Disclaimer: You are allowed criticise and you are more than allowed to point out grammatical errors or incorrect use of words due to English not being my native language. Also copyright by me but I always wanted to write that, so.
Chapter 3 – In which a child regrets all decisions that have led to its conception and everything afterwards
Under the cities built after the war was Moscaw, which was built next to the ocean and within sight of the huge desert and its tribes. Ruled with iron hand by High King Arundel, who, to ensure the loyalty of the desert tribes, had wed Keybanu, the chieftain’s daughter, who soon gave birth to a boy – Khaled. His father was ecstatic to be granted an heir so soon after marriage and the festivities to commemorate his birth lasted seven days and seven nights and the child was showered in gifts from near and far.
It however soon became clear, as the boy got older, that he was much too soft spoken and kind to follow in his father’s ruthless footsteps.
Arundel did not take kindly to failures so the boy soon had himself cast away, ushered into the arms of nannies and teachers, often not seeing his father for months on end. He however found an unlike friend in Akira, head of the palace guards, who took the boy under his wings.
It came the day that Arundel called Khaled into his study to announce to the young man that he intended to marry him off to Varekai, one of his most loyal officers, as a reward for his services to the crown. “And you shall be a dutiful husband to him”, the High King spoke: “For I promised him exactly that”
Khaled had never been someone to go against his father’s wishes, as much as he usually despised them, so he just inclined his head and accepted his fate.
Khaled met his future husband for the first time when Varekai and his half-brother Rajko came back from patrol. It was obvious even to the untrained eye that Varekai and Rajko were brothers. They looked eerily similar, so much that people often mistook them for twins but they weren’t – born to the same father but different mothers, Varekai was the legitimate heir and Rajko, being the son of a hand-maiden, was raised to be Varekai’s loyal shadow, to give his life – if necessary – to protect the heir.
Varekai tried his best to be as good a husband as possible to Khaled, even if his interest lay more with women than men. In turn, Khaled provided him with a child, a son, who was born a scant few weeks before Queen Keybanu gave birth to the first of a string of daughters. It was, however, the beginning of the end of a marriage that had always been more of a sham than anything else.
When their son Kimete was five, it was mutually agreed upon dissolving the marriage and Khaled packed their things with little regret to move back to Moscaw. He had confined to Akira, his only friend despite their difference in age and status, that he wished to be just left in peace. High King Arundel had other plans.
A mere few months after his return Khaled was wed again, this time to his previous husband’s half-brother. Rajko was a lot but kindness was not one of his better qualities. Where Varekai had at least tried, Rajko did not hide that he despised being wed to a man and had just agreed to please his king and gain his favor. Separated from Akira, the only person to have ever cared about his wellbeing, Khaled endured hell.
If you’d ask gods how they had realized – or rather if – that they were different before Harbinger picked them, all of them would report a strange buzzing noise in their mind, as if another one was invading their thoughts, assessing them. They’d point out that shortly after the buzzing appeared they realized an increase in their abilities, strange powers they had never realized they possessed.
Khaled had never been properly trained after Arundel had realized that he’d never possess his own ruthlessness. Akira had taken the boy under his wings and did what he could but the child had been quiet and demure and cried when he just assumed he had hurt someone. So it had come as a terrifying surprise to Khaled when he suddenly found himself in front of a huge mirror and a monotone voice intoned: “Khaled, God of Sanity”.
High King Arundel was beside himself, not with pride at his son, no, but with ideas of the power he could obtain using this connection. It was him who pressed for Khaled to be elected the Council’s chief strategist, praising his analytic mind and cleverness. Rajko however spat in his face and left, faced with the knowledge that the man he had terrorized for the past years was indeed more powerful than he was.
It all however, was theory at best. Khaled was no closer to being a masterful fighter than he had ever been solely for his change to a god. In the absence of Rajko, Akira takes the pretense of “training” and leaves Moscaw to his second in command to help the man he has come to see as his ward. Under his careful tutelage Khaled at least learns to defend himself.
It is universally agreed upon by scholars nowadays that the unfolding events can be traced back to High King Arundel’s greed for power and the Council’s inability to deny a clear madman what he requested. Even if that request included his son, recently appointed Chief Strategist of the Council, to lead a part of his army in one of his numerous skirmishes in the desert against those who had not been placated by his wedding to Keybanu.
It could have worked out, some of them argue, even despite Khaled’s newness at the finer points of war for he was clever and had studied with great care the words of the old masters about warfare. However, his ultimate plight was the soldiers given to him – fresh young faced soldiers, just recent graduates from the university and still so stuck on the things they had learned that they had dismissed all of Khaled’s careful laid plans and ran head first into battle, so sure of themselves.
It is never an easy thing to see people under one’s command dead, not even for seasoned commanders, unless their hearts are cold as stone. Khaled’s goes out to the family of these dead soldiers, smoldering in the hot desert sand and he closes his eyes and resolves to turn his back to all of this. To his father, his city, the council.
