell, really tried, ” Tyson hiccuped on a breath.

“But I can take no more. I… I can not live apart like this, and I know you feel the same. Nothing makes sense anymore, and I find… I am losing days. Whole junks of my life are disappearing into… into oblivion and pain.” He looked up, his eyes beseeching.

“If it wasn’t for my… my spiteful Hostling, I know we could leave.”

A million answers flew to Pellaz’ tongue, but in the end he just shook his head.

“No.” He said it firmly.

“I won’t let him stop us, I promise,” The tone was pleading and it tore at Pellaz’ heart. How a pure-born could be so lost… so confused. And now he wished he had tried to help Tyson months earlier. Years ago.

“Tyson, I am your friend.” Pellaz started gently.

“I have always been your friend. But that is all. Nothing more. There has never been anything more than shared friendship between us – even during aruna. And that relationship ended over four years ago. I am now chesna to your Hostling. In all honesty I have probably been chesna to Cal since the first moment I met him.” He watched how Tyson frowned, how the pure-born flinched from his words.

“Tyson, there is nothing left to be gained by this. Nothing to be won.” He went to sit with the young blonde, but stopped his hand from reaching out to touch the other Har when Chrysm shook his head negatively.

“You must get past it. Look to what you have now. To what you have achieved-”

“Pell, I am nothing without you. We don’t have to hide…” Tyson moved, making the contact himself and grabbing Pellaz’ smaller hands.

Feeling the electric touch of Tyson’s mental energies via the warm touch, Pellaz pulled back. He felt scolded by the unchecked desire.

“Tyson-”

“Let’s leave this place, go away somewhere. Together. Start again. Just the two of us!”

“Tyson!” It was sharp and shocked the other into silence.

“I do not know where you are getting these fantasies from, but I have no wish to leave this place, with or without you.” Pellaz stated firmly.

“Calanthe – your Hostling – is my blood bond.

My lover. My life. And I would rather die than leave him. No deceit, no deception. Face the truth, Tyson.” Pellaz held out a hand palm up, challenging Tyson to read the truth in his aura. Tyson eyed the pale hand apprehensively.

“Take it!” Pellaz compelled him, driving him. Fighting it, Tyson reached out against his will and grasp the open palm, feeling Pellaz’ rejection sear into his soul as the other burned him with brutal honesty, tearing out his heart.

“No!…” Tyson cried, falling to his knees, dizziness swamping him as the door to their warm room burst open and his destructor walked in.

Letting go of the hand he held, Pellaz nevertheless regretted his choice of action – the harshness, the coldness – only knowing it was necessary. Behind him he sensed caged anger, bewilderment and pain, and he closed his eyes, instinctively aware of who had entered. Chrysm had risen also, but the adept’s entire concentration was focused on the injured Har at Pellaz’ feet, and Pellaz closed his eyes, crying for them all. Tyson was sobbing now and the sound echoed poignantly around the room.

Slowly turning, Pellaz raised his head and met the questioning violet eyes of his blood-bond. Calanthe was breathing deeply, his eyes focused determinedly on his soul mate, not seeing Tyson or Chrysm.

“Do you…. mind explaining this?!” It was more a hissed demand than question.

His thoughts still confused by what had just happened, Pellaz didn’t answer immediately, instead he found he was shaking his head. He caught movement beyond the door, sensing Ashmael and the others and didn’t want to face them yet, so he stood and moved away from the lounge. Away from the tragedy behind him, walking out of the library completely. In disbelief Calanthe watched Pellaz flee the room, shock eating into him before he followed. He never even gave his son a thought as he stepped around Tyson, lengthening his stride to catch Pellaz. He eventually caught up with his infuriating co-ruler in a back room on the second level, miles from the Official State rooms.

Large sheets covered furniture, and the room was lit by lights which Pellaz had snapped on in irritation. It was a disused parlor – one of Thiede’s old function areas.

“Pell, what the fuck’s going on?!” Calanthe slammed the door, feeling better as he saw Pellaz flinch.

“I am as confused as you.”

“Like hell! You should see it from my angle!”

“What can I say.” Pellaz shot back.

“Tyson turned up here after shooting two of Zobinek’s guards! Ariaric and Swift seem to have very little control over his behavior and he is… sick!”

“That’s it?!” Calanthe asked in mock disbelief.

“What else is there!” Pellaz challenged. He locked eyes with Calanthe and read the accusations easily.

“You think I’ve taken aruna with him, don’t you? You think I’ve continued our liaison?”

“Haven’t you?”

“As a matter of fact no, I haven’t! Unlike you I ended my affairs almost five years ago. We have been nothing but friends. Nothing, Cal!”

“Five years… Not even once?”

“No,” Pellaz confirmed very slowly.

“Not once.”

Staring at him, Calanthe felt anchorless. Set adrift. The silence stretched awkwardly.

“I didn’t know-”

“Obviously.” Pellaz cut back, still annoyed.

“But you liked thinking the worst, didn’t you?”

“You never make it easy.”

Pushing hair back behind his shoulder, Pellaz sat heavily on the arm of a sheet-covered chair. He turned his head side on and glanced at the blonde Har through his lashes, noting tension, fatigue and bewilderment.

“What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were in Thaine.”

“No.” Calanthe shook his head, abruptly sapped of all energy and fight.

“Arahal suggested a break. But I have to go back, as Harlines is struggling with all the refugees at present.” He walked over to his dark-haired companion.

“So tell me what’s wrong with Tyson?”

“I don’t know.” Pellaz admitted.

“I touched his energy lines and they are a mess. He believes that we are still chesna and that I need rescuing or something. From what I have no idea.”

“From me probably.” Calanthe guessed.

“So why does he think you are still his chesna?”

“I don’t know that either.” Pellaz said honestly.

“Although it annoyed me when you blatantly introduced him into the Sykernesse household years ago, I had quickly come to think of it as the best thing for Ty. He and Zobinek seemed well suited. And there was a blood bonding.”

“This could turn into a political nightmare.”

“I’ve got Vaysh working damage control and I’ve told Ariaric that Tyson is his problem and Immanion will not interfere.”

Nodding, pleased by the news, Calanthe gave his partner a small smile.

“Pell, why do we keep running into this same problem?”

“What problem? I told you Tyson is not a-”

“Not that.” Calanthe corrected softly.

“Us.”

“Us?” It was Pellaz’ turn to frown. Reaching out a hand, Calanthe cupped the up-turned face, his hand warm against the cool smooth skin.

“We have the unique ability to injury each other by this lack of trust.”

“I trust you,” Pellaz said very slowly.

“Do you?” Calanthe asked, just as serious. He ran his hand down Pellaz’ arm to lock fingers.

“Do you really? Like you did thirty five odd years ago?”

“Cal?” Getting suddenly apprehensive as he sensed an addictive flow of energy sweep out of Calanthe’s embracing hands, Pellaz stood up and tried to back away.

“Well?” Calanthe didn’t release him, tightening his grip, bruising the slender fingers in his own. He watched Pellaz’ face crease up in pain.

“Remember how we used to have implicit trust…”

“Cal-” Pellaz shook his head anxiously, continuing to pull away.

“Don’t do this-”

“I must.” Calanthe’s tone was firm, his mind suddenly very clear about what he had to do.

“Take me back, Pell. All the way back.”

Pellaz’ bumped into the wall behind him, the shock jolting him, and he glanced around nervously.

“Back? Back to where?”

“To our problems,” Calanthe coaxed softly. He stepped closer to his prey.

“To where the problems started.” An image of Forever, white and desolate flashed into Pellaz’ mind and he shook his head fervently.

“You can do it, just focus your mind,” Calanthe whispered. Soft and coaxing.

Shaking his head again, Pellaz clamped his jaw tight, his eyes taking on a haunted look. A single tear slid down his cheek, and he fought the weakness.

“I won’t… I can’t…”

“Why?” Leaning in, Calanthe breathed the word. They were very close now, their hot breath mingling in the coolness between them.

“Because… all I see…”

“What do you see?” Calanthe persuaded gently.

“Is that house. Forever.” Pellaz admitted painfully on a breath.

“Forever?” Calanthe frowned; it was not what he had expected.

“I get the same image over and over of Forever.”

“Tell me… what happens in Forever…”

“I lose you…”

“Me?”

“To Tersian.” Pellaz raised his eyes, meeting the clouded ones of Calanthe’s.

“Over and over. That house devours you… steals your soul… and I can never win against it. We must leave… run away… get far away and never go back. Never…”

The black pupils were fully dilated and Calanthe listened, appalled, as the words didn’t sound like Pellaz the Gelaming, but rather the words of a frightened young Har. Pellaz as he had been back in Forever, thirty-five years ago.

“I left that place with you-”

“But you went back!” Pellaz accused.

“I don’t remember going back.” Calanthe told him.

“I was sick…”

“You ran to him.”

“No, I didn’t-” It was Calanthe’s turn to deny the words.

“I saw it all.” Pellaz breathed.

“Thiede made me watch. He made me see the desire… showed me you in Tersian’s arms… in that house. I knew… I had been warned…” He opened his mouth to say more, but the words refused to come.

“Warned? By whom?” Calanthe hissed.

“Like a sick dream-”

“Who?!” Cal breathed again, starting to understand. Starting to hear Cobewb’s mystical words again inside his own mind. No wonder Cobweb had cautioned that Pell’s memories might be different…

“A web-”

“It’s all illusion!” Calanthe stressed, getting angry with the mystic.

“It’s this fear, Pell, that cripples us both.” He lifted a hand and tangled his fingers in the dark hair, holding his lover’s head, watching those dark eyes mist over in pain.

“I need to see what you see, Pell. I need to experience what you saw. I need to go back, to learn it all.”

“Back? But…” Pellaz blinked at him, puzzled, feeling already emotionally exhausted.

“Take me with you. Take me back to Thiede. Back to the beginning.”

“The beginning?” Still puzzled Pellaz rubbed a thumb hand across his face.

“Tell me what happened to you, as it is past time I knew. I crave that knowledge, Pell. I must have it.”

“I-”

“You can’t deny me.”

“I can.”

“Let me experience your memories.”

“No.”

“Your pain-”

“No!”

“Yes! You must!”

“NO!”

“Back to that day in the woods! Do you remember the woodlands? The greenery and the freshness?”

“Cal – no!”

“The love!”

“NO!”

“Feel that love, Pell. Feel its spirit… feel our pledge burn inside you-”

“No… I can not-”

“You can.”

“Cal…”

“Your hair was like silk threads enfolding me as I followed you.”

“Cal, do not do this!” Panic colored Pellaz’ voice.

“You were riding ahead of me-”

“We must not!” It was a desperate plea. Pellaz raised his fingers to block the uttered words.

“-wild blossoms in your hair and you turned to smile at me.”

“Calanthe, stop!”

“I asked you to stop, to let me go ahead. Remember?”

“I… I could not… I could not stop.”

“I sensed danger, yet I couldn’t move-”

“You had dew drops in your hair, they halloed you. I can still see it… oh gods the pain… the pain. Cal, the pain….” It was a whimper.

“…ahead we broke into a clearing-”

“…the pain…”

“…and I couldn’t stop you, I… I saw it too late.”

“She was mad.”

“She was death.”

“Cal, stop this…” Pellaz reached up to cup the icy cheek of his lover, his insides trembling as he remembered the isolation. The torment and pain, seeing it and re-living it as if it had happened only yesterday.

“A bright red star blossomed on your beautiful head as you fell from Red…” Calanthe whispered, one of his fingers tracing the imaginary mark on Pellaz’ forehead.

“I… I screamed.”

“You killed the human… you-”

“I screamed… your body lifeless, your eyes staring through me… I just couldn’t reach you… I tried. A horse’s scream…”

“I tried too… I could see you on the ground. You were kneeling over something, but I could not look at that, all I could see was you. You crying, covered in redness…” Pellaz said in a hushed, urgent tone.

“Your blood-”

“Your anguish crippling us both. Paralyzing me. I tried to reach you. I tried, but… our fingers could not touch… I screamed as he dragged me away…”

“Where did he take you?” Calanthe asked, watching Pellaz’ eyes unfocused in memory.

“I do not know. I have no memory of it, all I felt was this wrenching pain. It consumed me, as did the image of you. Pain…. blind agony that gave way to reality and then just more pain. How long I drifted like that I can not remember.” Pellaz took a deep breath.

“Later I found out it was five years… Five agonizing years. Images of darkness, Hara and exotic rituals swam in my mind until he came. He came and blocked them all out with his brightness.” Pellaz looked up and saw nothing but understanding and acceptance in the violet eyes, and it gave him the strength to continue.

“He shone so bright, like a star, and then he came to me and pierced me. Burned me. When I regained my senses I… I discovered the years I had lost…” Pellaz swallowed a choked breath as he felt Calanthe embrace him.

“I asked about you… but he would not give me a clear answer… Then Vaysh came…”

“Go on… what happened then…”

“You really want to hear it all?”

“I need to hear it. We both do, as it is the only way to learn. To grow.” Calanthe sighed and moved back a little.

“And when you have told me it all, I will tell you of me. I will tell you the things Thiede twisted or refused to let you know…”

Sitting curled together on one of the sheet-covered lounges, Calanthe smiled contentedly. Finally he felt they had accomplished something, touched on what was necessary and reached that elusive level of trust Seel described. Finally. A few things still needed to be sorted out, like what Cobweb had done inside Pellaz’ head all those years ago. Plus he needed to work out how he felt about Vaysh. Vaysh who had aided Thiede… who had willingly sat back and watched… Stretching, Calanthe felt Pellaz thread fingers through his hair and he looked down. There was amusement in the large liquid gaze which now studied him intently.

“You do realize that the Hegemony are probably running around frantically looking for us?”

“They need the exercise. They are getting fat.” Pellaz laughed before pulling away and sitting up.

“I feel wretched, and in no mood to deal with the problems outside that door.” Leaving a hand on a slender thigh, Calanthe stretched also.

“So what is going on?”

“Apart from what I told you earlier?”

“I was a bit distracted.”

“Firstly Garridan.” Pellaz started, ordering his thoughts.

“How come Ash talked you into touring?”

“Carrollion was making political noises and causing problems amongst the other Tribes, so I went and stepped on him. He is definitely a hostile ally. The little that we did gather is that he is in contact with a group calling themselves the ‘Sorrandites’.”

Calanthe drew down his brow at that.

“In Garridan? I thought the rumors about that Tribe were either fabricated or in the deep south of Florinada.”

“We can only assume they are affiliated with Garridan. But it would not surprise me, as there is a lot of uncharted desert in the Northern expanse. Ashmael is supposed to be finding out.”

“That could take months,” Calanthe muttered, recalling the other Har’s current inability to function.

“Maybe not.” Pellaz speculated.

“I think he and Vaysh are close to resolving their little problem.” He said with heavy meaning.

“Interesting.”

“Then there is Jaden. He is ill, Cal. We have to get him help and I asked Dree to send word to Roselane asking for assistance.”

“I’ve told you-”

“I know what we discussed, but if they can help him…” Pellaz left the rest unsaid.

“Alright, let’s wait for the reply.” He agreed begrudgingly.

“And Tyson? When did he turn up?”

“Not long before you.” Pellaz groaned.

“I think I burned him, as it was the only way to convince him that it was over.” Looking at his dark-haired chesna through new eyes, Calanthe just smiled.

“Swift will look after him. You do know that Swift, Seel and Ariaric were all outside waiting for you to finish with Tyson? They gave me quite a reception when I arrived.”

“Dammit.” Pellaz said without heat.

“When are they going to stop manipulating us?” It was wistful. Considering that, Calanthe shrugged.

“I’ll send Arahal back to Thaine, and stay here until we know Jaden is better.” A polite tap on the door interrupted their thoughts. The door opened and Cedony stuck his head in.

“Ahh, Cal. Pell. Here you both are. We were a umm… a bit worried.”

“How unusual,” Calanthe drawled, watching how Cedony pushed the door wider open.

“There’s a problem-” Cedony started.

“Not another one?!” Pellaz asked in disbelief.

“Oh, it’s nothing new,” Cedony rushed to reassure.

“Tyson?” Calanthe asked, feeling strangely concerned about his Harling now that he understood Pellaz’ mind.

“No, no.” Cedony denied.

“Ariaric has taken the liberty of moving him into his hover car. They should depart shortly.”

He licked his lips.

“It Jaden.”

“Jae?” Pellaz was standing immediately.

“Caeru sent word to find you as the Harling appears to have deteriorated further-”

“Any word from Roselane?” Pellaz cut in urgently.

“Dree said something, but-” Cedony got no further, stepping aside when Pellaz turned to Calanthe questioningly.

“Cal?”

“You go, I’ll follow in a minute.”

Tipping his head slightly, Pellaz left the room. Moving also, Calanthe stopped and watched Pellaz hurry down the deserted hallway before turning to look at the Hegemony member.

“Where is Ariaric now?”

“Down near the stables. Swift and Seel are also there.”

“I need a word with him.” Frowning, Cedony watched as the tall Tigron walked the other way.

***

Turning from talking with Ashmael, Ariaric noticed Calanthe as the Tigron approached. Calanthe’s seductive movements were always a pleasure to watch.

“Calanthe, I am terribly sorry about this,” Ariaric gestured to the Hara hurrying around and the Security Guards, even as reporters and photographers tried to get closer, snapping photos.

Gesturing to dismiss the apology, Calanthe gave the Archon a half smile.

“I don’t mind a bit of chaos, keeps the Hegemony on its toes. How is Tyson?” Assessing the blonde Tigron, Ariaric relaxed as the other’s natural sarcastic humor had seemed to have returned.

“Unconscious at present. And he will stay that way until we reach Sykernesse.” Ariaric predicted solemnly. He leaned in a little closer.

“My dear Ashmael here is being closed-mouthed about things – but what actually did Pellaz do to Tyson?” Calanthe raised a questioning brow, noting the strategist’s annoyed sigh.

“It’s just, I’ve never seen a Har so… so broken.” Ariaric ended lamely.

“When irritated, Pellaz can be a little blunt. Unfortunately Tyson had to find that out the hard way.” Calanthe said calmly, watching the Archon’s face pale slightly.

“Now what do you plan to do with him?” Recovering, Ariaric shrugged.

“The Lyris of Sahale owes me a favor, so I’ll send Tyson to him for healing and training. He could use a bit of discipline.” Nodding, Calanthe half turned as a commotion outside broke through some of the security guards.

“Keep me informed. Safe journey back to Sykernesse.”

Pellaz tried to comfort the young Harling as Jaden sobbed his heart out. His breath was ragged as he mumbled, in half phrases, horrors only he could see. It was distressing to see him so ill, his features lean, all his childhood fat and muscles wasted away under the affect of his illness.

“There must be something we can do?!” Caeru was frantic, his own features gaunt as stress showed in his stance. He felt as close to the Harlings as the Tigrons, having involved himself determinedly in their life since birth.

Lifting his eyes, Pellaz watched the Tigrina, knowing how the other felt, but also knowing there was nothing Rayhala could do that he had not already tried.

“Where is Dree?”

“He was having a problem contacting Roselane, I’ll go and see if he’s had any luck yet.” Vaysh offered, squeezing Pellaz’ arm gently in reassurance. Before Vaysh reached the door Calanthe and Dree entered, the Hegemony member shaking his head in concern.

“Cal?” Passing across the report he held, Calanthe sat on the side of the bed with Pellaz and stroked his son’s damp brow. After scanning the report, Pellaz frowned, lifting his gaze to meet Dree’s.

“This can’t be right.”

“I asked twice for verification, that’s why it took so long.” Dree explained.

“What is there is exactly what they said. Their Dreamers have been seeing Jaden in their dreams for the last six months. His dreams are their dreams, and their Dreamers are just as ill. They ask you take him to them.”

“You can’t!” Caeru stated, scared.

“But will it help?” Calanthe asked. He let his eyes lock with Pellaz’, conveying his mistrust of this situation.

“If they are ill also…”

Breaking away from the compelling violet stare, Pellaz turned back to Dree.

“Was there anything else besides this?” He held up the report.

“Just word from Exalan, Opalexian’s aid. She says a healing could only occur if Jaden was brought into the midst of the Dream People. If he linked with them physically, then spiritually.”

“No!” Caeru shouted. He swung his glare viciously on his life bond.

“I can’t believe you are considering this, Pellaz!”

“Physically?” Pellaz questioned. Rayhala was nodding to himself as he wound a curl nervously around a finger.

“In theory I suppose it is possible. But I have never seen it or read of it being done successfully with a Harling. A Har… maybe.”

“See!” Caeru objected.

“Jae is not an ordinary Harling,” Pellaz whispered, reaching over and laying a hand on his partner’s arm.

“Opalexian would not have suggested it if she thought it would not work.”

“You are too idealistic.” Calanthe said without heat.

“You do not know her. I have felt her power.”

“Cal-”

“But,” Calanthe cut him off, “…since our options are severely limited, I am willing to try anything at this stage.”

“The Hegemony will not allow it!” Caeru predicted.

“You can not do this!”

“Rayhala, ” Pellaz ignored the Tigrina with ease.

“Is there anything you can give Jae that will make flight through the lanes less stressful for him?”

“He is a Harling, Pellaz, he can not travel the lanes.” Dree reminded him.

“If I shield him, he can enter the lanes.”

“No!” It was simultaneously from Caeru and Dree.

Dismissing the Tigrina, Dree approached the bed and knew he had problems when both Calanthe and Pellaz seemed unconcerned by his objections.

“Surely you were not thinking of going?”

“Of course I am going.” Pellaz said calmly as Korryn climbed up onto the bed also.

“Cal,” Dree petitioned him for sense.

“If you want Jaden to go to Roselane via the lanes then it is possible Chrysm and I can take him.”

Giving a mirthless smile Calanthe shook his head, understanding well the fears and dangers Dree didn’t verbalize.

“That won’t be necessary.” Briefly he mind-touched his chesna and he felt Pellaz’ thoughts.

“A visit to Shilalama is well overdue for both Pellaz and myself. And we are more than capable of shielding the Harlings through the lanes. Jaden needs attention now, not next month and we both want to be there to oversee it.”

Dree was spluttering, just realizing what was being suggested.

“You can’t-” was all he got out, Caeru echoing his words. Even Vaysh looked worriedly at the two Tigrons before he quietly stood and left the room. Only Rayhala said nothing as he gently checked Jaden over again.

“It is not up for discussion.” Pellaz answered.

“Both of you?!” It was almost a squeak of disbelief.

“That is not allowed! Absolutely forbidden that you tour together. The Hegemony will never sanction it. It is too dangerous, politically unwise-”

“Dree,” Calanthe stood and approached the agitated Har, placing a calming hand on his shoulder.

“No one needs know we have even left Immanion. It will not be official. Hell, I am not even supposed to be here now.”

“Calanthe.” Dree took a steadying breath.

“Officially or not, you can not travel together. Especially not with a royal Harling. It was a policy Thiede set down firmly.”

“Thiede is dead. Ascended. His policies re-defined. Jaden will go to Roselane. Pellaz and I will take him.”

“And Korryn?” Dree pushed, his heart sinking.

“Jae has become very dependant on Korryn since we have been away, and it would not be right to pull out that support now.”

“You will not get the approval from the Hegemony.” Dree only repeated desperately.

“This matter will not go before the Hegemony.” Pellaz put in.

“This does not concern State or Tribal matters. This is personal.”

Lost, Dree studied the two Tigrons, shaking his head before backing out of the room without saying another word.

“You can’t do this, Pell, please…”

“Caeru, we have to.” Calanthe cut back, his annoyance only now starting to show.

“They will fight you.” Rayhala predicted as he lay a troubled hand over Jaden’s chest.

“But you are right, I can not help Jaden now. Unless you act quickly he will die from neural trauma.”

“How long do we have?” Pellaz asked into the silence.

“A day. Maybe two.” Rayhala predicted.

***

Most of the Hegemony members awaited them outside Jaden’s room and Cal hid his smile when Ashmael as always opened the arguments.

“You can not travel to Roselane. Neither of you can. It is too dangerous.” Ashmael started, his stance casual, disguising his true feelings.

“I have just received further word that the lanes in Garridan have deteriorated again and if you remember your geography correctly, that blocks the way to Roselane.”

“Are you suggesting Garridan interference?” Pellaz asked, his gaze very direct, making Ashmael alter stance marginally.

“I am not suggesting anything at present until I get clearer reports. We had trouble coming in earlier from Nightshade, and I am just apprehensive about the deterioration in the lanes.”

“Hover car?”

“No, absolutely not!” Dree stressed, getting all red-faced.

“They are too exposed. To big a target!”

“Have you learnt anything new about Garridan?” Calanthe questioned into the silence which followed. He casually walked over to the far cabinet and poured a drink. He was just as exhausted as the others, not having slept yet since Thaine. He noted that both Glaves and Tharmifex were also returned from Forever, which meant Arahal would be around somewhere as well.

“No. Nothing definite.” Cedony answered.

“The little digging I have had time for only suggests that Carrollion may have initiated contact with another Wraeththu Tribe outside the borders of Jaddayoth.”

“Sorrandites?” Pellaz asked.

“Maybe.” Cedony shrugged.

“But even if it is true, they are the least of our concerns at present. We haven’t even started exploring that desert expanse. Carrollion is just playing games. His political agenda was destroyed by your bluntness, my dear Pell.” He dismissed.

“We are more concerned about Roselane-”

“Are the lanes disrupted in Roselane or only within Garridan?” Pellaz questioned.

“Just Garridan.” Ashmael supplied.

“Can Biting be reached?” Calanthe inquired, remembering the harbor port at the bottom end of Garridan, near the Roselane border.

“Possibly,” Ashmael admitted reluctantly.

“But that is not the issue here-”

“No it isn’t.” Pellaz said just as strongly.

“The issue is that unless we get Jaden to Roselane quickly he will die.”

That brought silence for a moment, as even Glaves sat up straighter.

“How long,” Tharmifex requested softly, shocked by the news. He had not known the Harling was that sick.

“Rayhala says no more than a day – maybe two – if the dreams are not stopped.” Calanthe told them.

“Just one day?” Even Ashmael was stunned and he walked over, closer to the two Tigrons, only now seeing the stress.

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.” Pellaz confirmed.

“We have to get him to Roselane – to the Dream People, for they are the only ones who can help him now.” He walked past the strategist and stood in front of the other Hegemony members.

“All information points towards the Dream people’s healing of neural trauma, and Rayhala agrees. Now the quickest way is through the lanes, by Cal or myself, and because of Korryn’s emotional bonding with Jae, it is necessary he go also.” Pellaz categorized in a business like manner.

“Which means both Calanthe and myself need to go. If the lanes are distorted, we could go as far as Biting and ride from there. It should be no more than a three hour ride to Shilalama.” He looked at Calanthe for agreement. Calanthe nodded and went to stand next to his partner.

“Officially I am returning to Thaine. Thar, you and Glaves can go back and promote that idea. No one need know anything different. Pellaz was not due back from Garridan for another two days, so you can encourage that thought with the reporters.”

“But what about the scandal with Tyson? Ariaric was here, remember.” Chrysm pointed out.

“That will surely make all the papers.”

“Resolved. I resolved it before returning to Thaine. Ariaric will say nothing. No one even knew Pellaz was here outside of the immediate Palace officials and they can be silenced. I checked,” Calanthe smiled a little.

“I also made sure the media saw me, and even Vaysh brilliantly re-enforced the belief that Pellaz wasn’t here to all the journalists earlier.”

Vaysh’s pinched features only emphasizing his unknowing part in Calanthe’s manipulation.

“It is still too dangerous.” Ashmael said quietly.

“It is a risk, I agree, but then Jaden’s death is a certainty if we do nothing.” Calanthe emphasized, knowing he had swayed them slightly.

“It is unofficial. We will be in Shilalama before anyone knows or guesses.” Pellaz enforced Calanthe’s word softly.

“But,” Ashmael sighed in defeat, studying the floor for a long moment.

“It is the ride which concerns me. Three hours in open country. It won’t exactly be a non-hostile environment.”

“I have faced worse. So has Pell.”

“But you were not Tigron then. You were not a target…” Ashmael reminded him.

“Nor did you have a sick Harling sapping your energies.” He sighed again, far from happy with events.

“I will send Arahal on ahead to Biting and have him check out the road to Shilalama.”

“Ash, this trip is necessary, we must go.” Pellaz whispered as the members of the Hegemony slowly started to agree.

***

Closing the door firmly and then turning to lean with his back against it, Pellaz sighed exhaustedly, watching as Calanthe fell on to their bed. His lover was a tangle of limbs and clothing, nothing moving except the slow rise and fall of his chest.

“Stop thinking and come to bed,” the words were almost slurred as Calanthe lifted his head and looked up.

“I have this feeling of doom. Of…” Pellaz didn’t finish the sentence.

“Pell, it is late.” Calanthe said slowly and concisely.

“I am tired. You are tired. Nothing more can be done at this late hour,” he glanced over at the timepiece and saw it was almost 2am in the morning.

“…Gods, is that the time?” He groaned, dropping his head down again on the soft bedding.

“We have to be conscious again in less than four hours…” Giving a half smile at the comment, Pellaz closed his eyes. He was apprehensive … concerned. Yes, concerned that the Hegemony had a valid point. That he and Cal had over-looked a vital piece of information. That as Tigrons it was too dangerous to travel together. That too many factors were against them. That Jaden could not wait even four more hours….

“Pell?” It was a silent question as Calanthe raised his head again. Pellaz was still leaning against the door, holding it closed as if he was frightened the Hegemony would burst in and unravel all their plans.

“We are doing the right thing,” he re-enforced softly.

“I know. Jaden needs this,” Pellaz pushed away from his support and walked over to gently sit on the edge of the huge bed.

“I am just afraid that we have missed something important. I-”

Placing a calming hand over a slender thigh, Calanthe met the large worried look of his soul mate with a brutal honesty of his own that stripped him bare.

“I am frightened every time we leave Immanion separately. Every time we tour independently. Every time Ashmael and his scheduling manipulates us apart. Every time, Pell…” He took a calming breath.

“This fear can be so overpowering and crippling-”

“Hush,” Pellaz whispered, gently leaning down and embracing the shivering Har, offering a mixture of understanding and reassurance.

Tangling his fingers in Pellaz’ silk shirt, Calanthe sighed as thick blue-black hair fell across him, warming him, and he pulled his lover closer. Suddenly he needed the contact desperately. A hot body covered his and he inhaled the scent hungrily, devouring the essence of this tantalizing being.

“Pell,” it was an urgent whisper. Stretching out, Pellaz lifted his head a little, a frown still showing in his dark eyes.

“I just have a very bad feeling about tomorrow, as if I should be remembering something which was said in passing…” he muttered before surrendering, and sinking down into the waiting embrace. The seductive fires…

***

The sun was just starting to shed its light on the wintry countryside, as Calanthe settled Korryn more comfortably in the saddle in front of him. Pellaz was behind him on Peridot, holding Jaden. The young Harling was wrapped tightly, dozing in and out of wakefulness, his system full of herbs Rayhala had fed him only minutes earlier.

Reports from Arahal indicated that nothing out of the ordinary showed in the township of Biting, or in surrounding land, still a heavy feeling of doom seemed to permeate the atmosphere.

Shaking off the ill feelings, Calanthe watched Ashmael pull on thick gloves before leading his Faraldienne over to them. The strategist wore a scowl, and like everyone else was not happy with the arrangements, but could think of no immediate alternative. Behind, on the icy steps of Phaonica, stood Vaysh, huddled in furs with Chrysm and Dree. Both Tharmifex and Glaves would be returning presently to Thaine to finish cleaning up the remnants of plague and settle Margron firmly into Gelaming rule. That situation was well in hand, and Calanthe dismissed it from his mind, vaguely sensing Pellaz’ concern through their bond. He frowned, unsure if the concern was because of Jaden or the flight through the lanes they were about to take. Almost…. almost he was on the verge of canceling the ride… until he met Ashmael’s resigned gaze.

“As much as I can arrange security, it has been done.” Ashmael’s look was hard as he firmly tied his coat, hot breath frosting in the cold morning air.

“We also just received a broken communication from Roselane, confirming Rayhala’s diagnosis of Jaden. It seems some Wraeththu living in Shilalama have already died from neural trauma.”

“The Dream People?”

“They have had deaths also.” Ashmael confirmed as he glanced over at Pellaz. The smaller Tigron just moving his mount closer.

“But why? Is it a type of illness? Virus? Plague? Or is it caused by magic? Like what the Kakkahaar still practice?” Shaking his head, Ashmael’s long blonde mane swung sluggishly, tied back off his face, giving him a look of severity.

