Exposure

Thevina Editor's Pick
Exposure
by Teapot (Camille_Sinensis)

Story Notes

Author’s email:  teapot@doramail.com

Summary:  Ashmael goes to Arahal for some lessons in self-examination, but learns more about Arahal, and the origins of Wraeththu, than he expects.

Characters: Arahal and Ashmael

Spoilers:  Nothing serious.  References to Ashmael’s history as revealed in “Enchantments”, and also draws heavily upon the short story “Paragenesis”.

Exposure

i Arahal

“I, too, killed someone once.”

Ashmael searched in vain for some nuance, some inflection of emotion, to tell him if Arahal was proud or ashamed of his admission. That he could find none did not surprise him – Arahal was a har who spurned the excesses of emotional incontinence; aloof and ascetic, he embodied the very essence of Gelaming philosophy.

To hear him announce that he was a murderer was almost like discovering that that world really was flat, after all, or that water flowed uphill, or the Tigrina was a modest, self-effacing individual who enjoyed a purely casual and offhand relationship with his looking-glass.

“It was a very many years ago.” Arahal picked up a long, ivory candle and set it in an ornate holder upon the altar. He encircled it with both his hands, not touching it, but seeming rather to caress it from a distance. A pulse of rainbow-coloured light arced across the space between his curled fingers, and a flame blossomed on the candle’s wick.

“Things were different. In the beginning.”

Ashmael stared into the heart of the flame, the pale blue centre where the light was in the process of being born before it rose to become the yellow corona above. The flame undulated in response to some small current of the air, moving in a way that suggested life. Ashmael knew it was simply an artifact; the complexity of numbers could explain it. Sometimes things were simpler than they appeared to be.

“It must have been difficult,” he said, not taking his eyes from the flame, “in the beginning.”

In the small halo of brightness, he could almost see the burning cities. The paroxysms of fear and destruction attending the collapse of human civilization. The violence and terror. A new type of creature arising from the ashes of the old, beautiful and deadly. Born in the heart of the flames. Wraeththu.

“No,” Arahal lit another candle by more conventional means, touching its unlit wick to the already burning one. “It wasn’t. At least, not until much later. In the beginning – in the very beginning, there was still order and civilization. There were still things of beauty.”

Ashmael wondered to himself how many were left who remembered those days. Very few, and fewer still who would speak of them. There was one har who would know and remember everything, but Thiede was a closed book, and even Ashmael’s legendary and reckless courage did not extend to demanding answers of The Aghama.

He was suddenly curious about Arahal. Curious to know why a har of his abilities so often seemed content play a supporting role. Not for him the glamour of Immanion, or a position on the Hegemony, although Ashmael knew he would have been a better choice than some of those currently serving on that august body.

“Tell me about it,” he demanded. “Tell me what it was like.”

Arahal lit the last candle and placed it carefully in position. He stood back and admired his handiwork. The three bright flames hovered over the altar in a pleasing harmony. Two would not have been enough. Four would have been too many. Sometimes it was obvious when perfection had been attained.

With his customary economy of movement, Arahal turned to look at the other har. The light of the candles behind him illuminated his pale hair, throwing silvery strands into sharp relief. His eyes, too, appeared glittering and metallic, although Ashmael could not remember if this was their natural colour, or simply a consequence of the lighting. It was, in any case, impossible to read anything from that reflective gaze. There were no burning cities, and no strange, lost things of beauty held within.

Arahal regarded him thoughtfully, as if weighing up the request.

“It’s not about me,” he said at last.

ii Ashmael

For all the unpleasant things that he had seen and done, he was rarely troubled by nightmares

Once, a fire had broken out in a meeting hall in the refugee camp of Imbrilim. Sixteen hara had been trapped inside and burned to death. He had gone to deal with it himself, and when he had seen the charred remains of the building and smelled the burnt flesh, he had sent the others away on spurious important errands and entered the still-smouldering ruins alone. The burned and twisted bodies, and the even the choking stench of cooked meat which had made bile and vomit scald the back of his throat, had never returned to haunt his dreams.

But then, he hadn’t killed them himself.

The grave, calm face of the har whose life had ended on the point of his sword not three weeks past wore no expression of accusation or reproach, but every night it woke it from his sleep. Lying in the dark, he could not rid himself of the image. It burned in front of his closed eyes, and refused to let him return to the welcoming oblivion of his dreamless sleep.

Ashmael was not superstitious by nature. He did not believe that the souls of dead hara remained in limbo to torment their killers, and even if they did, it seemed logical that the intensity of anger or other emotion which could prevent such a soul from moving on to the next cycle of existence would manifest itself as something rather more dramatic than a dream face. Nevertheless, he invoked various rituals of exorcism, drew circles on the floor around his bed, and called upon the Dehara to release any malignant or trapped spirits.

The dream face continued to appear each night.

Eventually he sought advice from somehar with knowledge of how the subconscious mind can work tricks upon the owner of that mind.

Cal had laughed. Not unkindly – more in his usual spirit of acknowledging that the world would do its worst, and there was nothing to do but accept that fact. In many ways, Ashmael admired Cal for his fatalistic attitude. There was nohar more attuned to the reality of existence, or less likely to be disappointed by its outcome, but since he did not particularly want to be seeing that face every night for the rest of his life, and he considered that there ought to be at least some advantage to belonging to a tribe as spiritually and mentally advanced as the Gelaming, he thanked Cal for his counsel and sought a second opinion from somehar whose approach to such things was rather more traditional.

Arahal had not laughed.

“It is not the har you killed who is unquiet. The trouble lies within yourself. Look inwards to find the answers.”

Ashmael wondered if there was an alternative to looking inward. A different incantation, or ritual, perhaps. He also wondered if there was anyhar else in the world who used the word “unquiet”. It seemed unlikely, on both counts. He sighed. The lit candles upon the altar seemed to signify the preliminary stage of self-examination, but he was unwilling to take the first step. And besides, Arahal’s unexpected confession, and brief, tantalizing reference to his own past had intrigued him. He remembered from his youth how he had been able to postpone an undesirable event – a too-early bedtime, an unwanted bath – by soliciting tales and reminiscences from those charged with his care.

What was it like in the old days? Tell me a story…

Arahal was not so easily manipulated. And yet, it was true that most people wanted to talk about themselves, given the opportunity. Especially if they had already volunteered a beginning.

“Tell me about it, “ he demanded, sensing the chance of escape, or at least postponement, from his own self-examination. “Tell me what it was like.”

He dismissed Arahal’s attempt to change the subject.

“If you didn’t want to discuss it, you wouldn’t have brought it up.” he pointed out.

The candle-light flickered behind Arahal. Shadows skulked in the corners of the room.

“That is so.”

This was not the reply Ashmael had been expecting, at least, not quite so soon, and he was momentarily nonplussed, but he realized he had the advantage now, and he pressed it home.

“Tell me. I want to know.”

iii – Arahal

The floor in front of the altar was covered in tasseled rugs and cushions. A small offering bowl filled with smouldering incense released its dark and smoky perfume into the air. Arahal knelt gracefully and positioned himself comfortably on a pile of cushions, indicating to Ashmael to do the same. He bowed his head toward the altar, and murmured a few low words.

