chapter 9/ the fall

The Falls of Ulam Ar at dusk

The Falls of Ulam Ar at dusk

Chapter Nine  The Fall

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“I don’t like it,” Dave said to Shannon. The rain had come back in freezing torrents. The moonlight was completely blocked by the clouds, leaving them in total darkness except for the wizard light that Oirion held above Dave’s head. The trail that they had been following cut out along the edge of the mountain. It was narrow and deadly steep with a raging river at the bottom. “It’s too wet. The ground could give way.”

“Is it the right direction?” Oirion demanded. He had been irritable all day and wanted off the side of the mountain.

“Yes, but…”

“Then we take it.” Grabbing the reins of his horse, Oirion led the way out of the trees and onto the path. Dave swore, but moved after him. The others followed. No one was happy with Oirion today. He had been short-tempered and Salma seemed to provoke him. She had shrugged it off when the others complained.

“He does the same thing to Shannon,” she defended herself. “He can dish it out, but can’t take it, poor spoiled princeling.”

Oirion stomped carelessly down the path, leading his horse by the reins. He was still brewing about Salma’s comments. He had no warning as, suddenly, the path under him gave out. He yelled as he rolled down the steep eighty-foot bank. His horse scrambled back from the collapsing road. Stone and earth gave way creating a small avalanche around the descending man.

“Oirion!” Tavia screamed. Dave tried desperately to reach out with power, but the spell broke with the momentum of Oirion’s fall. Shannon didn’t even hesitate. He jumped down, clearing a great distance in the air. They both vanished into the darkness, the light flickering out as Oirion went out of range. Dave swore under his breath and cast up another light, as well as throwing one down to the river.

They saw Oirion hit the dark river below with Shannon right behind him, sliding down into the icy water. The two were seen for only a moment and then both disappeared under the surface.

It was cold and calm under the water. The air was driven from him and Oirion lost all sense of up and down, of speed and distance. He had the sure feeling that he was going to die; he couldn’t feel anything but pain. What air he had left escaped through his teeth as he hit the bottom of the river.

Maybe drowning wasn’t such a bad way to go, he told himself. As he thought it, he had a flash of memory that he had once been in a very similar situation, when his brothers had pushed him off the bridge into the frozen water of the river at home.

A strong hand grabbed hold of him, jarring him out of the past. He thought it was Ivan until they broke the surface. The water was bitter cold, but he didn’t feel it until the shock of air hit his face. He coughed and tried to catch his breath.

All was dark until the clouds broke for a moment and faint illumination from the two moons showed a black gloved hand holding onto a branch that was spread out over the river.

“Climb!” Shannon yelled over the roar of river. In the back of Oirion’s mind, he was surprised. He didn’t think Shannon knew how to yell; he sounded like a different man.

Oirion reached up and tried to move, to crawl up the man who was risking his life to be here. Pain exploded in his back. He cried out and lost his grip.

He barely caught Shannon’s belt as he slid, but he managed to get his fingers around the leather, holding on while the river ripped at him. Shannon grabbed the back of Oirion’s shirt and tried to pull him up more.

Shannon gasped, as if he had felt Oirion’s pain.

“Don’t do this to me!” Shannon cried.

Oirion shivered deep inside his core as he realized that what he had heard could not possibly be heard over the roar of the river. What Shannon had said was silent. It was accented by only a short cry from the man. It was so emotion-packed that, for a moment, Oirion didn’t feel anything in its wake. When the shock passed, he knew it was not aimed at him, but at God.

“Damn!!” Oirion heard Shannon swear as he watched the gloved hand slip off the branch as the bark peeled away. The two of them went under again.

In the back of his mind, Oirion almost laughed. That was the first time he had ever heard Shannon swear, cuss, or even use any sort of improper grammar.

Oirion expected Shannon to let go, to even pry Oirion’s fingers from his belt. It was insane to try to save him now. But Shannon didn’t let go. He kept a strong hold on the back of Oirion’s shirt.

Oirion could feel the strength in Shannon’s chest and arms as he pulled him up toward the surface. It was an odd sort of thing to notice, but he had never really thought of Shannon as all that strong. He would likely rival Ivan, now that Oirion considered it.

Shannon’s free hand got hold of the thick belt that Oirion wore and he shoved Oirion up out of the whitewater to get a breath before they spun under again. Desperately, Oirion began to pray the prayer of power. He prayed for strength to withstand. It was one of the more powerful spells that only an ordained priest could use. It had saved him several times in his years as a Hunter.

Shannon caught them against a rock that jutted out from the bank. He heard the prayer continue unbroken, even as he cried out in pain. They were jarred by the sudden stop, making Oirion see stars for a moment as pain flashed through his back. Lying back in the water, against the current, Shannon braced his feet against the boulder and pulled Oirion up onto his chest.

Oirion could hardly tell the difference between the river and the rain that was pouring down.

“I can’t do this, Oirion! Shield up!” Shannon yelled. “For God’s sake, shield up!”

Shannon’s footing was lost and they tumbled forward, pulled along by the river again. It was so unlike Shannon to sound like a real person, Oirion was a little stunned by it and didn’t respond for a moment. Making things worse, the cold of the water was getting to him.

As Oirion regained his senses, he raised his shields. He put all the power he had into them, even if it felt like a waste of effort.

They went over a waterfall, plunging into a pool deep enough that Oirion’s lungs felt like they were going to explode. Shannon still had hold of him and swam upward hard, pulling Oirion with all his strength until they broke the surface.

The water was calmed here, the roar of the river replaced with the sound of rain on water. Shannon had to hold Oirion up so that he could catch his breath and cough.

