Tasale/ chapter 1/ Facing the Dark – book 2 of Emperors and Exiles

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Chapter One                              .

Tasale

Tasale.  The city had once been a major hub of the trains going east and west, as well as north into Norwood. It was ancient and grand.  While the city itself no longer held its former glory, the train station hinted strongly of the past.  It was Purtan-built with the grandeur and grace of all Purtan-built Imperial buildings. It was stunning. Over the great causeways, skylights let sunlight flood down into the space, with trees and gardens planted down the center of the floor, complete with fountains and little finches that made the place feel rather like summer even in the depth of winter.  It was warm and smelled of fresh things the moment they stepped off the train, almost like a warm summer night.  The cold rain outside was quickly forgotten.

The power and glory of the past whispered here like it did in few places.  Once this had been one of the prides of the House of Valreen, a place where the king might come to dine at one of the eateries, or stroll the walkways to escape the long cold winter, or take his children to the theatre that stood at the far end of the station.  Here, where winters could be long and brutal, the walkways and lights of the Train House offered a great escape from the cold.

The station was almost a city in itself with its own police and jail, as well as shops, residency, eateries, and healers’ hall.  Shops lined the causeway and trains went in and out all day and night even now.

This was where Oirion had been forced to go to work beside his father and grandfather as a boy. This was where his brothers had teased him and left him to try to keep up as they ran away with the other boys of the station.  The place was full of memories Oirion had rather not run into.  Somehow, here he was, getting off the train, hood up to hide his face in case anyone might know him.  He was half afraid his brothers and father would be waiting for him at the train door as they had when he was young and coming home for holiday.

The crowd they faced, though, was all hurried and moving about with faces weary from the late night and the long ride on the train.

The magics of the trains was fading.  Without the true emperor and with the ban on magics, the trains had neither the Wells to recharge the train stones nor for anyone else to know how.  Soon the magics would fail all together and the roads into Valreen would be blocked by snow and freezing rain for at least three months of the year, possibly more.  With no train, trade would collapse and much of the kingdom would be hard-pressed to survive.

Oirion’s soul-bonded partner Jamie stepped off the train, taking in the beauty of the place with a barely hidden gasp.

“Wow,” Jamie said softly.  “This place is amazing.”

“This was how all the stations once were, with only the light of the king to add to it,” Shannon said.  “Hennen might serve in Gerome’s court, but he is the rightful King of Valreen and it shows in places such as this.  Despite his politics, he almost redeems himself with the care he takes with the old places.”

“Can we get going?” Oirion muttered, shoving Eldwar forward as an outlet for his own displeasure.  “They will be here looking for us and we all know it.”  Too many weeks, months now, he had been actively hunted and being here felt like walking into a trap.

“Lead on,” Shannon said softly after a pause.  He pulled up his hood casting a sharp look to Eldwar who bit back his retort to Oirion and walked with them, snarling under his breath.

“I need a drink,” the Purtan healer said as they passed a small tavern-style shop.  “It’s been days.”

“You’re a healer; deal with the withdrawals,” Shannon said coldly.

“I’m also a drunk and I need a drink.”

Oirion grabbed the Purtan by the elbow as painfully as he could, driving a thumb into a pressure point and jerked the man to him, whispering in his ear.

“Give me a reason to be rid of you and, by God, I will make it as painful as I possibly can.  When Shannon says ‘no’ the answer is ‘no.’ You do not argue with the King of Norwood.”  He shoved Eldwar hard enough that the man nearly fell before he got his feet.  Oirion was already stalking ahead and away from Jamie’s father.

“Defending Shannon now?” Jamie asked as he joined Oirion.  “I appreciate you dealing with him for me, but Shannon can take care of himself.”

“I know,” Oirion grunted.  “That’s not the point.  I want out of here and the more your piece-of-trash father understands the severity of things, the sooner he might stop being such a burden.”

“We could just kill him,” Jamie said cheerfully and clearly loud enough that his father could hear.  “I can make it rather painful, but quick enough… maybe drop him into a living death, so they can burn him alive in the crematory.  Maybe his pain would grant him mercy in death. God knows it’d make me feel better.”

Oirion chuckled at Jamie and relaxed a bit.  They were all tense, tired, and on edge, but no matter how upset he was with things, Jamie had to be feeling a lot worse with Eldwar there.

“Right, let’s just vanish as soon as we…” Oirion stopped when he saw a massive poster of himself and Jamie.  They looked rather grand in their Hunter’s uniforms with the gold chains and sashes of the ranks of bishops.  The image capture was clearly a masterpiece and relatively new.  Under it read ‘The Champions of Valreen.’