When he turned to face Ashmael again, his expression looked different; his eyes no longer so blank or impenetrable.

“You know the beginning,” he said. “You know where we come from. You know who we come from. We build shrines to his memory, and yet he walks among us still. We tell the tale of his genesis to awe-struck harlings as if it were already myth, mutated by time, distant and unverifiable, and yet it is not myth but fact. A real life.”

“It is sometimes easy to forget that all history is real lives, lived by real people. Perhaps it is important for those who remember those lives to pass their remembrances on, so that they will not perish on the sword of mythology.”

Ashmael shifted a little on the pile of cushions, trying to find a more comfortable spot, since it seemed that Arahal’s tale would be a long time in the recounting, if his portentous introduction was anything to go by. Arahal appeared not to notice his restlessness – he himself remained still and calm, rather like one of the statues in the gardens of Phaonica.

“You know of the end of mankind. The crumbling, decaying cities, and the wretched creatures who inhabited them. That was how it was for some; for many. But not for all. If you’re bored, Ashmael, we can move onto some meditative techniques to help you visualize your inner turmoil.”

Ashmael looked up guiltily. “No, I was just… visualizing the decaying cities and wretched creatures. Were you a wretched creature, Arahal?”

Something approaching a smile almost flickered across Arahal’s lips.

“No, I was not. I was as far from being a wretched creature as it is possible to get. I was among the privileged and cosseted, and I lived a life of ease and comfort dedicated to learning. It was a lie, of course – outside our little sealed bubble the cities were decaying and something strange and new was beginning to take root, but inside we could pretend that nothing had changed, and that civilisation would continue exactly as it had always done. We thought we could hold back the tide. We were wrong.”

Arahal lifted his left arm and looked at thin, white scar on his forearm. He ran his fingertips along it, as if he was surprised to still see it there after all these years. Ashmael did not have to ask what it was, for he bore a similar mark himself. The scar of inception.

“They came for everyone in the end,” Ashmael said softly. “Even those who thought they were safe.”

Arahal nodded. “That is so,” he agreed “There was nothing that mankind could do to save themselves. Their time was at an end, and ours was beginning. But they did not come for me. I went to them. I went to him.”

A slight shiver made its way down Ashmael’s spine. He had suspected that Arahal’s history went further back than the har had ever admitted, but he had not imagined that it was quite so intimately entangled with the progenitor of their kind.

“You mean… Thiede?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“Thiede never involved himself directly with the creation of our race, at least, not after the first inception. He left that to others. One other in particular. In fact, it was Orien who realized the incredible possibility, and what had to be done to achieve it, as well he might, since he was the first inceptee.”

Ashmael recalled the story, as it was told, of the first and the second Wraeththu. How much of it was true and how much of it fantasy would never be known, because of those who had been present, one was now dead and the other would reveal no secrets, but the circumstances had obviously been unique. In the beginning, there had been no such thing as inception, just an accident, and experiment, and a vision of a possible future.

“He came to me, in my dreams,” Arahal said quietly, his expression distant, as if he was being drawn back physically to those strange times, across the uncrossable divide of time and recollection.

“Dreams are a way in which our minds can access other dimensions.” he explained unnecessarily to Ashmael, giving him a meaningful look. “In them, we can find connections both to others of our kind, and to ourselves. If we know how to use them properly.”

Ashmael now expected the conversation to take a sharp left turn into the proper ritual and visualisation techniques required to interpret and manage dreams, but Arahal continued to stare into the darkened distance of the room behind them, as if he could see the ghosts of events long past as clearly as he could see Ashmael himself.

“I dismissed them at first, of course. During my waking hours I put all thought of those strange, recurring dreams from my mind. Yet every night, in my head, that insistent voice called to me, speaking to me of things beyond all my limited experience.”

“Naturally, I assumed I was going mad, and some research through the heavy, academic tomes in the library only seemed to confirm this diagnosis. I could not speak of my experience to my teachers since they would have either dismissed the phenomenon as a mere product of my imagination, or – worse still – seized upon me as an experimental subject. There was only one person in whom I could confide…”

Ashmael waited for Arahal to continue his story, but the other har fell silent. The darkness seemed to close in around them again. Ashmael didn’t know if he was expected to provide some sort of prompting or encouragement at this point, or to hold his peace and remain the respectful acolyte to Arahal’s enigmatic master. This was against Ashmael’s nature – he was a problem-solver; a believer in direct action. He did not wait for answers to come to him; he went out and found them himself. Sitting in the dark in the hope of enlightenment suddenly dawning out of nowhere did not seem to him to be the best course of action, but he contained his frustration as best he could under the circumstances.

Eventually Arahal spoke again, and Ashmael thought he detected a note of wistfulness in the words;

“I had a friend. We were close. Very close…”

“I see.”

Arahal shook his head sadly. “No you don’t.”

Ashmael reflected that he was as close to hitting Arhal as he had ever been, or was likely to be at any point in the foreseeable future. Doubtless such a course of action would impede his spiritual progress and block his path to self-awareness even further – but it would make him feel a lot better!

“You can’t solve all your problems by swinging your fist at them,” Arahal noted primly, which only increased Ashmael’s irritation further.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” he growled, “It’s considered highly unethical to eavesdrop on another har’s private thoughts.”

Arahal produced what from any other har would have definitely been a smirk.

“I know,” he said.

“Ah, so you’re not as perfect as you pretend to be!”

“I have never pretended to be perfect. We all have our flaws. The trick is to be aware of them.”

“Being aware of them is not much good if you don’t do anything to correct them.”

Arahal inclined his head in a graceful gesture and smiled.

“Quite so. It’s very heartening to see you making such progress, Ashmael.”

Ashmael gave a disgusted snort and sprawled elegantly on the cushions, his long legs stretched out in front of him.

“Stop trying to be clever. Tell me about your “friend”.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Friend… or lover?”

“Why is that important to you?”

“Don’t change the subject. Friend or lover?”

There was the slightest of hesitations before Arahal’s reply.

“Lover.”

“Hah. I knew it.”

“Why are you so smug? It’s not such an unusual thing.”

“Few hara admit to having had such relationships prior to their inception.”

“Cal does.”

“Cal is a law unto himself.”

“Many hara had… “relationships”… as you put it, before they became hara. In a lot of cases, it is what drove them to become hara.”

“Is that what drove you to become har?”

“No.”

“Of course not. You were seeking spiritual enlightenment.”

“Actually, as it happens, I was.”

“Through the medium of aruna”

“That is one path. There are others. Tell me about the har you killed.”

“I already told you.”

“Tell me again.”

iv – Ashmael

It had been a routine mission. The hinterlands of Thaine were technically under Gelaming control, and the disparate tribes nominally united under the Tigron’s benevolent guardianship. There was no anarchy, as there had been in Megalithica; no determined adversary, as there had been in Ponclast. Only the occasional malcontent or petty brigand, seeking some unremarkable personal gain.

A calamity is still a calamity to those who experience it, even if they are few in number.

Ashmael and his band of trusted and capable hara arrived like avenging angels; a sudden crack, an instant of light, and an unexpected blast of freezing air which vanished as quickly as it had arrived, leaving in its place the snorting, stamping, sedu and their majestic riders, shaking a cloud of sparkling frost-crystals into the warmth of the morning.

