An Army of Angels

An Army of Angels
by Mischa

Editor’s Note:

This story was originally published in the pamphlet for Grissecon, the first ever Wraeththu fan convention, back in Oct. 2003.  It was written by the creator of the original Forever web site, Mischa, who passed on duties to me several years back. -Wendy

Author’s Note:

Title: An Army of Angels.

Author: Mischa Laurent

Disclaimer: All items contained on these pages are non-profit amateur fiction. ‘The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit’, ‘The Bewitchments of Love and Hate’, ‘The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire’ and all characters named in those books are the copyright of Storm Constantine and her publishers. No infringements on the copyrights are intended. These stories are for personal enjoyment only and should be reproduced, electronically or otherwise, only for this purpose and never for profit of any sort.

Notes: This fanfiction is set in the period prior to the beginning of the trilogy and is based on quotes from The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, which read:

“What did Ashmael say when he saw you?”  I asked.  Vaysh’s glassy eyes did not flicker.

“Say?  What do you think?  A long time ago, I died in his arms.”

My thanks to my betas and editors for their invaluable assistance thus far and in particular to Storm herself, for asking me to write it in the first place.

Dedication: To my daughter, Tiffany; congratulations on the commencement of your first Wraeththu book and here’s to many more!

An Army of Angels

Part One

The breeze lifted the smoke and carried it away.  It also brought to their ears the screams and pleas of the dying warriors below.  Vaysh curled his lip in distaste over the scene and turned his head to his companion.

“Must we linger here?”

Ashmael calmed his restless horse with his hands, never taking his eyes from the celebrations of the victors below them.

“We need to see which way they go when they leave, Vay.  Can’t have them turning up on our doorstep.”

Vaysh looked downhill once more.  The celebrations showed no signs of abating; the warriors in their paint and finery gathered around one of the burning vehicles, whooping and hollering, their weapons held above their heads, while to their left, their fellows searched through the bodies, stealing from the corpses and summarily executing any who still lived.

“They look like Indians in an old movie.”  He observed, disgustedly.

Ashmael gave a short laugh.  “Someone down there probably saw the same film you did.”

**

All afternoon they waited on their hilltop for the bandits below to gather themselves and depart.  The horses grazed on the other side of the hill, tethered to prevent them wandering up into view.

Ash appeared perfectly relaxed, chewing on a stalk of grass, his long lean body laid out comfortably, but the watchfulness of his eyes told the truth.

Beside him, Vaysh contemplated the scenery, refusing to give the carnage below any more credence by witnessing.

The rolling hills to the north gradually gave way to the sharper gullies and peaks where he and Ashmael sat.  The summit of the mountain that protected them rose abruptly from the earth behind him, covered by cloud and mist, even on the clearest of days.  Within this maze of networking valleys, dead ends and sudden rises, lay the small town they called home.

Formerly an isolated human town, Basik was a home to disaffected Wraeththu seeking shelter from the tribal storms that rocked the land and had grown into a quite sizeable community, one that Ashmael was in charge of protecting.

Vaysh had little to do with the town’s defence.  He had ridden out with Ash today, merely to spend some time alone with the har with whom he was chesna.  They had seen so little of each other lately, that even the prospect of spending the day patrolling the rough hills on horseback had seemed a bearable idea.

Coming across the raiders in the middle of their murderous rampage had been the vilest of misfortunes.  Ash may well be used to such sights, but Vaysh, insulated by his duties on the council had not seen much of fighting and death for the longest time.  Not since he and Ashmael had first set out to find Basik, footsore and weary, drawn by stories of a place hidden in the hills where Wraeththu lived in peace.

“Why do they do it?”  He sighed.  “Why can’t they just . . . get along?”

The question was rhetorical, but Ashmael answered anyway.

“Because death always accompanies birth.  It’s the nature of the beast, Vay.”

It was an old argument, one they had had many times before and now as then, there seemed no fitting comeback. Still, he tried.

“I can’t accept that.”  He shook his head sadly, pale hair flying about his face like wind-whipped silk.  “We are . . . better than this.”

“Supposedly.”  Ashmael disputed.  “Not yet, though.  Not until the first throes are over.  Until there are more who think as we do and less who see this as an opportunity for profit or power.”

“Inception is supposed to burn away our humanity.” Vaysh argued.  “Har like those down there need guidance, need to be taught the proper way.  Not killed on sight.”

“Vay, your lost lambs would murder us all without even blinking.  Don’t delude yourself.”  Ashmael turned toward his chesnari, a smile on his face to soften the words.  “I know your intentions are all good and don’t get me wrong, it’s a noble cause and one I subscribe to heartily.  What we disagree about is the timing.

You want it all now; I think it is going to take time.  Time and a couple of generations removed from . . . this.”  He illustrated his point with a sweep of his arm toward the dying fires below, the bodies and the drunken, staggering hara who had caused it.

“But we can’t progress if we don’t begin.”  Vaysh voiced the argument that had been doing the rounds of the council lately.  “We have to start somewhere.”

“True.  We do.  We start small, build our numbers, then we enforce. As much as you would like to picture all the warring tribes as misguided and misinformed, the truth is that they enjoy living the way they do.  They chose it, Vay.    Just as we chose to seek a different way.  Superior strength is the only thing they respect.  Only that will make them listen.”

Ashmael finished talking and returned his attention to the valley below.  Sighing quietly, Vaysh did likewise, noting the preparations for departure by the victors.

The fires were almost out and the ravens waited in the trees for their feast to begin. Vaysh knew that they would have it, there were too many bodies for the two of them to bury before nightfall and rekindling the fires for a cremation might attract the wrong kind of attention.

Despite his impassioned words to Ash, Vaysh was intensely practical.  He knew that the hara below would see them as prey rather than fellow Wraeththu, but the idealism that drove him suffered for it.

However, there had to be a beginning point, some means by which they could reach out to the Wraeththu that roamed this vast land and teach them.  The citizens of Basik were a start, a community of likeminded souls whose focus was on peace and the development of their newborn race.

Ashmael wanted the same things; he just couldn’t see them happening anytime soon, not with the world in such a state of flux.

Vaysh believed absolutely that what they needed was a plan. This was not an impossible task, with a method and complete commitment on the part of those involved, he believed that they could begin to reach out into the heart of the strife torn world they had inherited and begin to make some sense of it.

**

They arrived back just as night fell and found the community in an uproar.  Lights blazed from doorways as hara ran about, bent on various tasks.  Questioning a passer-by, his arms full of blankets, yielded the information that the town’s population had just undergone a sudden and dramatic increase.  A small caravan of travellers had found their way into the valley that hid Basik from the world and the council had decreed that they could stay.

Ashmael was not happy with this decision, but there was little he could do except fume quietly.  The two of them stabled their horses and headed for the council house to check out the new arrivals.

It was a mixed bag that met them when they entered the hall.  Hara mingled with humans, children ran about underfoot, screaming and playing.  Chaos reigned as Vaysh and Ashmael sought to pick their way through the crowd to the tables where the council members were gathered.