“As yet we have no answers, but the Officials in Shilalama and the Kamagrian whom Dree spoke with are just as bewildered. Arahal should know more when we get to Biting.” Nodding, Calanthe turned a little and glanced over at Pellaz. The other’s face was lost in deep thought, wisps of long dark hair escaping to hide his distracted expression. Ashmael swung up onto his horse and moved to ride next to Calanthe, with Pellaz and Eyra to his left. Around them, twelve of the Tigrons’ elite and personal Guards protectively surrounding them as they moved away and entered the lanes. Nothing remained behind for Vaysh and Chrysm to see except the frost in the cold air from the horses’ breath which lingered a few seconds before it too was gone. Vaysh shivered, feeling suddenly very, very cold.

***

Exiting the lanes in a secure compound behind the city center of Biting, Calanthe was glad that trip was over, as the magical lanes had become exceedingly hard to navigate towards the end of the ride. Like a malignant electrical disruption had just severed mental controls. It baffled him and he glanced down at Korryn to make sure the young pure-born was unaffected. The Harling appeared unconcerned as he stared around wide-eyed. His first adventure outside Immanion.

Arahal approached briskly with six of his guard, all dressed warmly in furs.

“The road to Shilalama this time of morning should be deserted. The terrain is unremarkable except for the rocky pass near the Roselane border. I have patrols up there watching the road.”

“Good.” Ashmael said, surveying the immediate area.

“Do we go on?”

“Yes.” Pellaz said without hesitation, having removed a glove to check Jaden.

“Then I suggest we leave immediately.” Arahal advised.

“Biting is the main river port and in a very short time the whole township will be out working.”

Taking the hint, they left the secure compound, a few Hara appearing and being diverted to be dealt with by Arahal’s patrols. They slipped away quietly and journeyed along the road, only stopping an hour later briefly as a patrol met up with them to give a report on the road ahead. It was still early morning, the sun a little higher in the sky, taking some of the chill out of the air. Around them the countryside was dormant, trees bare, and grass sparse. And the further out of Biting they went the more barren the landscape. It was hard imagining anyone wanting to willingly live in the area. After the second hour of travel Calanthe started to relax a bit. They were rapidly closing on the Roselane border where another patrol was awaiting them, and no doubt soon after that they would meet the Kamagrian and be escorted into Shilalama for a well-earned breakfast. Nothing out of the ordinary had been reported so far, but then neither had they seen any movement on the road. That seemed a little unusual in and of itself, aside from the fact it was winter and still very early in the day. Still, Calanthe kept a watchful eye on the countryside, glad for the elite guard which Ashmael had insisted upon escorting them with.

Nearing the rocky pass, Pellaz called a halt, and Calanthe turned his horse and went back to see what was wrong. Ashmael did not turn, remaining in the center of the road as he scanned ahead mentally, the guards stopping also in a protective wall.

“What’s wrong?” Calanthe asked, eyeing Jaden as the Harling squirmed against Pellaz, crying, his fingers knotted in Pellaz’ coat ties.

“He woke about five minutes ago crying.”

“I thought the herbs Rayhala gave him were supposed to last all day?” Eyra stated, removing his gloves and blowing on his frozen hands.

“They were,” Pellaz stated, not looking up as he concentrated on his son.

“I read panic in him, Cal. He is terrified of something, but I can not make out what it is.” Reaching over, Calanthe touched his Harling’s energy lines also, sensing the same emotions Pellaz had skimmed. A fear. A doom. A panic.

“We are not far from the border now. Another ten minutes at most, then from there maybe half an hour to the outskirts of Shilalalma.” He judged. He studied his son for a moment longer, watching as Pellaz tried to soothe him.

“Do you want me to take him for a while?”

Pellaz glanced up and smiled.

“Thanks, but I am okay.” It was the first positive emotion Calanthe had seen all day and Pellaz’ smile warmed him, drawing out a response.

“Father, I want to ride with Jae.”

Surprised, Calanthe looked at Korryn.

“Not now, maybe some other time when-”

“But I can help calm him. I have done it before.”

It was so earnestly said that Calanthe just raised his gaze to silently ask Pellaz. His partner stared first at their youngest Harling, then looked up.

“Maybe, but I have no room-”

“I can sit behind you.”

“Korryn,” Pellaz started.

“I’m very good at holding on.” Korryn’s eyes went impossibly wide, his facial features and expression a mirror image of Pellaz’.

Persuasively so, Calanthe thought and found himself agreeing with Korryn, moving before he had gotten a single word out.

“Cal, what are you doing?” Eyra protested, walking his horse back towards them.

“Ash is getting impatient, and Arahal is champing at the bit because his patrol is late.” He frowned.

“And why is Korryn now riding with Pell? Are you trying to give his horse a heart attack?”

“Shut up, Eyra, and move your arse,” Calanthe said flatly as he turned his Faraldienne and trotted towards the immobile strategist.

“Problems?” He asked mildly.

“Nothing I can sense, and I am not sure if that should worry me,” Ashmael said very slowly, his mind far away, out searching.

“But I think we should move.”

“Agreed.” They moved out again, slowly at first, then gathering more speed. The rocky pass slowed their progress marginally until they had reached the bluff, and then they were riding down into the barren valley below. Around them nothing moved, and Calanthe dropped his mount back slightly to ride with Arahal.

“So where is your patrol?” He asked, noting the Captain’s pinched expression. Beside him Eyra was tightening his coat, his lips turning blue in the cold.

“They should meet us at the border now.” Accepting that, Calanthe glanced ahead. Pellaz was surrounded by Harlings, a sight Calanthe would never have imagined years ago… his Harlings… Only a few minutes ago Jaden had abruptly settled, going limp and coming fully awake, his eyes just staring ahead, death and destruction deep within their depths. It was unsettling, but until they reached Shilalama the condition was untreatable. For now the young Harling simply clung to Pellaz tightly.

Turning to look at Arahal again, Calanthe asked,

“And what if your patrol doesn’t meet us?”

Ahead, Ashmael suddenly sensed something, and he hauled in the reins of his horse, swiveling to shout a warning as an arrow from a powerful long-bow shot past him. Pellaz gasped in shock as the arrow barely missed him, cutting into the side of his temple as it sped past, imbedding itself with a dull thud in Calanthe’s chest.

Swept from his horse by the impact, Calanthe fell heavily onto his back, hitting his head sharply on exposed rocks to lie deathly still.

Immediately Arahal was barking orders, pushing his horse in front of the fallen Tigron and swinging down to check for life signs. They were faint, but present, and he drew his sword, standing over the unconscious Calanthe, his face twisted in anger, as he mentally searched the area.

The elite guard divided instantly to form two groups, each protecting a Tigron, with their own swords drawn, scanning the surrounding rocks and sparse trees.

But the attack was too quick. Too swift, too well planned. Swearing, Ashmael wheeled his horse roughly around and shielded Pellaz with his own body, instinctively knowing that the first arrow had been aimed at the dark-haired Tigron. Why, he didn’t know yet, but understood that out of the two Tigrons, Pellaz was the most vulnerable as he sheltered both Harlings and was hampered by their closeness.

“Cal?!?…” Pellaz stammered, trying to see what was happening as Korryn whimpered and Jaden clutched at him painfully hard. His oldest son repeated the words ‘no, no, no….’ over and over again in a sob.

“Cal…??”

“Get up there and see if you can find that bow-man!” Ashmael ordered, hearing Arahal issuing similar commands. He constructed a mental shield, hoping he could keep out the steel projectiles.

But no sooner had the words left his mouth than more arrows swiftly whistled past him, sickeningly confirming Ashmael’s worst fears. He dodged, realizing with a sinking feeling that the mental barriers were not effective, which indicating that the arrows were enchanted. He cursed with real feeling, trying to determine the direction as Hara fell dead around him. Although a few of the arrows went wide, most were on target for Pellaz, and three guards had fallen simultaneously while Pellaz ducked, trying desperately to protect both Harlings. Somehow the slender Tigron had managed to drag Korryn from behind him and hold him in front, concealing him.

The remaining guards fought in vain the unseen attackers, and Ashmael searched out with his mind, meeting a powerful mental block. He swore viciously again. It was a trap…

“Arahal!” Ashmael shouted the name, trying to get the Captain’s attention as more arrows darted in with quick and deadly accuracy. Hastily throwing up another mental shield, he gritted his teeth as he caught a nick on his shoulder. Warm blood ran down his arm. Only one guard was left standing behind Pellaz and he knew the next wave would take them all out. Pausing for only a second, he saw Arahal was off his horse, crouching over Calanthe. Eyra was sprawled face down in the dirt, two arrows sticking out of his back. Five elite guards and three of Arahal’s earlier patrol were still active, but too far away to help him. With no time, he grabbed Pellaz’ horses reins and bolted for the rocky cover ahead, wishing the Captain luck and hoping Arahal would catch up later. He had to get Pellaz out of there…

Another silent volley of arrows flew in with deadly aim, nicking Pellaz, and Ashmael pushed his mount harder as the sharp projectiles lanced the remaining guard, sweeping him off his horse with a sickening thud. Again the target had been Pellaz, the loyal guard sacrificing his life for the dark-haired ruler. Ashmael hastily reviewed their options.

Throwing out a scattering mental field, he hoped to confuse their attackers, buying time to reach safety. They rounded three large boulders and he stopped his horse, pulling Pellaz’ mount also to a halt as he listened intently. Nothing but the horses’ panting breath disturbed the air, and he apprehensively glanced around, feeling a little too exposed.

Pellaz was attempting to silence the Harlings, holding a hand pressed hard over Korryn’s mouth as Jaden stared up with frightened eyes. Pellaz was also looking around, judging the area, before his dark gaze met Ashmael’s.

“Magic,” He mouthed the word only and Ashmael nodded.

Still holding the reins, he gently moved their horses forward, searching the ground and picking out areas of rock to cross in an attempt to hide their tracks. It would not work, he knew, as he heard for the first time movement behind them, and started the horse into a trot then run. Their best bet would be to reach the border of Roselane… To find Arahal’s patrol, if they were still alive… or find the Kamagrian… For he knew they would not reach Shilalama like this. His shoulder stung painfully and he had no idea how badly injured Pellaz was.

Clutching Peridot’s mane tightly in one hand, Pellaz tried not to think about what he had seen. About Calanthe… He could not think about that now. The creeping fear… Could not allow himself to think. Later maybe, but now he had to concentrate on reaching safety. Getting the Harlings to safety, then he could go back. Back where… Gods no. Must not think… Under him, Peridot stumbled, almost throwing him, and he gripped the horse harder with legs and hands. Muttering a strong colorful oath, Ashmael stopped them abruptly and swung out of his saddle. He ducked under Peridot’s head and swore again.

“What?”

“He’s been shot.” Again Ashmael reverted to half-muttered profanities.

Ignoring him, Pellaz slid from his horse and had a look at the injury. The big gray was panting, a cold lather covering his quivering muscles as he bled rapidly from a front chest wound, an arrow imbedded up to the shaft. Feeling ill, Pellaz leaned his forehead on Peridot’s shoulder. His beloved horse… Pulling himself together quickly as Ashmael lifted the Harlings from Peridot’s back, Pellaz ran shaky fingers up into the horse’s forelock, stroking him gently between the eyes.

“I am so sorry, my friend…”

“Pell, we don’t have time,” Ashmael whispered urgently.

“On foot we will not stand a chance.” Nodding, Pellaz nevertheless could not just abandon his long-time friend and travelling companion. As it was, Peridot would die a slow and painful death, and looking into those almond shaped eyes and seeing only trust, Pellaz exerted some of his power and sent his friend into a deep sleep. One from which he would never wake.

Having locked his legs, Peridot just stopped, his head falling, breath exhaling softly in release, and Pellaz removed his hands to step away.

Slapping his own horse on the rump, Ashmael sent his Faraldienne off in the direction they had been riding, before turning away and climbing up the rocky incline.

“Pell!” He admonished sharply in a whisper, shoving Jaden in front of him, glad when Pellaz sighed and followed him, shepherding Korryn.

***

They climbed continually for half an hour, going east, stopping every few meters to listen for pursuit. They could hear nothing, but both knew their attackers had not given up. Originally the plan had been to cross over into Roselane but now, without mounts, they stood no chance of finding the Gelaming patrols, or the Kamagrian. They were not even sure if they had not already crossed the border, as distances had become vague in the cat and mouse game they played with their pursuers. Resting briefly with his back against a rock, Pellaz tightened Jaden’s coat and re-tied Korryn’s shoe.

“Do you see anything?” He asked very quietly, not daring to send mentally in case their thoughts were sensed.

“No, but I feel them.” Ashmael whispered.

“They are gaining.” He crouched down and looked Pellaz over, assessing his wounds before looking him straight in the eye.

“They want you dead, I’m afraid.” Giving a mirthless half-smile, Pellaz dismissed the words.

“I am not joking. None of those arrows were meant for anyone else but you.” He continued clinically.

“And from what I can sense, there are at least five Hara of nahir-nuri level seeking us. That’s enough to squash you mentally, I think.” Frowning now, Pellaz swiveled and peered out over the sparsely treed valley below them.

“Are you sure?” He asked softly.

“…as I saw Cal…”

“The arrow nicked you first. If you hadn’t moved slightly, you’d be dead now.” Ashmael reached up and wiped some of the blood from Pell’s temple, showing him the evidence.

“The arrow was meant for you, not Cal. And their pursuit now is too methodical to be pure coincidence.”

Squinting up at the grey sky, Pellaz saw large vulture-like birds hovering, and he focused his mind, delicately sending his searching thoughts out, touching on the energies around them. He felt the same thing Ash has sensed, plus a malignant power. A jealous, obsessive mind which threw up a shield immediately. He blinked, withdrawing his thoughts fast, and turned back to the waiting strategist.

“Well?”

“I felt a power. Nothing I recognize. Nothing familiar. You are right, they have nahir-nuri hunting us, and they will find us before nightfall.” He licked his lips.

“We could fight them, but with…” He left the rest unsaid. Ashmael nodded in understanding.

“With the Harlings we would be vulnerable.” He finished.

“I cannot risk them.” Pellaz said. He subconsciously touched both young, suddenly noting that Jaden was no longer delirious or crying. His oldest son looked back at him with unwavering lavender eyes – Calanthe’s eyes – his gaze clear as he held Korryn’s hand tightly. Then just as suddenly another memory hit him and he raised angry eyes to meet Ashmael’s worried gaze.

“Carrollion.” he spat the name. Frowning slightly, Ashmael raised a questioning brow.

“Something Vaysh said to me in Nightshade didn’t make sense until now.” Pellaz muttered in disgust.

“Carrollion knew Jae was ill, he intercepted Cedony’s message. He must have distorted the lanes somehow. He also knew I had been invited to Roselane with Jae.”

“But how?” Ashmael asked, puzzled.

“I don’t know yet, but I aim to find out.” Agreeing, Ash nodded, then cocked his head as he faintly heard something.

“We should move, I feel-” Furious about Carrollion’s action, Pellaz said nothing as he trailed Ashmael silently, his thoughts turning to Jaden and his curious recovery. Jaden’s strange and sudden apparent healing puzzled him. He copied Ashmael’s movements, carefully following the path set, weaving across rock and barren soil. They traveled on for another twenty minutes before they sensed the approach of another Har.

Silencing them, Ashmael raised a quick hand and Pellaz froze, stilling both Harlings and pulling them into his strong shields.

Slowing creeping forward, Ashmael homed in on his pursuer. The other Har, knowing he was close to prey also, searching with mental powers, but just missed the presence behind him until too late. Touching the tall blonde Har, Ashmael muttered a single syllable and froze the other into immobility, the Har’s eyes glazing over as he sank into a void of nothingness. Motioning for Pellaz, they carefully crept around the silent statue and disappeared into the surrounding scrub, zigzagging their track in an effort to slow their trackers. Their only hope now was Arahal and his patrols, but even that seemed a dim possibility after what had happened.

Time seemed to slow, the shadows deepening around them until after the fourth encounter in which Ashmael mentally froze each tracking Hara, they both knew the situation was hopeless. No one was coming for them, they didn’t even know if the others were still alive, and Pellaz was reluctant to reach out and mentally find Cal in case the latter was true. He didn’t want to know… not yet… not until his Harlings were safe… Each sighting of their pursuers was getting more frequent and soon they would encounter more than just single agents. Exhaustion was also starting to show on the strategist’s chiseled features. His hair was in disarray, blood stained his shoulder, and Ashmael started to stop more frequently to catch his breath.

Resting behind a scrawny tree, Pellaz, raised that point.

“You cannot keep this up.”

“We have no choice,” Ashmael said tiredly.

“You must block them and shield the Harlings.”

“Ash-”

“I would just like to point out that I did try to warn you about this little excursion and the fact it might be a well set trap. I just hadn’t realized it might be specifically set for you.”

“By Carrollion.” Pellaz almost snarled the name.

“But he has others working for him, as I haven’t sensed him personally yet.”

“To have so many enemies,” Ashmael inhaled, refusing to give in to the exhaustion.

“And I thought Cal had problems…” Ignoring that, Pellaz studied the strategist carefully.

“Ash, we have to think of a different plan, because sooner or later they will overwhelm you, or even me.”

Not answering was answer in itself, and Ashmael just looked away.

“We must leave Jae and Korry behind.” Pellaz stated. Swinging around to stare at Pellaz, Ashmael frowned.

“What?” He started to say more, but stilled suddenly, feeling Pellaz carefully weave a shield pattern around them, blending them in with the undergrowth. It was laboriously done, perspiration dotting the pale face as his hand gripped the two young Harlings’ shoulders painfully hard. In front of them, a bush moved and a Har stealthily crept out, his eyes on the ground as he clutched a large long-bow in one hand and a vicious sword in the other. The tall Har insolently sniffed the air, stopping to search around mentally and physically before moving on. He went very slowly, searching thoroughly, and Ashmael barely breathed as he observed the Har, noting everything about him.

Pellaz waited a long while before releasing part of the illusion he had wrapped around them, slumping tiredly back against the tree, exhausted from the mental projection.

“They have us boxed in,” Pellaz offered weakly.

“I know.” Ashmael studied the sky for a moment.

“We only have about four more hours of light.”

“We must leave the Harlings and lead them away.”

“No,” Jaden barely whispered the word, pleading with his Hostling, his hands clutching Pellaz’ coat. Puzzled also, Ashmael raised a questioning brow.

“Look, I can shield them, disguise them, so not even you would recognize them,” Pellaz went on tiredly, wiping his face as both Jaden and Korryn hugged him.

“If we leave them, then we have a chance of slipping through, leading the trackers away.”

“It’s a slim chance,” Ashmael agreed, giving a rare half-smile.

“With the Harlings we are defenseless, without them-”

“We can fight. Alright,” Ashmael nodded, “if you are sure.”

“It is our only choice. If worse comes to worst, then at least they will escape and one of Arahal’s patrols will find them.”

Worse comes to worst… Ashmael clamped his jaw and nodded for Pellaz to proceed.

Both Harlings, sensing what their Hostling proposed, were scared, not wanting to be left. Not wanting to lose their Hostling, like they lost their… Jaden bit his trembling lip hard, drawing blood, but tried to appear strong now as all his dreams were suddenly being realized.

“This is what I dreamed. This is what I saw.”

“Jae?” Cupping his face, Pellaz studied the lavender eyes, looking for confusion or illness again. But the gaze was clouded only by fear.

“I dreamt your death,” Jaden said in a very small voice, noting that Ashmael turned also to watch him.

“I dreamt that if you left Immanion to go to Roselane, you would die…”

Wiping his face, Pellaz crouched down, pulling both Harlings with him. He looked each in the eye for a long moment.

“No one is going to die.”

“But father,” Jaden said painfully.

“Is injured only. Not dead.” Pellaz stressed the words, wanting them to believe that and nothing more. His own heart skipped a beat at the last image he had of Calanthe, and he dismissed it roughly. He couldn’t lose Cal now. Faintly, Pellaz still sensed their soul-bond and he clutched at that hope.

“And neither is Ashmael or me.” He carefully traced a finger over each Harling, as if memorizing their faces.

“Now, I am going to cast a protection spell over you both, and then hide you. You must wait where I hide you until daylight tomorrow, and then come out and walk with the sun behind you. This will take you back to Biting or one of Captain Arahal’s patrols. Do you understand?”

Korryn’s bottom lip trembled and tears formed in his wide eyes. Jaden looked frightened, but only nodded, saying nothing more.

“It is very important you do exactly as I say.”

“Yes.” Jaden muttered, reaching down and taking Korryn’s hand.

“Good.” Pellaz saw Ashmael motioning for him to hurry.

“Now just relax,” Pellaz reached up and placed a hand on each Harling. Closing his eyes, he quietly started to form the mental enchantment.

Ashmael glanced back, getting edgy as they remained in the same position for a long, dragged-out ten minutes. They were too exposed, too vulnerable… And even if Pellaz’ magic worked, what would the Harlings survive on if they didn’t meet up with a Gelaming patrol within the next day? After the long slow process, Pellaz sat back and looked at his handy work. They were still his Harlings, but the enchantment he had placed over them was strong, making them appear to be ordinary. Inconsequential. In fact some Hara might not even notice they existed, might overlook them entirely, as if they were not even there. Giving a silent whistle, Ashmael nodded, amazed at the effect. He had heard of this procedure but had never witnessed such a strong enchantment before. Pellaz was stronger than he had imagined.

“What now?”

“Let us hide them,” Pellaz’ voice was a little slurred, underlining how exhausted he was. Wasting precious minutes, Ashmael and Pellaz securely hid both Harlings, each removing their heavy winter coats and wrapping Jaden and Korryn warmly. Kissing each child, Pellaz repeated his instructions once more before both he and the Gelaming strategist turned their backs on the young pure-borns and disappeared into the darkening afternoon. It would be dark soon.

***

The next few hours became a blurred flight as both Pellaz and Ashmael changed direction, laying in false trails, leading away from the Harlings’ hiding place. The temperature dropped also, an icy wind picking up while evening crept over the countryside. Both shivering from cold, and mentally exhausted, they were finding it increasingly harder and harder to avoid the trackers.

The Hara who chased them seemed single-mindedly obsessed and Ashmael had risked sending to Arahal, only to find his projections blocked by a blanketing magical spell. Stunned and awed, Pellaz could not break through either, too mentally drained by what he had given to the Harlings to punch a hole in the projection. Shaking his head in silent answer to the strategist’s question, they had both just continued on. Abruptly and inevitably, they ran into two of the trackers. Ashmael instinctively drew his sword and rushed them, sweeping his blade down with deadly accuracy.

Joining him, Pellaz was a little slower to react. Having only a long knife which the older Gelaming had given him earlier, he went to give the other aid. Fighting with more energy than either believed possible; they won out with sheer determination, Ashmael silencing the large tracker by taking his life in a mighty stroke.

Staggering back, Ashmael gasped in hungry breaths, watching Pellaz pull his blade from the dead tracker’s chest, blood splattering them both, and he swung around knowing the noise would bring other enemies.

“Come on,” he panted, moving off at a half-run.

Pushing long hair back out of his eyes, Pellaz tiredly moved also, following the single-minded, stubborn strategist, barely keeping up with him as a deep gloom rolled in to encompass the area.

Becoming wary suddenly as a prickling sensation ate down his spine, Pellaz reached out to grab his friend and warn him of a spell being cast, but was stopped. He screamed abruptly, getting engulfed in a magical net of power from behind. Its webbing burned him, slicing magically into his mental energies with tearing agony. Crippling him until his world dissolved into nothing but pain. Pellaz dropped his knife and fell to the cold ground.

Stumbling from Pellaz’ shove, Ashmael turned just in time to see his companion go down under the enchanted net. Heard his scream of pain as the Tigron briefly fought the spell before lying motionless on the ground. Lifeless.

Beyond fear and giving away to a deep encompassing anger, Ashmael bared his teeth at the approaching Hara, seeing over a dozen stealthily walk toward him. He lifted his sword, resolved to die fighting as he took long measured breath.

“So you are the celebrated Lord Ashmael of Immanion?” The voice was whispered from behind and Ashmael moved marginally to bring the new Har into his field of vision.

“We have heard much of you.” The speaker went on in a slightly sarcastic tone.

“If you are going to kill me, then do it!” Ashmael spat, his mind clearing slightly as he mentally calculated his odds. They were not good.

“Kill you? Why no,” the Har gave a mirthless laugh, “a specimen like you needs to be subdued. Dissected. Studied.”

“I would rather die.”

“What you want is irrelevant.” The Har stepped into the light as three of the approaching Har lit naked flames in their palms. Three nahir-nuri.

Carefully eyeing his opponents, Ashmael tried to determine which tribe they originated from, but none of them looked familiar.

“What abomination spawned you?”

“Tsk, tsk,” the Har shook his head.

“Such hostility. Your spirit needs to be curbed.”

“Try me,” Ashmael offered nastily, moving his sword in challenge. He crouched low, moving back toward Pellaz’ sprawled body as he noted his attackers do the same.

“You want him, then you have to come through me. Kill me.” He mocked. The tall, pale haired Har sighed dramatically, appearing concerned for a playful minute, purposely aggravating the Gelaming. Then he smiled.

“I must admit you both gave us a good chase. Worthy opponents for two such injured Hara. But tell me, where are the delicate little Harlings?” Returning the smile nastily, Ashmael let his grin turn into a sneer.

“You are not as clever or as powerful as you think, are you?”

A mental hand came down sharply and slapped Ash hard across the face. His head swung around but he quickly regained his balance, locking eyes with the now cold-faced Har.

“Temper, temper,” he mocked again.

“Your clever games are ended. You had best tell me what I want to know, or I will kill him in my web.” The Har pointed at Pellaz when saying those words, and Ashmael covered his surprise expertly. He had thought Pellaz already dead and this shed new light on their attacker’s motives.

“Kill him.” Ashmael said coldly, no emotion coloring his tone.

“It makes no difference to me what you do.” Staring for a long moment at the leader of the trackers, Ashmael forced the other to believe his words, giving an air of indifference.

“You are bluffing-”

“I am Gelaming. So is he,” Ashmael indicated Pellaz’ body behind him with a nod.

“We both accept and expect death.” One of the guards approached the leader and spoke softly to him. The tall Har nodded then frowned, flicking a finger as a dozen more Hara materialized out of the shadows around them.

“Lord Ashmael, I do not have time for games now. Maybe later you could be very entertaining. But right now I want those Harlings.”

“Then you’ll be disappointed. For it is an imperfect world even for Wraeththu-” Ashmael started insultingly, but got no further as he was seized by unseen hands. Fingers closed around his throat, slowly choking the life out of him even as he slashed with his sword. Other minds smothered him, making his struggles useless, and he fell to his knees, glaring up at the mocking face of his persecutor before darkness swamped him.

***

Arahal paced the floor in the small chamber adjacent to the Council Hall in Biting. They had made it back to the city and he had sent all the officials of Biting into a mad panic, demanding their patrols and guards form a war party and search groups. He had sent them out immediately, under the control of his remaining Gelaming, never telling them what they searched for, never giving any of them chance to argue. Then he had contacted Immanion, spoken to Dree and ordered an immediate session to be called. Ordered Tharmifex and Glaves back from Thaine and for healers to be sent urgently to Biting. He had given no other details, told Dree nothing else, keeping the news secret. He dared not let the information out. If this news got out there would be panic within the Wraeththu world. And he had to protect the Tigrons at all costs. As it was, the healer who had tended their injuries had recognized Calanthe, and since then Arahal had kept him close and guarded. He could do nothing else now until reinforcements and healers arrived from Immanion. He stopped pacing the floor and walked into the makeshift hospital room, staring at Calanthe’s still, pale form. What were they to do? Calanthe was alive, but only barely. And what of Pellaz and Ashmael? And the two royal Harlings? Shaking his head, Arahal rubbed his eyes tiredly, thinking back, wishing he knew more.

He had seen Ashmael turn, then watched horrified when Calanthe had been flung off his horse with an arrow embedded in his chest. Blood had quickly stained his clothing as more arrows had swept over them. He had given orders, but they appeared useless as guards fell. He had realized Ashmael and Pellaz were exposed even as Eyra fell heavily to the ground. That had momentarily diverted him. When next he had looked up, Ashmael was gone and only bodies littered the ground where he and Pellaz had been. After that he and his guard had been boxed in, kept back by what seemed like warning shots only, forcing him to call a retreat back the way they had come. And the strange thing was, they had been pursued only, not attacked. Then at the outskirts of Biting their enemies had miraculously vanished. Baffled, he had quickly organized the Biting Hara into a patrol and sent them out.

And so far no patrol had reported finding anything. Except dead Gelaming guards, which they returned to Biting. So where were Ashmael and Tigron Pellaz? And the more he considered the last few hours, the more he was realizing that whoever had attacked them had specifically wanted Pellaz.

“My Lord?” An Official entered and bowed, very apprehensive and confused by all the turmoil.

“Some Lords and Officials from Immanion have arrived. You asked to be notified immediately.”

“Yes, yes, thank you.” With long strides, Arahal left the room and rushed down to the entrance hall, meeting Dree, Abrimel and more Palace guards. He ordered the guards to wait and gestured for the two Hegemony members to follow him into a private room upstairs.

“Arahal, what on earth is going on?” Dree asked, not amused as the tall Captain closed the door firmly. Looking him up and down, Dree noted the bloodstains and dirt for the first time on the other’s weary frame.

“Arahal?”

“Has the emergency session been called?”

“Yes. Cedony is seeing to it as we speak. He is calling in all the Tribal Leaders you specified, and the entire Hegalion. Now what on earth is going on? And why couldn’t you tell me over the thought transference machine?”

Taking a deep breath, Arahal walked to the window and peered out briefly.

“And healers?”

“Yes, yes.” Dree nodded resigned.

“Rayhala is with us and Chrysm is gathering adepts from the city into Phaonica.”

“Good.” Arahal studied both Hara before him, seeing Dree’s impatient features and Abrimel’s concern.

“We were ambushed. It was a trap.”

“By the Aghama!” Dree stated, shocked.

“The Tigrons?”

“Calanthe was shot, and as for Pellaz…” he trailed off, shaking his head.

“Dead?” Abrimel whispered the word, thinking of Pellaz as only his father at that moment.

“I do not know. I have patrols out searching.”

“Aghama!” Dree sat down slowly.

“What happened out there?”

“It was a well executed ambush. They separated us. Killed Eyra outright, shot Calanthe and took most of the elite guard out before we even had a chance to counter attack.”

“And Pellaz?” Abrimel asked, horrified.

“He and Ashmael got separated from us. They are still out there somewhere.”

“And the Harlings?” Dread started in Dree’s voice as he realized the political ramifications.

“Where are the Harlings?”

“Lost with Ashmael and Pellaz.” Arahal confirmed his worst fears.

“Aghama… how did this happen?”

“I have organized what I can. But it will be dark soon and even if they escape, they will not survive long in the barren wilderness out there. Not with two Harlings.”

“And Jaden was so sick.” Dree muttered as an after-thought. He looked up.

“And Cal? What chance does he have of surviving?”

“Rayhala should be with him now. If the wound is not poisoned he should survive the healing. But if Pellaz dies…” Arahal left the rest unsaid.

“A soul-bonding… yes I know. He could go insane,” Dree spoke the words.

“We have to find those Harlings.”

“I would prefer to find Pellaz.” Arahal stated.

***

Out in the make shift medical room, Rayhala was appalled by the injuries he saw. The Biting healer had done his best and now stood quietly, tired from his work, as he watched the Gelaming assess the unconscious Tigron.

“That is Tigron Calanthe-har-Aralis, is it not?” The Biting healer asked quietly.

“I do not have time to answer questions.” Rayhala glanced up, his face creased in a worried frown.

“Are you able to offer more aid?”

“Yes.”

“Good, now we must get this arrow out-”

“It is sitting above his heart, I was afraid to touch it in case…” he did not finish.

“That is what I am here for.” Rayhala answered smartly.

“You remove the arrow and I will follow it with healing energies.” He placed his hands around the wound.

“Now slowly. Very slowly…”

Pain-stakingly slow, the nervous healer withdrew the arrow barely an inch at a time. Under his hands, Calanthe moaned, twitching slightly from pain as Rayhala hastily attempted to minimize the damage. It seemed to take an eternity, with the Gelaming physician calling a halt frequently, using all his energies to ensure the unconscious Tigron’s life did not slip away.

When the arrow was clear still Rayhala worked, his whole being focused on his healing as the other healer watched in awe, assessing the patient, until the Gelaming withdrew his hands and sat back exhaustedly.