In the humored part of his mind that refused to realize how bad the situation was, Oirion remembered how, not so long ago, he and Jamie had been in a similar position, except it had been Oirion holding up Jamie. Jamie had laughed, teeth chattering. “See, I knew you loved me… but really Ori, if you wanted to get this close, you could have found a more romantic way.” Jamie always had a joke to take the edge off things.

Shannon moved to try swimming farther from the roar of the falls, out into the lake. Oirion tried to move along with him, but the pain almost made him black out. They plunged under as Shannon faltered.

“Don’t do that!” Shannon shouted, as he regained the surface, coughing water and trying to get hair out of his face while trying to swim and keep Oirion’s head above the water. Oirion lay still. The plunge and the near loss of Shannon’s grip was enough to scare him into surrender. Shock set in and his body went numb.

Shannon’s feet touched the bottom and he pulled Oirion up into his arms. Stumbling up out of the water, he practically dropped Oirion on the ground. Oirion watched in the barely visible light as Shannon crawled away. He doubled over and wrapped his arms around his head, resting it on the ground. Again, the little voice in Oirion’s head pointed out to him how flexible that man was. He wondered if it was racial or if Shannon found time to stretch, to keep his body that limber. Oirion couldn’t bend like that, even though he worked at keeping flexible.

Oirion was stunned as he watched Shannon shake with what could only be weeping. He didn’t think that man was capable of emotion, let alone tears. It was his last thought before he passed out.

The priest regained consciousness as he was being picked up. Orc creatures similar to those they had seen on the road had him. They laid him on a stretcher and covered him with a leather blanket that shed the rain. Rolling his head, he looked to Shannon kneeling weakly on the ground.

Shannon looked at the orc standing in front of him; he was clearly the leader. The great Orcan warrior saw Shannon’s face in the light of the torches that the orcs carried. It was the look of a man who wouldn’t shun death. It was the look of one who was tired of fighting and would welcome an end.

Oirion watched an orc pull Shannon up to his feet and wrap a blanket around his shoulders, and then Oirion passed out again.

***********

Oirion was seriously wounded. He was unable to find out what was going on. All he knew was that he hurt. His comrades were gone and he was on his own to deal with the situation. He couldn’t move, not even his arms. He had never felt pain like this before. He didn’t know what was worse: feeling such tremendous pain, or being alone in a dark tent with orcs all around. He had never in his life felt so lonely, and that was saying something. His mind returned to thoughts of Jamie. He half expected the healer to walk in through the door with a smile, tell a joke, and fix him. God, he missed that man.

The tent flap opened and a light entered. Oirion felt his heart begin to pound. Unable to see who entered or what the person was doing, fear was unavoidable. He almost cried with relief when Shannon moved around and knelt beside him. Shannon set a small brass light on the floor.

“Who would’ve ever thought that I’d be so glad to see you?” Oirion confessed. He knew there were tears in his eyes, but he couldn’t move to wipe them away; he could barely get his hand to move at all.

Shannon bowed his head. The pain that was radiating off Oirion was so bad that Shannon could hardly look at the man.

“I’m hurt pretty bad, aren’t I.”

Shannon nodded. “You have four broken ribs, your leg is broken, your arm is broken, and your spine was shattered.” He quietly listed the injuries. “There is some internal bleeding and a skull fracture.”

Oirion looked up at the ceiling of the tent. He didn’t want to think about a broken spine. He guessed that he knew, but it was not the sort of thing that a person wants to hear.

“They can heal it, though. It will just take time,” Shannon added.

“How long?” Oirion asked softly, afraid his voice might break.

“A few days before the bones are healed; it might be a little while longer to get you running again.”

Oirion felt a great relief about that. As long as he’d be able to walk again, he’d be happy. He relaxed a little

“Why are they helping at all?”

“Firstly, because we stepped aside for them.”

“Same orcs?”

“The same.”

“And I thought it was just your good looks.” Oirion tried to lighten the mood, but it hurt too much to be funny. He looked over at Shannon. The man was white-faced and he was sweating. The heat of the Bog couldn’t make him sweat, but he was sweating now. Shannon wiped his brow with a trembling hand.

“You alright?” Oirion asked, suddenly concerned.

Shannon looked up and smiled faintly. His eyes were blood-shot and he looked even paler with his black hair not pulled back, hanging freely about his face. It was very pretty, all curly and very long, falling around his shoulders. It made him look very different.

Several healers entered the tent. They wore long white robes and carried lamps.

“Can you shield him?” Shannon asked, using an old trade language that Oirion recognized but wasn’t able to speak.

Shannon sighed in relief. Oirion felt a shield rise up around him.

“The method that they are going to use will feel rather invasive,” Shannon said. “It is necessary because of the severity of the wounds and because you are a different race.”

“Whatever it takes to walk again,” Oirion said.

Shannon knelt and took his hand. Oirion really didn’t think that was necessary… until they began. Then, as they went deeper, the more he needed that hand to hold on to. At first, he tried to stay calm and brave, to not seem weak, but once his breath caught in his throat and the first sob escaped, it didn’t matter who Shannon was or where he was.

It was soul-wrenching and there was no seeming end. They just went deeper and deeper. When it did end, it was sudden. The orcs were gone before he even had his breath back. He was exhausted and his eyes were blind with tears. It was hard to breathe for the crying and his whole body shivered in the aftermath of it. The only light was the small lamp that sat on the floor. Shannon started to rise from his seat, causing Oirion to almost panic.

“Don’t go,” Oirion whimpered. He felt sick. The power of the orcs was in his blood, making him feel like he was being invaded by some sort of parasite eating at his soul. His voice was raw and he felt like he was the child that he had worked so hard to not be: small, weak, and scared.