He goes, not looking back, even if it hurts him to leave his son and Akira behind, his only child and the only man he’d not have minded to call ‘father’.
Arundel rages on and on and yells at his soldiers, at the Council of God, at everything and everyone and Akira stands at his shoulder and thinks “your fault, yours alone” and “please let him be safe”.
There are enough versions of Akira’s final showdown with the High King floating around to fill a book. The favorite is still the one where he shifts into a dragon and flies off into the sunset. As usual, the truth is far bleaker. He just tears off his insignia and throws them to High King Arundel’s feet before he strides out.
Fast, because he is no fool and he knows that as soon as Arundel recalls his wits he himself will be a persona non grata and if he isn’t out of the city when this happens all his defiance will be for naught because he will spend the last of his years rotting in a cell.
So the myth of the Lost God is followed by the one about the guard who went off to find him, even if the actual truth behind it gets muddled and lost over the years.
Chapter 4 – In which a boy gets born, raised, meets a wise sage and falls in love
Rebirth was a fickle thing to do – a person that was reborn did not replace the person that was meant to be born in the same body. Both minds, both beings fused together and warred within the unborn life until birth. Either outcome was possible – the being to be reborn winning the body for itself, the being yet to be born claiming the body rightfully back for itself… or both beings creating a symbiosis, forming a new and altered reborn being. In these cases the memories of the reborn being were as good as erased, the only possibility being reminded by seeing people, places, things that triggered the memories from deep within.
The seventh being knew of all this and more when he watched the little being grow inside Thyra. And yet it decided to pluck Hate from where he was in its realm and send him into the forming mind of the unborn being.
Then it waited.
Thyra had been called in front of Wisdom, to look into the future, to see.
And see she did, but the minds warring in her womb did muddle her visions, made them twisted and turned and wrong and what she told was so far from the truth. And yet the gods believed her, their pet seeress, and heeded her advice only to have it backfire so completely, so horribly.
It was at this time that Thyra fell out of favor with the Council.
The seventh being watched as Thyra and Stephanus fled from the Council’s seat, watched as Thyra breathed her last breath as she gave birth to the little boy she had cared for nine months, saw how Stephanus stood against the soldiers sent to retrieve them, saw how he fought even against the gods himself, saw how he was restrained and shackled, brought to the prison in the middle of the icy wasteland, saw how the boy was placed in an orphanage, saw how he was given the name ‘Stephanus the Younger’ to “always remind him who and what his father was – a traitor”.
At the Council Allegra drew a veil around her head in mourning. Appointed gods had no family anymore and blood relations were kept under lock and key so none of the regular population of Silmä drew the connection between the Goddess of Rage and the traitors Thyra and Stephanus. Of the boy, her little brother, Allegra knew nothing, having not seen her parents in eons and having only heard of their death and imprisonment respectively by word of mouth and the soft voice of Kemal, who had reminded her of her loyalty to the Council.
The orphanage he was placed in to be raised was devoted to Wisdom and so the first years of his life the gods kept an eye on him but soon their interest in him waned as he grew up a somber child, a child who rarely laughed in his first years of life and ceased to laugh at all soon thereafter.
The only time the boy was told about his heritage was shortly before his tenth birthday when he was supposed to be sent off to be educated in one of the higher schools around Silmä which were mandatory to attend for everyone from the age of ten up to the age of twenty. He was told about his heritage and told to keep it a secret from those around him as none of his parents was viewed favorable by the public eye for the wounds this new battle had caused were still too fresh.
Stephanus the Younger did not stand out during his academic years but he studied everything he could get his hands on, smuggled books from the school’s library and made notes that soon filled his room on every available surface. For him, his years at school were means to an end, to gain access to more and more knowledge in which he saw the ultimate pinnacle of life. Gain knowledge about all of Silmä, about its inner and outer workings and everything else and gain true power. So he set out to travel after he had finished school.
That Eleanor of Aquitania met Stephanus the Younger was by sheer luck and coincidence only. Who knows if the story would have progressed as it if those two had not met? But Eleanor had met the young man at the beginning of his travels and in contrary to most of Silmä she understood the enormity of what she saw – that Hate had been reborn and was once again wandering over the lands. War had taught her to value the chance of survival above all so instead of engaging him, instead of alerting the Council, she opened her city, opened her home to this orphaned child and promised aid if needed.
With her help and funds he got a ship and a crew, chartered to bring the bright eyed youth to wherever he wished to pursue his studies. And travel he did, all over Silmä, to each and every continent, taking notes, perusing libraries, always learning, adapting. Years did pass that way as Silmä was vast and distances were greater than they looked on maps. But he gained in knowledge as he had hoped and he met many people who were amazed at his solemn genius even at his young age. People who’d promised their help whenever needed and would later, much later, become valued allies.