“Well?” The younger healer asked nervously.

“He will survive. Let me catch my breath before we have a look at his head wound.” Behind him Dree and Arahal approached.

“Can he be moved?” Arahal asked.

“I would prefer not to, but I doubt I will be given a choice.” Rayhala muttered bad-temperedly.

“Can we use the lanes, or does it have to be a hover car?”

Dree ignored the comment, just relieved Calanthe was still alive.

“Hover car would be safest. It would also give me a chance to assess his head injury. Do you have any Hara spare who could feed him energy?”

“I will find you someone.” Arahal said all business-like as two of his guard entered.

“Excuse me.”

Watching him go, Rayhala glanced back up at the other Hegemony member.

“What on earth is going on? And where is Pellaz?”

Watching Arahal also, Dree dismissed him.

“Just get him ready for travel. We will leave within the hour, if not earlier.”

“Gelaming. A polite lot,” the Biting healer commented as the second immaculately dressed Har walked away.

“They have kept me locked in here since I asked if this was Tigron Calanthe-har-Aralis.”

“Then I imagine you will not mind the inconvenience of coming to Immanion with me either.” Rayhala informed him, turning back and gently assessing Calanthe’s head injury.

***

Tediously slowly the night passed. Jaden cuddled his brother, not daring to move as he heard sounds all around them. It was pitch dark, and deathly cold. The only blessing was that they had escaped the bitterly icy wind, hidden in this little hollow. And also that they had two very large, warm coats protecting them. Jaden wore his Hostling’s, and he sighed sadly as he had pulled one of Pellaz’ earrings from the coat pocket. What was happening, and where was his father and Hostling now? What was he to do if they saw neither again? Somehow he imagined it was all his fault. He had seen it all in the dreams, had tried to warn both his father and his Hostling, but… Now all the images were gone. He no longer had the pictures in his mind, which was a relief yet also a curse. They had been his constant companions for so long that now his mind was too quiet. He had too much time to think…

At the first sign of dawn he peered out, still not risking a move, but now around him the land was silent. Only the occasional bird appeared, picking at berries, while a gentle breeze rustled leaves. Gradually the sun climbed, but he and Korryn still waited, huddled, too scared to move. Their tummies were protesting the lack of food, lips dry from the cold, but it was the need to answer the call of nature that made them move.

“Carefully,” Jaden admonished watching his brother battle with the oversized coat. Relieving his own bladder, he helped Korryn do up the coat again before looking around distrustfully. The sun was immediately overhead and their Hostling had said to walk with it behind them. Judging the angle he made a decision and turned to go, shocked when he saw Korryn sample some of the berries on a bush.

“Korryn!” He hissed. He grabbed his brother and pulled him away.

“The birds were eating them-”

“So?!”

“So we should be able to.”

“Just because birds eat seed does not mean we eat seed. Grow up, Korryn!” He said angrily.

“Now come on, our Hostling said we had to walk back to Biting.”

“Do you know the way?” Korryn asked, putting another berry in his mouth when Jaden wasn’t looking.

“The sun is behind us, so this is the way.” Jaden decided.

Looking up Korryn squinted at the sun.

“It does not look behind us-”

“Shut up and walk or you will sleep out here again tonight!”

Pulling a face, Korryn unhappily trudged along behind his older brother.

***

Elbowing himself up the pillows, Calanthe gazed around, disorientated. It was light outside, yet he had the strangest feeling he should remember something very important. He was sore all over, his head throbbed painfully and when he moved, his left shoulder protested. Settling down, he mouthed a silent curse, feeling his shoulder and chest, encountering bandaging. Purposely sitting up this time, he peered down at his chest and then searched the room. As usual Vaysh sat statue like on a chair, watching him, as two guards silently remained by the door. He frowned, squinting at the redhead, wondering why his eyesight was so bad. And what had he done to his chest and shoulder? Not to mention his headache. He fell back down on the soft bedding a second time and groaned in pain.

“Vaysh, get your miserable carcass over here!” He hissed, confused by Vaysh’s lack of movement. What the fuck was going on now? Nothing happened for a long moment, and Calanthe lifted his head again, seeing Vaysh speak with one of the guards before that guard left the room.

“So you are awake at last.” Eyeing the icy exterior, Calanthe had this persistent feeling that he should remember something vital.

“What’s going on?”

“You don’t remember anything?” It was guarded.

“Enlighten me,” Calanthe growled, not feeling up to guessing games.

Vaysh didn’t say anything as the door opened and Dree and Caeru walked in with two of the Palace healers.

“Is he awake?” Caeru asked, his eyes slightly red as if he had been crying, and Calanthe frowned, getting a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Caeru crying for him?

“I’m awake,” he started.

“Thank the Aghama!” Dree sighed.

“You gave us a horrible fright.”

“Cut the crap and just tell me what is going on.” Calanthe glanced, around his frown returning.

“I get the impression something’s-”

“He doesn’t remember,” Caeru gasped, raising a hand to his lips.

“Shut up!” Vaysh snapped.

“Cal, let the healers check you over,” Dree motioned the two Gelaming forward.

Lifting a hand, Calanthe fended them off.

“I’m fine, I just have a monumental headache as if-” he stopped and looked straight at Caeru. The Tigrina fidgeted.

“Where’s Pell?”

“No,” Caeru turned away as Dree swore before hastily explaining.

“Cal, please let the healers look at you first. Check your head.”

“No.” Calanthe said quietly, raising a hand.

“I remember, vaguely. We used the lanes… because,” his face screwed up as he tried to recall the images.

“…Jae was ill…” he snapped his head up.

“That’s right. Jaden was ill and we had to take him to Roselane. But the lanes were distorted so we…” he trailed off as Vaysh sat down and Dree rubbed his eyes tiredly.

“We were ambushed!” Calanthe hissed as the images flooded suddenly into his brain.

“All I remember is feeling Pellaz’ shock and pain…” he touched his forehead, remembering the wound. But there was nothing on his head, no wound. “…then nothing.”

“You were shot with an arrow.” Dree explained.

“And Pell?” Calanthe demanded.

“Jae and Korry?”

“Missing.” Dree replied after a long moment.

“Arahal is out looking for them, but as I understand it, Ashmael and Pellaz got separated from Arahal after you were shot.”

“Gods!” Calanthe breathed.

“How long?” He pushed himself upright and swung his legs over the bed.

Both healers protested, but he waved them away impatiently, watching the three members of the Hegemony instead.

“For fuck’s sake, how long?!”

“Two days ago.”

“Two days!” He tried to stand, but dizziness swamped him. Dree steadied him, forcing him to sit.

“Everything that can be done is being done.” Dree assured him.

“Arahal has everyone out looking.”

“Get your hands off me!” Calanthe pushed Dree away.

“Two days?! Fuck!”

“You will not help them if you do not heal,” Dree continued, risking Calanthe’s chancy temper as he studied the pale Har. Calanthe looked ill, his face too thin, his hair not as vibrant, and his eyes dull and cloudy.

“As soon as we get news you will be informed.”

Looking up, Calanthe just shook his head.

“Pell and my Harlings…” tears formed in his eyes, and he raised a trembling hand to wipe them away.

“My family….”

Caeru turned his back, stifling a sniff as walked over to the table, pouring a drink.

Studying Calanthe, Vaysh pursed his lips.

“Do you sense him still in the bond you share?” He ventured, knowing it was a dangerous subject.

“You mean is he dead!” Calanthe cut back then stopped his anger, knowing Vaysh meant no ill.

“I don’t sense his death, but I can’t say where he is, or contact him.” He met the other’s steady gaze.

“And you?”

“Me?” Vaysh asked, perplexed.

“Ash is with Pell, or was.” He looked up and got a nod from Dree.

“So what do you sense of Ash?”

“I…” floundering, Vaysh spread his hands, suddenly lost.

“I would not feel him.”

“You two are soul bonded,” Calanthe reminded him, no longer caring if the information became public knowledge.

“Connected in the same way Pell and I are connected. So you would feel his death.”

Vaysh paled then blushed crimson, standing and pacing nervously.

“That is…”

“Vaysh,” Calanthe started impatiently, homing in on the other’s confusion to dull his own pain.

“…when Thiede ripped you both apart, didn’t you feel it?”

“Bastard,” Vaysh whispered, hugging himself, all too easily remembering the agony.

“Like I can feel Pell’s anguish, you can feel Ashmael.”

Calanthe said clearly.

“Now what do you sense? Is Ash dead?” Haltingly, Vaysh eyed Calanthe with dislike, then slowly shook his head.

“I just feel distance.”

“There.” Calanthe said, looking back up at Dree.

“They are alive, just far away. Captured probably. Send Arahal and his dogs to Nightshade and shake Carrollion out of his tree.”

“But-” Dree started to protest.

“Just do it, or do you want me going to Nightshade?!” It was a thinly veiled threat and Dree said nothing, just moving back towards the door, looking at Calanthe one final time before leaving.

Waving the healers away, Calanthe dismissed them also, not wanting anyone touching him. Wanting no one feeling the panic that he was fighting to control.

“Cal?” It was a question and Calanthe looked over at the too-thin Tigrina. This was hard on Caeru also, but he had no comfort left in him.

“Not now, Rue. Please just leave me alone.” Debating whether to say more, Caeru glanced at Vaysh, but found no opening there either. Consumed by a deepening loneliness, he walked to the door, stopping, expression begging Calanthe for anything, but he found nothing.

Watching the Tigrina go, Vaysh went to follow, until Calanthe called him back. He waited by the door, dismissing the guards, and closing the door slowly as the weak Tigron waved him closer.

“What?” Vaysh asked with less grace than intended. He was still smarting from the exposure Calanthe had dealt him.

“If… if you lose connection with Ash, please tell me.”

Taken aback by the desperate words and the sudden vulnerability revealed in Calanthe’s eyes, Vaysh shuddered. He was utterly unprepared for the naked hurt in those violet eyes as Calanthe shared honesty with him.

“But…. but the bond you and Pell share is stronger than what I have with Ash. More powerful…” He licked suddenly dry lips.

“If anything was to happen to them, you would know first.”

“I…” Calanthe just shook his head.

“I can’t feel anything.” Clumsily sitting down on the edge of the bed, Vaysh stared open-mouthed at the pale Tigron.

“You mean…”

“I do not know. I sense nothing of Pell… or the Harlings. My head hurts too much for me to sense anything. So I must rely on you.” Calanthe pinned the redhead, asking for trust.

“If anything should happen to Ash, please tell me?” Feeling a heavy burden land squarely on his shoulder, Vaysh could do nothing but nod.

***

Too numb to move or even cry out, Jaden watched a caravan slowly approach. Next to him Korryn was asleep again. They had spent four nights out in the biting cold, with only a little water to drink and a few snatched berries. Both of them were bruised and beyond despair, all hope of finding their Hostling long since vanished. They had seen no one, and had stumbled across no township.

Life outside Phaonica was so different from what they had learnt. Even the books he had read did not help him with the dilemma of this barren wilderness. And what of his father…? Jaden refused to let the tears fall. But when he closed his eyes all he could see was his father falling again and again from his horse. An arrow protruding from his chest. And the link he normally felt with both his parents was muted and distant.

With no energy left, tiredness now consumed him, and Jaden didn’t even bother to move them as the caravan continued to get closer. Whatever happened next would happen. He closed his eyes and was resigned to accept the inevitable. No one would ever learn of their struggles, or of Korryn’s fever…

***

Water dripped rhythmically behind him as a bright light abruptly blinded him, and Pellaz cracked his lashes open, squinting to see what new horror approached. He was in a dim cavern and was no longer certain if they were with Wraeththu or other beings. Humans. For some of the beings around him were deformed, ill, half dead. Pulling against his chains, he tried to sit up a little, hampered by Ashmael’s form, which was stretched against his side. Both of them were chained. Solid chains overlaid with magical enchantments. Bonds he had not managed to penetrate. Yet. His expression took on a hard look as he watched another tall Har meander towards him, dislike coloring his judgment until he buried the feelings of dread, knowing that only clear, rational thought could save them. They had woken in chains, partially stripped and he had noticed that Ashmael had been beaten severely. Welts and cuts covered his friend’s face and upper body, bruised discoloring his skin, blood on his lips. How they had gotten there, or where there was, still remained a mystery, but Pellaz had his superstitions. The name ‘Sorrandite’ lingered in the back of his mind, as did the picture of Carrollion’s smug face. He’d kill that bastard when he got out of here.

“Awake again.” The voice startled him and Pellaz re-gathered his composure, glancing around and seeing a new Har. This Har had identified himself as Loassni – leader of his tribe. Loassni was tall, with pale features and almost white, translucent hair. His eyes were a pale red-brown and he moved with a supreme confidence. The most notable thing about this Har was the unnatural extent of his mental abilities. It was nothing Pellaz had experienced before. Nahir-nuri, yet not nahir-nuri. Stronger yet weaker at the same time.

Watching Loassni through his lashes, Pellaz turned away as the strong light was shone in his face. An iron grip locked around his chin and he struggled briefly before his face was turned back towards the light.

“My, but I had believed reports of your perfection were exaggerated. But now that I can see you for myself, I can understand why Hara throughout Jaddayoth are so taken with you.” Loassni released Pellaz’ chin, lingeringly tracing a finger over his smooth cheek, a nail cutting in sharply.

“Pure beauty. Utter flawlessness. Exquisite. No wonder Thiede wanted you.” He snarled and let his nail draw blood.

“Only now your perfection is an insult to my tribe. You are an insult to me!”

“What is your tribe?” Pellaz asked in a hoarse whisper.

“That is inconsequential to you. Your death has been sealed. Pity, as I would have liked to parade you. To show my people what Gelaming really are.” People? Pellaz’ mind whirled. Yet the creature before him was Har, he was sure of that.

“You… you live with humans?”

“We all originated from humans. Don’t twist the word so – your tongue will not swell up and die. Remember your own heritage.” Loassni smiled nastily, wiping his hands clean of dirt and blood. He crouched down before Pellaz again, his eyes making a crude visual survey of his prisoner’s chained body.

“You Gelaming think yourselves so faultless. You try and control everything, make laws and set punishments. But what about the injustices? What about mercy? No,” Loassni stood up, anger coloring his tone.

“You ignore issue like that!”

“What injustices?”

“Don’t give me that!” Loassni lashed out and kicked the chained Har, drawing a grunt from the smaller body. He stared down to find defiance and strength and it angered him more.

“Do not judge me, Pellaz!” He slapped the perfect face, wanting Pellaz to cry out. Wanting this beautiful Har to beg for leniency, for mercy – but the Tigron said nothing. So Loassni hit him again and again, but not even a sound escaped the clamped mouth. Eventually he stopped the punishment, breathing hard, and grabbed a handful of long black hair instead. He pulled the Tigron up into an awkward standing position, using his superior height until the other’s weight was suspended mostly by his hair. The dark eyes were still defiant, and very white teeth bit into a bloodied lip, drawing more blood. And even in this bloodied state Loassni was captivated by the radiance shining out of Pellaz.

“Why fight me…” he whispered.

“You will never win. And there is no escape for you or your loyal companion.” He released Pellaz, watching him collapse to the floor. Licking his lips he wondered what it would be like to own such a creature. He knew Carrollion had desired a mating with Pellaz, and up until now he had never considered the act appealing. But now…. narrowing his eyes, Loassni studied the pale Tigron before shifting his gaze to the semiconscious Ashmael.

“We are not what you say.” Pellaz stated on a soft breath.

“And I am not what you think.” Loassni countered. He crouched down again and gestured to the Hara around them.

“Who do you think these Hara are?”

“Slaves,” Pellaz scoffed, raising a chained hand to wipe blood from his mouth.

“Wrong.” Loassni gave him a pained look.

“They are my tribe. Or at lease some of them.” Disbelieving, Pellaz still found himself glancing around at the Hara in the dimly lit cavern. Most of them were sick or deformed. Some had hands missing, foot or facial defects, growths on their bodies or no hair. No Hara looked like that…. so….

“How?”

“Now there speaks the wise. Pellaz the wise and caring – compassionate – Tigron.” Loassni mocked, and then slapped the Tigron again. Slapped him hard because he didn’t want to be attracted to this demon. He wanted to despise him, not imagine what his touch would feel like.

“How do you think some of my tribe were deformed?” He snapped back.

“We were forced to survive in the wasteland left to us when man destroyed himself! We were forced to go where we could. We did not have the comforts you had, but rather we had to fight everyday to survive.”

“But that is in the past. You can leave that behind and join the rest of Wraeththu kind in Jaddayoth-”

“We were abandoned by our own kind! Who would accept us like this!” Loassni cut him off.

“These Hara choose to live down here away from the rest of us because they are ashamed of their bodies! How do you fix that?!” He gestured around them.

“So I thought to bring you here, so they can gaze at you and see what they have been denied!” He smiled viciously.

“You will receive their judgement.”

“You’re insane,” Pellaz breathed.

“No.” Loassni shook his head and stood up.

“They will either kill you, or you and your Lord Ashmael will simply starve to death.” He kicked the semiconscious strategist.

“I do not care which it is, as long as you die. But first, I do need your Harlings.” Pellaz looked at him incredulously.

“You will tell me where they are, or I will take the knowledge from your mind.” Loassni said simply. Bending close he emphasized his next words.

“I can do that, so think well on what I say.” He hesitated slightly, looking deep into Pellaz’ wide eyes and seeing nothing but sorrow and pity. For him and his tribe. It wasn’t possible…. and he snarled at the Tigron, instinctively punching him in the gut so that those persuasive eyes would close. “Oh – and don’t try to contact your Harlings or your beloved Calanthe. For the mental shields surrounding this place will block you.” With that he walked off, taking the light and refusing to look back.

Pellaz stared after him mystified.

Stirring slightly, Ashmael slowly sat up.

“Do not play with him, Pell,” the strategist said, shifting himself to a more comfortable position.

“I wasn’t-”

“You were.” Ashmael corrected with assurance.

“He will not even think twice about killing you. So do not provoke him.” Ashmael studied Pellaz’ closed face.

“You’re bleeding again.”

“Compliments of our host.” Pellaz answered, hurting all over as he turned to eye the strategist.

“You do not look much better.”

“I think my leg is broken.” Ashmael winced, trying to move a little more.

“In several places.”

“I am not surprised. When the guards go I will try and set it,” Pellaz trailed off as two Hara approached and spat at them.

“Charming,” Ashmael drawled.

“Friends of yours?”

“You heard what he said?” Pellaz asked quietly, wiping the moisture from his face and irritably watching the Hara around them.

“Yes.”

“You think these might be the Sorrandites?”

“It is not outside the realms of chance.”

“Then we need to get out of here and warn the Hegemony. Because I sensed from one of the guards when they dragged your reluctant body back here that they are preparing for a war.” Ashmael looked at his companion in disbelief.

“Us? Get out of here? Did you say that?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t even know where here is.” Ashmael muttered

“And every time I’ve tried to send I hit a wall.”

“And then something hits you,” Pellaz ended.

“I’ve seen that play a few times recently.”

“Very funny.” Ashmael gave a half-smile, his face a mixture of blood and dirt.

“Seriously, do you have an idea?”

“I think I can eventually break these chains.”

“Have you been eating energy pills and not told me?” Ashmael quipped, drawing a genuine smile from the smaller Har.

“Pell, seriously – if you can escape, then you must try.”

“No without you,” Pellaz denied.

“Pell, my leg is broken in a number of places. I cannot stand, let alone go anywhere.”

“Let me worry about that-”

“No.” Stopping what he was doing, Pellaz looked at Ashmael for a long moment.

“I could not leave you behind. They would kill you…”

“We are both dead if you don’t. It is just a matter of time. Remember what your friend Loassni is planning?”

“Ash-”

“And if you sensed right, then the tribes need to be warned.”

“If only I could break through the mental barriers, I could warn Cal and the others. Wraeththu society must be protected from Loassni and his kind of justice.”

“Let me work on the barrier.” Ashmael decided.

“They will break your other leg.” Pellaz warned.

“So it will distract them, give you a chance to escape.” He gave a blinding smile as Pellaz stared at him in horror.

“Let us first reach that hurdle before deciding….”

***

They lay in the dim light for what seemed like hours, speaking quietly to each other, supporting each other, and each taking turns to be watchful. The Hara in the cavern – for they were Hara – who chose to exist in the darkness would approach them and then back away. Some were scared; some were no more than Harlings who had been terribly mistreated. Others were bitter. Hateful.

Other Hara from above ground occasionally came down the long tunnel. These Hara carried items, brought food, visited friends or family. And each and every one of these visitors threw them suspicious glances, but mostly they kept their distance. A few ventured close and Pellaz tried to talk to them, receiving verbal abuse or items thrown at them. A few spat at them, but after a while most Hara ignored them. Ashmael found it amusing in a morbid way, and Pellaz wondered if his friend had come down with a fever due to his damaged leg and other injuries. If hunger or disgruntled Hara didn’t kill them, then illness and infection probably would.

The position where they were chained appeared to be like the center of the underground cavern. A public meeting place, a focal point, for their every move was monitored. It made Pellaz feel terribly exposed as rats ran across the floor, and the dampness in the unrelenting stone seeped into his very bones. Down the long tunnel, which Pellaz assumed led to the surface, three new figures advanced. He could see their outline and the fact that they were carrying vessels of some sort. He moved a little, disturbing Ashmael’s slumber, hearing how the strategist muttered something in his restless sleep. Blinking his eyes into focus, Pellaz tried to ignore his own discomfort, feeling blood run into his eyes again and blurring his vision. The wound on his temple refusing to heal as both he and Ashmael battled exhaustion.

The three figures continued to walk down, two of them stopping and speaking softly to the third, casting apprehensive glances his way. Curious now, Pellaz paid more attention as the two larger Hara said something else, shaking their head, and then branching off to visit other occupants of the large cavern. The single, remaining Har did not move for a long moment, before deciding to approach. He was clearly hesitant and Pellaz wondered what he wanted. More abuse?

The Har stopped in front of them, standing very still, just looking at them, and Pellaz wished he had more light. Wished his vision was better, wished his left side didn’t feel so numb from bruising. He lifted his head and blinked up, only seeing the outline of the Har before him. Light illuminated the Har from behind, making his features invisible, and Pellaz gave up trying to see the silent Har. It was obvious this Har was not a hostile and he wondered what new games Loassni now wanted to play. But as time passed he became aware of how the Har just stood and watched them, and he squinted up a second time, instinctively using his gifts to briefly scan the new visitor. He sensed nervousness. Fear and hope. Hope? Puzzled, Pellaz stared up at the Har.

Slowly the Har crouched down, placing a jug in front of him.

“I have… brought you some water.” Licking very dry lips, Pellaz tried to smile. It failed as his bottom lip just started to bleed again.

“Thank you.” The Har’s hands were tanned, yet shaking, and Pellaz reached out, offering to help.

“No!” The visitor pulled back as if burnt.

“No, I am sorry. I can do it.”

Trying to see this Har’s face, Pellaz had the strangest feeling of deja vu. He nudged Ashmael.

“Please give my companion water first, as he is ill.”

Struggling to wake, Ashmael accepted the small offering of fluid, blinking open sore eyes as he focused in on their new arrival.

“Are you our new torture master?”

“No.” The word was stilted, the tone offended.

“Not everyone is here by choice.”

Very curious now, Pellaz took a sip of his water.

“I know you,

” he said softly.

The other hesitated again, his hand clutching the jug as if for support.

“Once. A long time ago. When dreams were still possible.”

Pellaz just stared at him, his face dropping as a memory fell into place with that wistful voice, and he went cold from head to toe.

“Pell,” Ashmael asked, getting concerned as he carefully eye this new Har.

“Pellaz…?”

“Flick?” Pellaz hardly said the word, his voice a hoarse whisper. He moved forward, gripping the other Har’s arm before he could escape. He turned him slightly to shed light on his features.

“Oh my god…”

“As you said it was a long time ago.”

“How…” Pellaz was lost. Seeing the lack of spirit in his old friend. The lack of hope. A dead existence.

“The same as you.” Flick answered just as quietly, pulling free.

“Only I was brought here years ago. How long I can no longer remember. I know I will die here.”

“No,” Pellaz shook his head.

“I searched for you. When Thiede took me to Immanion, I looked for you. Seel did too.”

“Seel,” Flick said the word, savoring it.

“I have not thought of him in years.”

“You are a prisoner?” Ashmael asked, noting the by-play between the two.

“And you haven’t tried to escape?”

“There is no escape.” Flick cut him off.

“No way out of the barriers they have created. I should know as I used to try when I was younger.”

“The Sorrandites?” Pellaz ventured.

“That is one name they use.”

“So what do you do here?” Ashmael pushed on.

“And what is this barrier?”

“I was brought here after being captured by slavers in the west. It was before you became who you are now.” Flick gestured vaguely at Pellaz.

“After Cal came… after Orien.”

He paused as if collecting his thoughts.

“They wanted breeding stock so to speak. They have been buying slaves for that reason for as long as I can remember.”

“Why?” Pellaz asked puzzled.

“They are Har-”

“They are contaminated.” Flick corrected.

“Something which happened to them after the war with man. I do not know the full story. But they are unable to birth a pearl. The shells are all brittle, and break during delivery or just after birth when the Harling starts to grow. Or some are born deformed. Either way, they were a dying race until they meet the Uigenna.”

“Uigenna?” Ashmael inturruped.

“They have a new name now, I think. But the Uigenna stole and sold Hara for them, to produce Harlings. The Uigenna robbed me then sold me to this tribe.”

“Oh Flick-”

“I have four Harlings alive,” Flick trailed off, shaking off the depressing feeling and standing abruptly.

“Flick?” Pellaz reached out to him.

“There is no escape from here, Pell, so I suggest you just accept what they want. Having Harlings is not so bad a thing, I think.”

“We are not here for breeding, Flick,” Pellaz put in quickly, scared the other would leave.

Flick faltered slightly.

“Of course you are.”

“No. We are here to be killed.”

Crouching down again swiftly, Flick stared at the two, taking in their chains and battered bodies.

“Killed?”

“We are here to pay for Gelaming crimes.” Pellaz whispered softly.

“Besides other things,” Ashmael quipped, his mouth twitching up in a self-mocking smile.

Not understanding, Flick frowned.

“It makes no sense. They want Harlings. For their army.”

“Army,” Ashmael nudged Pellaz.

“You were right.”

“Lord Loassni has told us all that he will now sire princes. He has a Gelaming Host. That we will now win our freedom and become recognized by all.” Flick explained, his eyes flickering over both Hara before him.

“You will Host to him.”

“No.” Pellaz shook his head, almost shuddering at the idea.

“We are political prisoners. He intends to kills us.” He explained.

“And I need your help to tell me about this barrier.”

“It is just a mental shield. The Sorrandites, as you call them, have tremendous mental abilities, and they have constructed a barrier which is both physical and thought-sensitive. It is sustained by a generator of sorts, I don’t really know. But I have never seen anyone escape from the encampment above.” Flick shook his head.

“No one.”

“You there!” A sharp voice called and Flick flinched, standing back as a group of Hara marched down towards them. Loassni was leading them.

“What do you think you are doing?” He grabbed Flick roughly, shaking him.

Pellaz tensed, ready to intervene, but Ashmael leaned heavily against him, stopping the action. Quickly looking at the strategist, Pellaz saw Ashmael shake his head negatively.

“I… I was just giving them some water.” Flick had raised his jar, water spilling over its rim.

“They do not need water. Now be off to the above camp before you are missed!” Loassni shoved the Har away hard, dismissing him as he turned his attention on the two captives. Masking his dislike, Pellaz kept his eyes trained on Flick as his old friend hurriedly made his way back up the tunnel. He saw Flick stop twice to look back and he hardened his heart. Life had not been kind to Flick and Pellaz swore silently that Loassni would pay for what had happened to his childhood friend.

“I trust you have decided to co-operate?”

Ashmael scoffed and was kicked in the side, his leg copping most of the punishment. He paled, just clutching at consciousness while Pellaz tried to draw the Sorrandite’s attention.

“Why should I co-operate!” Pellaz growled angrily, trying hard to shield his friend.

“Still showing some spirit, I see.” Loassni turned his attention back on Pellaz and grabbed his chains, pulling him roughly up.

Staggering a bit, Pellaz forced his legs to take his weight as he met the pale red-brown eyes squarely.

“You are proving to be a challenging specimen. I haven’t met one with a will so strong in years.” He sent white-hot agony out in a sharp mind dart and watched Pellaz fight him, the Tigron’s face twisting in pain as the gifted Har blocked the abuse. Ceasing the projection, Loassni let a smile form.

“Not bad.” He complimented.

“You are stronger than I imagined.” He thrust Pellaz back so that he hit the cave wall hard, giving a grunt in pain as he slid down slowly. Beside him Ashmael was staring up at their tormentor in pure hatred.

“Why not just kill us?” Ashmael croaked, his body alight with fire as agony consumed his broken leg, and he gritted his teeth, half dragging himself up into a sitting position.

“All in good time. But first I want the Royal Harlings.” Loassni stated.

“Why?” Pellaz ground out.

“What good are they to you?”

“They are a tool, a strength I can use.” Loassni shrugged.

“They were promised to me after I killed you. But since things went wrong and you hid them, I want them delivered before I hand over your body.”

“My body to whom?” Pellaz pushed.

“Does it matter?” Loassni asked sweetly.

“So tell me where they are, and I promise to keep them alive. If others find them first, I cannot guarantee their safety.” Loassni stepped forward and casually put a foot on the strategist’s injured leg. Slowly he exerted pressure, watching disinterestedly as Ashmael battled to keep from screaming.

“They are probably in Immanion.” Pellaz offered hastily, trying to distract the Sorrandite’s attention again.

“No.” Loassni shook his head and removed his foot. He watched Ashmael gasp for breath, observed how the ill strategist’s chained hands locked around his injured thigh and how he viciously glared up at him. It was amusing.

“Nice try, Pellaz. But your slightly insane and hostile partner is tearing Jaddayoth apart looking for them and for you. And from what I hear Calanthe has even put a price on poor Carrollion’s unfortunate head.”

“I knew it!” Pellaz spat.

“You are working with Carrollion and the rest of his misguided Garridans.”

“Personally, I prefer to think of them as allies.” Loassni said sweetly. He crouched down and lifted a lock of Pellaz’ long hair.

“He liked you. Carrollion was fascinated by your beauty. He even had designs on keeping you, but…” Loassni trailed off as Pellaz gave him a sick look. He laughed, intrigued by the fact that Pellaz looked so stunned.

“So what is it you hope to gain from all this?” Ashmael asked, not liking the way Loassni eyed Pellaz up and down. Their scant clothing left very little was protected and the last thing he wanted was for Loassni to take a more personal interest in the Tigron.

“Chaos.” Loassni said simply as he gathered in more of the Tigron’s hair long hair, winding it around his fingers and exerted pressure. He forced Pellaz to move towards him. Forced the other to bend his head back and reveal a white, unblemished throat. Lowering his lashes Loassni studied Pellaz’ smooth skin, the high cheekbones, the partially open mouth and the rebellious eyes. He really liked what he saw and was starting to appreciate Carrollion’s hunger.

“Are you as tasty as you are beautiful?” He whispered, feeling the slender form tense under his hands.

“Chaos?” Ashmael moved, trying desperately to interrupt and get between their tormentor and Pellaz.

“With this pretty Tigron here dead – or missing,” Loassni whispered suggestively.

“I believe Calanthe will go slowly insane. Just think of it.” He pulled Pellaz closer, enjoying his prey’s struggle. Breathing in Pellaz’ scent, almost tasting his power. Enjoying the velveteen texture of his body and hair. Everything about this perfect Har was a pleasure to the senses. Even in his filthy state – and Loassni started to wonder what Pellaz would look like clean and naked.

“Just think of it….” he whispered again, mesmerized by Pellaz’ short, ragged breaths.

“I have succeeded in driving Calanthe insane. And an insane Tigron who was set upon the Gelaming throne by your Hegemony and your precious Thiede will cause chaos within the Wraeththu world.”

“That will destroy Wraeththu society,” Pellaz whispered between clenched teeth, resisting the pressure on his scalp. Resisting Loassni’s hold.

“The society you want, yes, but not what we want – and others like us. It will make us individuals again.” Loassni glanced down at the strategist, noting how he glared at him in impotent fury. He wrapped another handful of hair around his wrist, loving the feel of his power – of this embrace.