“No, I’ll stay here. Just go to sleep, Oirion. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“I hope so.” Oirion tried to laugh to keep from crying, but it didn’t work. “You really seem like the last person to offer comfort to me.” He looked over and met Shannon’s blue eyes. He wasn’t positive through the blur of his own eyes, but it looked as if Shannon had tears on his cheeks as well.

“I’ve been where you are. Just try to sleep.”

“If you’ve been here, you know sleep isn’t about to come peacefully.” He almost started to cry again. “In your store of power, is there some trick you have to help me just pass out?” He didn’t expect it could be that easy; he didn’t think it even a possibility, but he had to ask.

Shannon bowed his head, struggling in his own thoughts and emotions on it. He looked down at Oirion and worked to speak. Even half-blind with tears, Oirion saw that what Shannon was about to say, he did with a lot of effort.

“I can take the pain away. But you have to be sure. You have to ask me to take it.”

“Please, Shannon.” Oirion closed his eyes, thinking about how Riven had warned that at some time he would be in Shannon’s hands and his treatment of the man might lead to some sort of denial of his needs. This was likely the time. He knew Jamie could take pain away by taking it into himself, but he couldn’t imagine that Shannon would do that for him. He was sure that Shannon would make him beg for it, make him lose any dignity that he had left. He was ready to do it.

He opened his eyes as Shannon shifted in his seat. The Purtan slowly reached out and with an almost trembling hand, wiped the tears off of Oirion’s temple. At once, the pain lifted and faded away, leaving him exhausted and sinking. Shannon didn’t look at him; he tried to keep the hand on Oirion’s temple from trembling. Oirion breathed a great sigh of relief and then sank into darkness and blessed sleep.

Shannon was slipping in his control. Oirion had everything Shannon desired. Shannon could taste the life, the power, the wholeness… so close, right at his fingertips. And at that moment, Oirion was utterly submissive to Shannon’s power. Shannon had meant to take just enough of the energy of Oirion’s pain to turn it around and make the man sleep… but he had the tears of pain from a priest on his fingers. He could feel it, like the softest touch of a longed for lover. It coiled around his fingers, playing into the magic of his gloves with no effort of his own. He knew he could have it, take it, taste it, and for one moment, he would be utterly free of pain himself. For that one glorious moment Tyredelle would jar awake from his nightmare of being Shannon.

There was no fight here. There was no object at hand to deal with. It was almost harder to not take it now than it was in the river or with Riven in the swamp. Such a gentle motion, such peaceful stillness, and the monster inside was about to override a thousand years of discipline.

It was all he could do to jerk his hand back.

Sitting at the bedside, Shannon held his head in his hands and forced his breathing to slow. He was sweating, his head roaring in vampiric hunger, his entire body drained by the power it took to stop himself. He had to fight it down, crush his feelings, and purge emotion from his mind and thoughts. It was not an easy task. It felt as if he was killing the man that he used to be, in order to be Shannon. Only Shannon was strong enough to endure this; Tyredelle was not.

He forced himself to get up. He needed to get away from Oirion and out of sight before he crashed from all this. He already felt sick at what he had just done. Worse, there was something more. He had missed something… something important about Oirion. Right now he would not be able to think; he had to get away. Later, he told himself, he would look at the man closer. Still, there was warmth in his hand. He could taste the air ever so slightly… the mere touch of Oirion’s power and… Shannon clenched his trembling fist, trying to block it out.

The rain had stopped, but he pulled up his hood and stumbled away to try to find privacy from the orcs and their small camp.

***********

They had been surrounded on the trail and escorted through the night to a tent. It was dry, out of the rain, and welcome…  all except for the fear of what might happen.

“Shannon!” Theo almost collapsed with relief. “You’re alright.” He got up from his seat to meet Shannon at the door. “Is Oirion alright?”

“Oirion will be fine in a few days,” Shannon said.

“Can we see him?” Kelly asked.

“No. He asked that he be left alone for awhile, and the healers agree that he will heal better if he has time to sleep.”

“The healers?” Riven asked.

“The Orcan healers. The same ones that we met on the road. Our respect for their grief impressed them. They have a request.”

“And that is?” Ivan asked.

“And what is that?” Tavia asked. Travis went up to Shannon and put his arms up. Shannon picked him up without even looking down. It was the sort of thing that is learned by parents or those who deal with children, but is not a matter of instinct. Tavia noticed, but no one seemed to understand the importance of it.

“A year ago a group of men in red sealed off the gates to their Warren. The only ones that are outside are the hunters that were elsewhere that day. The orcs inside will be just about out of food. They want us to open those gates.”

“Why could we, and not them?” Ivan asked.

“The men that did it used human magic. The problem is that the area was set up for goblins. Now, it is infested with them.”

“What if we say ‘no’?”

“Then they keep Oirion,” Shannon said. “They went to a lot of work to heal him and they will have him help them in other ways to pay off the debt if we do not want to pay it off.”

“That is the cost of healing?” Kelly asked.

“Why should we?” Ivan asked. “They’re orcs.”

“Not any more than they are something else,” Theo said. “Besides, we need the allies and they will hide our trail more than anything else.”

“I don’t want to do it,” Ivan said.

“That is your choice,” Shannon said. “I can do it alone if I have to. I wanted to allow you the chance to make allies.” He was too tired to even worry about how he looked or what the others saw; he just wanted them to have the option.

“I’ll go,” Theo said without any real hesitation.

“So will I,” Dave said.

Kelly nodded once.

“I’ll go,” Riven said after consideration. Shannon nodded.

“We go in the morning,” Shannon said. Then he turned to Ivan saying, “think about it,” and ducked back outside, taking Travis with him.

***********

Travis was happy to be outside, but happier that someone was sitting out with him. Shannon sat in the grass watching the boy. He was looking at a group of ants working in the grass. He looked up suddenly and went to Shannon, and crawled into his lap. He looked right into Shannon’s eyes and let his thoughts and emotions be shared with the only person that seemed to understand. He could see that Shannon was upset, but wasn’t sure how to fix it. Shannon was so shielded that it was hard for him to know.