“. . .facilities are limited, but adequate for the moment.”   Farah, the council secretary was saying as they finally reached the front of the room.

He was speaking with three of the new arrivals, two hara and a human male about fifty years of age.

“I’m sure they will serve our needs admirably.”  The taller of the two hara replied.  “We are grateful for your hospitality and don’t wish to put you to any trouble.”

“Of course, if you all decide to stay . . .” Farah’s words trailed off as he spotted Vaysh.   Clearly relieved to see someone more suited to organisation and delegation, he backed away from the conversation, indicating Vaysh with a gesture.

“Ahh, here’s Vaysh.”  He said.  “He knows more about this kind of thing than I do.”

The travellers turned toward Vaysh and Ashmael, ready with a polite greeting.  The first thing Ashmael noticed about the har who had spoken was his strange appearance; something about him made the hairs on the back of Ash’s neck rise.  Extremely tall, with vivid red hair bound up in bands of copper, the stranger had the scariest eyes Ashmael had ever seen.  A feral golden colour, they seemed to encompass more than mere physical appearance, taking in everything with one sweeping glance.  It made Ashmael’s teeth ache.  He sees inside me.  The disquieting thought came from nowhere.

Rather well dressed for refugees too, he thought, forcing his mind to more mundane matters.  Bright woollen robes covered trousers tucked into boots little ravaged by hard travel; they looked well fed and not at all harried, as other newcomers to the township had been.  The taint of the outlands had not worn on them as much as it should have done.

By contrast, the human male did appear to have suffered the deprivations of hard travel.  His clothes were stained and torn, totally unsuited to the cooler climate of the mountain terrain.  However, here in the valley, the temperature was considerably warmer than in the hills that surrounded them.  The sheer cliffs protected the town from the brutality of the winter weather this high up; creating a microclimate that had been instrumental in the decision by humankind to found the town all those centuries ago.

Ashmael often laughingly referred to the place as Shangri-La.

The human male had removed his dirty, torn coat, but still carried it slung across his shoulders.  The two strange hara looked healthy by comparison.

Vaysh was fascinated.  There was a tangible feel of power emanating from the two of them, as if magic were leaking from their pores.  It was attracting and repellent at the same time.  He could hardly bring himself to tear his eyes away from his study and begin to address their concerns.  The other har was much less compelling than the strange red-haired one.  His face was kind, his eyes gentle rather than frightening and it was to this har that Vaysh addressed himself.

“Come with me and we can get organised.”  He said.  “We’ve plenty of room for temporary guests but, if many of you decide to stay, then we shall need to rethink accommodations.”

The human looked grateful and nearly in tears.  “Thank you.” He said in a low voice.  “We’ve been travelling for so long, searching for a safe place.  If it wasn’t for . . . “he indicated the two Wraeththu by his side as his words choked off into sobbing.

The red-haired stranger stepped smoothly into the breach.  “We’d heard of this place, of course.”  He said, smiling. “And when we joined our travelling companions, “he patted the crying man on the back. “We decided to lead them here to safety.”

“How did you hear about us?”  Ashmael spoke before Vaysh could ask.  He shouldered his way forward, eyes full of suspicion.

“Oh, various places.”  The har answered smoothly.  “We get around, we’re traders, or rather we were, until we lost our goods in a raid a few days north of here.  This town is a bit of a legend amongst Wraeththu.”

“And humans.”  The man cut in.  “We’d heard of it too.  Of a place that welcomed peace-loving har and humans alike.  But we didn’t think we’d any chance of ever finding it.”

Ashmael had to be content with that.  The suspicious look remained, but, short of outright accusation, there was little he could say.

Filling the silence that fell, Vaysh again made his offer to leave the hall and they all moved toward the doors.

Ashmael stayed behind, organising the hara who had begun arriving with the blankets and food into teams to supply the spare huts.

The man was called aside by one of the human families as they reached the front doors and stayed behind as they stepped out onto the darkened street.  As they stood waiting for him to rejoin them, Vaysh asked,

“Will the two of you be staying as well?  We do have the room; most of it just needs renovating.”

“For a couple of days, yes.  But permanently?  I don’t think so.  We have things to take care of elsewhere.”  The dark-haired har was the one to reply, his companion watching all the activity in the street with lively interest.

“You must realise then . . .” Vaysh began hesitantly, only to be interrupted.

“That your friend in there will wish to satisfy himself about us before we are allowed to go on our way.”  This came from the redhead, his weirdling eyes glowing in the darkness.

Vaysh felt embarrassed.  “Well, yes.  We need to be sure, you see.  Our security depends on it.”

“Most admirable.”  The har said shortly.  “I am rather tired, is there somewhere we could rest.”

The other har smiled at Vaysh to take the sting from the haughty tone his friend used.

“Of course.”  Vaysh replied quickly.  “Follow me.”

Abandoning the human to Ashmael’s tender mercies, he led them to one of the huts that already had its door open and the fire within lit.  It didn’t appear to have been allocated and Vaysh was willing to court Ash’s displeasure at his usurpation just to be rid of the strange, mercurial har for the night.

“My thanks, again.”  The dark-haired har said in the doorway.  His companion had already entered and was strolling about the small room, inspecting it.  It was as if he had forgotten that Vaysh was there, so complete was his concentration and the dismissal it implied.  Vay wondered if his friend spent all his time apologising for this kind of behaviour.

“See you in the morning.”  Vaysh took the two steps down back onto the road and then turned.

“Oh,” the thought had just occurred.  “Your names?  The council will want to know.”

“I am Orien.”  The dark har told him.  “My friend’s name is Thiede.”

Taking a mental note, Vaysh waved goodnight and left, turning his attentions back to the logistics of getting all these new arrivals settled for the night.

**

“I don’t like him.  He’s creepy.”

“Ash!”  Vaysh turned from the mirror where he was plaiting his hair ready for bed and looked at his chesnari.

Lying back on the dark sheets, his bright hair a spiky halo around his head, Ashmael looked like an angel who had fallen to earth and somehow, miraculously, wound up in Vaysh’s bed.  His skin glowed golden in the gaslight which lit the bed, emphasising the planes and hollows of his remarkable face with the shadows and highlights it threw across his naked form.

“Well, I don’t.”  Ash was unconcerned by Vaysh’s horrified reaction to his statement.  “There’s something . . .   I don’t know what it is yet, but I will.  I don’t trust him.”

“Time will tell.”  Vaysh soothed, trying for peace.  He pushed his chair back from the dressing table and joined his chesnari on the bed.

Embracing, they shared breath for the first time since that morning.  Vaysh tasted the residual anger and concern that had prompted Ash’s statement and sought to calm the troubled waters. With his head resting on Ash’s chest, wrapped in his strong arms, he said,

“The council agreed that they couldn’t be allowed to go until we are certain of their intent.  That should be enough for now, surely?  A couple of them even agree with you that there is something fishy about them.  Callas said that there is a strange aura emanating from him and he would know.  Maybe you’re not wrong, Ash, but we can’t judge them based on feeling.”