The village was small – scarcely more than a handful of houses set in a small valley. A narrow river ran close by, and the surrounding fields were full of carefully-tended crops. It looked to be the very essence of rural utopia – calm and peaceful, the silence only broken by the occasional bleating of a few sheep and goats.

A little too peaceful, Ashmael noticed. He was accustomed to his spectacular, sedu-accompanied entrances producing a stir in small places like this. Harlings would run out, shouting and pointing, while adult hara would stare from a distance, equally awe-struck.

There were no open-mouthed harlings here. No adults either. The silence suddenly seemed sinister rather than peaceful. His unit of soldiers fanned out and began their systematic search of the village. They were all trained professionals, and had conducted this type of operation many times. He had full confidence in their abilities, so he remained with the sedu in the centre of the small cluster of buildings, observing everything closely.

One by one the houses were searched, and found empty. There were no signs of violence; no overturned furniture, no broken crockery, no blood. The houses were all neat and immaculately kept, and it was easy to imagine that their occupants had merely gone out for a short while and would be returning any moment. Something – experience, or intuition, or both – told Ashmael that this was not the case. He felt cold, despite the increasing warmth of the mid-morning sun.

Something moved, on the very edge of his peripheral vision, and he turned quickly, unsheathing his sword from years of habit. A har was approaching him, walking slowly over the short, tough grass. He did not seem alarmed or distressed in any manner, but Ashmael kept his sword at the ready, just in case.

The har stopped a few paces in front of him. His face was a study in beatific calm. His clothing looked clean and well-cared-for. Only his hair- shoulder-length and dark, and strangely unkempt – seemed at odds with his appearance.

Perhaps he just forgot to brush it this morning. Ashmael thought, rather bizarrely.

“I think you’ll find what you’re looking for over there.”

For a moment, Ashmael was confused. The har was pointing in the direction of a small rise, to the right of the main centre of the village. Ashmael could see nothing apart from what appeared to be a raised grassy bank.

The har looked at Ashmael, grave and expectant. Ashmael gripped his sword more tightly, and followed after the har as he led him through the centre of the village and towards the grassy rise. He summoned his unit to join him, and one by one the Gelaming hara appeared from the houses to form a tight, professional cohort behind him.

As they approached the grassy rise, Ashmael could see that it was some sort of artificially created embankment, with a gap at one end. The har led them towards this section, and as they passed through, they found themselves in a large space, enclosed on all sides by green slopes as high as an adult har. It was obviously some sort of sacred, ceremonial space; an altar-like structure lay at the far end, and there were bunches of flowers and grains set at random intervals along raised banks. Sacrificial offerings to the village deities.

In the centre was an offering of a different kind.

At first, Ashmael thought the hara were sleeping, even though common sense told him this was unlikely to be so. It was a peaceful scene – hara lay, or sat slumped, in a circle, close to each other. The remains of food and drink could be seen scattered about. It looked for all the world like the aftermath of a convivial outdoor meal whose participants had fallen asleep, replete and satisfied, except that Ashmael knew with a sick certainty that these were not sleepers, but bodies. He had seen too many of the latter to be in any doubt.

“What happened? Where are the others?” he demanded of the strange har, who still maintained his composed and impassive demeanour. Something about his unnatural calm bothered Ashmael.

“There are no others. Everyone is here.”

“The whole village?”

The har nodded. He walked over to the circle of bodies and pointed down at one of them.

“My hura.” He said. He pointed to the next body. “My hostling.” He walked on a little.

“My father. My high-hostling. My Guardian. His chesnari.” He stopped in front a harling, who could have been no more than about six years old.

“My brother.”

“What happened here?” Ashmael found himself almost shouting, demanding an answer from the har with rather more force than he had intended, but he found the disturbing scene in front of him, and the har’s studied lack of emotion unsettling. He wanted answers.

“We were celebrating Reaptide – they were celebrating Reaptide – I had drunk a little too much barley wine the night before, and I’d had an argument with Lorril, so I stayed in bed.”

Ashmael knelt down and picked up a discarded bottle which was lying on the grass. It was almost empty, but there was still a small amount of liquid in the bottom. He sniffed it cautiously, then placed it carefully back on the ground before wiping his hands fastidiously on the grass.

“What happened” he asked again.

The har looked away, in the direction of the distant forest on the horizon.

“Three days ago, a strange har came to our village. He wanted food and shelter, so we gave him it. He also wanted a companion for the night, but nohar was interested. We are a small community – most of us have – had” – he corrected himself fluidly – “chesnari, or a favoured partner. The har was displeased, I think. I also think he was of the Garridan tribe. They have certain knowledge and skills…”

“Poison.” Ashmael pronounced the word slowly and carefully, as if the syllables themselves were as dangerous as the substance he had detected in the bottle.

The har nodded.

“And you are the only one who survived?”

“Yes.”

Ashmael surveyed the grisly scene in front of him. Already, in his mind, he was planning the next step of the process; ordering his hara to collect the bodies together; deciding on whether to bury or burn….Obviously he could not let the surviving har remain in the village for that.

“We will take you back to Immanion,” he said. “We have grief counselors and healers. I…cannot promise you that it will be easy, but in time…”

“In time what?” The har seemed genuinely puzzled. “In time, my family and my chesnari will come back to life again?”

“No… I didn’t mean… “Ashmael felt distinctly awkward. These same words, this same conversation, had been required of him many times before, and yet it never became easier for all that.

“It’s alright,” the har said, giving him a sympathetic smile which seemed bizarre under the circumstances; as if their roles were somehow reversed and the har was the one offering comfort. “I’ve done my bit.”

“What do you mean?” Ashmael asked him warily.

“I told you what happened. It was important to do that.”

“Yes, it was. A terrible crime has been committed here, and it’s important that your friends and family obtain justice. That is why you must come to Immanion. You’re the only one left. You’re the only one who knows what happened.”

The har smiled tiredly. He was standing very close to Ashmael and it wasn’t until he bore down on his sword with the full weight of his body that Ashmael remembered the sharp, drawn weapon in his hand, but it was too late to do anything. The keen edge of the blade sliced into the har’s vitals with sickening ease. His face was close to Ashmael’s; so close that to an outsider it might have appeared that they were about to share breath, but all Ashmael was able to do was look into the har’s eyes – he had time to notice that they were gold-flecked brown, surrounded by dark lashes, before they filmed and lost focus, and the light behind them went out forever.

You know,” said the har, and died.

v Arahal

“I don’t see how you can blame yourself”

“I never said I did.”

“And yet you dream of this har every night?”

Ashmael did not reply. The gold-flecked eyes which nightly woke him from his sleep bore no hint of accusation, they were simply there, in his head, along with the har’s last words

You know”

“I don’t even know what his name was.”

“Do you want to?”

Ashmael shrugged. “What difference would it make?”

“Names are important. They have power.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Then why did you choose a new name for yourself when you became har?”

Ashmael found he had no answer for that. An unexpected draught stirred the air, causing the candle flames to gutter and throw long, attenuated shadows on the opposite wall. They looked to Ashamael like some malevolent wild creatures, crouched in the dark, circling and closing. He raised his hand in front of the candle and slowly clenched and unclenched his fist. The shadow hand on the wall did the same.