You are sad. I want to help, but I don’t know how. I do not even know why you are sad. Oirion will be alright.” He tilted his head and looked at Shannon. “Why are you sad? Will you tell me?”

Shannon smoothed the boy’s blond curls. He was learning so fast. He was so happy to be able to talk and ask questions. He accepted everything Shannon said, but questioned most of it, expecting to get truthful answers.

Oirion was in a lot of pain; it was very hard for me to be near him. When he asked me to take the pain away, I did not have the strength to say ‘no’, and that makes me sad.”

Why? If you took his pain away and made him feel better, then why is that sad? Don’t you love Oirion?”

It is very complicated.

Travis put his small hand on Shannon’s cheek and looked into his eyes with sad, wise eyes of his own.

It’s alright, Shannon. I know you’re a vampire. I know you didn’t choose it, and I know how very, very strong you are to be so good to them. It must be very hard for you. I pray for you in this. But if you gave Oirion relief and also gave yourself the energy you will need to save the orcs, then how is that a bad thing? We all get what we need. You see? Maybe God hurt Oirion just so you could do this.”

Shannon had never been quite so surprised by a revelation of knowledge. He wasn’t sure how to take all that.

How do you know that?”

I just do.”

You cannot tell anyone… especially not Oirion.”

I know. I am wiser than most. I would not reveal such things. Not even to my mother. Although… I think she knows, but just isn’t certain of it. She is a wise woman and she studies great things.”

Like what?”

You will have to ask her.” He giggled at that and twisted to sit in Shannon’s lap comfortably. “She might even tell you. You’re very pretty and she does like to look at you.”

Shannon almost smiled at the boy’s fun. He made up his mind to do something that he had been thinking about since he met the boy. It was the healer in him. He had done similar things before, but this time he reworked the idea to use the power that he had access to now. If events came to a boiling point and he had to leave the group, at least it would be done.

I have something for you, Travis,” Shannon said. He lifted the boy back and sat him so that they faced each other in the grass. Shannon took a bottle out of the air. It was small and the glass was a dark blue. Shannon pulled the little cork and poured a tiny trickle into his hand. Out of the bottle poured liquid gold that shimmered and sparkled in the sun. Shannon set the bottle aside, pushed the cork back in and the little bottle vanished. Travis giggled at the magic.

Shannon pulled the glove off his right hand with his teeth. He had nice teeth, Travis thought, not like most men that he had seen. Most people had flaws in their teeth, but not Shannon. Travis watched Shannon stir the liquid in his palm with a finger. He had very white skin and a very elegant hand, but it wasn’t quite right; it looked like it was made of wax. Still, his hand was very elegant, Travis decided. He liked that. Shannon was most beautiful. He nodded his head.

Shannon lifted his finger that had the glowing liquid on it. He reached out and drew on Travis’ forehead with it. Travis felt it warm on his skin. Shannon dipped his fingers several times and drew on Travis’ temples, forehead, and behind each ear. When the magic potion was all gone, Shannon pulled his glove back on.

Shannon spoke. Slowly, Travis began to hear him, not just inside his head, but from the outside as well. He began to hear other things as the spell took control.

I wanted to give you a gift, just in case I don’t get a chance to later.”

Travis was in awe with all the sounds that he could now hear. “What is that?” he asked, and heard his own voice for the first time. The words were clear in his head, but the sound from his mouth came out as a funny little moan.

It is the wind,” Shannon said. “And that sound,” Shannon pointed to the trees, “that is the sound the wind makes in the needles. It is called sighing.” Shannon sighed to demonstrate the similarities. Travis crawled back into Shannon’s lap, smiling as he listened to the world. He heard birds and voices, and he heard the sigh of the wind.

Travis pushed Shannon back and lay on him like a big pillow. Shannon pointed out the shimmer of the sky and of the trees. Travis lay there and tried out his voice, giggling over the sounds he could make. After the strain of dealing with Oirion and the fact that he failed to deny Oirion relief because of his own hunger, Travis was soothing to his energy and his heart.

They talked in bits, allowing Travis to learn to form the words that he had only heard in his head. Sir Tyren had talked in his head, just like Shannon did, and sometimes he could hear other people, too. He knew how the words sounded, but he had never been able to make the noises out loud. It was just before sunset when he discovered the most amazing thing yet. He pressed his ear to Shannon’s chest.

“You make sound!” he said, startled. He pressed his hand to Shannon’s side, to feel it as well. “Is that a heart beat?”

“It is.”

Travis had his head pressed to Shannon’s chest when Tavia walked up on them.

“Have you two had fun today?” she asked. “What’s he doing?”

“He’s never heard a heartbeat before.” Shannon took the boy and shifted him as he stood. Travis smiled with an arm around Shannon’s neck.

“Are you really going to help the orcs?” Tavia asked.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“It is my redeeming quality,” he said. “You do not want to?”

“Goblins, Shannon? I have a son and a lot of years I’d like to see.”

“Every man out here has a child, wives, parents, or friends.”

“I can’t go. I’m no hunter and I’m no wizard.”

“You could be, if you wanted to.”

“Maybe I’d rather be a mother.”

“That is your choice,” he said. Then he stood Travis up on his feet, feeling rather pleased for the boy that his mother was so true and good to him.

“The meal is ready, by the way. They asked if you wanted to eat with us or with Oirion.”