“Callas is an able hienama,” Ash agreed. “If he senses something, we’d do well to pay attention.”  Seeking to change the subject, he teased. “You’re too soft, Vay, it’s your biggest, and your most attractive, fault.”

Vay harrumphed in response to this gem and then grew solemn again.  Much as he would have liked to brighten the mood as Ashmael wished, the strangers, Thiede and Orien, had captured his attention and he could not let it go.

“I know I’m not always as careful as you are, Ash, and I let my beliefs overrun me at times, but, if we’re to succeed at all, we need more trust, not less.”

Ash drew Vay’s face upward with a finger under his chin and planted a tender kiss on his chesnari’s lips.

“One day.”  He whispered.  “Right now is not the time for trusting.  Trust gets you killed, gets us all killed if I’m not careful.  I have to be careful, Vay.  Every soul in this town relies on me not to get it wrong; that’s a trust in itself and I take it very seriously.”

Vay just looked at Ashmael, quietly stunned.  Although they had been chesna for over a year now, Ash had never been one for revealing much of himself, for talking about feelings instead of actions.  This small disclosure was a rare thing and as such, Vaysh treasured it.  He encouraged Ash to go on.

“You were gently raised, Vay.  Even more gently incepted.  Living your entire human life on a ranch and hearing vague stories about the troubles in the cities is not the same as being there.  Intellectually, yes, you can understand the way it was, but I lived it and the blood and the dying burnt my innocence away.”  Ash raised himself up on one elbow, pinning Vaysh with the intensity of his gaze and his words bought tears to Vay’s eyes.

“It’s your innocence I treasure, Vay.   You have purity in you that I lost long ago.  That pure decency is one of the things I love about you, something we all love, but it doesn’t stand you in good stead when situations like this come up.  Your first instinct is to nurture, to offer aid and succour, mine is to suspect, to question.  A contrast, sure, but together I think we make a pretty good team, don’t you?”

In response, Vay snuggled closer to his chesnari’s flank.  Ash flicked off the lights and lay back down.

“We are a good team.”  Vaysh agreed. “Contentious at times, but it’s a good balance, I suppose.  At least, I keep you from running amok.”

“Amok, eh?”  A rumbling coming from Ash’s chest told Vaysh he was laughing silently.  “I run amok, do I?  What about you?”

“I do not run anywhere, least of all amok.”  Vay strove for a superior, haughty tone, even as the laughter began to bubble upward from his chest as well.  “I am efficient.  Yes, that’s it.  Efficient.”  He paused.  “Especially at high speed.”

Ash laughed aloud and rolled over, pinning Vaysh to the bed with ruthless ease.

However, while his strength and ability was far superior to Vaysh’s, Ashmael had well-hidden weak spots, all of which Vay knew very well and he employed his forefinger with devastating accuracy.

When the tickling session and the resultant hilarity had subsided, they collapsed back onto the bedclothes once more.  Breathing heavily, and more than a little aroused by all the physical activity, Vaysh panted,

“You’re all hot and sticky.”

“Hmm.”  Ash thought about it.  “I need some water.”

“Get your own.”  Vay challenged saucily, turning his head so he could see Ashmael’s expression.

A gleam of teeth in the darkness and then,

“I rather thought you’d get it for me.”

Ashmael rose up again and leaned over Vay, pinning him.

“I can’t get up.”  Vaysh pointed out.

Ash shrugged, “Well then, you can be my water.” his voice deepened into tones Vaysh knew well, rough with desire.  “Be soume for me, Vaysh.”

***

“. . . hope to reach a consensus and form a tribe of our own.  That is the goal, anyway.  Achieving it is difficult with so many hara from so many different tribes here.”

Ashmael heard Vaysh’s voice as he passed by the open door of the council rooms.  As usual, when on his favourite subject, his tone was passionate.  Ash knew that Vay was speaking to Orien and Thiede; they had been joined to Vaysh’s hip ever since their arrival two days previous and it was starting to wear on Ash’s nerves.

Passing by without entering, Ash made his way down the street to his own front door.

Tossing his jacket negligently toward the rack as he passed through the hall, he went into the small library and poured himself a drink, feeling the need for one.

Sighing, he lowered himself into a chair and sipped, one long leg thrown up over the arm.  Basik had been hectic since the late night arrival of the refugees.  Most had decided to stay, the relative peacefulness of the town and the welcome the unthrist hara among them had received, made Basik a haven they were reluctant to give up.

Consequently, Ashmael had been busy, not with supply and allocation, which was a job for others, but with sorting out the new hara.  Some would make excellent additions to his troop of defenders, others had skills in areas like weaponry that he sorely needed, but mostly, he was occupied with security, who could be trusted and who would bear watching.  Thiede and Orien were on the second list.

Secrets!  It all boiled down to secrets.  The two of them were hiding something. Whether it held a threat to the safety of their hidden town, Ashmael was unable to determine and he was frustrated.

Vaysh had taken to them immediately, showing them around the town, explaining their hopes and their goals, being too damned friendly in Ashmael’s opinion!

We won’t have any bloody secrets left, if Vay has his way, Ash thought sourly.  The two of them, on the other hand, seemed to have plenty.

There was nothing he could put his finger on; his extensive questioning had revealed nothing more than two well-travelled hara with no obvious affiliations to any hostile tribe, but something in their eyes, in the slightly superior smile that Thiede affected whenever Ash asked a question, told him that they were keeping something back.

And the questions they asked!  The ostensibly light-hearted conversation the four of them had had last night over dinner had left Ash feeling drained and exhausted, as if his soul had been peeled back and examined.

However, for the life of him, he could not recall any specifics about the evening, not even the nature of the questions.  The wine had been good, but not that damned good and the impression he was left with was that someone had been messing with his mind.  It was impossible, nobody was that good, Wraeththu skills had not risen to such a level as to be able to infiltrate and leave no trace and yet, he could not shake the feeling of . . . invasion.

The front door opened and Ash assumed it was Vay, coming back from his latest philosophical discussion with their guests.

However, he saw Thiede’s bright hair first, followed by his lanky frame and those yellow, sarcastic eyes.

“May I come in?”

“Sure.”  Ash didn’t get up, he didn’t even move.  Come into my parlour, he thought nastily.  Let’s see how we do if I take you on one at a time.

Thiede took the chair opposite Ash’s, declining his offer of a drink.  Ash sat quietly, making no effort to open the conversational channels, he simply looked.

The ropes of red hair were unconfined today, snaking around Thiede’s throat and down across his chest as if hugging him.  Long, long arms with their spidery fingers rested comfortably on the arms of the chair and the thin legs in their covering of soft leather were crossed at the knee, one foot dangling.  He looked not at all disconcerted at being studied so closely or so silently.

“Where are the others?”  Ashmael asked churlishly, his attempt at intimidation an obvious failure.

“Vaysh and Orien went down to the stables.”  He flashed a smile Ash assumed was intended as friendly, but his pointed canine teeth made it look more like a threat.  “Horses are for travelling on, not for admiring in my opinion, so I came back.  You don’t mind the company, do you?  I saw you come home.”