His last stop was to be the icy Adetokunbo where they made port shortly before it got too cold to safely reach the harbor without fearing to collide with icebergs. Stephanus had heard about a truly astonishing school in mountains where a wise sage was said to possess a copy of books that tied the bending abilities not to one’s element but to one’s fighting style and aimed to teach all of his pupils all of the elements. A truly heretic approach that delighted Stephanus to no end. So he left the ship and its crew in the harbor to wait for springtide and set out for the mountains on one of the sturdy little ponies Adetokunbo’s population preferred over the long legged and freezing bigger horses some of their royals had imported.
He reached the mountains a month later, more or less frozen solid by the harsh winds that blew through the tundra and broke itself double on the first mountainous ridge. Mercifully the sage was easy to find, the way steep but signposted and his pony slowly but surely made his way, its hooves clicking in monotone staccato. To his surprise he was welcomed easily at the entrance by the porter, a tall and hairy man whose beard seemed to grow even faster with every second.
“We’ve been expecting you sooner”, the porter said and gestured him through the stone, motioned for him to follow him through a narrow tunnel, up a flight of stairs, through a door and then he stopped, mouth agape.
A round room opened on one side into what seemed to be the belly of a death volcano, cold magma wound itself in curious shapes around the walls and when he approached the opening he could see below a wide field where people sparred. It was warm in here, a welcome respite from the all compassing coldness that seeped through all of Adetokunbo within seconds of setting foot on his soil.
“Magnificent, no?”, a warm voice said and when he turned around he saw that the porter had left and a man sat on a small table, chin propped up on folded hands. “Truly”, he agreed easily. “I have been waiting for you, my visions have made it clear that you would be important”, the man continued and stood up. “I am Baldovin and I welcome you to my refuge.”
It was easy to settle into a comfortable routine in this mountain refuge, to join the sage’s followers in their daily life and lessons. As Stephanus had hope, it was a new approach to an old idea and it was with abandon that he threw himself into the study of this new concept.
Here, in the mountains, was when he met another person important for his future journey.
They usually trained not only in the volcano but also outside on the snowy mountain sides, sometimes travelling high enough to see the glaciers that encompassed Adetokunbo on one side. After one of these excursions Stephanus was walking back to the room Baldovin had assigned him when he first arrived, passing through the round room where he had met the sage for the first time. He nearly collided with a slim hooded figure standing in front of the opening, watching the fighters below. When he steadied them he got a look at pale eyes over a sharp nose under the hood’s shadow before etiquette made him loosen his grip and excuse himself.
Love is a curious thing that manifests itself in various forms. Stephanus had always dismissed this emotion as useless, detrimental even and he scoffed at the idea of “love at the first sight”. However those pale eyes haunted him at night after this encounter and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to become acquainted with their owner. The person seemed to be gone the next day when he looked, and the next and the day after. He could have spent a lifetime searching the mountain, he knew that and yet the urge never subsided. It took hold in his mind and occupied it every waking moment and even his dreams weren’t free of it.
Baldovin had spent a week leaving his young guest to his frantic search before he intervened. “You seem restless, my friend. The teachers have taken notice that your thoughts seem scattered…” – “And yet I surpass even them”, Stephanus usually did not take to boasting but the past days had grated on his nerves. “Vainness does not suit you”, the sage answered curtly: “Tell me what ails you.”
For all his current state Stephanus was still aware that if he had any chance of finding his pale eyes phantom, Baldovin was his best chance. So he described the encounter and how he couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to meet them again.
When he had finished his tale, Baldovin was silent for a long while, lost in thought, his fingers tracing shapes on the table they sat, shapes Stephanus identified as a bird of sorts after a while. He kept silent as well and so Baldovin was the first to speak up again: “I can’t promise you anything but I will try to aid you.” And what more could he expect.
Another week should pass before Stephanus heard a knock on his door one evening. “Come on in!”, he called.
He had not expected his phantom to be in his room when he turned around. The door fell closed with an audible bang and he just looked, stupefied. “I was told you searched for me”, their voice was soft and warm. “I did.” – “What do you expect from it?”, there was real curiosity there, in this voice. “Don’t know, I just know it is important for us to meet”, he figured there was no point in lying; it usually did nothing good anyway. Lies got too convoluted to fast and before long they were too tangled to untie without lasting damage.
“A curious one, you are”, they said amused and finally pulled back their hood. Their eyes were even paler than they had looked in the shadow, the hair that spilled forth a dark red that gradually lightened to the tips, like a flame. And a name that made its way to Stephanus tongue unbidden: “Khaled”
His gaze got sharper and he bared his teeth, hands flashing to his belt. Stephanus held up his hands, placating: “I have no intention of catching you and obtaining Arundel’s gold. I’m not a bloodhunter nor a bounty hunter”. “Pretend I believe you, what are you?”, Khaled replied uneasily.
That got him an undignified snort: “A scholar. You are a predator if I ever saw one. Your kind can’t hide their nature. You might think you are a scholar but you are just avoiding your true destiny.” – “And that’d be?” – “War, destruction, death”, with these words Khaled turned around to leave. “Wait, I beg you”, Stephanus was not beyond pleading if he saw it necessary. “Give me one good reason, and I might consider.”