“I will go see Oirion.” He handed Travis back to his mother. “Be good, Travis. I will see you in a few days.” Travis smiled and waved. Shannon cut away to get to Oirion’s tent. His thoughts turned back to the man. He added to the shield he would need and tried to harden his heart against any pain or plea the man might have. There was something about Oirion’s energy that was not what Shannon expected. He did not dare to look at the energy he had taken. That would be far too dangerous for him. It was bad enough that he even had to deal with the man at this point. He would have to look closer… but not yet… not with it still warm and whispering temptation at him.

Oirion was trying to eat. His hand was so shaky that he was barely able to hold the slender sticks they provided to eat with, let alone use the damn things. Frustrated, he threw them on the table as Shannon entered.

Oirion looked up. He didn’t really have anything to say and he was far from comfortable with Shannon. He would dream it over and over as soon as he fell asleep. He knew that someone had been praying high ranking prayers… that even when his focus had broken, the prayers had carried on. The words had not faltered in his head even though he had to admit that he himself simply could not have been the source. He didn’t understand it. He wanted to, but then if it hadn’t been him, who was it?

Even if Shannon had been the one, why would he be able to hear it? They didn’t even get along, let alone share a telepathic link.

“Everyone alright?” Oirion asked.

“Yes,” Shannon said as he sat down across the table from Oirion.

Feeling awful, Oirion tried to distract himself from sensing the emotions that were within him. The power that was healing him was invasive and left him feeling like he’d been raped. If he looked at the energy of it, he would break into tears. That was something he did not want to do, especially in front of Shannon. He was half tempted to ask Shannon to make it go away again, but he knew how it worked. It was a transfer of energy that all healers and many great wizards could do. He wasn’t about to have Shannon be the one to deal with all of his emotional baggage, so he said nothing.

“Are you? You get hurt at all?” Oirion asked

“A few bruises.”

Oirion took the unleavened bread that was part of the meal and tore it with his fingers. He wanted to eat the meat; it smelled and looked wonderful, but he didn’t want to eat it with his hands. Shannon took a disk of bread for himself and poured water from the wooden framed decanter. The skin inside the frame was so thin that the level of the water was visible. Oirion had noticed it before, thinking of Jamie’s fascination with how things were made.

“I would’ve thought that you’d have gotten it worse,” Oirion said, feeling that it wasn’t quite fair that he was so hurt and Shannon got nothing.

“Your injuries were mostly from the fall,” Shannon said in that soft voice of his. It irritated Oirion somehow. It reminded him of the priest who would travel out to the Hennen estates to see his father, that fat lazy fool who was a far better politician than guardian. The priest always talked quietly, like he was so depressed that he didn’t have the energy to talk any louder. Oirion had detested that man who had done things he shouldn’t have done. Oirion felt sick at the memory of him, even if he couldn’t quite remember the reasons why he hated the priest… but then there was a lot of his childhood he didn’t recall well.

Maybe it was Shannon’s voice or maybe it was the healing that made him even think of that priest. He hadn’t thought about Father Don in decades. Whatever it was, Shannon was the only one he could react against.

“Why do you do that?” Oirion demanded irritably, as if Shannon was purposefully imitating the man. Shannon had a real voice; he’d heard it.

“Do what?’ Shannon asked, pouring water for Oirion with his ever perfect grace.

“Talk like that.”

“Habit,” Shannon said after a moment. “My parents were very much living links to the Elder days and one of the customs was ‘one does not raise his voice if he is in the presence of nobility, holy men, or your elders.’ It was a sign of respect. If you were one of those, then you spoke softly so men would have to be quiet and listen in order to hear what you were saying.” He tried to provide Oirion something else to think about, perhaps even get Oirion to open his mind a little.

“It’s irritating.”

“Why?”

“It is,” Oirion said angrily. He had never told anyone about that priest and he wasn’t about to now.

Shannon sighed with a hint of his own annoyance as he set the decanter on the table. He cleared his throat and looked up.

“I did not realize that I even did it still.” He spoke in a different voice. It was like he had gone from whispering to actually talking. He sounded like a different man; besides that, Oirion felt the words. Shannon was powerful and his words echoed slightly, just as all words spoken by powerful people. Even having to admit that Shannon had such power was well worth hearing him talk in a normal voice. Oirion preferred it a great deal. He momentarily wondered if that echo was why the Purtans had originally spoken softly, as a way to not brag about or show off their power. If a very powerful Purtan had lost his temper and yelled something with a voice like that, it could have exploded all around him.

“Is there anything else about me that you find so irritating?” Shannon asked, lifting his eyes to Oirion. It was nice to get an insight into Oirion’s moods, Shannon thought, and Oirion was just glad to get his mind off the pain.

“Most things, yes,” Oirion said. “You avoid people. It’s not natural for men who travel like this to avoid each other. Instinct tells us that we need each other. Those who don’t share that are normally thrown out of a group.”

“You are actually a smart man, Oirion,” Shannon said, “stubborn… but smart.”

Oirion scowled. “I’m in no mood to be insulted by you right now.”

“It was not an insult, just an observation, an opinion.”

“Our opinions differ most of the time,” Oirion pointed out, almost in a way to be insulting to Shannon. “I liked you better before you talked at all.”

Shannon almost smiled at that.

Oirion didn’t have anything else to say, so he just sat there eating the flat rye bread, wishing for a bit of golden wheat bread… and butter; butter would be good. He looked up as he took the meat, tore a piece off, and took a bite while watching Shannon. Shannon just ate bread, always bread.

“We are taught how to recognize a powerful demon – to be aware that demons don’t bleed, they don’t eat, and they don’t have imperfections like freckles or scars. They like to cover up the lack of imperfections, so the easier it is to fit in here. We are taught that demons don’t like fire, they don’t sweat, and they don’t shiver. Now that I think of it, I’ve never seen you sweat, bleed, or shiver…” He knew that he had seen some of those things on the night they went down the river and again the night he was healed, but that was beside the point. “… or eat anything but bread, and you hide most of your body.”