How did you do that? Ashmael wondered.  Seeing through brick now, are we?

He didn’t say it, instead he asked,

“Speaking of horses, I did remember to tell you last night that you are free to leave whenever you wish, didn’t I?”

Thiede laughed.  “Too much of that excellent wine, Ashmael?  Yes, you did mention it.  Orien and I will be on our way soon, possibly tomorrow.  I think we have imposed on your hospitality for long enough.”

“You are welcome to stay as long as you like, Thiede.  I’m sure Vaysh has told you as much.”

“Ahh, yes.  Vaysh.  A most admirable har, very helpful and welcoming.”

Where I am not. Ash finished the sentence for him, grinning to himself.

Thiede waved one elegant hand negligently in the air.  His nails were like claws.  Hideous, Ash thought.

“Places to go, things to do.”  Thiede accompanied his wave with the platitude.

“Yes, well.”  Ash answered.  “Vaysh is very helpful to those in need.  He can afford to be, as the security of this community is my concern, not his.”

“Such diverse personalities, you and he.”  Thiede added, ignoring Ash’s pointed observation.  “A startling contrast for two hara who are chesna, don’t you think?”

“We complement each other.”  Ash said flatly, his eyes narrowing dangerously.

“I meant no offence.”  Thiede soothed.  “Just the opposite.  It’s an admirable partnership, that’s what I was trying to say.  Have you been together long?”

“Yes.” Ash said flatly.  He felt as if he were losing control of the conversation, not a welcome feeling, especially after the strangeness of last night.  Growing anger sparked his tongue.  “What is it about you that I don’t like, or trust?”

“You don’t?  I’m crushed.”  Thiede looked far from upset by Ashmael’s outburst.  Despite the dramatic gesture of hand to heart, he looked highly amused.  “I assure you, Tiahaar Aldebaran, that there is nothing being kept from you that would compromise your security.”

“That’s very neat, Thiede.  I cannot recall the last time I heard such a slippery sidestep.”  Ash leaned forward in his seat as if poised to leap, every muscle taut and a dangerous look in his eyes.  “Nonetheless, I want some answers to the concerns I have about you and your friend.  As you say, this town is known in the world outside this valley and keeping it safe, keeping the folk here alive, is more important to me than your measly secrets, believe me.”

Although he did not show any fear, Thiede did lose the superior smirk and the beginnings of respect dawned on his face.  “My apologies, Ashmael.”

At last, Thiede looked sincere.  Ashmael backed down a notch, but remained on the edge of his chair, arms resting on his thighs.

“Sometimes, I get a little full of myself, as Orien constantly reminds me.  Perhaps what you are sensing about us is caste-related.  Both Orien and I are Nahir-Nuri, still a rare thing among Wraeththukind.  The . . . vibrations, the aura might be what you are sensing?”

Ashmael tilted his head to one side, considering.  “Perhaps,” He conceded. “That would probably be discernable.  However, I was thinking along the lines of something a little more . . . tangible.  It is your intentions I am worried about, I’m afraid, not your internal structure.  You have been asking many questions.  Care to explain the interest?”

Thiede’s smirk briefly returned.  “You mean in the township in general, or Vaysh in particular?”

“Can we please just stop the game playing?”  Ash was rapidly losing patience with his recalcitrant guest.  “Answer the question.”

Thiede’s face darkened the threatening tone.  “I wouldn’t advise trying anything rash, Ashmael.”  He growled.  “I doubt you’d survive it.”

Ash smiled coldly.  “Most probably not.” He agreed. “But you’d have to wipe out an entire town in order to get out of here and I very much doubt that you’re prepared to do that.”

Thiede’s smile was equally chilly.  “True.”  He conceded.  “You see, you do know me.  At least, as much as you need to.  Pointless violence and slaughter is one of the subjects your Vaysh and I agree on; there’s too much of it.”

Leaning back in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of his face, Thiede was quiet for a moment.  Ash waited, equally patient.

Then, “My interest in the town, I assume is relatively understandable.  I find what you are trying to achieve here commendable and I have enjoyed learning about your philosophies and your goals.  Your mate, Vaysh, I find equally intriguing.  His idealism and gentle ways are a rarity in these troubled times.  I find it refreshing and his company and his conversation give me hope for the future of our race.  It seems to me that, one day, Vaysh will be a leader among Wraeththu and I will be pleased to someday say that ‘I knew him when’.”  He paused, as if for breath and then fired off a last sarcastic volley.  “Is that enough or would you like my shoe size while I’m at it?”

Ashmael came to his feet in one swift movement; Thiede was unable to hide his tiny jump of surprise.  Looking down on the red-haired har made Ashmael feel a whole lot better and more in control of the situation.  The answers he’d been given went some small distance toward the complete truth, but the feeling of dread still touched him whenever he heard Vaysh’s name coming from between those pale, obstructive lips.

When Ash spoke, his words were precise and final.  He turned away from the fire and from the har sitting beside it, making his parting shot as he headed for the door.

“I have no choice but to accept what you say, Thiede, and to let you leave.  It all sounds very plausible and laudatory.  Nonetheless, take it as gospel that, should I ever discover you have betrayed this place or these people in any way, I will hunt you down and decorate the plains with your entrails.”

They were gone before nightfall.

***

The ambush was quick and brutal.  An opportunity presented and the chance taken.  They were disorganised and haphazard in the execution of their raid and his team of guards were quick to mount a defence and repel the would-be bandits, but not before they managed to make off with a couple of the packhorses and one of the wagons travelling in the convoy along the trade route.

Riding at the head of the column, his mind elsewhere, Ashmael had only his lightning reflexes and his long experience in combat situations to protect him.

Cursing, he turned his horse around, peering through the dust the fleeing horses raised, trying to count the cost of his inattention.

Distracted by his own anger, his eyes trying to take in all the damage, he didn’t at first see the empty wagon seat where Vaysh had been sitting.  When it finally registered, he charged through the chaos on horseback, dismounting even before the animal had come to a complete halt beside the wagon Vaysh had been driving.

There was blood.  On the wagon seat, on the reins, on the backs of the sweating, terrified animals in the harness.  Ashmael found his hands were shaking as he rounded the far side of the wagon and saw the horror on the ground.

A veil of fair hair, body flung down brokenly and the evidence of a life rapidly waning with each ragged, fading breath.

“Vay?”  Dropping to his knees beside the prone body, he gently rolled him over, cradling the bloody head on his lap.  “Oh, God.  Vay!”

The wound was a perfect circle, a tiny dark mouth through which life bled relentlessly into the red soil.  His hands became coated in it as he tried vainly to quell the bleeding and he muttered to himself as he pressed down, ignoring the sympathetic gathering behind him.

“My fault.  My fault.”  He moaned, rocking back and forth.  “They weren’t supposed to be here, Vay.”  He told him.  “We scouted.  The area was clear.  There was no one. This can’t happen.”  The last words came out in a shriek as he felt the final breath leave the body he cradled with such rigorous care.