“Tell me, Ashmael, have you tasted his spirit? Is it sweet and wild?” Lashing out at that, Ashmael caught Loassni on the upper arm with his chains. It did not significantly injure the Har, rather just annoyed him, but he was then roughly restrained and hauled back, a punch catching him under tender ribs. He battled the two guards in vain but was pinned to the wall, a sword holding him in place, as he was forced to watch the Sorrandite Ruler. The blade cut into his throat and he felt a warm trickle of blood run down to his chest. He was weak and trembling but his anger kept him upright and brave.

“You are sick,” Ashmael hissed. Loassni just looked him up and down in speculation, a madness coming into his light eyes.

Pellaz was breathing hard now as tears trailed down one cheek from the pressure on his scalp. He was held helplessly, unable to aid his friend or stop Loassni from tormenting Ashmael further.

“Go to hell, Loassni!” He ground out, trying to lash out but he was too securely held in Loassni’s embrace. Instead he heard Ashmael stifle a cry in payment for his defiance. Furious, Pellaz used his legs and tried to trip the Leader. Only that blow connected too low to do any harm and in an instant he was thrust forward and pinned to the cold stone pillar at his back.

Smiling wickedly, Loassni held Pellaz against the stone, delighting in the way his captive gasped and struggled to breath. His eyes reflected a crazed anger, which slowly abated as he deliberately pressed his body against his captive’s heat.

“Can your insane lover make you scream Pellaz?” He breathed the words, watching how the Tigron’s dark eyes clouded over in pain.

“I would like to hear you scream. To hear you beg.” He whispered suggestively, his taunt hiding his growing hunger.

“Maybe I should spawn a son on you. Maybe I should make my own perfect princes to use against Immanion.”

“Never!” Pellaz spat.

“I can deny you!”

Pulling back again and dragging Pellaz with him, Loassni laughed. He forced the dark-haired Har to his knees and moved them closer to the pinned strategist. He made sure Ashmael caught ever word he said.

“What do you think, Ashmael?” He asked in a derogatory tone.

“Could I make him scream while I force him to Host my son?”

“That’s pelki, you bastard -” Ashmael hissed,

“- and I would kill you first.” He strained against the sword, fists clenching in fury.

Showing mock fear, Loassni just shook Pellaz by his hair, wrenching his neck back impossibly hard.

“Fight me? Huh!” He scoffed.

“We shall see. But first, my new friend,” he gave Ashmael an evil grin.

“Tell me where his Harlings are or I might just end this game by breaking his pretty neck.”

“I do not know.” Ashmael said evenly, trying to lick sore lips, his eyes never leaving Loassni’s twisted face. He felt Loassni place a hand on his injured thigh and gently squeeze. Bracing himself for more pain, Ashmael locked his jaw, refusing to succumb to the agony.

“But I think you do.” Loassni breathed.

“Then you are wrong,” Ashmael held his gaze, his muscles trembling, and he was relieved when Loassni released him and Pellaz. The sword was removed from his bare throat and he slid down the wall, feeling Pellaz fall heavily against him.

“I can take the information from his mind.” Loassni pursed his lips.

“Just like I can take whatever else I want from his body. He can’t stop me.” It was a veiled threat.

“You see, every Hostling has a link to his Harlings. Now all I have to do is invade that link – by invading his mind. And I can invade his mind by invading his body.” He left the rest unsaid.

“Think about it.”

“Never,” Pellaz said with raw hatred coloring his hoarse voice.

“I see you still doubt my ability. I am disappointed in you, Pellaz. But then you do not know anything about me or my appetites, whereas I know all about you and your precious Lord Ashmael here.” Loassni let his smile encompass both of them.

“His capture was a bonus really, but useful in making you co-operate.”

A commotion up the tunnel drew Loassni’s attention briefly as a guard rushed down to speak with him. He frowned, annoyed at being distracted, and he snarled in an unknown language.

“You will both have to excuse me a moment, but I will be back presently.” Loassni swiveled elegantly and walked away, his guard melting into the shadows, some following the tall Har back up to the surface.

“Gods,” Pell groaned with feeling, letting his head drop back to rest against the cold wall. Beside him he felt Ashmael turn and glare at him. Absently he reached out to grip the strategist’s hand, needing to reassure himself that Ashmael was okay.

“Can you break these chains?” It was an urgent whisper. Angry.

“No,” Pellaz breathed, exhausted.

“…not at the moment.”

“I do not like the feel of this,” Ashmael whispered, wincing in pain and studying the Har lying next to him.

“Can you keep him out of your mind?” He had to ask. Had to know.

“I’m trying.” Pellaz didn’t open his eyes.

“I cannot block him, I tried when he had you against the wall. He’s insane!” Ashmael acknowledged.

“And he is becoming increasingly fixated on you.”

Opening his eyes at that, Pellaz gave a weak laugh, more from despair than anything else. He looked at the bruised Gelaming strategist.

“Don’t challenge him, Ash. Please?”

“What?”

“Promise me you won’t challenge him.” Pellaz repeated, his eyes serious.

“Loassni will only kill you. And besides, one of us has to get away-”

“You are talking nonsense.”

“Weak like this, we are no match for him.” Pellaz continued, knowing that Ashmael would not admit weakness himself.

“My shields are faltering, and he slices right into my defenses.”

“If you let them go, then he will have you,” Ashmael predicted. He lifted a chained hand and touched his companion.

“He will force you to Host just to see you break.”

“I’ll die first.”

Ashmael gave a snort of faint laughter, a smile barely touching his mouth.

“I cannot let you die. The Tribes need you.”

Sobering a little with that, Pellaz stared awed, wondering when they had passed the point of being respected colleagues and occasional lovers to this new level of genuine friendship.

“Ash,” he whispered urgently.

“I know.” Ashmael answered, understanding instantly.

“Neither of us are going to die. I will fight him, I promise.”

“Good.” Ashmael flashed his teeth in a grin.

” As I do not think Cal would appreciate an adopted son…” Choking on that, Pellaz stopped his hysterical laugh when he felt rather than saw Loassni return.

“Gods, no. Ash?”

“I am here.” It was uttered with intense emotion. Loassni stopped in front of them and immediately saw the renewed fire in Pellaz’ eyes and the cold disgust in the strategist’s glare.

“Feeling better I see,” he quipped.

“Now where were we? Oh yes. You were about to tell me where the Harlings are, or I was going to demonstrate how I can invade

your body and spirit.” Pellaz said nothing as he continued to stare defiantly at the tall Sorrandite Leader.

“Very well, a demonstration it is.” Loassni smiled evilly.

With a click of his fingers he called two of his guards and they grabbed Ashmael, dragging the strategist up and away from Pellaz so abruptly that the blonde Gelaming cried out in startlement and agony. His leg hung uselessly, and he fought to keep his stability.

“Stop!” Pellaz shouted, struggling to reach for Ashmael, and was roughly pushed back by other guards.

Loassni continued to smile evilly as he moved forward and took hold of Ashmael’s pale and sweaty face, meeting the vivid blue eyes and reading contempt. He studied the blonde Har, sensing the disdain with pleasure, harshly gripping the Gelaming’s skin as he focused and sent his mind dart directly into the pain-filled yet intelligent mind.

“I will show you, Pellaz, what damage can be done to a Har. How a Har can be destroyed.” He hissed.

“Or two Hara for that matter, if there is a link.”

“No!” Pellaz made a second grab for Ashmael but was forced back. Instead he was compelled to watch how Loassni continued to sink into the strategist’s unprotected mind. He knew Ashmael’s shields were weak, and he shouted out in impotent fury, struggling against the hands which held him.

“I will keep you out! Deny you…” Ashmael panted trying in vain to avoid the mind which invade his thoughts. In panic he instinctively thought of Vaysh and screamed mentally as the tender link was found and exploited ruthlessly. Instinctively he fought, hampered by the two Hara which held him upright and bombarded him mentally also, keeping him off-balance. It was a well-practiced routine, and he crumpled mentally under the multi-focused impact. *No!* He shrieked voicelessly as Loassni’s laughter echoed around his head before running down the link and delivering pain and madness to Vaysh. His inner most emotions were stripped bare, his soul exposed while Loassni raped his mind unrelentingly, and he wailed in utter despair.

“Loassni!” Pellaz screamed, his voice hoarse as he struggled against the Har holding him. Ashmael was convulsing, his muscles rigid from pain, and Pellaz hated what he was witnessing. Forcing himself to think, to control his frustrated and confused mind, Pellaz concentrated on conjuring up an image of pain so vast that it filled his head, then he struck out in a single, honed mind-blast, releasing the energy all at once and hitting Loassni squarely.

The blow rocked the Sorrandite almost off his feet, and Loassni snarled in agony, abruptly releasing the pinned and writhing strategist to turn on the dark haired Tigron. He slashed Pellaz across the face, drawing more blood, pouncing on him and dragging him off the guards to crush him face-first against the rock wall. His light red-brown eyes were colored with an animal’s insanity as he gripped his captive by the throat, pressing his body close.

Raising restrained hands, Pellaz gasped in a breath, choking for air as the other bore down on him inexhaustibly from behind.

“I have lost all patience with you. Tantalizing as you are, now you are starting to become an inconvenience! If you will not give me what I want, then I will take it by force. I will force you to submit while destroying what mind your beloved Calanthe has left. Then I will plunder your Harlings, as I care not anymore. This has been your choice,” he brutally manhandled Pellaz around until he stared into the seditious dark eyes. Defiance still greeted him and he let his own smile of challenge grow, exciting him. Beauty and fire – power and seduction – and slowly Loassni let his anger go. He would enjoy this part of the experiment – his body traitorously wanting the pleasure of Pellaz – and he lifted a hand, pressing it hard against Pellaz’ damp forehead. He felt the smaller Har squirm he leaned in closer and breathed hot breath into his victim’s face.

“Now let us see how strong you really are.”

“I am warning you, do not do this,” Pellaz whispered, desperately trying to avoid the vicious thoughts which probed him.

“Warning me?” Loassni scoffed incredulously. Determinedly he stripped the Tigron’s clothing from his lower limbs, marveling at the pale hairless skin. The softness covering firm muscles. Parting his own clothing he muttered a spell, entrapping his captive, knowing Pellaz would have a choice – either the Tigron could fight him physically or mentally, but not both. The spark of fear, of realization that reflected in those dark, gorgeous eyes pleased Loassni and he pressed closer, his sex probing the opening of his captive’s body. Slowly he bent his will, manipulated his mental powers, and sank into the mind under him, just as his ouana phallus sank into the struggling body.

Pellaz gasped in shock and pain, his insides burning in agony as the other slipped past all his defenses. Brutally impaled, his loins exploded in fire, and he mentally battled to detach himself from the abhorrent reality. He was unprepared for this double assault.

Loassni mentally fought to imprison the vast and well-controlled mind of his intriguing little Tigron – gaining the advantage as the slender frame shuddered in horror. The shudder deepened his penetration, deepened his pleasure and he ruthlessly squashed all Pellaz’ resistance by pressing the Har harder into the wall. The thrill was electrifying, the heat surrounding him irresistible, that Loassni almost forgot what his intentions were. He was not here to produce a son – as much as his body now craved that experience – he was here to break the Tigron. Break him and then later he might be able to plunder his depths more fully. So now he blinked his eyes back into focus, enjoying the sensations, feeding off the power and adding to his own powers by drinking in Pellaz’ panic. It increased his ecstasy and he pounced on Pellaz’ mouth, sucking his cry from dry lips. Inside his mind Loassni could picture Pellaz’ brilliance, the Tigron’s mind shone like a precious stone and he found the link to Calanthe easily, marveling at the innate connection. He embraced the link, absently envious of the sharing, finding that he was now becoming resentful of the fact that Calanthe owned this Har. He concentrated on his goal.

Destroy Calanthe. Travelling along the solid link, Loassni found he was gliding high above the clouds in a mental expanse of freedom and riding Pellaz’ unwilling emotions into the Tigron’s coveted world. He saw an encampment; tall Gelaming banners, blond Palace Guard, and Loassni laughed silently, throwing back his head in release as he came strongly in Pellaz’ body. He captured Pellaz’ groan of denial, exerted his dominance and forced his weaker partner to ride out his pleasure. His mental powers soared in fulfillment and he abruptly saw Calanthe – looking at the Har from Pellaz’ perspective. Under his hands Pellaz was struggling to breathe and Loassni grinned, settling his inner vision on the blonde Gelaming Tigron. Calanthe was a radiant projection in Pellaz’ mind and Loassni viciously leapt at the unprotected Har. He wanted now to not only drive Calanthe insane but he also wanted to destroy Calanthe. Only – amazingly – Pellaz abruptly thwarted his control. From nowhere a powerful explosion of mental power burst from his subdued captive’s mind and embraced the confused and disorientated Calanthe. Shocked and excited by Pellaz’ deviousness, Loassni screamed his annoyance, his sex getting instantly hard a second time from the thrill of this battle.

Winning the moment, Pellaz shuddered emotionally and stared at Calanthe, aware that the other sensed him. Aware that for a brief second Calanthe could feel him keenly, and he saw his lover and soul-mate turn towards him instinctively and reach out a hand. Hurriedly Pellaz sent a warning, his insides exploding in agony a second time as Loassni took his pleasure again. But he still sent his warning – praying Calanthe would understand. *I am alive. I’m here. But I must break the link-* That was all he achieved before he screamed, feeling Loassni’s displeasure roar into his unprotected mind. Knowing what was at stake and knowing how vulnerable Calanthe was to Loassni, Pellaz determinedly and reluctantly severed the link he shared with his lover. He shivered violently, all his comfort shattered in that single instant, and he opened his eyes to stare defiantly at his persecutor.

Loassni snarled at him, amazed and shocked at what the Tigron had done. At what Pellaz had risked, and he completed his pleasure, slamming into Pellaz’ weakened body before pulling free. He was very tempted to bind the Tigron immediately. For he could it in that instant. Could force his will and force a hosting – but he hesitated. Decided to wait. Stepping away from the hot, damp body, Loassni watched as the Tigron slid to the floor, those dark eyes now sightless and impossibly wide.

“You’re insane,” Loassni whispered – stunned, yet impressed.

“As insane as your lover. You severed the link by choice,” he muttered in disbelief.

“My, my – but you must be desperate to protect your young and your precious Calanthe. I think I have under-estimated you.”

“You will die, Loassni,” Pellaz predicted in a lifeless voice.

Unsure suddenly and a little off-balance by the Tigron’s intensity, Loassni backed away, suddenly perceiving another threat just before Ashmael launched at him. The strategist was wild with rage, uncoordinated with a passionate fury, his fingers gouging as he struck his enemy. For one glorious second the Gelaming Har was victorious in drawing blood, before the Sorrandite guards dragged him off the irate Leader. Spitting out blood, Ashmael curled up on his side as he was repeatedly kicked in the ribs, his head immobilized by a solid foot on his hair before a large, tightly clenched fist connected with his face. Then he blacked out.

***

Shaking his head a little, Ashmael opened sore eyes and raised his abused head. He was still lying on his side, a taste of old blood in his mouth. Bracing himself for pain, he rolled over onto his back and spied Pellaz propped up against the rock wall. His companion looked defeated and lifeless.

“Pell?” Watching, Ashmael saw how Pellaz slowly turned to look at him, a deadness in those normally expressive eyes. Determined to move, he bit back a sharp cry as pain engulfed him, but still managed to sit up. His breath was short and strained, and he sat there for a long moment before inching himself over to the dark-haired Tigron.

“Pell?”

“I… did Loassni… get Vaysh?” The voice was spiritless, the dark eyes a little wild, and Ashmael assessed him quickly, seeing only bruising and blood liberally covering the white flesh. Reaching out a hand he touched a damp cheek, remembering all too clearly what Loassni had done to them. How Loassni had forced Pellaz’ submission.

“Pellaz, come on talk to me. Don’t let Loassni win.”

“He’s using blood magic.”

“Who? Loassni?”

“I tasted the taint of it in him when he…” Pellaz broke off, swallowing hard.

“Pell?”

“I…” The expressive eyes darkened further in pain.

“Vaysh?”

“Will know I’m alive.” Ashmael ended with feeling. Sighing, Pellaz raised a hesitant hand, then dropped it.

“Gods, Ash, I’m sorry for all this…” Suddenly a disquieting thought hit Ashmael and he forced the Tigron to look at him.

“Please tell me he did not get you Hosting?”

Closing his eyes, Pellaz just shook his head marginally. Releasing a breath he had not realized he was holding, Ashmael relaxed back against the wall also.

“So what happened?”

“I-”

“Pell?”

“I blocked him, but….”

“But what?” Getting concerned again, Ashmael saw the slight look of fear enter the dark eyes for the first time.

“Pell, what did you do?”

“I severed the link.”

“What?” Appalled, Ashmael tried to get a better look at his friend’s face, but could not move his head any further around. He contented himself with just leaning against the slender Tigron.

“I had to, or he would have killed Cal-”

“Now Cal might do that himself.” Ashmael pointed out sharply. He was too well acquainted with Calanthe’s obsessive desires involving Pellaz. Nodding, Pellaz tried to order his thoughts to reach out and touch his soul mate again, but the barrier prevented him.

“I just cannot breach the shield…” he whispered.

“Then may the gods help us all.”

***

Eating the food which was shoved at him, Jaden kept himself huddled, not trusting their rescuers. It was now two days since they had been saved from certain death, six days since last seeing their Hostling, yet now he wondered if they were not in a worse predicament.

Their rescuers were Hara, big Hara. Not tall like the Gelaming, but big. Muscle-bound. He watched them through his lashes, thinking on how they reminded him of some of Arahal’s Mojag Shock Guard. They were the same build, yet different. Unhappy… he decided. Miserable Hara, and that confused him because he had never seen such melancholy in Hara at Phaonica. Yet, at the same time they were not harmful, rather the opposite. These Hara showed a great interest in Korryn and himself. Especially in him, wanting to know his age and if he had chosen. Chosen? ‘Chosen what?’ …he had asked, very careful, when answering their questions, not to say anything about his family. And he had made sure Korryn said little, though his brother was not well.

Casting a glance at Korryn, Jaden reached out a hand and touched his sibling. Korryn still felt hot, but again their rescuers did not seem to be concerned about it, and he did not know what he could do about it without making their situation worse still.

The caravan they were in moved along slowly and Jaden had overheard the Hara talking about crossing the border and going down into Anchord. That name had puzzled him for a while, giving him something to think about until he remembered the maps his parents kept in the study. The largest map on one of the walls in the study went from floor to ceiling and showed the land and Tribes of Jaddayoth only. Other maps decorated other walls, but this particular map had on it the name Anchord and he remembered it because it was one of the main cities in Maudrah. Just up-river from Sykernesse, where all the tasty shellfish came from.

“Finished?” Glancing up, Jaden hastily shook his head. The big Mojag – he had decided to call them all Mojag – gave an attempted smile.

“My brother-”

“Hurry up.” Was all the big Har said before walking off.

Shaking Korryn, Jaden forced his sibling to sit up, and got a mumbled protest. Korryn wiped his eyes and glared at his older brother.

“I am not hungry.”

“Eat.” Jaden insisted.

“For you will need it.”

“Why?” He was sulky.

“Because we have to get out of here.”

“Why?”

“Korryn, don’t be difficult.” Jaden admonished, tired also.

“They are good to us. If we just tell them who we are, I’m sure they will take us home.” He said the last word almost in tears.

“I want to go home, Jae-”

“Stop that.” Using his shirt, Jaden wiped his brother’s face roughly.

“And we can’t tell them who we are.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t trust them. And I know father would not either.”

Korryn’s bottom lip trembled and he looked beseechingly at his older brother.

“But-”

“No.” Jaden shook his head, ignoring the other’s look, not letting himself be persuaded.

“Our Hostling put me in charge – remember? So you will do as I say.” He said sternly.

“Now eat your food before they take it away. And keep your mouth shut!” Taking a mouthful, Korryn swallowed the porridge-like substance with dislike.

“It tastes awful-”

“It is food. Just eat it.”

“Jae, why…”

Turning to scowl at his brother again, Jaden hissed,

“What now?!”

“Why don’t you trust them?”

“Because they have a number of Hara locked in the caravan behind us. I saw them last night.”

“Maybe they are guards.” Korryn brightened.

“They may know where Captain Arahal is.”

“No,” Jaden shook his head, spooning another mixture of food into his brother’s reluctant mouth.

“The Captain’s guards do not imprison people. And we are no longer free to leave either. I tried this morning.”

“Why?”

“Korry!”

“But why can’t we leave?” Korryn asked persistently, ignoring his brother’s scowl.

“Because we are locked in, and the windows are barred.” Eyes going wide, Korryn blinked around nervously.

“What can we do?”

“At the next place they stop I’ll think of something.” He saw the big Mojag approach again.

“Now hurry up and finish the food.”

***

A few hours later the caravan bounced to a slow stop and Jaden sat up, feeling sick from the constant swaying. He would never willingly ride in a caravan again, he vowed silently, wishing he had his Hostling’s beautiful Faraldienne Peridot. But then Peridot was dead… he remembered with a touch of fear. Dead. It was a word he had never had to consider before and it frightened him. Frightened him because he was scared it applied to his father also.

Movement and voices caught his attention, and he pushed the disturbing thoughts away, crawling carefully to the blanketed window. He glanced around and found the Mojag who did most of the cooking standing at the caravan’s door looking out, and he hastily slid behind the blanket and peaked out also. They were at the outskirts of a large town. City, he assumed, never having seen anything but pictures in books. The main gates stood open and many Hara were exiting the city. All were dressed in warlike clothing and Jaden quickly recognized the Aditi and their superiors the Niz. ‘A very controlled society,’ the Tigrina had told him once, ‘severe and limited.’ Thinking of the Tigrina, Jaden wondered what was happening back in Immanion.

“What are you doing?”

The blanket was pulled aside and Jaden found himself grabbed and dragged forward.

“Well?”

The Har scowled at him, shaking him a little more to emphasize his displeasure. Swallowing hard, Jaden looked around frightened.

“I was just curious as to where we are,” he started lamely.

“That is not for you to worry about.” The Har lent closer and Jaden cringed as the other’s bad breath hit him.

“You just have to think about being co-operative and pleasing, or Joenkar will not be too choosy in who he selects for you.”

“Selects…” Jaden repeated, getting scared all over again.

“Harlings with your coloring can fetch a high price in the right circles. So behave.” He pushed Jaden down on the floor next to Korryn.

“Or you will be disciplined.”

Watching the big Mojag walk away, Jaden shivered. The word discipline echoing loudly in his head.

“Jae?”

Feeling his brother beside him, Jaden shook his head.

“We have to escape, as I have a very horrible feeling about these Hara.”

“He isn’t very nice.” Korryn agreed, confused and terribly naive.

“Why, Jae? I don’t understand any of this.”

“Neither do I, but it feels wrong.” He licked his lips, and saw the Mojag turn and look at them again, staring hard before leaving the caravan and locking the door.

“Kor, stay here and watch that door. If the Mojag returns make a loud sound. Alright?”

“What are you-” Korryn grabbed his arm in fright.

“Jae! Where are you going?”

“Just do it. Alright?”

“But-”

“I will be back.” He leaned over and hugged his brother quickly.

“Now watch the door.” He got a nervous nod, and hurriedly ran to the window on the far side before he changed his mind. The window was open a crack and he could just make out voices as he peered through the dirty glass and thick bars. The Har who was called Joenkar was talking with a Har from the city. The city Har was smaller than the Mojag, his clothing all dark colors, his hair brushed back harshly to show gold at his ears. A rich Har, Jaden guessed, and then noted the servants the Maudrian Har had with him. Their discussion was centered upon the troops moving out of Anchord, and of a war which was being staged in Garridan. It seemed the city Har was nervous, he did not want the slavers in the district as there were too many Niz around. And he kept glancing around in fear. Drawing back, Jaden felt suddenly very ill. Slavers… he knew what ‘they’ were and how his parents viewed such Hara in that profession. His father particularly had very strong feelings about them, and he worried at his lip in thought. Voices raised in anger outside drew his attention again, and he carefully returned to his position at the window.

“…you cannot stay!” That was from the city Har.

“But I have valuable cargo!” Joenkar hissed just as strongly.

“Harlings going into Feybraiha soon. Young Har at kaimana-ara level. Impressionable stock. What you ordered!”

“Hush!” The other was red-faced.

“You must leave! It is too dangerous now. If you are caught I will have no choice but to deny knowing you!” He pulled his coat tight and turned to leave.

“You can’t do this!”

“I have no choice!” The other hissed back.

“The land is too volatile, too many Gelaming and damned Niz around. I suggest you go to Hadassah and get rid of your cargo. There are always places along the border which are looking for young talent.”

Fuming, Joenkar glared after the city Har, then turned back to his own guard.

“Make ready to leave. We’ll follow the river up into Hadassah and then cut across to Camphadal.”

“They do not pay as well.” One Har pointed out. Joenkar slapped him.

“They pay more than we will get here. Besides, the Natawni are always willing to exploit Hara outside their borders.” He stared around the group, challenging any to argue. Each eventually dropped their gaze.

“Now move!”

Jumping also, Jaden hastily dropped the corner of the blanket he was holding and bolted back to Korryn. His brother clutched at him in relief just as the door opened and their jailer entered, eyeing them with dislike and anger.

“Jae?” Korryn whispered as the big Mojag approached them.

“Shh,” he squeezed his brother’s hands in reassurance.

But the Mojag did nothing, just stood and stared down at them for a long breathless minute before muttering to himself and preparing the caravan to leave. Relaxing a little, Jaden released a nervous breath.

“Jae,” it was a small and frightened sound.

“I know. We have to get out of here, and we have to do it before we leave Anchord.”

“But how?”

“Trust me,” was all he could think to say as he felt the caravan jolt to a start. He hurriedly looked around the interior of the van, but there was nothing. Nothing to inspire him, and he had been studying the van for the last two days. The only means of escape was the door. But how to reach it? His mind worked desperately, knowing that with each minute they were getting further and further away from help. What to do? Tensing, he pulled Korryn closer.

“When I say run, I want you to run to that door and open it and get out.”

“What-”

“Listen, Kor!” He whispered urgently.

“Run to that door and open it and then run to the city. It is not far, you will see it as soon as you get out of the van.”

“But what if-”

“No!” Jaden shook his head and looked his brother in the eye. Those large dark eyes just stared back at him unblinking.

“Do not think of anything else. Just run to the city gates. There are Hara around. Just run to the Niz. Do you understand?” Slowly Korryn nodded.

“What of you?”

“I will be right behind you, I promise.”

Licking his lips, Korryn nodded again and spied a look at the closed door.

“Will the door not be locked?”

“No, the Mojag has not locked it yet, so we must hurry. Now remember, wait until I yell run.”

Again Korryn nodded, releasing his brother’s hand as the other slowly stood. Neither took their eyes off the Mojag who stood near the door with his back to them.

Edging quietly around to reach the front window, Jaden slowly lifted the blanket and saw two Hara sitting up in front, steering the four horses. He hesitated; scared all of a sudden, feeling numb until he saw Korryn crouched ready to spring and the big Mojag turning towards them.

“Over here! Look!” He shouted, urgently pointing out the window.

“Look!”

The Mojag scowled, his eyes locking on the older Harling in annoyance then concern, and he walked over to the window.

“What is it you see, little pretty?”

Reaching back behind him, Jaden’s hand found a large soup ladle and he gripped it tight as the Mojag leaned forward to look out the window. Dropping the blanket, Jaden swung with all his might and hit the Mojag across the back of the head with the ladle. Uninjured by the blow the Har grunted, then snarled, trying to grab him through the blanket. Terrified, Jaden hit him again and again, only to find the ladle was bent and useless. Kicking out in panic he screamed at his brother.

“Run! RUN!!”

Korryn leapt for the door, fumbling with the handle and jerking it open. He glanced back, seeing Jaden struggling with the blanket-hampered Har, and he hesitated.

“RUN!” Jaden screamed again, searching wildly for another weapon, his fingers closing over a sharp knife. The blade cut into his hand. Ignoring the pain and blood, he awkwardly picked up the knife and struck out at his attacker, shuddering as the blade sank into the Har. Which part he didn’t want to know as the Har cursed harshly, falling back against the wall. The caravan stopped abruptly, throwing him off balance, and he scrambled to get to his feet to make it through the door before other Hara arrived.

Reaching the door, he slipped through the arms of the first Mojag who arrived, and bolted for the city gates. Ahead of him Korryn was running, dodging arms that tried to catch him as he made a beeline for the Niz near the gates.

Shouts behind erupted but he didn’t dare look back, intent on a Har trying to block him. He dived for the Har’s legs, knocking the Mojag off balance and scraping his arms and chin as he slid over stones and dirt. Numb to the pain, he quickly was up and was running again, breathing hard as suddenly he had a clear passage to the gates. Korryn was already in the arms of one of the Niz, having bowled the Officer over and was now refusing to release him. Reaching the same Officer himself, Jaden was just in time to hear Korryn spurt out that he wanted to go home. He quickly grabbed his brother and placed a hand over his mouth.

“What in the name of the Aghama are you peasants doing?!” The Niz spat angrily, not enjoying the sensation of being defiled by unclean Hara. He glared at them, noting their dirty clothing and lack of maturity. Harlings.

“We need help,” Jaden panted, casting a glance behind and seeing the caravans making a hasty retreat from the area. The Niz was still glaring at them, and he hastily revised what he had planned to say.

“You have no respect for the Archon’s law, that is obvious!”

“I am sorry-”

“Who is your Hostling!” The Niz demanded.

“He should be punished for failing to instill proper behavior in minors!”

“We-”

Jaden stood on Korryn’s foot to silence him as he gave the Niz a repentant smile.

“Sorry, my Lord,” he tried, not knowing if that was correct either. He now wished he had paid more attention to his tutors on tribal customs.

Roughly the Niz turned them and marched them over to one of the Aditi by the city gates. Local police.

“My Lord.” The Aditi bowed politely, his eyes going to the two filthy Harlings.

“Find their Hostling and choose a suitable punishment for disobedience and lack of respect for our laws.” The Niz shoved the Harlings at the other Officer before marching off. The Aditi Har frowned at them, grabbing each by the arm and dragging them into his small office by the gate. The city beyond the gate was alive with activity as Hara hurriedly went about their business. A strong salt tang assaulted their noses, and tall ship sails could be seen above the many houses.

“What is going on?” Jaden ventured hesitantly after being told to stand in front of the Aditi’s desk while the other filled out a form.

“Shut up.” The Aditi said without thought. He continued to write for a long moment, before looking up at them, studying them. His eyes settled on the oldest.

“Your name.” Jaden hesitated.

“Come on, that cannot be too hard to remember.” The Aditi glanced at his clock.

“I do not have all day!”

“Jae, sir,” Jaden tried for a respectful tone. He wasn’t game to give his full name, a sixth sense warning him. Writing that down, he gestured to Korryn.

“His name!”

“Kor. Sir.” Jaden added the last bit hastily before his brother could speak. He sent Korryn a glare, shaking his head when Korryn frowned unhappily.

Having written that down, the Officer looked up at them again.

“Family!”

Opening him mouth, Jaden blinked at him, then felt Korryn edge closer. Nervously so.

“Family!” The officer demanded, glaring at the oldest Harling.

“Dead,” Jaden said the first thing he could think off, still too scared to mention anything about Immanion.

“But we have a relative in Sykernesse,” he added as an after-thought. That seemed safe since they were in that district. The Aditi gave a knowing smirk.

“So does everyone I arrest. Do you know how many Hara claim to be related to the Archon’s family tree?” He sat back in his chair, obviously amused.

“So who is this close relative?”

“Tyson,” Jaden said very slowly, not knowing many by name in the Royal Court. He was pretty certain the Archon was Ariaric, but he felt it would be disrespectful to say his father’s friend’s name just like that. But he knew uncle Tyson well. Saw him whenever Tyson visited his Hostling. And Tyson was always polite to him, always talked with him.

“Tyson?!” The Aditi sat up and barked the name at them. Jaden shrank back, cringing a little. Maybe he had made a mistake?

“Sir?”

“Lord Tyson?!” The Aditi voice changed slightly as if considering the possibilities.

“Would you recognize him by sight, or were you just told he was a distant relative?”

“He has blond hair, and is tall, and prefers to wear blue and black. He likes Ferike wine as compared to the Megalithician wines and he…” Jaden trailed off, knowing his uncle’s likes very well. But it was the look on Aditi’s face that halted his words.

The Maudrian officer let a slow smile spread across his features, his eyes sparkling.

“I take it he is your closest living relative?” Not trusting himself to speak, Jaden just nodded.

“Well, well…” The Aditi stood up and closed the door behind him.