Shannon took a drink of water, watching him. “I do not bleed because I avoid injury. I do not sweat because I can regulate my temperature. Only in rare cases do Purtans sweat and usually that is only under extreme emotional trauma or a fever. I do not eat much because I do not need much. Partly that is because I have been on so many purifying fasts that my body does not need that much to sustain itself.”

“Good excuses,” Oirion said conversationally.

Shannon actually smiled. He had a brilliant smile, Oirion thought. He almost smiled back. Women would die to have that man smile at them. Oirion sighed. Women were not usually a problem for him. He was plain and he was a priest… between the two he went practically unnoticed. Thoughts of Tavia swam up, unbidden, but he pushed them down quickly. He looked to Shannon to find something to talk about, anything to get unclean thoughts out of his head.

“You’re a full-blood Purtan, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I thought most full blooded Purtans were wiped out.”

“There are more than you think.”

“Where are they?”

“All over. Most hide away in their castles and estates. It is very depressing to see the ways things are now. Many wear illusions and false names. Only in Norwood do they attempt to live in the open.”

“Vampires don’t count,” Oirion said, commenting on the rumor that the vampires owned Norwood… a rumor that he had no reason to doubt. The farther over the border you got, the worse it got, and once past a certain point… people didn’t come back.

Shannon leaned back looking at Oirion, weighing in his mind just how far he wanted to go with this conversation. Oirion felt a little chill go over him.

“Why not?” Shannon asked.

“They are soulless.”

“Are they? Ever talked to one?”

“No,” Oirion replied, almost revolted at the idea.

“Then how do you know? Where does the soul go? If a man loses his soul when he is Turned, then where does it go? If all that we are resides within our soul, then how is it that a vampire lives? Is not the flesh just the house of the soul? If the soul departs, is it not death? Is a vampire thus a walking corpse with no thought, no emotion, and no identity? Is the man that existed behind the thoughts and feelings of the living simply washed away with the soul, just…?” he gestured away, making his point as to the fleeting soul.

“A vampire’s soul is destroyed. Like a log in a fire, it is burned up. The ashes show what it was once, and the charcoal might have been held in a semblance of the thing that it was, but it is not a tree anymore. It is nothing but ash that needs to be cleaned out and thrown away.”

“That tree was cut down and that log was thrown into the fire. Tell me in your analogy, who is cutting down men to make vampires?”

“They do it themselves.”

“No power would be worth having your soul burned to ash.”

“That’s how the Church sees it.”

“Maybe the Church is wrong.”

“You trying to piss me off?” Oirion asked, getting upset now.

“No, I am trying to make a point.”

“You think I haven’t asked my questions? I take it personally; you are so quick to doubt me and you have no idea who I am.”

“You assume that you know every vampire,” Shannon countered.

“You think I’m wrong? I have seen those men. I have been attacked. I have scars. I’m a Hunter, for God’s sake, Shannon! It’s my job!”

“We all have scars, Oirion… and no, you haven’t met them all. The vampires you have met are the culls, the rejects, the ones driven out of the other places. Caught between their king and the Church, they are fated to be hunted down by the Hunters and exterminated. You perform a noble service.”

“Their king?” Oirion asked, outraged by the idea. He had heard the peasants on the border talk of the Vampire King and it was an idea that he was ordered to wipe out. To hear it from a man who was not a suppositious peasant was frustrating and troubling.

“You have heard of the Shadow King,” Shannon said. “That’s what the peasants call him.”

“He’s a story, made up to assure a nervous population that there is order to the darkness.”

“Is he?”

“If you believe in fairy tales, you are far more gullible than I thought you to be.”

“If you blindly trust everything you are told, you are not half the man I thought you to be.”

“You enjoy this, being able to piss me off and knowing I can’t do much about it. Why are you here?”

“I am not trying to upset you, Oirion,” Shannon said, taking a drink of water. “You must realize the major place we disagree is on the Church, not God, just the Church and its flaws… its dark side.” he added.

“The Church is sanctioned by God.”

“The Church is ruled by a man,” Shannon said, getting a little upset himself.

“His age proves his holiness. He’s over five-thousand years old.”

“So?” Shannon asked.

“So? Humans don’t live that long.”

“They do if they are involved with enough powerful energies.”

“He’s not even that powerful of a wizard. His life is from God, from the Divine and he is holy. He is a good man.”

Shannon shook his head slightly, but gave up. He wasn’t going to get anywhere with Oirion. The man was blinded in his own fears and wasn’t about to look at the truth of things, let alone accept it. It was really too bad; they might have made an awesome pair. Shannon wondered what sort of reaction Gerome would have if Shannon had a new partner. He almost smiled at the idea. Oh well, a priest and a vampire were not about to meld anyway. It would be too hard and he knew it. It was out of the question. It would drive him Mad. He wasn’t even sure how he had kept control and sanity this long.

Shannon looked at the water he held, thinking about it. In actuality, they had been Handed when they had fought the trolls and Linked in the river. Oirion had used the powers of his heritage – his wizard’s blood – and the need to live. He had been so concentrated on Shannon that he had hung on with more than just his fingers. Oirion was not ready to die. If anything, he was still trying to be born.

It had been a long time since someone was inside Shannon’s head, and while it was just a whisper, it had felt odd to have that part of him tapped into again without the horror and vileness that was Gerome. How Oirion had gotten so close and how he was able to reach Shannon at all was perhaps not so very odd considering the connection they had once had. Shannon knew very well that Oirion did not recall him consciously. Shannon had gone to great work to make sure the boy he had saved more than once did not recall him. But the fact that Shannon would allow anything between them at all now, let alone consider more, was troubling.