“No.”  He denied.  Louder and louder, the scream intensified, pulling at his sanity and drawing it upward into the sunlit sky, tearing it away from him as his soul tried to follow Vaysh . . . and failed.

“No. Nononononononono . . .”

Part Two

(Five Years Later)

Ashmael was drunk, pleasantly drunk.  It was a condition he had become both accustomed to and fond of in the last few months.  This inn was a nice place, no one bothered him and the betica was particularly good.  He could not remember how long he had been here, or even the name of this hamlet, but it didn’t bother him, time and place no longer concerned him.

Blinking owlishly, he stared down into the bottom of his glass and found it empty.  The jug too, was in the same condition and he banged it heavily on the table, indicating to the pot har that he wanted a refill.  While he was waiting, he leaned back into his seat and looked around the room.  The inn was full, no surprise really, as it was the only one in town.  The usual eclectic mixture of tribes and styles were present, from the torn leathers and furs of the Uigenna and the bland weaves of the townhars, to the motley silks and feathers of the whores that were a fixture in any bar.  None of it was interesting to him.   So long as they left him alone, he was content.

No one ever approached him, other than to serve his drink or wipe his table.  Something in the eyes, he told himself with cold, alcoholic humour.  That, or the solid ten inches of steel protruding from his belt.  I am a nasty drunk, he chortled to himself, the only outward sign of his amusement a tiny creasing around his mouth that might have been a smile.  One of the whores noticed and gave him a come-hither look.  He wiped the enticing smile from the painted face with a single, sour glare and the whore quickly turned back to the more lucrative, amenable har by his side.

The pot har returned with his jug and poured him a glass.  Grunting his thanks, Ashmael returned his attentions to his drink and his own thoughts.  There was a dead fly in his glass and he flicked it out onto the table before taking a swig.  I don’t even have the energy to be angry, he thought.  What a sad state of affairs.  What a sad case of a har, an annoying little voice in his head, told him.  It had been doing that a lot lately.  Oh, shut up, he replied savagely. No. It taunted. You used to be worth something once.  What are you now?

Dead, he told it.  I am dead inside and glad to be so.  The glass was getting empty, so he refilled it in the hope of quieting his unwelcome companion.  That won’t help, the voice said sadly, haven’t you worked that out by now?  Vay is dead, it went on relentlessly, you are not.  Live!

Ashmael shook his head in negation and answered aloud.  “Death is a subjective state.  Breathing has nothing to do with it.”

Some of the hara in the bar turned toward him when he spoke and just as quickly looked away.  Realising what he had done, Ashmael bit his lip and drained his glass.  That’s right, he thought.  Look away.  Don’t see what is right under your nose!  This is pointless.  No point to Wraeththu, no salvation, no better way.  It is all a lie, a huge cosmic joke to which we are not privy.  Just drink your wine and forget it, that’s what I am going to do.

But, it had been different once, hadn’t it?  He had believed, even striven toward that dream.  Tried his hardest to make it a reality.  But it had all come crashing down in a hail of gunfire; had melted into a pool of blood at his feet.

Why did you leave me Vay? The betica was not giving him any answers; it hadn’t for years.

Basik was now only a fond memory in more ways than one.  The happiness, the sense of purpose that he had found there had been burned alongside the body of his chesnari and the town itself abandoned.

A large tribe of Uigenna had discovered the hills and had found them a safe haven, much as the townsfolk of Basik had before them.  It had become untenable for them there and they had packed up and slunk away.  Or so he’d heard.  He had left before it happened, running away from the reminders of the way his life had been before it had been burned to ashes.

He met up with a har he had known there, on a lonely road, miles from anywhere and had found out that his home no longer existed.  The humans had retreated further into the mountains, hoping to make the high places into the secure citadel that Basik had been.  Some of the hara had scattered to the larger wraeththu towns that were slowly beginning to spring up here and there.  Looking for safety in numbers, Ashmael supposed.  A few others, like Farah, were headed for another place they had heard of, out in the desert somewhere.  Ashmael had turned down his former friend’s invitation to accompany him on his search for the settlement by the soda lake and they had parted ways.

He and Farah had never really gotten along, although the dark-skinned har caused him no offence.  Farah was what Ashmael’s’ father used to call a pen pusher, more concerned with the way of doing things than the result.  They would drive each other to distraction within hours.  Besides, Farah was a reminder that Ashmael did not want.  Every time he looked at him, he would see a reflection of Basik, of Vaysh, and of the har that he used to be.  He didn’t want that.

**

There was a fly in his drink, wasn’t there?  Or was that the last drink, or maybe the one before that?  Ashmael was so intent on staring down into the bottom of his empty glass, trying to focus on its invisible contents that he didn’t at first notice someone standing on the other side of his table.

When he did see the long legs and the fingers tapping impatiently at the wood, he smiled, feeling quite mellow, and waggled his glass in his visitor’s direction.

“Fly.”  He explained.  “It flew away.”

There was a snort of what could have been laughter, but might just as easily have been disgust and then his bleary eyes saw the figure kind of fold over in the middle and shrink.  It took him a few moments to realise that the har had only sat down and had not really shrivelled and even longer to recognise him.

“Thiede!”  He exclaimed, forcing his limp body upright.  Then, “The bad penny returns.”

“Tiahaar Aldebaran.”  Thiede’s greeting was regal and stony, completely wasted on Ash who was incapable of listening for nuances.  “Enjoying the inn’s hospitality, I see.”

“Yep.”  Ash agreed, smiling his nastiest smile.  He raised his glass in toast to all inns.  It was empty.

While he concentrated on getting the betica from the jug into the glass, he could feel Thiede studying him.

You do that, you sanctimonious shit.  Take a good, long look. Then he wondered if Thiede could hear his thoughts.  Probably.  Not that he cared.

Glass full once more, he straightened up, holding himself steady with one arm over the back of the bench, and looked directly at Thiede for the first time.  The small portion of his brain that was not overwhelmed by the betica’s effects, was telling him to be careful.  There was purpose as well as amusement in Thiede’s gaze; other than that, nothing much had changed about the tall har since Ash had seen him last.

Still dressed in the same fashion, the long tunic over the fancy-patterned pants, the coiling ropes of red hair and those dreadful yellow eyes that challenged one to stare directly into them.

Ashmael failed the challenge.  His gaze shifted down again, toward Thiede’s overly long arms and the thin fingers that rested on the tabletop.  He still had the long, curling nails, Ash saw.

“Hideous.”  He said, not realising at first that he’d spoken aloud.

“So I’ve been told.”  Thiede replied quite mildly.  “However, I like them.”

So affable and so out of character!  What did he want?  Ashmael could feel himself beginning to sober, tension dissipating the alcohol as his enhanced genetics dealt speedily with the intoxication.  This was too casual an encounter to be an accident.  There wasn’t enough surprise on Thiede’s part, no comments about Ashmael’s presence in a town so far from Basik, no evidence of distaste for his appearance and his drunken state.  He knew I was here, Ash concluded.