“Revenge. I can help you.”
That got him the other’s attention as he turned around again. Pale eyes bore into his and got a curt nod: “You piqued my curiosity. So far no one has tried that way with me”, Khaled made his way to the lone chair and sat down, brushing over fresh notes. “So, where’s your army to give me my revenge?”
“My wife knows”, another sentence that came unbidden. “Your what now?”, incredulous. “My wife”, the word tasted familiar on his tongue like a well-worn coat. “Has Baldovin admitted a madman?”, the incredulity was still there, laced with weariness. Stephanus couldn’t fault him; he must come off like a madman now.
“Your question, it triggered something.”
“If that is meant comforting, I must let you know that it isn’t.”
“And yet you are still here, listening.”
“I’ve never been good at self-preservation. But please, carry on, convince me that you have a point and not simply lost your mind.”
Stephanus wished that this would be as easy as Khaled made it sound: “Pass me the red book please. On the desk, next to your chair. Or wait, don’t. Just open the marked page.” Papers are rustling when Khaled is opening the leather-bound tome. “Read to me. Please.”
This gets him a disbelieving look but he humors him:
“And it was said that Cruelty hid their army so cleverly that not even Hate knew how she did it and she passed the knowledge, divided into three, down to their lieutenants”, a deep breath: “I changed my mind, you are fumbling mad if you think I will for one second believe that you –“, his voice rose at each word and by the end Khaled was snarling. Stephanus could not exactly fault him: “Peace. I don’t expect you to believe that without any proof. You are Sanity so I understand –“
In hindsight, openly confirming Khaled’s suspicion that he did know him, that he did not just played a cruel game was a profoundly foolish thing to do. He did however not expect to be attacked quite so ferociously which is probably the only reason Khaled managed to gain the upper hand when he leapt to his feet and goes for his throat.
They grappled at each other gracelessly; the weight of the collision having thrown them both off their feet and for a moment it seemed that Khaled will be able to wrangle him down. In the next moment their roles are reversed and Khaled is pinned on his back, Stephanus over him.
“Will you listen now?”
“I have you know that if I scream for help, Baldovin will tear this door down and you’ll find yourself out in the mountains again, with nothing to show for.”
Stephanus was not cruel enough to keep the other man pinned under him, something that so clearly made him uncomfortable, so he let him up. His assumption was that Khaled would make a run for the door but to his surprise he just sat up and stared at him expectantly.
“I have always known that I was not normal, that there was something else. I chalked it up as visions due to my mother’s heritage at first but it never showed the future, it showed the past. It took me quite a while to figure out that what I was seeing, I was seeing through the eyes of another. The eyes of Hate. There aren’t many memories of his I have access to as of yet. Just snippets. I also don’t think that Cruelty was reborn; I never see her face in his memories, as if something was blocking it. But I know that I am him. Was him. Will be him. Research isn’t very advanced when it comes to rebirth and a lot of it is just guesses of scholars too full of themselves. I am figuring it out as I go along but certain words, places, smells, sights, trigger memories. Sometimes just small things, like the army”, he finished.
“So this is why Baldovin was so keen on admitting you to his refuge”, Khaled mused: “He had always been fond of the idea that Hate and Cruelty would come back one day and finish what they started. A new world order, he always says. There are more who agree with him. He’ll have seen your return in those visions of his.”
This was news to Stephanus: “He’s a seer?” – “Not a true one. His visions are too unevenly spaced to have him considered a seer by the guild’s rules. But your late mother assessed him once and confirmed that his visions were true. I do not, however, know what to make of this revelation. I know that alerting the Council would be the way to go but at the same time you can probably imagine that I feel no real loyalty towards them, no more than what I feel for my father. In fact, I’d greatly enjoy seeing them reduced to ashes, once and for all. So, I guess, I accept your offer of revenge”, he extended a hand and Stephanus shook it.
Baldovin was beside himself with joy the next morning: “Seeing it in a vision and having it become reality are vastly different things. There is a dedicated following who will be delighted to have confirmed what I told them. You know, I am a scholar just like yourself –“, this earned a largely ignored snort by Khaled who was sulking in the solar with them: “– and your unique heritage has caught my eye when you arrived. Especially as I assume that you do have inherited your mother’s seer abilities which give you the ability to actually access the memories of your previous shell. A truly fascinating combination. I will of course be overjoyed to aid you in any way possible in your future journey. In fact, I’d think it beneficial for you set out to Land’s End immediately as long as these fresh memories are still palpable.”
There was truth in Baldovin’s words so hurriedly his departure was set up and after five months in the mountains he set off on his pony, back to the harbor, armed with well-meant advice regarding the possible location of Land’s End, an array of new notes and maps and Khaled, who had decided that his usual travelling around Silmä could be interrupted to boost his meager search party up to two.