“I was told to find your Hostling. Since you do not have one, then I must find your closest relative.” He rubbed his hands together.

“No doubt I will be rewarded for reuniting you with a long lost, though distant, member of your family.” He grinned again and pointed to the two chairs by the wall.

“Sit!”

Sitting, Jaden watched the officer as the Aditi called in other members of his unit and spoke with them. He also ordered in another Har, who roughly washed their faces so that their ‘distant’ relative would recognize them. After about an hour the Aditi came back and motioned them both out of the office. He led them to a hover car and made sure they were strapped in before lifting off the ground.

“Sir?” Jaden started.

“I have arranged for a friend of mine to get us into the lower compound of Sykernesse. For a price, of course. Which no doubt I will be reimbursed handsomely for – if you are correct.”

He swung round to look at them.

“You were not lying, were you? You have met Lord Tyson?” Jaden only nodded.

“Good,” The other smiled.

“I have always wanted a legitimate reason for going to Sykernesse, and now is a good time to go. This war is going to bleed us dry, as everyone is drafted by those damn Gelaming. I tell you, now is not the time to be anything but a Harling. So enjoy your youth.”

***

Being ushered into the lowest level of Sykernesse, Jaden stared around, glad to be in an environment which felt familiar. The floors were solid polished marble, the wall decorated with pictures, urns of flowers sat on round tables and the smell was clean and inviting. Light music played somewhere in another room and Jaden suppressed a smile. Like home. Their Aditi guard marched them up to a desk and waited to be attended as Hara busied themselves doing menial tasks. Eventually they were formally noticed and a solemn faced Har approached, looking them up and down in a condescending manner. He sighed, centering his attention on the Aditi.

“Yes?”

“I am here regarding the report I sent earlier this morning.” The Aditi guard stood very straight. Looking down his nose at the Aditi, the Har behind the desk sighed dramatically again.

“I do not get a chance to read all reports sent to this office, so if you have business here, then I suggest you state it and state it quickly, before I have you escorted away.”

Clamping his jaw closed, the Aditi nodded politely, forced to play by Sykernesse rules.

“As mentioned in my detailed report, these two Harlings claim to have a relative-” He got no further as the Sykernesse Har scoffed.

“If I had a gold coin for every Har claiming to be related to his Lordship’s Royal Court then I would be very wealthy.” He looked again at the two Harlings, prudishly raising a lace handkerchief to his nose. To him the oldest Harling looked tired, and the youngest sulky.

“They look like bedraggled beggars!” He shook his head decisively and raised a hand to dismiss them.

“Even if there was a place in Lord Elisyin’s Court, he does not take in Harlings.” Stepping forward, the Aditi motioned for the other to stop.

“They are not related to his Lordship’s family, but rather to his Lordship’s son’s Consort’s family.” The Official Har did stop at that and studied the two filthy Harlings again, meeting the narrowed lavender eyes of the oldest.

“That is a new twist on the claim to Royal Court, and I must say he does look a little… No. He’s the wrong coloring,” he shook his head again firmly.

“I can do nothing for you.”

“But I was instructed by Tarnic Sornse to find these Harlings’ family. And Tiahaar, you know as well as I that Tarnic Sornse does not like to be disappointed.” The Aditi guard gave a meaningful stare, raising one eyebrow.

“As I said, it is all in my very detailed report which I sent you.” Stopping and reconsidering the two Harlings before him, the Sykernesse Official hesitated. He knew of the Niz called Tarnic Sornse… Knew of his reputation and knew he was considered a close associate of Wrark Fortuny who was High Priest and Advisor to the Archon himself. And the High Priest was one Niz who you did not want to aggravate.

“Alright,” the Official said ungraciously, giving the Aditi a look of pure dislike.

“…I will see what I can do, but I promise nothing. Do you understand?”

“Perfectly.” The Aditi smiled sweetly. Frowning, the Official motioned to the chairs against the wall.

“Stay here. I will send someone down to clean them,” he waved a hand in the Harlings’ direction, “as they affront all my senses.”

Releasing a heavy breath as the Official walked away, the Aditi grabbed Jaden’s shoulder and turned him.

“I hope you are not lying about having met Lord Tyson!”

“No.” Jaden assured him.

“Good, because if you are, then none of us will get out of here in one piece.”

***

A short time later another Har drifted over to them and considered the Harlings with a sour expression.

“You must be the ones Garais spoke of.” The Aditi stood and the Har waved him to sit again.

“I am here to scrub them,” he assured the Officer.

“…nothing more. This way.” He gestured to a door and gave the Aditi one backward look.

Jaden followed the fragranced and beautifully dressed Har into the room. They were led through a number of chambers before they reached a bathroom. The taps were turned on, filling the small room with steam.

“Undress – both of you – then get in the tub.” The Har instructed as he assessed them expertly.

“I will see what clothing I can find for you.” He clapped his hands.

“Now hurry! Hurry!”

Shrugging at the look Korryn gave him, Jaden pulled off what clothing the Mojag had left him, dropping it on the floor as the Har filled the bath with perfumes and warm water.

“Now into the tub, both of you. And use the soap.” He indicated the round bar, then bent to pick up their clothing.

“Not bad quality,” he muttered.

“Pity it will have to be burned. Now hurry as we don’t have much time, and you will want to look your best!” Swiveling, he left the room and Jaden sank into the water with relief.

Still sulking, Korryn sent him a disproving glance.

“I do not know why you don’t just tell them who we are.”

“Not until we get to uncle Tyson.”

“But why?”

“Because.” Jaden glared back, shoving the soap at his brother.

“Now wash before that attendant comes back.”

“Why do you always have to complicate things?” Korryn asked pointedly as he pushed hair out of his dark eyes.

“You are contrary, just like father. Or so our Hostling says. And I am sure there must be a simpler way of doing things.”

***

Having been washed, scrubbed dry and dressed, Korryn winced as a comb was pulled roughly through his thick black hair.

“You will do, I suppose.” The attendant stepped back and cast a glance over them, tutting to himself.

“You are covered in bruises. And what is this gash on your hand?” He reached out and inspected Jaden’s hand, muttering to himself.

“I’ll wrap it in a bandage before you get blood all over your clean clothing.”

Accepting the bandaging even thought it hurt, Jaden said nothing as they were shepherded out and told to wait again.

“What now?” Korryn whispered as their guardian, the Aditi, returned and inspected them also.

“My, what a difference clean clothing make. You look halfway alive again.”

***

They sat waiting on those chairs for another hour before the same Official returned, still sour faced, and motioned for the Aditi to approach the desk.

“I have managed to arrange an audience with his Lordship’s son, Lord Zobinek. So I will take charge of the Harlings now. Thank you, Tiahaar.”

“No, I am going as well-”

“That is not necessary.” The Official protested.

“Until I am paid for my service I am not leaving them unattended with you.” The Aditi said pointedly.

“I have a report to finish, remember?”

Taking the point very well, the Official gave in.

“Very well, if you insist. It is this way.” He swept away, not stopping to see if they were following, and the Aditi motioned for the two Harlings to hurry.

They climbed the steps to the second level and Jaden searched around for a familiar face, but was stopped by a strong grip on his head, making him face the front.

“That area is not for the prying eyes of nosey Harlings.” The official reprimanded, leading them down and away from Lord Elisyin’s Royal Chambers toward the back rooms.

They were led into a spacious chamber, magnificently decorated, with a large window overlooking the Palace ground below. On the lush, cushioned chairs at the front of the room lounged a dark hair Har, surrounded by servants and officials. Lord Zobinek – and Jaden started to smile. Although he had only met his uncle’s companion once, he did know who Lord Zobinek was. Had heard his parents arguing about this Lord. So things were finally improving for him and Kor. Now Jaden just prayed Zobinek remembered them.

The Official stopped them, raising a finger to his lips for silence, before he slowly approached one of Lord Zobinek’s Royal Attendants. The Attendant was immaculately attired, silk at his throat, makeup adorning his face, and he glided over to them. He pursed his lips, considering as he looked the Harlings up and down, all the while the Official whispering in his ear. Giving a mock smile at the Aditi, the Royal Attendant walked away and approached Lord Zobinek, who was engaged in conversation with other Hara, laughing as he sipped wine. The Attendant bent and whispered in his ear and Lord Zobinek, looked over, giving a nod before standing. Still laughing, he straightened his vest and walked idly over.

“So what Har now claims to be related to my deranged Consort?” Zobinek asked, his eyes very direct as he sought out the Har. He had been curious since overhearing about the arrival of such a relative. Curious as to who else had a claim on his blood bond, Tyson.

“My Lord,” The Official bowed, as did the Aditi, kicking both Harlings when neither attempted to bow in respect. Frowning, Zobinek looked past the Official and saw the Harlings, his face going suddenly pale as his mouth dropped open.

“Oh, by the Aghama!” He pushed the Official out of the way and grabbed Jaden, just catching himself from saying anything further as the Aditi and Attendant looked at him in surprise. He straightened.

“Thank you, now leave us!” The Official back away, still bowing as the Aditi look around bemused.

Noting their confusion, Zobinek continued more calmly.

“Pay the Aditi what he asks, and clear this room immediately!” Hara moved then, his personal attendants ushering startled guests and Officials from the chambers. Lord Zobinek didn’t say another word until the room was empty – even of the servants. Looking around to make sure they were alone, Zobinek relaxed and crouched down, relief flooding his features as he first embraced the Harlings and then scowled at them.

“Do either of you have any idea what panic you have caused Phaonica by disappearing?”

Jaden frowned. Disappearing?

“We-” He floundered as Korryn frowned also.

“But…”

“Your father is furious with you!”

Father… the word brought hope back to Jaden’s face.

“Can we see him, and our Hostling? Can we go home? Please?” Thinking, Zobinek debated what to do.

“I’ll take you to my Hostling, as I’m sure he will know what to do with you both.” Turning them, he marched them from the room, refusing to answer any more questions.

Entering Elisyin’s private Royal Court, Zobinek halted the two and quietly approached his Hostling. Waiting for a chance, he then leant down and spoke softly, moving back as Elisyin sat up abruptly and casually dismissed his attendants with a wave of his hand.

Again the room cleared and Zobinek motioned the Harlings over as Elisyin stared at them in shock and surprise. He swore in Ferike, calling for his personal Guard to close the doors before looking back at both Harlings.

“How?”

“An Aditi from Anchord brought them here.” Zobinek answered.

“Here?” Elisyin asked puzzled.

“Why here? But Calanthe’s up in the northern reaches of Maudrah.” He turned to Jaden.

“Did you tell the Aditi who you were?”

“No,” Jaden shook his head,

“… my Hostling said we were not to go near anyone except Captain Arahal and his guard. But we couldn’t find them and then these Mojag found us and we had to run away before meeting the Aditi. He brought us here because we told him we were related to uncle Tyson.” Jaden finished in a rush, wanting to tell them everything, and relieved he finally could talk.

Staring at the child in mild astonishment, Elisyin tapped his nails on the arm on his chair in thought.

“Your Hostling? Tigron Pellaz… told you this?” He asked gently. Jaden and Korryn both nodded.

“You were with your Hostling?” Elisyin continued, raising a hand to silence his own son as he saw Zobinek frown in puzzlement. They all had heard the news and assumed Pellaz was dead.

Again both Harlings nodded.

“And your Hostling was alive and well?”

“Yes.” Jaden said solemnly.

“Do you know where he is now? Where your Hostling is now?” It was very gently asked, and Elisyin watched their faces intently. Korryn bit his lip, tears forming in his eyes as Jaden shook his head.

“They…” Jaden rubbed his nose as he held back a sniffle.

“…my Hostling and Lord Ashmael were trying to… they were hiding us from some horrible Har. My Hostling had to hide us. Then he left us. He led the horrible Hara away.”

“I see,” Elisyin said softly. He reached out and caressed both Harlings’ faces in comfort. Looking up he saw Zobinek’s puzzlement still.

“You both must be hungry.”

Jaden nodded again as he wiped his nose inelegantly.

“Have food brought immediately!” Elisyin ordered Zobinek before he looked both Harlings over.

“And get my personal healer to check them over.”

“Alright, but-”

“Later, Zob, just do as I ask.”

Accepting the rebuke, Zobinek went to the door and organized the food and healer, then quietly came back and sat next to his Hostling.

“Can we see uncle Tyson?” Korryn asked, his eyes very beseeching as he looked up at both Hara.

Raising a brow, Elisyin looked questioningly at his son. Zobinek shrugged.

“He seems rational.” He offered.

“Resigned, since his return from Sahale.”

“Then it might do him some good to have visitors.” Elisyin decided.

“But I want them guarded at all times. And Zobinek, no one must know they are here, do you understand?”

“No, but then I don’t have to understand. Do I?”

“No, you don’t.” Elisyin got up and patted both Harlings on the cheek.

“Look after them while I go and tell Wrark Fortuny what we have found.”

***

Standing on the hillside overlooking the gathering forces below, Calanthe scowled into the distance, watching the setting sun. It was the evening on the sixth day since losing Pellaz. Since losing Ashmael and both his young Harlings.

As the sun slowly set, he wondered where they all were, what had become of his life. To find, then lose, then find again, only to lose… fate was a cruel master.

Arahal’s trackers had scanned the area near the border of Roselane meticulously and had found nothing. No tracks and no trace of Pellaz or Ashmael’s existence. No clues. It was like they had simply vanished – removed from the face of the earth with no remembrance of their passing. Ceased to be… It baffled everyone that all that Arahal’s scouts had found was Ashmael’s Faraldienne wondering the outskirts of Roselane territory. And Peridot. Dead. As if the horse had stopped dead in his tracks… magic. Calanthe had his suspicions about that, knowing his temperamental partner’s affection for the horse. But still… Why could they find nothing else? What had these Sorrandites or Garridans used?

Six days, and his fists slowly clenched. Four days since he had awoken and taken control – keeping his temper, controlling his anger, remaining focused and rational. He gave a cold smile as he recalled how carefully poised, how nervous the Hegemony members were around him. How guarded and suspicious they were of his sanity. As if they were expecting him to spiral into dribbling madness. But not this time…. This time he understood the game, was prepared for it. This time he sensed Pellaz was still alive. Captured, but alive, and Vaysh reinforced that belief. And where there was life there was also hope.

Taking a measuring breath, Calanthe flexed his stiff fingers, turning away from the setting sun and casting a glance over the army before him. Hara from various tribes were still arriving. Some on foot, but mostly via hover car. The emergency council, which Arahal had called in Immanion two days ago, had proven profitable, with selected Leaders from various Tribes attending. Swift and his Hara had been present, as had Ariaric and Wrark Fortuny of the Niz, plus representatives from the leading Houses in Gimrah, Ferike, Emunah, and Kalamah had all attended. All lending their support to stamping out the problems in Garridan. Even Zackala had sat in on behalf of the Hara in Roselane.

But there was a limit to their support, Calanthe noted ironically. None of the rulers willingly wanted to give all their forces to the Gelaming, because that would leave their lands open to civil unrest along borders. For many Tribes still lingered in disputes with their neighbors.

Still, the growing army and his Gelaming guard made a formable foe, but he just wished everything was complete, finalized, as the frustration of waiting was irritating. He wanted to take Garridan now! Immediately… he wanted to crush the life out of Carrollion and his twisted Generals, rid the land of the Uigenna stench. But he had to wait. Both Ariaric and, reluctantly, Arahal had advised to wait until Ariaric’s own Border Guards dealt with the Natawni raiders. Thumping a fist into his thigh, Calanthe tried to settle his impatience, curb his annoyance, mentally appreciating Ariaric’s position and the delicate balance held between the Tribes along disputed borders. The last thing they needed now was civil war in the lands behind them. But still… the needless delays, the meetings, the political bantering only aggravated him more, making him restless and angry.

“We are all just one big, happy and united family,” Calanthe whispered sarcastically as he turned and started to make his way back down into the encampment. A deliriously happy lot until we try and kill each other…

Or rid the world of Carrollion. His lip snarled up as he thought about the Garridan Leader again.

“Uigenna.” He spat the distaste from his mouth, instinctively knowing what that word entailed. If Uigenna had Pell… He worked his fingers loose from a fist again, mentally forcing himself to calm down. To wait. He took a steadying breath and exhaled loudly, re-marshaling his erratic thoughts. Carrollion was dead… Carrollion was dead… he repeated to himself. The Har’s life forfeit for what he had attempted. By what they had found out. He had sent Gelaming in to secure the Royal House in Nightshade and bring Carrollion to Immanion for questioning, only to find the city of Nightshade basically deserted of ruling Hara, and the Palace set with traps. Deadly poisoned traps that the Garridans specialized in. He should have expected it. Anticipated it. The Court Aide, whom Arahal had personally brought in, was battered and knew very little of the Garridan Leader’s plans, but had confirmed their suspicions. So now they were moving in to take control, bring Garridan back into line and capture the renegade Leader. Arahal had taken command of the forces in Garridan, having made the task a personal goal. Calanthe gave a humorous smile at that; glad to find the normally upright and flawless Gelaming Captain was imperfect after all.

“Cal?”

Glancing up at his name, Calanthe relaxed tense, sore muscles, waiting for the Har to catch up. It was Panthera, and Calanthe found himself relaxing further as he smiled, more delighted than he would admit to have the Ferike with him.

“You shouldn’t wander off like this as it makes everyone nervous.” The Ferike looked at him archly.

“Don’t you mean nervouser?”

“If there is such a term, then I suppose it would apply to the Gelaming Hegemony.” Panthera agreed, eyeing him purposely up and down.

“So where did you go?”

“Just to get some air. To look at the land around us. To carve my name in a tree.”

“It’s just dirt, Cal, like all the other places you’ve seen, with nothing particularly interesting to take note of.” Panthera judged, gesturing to the few trees and the thick grass underfoot.

“You can breath the same cold air in the main tent.”

“I don’t intend to draw the place, Thea!”

“So carve your name!” Panthera exploded.

“Get it all out of your system so we can all go home!” Stopping abruptly, Calanthe touched his friend’s arm, halting him also.

“What is bothering you?’

“Me!” Panthera asked incredulously. Calanthe gave a patient sigh, folding his arms to wait. Pacing away, Panthera eventually swung back and marched up to the arrogantly smug Tigron, to stand very close.

“I hate this!” He hissed.

“What?” Calanthe asked expansively.

“The night? The surrounding land? Or just me?”

“The waiting!” He snapped.

“The games. Watching you tear yourself apart again… because of him!”

“Thea-”

“Watching Vaysh revert back to his shy, introverted self!”

“Thea-”

“I thought that was all over. I thought I had resolved this, but….”

Reaching for him, Calanthe found sharp nails as the Ferike slapped him away.

“For fuck’s sakes, Thea, will you stop a minute?!” He gathered him close, embracing the other hard, feeling his pain through the tentative chesna bond they had once shared.

“Have I been that cruel to you, Thea?”

“No,” It was a small voice.

“I am just being stupid and selfish again.” Pushing Calanthe away, he wiped his eyes.

“I didn’t mean to do this to you, not after all that has happened.” Releasing him completely, Calanthe looked away also, unable to meet the perceptive gaze.

“We go to war tomorrow,” Cal stated softly, changing the subject and feeling Panthera’s emotional withdrawal from him.

“Hara fighting Hara.”

“Cal…?”

“I don’t know what’s right anymore either. I am so confused at times, but I can’t give in to the fear, or I will lose myself. I can’t allow myself to think… to admit…” he trailed off, not wanting to say more. He straightened, sucking in a deep breath, burying those dangerous thoughts deep in his subconscious before glancing back at his friend.

“Come on, we had better go in before it gets completely dark, or Glaves will have guards out looking for us.” Not moving for a long moment, Panthera watched Calanthe walk away, soul-sick and worried for his friend, before slowly following.

Inside the large main tent Calanthe blinked, letting his eyes adjust to the light. A number of Hara were seated around a long table, maps and diagrams littering its surface as servants brought food. The pavilion was huge, its muslin a pale blue, and lamps and ferns decorated the hastily erected shelter. Food was arranged on long tables as music could be heard playing outside, with Hara laughing off in the distance.

“Calanthe, good.” Glaves stated, waving the other over.

“I was just about to have one of the guards find you, as we unexpectedly stumbled on to a new piece of information.” Curious, Calanthe grabbed the offered drink and lit a cigarette, needing it. He felt more than saw Panthera enter the tent behind him. He couldn’t help Thea now… couldn’t… He sauntered over and eyed Glaves’ serious face. Like all the other Hegemony members, Glaves was having trouble adjusting to the death of Eyra and it showed in his tone and actions. Perching on the side of the solid table, Calanthe glanced around at the other serious faces facing him, seeing Dree, Cedony, Swift, Ariaric, Abrimel and even Zackala. The last met his eyes squarely and gave an acknowledging look of understanding.

“What information?” He asked.

“One of Arahal’s patrols accidentally stumbled across a hidden ammunitions dump near Charlock,” Glaves stabbed the map of Garridan with his finger.

“It looks like a staging area, and some of the weapons there are not of a known Wraeththu design.”

“Like what?” Calanthe frowned.

“Neural disrupters, and some kind of mental suppression or paralyzing agents. Plus some nasty looking neural containment nets.”

“Neural disrupters?” Standing, Calanthe dropped his cigarette and absently stood on it.

“They could be used to disrupt the lanes,” Swift speculated.

“Cause interference and make travel near to impossible. They could also interfere in mental sendings. Theoretically of course.”

“Of course. Let’s talk theory.” Calanthe repeated sarcastically, lifting his eyes to Dree.

“Is it possible that they could have caused all that lane disruption around Garridan?”

“Very likely.”

“And was there anything else in this dump, like a map pointing us in the direction of Carrollion or his allies the Sorrandites?” Calanthe knew his was being unfair now, but he could not stop the words as they spilled from his mouth.

“Cal,” Dree rubbed a hand over his face and turned away as Glaves sat down heavily. Swift frowned, studiously examining the tabletop while Ariaric raised a sardonic brow and Cedony refused to meet his eye. Only Zackala held his gaze, and his eyes were very direct.

“Well?” Calanthe found himself saying, even as Zackala rounded the table in a few strides and grabbed him by the arm, steering him away towards the back of the tent.

“Zac!”

“Close that rampant mouth of yours,” Zackala said very quietly, the words not travelling past Calanthe’s ears as he took them into the shadows near the partitioned supply area. No one looked at them, the others all remaining around the brightly lit table. Slowly Zackala gave him an irritated yet knowing smile, just showing very white teeth.

“Fuck you,” Calanthe said without heat. Holding him there by the pressure on his arm, Zackala shook his head.

“You will not survive this if you do not calm down. You have a frightening potential for destruction, for carnage, and you must control it or we will all be lost.”

“What are you-”

“Listen!” Zackala admonished in an urgent hiss.

“What you do here will ultimately affect the Wraeththu world forever. You are no longer a free agent, you have responsibilities, and God help us all if you lose your head now like you used to lose it in the past. You are accountable, Cal. You cannot go off looking for revenge.”

“But I am entitled to it!” Calanthe broke in, shoving the hands away and staring at his old partner and lover. So many years ago and yet there was still a world of pain and lies between them.

“You are Tigron now!” Zackala spat back just as strongly.

“And as much as I questioned the role you were thrust into by Thiede, Opalexian felt you were perfect for the Wraeththu rulership. Don’t let my doubts come true, Cal.”

“Your doubts!?!” Calanthe spluttered incredulously, raising his voice and drawing nervous glances from the Hara around the table.

“What about me?! Don’t I have a say in my own life, or am I just a glorified puppet for Wraeththu and Kamagrian alike?! Aren’t I allowed a little bit of happiness, or am I to pay for my past sins indefinitely!?”

“Your past is your present and it will remain that way until you learn to see above your own pain. The blood you see and taste is the blood of old, do not let it infect you anew, do not let it control you. You can be stronger than that, Calanthe.”

“Can I?” He barely whispered the word, studying the dark face before him and seeing only the past still.

“Look inside yourself, find your center, Cal,” Zackala persuaded, raising a hand again to grip a bony shoulder. Worriedly he noted the weight-loss and increased his hold, needing to get through the barriers Calanthe had erected around his mind.

“…feel your center.”

“It is hard as all I see, all I feel, is him…”

“Then look at Pellaz. Look at what he pictures you are.” He continued to coax, pushing Calanthe hard and sending silent support down their old chesna bond.

“I only see-”

“What?”

“…strength, confidence and…”

“And?” Calanthe raised his eyes, their gaze filled with awe.

“…trust, a deep all consuming trust…” he whispered in amazement. Pellaz truly trusted him. Loved him….

“If you cannot trust yourself, then trust Pellaz. Trust in his strength. In his belief in you and focus on it.” Swallowing hard, Calanthe felt as if his lungs had been constricted, starved of air, and he stumbled, using Zackala as a support.

“How…?” He mouthed silently.

“How what?” Relaxing, Zackala steadied him, not quite releasing him completely.

“How did you do that? How did you touch Pell, when I couldn’t find him…” Zackala just gave a mysterious wink and grinned.

“Was it you or Opalexian?”

“Does it matter?” Considering that as his equilibrium returned, Calanthe glanced around.

“I am not fond of being manipulated.”

“Even if it is to help?”

“Help who?” Calanthe asked, his eyes getting hard again.

“Me? Or Thiede and Opalexian?”

“It is one and the same.” Giving Calanthe’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze, Zackala refused to say more as he withdrew and went back to the table and military planning.

Standing alone in the shadows, Calanthe pushed down the urge to hit his ex-lover as his mind sorted out all that Zackala had told him and done inside his head. Amazingly he found a calm had settled over him, a deep nurturing kind of healing balm, as if his thoughts had been purified. And then there was Pellaz, the link they shared, touchable again and he did take comfort from it, experiencing the love and trust so vibrantly. That like was his center.

Biting a lip in consideration, Calanthe turned back to the table, his mind suddenly clearer and focused. He picked up a drink and went to sit at the head of the table, ignoring the pointed looks from Panthera and Swift as Ariaric explained the easiest passage across the Natawni Garridan border for Hara on foot. Only half listening, he looked up at Zackala, meeting the questioning gaze and answered it with a smile of his own. He was ready now, knowing what he had to do. Knowing Pellaz was alive and would always be with him.

The discussions continued, and getting bored with the political maneuvering between Ariaric and Glaves, Calanthe contented himself with observing the Hara around him. Really looking at them, as if seeing them clearly for the first time in months. Here in this room stood the Leaders of half the known Wraeththu world. Zackala was right, whatever decision was made here would affect a lot of lives, could unite or destroy their society. It was a hefty responsibility. What had Cobweb whispered years earlier? A storm of blood? Destruction of society as Wraeththu knew it?

Was that possible? Or could he prevent the insanity Cobweb foresaw? Control it and protect the Tribes as Zackala hinted at? It was a disturbing thought… And he glanced around again at the congregated Hara present. No one outside this pavilion was privy to the real news, to all the information. Ordinary Hara did not know of Pellaz and Ashmael’s capture, of the genuine reason for war, and he was determined to keep it that way. Determined to maintain the illusion, trusting Arahal’s guards and Dree’s connections with the media to keep that piece of volatile information hidden. Otherwise chaos would erupt. He would just have to trust the Hara around him… Glaves and Ariaric were still politely arguing tactics while Abrimel sat next to the Hegemony member, listening intently. Abrimel was very like Pellaz, and Calanthe suddenly wondered how the younger Har felt about Pellaz’ capture. He knew Caeru was distraught, but what of Abrimel? But Abrimel was so contained, controlled – not like Swift who was sitting next to him. The Megalithician leader had arrived with a large contingent of his own Parasiel tribe, having left Seel in Galhea to govern the land. Swallowing a smile, Calanthe could just imagine how irate Seel must have been with that decision, and he let his eyes slip on to the next Har beside Swift. Vaysh. Vaysh in his world of isolation. Panthera was right about that. Vaysh’s expression was always neutral; his eyes hard even as he never missed anything around him. Such loveliness enclosed in such bitterness, and Calanthe suddenly wondered if that was what others saw in him as well. What Zackala had been attempting to warn him about? It was a sobering thought. For like him with Pellaz, Vaysh had also been forced to live out Thiede’s ideals of perfection, and the redhead only seemed to smile when Ashmael was around. And right now he looked as miserable as hell.

Sitting up straighter, Calanthe pursed his lips, studying his and Pell’s icy assistant, startled abruptly as Vaysh flung his head back and screamed in chilling agony. Standing hurriedly as everyone else reacted, Calanthe dashed around the table to the fallen and injured Har.

“What the…”

“Get Rayhala in here immediately!” Dree ordered as Swift was trying to hold Vaysh while the other thrashed with unseen pain.

Laying a hand on Vaysh’s head, Glaves recoiled as if burnt, giving a startled cry as other members of the allied Wraeththu lands rushed in behind the out of breath healer. Standing back, all Calanthe could do was watch, having a very good guess at what the problem was, when just as abruptly Vaysh stilled, his body arching before collapsing and going limp. Vaysh shared a link with Ashmael, just as he shared a link with Pellaz. So was this Ashmael’s captors way of fighting?

“Get more light over here!” Dree ordered, motioning the guards to clear the tent of unwanted Hara.

“What happened to him?” One of the Tirthas of Gimrah asked as the table was shoved aside and blankets thrown down. Still standing there, Calanthe felt sympathy for Vaysh even as a tingling started in his hands and then legs. Frowning, he looked down at himself as the tingling increased and he felt an overpowering presence reaching out to him. A malignancy… then just as abruptly the danger and foreboding vanished, leaving him bewildered and cold. Glancing up, he was swiftly engulfed with a caress, bathed in warm love – and his soul sighed, feeling and tasting Pellaz in every cell of his being and hearing his lover’s voice in his head. And it wasn’t until that moment when he experienced Pellaz all around him that he understood what he missed do much about his lover…. and he smiled. Then just as abruptly his reassurance was stripped from him and he was thrust momentarily into Pellaz’ dark world of pain, fear and panic. The agony of what his lover was enduring consumed him and he doubled over, clutching his loins in shared pain, gasping as he saw inside his soul-mate’s mind. Darkness, death, rape and torture and Calanthe exhaled hard, his eyes going sightless. Then a moment later the connection was cut – Pellaz was ripped from the linking, tearing a hole in his mind and he screamed. Vomit flew from his mouth as he screamed again, spiraling into blackness, not feeling the impact as he hit the ground.

“By the Aghama!” Cedony cried, scared and shocked as Zackala attempted to catch the shuddering Tigron.

“Set up a mental shield now!” Dree was pushing Hara out the tent, delivering orders to startled guards, demanding action fast.

“And get Arahal back here immediately! Now move! And get scouts out to…” his voice trailed off as he moved away, organizing the encampment and rousing the other members of the supporting lands, calling for an emergency Council.

“What now?” Ariaric asked.

“The attacks have stopped,” Swift stated, still holding Vaysh as he looked over at Calanthe with Zackala and Panthera.

“The Sorrandites?” Glaves wondered allowed.

“Will a grissecon break that kind of mental power? I have sensed nothing like this before.”

“I’d say from just briefly looking them over that their links were used for this attack.” Rayhala stated clinically, glancing up through his fringe.

“Links?” Ariaric asked, not understanding, crouching down next to Glaves as other Hara left the tent.

“Are you talking mental links?”

Rayhala nodded, impatiently so.

“Not just any mental link, but rather both are soul bonded to the captured Hara, Pellaz and Ashmael, are they not? So it only stands to reason that your enemy would use those links to delay your attack. Now I’m no strategist, but that seems obvious even to me.” Standing, Rayhala issued orders to have the injured Hara moved. Not having prepared for this possibility the members in the room glanced around in worry.

“I will set up in Tigron Calanthe’s pavilion, so I suggest you shield that pavilion. That should solve the problem. Now excuse me, tiahaars.” With that Rayhala followed the guards carrying the stretches.

***

Waking, Calanthe raised a hand to his head, blinking his eyes open to find Rayhala bending over him, smiling encouragingly. He closed his eyes again, then opened them, still seeing the same smug expression. He glanced around, recognizing his own belongings, before his last memory fell solidly into place. That snapped him instantly awake and he stared fixedly at the canvas overhead, not seeing it as he searched his mind for the link Zackala had helped him re-establish. But there was nothing, not even a vague sense of distance or separation like before. There was only emptiness, a vast hole where his center had been. And an insidiously creeping blackness which threatened to devour him.

“No!” He cried, sitting bolt upright, knocking the healer back as he stared ahead with unseeing eyes. Pellaz was gone and he was lost…

“Cal?” A light shone in his eyes and he blinked them closed, focusing with difficulty on the faces now in front of him. Where was he? Who were they?