For the first time in forever, Ashmael was forced to think of himself, as others must see him.  The slovenliness of his dress, the stained and torn clothing, ragged hair and dirty fingernails that had seemed unimportant minutes ago, now made him want to squirm and hide.  Not for vanity’s sake, but because he suddenly felt that he would need all the weapons he could harness to face Thiede.  Well, at least my weapons are in good order, he thought.  I’ll bet he noticed that much hasn’t changed.   His hand dropped to finger the hilt of his knife, Thiede’s’ smile acknowledging the movement.

I should run you through with it, you bastard, he thought.  His dislike of Thiede was intense and emotional.  The tall har seemed to rub him up the wrong way simply by breathing.

It wasn’t any one thing about Thiede, it was all of them; the arrogance, the confidence in complicity that he projected, the rank odour of secrets wrapped in enigmas that made Ash want to puke and run.

Instead, he copied Thiede’s insouciance.  “So, Orien not with you?”

Thiede shook his head.  “Saltrock.”

“You turned him into a salt rock?”  He feigned surprise.   “Bit biblical, isn’t it?”

Ash snickered at his own joke.

“It’s a place.  A place like Basik.  You do remember Basik, don’t you Ashmael?”  Thiede’s eyes raked over Ash’s dishevelled appearance.  “Maybe not.”

“Ooh, bitchy.”  Ash deadpanned, totally unharmed by the jab.  He was revving up now, the remaining alcohol combined with adrenaline to give him strength, ready for anything.

Instead, Thiede shook his head, composing himself.  “Yes, it was.  I apologise, Ashmael.  I did not come here to cross swords with you.”

“No?”  Ash took his cue from Thiede’s manner and became serious himself.  “What then?  You’ve admitted that this meeting is no accident without my even having to ask.  So what is it you want, Thiede?  Why are you here?”

**

“I want you to come and work with me.”

The remaining alcohol fled Ash’s system completely while astonishment replaced hostility as his prime emotion.

“You want me to work for you?  Surely, you are joking!  Guarding caravans? What the hell for?  One minute you’re making disparaging remarks about my shoddy state and the next you’re offering me employment?”

“Yes, well, put that way it does sound rather contrary but, if I were in fact looking for a guard for my caravans, then yours is the name I’d be hearing, isn’t it?”

Thiede leaned back in his seat, perfectly relaxed and controlled, before continuing.

“I know you’ve been earning your drinking money working as a mercenary; that is how I found you.  Ask the regulars at any inn, ask those here, they all say the same thing; if you want guaranteed protection for your produce, then Ashmael Aldebaran is the one to hire. You’re a living legend.”

Ashmael laughed but the sound was without genuine humour.

“Can’t resist the little digs, can you?  Certainly, I earn my money guarding settler trains and caravans, but I don’t know where you got the idea that I’d want to have anything to do with you or your goods!”

At this, Thiede leaned forward and fixed Ash with a mesmerising gaze, forcing Ash’s attention to his words.  “I do not want you for protecting caravans, Ashmael.  Although it is most certainly your skill as a fighter and a leader of men that interests me.  And don’t for one minute think that I am not aware of your low opinion of my character, you’ve stated it often enough.”

“I have no. . .”  Ash broke off his protest, realising that Thiede had almost certainly read his thoughts.

Thiede nodded.  “That’s right.  I can and I did.  Now, be quiet for a moment and allow me to explain.”  Satisfied that he finally had Ash’s full attention, he went on.

“The dream that was Basik has begun to come to fruition in Saltrock and in other places, Ashmael.  It lives on and I have taken a hand in it.  While you have spent five years drinking yourself into oblivion, things have been moving and changing out there.”

“Independent hara everywhere who are sick and tired of being robbed, killed and forced to kowtow to the tribes are rebelling in numbers.  Great numbers, Ashmael, not the trickle that you witnessed in the mountains.  The tribe that the hara of Basik always dreamed of becoming has been established and they are called the Gelaming.  I was instrumental in their formation, they are my creatures if you like, and, when you join us, you will be too.  Your dislike of me is no secret, nor does it bother me a great deal.  Proof of that lies in the fact that I have searched you out.  You specifically, Ashmael, because we need you.”

“Why?”  Ashmael asked his head spinning in confusion.

“To lead my armies.  It is that simple.  I have seen for myself the leadership qualities within you.”

“I saw it in Basik, how your troops adored you, your devotion to them.  You are a tactician without peer, level headed and charismatic, all the qualities I need for the task ahead.  Even now, when you are at your lowest ebb, your reputation as a warrior remains of the highest standard.  You are perfect for my needs and, for that reason, I have had you marked for this for a long time.

Ashmael was stunned almost beyond words.  Fixated on the word ‘army’, he had hardly heard a word of the praise Thiede had heaped on him and it was to this single word he returned when speech almost failed him.

“Armies?”  He choked out.

“Yes.”  Thiede stated simply.  “I have an army.  Enough hara for several, in fact.  What they lack is a General strong enough to lead them.  Most of the smaller, hostile tribes have been dealt with.  The time has come to reclaim the land from the largest and for this, an army is required.”

Ashmael’s scattered wits slowly came back together, bringing with it his sarcastic tone.

“What you are saying is, that the dream of a perfect world that Basik represented, has now become an overwhelming need in you to be top dog.  Would that be about right?  And you want me to lead this conquering army for you?  What, so you can replace the Uigenna and all the others with your own monopoly?  Excuse me, but I pass!”

His contempt for this plan obvious, he went to rise from the table, but Thiede’s hand restrained him.

“You misunderstand me, Ashmael.  Perhaps deliberately, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt and explain further, if you will listen.”

“Do I have a choice?”  He muttered ungraciously, conscious of his inability to break Thiede’s grip.

“You will agree I trust, that the dreams the citizens of Basik had for peace were unworkable?  And that your prediction of the long path to true enlightenment would be littered with bodies?”

Ashmael nodded.

“My time in Basik left me with much to consider.  The opposing ideas helped formulate my plan.  My design is a compromise of the two views.”  Thiede went on.  “My army is a force for peace.  Or perhaps I should put it another way; my army will enforce the peace.  Conquer only those who resist the changes and, once the hostilities end, progress will be defined by education and by the enforcement of the law.”

“I see provinces and territories, ruled by each tribe according to their own tastes and traditions, with a central government comprised of representatives from each.  Once peace is assured, the Gelaming will only make their presence felt through council.  Does that sound more . . . congenial?”

Surprisingly, Ashmael found that it did.  He felt a queer pang in his chest as hope stirred.  Then, Thiede overplayed his hand and Ashmael’s heart hardened once more.

“It is what Vaysh wanted most.”  Thiede said softly.

However, Ash could see the thinly disguised light of triumph in the other har’s eyes and was disgusted, murderously so, by his blatant use of Vaysh as leverage.

Standing so abruptly that the bench toppled behind him, Ashmael’s hand shot across the table and grabbed a handful of Thiede’s shirt.

“You,” he said softly.  “Are not fit to utter his name.  Speak it again and I will cut out your tongue.”