For a moment he was tempted to remove the magics that blocked the memory; maybe then Oirion would not be so difficult to deal with. As fast as he thought it, he discarded the idea. It was better for both of them if they stayed at odds rather than the truth be known by Oirion.  That was one thing Shannon did not want revealed. This Shannon knew beyond a shadow of a doubt.

He took a drink and set the glass on the table, actually feeling a little excited over the memory of the touches. It whispered with a depth and familiarity that made him think maybe… there might somehow be a way to be healed. If Oirion ever reached like that again, it would go deeper still and that was a thought that provoked a wide range of reactions.

He understood the magic of it and he had shielded against it happening again. There were things that he didn’t want Oirion to see, think, or even imagine. Even if Shannon thought that he could handle the powers of a bond, he wasn’t so sure that he was up to the emotional challenge of it. He looked over at the man who was watching him and trying to seem casual about it.

Shannon silently cursed himself for staying with this group; he had gone and gotten attached to them. He should have taken David, cut up the shore, met Elliott, gotten a ship and gone home somehow. What was he doing arguing with a Hunter about the souls of vampires? He never should have gotten involved with Oirion; not as a man, and certainly not as a priest. He should have just let it go. But, it was Oirion who kept bumbling into him, not the other way around. This was not the first time he had been forced to deal with Oirion. This was just the longest. He wished he could just leave. The idea of being healed and tying it to Oirion felt very much like a demonic trick… another trick, another way to get him to go farther into his damnation. He wanted to snarl and attack something, to burn some demon to nothing, but he sat, calm and unmoving. He wanted to go apart and do a deep scan to make sure that he wasn’t somehow being guided by a demon. He had been so careful with that. Even at his lowest yet, he didn’t think any demon could have gotten that close without Shaa or himself knowing about it.

He knew better than to leave Oirion alone right now, even though it was getting harder and harder to stay in control around the man. Having tasted Oirion and having had that power flow through him was not helping. The hunger had been sated, the buzzing silenced, but the appetite was whetted, and now he knew just how sweet and filling it was to drink of that power. He bowed his head, wishing he could just get up and leave.

If he could just go and forget it all, it would be so much easier. On the other hand, he had been healed once by the same method used on Oirion. It was a horrible invasion of soul and it was after he had been so invaded that his soul was in question of existing. It was much easier to have someone, anyone, with you… even if the other just sat there and did nothing but be present.

Oirion picked at the food, not really hungry. Lack of appetite was a side effect of the emotional upset that he was feeling. Shannon tried not to intrude on the man’s unhappiness too much. It didn’t help that Oirion’s pain was radiating and wavering up against Shannon’s shields. It was whispering to him: ‘just a taste, that’s all, just to feel that Golden Light within again.’ Shannon turned cold against the seductive allure of the power that sat so close; he knew ‘just a taste’ was never ‘just’ anything. He never should have even touched the power. He should have let it go, slipping into the earth, but he hadn’t had the strength to deny all of it and he had been sloppy in his work. He had brushed against it… like brushing against another man’s wife just to feel her body. It felt very much like adultery, and yet was far sweeter and far worse.

Oirion was surprisingly calm about the pain, emotional and physical, that he was feeling; he hid it well. Shannon had to wonder what had been the preparation for that. Perhaps having been an abused child might have been comparable enough to make this easier. Oirion had done well then and he did well now, considering his whole story.

Oirion tossed away the rest of the bread and leaned back, shifting painfully. He hurt, and he hurt a lot, even if he hid it. The orcs had him very shielded and Shannon had devoted extra energy to his own shields. That helped, but still, Shannon could feel it. He wouldn’t have been able to be in here at all if the orcs weren’t working to shield Oirion as they were.

“Where are we going, anyway?” Oirion asked. “Dave said he found a place, but what is it?”

“It’s a small castle outside a decent sized town.”

“Abandoned?”

Shannon nodded once.

“Is it in good enough condition for us to survive a winter there?”

“From what I can tell,” Shannon said, having to clear his throat again to keep his voice from slipping back into the Whisper he normally spoke with. Maybe if Oirion saw that he was willing to change a little, to make life easier for the group, then the priest might relax a little.

“How did you two find it?”

“Basic wizardry,” Shannon said.

“Dave has an interesting shield, you know. I can’t even tell what sort of power made it.”

“That’s part of its purpose. It’s inverted.”

“Like yours.”

“Same idea… different though.”

“So why hide it? You got something worth hiding?”

Shannon tried to imagine just what Oirion would do if he dropped his shields. What would the righteous priest do if he saw what the shield hid? The idea was almost tempting.

“Tell me something, Oirion,” Shannon said, changing the subject just a little. “You are all church, right down to the core… Then why are you here? Why were you on that ship? You had orders to stay in Norwood and yet you disobeyed.”

“How do you know what my orders were?” Oirion asked, a little shaken.

“I know the method.” He leaned forward on the table. “One day, Oirion, we will go back and you will have access to the records of the Church. I want you to look at something when you get there. I want you to go back through the records and look. Look for pairs that have a healer and a wizard combination. Look at all the times when the healer is killed or otherwise lost. Then look at what happens. The man who is the wizard is told to stay put. He has two fates from the moment that his partner is gone.

Either he is promoted to cleric, which rarely happens, or he is lost. His lands, everything he owns, is taken by the Church. He is denounced as having gone mad, of having lost his mind to his power, or worse, having been Turned. Then, look at the rank of those men. Few are as powerful as you are, and yet they are mad?

“Have you ever felt that your power was going to drive you to the extremes that the Church says it will? Have you ever had fantasies of killing everyone you loved? There’s a pattern there, and you might even pick up that all these men were never found, that only a few were ever killed, and no one knows what happened to them. Count them; count every man who has fallen in the last five hundred years, and then count up all the men who have been killed in the woods or other places and see what you find. Go with it.”