“We all do that,” he said.

“Pellaz didn’t.”

“Oh well pardon me for not being as special and unique as Pellaz!”

“Not everyhar can aspire to be as awesome as our Tigron.”

Ashmael was obliged to stare at Arahal quite closely for a few seconds before he was sure that the glint in the other har’s eyes was actually there.

“Very droll, I’m sure. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Did you change your name?”

“Of course.”

“And your… friend?”

“Not exactly.”

Ashmael was surprised. “He kept his human name?”

“Not exactly.”

“Would you care to be a little more vague about that? And if you say “Not exactly…”.”

“I’m not being vague – everything I have told you is the truth. It’s how you interpret it that matters.”

“Something is either true or it isn’t.”

“To me, the fact that I could discern someone speaking to me in my mind was true. To my colleagues, the fact that there was no voice to be heard was equally true.”

“They simply did not possess the skill or ability to hear it themselves. That does not mean it was not there to be heard.”

“And what of those who cannot hear, but believe none the less? Is that truth? Or merely blind faith?”

“There is faith,” said Ashmael caustically, “and then there is gullibility. It’s always wise to be able to tell one from the other.”

Arahal gave a short laugh. “No one could ever accuse you of being gullible, my friend. A little healthy scepticism is no bad thing, but if none of us ever took that leap in the dark, over the cliff of reason, we would miss many opportunities.”

“So it was faith that led you to follow the voices?”

“Not at all. I didn’t need faith. I knew. My friend had no such reassurance, and yet…”

“And yet he went anyway.”

“Quite so. I was not brave, Ashmael. I was young and inexperienced, and filled with fear of the outside world. I would not have ventured forth alone. Sometimes the greater part of achieving a goal is not believing in it yourself, but having someone else believe in you.

“That, I think, is what the tribes of Cordagne might refer to as a folie a deux

Arahal didn’t bother to hide his amusement. “If you say so, Ash. Perhaps a little shared psychosis is necessary to start great events in motion. At any rate, the sane ones stayed behind. And look where it got them.”

“Did you ask anyone else to go with you?”

“Of course not! I may have been verging on madness – allegedly – but I was far from being witless! It was forbidden to go to the city. It was a dangerous place. I’m sure you remember how things were.”

“How did you get there, then?”

“We stole a car.”

“Arahal! I am shocked! That a har of your unimpeachable standing and reputation should admit to larceny!”

“Ash, do try not to look quite so much like a virgin harling who has just discovered the manner in which his parents created him! Besides, you know perfectly well that if we all owned up to our youthful indiscretions, there would scarcely be a har in Immanion with his reputation intact. Yourself included.”

“I would defend my honour vigorously, but unfortunately you were at that party too, as I remember.”

“Yes, I was, and photography is not an art lost to Wraeththukind, and I do have the negatives, therefore I feel quite comfortable in telling you – in the sure and certain knowledge that it will go no further – that we smashed open the side window of an expensive vehicle, performed a useful trick involving an electrical short circuit in order to start the motor without recourse to the official key, and drove off without either of us ever having gone through the formality of acquiring the necessary licencing to do so.”

“All that heinous lawbreaking, and blackmail to boot!”

“I am more criminally inclined than you know.”

“My education continues apace! So, you set off in your stolen, hot-wired car, in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment…”

“Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”

“What was it like?”

“The car?”

“No, the city.”

Arahal looked thoughtful for a moment. “Abandoned, for the most part. Decaying. Those who remained represented the very dregs of human society.

“We ran out of fuel before we reached our destination. We had to leave the car and continue on foot. We were already deep in the ruins – there was no possibility of turning back, we simply had to keep going. We knew we were being followed – we could hear noises; the occasional mis-step of a foot on a loose brick or stone; rustlings, scurryings – what may or may not have been laughter. Occasionally we would catch a fleeting glimpse of something out of the corner of our eye, but it would vanish in the very instant we turned to look.”

“The smell was almost unbearable. It was summer, and the heat was oppressive. It was not like summer in Immanion, tempered as it is by the sea breezes. This – ”

Arahal’s face twisted in disgust at the memory.

“The buildings were crumbling, but they absorbed the heat of the sun – they seemed to suck it in, capture it and hold it. There were dead things among the ruins, that much was obvious. Animals – dogs, cats. Humans too, almost certainly. The smell of death was all around. The city was dying – its buildings and its inhabitants succumbing to the same disease.”

“Eventually one of the creatures who had been stalking us gained enough courage to show himself. Even for a man, he was ugly. A degenerate specimen, clothed in filthy, tattered rags. In his hand he held a lump of wood, crudely fashioned into a club, and he brandished it at us threateningly. Behind him, a few more of these creatures still lurked within the protective crevices of the buildings. I do not think they were an organised group of any sort – our assailant was not their leader. The others were merely waiting to see what would happen, and what the outcome of this confrontation would be.”

“I will not claim that I was not afraid. I had led a peaceful life, up until that point, sheltered from this sort of savagery, and I had no experience of fighting. And yet it is remarkable what one can do when one’s very existence is threatened. Besides, there were two of us, both well-fed, young and healthy. When he rushed us, we stood our ground and attacked him back, one on either side. He did not stand a chance – he was a miserable specimen, malnourished and riddled with who-knows-what diseases. My companion kicked his legs out from under him, and as he fell to the ground, I snatched his makeshift club from him and thrust my boot into his chest, pinning him to the ground.”

“I could see the terror in his eyes as I stood over him. His mouth was open, gaping, and I could see that what few teeth remained were brown and broken. I could smell the foulness of his body, and his breath. And I stood there with the club in my hand, thinking that it would be a merciful release if I were to dash his brains out there and then, and end his miserable life, for it was no life at all, merely an existence.”

“He could tell what I was thinking, of that I was certain. He stared at the club in my hand, raised ready to strike. And I steeled myself to do what was necessary.”

“You killed him?”

Arahal regarded him calmly.

“No, I did not.” he replied.

“You could have been forgiven for doing so.” Ashmael told him “Self defence.”

“I was not in any immediate danger at that point. And it was not my right to decide whose life was worth living or not. I let him go.”

“Very noble of you.”

“I kept the club.”

“Very sensible of you!”

“It was enough to convince the rest of our followers. They melted away into the rubble, and we continued on into the dead heart of the city. I began to wonder exactly what I had done. I had left the cloistered safety of wood-panelled halls and libraries and come to this place – an underworld of nightmares more fully realised than any description in a book. And I had brought with me the one person I cared for most in the world, putting us both in considerable danger.”

“If it had not been for my companion’s encouragement and determination, I doubt that I would have had the courage to continue. I would have fled back the way we had come, becoming lost in the grim and poisonous landscape, and no doubt eventually falling prey to one of the more determined of the city’s inhabitants. But the two of us together managed to maintain some semblance of courage. We took it in turns to reassure the other, clinging to the belief that we would find what we were looking for as grimly as drowning rats clinging to a piece of driftwood.”