He released his grip with such force that Thiede was thrown back against the hard wood of the seat, wincing at the impact.  Before he could recover, Ashmael was gone, leaving behind only the lingering aura of his hostility and the sideways stares of the other patrons.

Straightening his clothes, Thiede could hear one clear thought coming from the pot har who arrived to clean up the spilled wine. ‘Fool!’

No doubt, the other occupants of the inn were having similar thoughts, but Thiede was not disturbed.  Ashmael was dangerous and wild, but he did not know whom he was up against.  It was only round one to Ashmael Aldebaran; this contest of wills was not over.

**

Back in his room, Thiede settled down to communicate with Orien.  Keeping his friend abreast of developments was no onerous duty; he enjoyed his thoughts and his input most of the time.

Tonight, however, Thiede knew he was in for a large dose of, ‘I told you so.’ and wasn’t looking forward to it.  Orien had very definite views about Thiede’s manipulations and was not afraid to make them known and to chastise where he thought appropriate.  Because they were good friends of such long standing, Thiede tolerated it most of the time.

I did try to warn you. Orien’s initial reaction to Thiede’s report was predictable.

He has been deeply damaged by all that has happened and no amount of internal fortitude can alleviate it.  Confronting him only aggravates the situation and makes him less likely to comply with your wishes, Thiede.  I did offer alternative ways of dealing with this.  Perhaps now . . .?

I will not be questioned about my methods, Orien.  Aldebaran will come to appreciate my direct approach in time.  When he sobers up, I should think.  However, I have considered your recommendations and will use them if it becomes necessary.

Hearing Orien’s mental shrug, Thiede moved to change the subject with,  How goes it on your end?  Any promising leads?

Yes and no. Orien replied after a moment.  Saltrock is a fertile place for recruiting exactly the kind of hara we are looking for, but, as for finding anyhar special . . .?

Not so far.
Well, I shall leave you to get on with it then. Thiede finished with a few minor pieces of information he needed to impart and then ended the contact with a fond farewell.

Lying back on his bed in contemplation, Thiede went over his problem with the recalcitrant Tiahaar Aldebaran.  The greatest impediment to his eventual capitulation seemed to lie in his resentment of Thiede as an individual and not with any disbelief in their mutual goals.   One of Orien’s earlier suggestions came to mind as an alternative to his own ‘direct’ method.

He was pressed for time and so needed to convert Ashmael to his cause with all possible haste; however, nowhere was it written that he couldn’t have a little pleasure of his own in the course of executing his duty.

**

Ashmael’s door stood firmly closed against intrusion.  Thiede did not think twice; simply by wanting the door to be open, it opened.  Inside, the room was in darkness but, considering the lateness of the hour, he had expected it to be.

Awoken from a sound sleep with only scant seconds in which to orient himself, Ashmael was already standing beside his bed, ten inches of steel in his hand.  Thiede was impressed and told him so.

Now that he had recognised his late night intruder, Ash returned his knife to its sheath and ran his fingers distractedly through his hair.

“Couldn’t this wait?”  He said finally, when the silence began to stretch out.

“No.”  Thiede said, giving his opponent a cheeky smile.  “Strike while the iron is hot.  Press home my advantage, or whatever the proverb is.”

“You don’t have an advantage.”  Ashmael said semi-sullenly.  “What you had is a dismissal, a rejection, an invitation to make yourself scarce.”

“What I want,” Thiede went on, relentlessly jovial. “Is a second chance.  A few moments.  Can you manage that?”

“At this hour?”  Ashmael smiled reluctantly, catching a slice of Thiede’s mood.

“I can hardly manage to keep my eyes open, much less argue.  Does that make you feel any better?”

Thiede took his opportunity and crossed the room to sit beside Ashmael on the bed.

It appeared as if Ashmael had made some small effort to clean himself up, which was a promising sign.  He had bathed, obviously, and his hair was still damp, sticking up in all directions like a child’s.  Still groggy from the drink and his interrupted sleep, but more wholesome looking and appealing in the clean pants he had changed into for bed.

“I’ve been thinking,” Thiede began.  He needed to appear contrite, subduing that which had led Ashmael to loathe him so intensely.

As much as Thiede disliked playing down his natural presence and power, he was prepared to do whatever it took to resolve this situation.  All he needed was a chance to get beneath Ashmael’s guard.

“And I apologise for trying to use emotional blackmail to influence your decision.”  .

“But,” he went on before Ash could speak.  “My enthusiasm ran away with me, nothing more than that and I am hoping you can forgive me.  My passion for the subject matter made me reckless.  I know you don’t like me, Ashmael,” he paused to look directly into Ash’s eyes, projecting trust and honesty.  “And I can tolerate that for the greater good.  We don’t have to like each other in order to work together and that is what I wanted to make plain to you.  Please, do not let it influence you.

Please, give my offer the consideration it deserves without letting your personal prejudice affect the outcome.”

He stopped speaking, head down to hide his expression, and waited.

**

Ash scratched his head, lost for words.  He wasn’t fooled by Thiede’s apparent humility; it was too far from the character he knew inhabited that tall, lanky body for him to be taken in, but there was a certain sincerity hidden in amongst the platitudes.

He had a point, too.  Ash wanted badly to believe in the things Thiede had outlined, despite his angry reaction to the use of Vaysh’s name, he acknowledged that what Thiede had said was true, regardless of his motives for saying it.

However, he wasn’t getting off the hook that easily.

“Nicely done.”  Ash replied.  “Very neat.  I’d give you a nine out of ten if I were judging you on it.”

Thiede’s head came up and he looked at Ashmael with resignation written all over his face.  Ash wasn’t buying that little performance either, but charitably decided to put him out of his misery.

“However, you are right.  On all counts.  I don’t like you, but I do want to believe you are right.  More than that, I am tired of living like this; without any sense of direction or purpose.  It is not in my nature to be passive for so long and I came to the conclusion earlier tonight that I’d be a fool to ignore this opportunity simply because I don’t like you very much.  But,”  he fixed Thiede with a stern look.  “I don’t like you trying to use . . . his name to influence my commitment to you, but I am willing to forgive you for it.  This once.”

“I’m very grateful.”  Thiede said, not looking grateful at all.

“Sure you are.”  Ash grinned at him.

“No, truly.”  Thiede confessed.  “I am a little pressed for time and this speedy resolution helps me out immensely.”

Ash laughed long and loud at this admission.  Thiede laughed too; a genuine smile of relief.

“There’s still the problem of us not getting along.”  Ash warned him.  “I can be as manipulative as you are and you can be just as nasty as I am when crossed, I’m sure. We are both dominators, Thiede and I have no idea how this is going to work out.

I tell you now, I will not back down from you.  If there’s a fight . . .” he shrugged.  “We may end up back at square one.”

“I’m prepared to take that risk.”  Thiede said.  “In fact, if you are willing, I can think of a way to clear at least some of the air between us.  It won’t guarantee that there will be no confrontations between us in the future, but I can settle this question of my intentions right here and now if you like?”

“You can?”  Ashmael tilted his head to the side, quizzically.  “What’s the plan?”

“Share breath with me.”