They arrived at the harbor with the first signs of spring, collected the crew and set sail for Adebayo.
Chapter 5 – In which politics win over love
Adebayo at large was a wet marshland, full of bogs and wetland, the dry spots scarcely spaced. All indication did point Land’s End’s possible location to the headland that overlooked the sea, a vantage point over the otherwise flat land.
Knowing the location was a different beast than getting there however. Adebayo had always been full of warring fiefdoms, each hell bent on their own benefits. Skirmishes were fought daily and even the lowest peasant at least knew how to use their working equipment as a means for self-defense.
In light of this, Stephanus and Khaled opted to travel light on fast horses, aiming to reach their destination as fast as possible, preferably without getting involved in an all-out battle. As usual, what sounded good in theory often did not translate all too well into reality. They did arrive at the beginning of the headland in good speed but were soon faced with what seemed to be a massive bog, will-o’-wisps swarming over the muddy water surface in great numbers, flickering idly.
“This”, Khaled sighed: “Is far less great than the stories led us to believe. Land’s End is not some great defense, or if it is, then only for that vast amount of mud. Did you just wait for you enemies to drown themselves by accident?”. Stephanus, who had so far managed to ignore his companion’s grouching at every opportune and inopportune moment, continued to just overlook the moor. Something pulled at his mind, a faint ping as if he’d been standing here before, looking the same way. He most certainly did, that much was for sure, but he’d have preferred a pointer at how to access the path that had to lead up the cliff, up to Land’s End itself. Maybe the wisps were the key, they seemed to flock together in clusters now, swarming agitated.
“We need to follow them”, he decided and grabbed his horses reins. “Are you mad?”, even after the umpteenth time Khaled didn’t have seem to tire of this question: “A great scholar like yourself and you want us to follow the wisps?”
“Follow me or stay here, your choice”, Stephanus spurred on his horse and forced it to step into the muddy water. The great beast hesitated after its first step, clearly sensing the danger that stemmed from the moors for its kind. But ultimately it bent its will to its master and walked deeper and deeper into the bug until the waters reached its riders boots. He could hear Khaled softly cursing behind him, his horse splashing through the water.
The wisps were now thickening even more, a flickering blanket, and they are so close that Stephanus could make out their little figures. Tiny faces with contorted grins and see-through wings, a little lamp clutched in tiny fingers. Their buzzing was deafening as the swarm descended and his horse reared up in fright, neighing. For a brief moment he thought that Khaled was right, that the wisps had led them on and then the swarm passed them by and his horse suddenly got its hooves on dry ground.
When he looked back he could only see thick fog but no bog, no wisps and everything around them was silent. “This was oddly specific”, Khaled hissed and when he looked over he could see him brushing clumps of mud out of his hair. His horse was frothing at the mouth, flanks matted by sweat and muddy water. His own didn’t fare any better and it took a bit to convince both animals to go further.
They were in a lush forest of tall trees and a path wound itself through it, oddly clear for a place that had been deserted for eons. And yet they heard not a single critter nor saw any other living being when they rode through it until the forest opened up the view the cliff.
“This is not a castle”, were Khaled’s first words and Stephanus had to agree. For all the stories he had expected a huge castle out of stone, not a subtle house. Even if he had to give his previous self credit for including a beacon. Otherwise the house looked noncommittal, certainly not like the base for two of Silmä’s most notorious gods and their quest for power.
Stephanus dismounted and as he walked towards the house the front door opened as if to welcome him home. There was no hesitation in his steps as he crossed the threshold and could imagine the wood sighing and cracking in pleasure to welcome its master back.
It turned out that the house was a two story affair, a huge laboratory with a conservatory, a small kitchen and bathroom as well as a living room downstairs and two bedrooms, a drawing room upstairs, topped off by an attic that had a room to the beacon which turned out to be more of an additional research space than a true beacon as someone had moved the light to the side to fit a truly gargantuan telescope into its place.
After the house had not swallowed Stephanus whole Khaled had carefully joined him in his explorations and they both marveled at how well kept the house was as if its previous occupants had just left it a few days ago.
It was surprisingly easy to fall into a routine afterwards, to air out the house, stock up the storage room and find out that the basement holds not only empty cells but a quite sophisticated collection of vintage wines. “Not mine”, was Stephanus’ only comment on the rows of bottles and Khaled figured he could leave that well alone.
They managed to get word to Baldovin that at least Land’s End had been reopened but cautioned him not to send anyone to them but rather set up meetings in an inn in one of the small villages. After all, not even Stephanus was quite sure if the trick with the wisps had only worked for him and had admitted Khaled as a necessary annoyance accompanying him.
Baldovin did heed their words but sends supporters their way regardless. Not only idealistic youths as Stephanus had expected but seasoned veterans and cold hearted mercenaries as well who were nonetheless readily willing to pledge allegiance to a young man with nothing to show but strange visions and Baldovin’s assurance that it was the truth.