“Cal? Can you hear me?” It was a kindly voice, a voice hovering on the edge of his sheltered mind. He should know that voice, and he tried to identify it, not wanting to think.

“Hold him!” It was a command, and he felt arms around him as he violently shuddered, unable to control his limbs as spasms racked his body. A voice was screaming silently in his head. A scream of such desolation and loss that he couldn’t shut it off, until he realized it was his own voice. He sank into despair, letting the beckoning void consume him.

Waking a second time, Calanthe sat upright with a bolt of pure shock and fear. Only Vaysh and Panthera sat in the room with him, both rushing to him as he sat panting for breath, a sweat breaking out over his hot skin. Time had vanished, and he was lost.

“Cal?” It was Panthera, worry plastered across his lovely face.

“Cal, can you hear us?” This time Vaysh, as Panthera called to the guards outside. One stuck his head in, then disappeared quickly.

“I…” Barely a sound came out and he tried to collect his thoughts. A creeping darkness hovered on the edge of his conscious mind, threatening him. Calling him seductively.

“Cal, look at me?”

More persistent words and he focused on them, holding the madness back, reaching out to grab Vaysh. A thrill passed down his arm and out his fingers, making Vaysh gasp in horror as he stared wide-eyed at the blonde ruler.

“No…” Vaysh breathed the word in panic, shaking his head, slowly taking hold of the hand which gripped him and hung on firmly.

“…Oh gods, Cal…” Tears slowly spilled from Vaysh’s eyes as he absorbed the consuming pain and loss in the other’s mind.

Halting the healer as he hastily approached, Panthera indicated the linking Calanthe had initiated with Vaysh, both watching with held breaths until Calanthe broke the contact. Holding back his grief, Vaysh just pressed a hand over his mouth, biting down hard as he watched Calanthe close his eyes and turn away from them all. Vaysh shook his head, not allowing either Panthera or Rayhala to touch him as he carefully stood up and backed away, not stopping until the canvas wall of the pavilion was at his back.

Following the redhead, Panthera gestured urgently back towards the bed, getting scared by what he saw.

“Vaysh? What did he show you?”

Still shaking his head, Vaysh refused to answer, hurriedly exiting the pavilion and only stopping when he stood in the middle of the compound, looking up into clear wintry skies. He dragged in deep cleansing breaths.

“Vaysh?” This time it was both Panthera, Rayhala and Glaves as the others rushed over.

“We are lost-”

“Why?” Panthera asked, getting a sinking feeling in his gut.

“Calanthe showed me his mind and…” a single tear slid down Vaysh’s cheek.

“Pellaz is dead. They killed him in the link.” He said slowly, having seen and felt everything Calanthe had experienced. The pain, the fear, the loss, the sadistic rape and the insanity.

“Vaysh?”

“They tortured Pell. Then ripped the link open, showing Cal everything… and now he is lost. He cannot find his way back.” Vaysh rubbed his face hard.

“I felt it, just as I felt the mind behind the images.” His face creased in hot emotion.

“And I swear it was the same mind which attacked me through Ash.”

“But you can still sense Ashmael?” Cedony asked.

“He is not dead?”

“Oh yes, I sense him. Very well.” Vaysh licked his lips, ordering his thoughts.

“I sense anger, and anguish.”

“Can you pinpoint it? Trace it to the source?” Glaves pushed as Dree joined them with the Kalamah Leader and Ariaric. Tentatively reaching out, Vaysh mentally caressed the bond, accepting it fully.

“Yes.”

“Then we follow it.” Panthera snarled.

***

Sensing movement in the camp outside, Calanthe carefully sat up. He was alone again, and he swung his legs over the side of his bed, standing slowly. He had to move, to take his mind off the insanity which threatened, for he could not let go. Not yet. Not until he had Pellaz’ killer in his hands. Besides, he might be wrong, he told himself. Thinking back to the images he was again swamped with his chesna’s pain, with Pellaz’ despair, and he pitched forward, almost falling. Staggering, Calanthe struggled to control the images. Pellaz might still be alive…. he told himself uselessly. Maybe he just could not find the link, even though he searched desperately for it, the ends fraying and driving him wild in frustration and failure.

No!

Straightening, he took a few deep breaths. No. He had to be wrong, could not, would not, allow himself to believe the truth. The reality was too shocking to comprehend, and he needed to focus on something else. To push the spreading madness and blood vengeance he felt back. Obsessive. A piercing scream trapped deep with in his mind. He was obsessed.

Shaking off the feeling with grim resolve, he parted the canvas opening, startling the guards, and walked past them. Immediately they fell into line behind him, and he ignored them, making his way towards the makeshift council pavilion. Once inside, all talk stopped as they turned, astonished to see him and he gave them all a cold smile. He knew he probably looked wrecked, and purposely shielded his thoughts from the sympathy and fear he sensed around him. He went to the head of the table, glad to see no one was sitting in his chair, and deliberately sat down. He needed a new focus and the war would give him that.

“So when do we march on Garridan?” Calanthe asked into the silence.

Glaves and Dree eyed him apprehensively, as did all the other Leaders, but he disregarded it, pulling the maps around.

“Cal?” It was Cedony’s voice and Calanthe turned to him, letting his expression answer the silent questions. He honed his pain into a sharp blade of anger and let his feelings permeate the room so all could feel his intentions. His skin tingled with suppressed power as rage tinged the mixture, and he was gratified when most of the Leaders paled and glanced away nervously.

“So when do we march on Garridan?” He asked again, his tone mild compared to his eyes, and he noted how Cedony swallowed nervously.

Staring at Calanthe, Cedony felt his control slip away. Felt all the hairs on his arms stand on end and wondered how Calanthe managed to stay sane.

“This afternoon, or as soon as the encampment is ready.”

“Good.” Calanthe swung his eyes up and found Arahal. The Captain was coiled, angry still, and Calanthe decided he could use that anger. Could focus on that.

“I want to be through Garridan within three days. Past Nightshade and North to where the Sorrandites must be living.”

“That will be hard on the army,” Ariaric protested, knowing the land ahead very well.

“It is necessary. Our petty civil wars will be nothing, Ariaric, if we allow the Sorrandites to choose where we will fight, and how we will fight.” Calanthe’s voice was restrained, infusing a sense of desperation into the Hara around him.

“They are using blood magic.”

“How do you know this?” Glaves asked.

“Let’s just say I picked up a general idea of what we are facing the other night.” He swung his gaze back on to Arahal, a blood fever of his own coloring his eyes.

“Have you found Carrollion yet?”

“We encountered heavy resistance in the northern reaches of Garridan and were unable to break through. But with more Hara,” Arahal’s tone was even, yet his eyes spoke differently.

“You shall have them.” Calanthe promised.

“We shall gather a force that will unite the lands! That will tell renegade tribes out there that Gelaming law will be obeyed, and that we are civilized. Not the animals of our past. Not frightened or defenseless. But a strong proud race.” He leaned forward, persuasiveness in his tone as all around him were swayed by his passion.

They could not deny him, as Calanthe exerted his powers a second time, subconsciously sending his need through them and infusing them with a united goal. Only after he had left the room did the Hara of nahir-nuri caste level regain control and stare at each other in disbelief.

“How did he do that?” Abrimel asked, bewildered as he glanced around the pavilion. Other Hara from Emunah and participating Tribes were asking similar questions.

“I don’t know, but it worries the life out of me,” Glaves expressed.

***

Struggling with his chains in frustration as more blood trickled down his arms from torn wrists, Pellaz subconsciously bit his sore and cracked lips in grim determination. All around him the caverns were quiet, only one group of Hara earlier having approached them, throwing rocks repeatedly for a while until they had tired of the sport. He knew instinctively that if he didn’t get away soon they would die. Die from exposure, hunger and injuries inflicted. He worriedly glanced at his companion, unsure what he could do for his friend. Ashmael was ill, and he had tried using his mental energies to heal him, only to have Loassni’s guards sense his sending and come down to vindictively kick them apart. And he dared not lash out at the guards, understanding with a certainty that it would mean the strategist’s life.

But which was worse? To die a lingering death or to die fighting? No longer knowing, Pellaz sat back, feeling the icy, hard wall behind him, as he studied his friend. It was funny they should end like this… he thought. Funny that it was Ashmael, for he had always believed that if he were to die it would be with Calanthe close beside him. If he had been asked a month ago who he would choose to die with, it would have been no choice, but now… He looked again at the resting Har, seeing blood and dirt mingled over Ashmael’s face and body, and he could not dismiss the bond which had grown between them.

“While I have breath, there is hope,” Pellaz whispered, suddenly remembering a childhood book he had once read with his sister. Mima. He rested his head back and closed his eyes. He had not thought of Mima in years… and a touch of guilt swept him. Another ghost from the past? A ghost like Flick? Not liking the feeling, he renewed his struggles with the chain, delicately probing the mental locks, trying not to alert the guards. If he could just escape…

“Trying to go somewhere?” Startled by the voice and because he had not sensed the approach of Loassni, Pellaz jumped, waking Ashmael inadvertently.

“You cannot break the locks, Pellaz, but watching you struggle is amusing.” Loassni stepped from behind the wall and Pellaz swallowed his resentment and anger, his gut constricting. Prodding the dark haired Har with the stick he carried, Loassni smiled wickedly, seeing the strategist slowly raise his head to glare at him also.

“Feeling bored, are you?” Ashmael snarled in a strained voice, struggling to sit up. He felt Pellaz help him.

“Curious as to how my two star guests are coping.”

“The room service is lousy,” Ashmael informed him.

“And our host is a fuck wit-”

The sharp stick jabbed him in the ribs painfully and Pellaz lashed out with his foot, achieving little except to distract the Sorrandite, getting slapped for his effort.

“I thought you would have learned by now, but then the Gelaming are not particularly bright, I have noticed.”

“Why don’t you just kill us.” Pellaz growled, refusing to give Loassni the pleasure of seeing them weaken.

“I have never met Hara so eager to die.” Loassni observed, crouching down a safe distance away as he prodded the blond with his stick again. Ashmael clamped his mouth shut, baring teeth in vicious hostility as agony shot up his body from the abuse to his leg.

Pellaz tensed, but then saw Sorrandite guards slowly materialize out of the gloom behind Loassni.

“Ah, a spark of intelligence at last from the little Gelaming animal,” Loassni quipped, studying him with a curious expression. He noted the defiance was still there as Pellaz glared at him in raw hatred. Insanely so, he judged and Loassni deliberately jabbed the gasping strategist hard in the ribs.

“Your psychotic lover, Calanthe, is proving to be a bit of a bother to Carrollion in Jaddayoth.” He started mildly. Pellaz gave a slow, knowing smile.

“I take it the war is not going well?”

“I never said that,” Loassni corrected mildly, seeing Ashmael’s eyes narrow also.

“He is insane, you know.” Refusing to be baited, Pellaz shrugged the remark off, burying his true feeling deep.

“He’s Uigenna.”

“How on earth did your pure sensibilities cope with a lover who was so tainted in body and spirit?” Loassni tutted knowingly.

“I must be right about you then, Pellaz. Pelki indeed, you do like it rough. Yet I still haven’t heard you scream…”

Ignoring that, Pellaz pushed his meager advantage.

“He is winning the war, isn’t he!” Loassni scoffed.

“Winning? He’s causing havoc in Jaddayoth, emptying the land of Hara as he crushes Garridan.” He paused.

“Mind you, it is an interesting concept. Imagine having so much power and being locked in madness?” He closely watched Pellaz’ face, but saw no flicker of emotion.

“Doesn’t it worry you to know he is destroying all that you have worked for?”

“You are scared of him,” Pellaz whispered.

“Don’t be more stupid than you already are. We are safe here. Stronger mentally than your Gelaming and well protected. Hidden.” He stood slowly stretching, sensually smiling down.

“In a day or so, after your companion dies and you are suitably humbled, I will take you into my house as servant.” He told Pellaz, running one of his hands down his own body suggestively.

“There you will be chained. You will be used and I will sire sons on you. Sons that I will use to destroy the Gelaming.” He paused.

“Sleep well, my darling Pellaz.” He mocked then laughed, walking away. The Sorrandite guards followed, and Pellaz cursed, wrenching on the chain in pure anger rather than thought.

“Pell!” Ashmael croaked, having to repeat the name a few times before the dark haired Tigron turned narrowed eyes on him.

“Letting him make you angry will not help us or Cal, so calm down. He wants you off balance, and at the moment you are playing into his hands.”

Fighting to control the anger and sweeping fear, Pellaz felt his body shake as he absorbed Ashmael’s words. He was losing himself to a void of irrational panic, and he wondered if this was what insanity felt like. Logically he knew Calanthe was alive, but emotionally… there was nothing but emptiness.

“By the gods, Ash…” he sucked in a painful breath.

“I have to get to him before I go insane as well.” Worriedly, Ashmael tried to read the other’s expression in the poor light, wondering if it was just the absence of the link or the abuse which had unsettled Pellaz.

“Have you tried the link again?”

“I cannot reach him, not from here.” Pellaz turned very large and scared eyes on the strategist.

“What if Cal is doing what Loassni says? What can we do? Gods!” He suddenly started to struggle again with the chains, wildly battling to get free. Groaning in agony, Ashmael levered himself up onto one elbow, then flung himself at the irrational Tigron, half covering him with his own injured body.

“Pellaz,” he hissed,

“…listen to me.” Raw panic greeted him as Pellaz fought him instinctively, black hair a tangle of dirt and blood.

“Pellaz!”

He snarled, almost blacking out as the other hit his leg.

Slowly Pellaz calmed, his equilibrium gone, and he sucked in sore breaths, seeing Ashmael’s pinched expression.

“Ash-”

“You cannot help him or us like this. You have to think!”

“I… it is so hard,” Pellaz admitted, stilling completely.

“Concentrate!'”

“Ash…” It was a very small and frightened voice.

“Concentrate on the chains. Remember you almost had them off earlier.” He encouraged.

“Concentrate on them.” Nodding with a shiver, Pellaz slowly helped the strategist roll off him, supporting Ashmael’s leg as they straightened it, and pretending not to notice the silent tears of pain. Ashmael was right, Pellaz knew that, and he battled to contain the beckoning fear, refusing to think about Calanthe as he poured his energies into the chains. His anger. Subtly he manipulated the mental locks, letting his mind finger the locks discreetly, surprised and elated when they abruptly sprang open. He stared at the chains a long moment, thinking worriedly that it somehow had been too easy, then dismissed the thought as irrational. Was he now losing all perspective? He removed the chains, and turned to Ashmael, blinking in astonishment.

“No,” the strategist fended him off.

“But-”

“No, Pell. One of us must get out of here. One of us must warn the Gelaming about Loassni and his friends.”

“I won’t leave you here,” Pellaz stated stubbornly.

“You have to.” Ashmael answered just as earnestly.

“I cannot walk, and if you wait to carry me, then neither of us will get out.”

“You would not leave me.”

“If my soul mate had the sort of powers Calanthe does, then I would leave you to aid him. To aid the Wraeththu.”

“I still can’t-”

“Loassni is right. I will be dead in a few days and if you wait now – or help me – then he will get you as well.” Ashmael stated slowly. It was becoming hard to speak, to draw breath.

“He will use you to sire sons. He will destroy Wraeththu.” Staring at the sincere face fiercely, Pellaz reached down and caressed Ashmael’s cheek.

“Ash-”

“Don’t.”

“I will come back for you.”

“I will wait right here, and keep your friends entertained if I get too bored.” Ashmael gave a weak smile.

“Ash-”

“Don’t, Pell. Just go. And tell…”

“I will.” Was all Pellaz said and he carefully climbed to his feet, finding his left leg refusing to function properly. Glancing around he limped away, avoiding the deformed Hara and hugging the walls and shadows. Watching him go, Ashmael let his tears fall, finally letting the emotions out, knowing he would never see any of them again. Vaysh…

Walking was difficult, and Pellaz limped along, cramp and injury hampering his movements. He tried to keep out of the light, his mind starting to work again as he very carefully wove an enchantment around himself. He was mentally weak, but not stupid, and hid at the entranceway of the cave for a long moment, letting his eyes get used to the light. The sun was bright and he estimated early afternoon, the temperature cool, but not cold like in Immanion during winter. Smoke from the cooking fires drifted his way and he stifled a cough, feeling nauseated, his stomach too long without food to like the smell. In front of him guards stood casually, walking away, doing a circuit around the immediate area, and he studied their movements. Noise behind him made him press tightly back against the wall, looking for the shadows as a group of Hara walked up, talking amongst themselves. They were not from the cave he had left and he assumed they were from one of the many entranceways that branched off the long, wide tunnel. Watching them, he saw the guards glance their way, then dismiss them, and Pellaz pushed himself free of the wall to trail behind them, trying to appear ordinary and part of their group. None turned around to look at him, probably unaware of his presence due to the enchantment, but still he felt terribly exposed as he exited the dark cave.

Once clear of the immediate guards, he ducked behind a stone dwelling, gulping for air as he battled to remain upright and conscious. The sun, the air, everything making him swoon in dizziness. It took a while but eventually some of his balance returned, and he peered around, trying to get an idea of the area.

The compound was massive, with the entrance to the caves below at the center of the city. Hara busily went about their daily chores. In a way it reminded him a little of a cross between Saltrock and Galhea in the early days when he and Calanthe had traveled the land.

Calanthe. That brought a twinge of panic again, and he moved as quickly as he could towards the edge of the city. Amazed and dazzled by the spectacle at the edge of the enclosed encampment, Pellaz could just stare open-mouthed at the shimmering barrier of pure energy before him. It was of Har origin but had to be generated by a machine. What did Flick say? Generator… he mused as he studied it. No Har, not even Thiede in all his magnificence, could form so perfect a mental image. And if it was machine driven, then they had a chance of destroying it. All he needed now was to find a weakness, or find the machine which sustained the barrier.

It took him till near sundown to find the exit point in the shield, and Pellaz nervously watched war-garbed Hara leave the compound. There was a lot of military maneuvering going on, but he dared not delay for fear his escape would be noted, and then Ash would be…

Breaking off that thought, he continued to study the barrier, counting the changes in its cycle, the seconds it took to alter intensity as Hara passed through, and the routine of the guard. Beside the gate wagons were lined up with supplies and weapons, and Pellaz crept forward, an idea starting to form. Silently he approached the wagons, listening to the Hara around him, and learnt that the Gelaming had leveled Nightshade and were coming up into the northern deserts. So Cal had won through…. he summarized, giving a private smile as he laboriously climbed into one of the wagons and covered himself. It had hurt like nothing he had experienced before, his mind raw, loins on fire still and limbs numb, and he lay rigidly praying the pain would subside.

Nothing happened for hours, and Pellaz almost fell asleep waiting, before he felt a jolt as the wagon moved and he held his breath. He continued to lie there until the sounds of the city faded, before cautiously daring to peer out from under the canvas covering. It was almost pitch dark around him now and he held on tight as the wagon slowly bounced and jolted along the rock path. Night time already… Where had the afternoon gone? The moon was hidden by clouds and he waited for his eyes to adjust. Methodically he made out shadows around him, as the single Har who sat in the driver’s seat guided the horse. Many wagons were in front, as were Hara marching without a sound, but only one wagon behind.

Not believing his luck, Pellaz painstakingly eased himself over the side of the wagon, waiting until the Har behind was out of view before rolling away to crouch behind a bush on the side of the track. The Har appeared unaware of him, and something niggled in the back of his brain as he watched the wagon train and Sorrandite army march away into the cold desert night. Dismissing the disquieting feeling, Pellaz slowly stood, checking himself over as he limped away to a more secure spot. Finding a group of rocks, he eased down against them and took a few deep breaths before glancing around nervously. He was tired, aching from head to foot, bleeding again from re-opened wounds and mentally exhausted. Yet he gathered what energy he had left and sent out a mental probe to touch Calanthe, or even to find their soul-bonded link and re-gather it in. But there was nothing.

Shocked and trembling, he tried again, and still found nothing. Dismissing the growing fear in his own mind, he determinedly tried to convince himself that it was because he was too tired, or too far away from Calanthe. That maybe he was still too close to the barrier to be able to touch Calanthe’s mind. Anything – but think the obvious. Resigning himself to finding a better position, he pushed himself to his feet and started to limp back to the rocky trail. Eventually it would have to take him closer to the Gelaming. And only then could he relax….

Detaching himself from the shadowy rock face, the Sorrandite tracker watched as the dark-haired Gelaming slowly moved away. He did not know how the other stayed on his feet and was amazed this Gelaming captive had traveled so far already. Although Loassni had said this one was strong and dangerous.

Admitting to the other’s vibrant will and tenacity, the tracker had yet to see signs of threat emanating from the small figure, but decided to keep his distance. His job was to track this Har and kill him if necessary. Only if necessary. This Har must not make contact or reach the advancing Gelaming camp. His primary target was the Tigron Calanthe. He was to kill the Tigron as soon as this Gelaming Har made contact with the Tigron. After that his instruction were to return this captive back to Loassni’s household.

It seemed a simple enough task, one which he had performed before for Loassni. One which would again bring him rewards and wealth.

So with practiced ease he glanced up at the sky, seeing the first traces of dawn. Today was going to be a momentous day, he felt, and he looked back, noting the city lights less than a league away. Silently he patted his crossbow and painstakingly shifted from shadow to shadow, tracking the injured Har and unobtrusively blocking the Har’s sporadic mental sendings.

***

Shifting uncomfortably on his horse, Ariaric re-read the message a third time before screwing it up and eyeing the courier questioningly.

“Is that all the news you carry from Sykernesse?”

“Yes, my Lord. I was instructed to destroy the message if I was captured.”

Nodding, Ariaric dismissed the courier, slowing his own horse down to wait for Swift and Lehonhar of the Kalamah to catch up. He debated telling them what he had learnt, watching as the two approached slowly, deep in conversation. Above, the sun beat down on them with its cold morning light, and he wished this nightmare was over and he was back in Oomadrah. Around them was nothing but desert. They had left the known boundaries of Jaddayoth over two days ago now and were back in the open wastelands of the north. Far, far to the north it was rumored that some humans still survived. But that might only be rumors.

Behind them, Garridan lay desolated and its major City destroyed. The Garridan Hara themselves were delivering Carrollion into Gelaming hands, as Calanthe’s blatant irrational sending of Wraeththu unity drew even Garridan Hara into their numbers.

Whatever Calanthe was mentally doing, it was working. Because for the first time in Wraeththu history all the tribes were co-existing together, fighting for a single, powerful reason. Ariaric was impressed; wondering if all insane Hara could be manipulated the same way. He just prayed the spell did not wear off until after they rid the desert of the Sorrandite infection.

They had learnt very little from Carrollion, except that the plan to kill Pellaz had been his own, and he had originally wanted Pellaz’ death to occur while the Tigron was visiting Nightshade. But Pellaz had outsmarted him and he had been forced to rely on his new allies, the Sorrandites, to complete the task. It seemed he wanted Pellaz dead so that Calanthe would go insane and anarchy would consume the lands, letting the stronger races control the weak. The plan had sounded logical, except Carrollion had not anticipated what turn Calanthe’s madness would take. No one could have anticipated that course…. and the problem still remained as to what they should do with Calanthe after the war.

Calanthe’s cold, silent and controlled rage had not abated even after he had killed Carrollion. The Tigron’s actions had taken few by surprise. For Calanthe had simply beheaded the Har where Carrollion stood. Shocking and brutal. Yet not unexpected.

Again Ariaric pursed his lips in thought, thinking about his consort’s note. It seems Elisyin – his clever Ferike co-ruler – had somehow managed to get his hands on the Gelaming Royal Harlings. And now those Harlings were safely hidden in Sykernesse. So what should he do? Tell Calanthe his Harlings were alive and well? Or let him continue to single-handedly clear a path straight towards the Sorrandite stronghold? If he told Calanthe, would the Tigron suddenly lose his consuming drive to reach the Sorrandites? That was a grim possibility. It was a dilemma, and right or wrong, Ariaric decided to keep the information to himself. After the war was over and if Jaddayoth was once again securely under the control of the Gelaming, then he could inform the Hegemony of the Harlings’ whereabouts and let them decide what to do about it. Decided, he opened his palm and sent a thought of fire to ignite the note in his hand, letting it burn before blowing the ash to the ground. The he plastered on a smile and waited for Swift and Lehonhar to catch up with him.

***

In front, leading the massive collection of Hara, Vaysh sat next to Calanthe, his own mount hot in the desert heat as they continued to move forward. He cast a glance at the silent Tigron, noting that nothing was showing on the emotionless face as the tall blonde looked straight ahead. It was disturbing, yet Vaysh oddly understood it, feeling closer to Calanthe than he ever thought possible. He still sensed Ashmael, sensed his anguish and hopelessness, and it drove him on also. He would have gone with Calanthe willingly to the Sorrandites’ stronghold even if the Hegemony had withdrawn the rest of the army. Nothing could stop him now either and he let the link fill his mind, homing in on it and leading justice and wrath behind him. Ahead, one of Arahal’s scouts galloped back, bringing his horse to a sliding stop before the Captain.

“Sir, we have identified a large gathering of Hara coming this way.”

“How long?”

“If we keep travelling, we will make contact within a few hours.”

“Very good. Keep me informed.” Arahal dismissed, glancing back at the others.

“If we have seen them, then I would say they know we are here also.”

“It would be safe to assume so, yes.” Glaves sighed. He was not cut out for a military life and he glanced at Dree, Cedony and Abrimel.

“Shall we call a halt and allow everyone to rest before proceeding?”

Other members of the ruling lands arrived as Dree looked up at the sun.

“It is getting close to late morning, let’s call a halt.” He agreed.

Gesturing to the guards, Arahal cast a speculative look at Calanthe. But the silent Tigron seemed lost in thought, very controlled, as his gaze stayed fixed narrowly ahead.

***

They had rested for an hour, the word going out that the Sorrandites had been sighted. The army was at fever pitch, Hara seemingly infested with the desire to cleanse the earth of their infected brethren. More than willing to fight united whenever Arahal gave the order. Like a swarm of ants they covered the distance between swiftly, eager to face the Sorrandites. Watching, and trying to stay detached, both Glaves and Dree were astonished by the uniting effect Calanthe wielded over the entire company. Calanthe’s living energy was inspirational and they rode along beside him, swept up in the infectious excitement. It was very hard to keep of the army to a controlled pace.

Useless even. But a blessing. Because if Calanthe had not shared his madness around so willingly, then all the Leaders and Hegemony combined would still have had to deal with the Sorrandite problem. As it was, that problem attended to a lot quicker than the Gelaming normally acted. By early afternoon both armies were engaged on a desolate plain, beneath rocky outcrops, with the Sorrandites having the advantage of mental powers. But that small gain was soon shattered by the drive and sheer weight of numbers under Calanthe’s control.

Arahal held his guard together magnificently, combining their powers to break all resistance before sweeping down to crush the advancing lines. Magically constructed weapons smashed into neural disrupters, causing visual fireworks as the Gelaming guard, well-versed in mental warfare, fought a silent mind war. All other Hara attacked with brute force, using long bows and swords, some having guns, as each side spilled blood onto the thirsty earth. It was a running war, driven by passion.

By evening only pockets of fighting continued, as the combined armies of Jaddayoth pushed forward, forcing the Sorrandites to retreat again and again. The carnage was appalling as the Gelaming captured the entire valley plane, sending out scouts to locate the Sorrandite City. A hastily erected pavilion was thrown up in the middle of the camp, and it was there that the Leaders congregated to discuss strategies and problems.

“My scouts have located the Sorrandite City,” Arahal was saying, drawing a diagram of what he had been shown. His clothing was dusty, a cut on his cheek had dried, and his sword hung at his side still blood stained. Even his hair was drab, the long black feathers hanging down his back in disarray.

“It is surrounded by an energy field of some kind.”

“That would explain why we were never aware of it before.” Ariaric mused.

“I’ve had some guards check it out and the barrier appears to be maintained mechanically.” Arahal continued.

“It would take enormous power or energy to sustain something like that.”

“Water.” Calanthe said softly.

“What?” Dree frowned, then looked at Swift who approached the rigid Tigron.

“Cal?”

“Water.” Calanthe repeated, turning to look at them all.

“I sense the presence of water. Vast amounts.”

“Out here? In the desert?” Swift questioned softly.

“Underground. Deep underground.” Calanthe frowned.

“I sense caverns-”

Light dawned on some of the others’ faces, and Lehonhar and Kaflomn the Garondel of Emunah all started talking about the possibility of water-driven hydraulic power. Their lands all bordered the sea and they had some experience with such technology.

Leaving them, Calanthe went and stood next to Vaysh as the redhead stared out across the desolate desert. Vaysh’s hair was loose, moving sluggishly behind him in the cool breeze as his eyes searched the distant ridges.

“What do you sense?” Calanthe asked quietly. Not replying for a long moment, Vaysh just whispered the words into the approaching maelstrom.

“We are too late. He is dying, Cal. Ash is dying.” He turned his head, his gaze very direct as he met the empty eyes of the Tigron.

“I can feel it.”

***

Having suddenly realized that the muted sounds he was hearing were battle cries, Pellaz nearly cried in sheer joy. He crawled to the top of the rise he was on and looked down, seeing the Gelaming banners flying high and free, and he felt the tears roll down his face. Against all odds he was still alive and within reach of the Gelaming. He tried to marshal enough mental energy to send, feeling a blanketing suppression hit him instantaneously. Knowing that sensation and what it meant, he gritted his teeth and spun around just in time to see a shadow detach itself from the rocks behind him. So far each and every time he had tried to send mentally to Calanthe he had been blocked, and it had taken his sluggish mind time to work out the problem. So Loassni knew he had escaped. He prayed that did not mean Ash was dead….

Not moving, he lay there waiting, watching to see whom it was, and Pellaz hoped it was the demented Loassni. He wanted another go at the Har when he wasn’t chained. The Har came closer, casually holding a small crossbow already loaded and held ready. The Har’s face was unfamiliar, yet the drive was the same. Frowning, Pellaz shook his head. Slowly he worked his abused muscles, crouching low and knowing he would only get one attempt at catching this Har off balance. So he had to get it right the first time.

The tracker stopped, circled to the left and glanced over the rockface, judging if this would be as good a time as any to complete his task. On the plains below him the battle continued, not going as arranged, and they needed to alter the odds. This Har was the key. This Har would lead him to Tigron Calanthe. And Loassni had not said he could not injure the Har – just not kill him. Looking back at his captive he motioned for the dirty Har to stand.

“Get up.”

Judging his chances, Pellaz nodded, implying defeat, and saw the darkly dressed tracker relax slightly. Releasing coiled, aching muscles, Pellaz sprang purposely crashing into the tracker’s weapon arm and dislodging the crossbow. He grunted in pain, feeling and hearing his bruised ribs crack from impact with the solid iron bow, before he fell away in a very inelegant roll. Scrambling up as best he could, he clutched his ribs, hurriedly retreating, stumbling over bushes to slide down the rock face.

It was probably the only thing that saved his life as a deadly arrow barely missed him and went flying off into the distance, spiraling down over the plain below. Coming to an undignified stop at the bottom of the ravine, Pellaz battled to stand, hearing more than seeing his attacker’s pursuit. He had little time, and he staggered away, putting as much distance as he could between them. He headed straight towards where he imagined the fighting would be, coughing up blood as his left side exploded in pain from the punishment he had endured. In front of him the desert looked barren and he forced himself to keep going, knowing it was his only chance – his only chance to reach Cal… Gods… but why did this happen to them again… Abruptly he arched back, crying out harshly in shock as a white-hot pain lanced into his shoulder. Going down hard, he coughed in a dust-filled breath, his only good arm trapped under him.

A foot landed on his back, and Pellaz closed his eyes, waiting for the next blow, thinking of Calanthe and how sorry he was… He had failed him again… Instead a hand reached down to turn him and Pellaz went limp. The fingers of his trapped hand locked around a rock under him, and when he was flipped over he swung out with all the energy he had remaining and hit the Sorrandite Har in the face. Like a dead weight the Sorrandite went down, blood on his temple as his fingers twitched and he lay motionless in the dead, dry grass.

Biting back a sob from the sharp stab of pain in his shoulder, Pellaz just managed to turn his head to see the Gelaming battle banners in the distance. The battle was almost over he realized with a sinking feeling.

“Still too far…” he whispered, feeling a consuming blackness creep over him. He struggled to crawl away, his spirit failing as the last thing he saw was the Gelaming victory banner fluttering in the breeze.