Before Ashmael could either agree or refuse, Thiede took the initiative.

Trapped by long arms, moving so swiftly that his reflexes had no time to react, Ash found himself swept into Thiede’s embrace, his mouth opening in surprise just as Thiede brought his head down and captured Ash’s face between his hands.

Thiede exhaled, their eyes met, and Ash’s world began to spin.

Their mouths had not even touched and yet he could feel the power flowing between them as Thiede breathed in and out.  When their lips did finally come together, it was like a punch in the gut, a combination of raw, primal power and essential purity that was both overwhelming and humbling.

Then the power began to abate and gave Ashmael glimpses of the soul beneath.  Of course, there were dark areas, secrets to which he was not to be privy, but he would have expected nothing less.  However, what he did access was pleasing, more likeable than he would have thought.

There was the arrogance and surety that was so much a part of Thiede’s formidable character, but also the honesty he had sensed earlier, the lucidity of purpose and the belief in the rightness of his actions, as crystal clear as the blue lakes of Ash’s childhood.

It was a place to drown in.  Calm and reassuring, a therapeutic balm for a tormented soul and Ash was powerless to resist its compelling pull.  Almost unconsciously, he found himself drawing on the strength and healing so readily offered, unaware of his own hands tangling in Thiede’s rich red hair or of the nearly inaudible sounds of pleasure he was making as the exchange slowly segued from its restorative melody into the deep, rhythmic beat of the erotic.

It was a battle of wills, half-heartedly fought, that Thiede was always going to win.  He submitted to its intensity and was vanquished by the passion of their union.

Ashmael watched Thiede leave.  Content to let him go; he had renewed hope and some small measure of faith in himself.  His battered confidence in his race had a new injection of optimism and, while he knew that he would never entirely get along with Thiede, he was certain that they could manage enough complicity to achieve their mutual goals.

***

So . . . ?  How did you get on? Orien asked.

Mission accomplished, as I told you it would be. Thiede told him smugly.

I am pleased. Orien’s mental voice was warm.  Tiahaar Aldebaran will be a valuable asset, one we will sorely need in the years ahead.

Yes, well, we have him.  A little damaged and somewhat fragile right now, but he has the strength and the will to overcome.  My army of angels will be in good hands.

Orien went silent for a moment, and then he asked,

Are you planning to tell me which of my two alternative plans you ended up employing?

What makes you think I had to resort to using your ideas? Thiede said archly.

A rich, mental chuckle reverberated through the link.

Come on, Thiede, ‘fess up.

Oh, all right!  We shared breath and he got to see my vast and wondrous nature for himself.  Happy?

The vibrations you are giving off leads me to suspect that it was a tad more than breath you shared my friend, but I shan’t pry. Orien teased.

A moment later his voice lowered and he became far more serious.

You chose not to tell him it all then, I take it?

Of course not.  He knows all that he needs to for now.  My plans for his former chesnari have not yet come to fruition; until they do, until Vaysh is ready, Ashmael is better off left in ignorance of the situation.

And if we fail with Vaysh?

We will not fail.

Thiede slapped his knee for emphasis, forgetting that the conversation was only mental.

The process has been perfected this time, I am sure of it.  Even if there is a failure, he will not be told.  You concentrate on finding suitable hara, Orien.  In the unlikely event that Vaysh does not work out I will need more candidates.  Leave the rest to me.  I know what I am doing, and I cannot afford to lose Aldebaran.  If, like those before him, Vaysh survives only partially intact, I will still be keeping him far, far away from my General!

But . . .?

Orien. Thiede warned him.  Ashmael is incapable of processing the kind of truth you wish to impart.  Trust me.  It would destroy him.  You will not take matters into your own hands.  He is not to be told, understood?

Orien understood very well.

As the contact with Thiede ended, he sighed and then put the conversation behind him and went about the business of being hienama to the hara of Saltrock.

Thiede’s army would have its General, even if it were missing one of his angels.

****************************************************************

Epilogue

First there was only the light and the cold, it was later that the warmth of lifeblood renewed began to manifest itself as sensation.  Disparate, floating above the reality that had been the world, he saw the dust, the carnage that had been his body and he wanted to weep for its loss and the pain he could sense flowing from the one below.  There were no tears, not for the longest time, as he had not the body to make them and even then, when the new vessel was launched, they were lost in the warm vicious liquid that surrounded this incomplete container.

“I knew we would succeed!”  Thiede sounded exultant.

“Don’t count your chickens, my friend.  We’ve come this far before . . .”  Orien’s voice trailed off doubtfully.

Thiede turned from the genesis to stare at his oldest friend.

“Orien,”  he said gently. “I know you have your doubts, I know we have failed before, but this one . . .”  He looked back for a moment at the figure floating gently in the liquid womb.  “This one has something special.”

There were dreams; at least he assumed they were dreams, which led him back and forth along the passageway that was his life.  Life before life, boy before har, it passed by him and through him like a flowing river, the mouth of which was somewhere outside his saline cocoon.

He knew, without knowing how, that this life had not yet begun, not really.  He was made, propelled, as yet helpless, into a sea of glutinous liquid which nourished and sustained him and which was tended to with a care that was dispassionate but intense.  Again, this thought made him want to weep and he was unable to.

The formation proceeded as it should and Thiede was pleased.  Soon, the physical side of the regeneration would be complete and it would be time to move on to the spiritual and mental aspect of the process.

His memories began to fade and nothing came to replace them.  He resisted with all that was still he.  The warmth and the love that had been ripped from him was his essence and he would not release it, despite the cajoling words and entreaties of his carers.  Their promises were false and he held fiercely to the faded images of gold and blue, laughing eyes and tangled hair that kept him intact.

“Thiede it is not working.  Despite all our care, he will not let go.”

“Time.”  Thiede strode around the room, his boot heels tapping out his displeasure.  “It will take more time.  He will not be completely cleansed until the regeneration is physically sanctified anyway.  By then, I expect most of the remaining hindrances to be removed.  I shall deal with whatever is left during the ceremony.”

“To tear somehar from the arms of all he know and loves . . .”  Orien shook his head sadly.  “It cannot help but fail, Thiede.”

Thiede snorted.  “Love!  I know what you want, Orien.”  He turned and fixed his friend with a vaguely contemptuous stare.  “But even if I were to raise a harling of my own, (and I do not have the time) I tell you, it is the process itself that is failing somewhere, not some vague, human emotion that impedes its success!”

Embittered by their insistence, he chilled and became like the ice he had seen as his soul was sucked down into the vortex of his moist prison.  He became unresponsive to their pleas and, finally, to their commands.  Eventually, he heard the sour bite of failure in their voices and was pleased.

END

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2 Comments

  1. cyberjin said,

    July 10, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    This was a good story it was sad though and I cried with vy died. And I was angry when thied brought him back. This was so lively that I got soo immotional lol

  2. Lia said,

    July 24, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    You should continue this. You’re writing style is wonderful, and, although it wouldn’t be perfectly cannon, I think you should do something about Ashmael figuring it out. People don’t focus on him at the point enough in my mind.


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