Not that there was much more than scheming and plotting for these first years. Khaled stayed because what else had Silmä to offer him? If he had to run and hide he now at least had the amusement to watch the strange young man mature.
There was, to Baldovin’s great sadness, no sudden flood of memories that gave Stephanus access to all of his previous shell’s knowledge. In contrary, the strange snippets of memory actually came to a stop and so he busied himself in perusing the notes and books his former self had left in the laboratory an before long the room was once again brimming with strange spells and concoctions and plants from all over Silmä were blooming in the conservatory.
It could have all been quite a picture of domestic bliss – apart from the obvious deadly intent behind everything – had it not been for the meddling hand of fate.
Stephanus did become increasingly aware of Khaled’s presence in the house. Small things, like how the man was sprawling on the couch, reading a book propped in his lap or him curiously feeding one of the carnivorous plants that occupied the kitchen’s windowsill to keep the flies from the fruits. Khaled in turn became more recluse; evading the house’s other occupant as much as possible.
“This is idiotic, you know that”, Khaled whirled around at the bored drawl of a voice behind him. Stephanus was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed: “I won’t jump you like some beast.”
“You say that now”, he replied noncommittal, fingers edging closer to the small knife he had used to slice the bread with. The vine that snatched the knife before he could reach it was a surprise. “I’d prefer to have this talk without weapons, please. I won’t even move”, Khaled did wish sometimes that he could just wipe that stupid calm of the other man’s face. “Ah, what a déjà-vu then. How did it end again last time?”, this at least got him an eye roll.
“Believe me, I am young but also old enough to keep it in my pants.”
“You are younger than my son. You, in fact, could be my gods damned grandson and I am not sure if that is speaking for you or not.”
“…this is oddly specific and also quite worrying.”
Khaled smiled at him, a feral grin with far too much teeth: “Let me tell you that I have no believes left in me in that kind of yours. I survived it twice, I won’t risk a third time.”
“Let me convince you. You trusted me once before when I promised you revenge and you are still here, even if we have not made a single move to get to your father, let alone step of Adebayo’s soil. And if it is only to stop you from being so spooked about me – the house is not big enough to avoid each other.”
And if that wasn’t the truth.
Yet trust did not come easily, to neither of them. But they did try, even if at first it was just sitting together and reading. Stephanus did stay true to his words, not ever making a single move towards Khaled unless the other led first.
During all of this life on Silmä went on and one day Baldovin sent word to Khaled that a new god had been elected. The letter was fed to the fire immediately and it was the first time Stephanus heard Khaled uttering swear words, his face twisted in a mask of rage. “Those fools”, he hissed: “Apparently they couldn’t get me and now they took my son for their machinations!” The fire was beginning to flicker dangerously, flames licking out of the fireplace as if trying to soothe the fuming man, who batted them away with little care.
Stephanus felt obligated to point out the obvious: “You can’t change it, the mirror has chosen.” – “I know that, thank you”, still with that burning rage and the flames got bolder again. A fiery accident seemed imminent and in order to protect the more flammable items from getting burned Stephanus got up to grab Khaled’s shoulder and get him further away from the fire.
The burning sensation that shot through his palm upwards came as surprise and he pulled away with a startled sound, inspecting his hand which faintly smelled of burned flesh and was fiery red. When he looked up again, Khaled was enshrouded in flames that coiled around him like slithering snakes. But the fire wasn’t red anymore; it was pitch black like smoke. He had read of Black Fire, something only the most powerful benders could call upon, a fire that burned solely based on the benders magic and required no other sustenance. Thus a weaker bender would be consumed by the never-ending hunger that made fire so dangerously but a god like Khaled, a god could probably feed it forever and never tire.
Unfortunately for the interior, Black Fire was no less dangerous than regular one, especially if the sustaining magic burned unrestrained and angry. Khaled showed no motion to stop burning like a candle, he just looked angry and maybe a bit bewildered at the coiling snakes made out of flame. Stephanus wondered for a brief moment what water would do to both the man in front of him and the carpet and resolved to go the way of least resistance. Which meant to throw his arms around the burning man, to smother the flames or to calm him, even he himself wasn’t quite sure.
It burned, terribly so, and his clothes were probably ruined by now. But he held on, even as the smell of burned flesh became unbearable.
“Are you out of your mind!?”, the flames went out without much fanfare and he could feel Khaled patting him down to put out the pockets of embers that surely had taken hold in his clothes. “Ah, you stopped burning. That is good”, his skin still felt as if it were on fire but one of the wonderful things that came with godlike power were accelerated healing abilities so he just started to pluck away the sad remnants of his clothes that had survived the assault. Cold hands came to his assistance and some even colder substance was smeared over the worst of his burns. “You are mad, there is no denying it now. What kind of sane person sees Black Fire and gets close to it?!” – “It was me or the furniture and I have you know that I am quite fond of the interior”. Really, he had probably deserved the slap that followed but it added to the sting of his flesh in a quite unpleasant way.