***

Feeling the foot lift off his sore chest, Ashmael opened his eyes to slits, gritting his teeth as he saw Loassni grin down at him. The smug, arrogant expression annoyed him more than anything and Ashmael forced himself to sit up, cursing the Sorrandite as the chains pulled him up short.

“Gelaming spirit.” Loassni observed mockingly.

“You know your Tribe is renowned for that spirit. It has a reputation for elegance and mystery, power and strength. Yet from what I see now, you are just like the rest of us. Only the animal is disguised cleverly.” He caught up a strand of long blond hair and pulled hard, feeling the tension until blonde strands snapped off.

“Are you an animal, Ashmael?” Ashmael cursed him again, blood and spit dripping from his mouth.

Patiently, Loassni continued.

“I think it in your eyes. They cleverly mask Gelaming insanity.” The Sorrandite reached out a hand again and just laughed as the strategist hastily pulled away.

“You know I am going to kill you. Don’t you?”

“Just do it then!” Ashmael spat, frustrated as he swallowed, pain lancing down his spine to legs which barely worked any longer. Sheer will-power held him upright and he pressed back against the wall, watching the Sorrandite with weary eyes.

“What are you waiting for!?”

“I want to hear you beg me,” Loassni whispered.

“Since Pellaz disappointed me in that area…”

“Never!” Ashmael spat. Loassni considered the open defiance for a moment then snaked out a hand and captured the chains holding his captive, restraining him.

“I bet you can beg, Ashmael. I bet you are very good at it. I bet you would beg when darling little Pellaz asked.”

It was a tease and torment mixed, and Ashmael shuddered, fury eating into him, and he tried to lash out.

“You are sick. Barbaric and twisted-”

“I know,” the smile was pure evil, then Loassni struck him a stinging blow.

“That’s why I let your playmate go.”

“Pell,” Ashmael breathed, feeling a cold sensation sweep him, his head ringing.

“He will help me destroy the Gelaming.”

“Never,” Ashmael denied, cursing as Loassni lifted his chains and dragged him closer. Helplessly he dangled, defenseless as the Sorrandite’s hand snaked out and roughly caressed his chest. He swore colorfully in several languages, trying to swing away, sickened by what he felt emanating from the corrupt Har.

Dropped abruptly, Ashmael hit the unrelenting floor hard, causing him to grunt in agony as pain consumed his immediate attention, his existing hold on consciousness wavering. He fought to focus his vision and see where the Sorrandite Leader was.

“I just wanted to reassure you that Tigron Pellaz was well taken care of, so you would not lie here and worry.” Loassni wiped his hands idly.

“Now you can die.” Gesturing with a raised finger, Loassni cast one final look Ashmael’s way before laughing and turning to leave.

Helpless anger flooded Ashmael as he shouted after the Leader, cursing him, before he felt rather than saw two big guards approach. Their intention was clear and Ashmael braced himself as an iron fist drew back then shot out, hitting him directly in the face. Swiftly darkness claimed him.

*** Sluggishly resurfacing, Ashmael blinked around, bewildered, before his memory fell into place. Painfully so. Around him the cavern was unusually alive with activity, and he frowned, not really caring as he tried to move his aching body into a more comfortable position. Why they hadn’t killed him, he didn’t know. And not sure if that was a good thing or not. Movement jolted him as someone tripped over, and he stifled a cry, coming awake a bit more. Around him Hara were running and Ashmael managed to open hot eyes again. Panic seemed to lace the atmosphere and he drew down his brow curiously. He was burning up, he knew, his chest ached, his head on fire, and he could no longer feel his legs. Which was a blessing… he mused.

But something was definitely going on, he guessed, and he did not have to wonder long as a loud rumble under him shook the ground. Dust filled the air and he coughed then winced, hearing screams as Hara ran from the caves. A louder rumble shook the cavern and rocks started to fall as the cave around him shook apart, and Ashmael raised protective arms to cover his head. Terror cut the atmosphere, and he had one glorious thought of Pellaz outsmarting Loassni before his world went dark and the tunnel caved in.

***

Striding up to the ruined city’s barrier, Calanthe swung his sword viciously as a Har charged him, not even thinking as he cut the offender in two, blood splattering them both, his mind seeking only one being. He could sense this was where Pellaz had sent from, his mind identifying the surroundings, the feel of the area. And he had endured long enough, waited long enough, now he wanted Pellaz’ body and the Har who had killed and defiled his lover. And nothing was going to stop him from getting what he wanted. Not Panthera, and not Zackala. No one.

More enraged Hara rushed him and Calanthe unleashed his anger, slashing his enemy down, glorifying in the carnage as it fed his vengeance. Blood dripped from his sword and he turned vicious eyes on the orderly city, looking for more blood. Around him the efficient Gelaming forces met only weak resistance as most Hara inside the barriers were either victims or prisoners of the Sorrandites’ rule, and Calanthe dismissed them, leaving them to the Hara which followed.

Everyone avoided him as he stalked through the city, his sword held lightly at his side, ready to be challenged. Not even Arahal said a word, the grim Captain watching him a long moment before riding away. Even his personal entourage, which followed, said nothing, all keeping their distance and their thoughts private. It suited him perfectly and Calanthe scanned the immediate area, mentally searching for a trace… just a ghost trace would appease him…. but he got nothing. And the failure increased his frustration.

He felt his entourage grow when Vaysh glided up to him with Zackala guarding their flank, and Calanthe ignored the icy assistant.

“Cal?” Glancing around harshly, he noted Swift had silently joined his procession and he barely gave him a look, absently wiping blood from his face as he continued on into the city. Other Gelaming guards were working ahead of them now, subduing the opposition. Protecting him – and he cursed Arahal’s interference. He wanted to fight… wanted the distraction…

“Cal? Where are you going?” Swift persisted as Vaysh and Zackala caught up with him. Calanthe flinched when Swift lay a hand on his arm.

Frowning, Swift took in the blonde Tigron’s torn clothing and dark feral gaze. It was hypnotic and frightening. Seductive and deadly. Shrugging him off, Calanthe flashed his friend a warning glance.

“Cal – wait until Arahal and his Guard have secured the city.”

“No.” Calanthe ground the word out, inviting no argument.

“I want his body back! It’s mine!”

Apprehensively casting a look at Zackala, Swift tried again.

“We will find him and return him to Immanion. I promise, Cal. But right now you are needed back at the encampment.”

“No.” Again it was ground out, uncommunicative.

“Cal?”

“Don’t hinder me, Swift, I am not in the mood.” Calanthe took a deep breath, feeling eyes watching him. Judging him – and he straightened, knuckles turning white around the handle of his sword.

“I… I need to find his body and find who killed him. Then – only then – can I relax. Only then I can stop…”

Staring at him, Swift masked his horror, remembering a younger Calanthe suddenly, yet still seeing the same torment in the violet eyes which pinned him. A bittersweet memory. A naked obsession. A suicide wish.

“Cal…. no!”

“I am so tired…” Walking away, Calanthe refused to say more and Swift went to block him again.

Zackala laid a quick yet firm hand on Swift’s shoulder, silencing his protests.

“Let me deal with this. You go find Dree and tell him where we have gone.”

Making his way towards the center of the city, Calanthe searched around, not seeing anything, feeling Panthera’s presence behind him instead, and he gave up in resignation to the silent brooding Har.

“I thought you might like some help with your search.” Panthera offered after a long, strained minute. Accepting that at face value, Calanthe nodded, heading off again towards the far side of the city. Smoke and panic filled the air, the Gelaming breaking up the small pockets of resistance as they worked their way toward what appeared to be the main residence of the Sorrandites. The Palace. Letting his eyes light up with a nurtured expectation, Calanthe pushed forward.

***

Finding Arahal first, Swift noticed that the tall Captain had changed clothing. His filthy tattered leathers had been replaced with clean scanty leathers that hugged his body, crisscrossing in a complicated manner, adding allure to his confidence. Swift quietly informed the Captain where Calanthe had gone and received a curt nod as the other looked off into the same direction.

“I’ll go find him, you tell the others.” Giving a few quick orders, Arahal strode off, having known this was going to happen, and he clicked his fingers, calling more of his Guard. Glancing around the area he found Vaysh first, near the center of the city. Vaysh had five Gelaming Guard with him and they were helping him clear away rocks from a large tunnel entrance.

Curious, Arahal went over to inquire.

“They,” Vaysh indicated some of the residents of the city, who were clearing the passageway, “say that a lot of Hara were trapped underground when the barrier failed and the rockslide occurred.”

“Surely they would be dead then.” Arahal judged as someone called out in warning as more rock fell inside the tunnel’s mouth. Letting the dust settle, Vaysh ordered the Gelaming Guard back to the dark entrance to help.

“Do you mind explaining why you are using my guards to help dig out the dead when we have living that need our aid?”

“Because I think Ash is down there.” Raising a brow, Arahal frowned, sending mentally, then sighed.

“I get no response from him if he is.” Pushing past him Vaysh loftily ignored that comment, choosing instead to aid the guards and help clear a narrow passage.

Watching the determined Har struggle a moments long, Arahal eventually called more guards over, getting his efficient Hara to clear a tunnel through the debris within a short period of time. Crawling in after them, he ordered Vaysh to remain behind, but it fell on deaf ears as the surly Har just stared back at him icily.

The wide shaft went down steadily and they came across a few Hara still alive in the long tunnel. These Hara were very anxious to get out, rushing to escape the darkness. Calling for more lights, Arahal eyed the unstable roof, knowing they only had a limited time to search the area before the roof caved in. Walking over fallen rocks, Arahal glanced into the numerous branches of tunnels in this huge cavern, debating which ones to search. Keeping his guards with him, he went further down, watching how Vaysh kept on steadily moving down to the lower levels. The redhead seemed certain, so Arahal allowed him to lead.

Finally they reached what appeared to be the lowest level, with dead Hara littering the floor. Turning one Har over, Arahal drew back, affronted by what he saw in the hazy light, wiping his hands as guards found similarly deformed Hara. But the Sorrandite victims did not hesitate to run to their dead, searching for loved ones still alive.

“Plague?”

“Quarantine this area, and monitor who leaves.” Arahal ordered briskly, wrinkling his nose at the foul odor surrounding them.

Vaysh was searching also, talking to himself as he peered around, stopping by a narrow wall, confused and bewildered by what he sensed. Tentatively he widened the bond, but only received vague sensations back. Puzzling… He touched a wall, feeling its coldness before noticing a large hook embedded in its surface. He followed the chain down, getting a growing sick sensation in his stomach as he uncovered a foot.

“Aghama! No…” He dug furiously, removing dirt, stones and creating a dust storm of activity.

“Arahal!” Striding over, Arahal quickly saw what Vaysh was doing and he joined in, horrified by what they were uncovering. A leg was twisted all wrong as they removed fallen wooden ceiling beams, which had miraculously saved the buried Har from a crushing death. Pushing matted blond hair aside, Arahal carefully turned a very bruised and bloodied Ashmael over.

“Ash!” It was urgent and filled with uncharacteristic emotion, as Vaysh first laid fingers on the strategist’s face then gripped his shoulder, scared that he was too late.

“Don’t do this to me now. Not after all this time-” Arahal straightened the twisted leg slowly, fingers sliding up Ashmael’s body, stopping under a bloodied chin to find a weak and thready pulse beat. He motioned guards over hastily.

“Doruin, go up and get a medical team down here immediately. Furaem and Haolarim, search this area thoroughly for Tigron Pellaz and the Royal Harlings!” He looked back over at Vaysh, seeing the hesitation.

“He is alive, but barely. I will give him some energy which will hold him until the healers arrive.” Nodding, Vaysh watched apprehensively as Arahal breathed an anesthetic healing balm over the strategist’s face and chest before feeding him pure energy. The warming life energy caused awareness to return dimly and Ashmael groaned in pain. The matted lashes opened with difficulty and cloudy blue eyes blinked, trying to focus.

Licking painfully dry lips, Ashmael tried three times to speak,

“You t-took…. your time… getting … here-”

“You must remember to leave a more detailed map in future.”

Arahal said, unable to keep the pleasure out of his soft voice.

“So Pell…. did make.. it,” Ashmael sighed, closing his eyes again, pleased Loassni’s words had proved false.

“Pellaz?” Arahal shook him gently.

“Ash?”

“Arahal, don’t!” Vaysh protested.

“Ashmael!” Arahal pitched his voice to force the injured Har awake.

“What of Pellaz?”

Reluctantly Ashmael responded, frowning slightly. He noticed Vaysh sitting so contained and close and he lifted a hand, asking a silent question. Vaysh gripped his hand instantly, inching closer still.

“Ash, you must tell me about Pellaz.” Arahal persisted gently, settling a finger delicately over the strategist’s torn lip and healing it.

Trying to lick his lips again, Ashmael looked back at the Captain, the tall Har’s hair an outrageous mess, halloing him in the half-light.

“Ashmael!”

“He… left here…”

“Was he taken from here?”

“No,” Ashmael shook his head marginally, wincing from pain.

“…no… escaped. Before the cave in. He needed… to find Cal…”

Gently shifting the strategist to lie in Vaysh’s lap, Arahal called his Guard again, ordering four to remain with Vaysh and the rest to accompany him to the surface.

“Arahal… He…” Ashmael reached up to stop the Captain, but got not further as he passed out.

Locking eyes with the scared redhead, Arahal touched Ashmael again gently.

“Not a word of this, Vaysh. Not a sound.” He instructed softly. Vaysh nodded tightly, his eyes locked on Ashmael’s grey face.

Not waiting, Arahal hurriedly made his way out of the constricting tunnel. Behind him were his guards and he ordered them to guard the entrance to the caverns before he headed towards the city barrier and the Gelaming encampment. Banners flew in the breeze, so he assumed the Hegemony members would be present and communicating with Immanion. They needed supplies, equipment and transport for all the injured Hara.

Arahal stopped on the edge of the encampment, ignoring the soft sound of music he heard, and considered his options. What would have Pellaz done upon escaping? Where would he have gone? And what of the Harlings?

He let his eyes sweep the areas involved, aware of the Gelaming that were searching the city. Briskly calling his elite Guard, he instructed them to quarter the city and search for Tigron Pellaz and the royal Harlings. He knew he could trust his Guard to say nothing of their task, keeping the Hegemony’s secret of Pellaz’ disappearance from escaping. It was vital that that knowledge never became public. Vital that the Tribes never know.

He scanned the area professionally again, noting how smoothly his Guard swung into action. If Pellaz was out there, they would find him. They would have the city area quartered by sundown and the facts before them. And if Pellaz wasn’t found… Arahal’s eyes narrowed as he gazed out across the expanse behind the encampment. The desert was serene beyond the sentries and the protective mental shields, only a light breeze stirring the dust. If Pellaz were not in the city, then he would have to widen the search. If…

If… it was an ambiguous word, and one he did not like to consider. If Pellaz was outside the barrier, then that would mean they had passed him. Had crushed him along with the Sorrandite resistance. And if Cal found that out… If… A dangerous word and one which Arahal did not even want to think about.

***

Pushing the door open on the ground level of what looked to be the main chambers of the city Meeting Square, Calanthe tensed, slowly re-sheathing his sword as he glanced around suspiciously. Dust lay thickly on tables and he ran a finger through it, feeling its consistency absently, carefully studying the area before walking into the adjacent rooms. Everything was lying about, chairs knocked over, pictures hanging crooked, and Calanthe guessed the explosion of the underground generators must have caused the destruction.

He smiled at that, wishing he could have seen the Sorrandite Leader’s face when his Gelaming Hara had mentally shut down the hydraulic generators. A strategy he doubted anyone would have guessed possible.

He walked into another room, and paused as a swivel chair slowly turned, black leather of the high-backed chair methodically revealing a pale haired Har with strangely colored eyes.

“Calanthe,” the Har purred, only moving to cross his leg in a seductive fashion. Inclining his head slightly, Calanthe felt his anger sharpen.

“You fascinate me. How on earth did you tap into the shields and find this place so quickly?”

“I would have been here sooner but I had pressing business elsewhere.” Calanthe said coldly, bracing himself and turning to face the Har squarely. He assessed him with a sweep of his eyes, noting the confident smile and arrogant air.

“And how is Carrollion?”

“A head shorter last time I looked.” Calanthe said indifferently.

Raising a brow, the Har stood unhurriedly. Elegantly stretching before moving sensually forward.

“And you are?” Calanthe asked as the Har paused to smile knowingly.

“Loassni. Why?”

“I just like to attach names to corpses. It’s a hobby of mine.”

Laughing, Loassni moved closer still to the tall blond Har. His steps measured.

“You won’t kill me.” He breathed the assurance.

Letting his eyes narrow dangerously, Calanthe gave a wicked grin.

“Do you know what a wager is?”

“For if you kill me, you’ll lose this battle. You see, I know you are only half complete, shall we say.” He leaned in closer, hissing the words challengingly.

“…half a leader. Half a Tigron. Half alive. And no match for me mentally.”

“Do you want to put that claim to the test?” Calanthe asked just as quietly, curling his lip in rage as Loassni stood only inches from him. Something about this Sorrandite was familiar. Tasted… no, felt personal.

“I already have.” Loassni purred with a laugh in his voice.

“You see Pellaz tried to defeat me and failed. Failed miserably, I might add.”

“You bastard!” Calanthe leapt at him, a memory abruptly slamming into place of pain, loss and fear. He was halted and roughly restrained by a mind barrier that was so strong it startled him. For a moment he could do nothing except snarl in impotent rage at the menacing Har.

Loassni struggled to keep Calanthe out of his personal space, a little stunned by the strength and uncontrolled power emitting from Calanthe’s mind. Vindictive and obsessed.

“I will get through your barriers. And then I will show you a form of pelki you could never imagine!” Calanthe hissed, exerting all his might and feeling Loassni’s shields tremble slightly. A fine sweat broke out over the Sorrandite’s face and Calanthe growled threateningly – jumping at the Sorrandite and physically trying to grab him.

Taken back by surprise, Loassni started to weave an occult spell. Then without warning the Sorrandite swiftly crumpled to the floor, his barriers vanishing, and Calanthe staggered forward, just catching himself before he fell also.

“Fuck!” Looking up, Calanthe met Panthera’s satisfied expression as the Ferike lifted his sword, indicating the butt of the blade.

“You hit him?” Calanthe asked incredulously.

“Seemed appropriate.” Panthera quipped.

“It was either that or listen to you two trade insults all day. And I figured he would be move useful to the Hegemony alive, instead of adding to your head count.”

Calanthe cursed again, fighting to control his anger, and he turned away.

Watching him leave, Panthera glanced at the figure on the floor and wondered if he should have just let Calanthe kill this Har. From what little he had heard of the hissed conversation, this being reminded him of Jafit. The owner of the whorehouse he had been enslaved in. Pelcia and chaitra… two words he had hoped never to hear again outside Fallsend. And if Cal was right about Loassni, then… Panthera let the thought linger, wincing when he heard Calanthe smash something large and breakable in the other room. A moment later, passionate cursing followed the sound of glass shattering, and Panthera sighed resigned. Hoisting the unconscious Har over his shoulder he left the room.

***

Calanthe paced the pavilion impatiently, the pale green muslin’s calming affect lost on him as he waited for Loassni to regain consciousness.

“Gods, Thea, did you have to hit him so hard!” He complained for what seemed like the tenth time, only getting a scathing scowl from the Ferike. Panthera was in an introspective mood since dragging Loassni back to the Gelaming, and Calanthe dismissed the tall slender Ferike. Also seated inside the pavilion were Glaves, Cedony and Dree with a number of elite Guard, all of nahir-nuri caste. They had created a boxed barrier for the Sorrandite, not taking any chances with his mental powers. Others from Loassni’s tribe with similar abilities had already been captured or killed. Very few survived and interestingly, not all the Sorrandites possessed these strange mental abilities, most of the Hara reading like normal Hara. Those had been taken away for re-education. A Gelaming weakness… Calanthe thought uncharitably.

Watching Calanthe pace, Dree winced, not liking the mood their Tigron was in. All in all he was satisfied with the break up of the city and the redistribution of Hara, stressing that ‘Garridan was going to need re-populating’. He let Glaves organize the clean up and now wanted to return to Jaddayoth. But first they had to calm Calanthe.

“Cal, sit down.” Dree sighed, knowing how unstable the blonde Tigron was. They were all on tender hooks that Calanthe was going to suicide once Pellaz’ body was found. With no Tigron and no Royal Harlings the Hegemony may still lose control, and Carrollion’s plan could become reality.

Rayhala entered the cool pavilion and unhurriedly went to the captive, giving him a small injection before rubbing the patch of flesh hard.

“He should wake now.” He stated unnecessarily, brushing a curl behind his ear and drawing glares from a number of Hara in the pavilion.

Groggily lifting his head Loassni blinked around the room, his face creasing into a mask of loathing as his head throbbed. He caught sight of the Gelaming guards.

“Am I here for your amusement now? Or am I to be tried with Gelaming justice?”

“That would be too good for you.” Calanthe said from behind the Sorrandite Leader, watching how the Har started to turn, then stopped. He grinned, flicking his gaze over the seated Hegemony members.

Recognizing the voice of Tigron Calanthe, Loassni worked to compose his anger, settling his eyes on the Hara seated quietly across from him. From the look of their clothing and jewelry he assumed they were part of the fabled Hegemony. Their expressions were bored, even pained.

“You allow an insane Tigron to dictate to you!? This is Gelaming law?”

“This has nothing to do with Gelaming law.” Calanthe breathed, leaning in closely from behind.

“And I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve always been insane. Only the degree varies.”

Slightly off-balance, Loassni calmed his features, concentrating and finding his mental energies and finding his lines were blocked. Now that panicked him. He glanced around, and settled his gaze again on the magnificently attired Gelaming Court. “What have you-”

“Where is Pellaz?” Calanthe cut him off, ignoring the pointed stare he got from Dree.

Loassni slowly laughed, seeing how one of the Gelaming Lords glared at the Tigron. Then the Gelaming Lord glared at him in annoyance before calling over one of the guards. Wondering what was going on now, Loassni tried a new tactic.

“Your Tigron is insane,” he emphasized the words, ignoring the Tigron’s snort of amusement from behind.

“Answer my question,” Calanthe hissed, slowly walking around to pin the Sorrandite with his consuming glare.

“Kill me and you will never know what happened to him.” Forcing his muscles to relax, Calanthe fought down the urge to smash the smug face opposite him. That void in his mind was creeping insidiously and he was having difficulty holding his temper.

“There are many ways to die. I will let you chose how. But only if you answer my question!”

“Your mental powers are useless here, so I suggest you learn to co-operate.” Glaves advise their captive in a bored tone when he sensed the Sorrandite attempting to gather his mental energy in. He squinted at a nail on his right hand before rubbing it clean.

Feeling out of his depth now, Loassni tried to ignore the barely caged Tigron which paced in front of him and he centered his thoughts on the Gelaming Hara. Their attitude was disturbing. For they seemed blatantly unconcerned by Calanthe’s behavior.

“I demand a fair trial-”

“A fair trial?” Calanthe scoffed harshly.

“Is that what you offered your captives? What you offered all those victims imprisoned within your city?!”

“My cause is just, my actions pure-”

“And your death long overdue.” Calanthe finished for him. Straightening, Loassni raised his face proudly,

“I will say no more.”

Glaves stood then, his face compassionate and sad as he carefully placed a canister of Garridan poison within the protective barriers surrounding the prisoner.

“I am sure you recognize this.” Glaves said dryly.

“We found it hidden in an ammunitions dump in Garridan. We are not quite certain what you were going to use it for, or what its effects would be on exposed Hara, so we thought we might test this canister on you.” Loassni’s face paled before he raised his strangely colored eyes to meet the gaze of the immaculately attired Hegemony member.

“You are bluffing… you are Gelaming and you would not…”

“As a advancing, inquisitive race, the Gelaming tribe strives to always find answers to hard questions.” Glaves explained in a blunt tone.

“This is such a question and we are delighted you have complied to help us answer it.”

“What?!” Loassni stared open-mouthed. He eyed the canister, then looked back up at the neatly dressed Har before him.

“I don’t believe you will do it.”

“As Tigron Calanthe-har-Aralis said, it is your choice.” Glaves finished, softly.

Staring at the oddly shaped canister on the floor again, Loassni knew exactly what it was, but did not believe the Gelaming would carry out their threat. It had to be a ploy to break him, as it went against everything Carrollion had told him about the Hegemony.

“I know nothing,” he said very slowly and concisely.

Glaves nodded marginally at one of the guards and the end of the canister started to sluggishly undo. Loassni watched in horror, his face contorting as a cloudy colored vapor rose from the opened devise.

“You will all be cursed for this! I call down the Gods, I condemn you all-” Dree held his breath, praying Arahal had been right in saying his guards could contain the field magically. He looked around and noticed worriedly that the Captain was not present. Calanthe did not move, he just stood there ghoulishly watching as Loassni writhed on his chair. The Sorrandite’s skin contracted as bones protruded until only his husk remained.

“Nasty weapon,” Ariaric said wryly from the doorway, handkerchief over mouth. Like the rest of the Hegemony he had washed and changed, giving an appearance of wealth and splendor as he let the flap close behind him.

“I hope we found them all.”

“I will have Arahal quarantine Garridan until we are certain no more of these are buried in that wasteland.” Glaves promised, unconcerned as he turned away and poured a glass of wine.

“How long until it is safe to release the barrier?” Abrimel asked pointedly.

“Does it matter,” Calanthe stated caustically, then marched out of the room.

“Yes it does, as a matter of fact,” Dree muttered, watching the tall Tigron leave. Calanthe still wore his bloodied clothing and Dree wondered if he even noticed the condition of his face and hair.

***

Going back into the city, Calanthe found he still had his two persistent shadows, seeing Zackala and Panthera followed him. He halted abruptly and glared at them both in annoyance.

“What do you want!?”

“To give you a hand,” Panthera shrugged nonchalantly.

“You never know when I might have to knock out another Loassni.”

“Very funny. I could have killed him in the city… you should have let me… should have allowed me that right! You should have…. ” Calanthe left the rest unsaid.

“So where are you going?” Panthera ventured casually, picking up a discarded paper and glancing over it. Beside him Zackala was all contained energy, not saying a word.

“I’m going into the city.” Swiveling, Calanthe marched off, not trusting himself to say more. He had wanted physical revenge, but that had been denied him. And still he had not found Pellaz’ body. Where would Loassni have hidden him? Where? If it took him years, he would rip the city apart. He would find Pell… had to.

Around them evening was slowly settling in.

***

Lying back with a groan, Ashmael watched as the healers left the pavilion, the chimes at the door tinkling in the quiet. Vaysh still sat beside him, hovering and terribly unsure. His leg had been set, and given a few weeks he should be walking on it again. It was the rest of his body that had the healers worried. His internal organs were in failure due to lack of food and water, plus physical abuse, and Rayhala wanted him back in Immanion as soon as possible to correct the imbalances.

Turning his head slowly he gave Vaysh an uncomplicated smile,

“I’m sorry for what Loassni did to you through me.” Reaching down, Vaysh covered the bruised mouth with his fingers, the contact sending a tingle up his arm.

“No harm was done. In fact it helped me to find you. It forced me to face issues I have long hidden from,” he admitted quietly.

“And now?” Ashmael asked. He wanted to sit up, to gather Vaysh close and hold him so that he could not leave.

“Now….” Vaysh shrugged.

“I am afraid.”

Snaking an arm free from the warm covers, Ashmael took Vaysh’s fingers in his hand, squeezing them gently. They were icy cold as usual.

“We can change that. Vaysh, I would like you in my life, not avoiding me in the corridors of Phaonica. I know we can never go back to what we once had, but then we are not strangers either.”

“No, we are not.”

***

Having come across the caves and the evacuation of both the living and the dead, Calanthe was amazed that he had missed the large structure the first time around. Gelaming patrols, Maudrah soldiers and other Hara, including Sorrandite Hara, were working together, searching the caverns below, bringing out all they could find and laying out the bodies on long wooden stretchers. Beside him Panthera was wriggling his nose as an unpleasant odor assaulted their senses from the partially cleared tunnel.

“Surely you do not intend to go down there?” Panthera asked, mortified by the idea.

“Smell’s inviting,” Calanthe speculated.

“To a dead skunk, maybe. Tell him, Zac!” Panthera stated, turning to the dark-haired Har beside him. Zackala said nothing as usual, just giving him a dark sweeping glance before walking over to inspect the dead. Finding no support there, Panthera sighed in resignation.

“I loath dark holes…”

“You’re too delicate,” Calanthe quipped, moving over to question one of the Gelaming guards. Behind him Panthera stared scathingly at his back.

Seeing the Tigron, the guard immediately, bowed.

“My Lord Tigron, if I had known you intended to visit, I would have secured more lighting and rid the place of the Sorrandite Hara.” Lifting a hand, Calanthe silenced him, not caring for ceremony.

“Where does the tunnel lead?” He asked instead.

“Into a complicated mining system, my Lord. Minerals used to form some of the toxins and weapons we encountered, plus the hydraulic power plant.”

“Technology worth harvesting?”

“I would presume so, my Lord.”

Smiling at the evasive answer, Calanthe squinted in order to see further down the blocked tunnel.

“Anything else of interest?”

“The lowest level appears to be a prison of sorts, where deformed or ill Hara were kept.”

“Prison?” Calanthe asked, his heart skipping a beat as the caged madness in the back of his mind pushed forward again.

“It is where Captain Arahal found Lord Ashmael, my Lord.”

“Ash?” Feeling as if his breath had been knocked out of him, Calanthe collected himself with difficulty.

“Ashmael has been found? Dead or alive?”

“Alive, my Lord.” The guard’s voice did not alter, thought his eyes took on a puzzled turn.

“How long ago?” Calanthe ground the words out, not believing for a moment that everyone had forgotten to inform him of this new development.

“Roughly two hours ago, my Lord.”

“Was anyone else found?”

“Not that I am aware of, my Lord.”

Turning swiftly, Calanthe was brought up short when Zackala stood in his path, holding a body. The limbs were brown and skinny, the head twisted slightly towards him, with short spiky black hair falling across the Har’s face.

“What,” he got out, feeling angry, his mind whirling with thoughts of more Hegemony deceit.

“Look at him, Cal,” Zackala whispered, pain in his voice.

“…just look at him…” Compelled by the emotion in Zackala’s tone, Calanthe glanced down and blinked. The face was slack in death, the mouth partially open as if a cry had been issued.

“I…”

“Really look,” Zackala continued, moving so that the light hit the Har’s features squarely.

Momentarily Calanthe was suddenly transported back to Saltrock. A taste of soda burning his throat… Pellaz riding Red with salt crystals in his shining black hair and… and Flick riding beside him. Both laughing… Young, wild and free…

“Flick…”

“It seems no one was spared this carnage.” Unable to deal with this new information, Calanthe pressed a hand over his face and backed away. Turning he ran back to the encampment.

***

Waiting for the chimes to be answered on the pavilion door, Arahal motioned his Guard to wait as the flap opened. He walked in without a word, ignoring Vaysh completely.

“Arahal? What do you want?” Vaysh ended on an icy note.

“I need to speak with Ashmael.”

“You cannot-”

“Alone.” Arahal cut him off mid-sentence, his face inviting no argument. Fighting back anger, Vaysh showed an attitude of disdain.

“You cannot come in here and-”

“I do what I need to. Now leave.” Arahal silently called his Guard and Vaysh saw the action before the flap opened and a tall Gelaming stood there.

“You will be called when I am finished.”

“You will not get away with this,” Vaysh whispered furiously, barely holding his temper.

Turning his back on the redhead, Arahal pushed gauze aside to find the bruised Hegemony member lying flat on his back. Ashmael’s leg was strapped, his breathing shallow.

“Enjoying the sight?” Ashmael murmured, proving he was not asleep.

“Just wondering if your leg will heal completely, or if you will have a glorified limp?” Ashmael gave a strained smile.

“You are a mongrel…” he said without heat, his voice still hoarse.

“Vaysh?”

“Had business to attend to. He will be back.” Arahal settled on a chair near the bed.

“Ashmael, I need to know about Pellaz.”

Blinking a little, Ashmael waited for the Captain to continue, reluctant to offer information about their captivity. It was too fresh in his mind. Too personal.

“You said he escaped.”

“Yes.”

“When did he escape?” Arahal asked, speaking softly so the words did not travel beyond them.

“Was it before the cave in? Or after?”

“You have not found him…” Ashmael trailed off, his smile disappearing as he lifted gingerly up onto an elbow.

“Arahal?”

“No.”