“However, as you have kindly pointed out, merely believing in something is not enough. We were naive to think that we could find the source of my dream voices in that vast city’s carcass. We did not have the knowledge, or the ability. We were stumbling around blind, lost. In many ways, our situation was a metaphor for the plight of all humanity – don’t give me that look, Ashmael, sometimes the symbolic is a useful tool in one’s quest for inner understanding – and as with them, it took an outside force to rescue us from the blind alley we found ourselves in. You may decide for yourself whether the alley is metaphorical or not.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“We did not find him. He found us.”

“I take it you are not talking about Thiede, metaphorically or otherwise?”

“Everything our species does, or says, is about Thiede, metaphorically. But in the literal sense, it was Orien who discovered us in the ruins.”

“I recognised him immediately, even though this was the first time I had seen him. But I recognised him – his essence, his soul – from my dreams. Even if I had not, I would have know that he was not human. In many ways, he looked like all the other wretched inhabitants of this vile place. His clothing was torn and soiled; he had a feral look about him, a wild, uncivilised thing living among the squalour and the dirt. And yet… he was har. That is all that needs to be said. He carried a light with him. Inside him and around him. He was a thing of beauty in a place of ugliness, and my companion and I fell to our knees in awe.”

“Naturally, he had no time for this sort of nonsense, and he quickly hurried us away from that place to the basement of one of the nearby buildings. There were some others here – humans, like myself and my companion. There were no other hara that I could see. Although I did not know it at the time, there were only two hara in existence.

“And where was the other one?”

“Somewhere close by. But far enough away that he did not know of Orien’s plans.”

“I find that very difficult to believe.”

“I’m sure you do. There are a lot of stories told of the beginnings of our race, very few of which have any basis in fact. The truth is – and again, I did not discover this until later – that Thiede was kept in ignorance of Orien’s scheme to propagate the new species. Thiede wanted no part of such a plan – at least, not in the beginning anyway. But Orien…”

“Orien was a wise har and an inspiration to many.”

“Eventually, perhaps. But in the beginning, he was a fanatic.. He seized upon the accidental gift which had been bestowed upon him with all the fervour of a newly-converted religious zealot. He saw that where there had been one, and now two, there could be many. And so he gathered us together in his basement. There were twelve of us, and we were to be his experiment.”

“Did he call to the others like he did with you?”

“I don’t know. I suppose so. I do not think the others had come as far as we had. They had the look of city-dwellers. Perhaps he simply chose them at random. I did not ask him then, and it is too late to do so now. I am not sure that you could have counted us as volunteers, for it was plain that none of us knew what it was we were volunteering for, including Orien himself. There were many things he did not know. He knew that whatever had caused his own transformation, whatever he had been infected with, was carried in the blood. Thiede’s blood. And now, perhaps, his blood too. But he did not know how long inception would take, or what its results would ultimately be. He did not even know the word “inception”, for it was yet to be used in this sense.”

“And so he assembled us there, his experimental group, twelve human subjects, and inoculated us with his own blood. He said that we would become like him, and if you had seen him there, an angel amidst all the filth and horror that surrounded us, you would have made the same choice that we made too, and gladly. We did not know what was to come. We only knew what we were leaving behind. Come – enough talk. It is time.”

vi Ashmael

The shutter release. The flash of light. The moment caught and held, fixed forever.

And then the universe continues, because that is what it does.

Ashmael was not surprised by his own nakedness; he remembered removing his clothing – not hurriedly, not in the fevered rush of an uncontrolled need that makes the hands shake and the movements clumsy, but slowly and deliberately, feeling the cool fabric slip from his body, to be replaced by the hot searchlight of another har’s gaze. Stripped of all his shields and coverings, he felt powerful. His body held magic, it could control the thoughts and desires of others, and yet the same spell was also cast upon him by that other. They were mirror images of each other. An equation which balanced.

Technically, Arahal was not naked. But there was no impediment to Ashmael’s view of the other har’s form. He could see everything – the long, lean limbs and their shadowy intersections. Muscle and bone, clothed in skin. No garment could ever fit so closely or clasp so tightly. The tight leather thong and its attached chain made a good attempt, though. Ashmael raised himself slowly, withdrawing his still hard ouana-lim from Arahal’s body with a slow deliberateness which made the other har shudder slightly. The chain had left an imprint on his own flesh; a line of small, circular marks leaving their evidence of where bodies had been pressed firmly together. The leather looped tightly around Arahal’s waist, then disappeared between the cleft of his buttocks. There was no fastening of any sort – Ashmael knew, for he had looked for one, and failed to find anything.

There was a small pile of similar bindings lying in a discarded heap on the floor, next to the candelabra. Arahal had insisted that this be lifted from the altar before they began their coupling. Now the polished ebony surface was consecrated only with his body, stretched out upon it in a form of supplication, one leg lifted and bent at the knee, long, silver hair spilling over the edge like a waterfall.

Ashmael did not set much store by the mechanics of ritual. Aruna was still aruna, whether it took place on an altar by candlelight, or in a rumpled bed. Arahal, on the other hand, insisted that all the observances be made. He had chided Ashmael for his lack of attention to detail.

“There are reasons,” he explained, without elaborating exactly on what those reasons were. “Everything has a purpose.”

Ashmael was not sure if found this as reassuring as Arahal obviously believed it to be. He watched as Arahal raised himself from the altar in one economically fluid movement. The silver chain around his waist glinted slightly in the candlelight. Arahal looked at him gravely.

“What did you learn?” he asked.

What did I learn? he thought, somewhat peevishly. I don’t know. What was I supposed to learn?

I learned how to undo all those infernal buckles and fasteners. I learned that some chains cannot be undone.

“I’m not sure,” he said neutrally, waiting for some clue from Arahal as to what he was expected to say.

Arahal gave one of his rare, dry laughs. “Oh come on Ash, it’s not like you to be so unconvincing.”

Ashmael reached across and touched the chain around Arahal’s waist. He tried to slip his fingers underneath it, between metal and flesh, but he could not, there was not enough room.

“I learned why you wear those things,” he said, indicating the pile of leather straps lying by the candelabra.

“You think so?”

Ashmael pulled a face. “Well I learned some new uses for them, at any rate.”

“Perhaps you did.”

“And I learned that you have a smug and supercilious way about you which can be very irritating!”

“You wouldn’t be the first to learn that, Ashmael.”

“And don’t think that inserting a very obvious piece of self-deprecation makes you look any better.”

“Point taken.”

“I learned how to make you scream, and beg me to stop, and then beg for more.”

“You’re not the first to learn that either.”

“What is this for?” Ashmael touched the metal chain around Arahal’s waist again.

“What do you think it is for?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be asking.”

“It is a remembrance.”

“Of what?”

“Of the one I killed.”

“Did it belong to him?”

“No.”

“How does it remind you of him then?”

“By making me aware of its presence, every second of every day.”

Ashmael inspected the chain with its accompanying leather thong more closely. It was not merely tight; it dug into Arahal’s flesh relentlessly. Ashmael was surprised that there were no visible wounds or abrasions marring Arahal’s perfect skin.

“It must hurt,” he said thoughtfully

“There would be little point in wearing it if it did not.”

“Isn’t that rather futile and masochistic?”

“You tell me, Ashmael. You wear one too.”

“I don’t think much of your analogy, Arahal. You could remove that if you really wanted to. You choose to wear it. I don’t choose to have… to see visions of a dead har.”