“Idiot”, the soft lips on his were not entirely unwelcome though, even if those burned as well. He was also sure that there were chunks of flesh still flaking from his lips and more than a fair share of blood but Khaled made no move to deepen the kiss, they just stayed with their lips touching softly and Stephanus could feel his flesh mending.
“It helped, didn’t it though?” – “It did. You are still an idiot for doing it however.”
Khaled broke the kiss and cocked his head to the side, looking at Stephanus: “It is odd, I didn’t know I could call Black Fire to my will. Akira used to tell me about its properties and he sounded so excited about it… when I became a god I used to imagine how proud he’d be if I could use it, how happy to see it with his own eyes.”
“Who, pray tell, is Akira?”, Stephanus inspected his hands while he asked which had stopped looking like burned meat and began looking as if he’d spent too long in the sun, old skin flaking away.
“The head of Arundel’s guards – he took over teaching me when Arundel realized that I am useless for his machinations. He’s my son’s godfather too so I imagine he is as distraught over these news as I am. Not that I don’t think Kimete to be capable, it is just that I fear that my indiscretions will fall back on him. Or that it is all a ploy to get me back.”
“You won’t go back though, will you?”
“I’d like to think that I am wise enough to resist that particular temptation”, Khaled could not quite meet his eyes but it was not worth fighting about and risking more flaming incidents. For now at least.
At night Stephanus sat in his old room that he didn’t remember and sorted through the books he had selected from his previous being’s collection as a knock sounded on the door, soon followed by it creaking open. Khaled stood in the doorframe, barefoot and only with a nightshirt. As Stephanus raised his eyebrows in question the other let the shirt slip from his shoulders and made his way to the bed, naked.
“Why this now?”, asked Stephanus as stood in front of him. “Some risks are worth taking my old teacher said”, was the answer and Stephanus was callous enough to take what was offered.
The first morning light found them curled around each other under the blankets, Khaled’s eyes screwed tightly shut but not sleeping. Stephanus wasn’t sleeping anymore either but at least saw no reason in pretending otherwise. He curled his arm firmer around Khaled’s middle and ignored how the other man stiffened: “We are not doing this again.”
“We aren’t?”, that statement got a reply pretty fast.
“You very clearly did not enjoy it and I have no interest in raping you”
“And yet you accepted.”
“Altruism isn’t in my nature. But greed is. Still, I offered you revenge and I intend to honor that promise. If you want to stand by my side I will gladly accept it but not like this.”
As it turned out, by holding the fort. Khaled had never been fond of being seen by too many people after his flight so he gracefully accepted the refuge Land’s End offered by being pretty much impregnable unless one was with Stephanus to brave the wisps.
So his interactions with the outside world were limited as much as never before – there was no need to risk unmasking by going to a market when Stephanus brought food back whenever he met the people Baldovin had sent. And other than that, what reason was there to leave Land’s End? Khaled busied himself by looking through the books and notes as well and exploring every nook and cranny of the house. He held no illusions that they would open to him but he could point out certain spots that seemed to hide secrets for Stephanus to try and crack.
This way they did discover a variety of hitherto unknown things like an underground tunnel that ate itself through the stone of the cliff and spat them out in a little cave by its feet where the ocean’s water was barely ankle-deep. Stephanus meanwhile managed to get the beacon’s light to shine again even if they could not figure out if the light could actually be seen from the ocean or was as hidden as the rest of Land’s End seemed to be.
Thus a year passed, then two, three and as the fourth autumn began to dye the forest’s leaves red like the hearth’s fire they had established a pretty solid routine between them. Khaled even admitted to himself in quiet moments that this was much more peaceful than anything he’s ever had before.
Stephanus’ followers had been steadily growing in numbers and due to Baldovin’s sneaky ways there was even a small army in waiting now, paid with gold from the coffers of the monastery in the mountains. In the same vain donations were made to fund preparations for war and the cost of upkeeping a house, even if it was only inhabited by two people.
“Is it even right to take their money?”, Khaled asked one night over dinner: “We just take it and don’t exactly give anything back.”
“Oh but we do”, Stephanus disagreed: “We give them hope. Hope for a new world order as they wish for. Something to believe in, a cause.”
“But is that worth the money they pour in?”
“Feel free to point that out to them but you know we depend on their subventions currently. You don’t have any hidden stashes of gold as far as I am aware and neither do I until my investments start to pay off.”
“Nothing to concern yourself with for the time being, none of them are ripe yet.”
And Khaled stopped asking but the notion did not sit well with him – neither the part where Stephanus was unconcerned enough to take gold from strangers and neither the fact that ominous investments were undertaken, quite likely with that very money. His greatest fault had always been his incredible honesty, a trait that had gotten him in trouble before. And he knew that he had to either bury it or follow it and risk a relationship he had actually started to cherish.