Drawing his brows down, Ashmael battled to remember correctly, suddenly getting worried.

“He got free not long after Loassni…” Ashmael swallowed hard, repressing the image.

“It was a long while before the cave in, as I remember lying there… waiting for Loassni to return and…”

Frowning also, Arahal’s mind ticked over grimly. He sensed suppressed pain and anger, and wondered at it.

“Then he may have made it past the barriers. He may have escaped the city.”

“Pell had to get to Cal…” Ashmael explained slowly.

“He had to re-establish the bond.”

“The Tigron’s mental linking, yes. Loassni cut that when we were in Maudrah,” Arahal mused aloud.

Shaking his head slightly, Ashmael raised a hand and touched the Captain’s knee.

“Pell cut the bond. He had to because Loassni… intended to kill Calanthe and take the Harlings. Only after, Pell could not recapture the link. We were worried… he… Pellaz was losing control… ”

“As did Calanthe.” Arahal ran a hand through his hair, sickly understanding how vulnerable this made the Tigrons and how vital it was that the information remained secret in future.

“So Pellaz was alive.” Ashmael just nodded, a small smile appearing.

“Alive and angry… Hurt…”

Studying the strategist’s face, Arahal sensed an emotion in Ashmael he had never seen before, and his eyes narrowed consideringly. It was genuine respect, admiration and liking for the dark-haired Tigron.

“And the Harlings? Where were they kept?”

“Jaden and Korryn?” Puzzled, Ashmael blinked his eyes wider.

“You did not find them either?”

“Find them where?”

“We… Pell disguised them with an enchantment…” Ashmael said hurriedly, anxiety replacing his smile again.

“We hid them near the Roselane border… that was why he broke the link, to protect them.”

“By the Aghama!” Arahal cursed softly and with feeling.

“They are still in Jaddayoth!”

“Arahal…”

“Do not worry, I will get Immanion on to it immediately. It may not be too late.” But even as he said it, he knew that two Harlings surviving for eight days alone in a wilderness, without food and water, during winter was hopeless. And he knew Ashmael knew that as well.

“Gods,” Ashmael cursed softly.

“Pellaz did all that, suffered all that Loassni did to him, and… and you still did not get the Harlings?” Ashmael closed his eyes in horror and disbelief.

“Arahal, you must-”

“I know.” Arahal said gently.

“I will make sure they are found. And I will make sure Pellaz is found also. If he is alive…”

“He had better be alive.” Ashmael muttered with feeling.

“I will not forgive him if he dies now. Not after….” Ashmael murmured hotly, stopping the words and falling back on the pillows.

“Go to the Hegemony, but be careful.”

“Do not worry so,” Arahal assured, sensing that new attitude again. He speculated on what had happened to the two Hara over the last eight days to make Ashmael so protective of the Tigron.

“…for I value our Tigrons as much as you do. Just as I value keeping control.”

Letting a partial grin grow, Ashmael nodded, watching Arahal stand and quietly exit the tent. Alone again, his mind whirled and he idly wondered what business Vaysh was attending to.

***

Quietly entering the spacious and gloriously attired pavilion currently used by the tribal Leaders for their council; Arahal spied only a few of the members of this revised council. Dree, Glaves, Cedony and Abrimel were of course there lounging around a luxurious table, eating dinner and sipping wine. With them, enjoying the quiet, were Swift and Ariaric. The thought transference machine was on behind them and Arahal assumed they were awaiting a message from Immanion.

“Tiahaars,” Arahal said by way of greeting, parting the gauze and stepping into the lit area.

“My dear Captain!” Glaves exclaimed, “I had thought your desertion was permanent.” He gestured to the table.

“Have some refreshment, as Thar has mobilized relief supplies via hover car, which should be here from Sykernesse this time tomorrow.” Eyeing him, Arahal brushed the comment aside without a word, his face serious as he swept his gaze around the table.

“I have some unsettling news.”

“Then go away,” Glaves said without meaning, before resignedly placing his glass down and looking the Captain’s tall figure up and down.

“What sort of news?” Dree asked.

“I have just come from a meeting with Ashmael.”

“I thought he was unconscious still?”

“Pellaz was alive this morning.” Arahal stated.

Dead silence greeted the hushed words as everyone around the table stared up at Arahal.

“What?” Swift was the first to his feet, followed by Abrimel then Dree.

“Where is he?”

“How?!”

“Ashmael says he escaped well before the barrier was destroyed. Now I have quartered the city, and I am positive he is not there.” Arahal informed them.

“Then where?”

“Somehow he made it past the barrier.” The Captain guessed.

“My God!”

“Does Calanthe know?”

Shaking his head, Arahal continued.

“I believe it would be best if we kept this news quiet until I can find Pellaz. I have already organized a tight grid search of the area immediately around us and back towards the battle area.”

“How long before you know?”

“By morning at the latest.”

“But what if-”

Arahal looked at Ariaric as the other spoke. “I will find him even if I have to widen the search. And yes, I know the desert at night gets extremely cold. Pellaz may not be alive, but I pray for all our sakes I am wrong.”

“So do I.” Swift muttered with foreboding.

“And the Harlings?” Dree asked.

“They were never captured. Never here.”

“What?!”

“Pellaz encased them in an enchantment and hid them near the Roselane border,” Arahal explained, raising a single brow in meaning.

“I should have realized he would not risk the Harlings.”

“Shit,” Swift said with real feeling.

“They are still in Jaddayoth!” Glaves asked shocked.

“They would not survive this long with no provisions, not at night. Not in winter.”

“I have considered that,” Arahal admitted.

“But still Immanion must send guards-”

“I agree totally. By the Aghama! If we lose Pellaz, then it is extremely possible we will lose Calanthe. So the Harlings are our only hope!” Dree stated as he walked over to the thought transference unit in agitation. He activated the send mode angrily. Even his hair twitched as he swore uncharacteristically.

“Ummm,” Ariaric cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Tiahaars, but I don’t think you need concern yourselves overly about the two Harlings.”

“Why?” Glaves eyes narrowed shrewdly as he turned to the smiling Maudrah Leader.

Ariaric gestured expansively.

“It just so happens that I may know where the Harlings are.”

“May know?” Swift repeated suspiciously.

“Are you holding out on us, Ariaric?” Dree asked, his tone deceptively mild.

“Trying to buy a favor?”

“Not intentionally. It slipped my mind actually, what with all the war plans…”

“Ariaric!”

“They are in Sykernesse.” He ended hurriedly.

“Jaden and Korryn?” Cedony asked, checking as he sensed Dree’s annoyance growing.

“Alive?”

“Yes.” Ariaric nodded.

“How long have they been there?” Dree walked towards the Archon.

“A few days…”

“And when were you going to divulge this information?” Dree’s voice was deceptively restrained as he stopped in front of the magnificently dressed Har.

“Or were they tools for political manipulation? Was the Maudrah government attempting fraudulence?”

“Please, please, you do me an injustice!” Ariaric defended loudly.

“I simply forgot. Calanthe was present when I was informed, and I did not want to distract him from such a wonderful job he was doing in uniting the tribes.”

“They had better be unharmed,” Swift growled, unimpressed.

“Perfectly unharmed.” Ariaric assured.

“And Cal? We have to tell him. Let him know, as it might help for him to focus.” Swift judged, wanting to run to the tall Tigron with words of comfort.

“No.” Dree decided after looking to Glaves and Cedony, silently asking a question.

“Let us wait until we know more about Pellaz. Arahal, I trust you will be discreet?” Arahal just nodded in acknowledgement.

***

His mind in a panic again as the news of Ashmael’s survival impacted on him, Calanthe hurriedly returned to the Gelaming encampment. Behind him, his elite personal Guard silently followed through the broken City gates towards the multicolored pavilions. And of course there was Panthera, who was cursing under his breath about a certain Tigron’s irrational behavior. Calanthe ignored it all, only one thought dominating his mind. Ashmael was alive. Had survived. So he would know… Around him were muted lights, music and laughter and it never ceased to amaze him as to how adaptive and resourceful the Gelaming as a tribe were. His nose caught the scent of a tasty spiced roast cooking, stomach muscles spasming in response. The City behind lay in ruins, yet here were the Gelaming resting back in comfort. Vanity, charisma and beauty mixed, he mused, recalling how the Gelaming only took in Hara which they chose. Special Hara. H

e should have felt honored to be Gelaming, yet… he stopped on the edge of the encampment, feeling Panthera bump into his shoulder, and he glared around the camp, feeling suddenly disgusted by what he saw. Panthera sighed loudly, warm breath hitting the back of Calanthe’s neck as the Ferike shifted his weight casually and pushed his fringe absently out of his eyes.

“The food smells wonderful.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“From the noise your stomach is making, I’d say you are out-voted on that.”

Deciding to bypass the Hegemony entirely, Calanthe said,

“I’m going to talk with Ashmael.” Half skipping to keep up with the long strides, Panthera caught Calanthe’s arm, holding him back.

“He might not be able to talk, so why not have something to eat first and get cleaned up. Speak to Dree, or-”

Incredulously Calanthe stared at him.

“How can you say that?! Out of everyone here I would expect you to understand, to know how I feel. I confided in you, Thea.” With his brows arching down pointedly, Panthera met the vivid darkening eyes.

“Sometimes, Cal, you just have to let go. Learn to go on, like you did once before. You survived then-”

“I don’t want to go back to that! That wasn’t life, it was existence! It was death of mind and spirit. I can’t… won’t… go back.”

“Then go forward.” Panthera said softly, encouragingly, lifting a hand to touch a pale, dirt streaked cheek. Calanthe’s pupils contracted with emotion at those words, a vulnerability engulfing him and Panthera sucked in a breath, both seduced and horrified by what he read in the blank violet stare. Insanity and pain. Need and helplessness.

“I can’t,” was all Calanthe managed disjointedly. He stepped away, watching Panthera for a long moment before breaking the contact and hurrying into the encampment.

“Won’t, more likely,” Panthera muttered heatedly, knowing the battle for Calanthe’s heart was useless. Even in death Pellaz still won.

***

Activating the chimes, Calanthe waited impatiently for them to be mentally answered before he entered the yellow pavilion. Inside, heavy gauze divided the tent into designated areas and he met Vaysh by a round wooden table.

“I must speak with Ashmael.”

“Well, you can’t. He is asleep, ill.” Vaysh stood in front of the Tigron, his stance protective. It was something new.

“He needs rest.”

“He will get it… later.” Calanthe said. He sidestepped around the redhead, drawing a curse from the normally fastidious creature as Vaysh grabbed his arm.

“Cal-”

Pushing him aside, Calanthe found the strategist and crouched down beside his bed. Behind him Vaysh hovered anxiously. Shocked by what he saw, Calanthe revised his words, not at all prepared for Ashmael’s drained and battered appearance. The normally vibrant persona was dim, the outrageous hair lank and the skin far too translucent, making his features sharper.

“What are the healers doing for him?” Calanthe asked in a hushed voice.

“Feeding him energy in small amounts and allowing him rest. Lots of it!” Vaysh added with bite.

“They say in a week he should be more his normal self.”

Disturbed by the hushed voices, Ashmael battled to open his eyes, his gaze finding Vaysh, and he sighed before noticing Calanthe.

“You… made it, I see…” Not sure what the other meant, Calanthe gave a contained shrug.

“What happened, Ash? What did they do to Pell?” A smile crept across the strategist’s healing lips.

“Mind games…” he barely spoke the words.

“Thiede would have been proud of his protege…”

“Ash,” it was a plea, and made it made the injured Har focus on Calanthe again. For a moment they were both awashed in painful memories.

Considering Calanthe’s face, and feeling the other’s need, Ashmael started to explain slowly what he knew.

“Loassni wanted your Harlings.” He stated simply.

“Firstly, he used me to try and force Pell to co-operate, then he went for you, through the link.”

“I felt him.” Calanthe whispered in acknowledgment, feeling himself go cold. Vividly he remembered.

“I felt Pell. I felt what Loassni did to him… how he violated him…” his mouth was suddenly very dry and he tried to swallow.

“..then….”

“Pell severed the link to protect you.” Ashmael ended gently, reliving the nightmare graphically. He remembered trying to break the other’s hold, and he remembered how Pellaz cried out.

“Pell needed you out there working the tribes,” Ashmael shook his head, pushing the memories away.

“He would willingly give his life for you and the Wraeththu as a whole.” Mulling over what Ashmael was telling him, Calanthe felt his spirit plummet further into his boots. He never wanted… did not want Pellaz giving anything if it meant… It was a purely selfish desire, and he settled his eyes on the weak strategist, sensing anguish.

“I don’t want him to die for an ideal.”

“I know.” Ashmael whispered.

“And my Harlings?”

“I…” Ashmael frowned, debating whether he should say more or not. He tried to sit up but Vaysh pressed him down, sitting by his head and gently threading fingers into his hair. It was comforting and he relaxed, half-smiling at his reluctant soul-mate, reassured by the way Vaysh glared at Calanthe.

“You… never found them? Never sensed them?” Feeling bewildered, Calanthe moved closer to the bed.

“Find them? Where are they? I’ve looked everywhere…”

“We…” Ashmael closed his eyes briefly.

“…Pellaz hid them. We hid them… near the Roselane border.”

Opening his mouth, Calanthe could say nothing for a long moment, meeting Vaysh’s eyes and seeing his horror and surprise mirrored there.

“Roselane… they are in Roselane! But…”

“We were as good as dead, Cal, Pell knew that. He wanted to – had to – leave them behind.” Ashmael rationalized.

“Pellaz believed you would find them.”

“Fuck!” Calanthe exploded, standing and turning away.

“I had thought… fuck, fuck, fuck,” he hissed in denial. Turning back sharply, he speared the strategist with his anger.

“And Pell? When did Loassni kill him?”

“He didn’t,” Ashmael disregarded Vaysh’s disapproval and levered himself up the bed, wanting this point to be very clear. He could understand Calanthe’s fears, could appreciate his motives.

“What?!” Calanthe demanded.

“Pell escaped.” He said the words simply, seeing raw emotion vibrate through the blonde Har, and decided to divulge the information. Pell would want him to.

“And from what I have heard, that was hours before the barrier came down.” Sluggishly Calanthe felt numb, his balance faltering.

“He is alive…” Where his words came from he did not know, as the knowledge seared into his brain.

“Yes, as far as I know. Injured, but breathing defiance. He went to find you-”

Calanthe ground his teeth, the action making a sickening noise in the silence as his muscles locked rigid, his thoughts jumping to the next question and being answered with a bleak certainty.

“Does the Hegemony know all this?” Hesitating again, Ashmael read the consuming hunger in the braced Tigron and he took a slow breath.

“Arahal was here-” That was all Calanthe wanted and he was moving, at the door and passing the guards before Ashmael could finish.

“Arahal,” he spat the name silently, striding off to find the manipulative Captain. The impeccable Gelaming warrior would not hinder him. If Pellaz was alive… and he caressed the idea, letting it grow in his mind, wanting it desperately… If Pell was… is… alive, then he would find him. The information Ashmael had given him saturated his soul. That Pell broke the link… not the Sorrandites. That Pell had escaped… was alive… searching for him.

Stopping dead in his tracks abruptly, Calanthe staggered as his mind completed another leap. Arahal must have known about Pellaz for a while… which would mean… Swinging around, he almost ran over Panthera. He tried to walk around the tall Har who was glaring at him anxiously.

“Cal?”

“His Guard,” Calanthe muttered, stepping around the Ferike.

“Whose guard?” Panthera repeated confused, just keeping up with the Tigron’s wide gait.

“Cal, for gods sake, talk to me?!” He ordered in annoyance.

“Arahal’s,” Calanthe said absently, not slowing. If Arahal knew Pellaz was alive then he would have searched the city minutely. And since there was no commotion, no secret sessions called, then he assumed the Captain had taken the search further. That froze him instantly, and he squinted towards the Hegemony’s pavilion. If Pell had been found alive, he would have been told. Wouldn’t he? They would have told him surely… So Arahal must not have found him yet. Deliberately Calanthe buried any other reasons, any other findings, convincing himself Pellaz had to be alive. He embraced the thought. He turned and looked toward the Gelaming guard a second time.

“Cal?!” Panthera repeated impatiently.

“Arahal-”

“What about him?!”

“Pell’s alive.”

“Is he now?” Panthera whispered darkly.

“I must find Arahal.” Calanthe missed the other’s look as he homed in on the Gelaming guard near the encampment entrance.

“What does it take to kill a Har…” Panthera muttered uncharitably, not liking the false hope he saw spring up in his friend’s eyes.

***

Standing by the ruined city gates, Arahal scanned the desert opposite. To his left was the encampment stretching back into the distance, to his right only darkness and the dead. His Guard could be seen out on the battlefield, still turning victims over. Tall, black-leathered Gelaming, lit only by their personal magic fires, silently checking the dead.

“We have quartered the immediate area, sir. There is no sign of Tigron Pellaz with the dead.” Relief flooded Arahal, but he did not show it. It would have been tragic if Pellaz had been killed by friendly fire. Tragic and secret.

“And reports from the patrols out further?”

“Nothing yet.”

“Widen the immediate search area and keep me notified of everything.”

“Yes, sir.”

Biting his bottom lip, Arahal tried to put himself in Pellaz’ position. The only exit from the city was this gate – so he must have passed here – and Arahal frowned. Ahead was the road, winding sharply right into the rocky range and then down into the battle plains where the armies had engaged. To the far left were the polluted lakes where his Hara had gone to disrupt the hydraulic generator and bring down the shield. So where would Pellaz have gone?

He went back to the roughly drawn map, which identified the areas within the city and immediate surrounding desert region. Tracing a finger along the dirt road, he blinked in sudden understanding of how the road’s huge arc had never really passed through the battle zone. And if Pellaz had followed the road… Arahal straightened, swiftly gesturing for six guards to accompany him, as he headed off down the vacant rocky trail. Lighting his own personal fire-glow with a sharp mental command, he fanned his Guard out, giving brisk orders as he scrutinized the area ahead. Just maybe…

Time passed tediously as Arahal carefully searched the road and area surrounding it, his Guard ghosting behind him, quartering the trail. He estimated they were over two leagues from the city gate, and he squinted around doubtfully. Wagon tracks could be seen and he imagined the Sorrandite army must have come this way before doubling back to engage his troops who had come across the open desert. Grim possibility occurred to him, and he ordered one of his elite guards to arrange for more Gelaming scouts to search this immediate area.

Staying on the deserted tract as his Guard continued to examine the dark ground for clues, Arahal raised his light, picking out a rocky overhanging and sparsely covered ground. The moon was a silvery glow, dimly touching the land to give everything an eerie shadow, and Arahal considered again what Pellaz would have done. What he would have been thinking.

Silently, behind him, Arahal sensed more Gelaming, dismissing them as he stared out ahead. Pellaz would have been injured. Weak, like Ashmael was, so he could not have gone far. Probably was only hoping to get out of the city so he could send to Calanthe… which he had not achieved. Why?

Brow drawing down, Arahal mused over that point. Once outside the barrier why would Pellaz have been incapable of sending? Was he too injured, or too weak? He dismissed that, as he knew Pellaz would not have escaped the city confines if he had been that incapable, not given the scope of the Tigron’s mental abilities. So there had to be another reason why the Tigron had never made contact. Had he been tracked? Discovered?

Not liking his synopsis of the situation, Arahal absently left the road and went to the rocky overhang he had spied. At its edge, a light breeze caressed his body and he gazed out, overlooking the battle plain below. Lights dotted the field far to the left as his Guard worked tirelessly, and he moved his gaze around to look straight ahead. Far into the distance he imagined Jaddayoth and beyond that Almagabra, home of the Gelaming.

“Sir?”

Acknowledging his Second’s presence, Arahal nodded, not moving his gaze.

“I have coordinated a search from this point back to the city. It should take us just over an hour to detail the area.”

“Do it.”

Feeling the other Har soundlessly move away, Arahal continued to stare towards his home. This was a very good vantage point from which to observe the surrounding land, and he idly wondered if Pellaz had made it this far. If so… He dismissed the idea and glanced down into the shadowed foliage below the overhang. Nothing moved down there amongst the small knee-high bushes and dark boulders. Nothing, except… and Arahal frowned, dimming his personal light as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. He continued to peer down, seeing something flutter in the gentle breeze, and he shivered as the night cooled. The object did not look like a leaf. It was too long and oddly configured and his curiosity was peaked enough for him to decide to investigate.

Again calling to his immediate Guard, Arahal studied the overhang and found a narrow ravine, and cautiously slid down before fastidiously approaching the fluttering object. His fingers closed around it, pulling it free from the branch snaring it, and he stared at it in growing discernment. It was a torn sliver of silk, with long dark hair tangled around it, and he hesitantly raised his light, seeing the color. Royal purple silk, and long black hair. Lifting his head in wonder and excitement, he stared around. Pellaz…

“Quickly, organize a search of this area!” Arahal snapped, knowing the Guard behind him would respond instantly. Brightening his own light, he moved forward, his gaze probing the ground as he called mentally to the Tigron. He found nothing, his measured strides lengthening urgently. *Sir!* It was sharp in Arahal’s mind as one of his Guard called hastily and Arahal covered the short distance quickly. The guard’s light illuminated the area, throwing shadows across the figure stretched out before him. An arm was extended in front of the still body as if in petition, limbs straight and semi naked, as a wicked arrow protruded from one shoulder. Dried blood stained the pale skin, and long, dull, black hair was matted with dirt and blood.

Pellaz.

Dropping down beside the Tigron’s body, Arahal held back his anguish as he hesitantly reached out a hand to touch the lifeless form.

*** Having arrived at the gate of the ruined city, Calanthe ripped through the guards present, demanding to know where Arahal was.

Startled by the Tigron’s anger, the senior guard had informed him that the Captain was west of the city, along the road with his patrols.

Curtly dismissing the Har, Calanthe had started off, only slowing when Panthera protested loudly and vigorously.

“What are you doing?” Panthera demanded, his own temper boiling over.

“Have you gone completely crazy?”

“Arahal knows!” Calanthe cut back.

“Knows what for god’s sake!” Panthera grabbed him roughly.

“Calanthe, you cannot just wonder off into the dead of night!”

“Thea-”

“No!” Panthera shouted.

“You have dismissed all your personal Guard. Assaulted that poor Commander – and ignored me all night! I think it is time for you to return to the real world! To face the fact that you have responsibilities back with the Hegemony.”

“Arahal knows where Pell is,” Calanthe explained, concisely and painfully slow.

“Cal, you cannot know that.”

“Thea, either come with me and shut up or go back to the Hegemony.”

Hurt, Panthera stared at him a long moment.

“Decide,” Calanthe ended curtly,

“for I am going on.” Disbelieving, Panthera watched as Calanthe slowly walked into the silvery darkness and he cursed his own weakness, angrily lightening his way and rushing to catch up with the stubborn Har. Calanthe was going to drive him to his death… Inwardly please with Panthera’s return, Calanthe refused to speak for a long moment, letting the Ferike’s light show the rocky road ahead of them before catching the other’s expression out of the corner of his eye.

“Thea, I’m sorry,” he said shortly.

“I do not mean to be so… so…”

“Inconsiderate. Rude. Pig-headed.” Panthera supplied helpfully.

“Surely I’m not that bad?” Calanthe scoffed.

“Probably worse to others who are unprepared for your behavior.” The Ferike added with a sulk.

“Thea!”

“The least you could do is tell me what is going on occasionally. I want to help, and I hate being manipulated.”

Sighing Calanthe glanced apologetically his way.

“And take that fake expression off your insincere face. I am not impressed with it.” Panthera informed him, going lofty now, and feeling better when Calanthe reacted to him.

“You do not understand,” Calanthe started lightly.

“This obsession?! No, I don’t!” Sharply the conversation had turned serious again, and Panthera cursed his tongue silently as Calanthe’s eyes hardened.

“Cal-”

“No, you are right, you cannot understand.” It was harsh.

“Let us find Arahal, so you can go back to your life, and not be bothered by mine.”

Swallowing his words, Panthera walked along beside him in a moody silence, glancing up as Gelaming materialized out of the darkness in front of them. The tall Hara all wore tight black leather outfits, their hair strikingly exotic as they moved noiselessly past. Disturbed, Panthera gazed back, watching them – about to speak when Calanthe went rigid next to him. Reaching for the Tigron instinctively, Panthera felt the other’s muscles tremble and saw the color drain from the seductive face as Calanthe sucked in a shuddering breath. Alert to danger, Panthera followed Calanthe’s stare and saw Arahal. Abruptly his own jaw dropped in stunned disbelief.

Standing bolted to the spot, Calanthe found he could not move as Arahal stood in front of him, lit by his Guards’ fire-light. The harsh glow threw shadows all around them as the Captain stood immobile, his face compassionate, and Calanthe’s eyes locked on the figure he was carrying so tenderly. Stunned, Calanthe could only stare, the image burning solidly into his brain while his eyes struggled to comprehend what he was being shown. Pellaz… his beautiful Pellaz… His soul-mate hung lifelessly, held protectively against Arahal’s chest. Pellaz’ limbs were white and slack, his face strangely peaceful, long lashes outlined against dirt-smeared cheeks. Blood stained his temple, marring his hair as its long lengths trailed the ground, filthy and tangled. One arm hung down forgotten, old blood staining the soft flesh where it had run down to his finger, his nails red with death. His hand slightly curled like a child’s…. and Calanthe found himself sobbing. His whole being shuddered in shock and he longed to reach out and embrace his destiny. To deny the truth…

“Calanthe,” Arahal started, instantly sensing danger as one of his guards spun sharply, raising a hand and shooting a pure bolt of energy at a Har whom suddenly emerged from the rocks behind him. A Sorrandite tracker. Mind shielded. Crazed, with blood on his temple, viciousness in his stare… Calanthe vaguely saw the shadowy creature rise as everything slowed down to a crawl and he viewed things distantly. He saw the arrow loosed at him. He saw one of the Gelaming react, engulfing the Sorrandite Har in destructive energies. He saw Arahal’s protective and instinctive crouch over Pellaz’ body. And he saw Panthera turn towards him, fear in those wonderful, expressive eyes.

With his world gone, Calanthe did not move, inviting death by spreading his arms wide and wanting to embrace the agony, only dimly aware of the hands which shoved him aside as Panthera gasped in shock, disbelief and pain.

Staggering back, Calanthe caught the pure-born when the Ferike fell into him, life disappearing from those magnificent eyes, dimming, as he felt a wet hotness spread under his fingers. Grunting, he held Panthera as the other went limp, and he lifted a hand, seeing only blood. Blood… Life blood… Warm blood… Blood-filled corpses and a dying land… Finally breaking mentally – Calanthe screamed.

Chapter Seven

Present

His scream echoed around the dark, tiled room, but Calanthe barely noticed as he relived the instant over and over. His entire being centered on the hopelessness and pain engulfing him. Destroying him. Panthera was dead in his arms. Pellaz hung so lifeless…

*Cal?*

A whispered word gently intruded deep in his mind, pulling him back from the brink of beckoning despair and insanity, and he shuddered again, limbs curled tightly.

*Calanthe… Can you hear me?*

Gradually the images dimmed, subsided, as did his uncontrollable tremors. The desert night faded from his mind and Calanthe felt fingers gently trail up through his damp hair, massaging his scalp. Lips touched his forehead, a perfume filling his senses. The perfume of a soul, and he took in a gulping breath, absorbing the reassurance offered. Slowly, ever so slowly the memories paled, just leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, and his body sagged, limp from exhaustion. Emotional trauma… Irreparable damage… He shook off the emptiness, faintly hearing water trickle in the background somewhere, soft music playing distantly around him, and he exhaled out loud. He had survived, again… Re-lived the nightmare again… but at what price? What cost to his life?… At what cost to his sanity… He was plagued with doubt, with fears of what he could become, had become, and it terrified him. Terrified him especially because…

*You are safe.*

Again warm reassurance engulfed him, holding his mind and soul safe. Protected.

*Cal?*

Wrapped in that warm, soothing presence, Calanthe responding without thought, allowing himself to relax further.

Welcoming the complete trust.

“Did you have another nightmare?” This time the words were whispered softly, spoken, yet non-judgmental as an arm embraced him, and Calanthe rested his face against a silk covered chest. Beneath his ear he could hear the other’s heart beating. A solid reality and one he clung to.

“I saw,” he started then stopped, not wanting to discuss it, knowing the other knew everything already. Knowing that his partner could guess the truth accurately.

“Was it Jaden’s Feybraiha? Or the fact that your son chose Tyson to be his teacher? Which activated the memories?” Again there was nothing but comfort in the tone and Calanthe lifted a hand to return the embrace. His fingers closed over luxurious softness. Warm living hair over velveteen skin.

“Neither… both…” Lips caressed his eyelids and he slowly opened sore eyes, knowing he must look a frightful mess. His eyes were sore, his face wet, his skin sweaty and rancid. Yet he only saw the welcoming smile… as two hands cupped his face and he drank in the beauty and trust reflected in those large eyes.

“I am here, and will always be here.” A delicate finger traced a circle on his temple, and he felt the mental touch as well, re-enforcing the whispered promise. Reaching up, Calanthe captured the gentle fingers, kissing them in gratitude. He wanted to sleep… to soak in the hot springs… yet, he knew he did not have the luxury of time. It was Jaden’s Feybraiha. Jaden’s night and he had already squandered away most of evening. Everyone would be waiting impatiently… Which would explain why… he glanced up again.

“How did you know…?”

“I sensed.”

“Ah,” Calanthe breathed the word, understanding immediately. A soft mental sigh delicately vibrated in his traumatized mind again, dismissing concerns and bringing in light. Sunshine flooding his every pore, healing tender mental channels, and he relaxed further until the other Har moved away. Cool air then hit his curled limbs, making him look up.

“I need a wash.”

“I’ll help-”

“No,” Calanthe awkwardly climbed to his feet and touched his lover’s cool cheek.

“You had better go and settle our guest.” He looked down at his own nakedness, reconciling his past and focusing firmly on the present.

“Fuck!” He said with feeling.

“Poor Jae…”

“He will understand.”

“And you?” Calanthe made it very direct as he pinned the other Har with searching eyes. It was his turn to offer warmth and reassurance, knowing all the questions and all the fears.

“I wish,” There was a tremor in the soft voice now as the smaller Har struggled to finish.

“I know.”

“It’s just-”

“Don’t look so worried,” he whispered, drawing his chesna closer and speaking into the vibrant hair which covered the other’s temple. He absorbed the tantalizing body-heat close to his own and smiled when his lover and friend release a tightly held breath.

“I just wish-”

“So do I.” He reassured. His balance returned – equaled.

“So do I.” He repeated softer, receiving a wistful smile and knowing his pain was shared.

“Do not blame yourself.”

“But I do.”

“It is over. Past… And with time I am sure the memories will fade. Will heal.”

“But it is so real still-”

“But we survived.”

“Barely.”

“Assuredly.” Calanthe countered, feeling more self-assured already.

“Besides, we still have each other…” he whispered, focusing fully on his lover, brother, friend and blood bond. He stared into those amazing dark eyes and smiled tentatively.

“Pell-”

Shaking his head, Pellaz gave a ghost smile, stilling Calanthe’s fingers with his own cooler touch.

Lifting those fingers to his lips, Calanthe kissed the pale digits, remembering too easily how it had only been Arahal who had kept his lover alive. Arahal and Ashmael. He had been too lost inside his own pain to understand at the time that Pellaz lived. He’d only seen death, touched despair and lived the horrors of madness. A week later he had awoken in Immanion, ill and gaunt. Nothing had made sense to him until they had taken him to Pellaz and showed him how the other was alive – then he had clutched at his soul-mate’s hand, refusing to let go. Five days later Pellaz had opened his eyes…. and Cal had slowly learned how to breathe. How to live.

Then other matters had forced his fears aside and he had reluctantly gone to Sykernesse to retrieve his sons. There he had found Jaden entranced with Tyson.

Which brought Calanthe squarely back to the present again. Jaden’s Feybraiha. He lifted his lashes and saw how Pellaz was watching him in worry.

“Go. I will follow you down.”

“Alright.” Pellaz said softly, doubtfully, sliding his hand around to cup Calanthe’s cheek.

“Just remember. It will get better.”

Following Pellaz’s trim figure with his eyes as the other exited the enclosure, Calanthe sighed when he was again alone in their tropical bathroom. Nothing would ever be the same, no matter what was said. But at least now he understood his chesna. Trusted him. And had finally learned how to love unreservedly.

The End

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1 Comment

  1. JoeAnn said,

    August 6, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Wow. Just wow. Terrific read, Tessa!


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