“Don’t you?”

“No.”

“Touch it.”

Ashmael ran his fingers across the metal and leather again. He found it both repulsive and yet at the same time strangely attractive. He did not relish the thought of causing another har pain, but he recalled their recent coupling upon the altar; those other straps removed from Arahal’s body, only to be wrapped tightly around his own flesh, binding him fiercely. For the life of him he could not recall if the feeling had been of pain or of pleasure.

His fingers left the metal and glided professionally downwards, tracing the line of soft, silver hairs running down Arahal’s belly until they merged with the silky pelt covering his pubic arch, still damp and sticky with their mixed essences.

He felt Arahal’s body respond to his caress; felt the flesh harden, rise, become engorged and heavy. His own ouana-lim was still aroused from the last time – Ashmael was secretly proud of how long he was able to maintain that condition – so he took advantage of events to press his erection firmly against Arahal’s, feeling the pulsing heat of the other har’s flesh match that of his own.

His hand explored their mutual hardness, attempting to encircle both organs at the one time. He gave an exploratory squeeze, at first gently, then with more force. He was still unable to completely close his grasp, there remained a gap of some considerable distance between his fingers and thumb. Arahal shifted his position slightly, distracting Ashmael from his experiments for a moment. Ashmael looked up and saw the other har was holding something in his left hand, offering it to him.

He took the strap. The leather was soft and black, about three-fingers width, with a series of small perforations at one end, and a hard, metal buckle at the other. It was somewhat too long to be able to be fastened neatly around an erect ouana-lim, but when Ashmael wrapped it around his own and Arahal’s, he found that the buckle fastened comfortably at the last notch hole. It wasn’t tight, but it hugged pleasantly, the smooth leather feeling soft and sensuous against his hard flesh. He was acutely aware of the weight and inertia of the other har now attached to him. It wasn’t like penetrating another har’s body, no matter how tightly the soume-lam gripped. After about a minute, he experimentally pulled the strap a little tighter and managed to slide the spiked pin of the buckle into the second-last hole. He felt the pulsing in his ouana-lim increase, felt it grow even harder as the strap restricted the return of blood.

With his fingers he explored his own taut, throbbing flesh. It felt as if both ouana-lims belonged to him, as if he somehow had an erection which was twice as large as normal. He stroked the leather strap. It felt indistinguishable from his own skin; soft and warm and living. His fingertips gently traced the loose end, discovering as they did so that

vii Arahal

there were three notch holes left.

Arahal closed his eyes and concentrated on the sensation of Ashmael’s fingers playing over his ouana-lim. The leather strap was tight, but not painfully so – not yet. The constriction merely served to increase the sensitivity, and by association, the pleasure.

This was not exactly what Arahal had intended, but Ash was always a bit squeamish when it came to the soume role – Arahal could personally attest that it took some considerable patience to seduce the General onto his back – and besides, if he was being honest with himself (and given his lectures to Ashmael on that subject, it would be more than a little hypocritical if he were not), he had fantasized this very scenario on more than one occasion.

Arahal was a conscientious har, well educated in both the spiritual and physical aspects of aruna, and he took his duties as a counsellor very seriously. He did not, however, feel that any personal gratification achieved in the pursuit of those duties was anything to be ashamed of.

Leave that sort of self-flagellating nonsense to the Maudrans and their ilk.

He felt Ashmael attempt to pull away slightly, and he deliberately held his ground, refusing to move with the other har. He felt the pressure around his ouana-lim increase slightly, and a vague ache spread from just above his pubic bone down through his perineum. When Ashmael moved back towards him, the ache subsided, to be replaced with a feeling like warm, liquid honey flowing through his veins.

Arahal gasped slightly, and began to visualize a technique for delaying orgasm. He had studied this method in depth, and had once prolonged a session of aruna for three days using it. He did not think he would be quite as successful this time, but it shouldn’t be necessary. One day would suffice.

Another thrust of Ashmael’s hips, another rush of visions behind his closed eyes, and Arahal revised his estimate downwards yet again.

He focused his thoughts on the physical sensations being experienced by his body, trying to separate them from his conscious mind. The rhythm of his heart and breathing, both of them fast and urgent now, the heat of Ashmael’s body pressed hard against his own, and between them the unaccustomed, intrusive hardness that was both their ouana-lims bound firmly together. The tight constriction of the chain around his waist…

That was always there. Whatever he did, wherever he went. It was true, as Ashmael had pointed out, that he could have it removed at any time he chose. The metal was hard and durable, but there were blades and cutting devices which would slice through it easily enough. More elegantly, he could simply re-direct the energy contained within the very structure of the metal using the power of his mind. Arrange its component atoms in a different alignment, and the metal’s strength would fail. The Gelaming favoured this approach far more than brute force, both in dealing with the physical and metaphysical aspects of their world. But the chain was more than a physical thing; the metal could be removed, but what it represented would remain.

Nevertheless, Arahal kept the chain in place. He knew he would feel naked without it, which was something that he found almost amusing, since often his choice of clothing left him almost functionally naked anyway. If queried, he cited the warm climate he was frequently obliged to work in. It was rarely mentioned though – the Gelaming considered a har’s choice of clothing to be entirely his own business, and other tribes considered the Gelaming to be unfathomable in any number of matters, not just their apparel, and not worth the risk of offending through importunate queries.

The truth of the matter – which Arahal admitted quite freely to himself – was that the elaborate collection of chains, straps, thongs, clasps and knots with which he customarily decorated himself was a disguise. A distraction; a sleight of hand. While – as Ashmael had recently discovered – the various leather artifacts could be put to uses other than merely decorative, they were simply a deception. Their purpose was to conceal, and despite their flimsy lack of substance, it was something they did most effectively. In all those chains and bindings, what har would notice one more? The only one that mattered…

Hands slid roughly up over his body, from his thighs, over his buttocks, pausing to investigate with curiosity the path of the leather thong attached to the chain around his waist, then upwards over his back and neck and finally sliding a probing finger into his open mouth. Arahal obligingly sucked the finger. Denied access to the most urgent site of their mutal pleasure, Ashmael sought to find other erogenous zones to work on. He withdrew the finger from Arahal’s mouth and drew a wet curlicue over the other har’s breast, like an elongated figure of eight.

Without any conscious thought, Arahal knew it to be the sign of Aruhani, the Dehar of Aruna. For Ashmael to invoke the deity at this point was a good omen. Aruhani could open a har’s mind to many things, he was a powerful being. Arahal briefly wondered if Ashmael had considered the deity’s other aspects, for Aruhani was not only the Dehar of aruna, but also of life. And of death.

Placing his mouth over Ashmael’s, Arahal drew in the other har’s breath. Dense black smoke seemed to fill his mind, roiling and twisting, as if some unseen force were trying to create a pattern from the disorder. The darkness leaked from his mind and spread outwards, filling the room. Arahal began to consciously let go of his own thoughts, his own personality, and become one with the other har. Just as their bodies were bound together, so their minds must be. He was distracted slightly by the insistent throbbing from his ouana-lim. The strap felt considerably tighter now, quite uncomfortably so– perhaps Ashmael had somehow managed to advance it another notch, or perhaps it was simply his increased fullness and hardness as he approached orgasm.