In order to keep himself from fixating on the issues present he threw himself head first into assisting Stephanus with his experiments, even if he refused to partake in the more gruesome ones Hate liked to undertake that involved so called ‘livestock’ that was kept in cells in the basement. Apparently the house had been built with a variety of scenarios in mind and they had discovered the cells a few years back, six in total, together with a quite sophisticated amount of torture devices that had made Stephanus hide a smile. Khaled was neither overly squeamish nor prude but he had intently tried not to figure out that smile.
“Talk to me”, Stephanus said one day as the lay in bed and Khaled, who had been dozing off, took a moment to realize that he was being addressed.
“About what?”, he replied confused. “You mull about something, since quite a while even. I want to know what it is.”
It could have, by chance, ended here. Ended with Khaled admitting that seeing all of this unfold again made him worry sick about the possibilities, about reliving all of the horrors he had heard about it again and maybe, just maybe, Stephanus would have told him not to worry and forgot his quest. This would have required more power than Khaled possessed at this time when standing up to anyone seemed like an impossible task.
“Marry me”, he asked instead and Stephanus had not lied when he had told him that he was no good man, as he did not hesitate to agree.
The marriage itself was a bland affair, just them and Baldovin, who had come all the way from his refuge to act as a minister. The rings were a gift Khaled had received as a child and held onto in his adulthood and during his flight and if Stephanus recognized them, he did not say. There were no promises of love, only of respect and no wedding night happened, instead they curled up together like two snakes.
Marriage did not change anything in their daily lives, only Khaled’s knowledge that he was bound again to someone who had the potential to be much more destructive than Rajko. Stephanus however showed no signs of acting any different than before, still always willing to follow Khaled’s lead and back away if there were any signs of uncomfortableness. It could have been good, in fact, it should have been but fate had a way to establish itself.
It began with Stephanus bringing back a bound and gagged woman who looked like she had already endured hell. Khaled saw her only briefly out of the window and then she presumably vanished into the basement, never to be seen again. He did try to forget her, as he tried to forget every single person who had come to Land’s End and never re-emerged. It was not brave, certainly not, but he was not the God of Bravery anyway. But somehow he could not forget her.
He managed a week before the mustered up the energy to ask Stephanus about her. In the look he received he found disbelieve that it was the first time he asked and he felt somewhat ashamed. “She will be useful for our future plans”, was the reply he eventually got and it was his turn to look disbelieving: “How?”. He regretted asking that very minute. “Since when do you care about these things?”, Stephanus asked and there was no maliciousness, only surprise. “I have closed my eyes too long it seems. What is the reason you bring them here?” – “Do you truly want to know?”
He answered in the affirmative and he did regret that. It was not that the torture was described in great detail, more that he found the thought of using force to extract knowledge too barbaric, too cruel. Stephanus carefully laid a hand on his shoulder: “You do understand that greatness can’t be achieved without sacrifices, right? In this case, the sacrifice of life has to be made to gain the knowledge necessary to move onward without endangering the lives of ours. She had the opportunity to surrender her knowledge without force and receive a painless death. But she persisted which is an admirable trait, I give her that.”
And of course Khaled understood the reasoning behind that, it just did not made the coldness in his bones go away. It did not go away the next day either, or the day after and he found himself calling fire to his palms to warm himself more often than not. Stephanus did seem worried but neither approached the other.
It came to a screeching halt when Khaled went down into the basement for the first time in years and found himself inadvertently drawn to the heavy oak door that separated the cells from the rest of it. He stood in the opening and just looked at the fleshy lump in one cell that had the same mess of ragged blond hair that the woman had had. Then he closed the door.
Stephanus would have been lying to himself would he say that he did not register the change in Khaled’s behaviour. It worried it him but at the same time he knew that he could either follow his carefully laid plan or follow Khaled’s soft heart and abandon all hope to ever gain back what he had formerly lost. In some small part of his mind he did acknowledge that he wished he could just promise Khaled to stop, to let them enjoy the peace the other so clearly craved but at large he was opportunistic. The time was ripe to sow the seeds that would grow into full-blown trees later on and not taking the chance would have been profoundly foolish. Still, he would have preferred a calmer separation than the one it involved into.
There was nothing calm about the sheer anger Khaled directed at him when it all ultimately came to a head. He wished he could care but the only emotion he could register was annoyance that something so miniscule in his opinion was being made into such a huge affair. When he pointed out exactly that to Khaled and kindly asked him to understand that he was not willing to solely give up his ambitions based on something like morals, especially given that this would be Khaled’s only chance at proper revenge at this father. In hindsight, he should have expected the following reaction but being burned by Black Fire did not hurt any less the second time around.
In his anger Khaled stormed off through the fog that separated Land’s End from the rest of Adebayo.
As it turned out, when he had cooled down hours later, the wisps did not admit back anyone but Stephanus on their own and he spent an uncomfortable night drudging back and forth through the moor, dodging the wisps until he admitted to himself that Stephanus would not come to get him.
It would be quite a while until they saw face to face once again.