“You think that all of the teachings of the Church are nothing but bullshit,” Oirion said in shock. “I don’t want to talk about it, Shannon. I wish I could believe you… that I could think that vampires are just men who are part of this conspiracy that you seem to think they’re caught in. I wish that I could blame the Church and curse it, and go after it for all the things that had happened, but I don’t. I saw my partner…” he stopped, his voice catching in his throat. He bowed his head, swearing at himself for breaking down, for getting so close to tears in front of Shannon again.

Shannon didn’t say anything. He was tempted to say that he, too, had seen James… that the man wasn’t a vampire… far from it. All that James had done was choose to have a history lesson from others who had been there… that he might see and hold the bitter reality in his hands. However, Shannon didn’t say anything. To admit involvement was to admit his damnation to a man who would risk his life to kill him. Shannon didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to have to kill Oirion. He bowed his head and gave the man his privacy.

Oirion tried to get up, but wasn’t able to. He was far from that point. Shannon was up, on instinct, to help him back to his cot. Oirion shoved Shannon away, frustrated, hating himself for the war of responses over the man. Shannon just stepped back. He stood a moment before he spoke.

“The orcs have asked that we help them open the gates of the Warren. It was sealed about a year ago and the food stores are beginning to run low. This group is the last chance to get back with their people and to save those inside from starvation. We are going to leave in the morning. They want Tavia and Travis to stay here. The rest of us, minus a healer and a guard for you, will be going.”

“You’re leaving me here?”

“It is only a few hours away. It is just that we are right up against goblin territory and it might take me awhile to get the seal down. We will need the orcan protection and the group’s magic.”

“I don’t want Tavia in here,” Oirion said.

“Can I ask you something, seriously?”

“What?”

“What books did you read in the monastery? What appealed to you the most?”

“We read and studied scripture, prayer, and the writings of Tyredelle, for the most part,” he said.

“What did you think?”

“I… he’s a saint, Shannon. He’s the greatest religious teacher the church has had in a very long time. He created his own kingdom, and every kingdom has an order to his honor within it. What do you mean ‘what do I think?’”

“Do you think he was inspired? That he was a holy man?”

“Of course.”

“Before you become so rigid and so lost in the dogma of the Church, before you become so pent up that you condemn women out of hand as evil and become harsh in your need to not see them, I want you to think very carefully about one thing. Tyredelle was married and had nine children. He loved God no less for loving his wife or the children they had. If anything, he saw only God’s love and blessing in her eyes. God made us, every race, to need the love of another. There is nothing impure, in the least, about love, what it inspires us to do, or in the manifestation of the energies that create us. The purity of your soul, the commitment to God and your priesthood are not compromised by seeing or touching what God has created. Before you argue with me, stop and think about what you just told me.

“The man who had the greatest impact on the Church since it was built, the man whom an entire Kingdom is built on, the man whose writings are in every monastery and still whispered today, had a wife. He loved her and he enjoyed it.

“He didn’t wait until he was married to do it, either. Love is love, and God draws people together at His will, not ours. If we chose whom we loved and whom we were to meet in life, do you honestly think that you and I would ever have met?”

“What do you know about it?” Oirion asked.

“More than you would think. The point is, Oirion, that the greater sin would be in denying what God has created.”

“God has nothing to do with it,” Oirion said back, almost fiercely.

“Maybe not your God, Oirion, but my God designed a man to fit very well with a woman, and He even gave us the desire to want to.”

“Yeah? Why don’t you go see how well you fit with her then?”

“It is not a thing I can do.”

“Why? Are you so powerful as to deny that, or are you just dysfunctional?” A moment of silence filled the air. “It’s okay to pick at me, but not to question you?” he asked when Shannon didn’t reply. “You can’t lecture me about this and that and then not prove yourself against being a hypocrite.”

“I was married,” Shannon said softly. “She was murdered; I still look for her in crowds and reach for her when I wake up at night. I miss my wife and I have yet to meet anyone that can reach me through the horror of her death. In all my life, one of the things that I do not regret is loving her. Life isn’t always so clear cut, Oirion. We are not always what we seem to be, and sometimes the rules are wrong for us.” He wasn’t so sure he cared to share that with Oirion, but he needed to make his point. He was a little upset that he had spoken so openly to him, but he had, and it was true. He’d spoken before he meant to, but the look in Oirion’s eyes made it seem like it had been the right thing to do.

Oirion looked toward the ceiling of the tent and said nothing more. Shannon sat silent, pushing down the thoughts and memory that had been brought up by mention of it. It wasn’t so easily forgotten. He sat back down and leaned forward on his knees, holding his head his hands. He was still trying to forget it all and to think of the moment here and now.

“Shannon,” Oirion said in the dark of the tent. The lamp had burned out, but Shannon hadn’t even noticed.

“Hmm?”

“What was her name?”

“Alisha.”

“It doesn’t matter, you know. I vowed celibacy.”

“Did you? Or did you say the traditional vows of the Sixth Kingdom?”

“It’s the same thing.”

“No. Of the older kingdoms, only the first and second have Full Celibacy; the rest have Temperate Celibacy or Blessed Celibacy. Only the newer kingdoms, those formed under Gerome, have anything so foolish and strict as to hold to the such stringent vows of the first and second orders. You belong to neither.”

“Blessed is Sixth, but that is just…” Oirion started to argue

“No,” Shannon interrupted. “Look it up if you like. What Blessed is, shortly put, is that you do not behave like Ivan and you do not use magic with it. You get married and live like any man. The Church now fails to explain it.”

“So? That’s not what I meant.”

“You are a stubborn man.”

“Yeah, well…” They didn’t say anything else after that. Shannon left only after Oirion was deep in a dream.

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