He could feel nothing else now except the intensity of that sensation. Not the chain around his waist, or the hard edge of the altar pressed into his back. Neither heat nor cold. In calmness of his mind, he knew that Ashmael felt the same thing. They were as one. The blackness began to clear – he thought he could see stars above his head, as if the room they occupied had ceased to exist. A face seemed to form from the void, blacker than even the most starless of nights, black braided hair, black eyes. All the light in the universe seemed to be pulled into that darkness, never to escape again.

The vision flickered, the blackness receded, but the face remained. Different now, with unbraided hair and eyes of a tawny shade, flecked with gold. It looked at Arahal with an unmeasurable sadness.

Arahal felt his body reach the point of no return. Something, somewhere, escaped from its chains, breaking them like so many useless threads. There was a noise in his head which sounded like rain, and then, even as the vision vanished into nothingness, it spoke:

You know”

He threw back his head to scream, but found himself unable to do so.

The moment caught and held, fixed forever. The flash of light. The shutter release.

And then the universe continues, because that is what it does

viii Ashmael, Arahal

It took Ashmael some time to unbuckle the strap. There was a copious amount of aren – unsurprisingly really, under the circumstances – which rendered the leather and metal slippery and wet, and his hands were shaking a little, which he put down to exertion, but in the end he managed to slip the pin from its hole – still the second from the end – and remove it from himself and Arahal.

Arahal waited patiently while Ashmael performed this task, leaning back slightly against the altar. This did not make Ashmael’s job any easier, and he suspected that Arahal was intentionally delaying things for his own personal gratification – it had not escaped his notice that Arahal rather enjoyed having his ouana-lim handled.

Oh come now, Ashmael. There’s not a har in Immanion who doesn’t nightly dream of being on the receiving end of your attentions!

Arahal’s mind touch was sardonic, and Ashmael merely snorted in reply and continued tugging at the leather strap until it was eventually unfastened and removed. He held it in his hand and examined it closely and speculatively, running his finger over the five holes. Only the very last hole, closest to the buckle end, looked unused.

“You’ve used this quite a lot, I see.”

Arahal shrugged in a non-committal way.

“Occasionally,” he admitted. He noticed Ashmael’s rather dubious expression as he continued to inspect and count the holes.

“Not all hara are created equal, Ashmael,”

Ashmael looked confused, and Arahal sighed.

“The Dehara are not quite so generous to some with their gifts as they have been to you. And I.” he added hastily.

Ashmael thought for a second.

“Oh, you mean some hara have only got small…”

“Yes, quite. Let us not dwell any further upon their misfortune.”

Ashmael looked down at his own gift from the Dehara and preened a little.

“Size doesn’t matter,” he said magnanimously.

“There speaks the voice of a har who is rarely soume! However if this misapprehension of yours is the source of your dissatisfaction, I can recommend a har who will more than fill your needs. So to speak.”

“No thank you!”

“Are you sure? He’s really quite… unique.”

“I’m not interested. That sort of thing doesn’t attract me at all …. How unique?”

In reply, Arahal reached down and picked up another of the leather straps from the floor. He stretched it out to its full length, showing it to be twice as long as the one Ashmael was holding.

Ashmael stared at it, blinking in surprise, then laughed.

“So you have got a sense of humour after all.”

“Possibly.”

Ashmael grinned and tossed the strap he was still holding to Arahal.

“Here. I believe this is yours. It could do with a clean.”

“I prefer it dirty.”

“You know, Arahal, you are slightly stranger than I had previously given you credit for.”

“Thank you. I think.”

Ashmael began to pick up his clothing from where it was lying discarded on the floor, but he did not dress himself immediately. Instead, he laid them carefully upon the altar. In the candlelight his naked body glowed a soft, golden hue, matching his hair. He looked like a gilded statue of an ancient god. In contrast, Arahal was a pale and silver ghost

“Did you see him?” Ashmael asked the question casually, but he did not look directly at Arahal as he said the words, directing them instead to the three candles which had been replaced upon the altar.. Their length had been reduced by over half. Ashmael thought that he should be able to calculate how long he had been here by that, but his brain refused to process the information.”

“Aruhani? Yes. I did.”

“No, not Him. Him.”

“Yes, I saw him too.”

“What does it mean?”

“How should I know? You were the one who invoked Aruhani.”

“Will they stop now? The dreams?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Perhaps Aruhani has taken the har’s spirt away. He is also the Dehar of death…”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps Aruhani wishes you to know that death is nothing to be fearful of. It is only the inverse of life. One cannot exist without the other.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“The dead har and his family are your responsibility now Ashmael.”

“How can they be my responsibility if they are dead?”

“You are the only one who knows what happened to them – how they lived and how they died. You must keep that memory alive. Preserve it within yourself.”

Ashmael stared into the candle flames, as if expecting a ghostly face to appear. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred.

He sighed in resignation. “I can do that, I suppose. It is not such an onerous burden.”

“No, it isn’t. Now get dressed, it’s time for you to go.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me the rest of your story!”

Arahal looked suitably exasperated.

“I knew you were going to say that. Very well. Sit down over there. Yes – do please put your trousers on, it’s highly distracting.”

Ashmael reclothed his nether regions swiftly and settled himself down upon the cushions again. He noticed that Arahal remained naked apart from the glinting chain around his waist.

“You were in the cellar. With Orion.” Ashmael prompted.

“I know exactly where I was, Ashmael. Now, where was I…?”

Arahal closed his eyes and retraced his steps, back to earlier in the same evening, or possibly back decades and more.

“I do not recall much of what transpired after Orien infected us with his blood, but I have two memories, as vivid as if they happened yesterday, and as sharp as the knife he used to open the vein in my arm.”

“I remember the pain. If a harish life-span is counted as a thousand years, and I live every one in full, I will never forget the pain. Those who came after were more fortunate – there were drugs to numb the agony, but for us, the first, there was no such comfort. It was like being flayed alive, both inside and out. It was like being consumed by fire and acid, every nerve of my body screaming over and over again to have it stop.”

He paused, and Ashmael could see, in his nakedness, the small tremblings of all the muscles of his body. With a visible effort, Arahal stilled the tremors and continued.

“And I remember the one who came to us, and took pity on us in our agony, and laid his hands upon us and made the pain bearable as we squirmed and writhed in that dank place. I do not think he realized that we were conscious of his presence. Perhaps none of the others were, for I never heard any of them speak of it afterwards, but I could feel him, even though my eyes were blinded by blood and mucus. I could sense his presence. It was like looking into the sun, and seeing the glory and the destruction of it all. He burned so brightly, the fire within him, red flames all around him, as red as his hair…”

“Afterwards, when it was over, I awoke and lay calmly among the squalour and knew that the world was now a different place. Everything had changed. Everything. And nothing. The world outside looked superficially the same as it had done before, all filth and ugliness and death. But I had changed, in ways which I could not possibly have comprehended only three days previously. I was reborn in that foetid cellar, made new and whole, no longer the pathetic half-creature that is a human being. My hands explored my body and told me what my eyes, in the gloom, could not.”

“Orien was there to greet us, his newborn children. He was immensely proud of his achievement, I could tell. He felt himself a god who could create new life, and who is to say that he was wrong? I could feel the essence of his being far more strongly now. It was as if my previous connection with him had been through a great snowstorm, with a howling wind in my ears deafening me, and he so far away, but now everything was sharp and focused. I could see and hear and feel every little detail of him, and of the others of our kind in that basement. It was a wondrous moment, and I lay there, slowly coming to my senses, luxuriating in the sheer joy of it all.”

“What about your friend? Was he as thrilled to become har as you were?”

Arahal opened his eyes and looked at Ashmael with a degree of compassion which unnerved the other har.

“My friend was right next to me, lying against my side. I turned to look, but I already knew.” He smiled wistfully.

“She was quite dead. We did not know then that women could not be incepted…”

“It’s alright,” he continued gently, in response to Ashmael’s look of horrified distress, “It was a very long time ago.”

“That doesn’t… I mean, I know what it’s like. To lose someone. That you care for. I know…” his voice trailed off uselessly and Arahal placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“I know you do.”

“It’s different,” Ashmael said bitterly. “It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

“Of course it should be!” Arhal chided him. “Why should it not?”

“Every death is a tragedy.”

“And we are supposed to feel guilty if one particular death feels more like a tragedy than others?”

“I don’t know. Are we? Is that the Gelaming way?”

“I don’t know, but it is not my way”

“You must have felt something, surely!”

Arahal thought for a moment, a small ripple of some long-buried emotion passing briefly across his usually calm features.

“Yes, but you have to understand that my feelings were very mixed. Sadness and anger, certainly, but also the elation of my own transformation. It was… unsettling.”

“I expect it was.”

“Orien explained to us that those who had died had given their lives in a very noble cause.”

“I’m sure that was a great comfort to you!”

“No, not at all.”

“Orien could be a pompous ass at times!”

Arahal’s mouth twitched almost imperceptibly. “Yes, he could. But he was right about one thing. My friend’s death was not meaningless. Or, rather, we had within us now the opportunity to ensure that it had a meaning and a purpose.”

“There were four of us who survived. We burned the bodies of the others, and moved on to another location. In time, we would incept more, and the fatality rate declined steeply. We did not attempt to incept any more females.”

“And you wear that chain to remind you of her death?”

“No, to remind me of her life. The one she would have had. Male and female entered that basement room; male and female left it. I was given a new life, hers ended there. All that she would have been and would have experienced – I would have to experience it for her now. I was given a gift, and it is my responsibility – my duty, to be aware of that, every moment of every day, for if I ever forget it then her sacrifice was in vain, and she is truly dead. If I remember, then her life continues through me. It is the very least I can do.”

“Is that how you see the purpose of our lives then – as noble avatars of all the lost and disappointed souls who never achieved their life’s purpose?” Ashmael wrinkled his too-perfect nose very slightly.

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“It sounds a bit grim and self-sacrificing!”

Arahal snorted – a curious sound which Ashmael could not remember ever having heard before. “If it is, I suspect you’re doing it wrong.”

“What are we supposed to do then?”

“Live you life the best way you know how. It’s all any of us can do”.

“Words to live by! I shall endeavour to experience life’s pleasures all the more acutely from this day forth.”

“That’s the spirit!”

Ashmael grinned and picked up the last of his clothing from the altar.

“Do you think I will see the dead har again?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t think so, but even if you do, would it bother you?”

Ashmael thought about this briefly. “No,” he admitted

“He was not an unattractive har after all, “Arahal said seriously.

“There is that, I suppose!”

“You have made peace with his spirit within you. You have told his story.”

“Was that what he wanted? – For me to tell you”

“I don’t know. It was never about him, though – it was always about you.”

Even as he said these words, Arahal remembered the vision that had appeared before him earlier; the grave, ghostly face, the gold-flecked eyes…

“…You know.”

A brief premonition seemed to pass before his eyes. Of nights and dreams, and the har’s face appearing in his own slumbers.

Ashmael turned to leave, noticing as he did so that the candles had burned low. Soon they would gutter and die. . He stopped and turned, as if he had forgotten something.

“Arahal…” he began, somewhat awkwardly. “Thank you.”

“For what?” Arahal looked genuinely surprised. “I have told you nothing you didn’t already know within yourself.”

“No, I mean, thank you for telling me your story. You didn’t have to.”

“Perhaps I did. Perhaps it was time. I have told no-one else, in all these years. Perhaps I should thank you.”

“You have really kept this to yourself all this time?”

Arahal nodded solemnly. “There never seemed to be an appropriate time to discuss it. Until now.”

“You are a surprising har, Arahal. I wonder what other secrets you keep hidden?”

Arahal smiled enigmatically.

“That,” he said, “would be telling.”.

ix Ashmael

Ashmael closed the door quietly behind him and stepped out into the coolness of the evening. The air was damp, and held the faint scent of leaves and earth. It appeared that there had been some rain earlier, but it had now stopped, although a few drops of water continued to fall on his face from the trees above. The sky was indigo, decorated with a random throw of bright stars. Ashmael was surprised at how late it was – it seemed to him that he had only been in Arahal’s sanctuary for a short time, but then he remembered the low-burned candles and Arahal’s strange tale.

For as long as he could remember, Ashmael had been curious about the origins of his own kind. Everyhar knew the story – it was one of the very first things harlings were taught – and yet it had an oddly unreal quality to it, as if it had been something decided upon by The Hegemony, to be disseminated and propagated and absorbed into the hearts and minds of Wraeththu-kind without any actual thought.

Hearing the story from the lips of somehar who had actually been there was unsettling. The story was not a story – it was the truth. Ashmael did not know why he found that so disturbing.

Some things should remain within the realm of myth and mystery, he thought to himself. Some things are too important to be left to reality – we need them to be archetypes and paradigms.

He gave a wry smile.

Thank you for the lesson, Arahal – you imparted it flawlessly. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you simply projected it straight into my mind.

His thoughts lingered on the dead; the har who had ended his life upon Ashmael’s own sword, and Arahal’s long-dead companion. They lived on in the minds of living hara – perfect, unsullied and wholly contained. Alpha and Omega. Their stories had a beginning and an end. The book was closed, and returned to the shelf. Order prevailed. Perfection was attained.

It can be that way. Sometimes.

Sometimes not.

Ashmael did not doubt that Arahal would remember, even if he wore no chain around his waist. The chain was for something else. For regret.

It is not the things that I have done that I regret, he thought, It is the things I have not done. That I was unable to do. That which I was unable to keep alive. The realization was more than a little uncomfortable

Hara died, and lived on in the memories of those who remembered them. Sometimes, mysteriously, they lived on in more physical ways too. And yet there were some things – vague, intangible things – that died, and could not be brought back. Some things that, once lost, were gone forever.

Life was a fragile thing, it could be ended in so many ways, but more fragile yet was the web of connections which bound one living being to another.

You are wrong, Arahal. Remembering is not enough. It’s more complicated than that. And the chain you wear tells me that you know it.

“You haven’t been entirely honest with me, old friend.” he said aloud to the uninterested trees, grinning a little in spite of himself. “There are things you haven’t told me.”

He pulled his cloak more tightly around his shoulders and set off homewards.

We’ll talk again, soon.

The End

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