“Damn,” Jamie said stopping. “My hair never looks that good in real life.  It’d take a lot of time and the right products to get the frizz to obey even close to that.”

“That had to cost a pretty pinch,” Gallus said in awe of the size and skill of it.

“I can’t image my grandfather would have put it up there,” Oirion said.  “He’s not a fan of such displays.”

“He didn’t,” Shannon said, motioning them to keep moving.

“And you know that how?” Oirion asked.

“Because I paid for it,” Shannon said.

“What?  Why?” Oirion asked shocked.

“To help deal with the public relations problems you have.  Valreen needs to keep you firmly in their minds as the hero you are.”

Oirion snorted and jerked his hood up tighter.   “I’m not a hero,” he said under his breath, “and drawing attention to me doesn’t help; it makes the Church want me removed.”

“Now you’re just being childish,” Shannon said.  “If you care to have me point out all the things you have done to make yourself a hero, then I will – if you continue to carry on like a spoiled prince.  I’m certain Jamie would love to hear about what you did at the battle of the river, or on the ship…”

“Stop,” Oirion cut him off.  “I act without thinking and we both know it.  Heroes are men who consider what they are doing and do it anyway.  That is not me.”

Shannon actually smiled.

“We could argue it all night if you like,” he teased.  He put his hand on Oirion’s shoulder and stepped closer as he passed him. “Watch the rear; we’re being followed by someone new,” he said softly and discreetly. “We had better walk,” Shannon said, despite the carriages that waited in hopes of offering rides.

They were headed to Oirion’s family home – The House of the Earl Hennen. The house was outside the city and several miles inside the walled border of his private estate.  Oirion didn’t care to walk that far at night or in the rain, but he knew Shannon would have a reason.

“What is it?”  Oirion asked, concerned by Shannon’s hesitation just outside the door.

“There is a grim.  We will fight him before we reach the estate.”

“You can beat the grim, can’t you?” Oirion asked.

“What is a grim?” Gallus whispered to Jamie.

“It’s a type of demon,” Jamie said

Shannon looked at Oirion. “I suspect so, but I seriously doubt I will be able to hide who I am for long in such a fight… and Gerome knows we are here.  He could send others”

“Why is that such a bad thing?’ Jamie asked a bit nervously.  “Maybe it will scare him away if you reveal yourself.”

“If the grim is here, he’s not alone. Do not touch the grim.  Do not get in between me and any demon, and Oirion, you stick with James.”

“Right,” Oirion muttered.  “I’m not so sure why you want to fight him alone, but if tat what you want…”

“I won’t,” Shannon said.  “I have Gallus to help me.”

“Me?” Gallus asked a bit nervously.  “Oh, I don’t know.  The thing is… I am not a fighter and I might just faint again.”

“No, you won’t,” Shannon said, “and you‘ll do fine.  All you have to do is banish it.”

“I’ve never done anything that powerful,” Gallus pleaded.  “I really do not want to face it.  Please don’t make us go out there.”

“We walk,” Shannon said.  “We have no choice.  It is hunting one of you and will not stop.” Shannon put his hood up as he stepped out into the rain with the others following.

It was ten miles out of the city to the edge of the Hennen Estate and Oirion was not at all looking forward to that rather long and uphill hike, but he trusted Shannon on his decision to walk.  Of all of them, Shannon had the most reason to not want to fail in this.

The city was dark and quiet with the late evening and the rain. Random street lamps burned oil, making small pools of wavering light, but they were little more than just street markers.  The streets, sidewalks, and building fronts had once been well-lit when the city had run on the power of the king’s key to the Wells of Purt.  The entire Empire had once been a glory that no other peoples could compete with, but now it was dark and cold.  There was not the power to light it up any other way.  The dark at least made Shannon able to blend in rather easily.  They moved out of the city, far too fast for Oirion’s liking, as once out of the city they were in a wooded area with no light at all.

“Oirion, light,” Shannon said softly.  Oirion cast a blue light up ahead of them on the road, enough for them to see by, but not enough to make them easily seen from a distance.

They crossed the bridge where Oirion had been shoved off by his brothers when he was twelve and nearly drowned under the ice.  It was the first time his father was ever angry at the younger boys.  They were punished for that, but Oirion had nearly died once in the water and then again from the sickness that followed.  The healer suspected that he would be sterile and never father any children for the fever he endured.   The river itself was on the Hennen property line and marked the southern border of the estate. The smaller river here would join up with the Valreen River just before it poured over cliffs into the Silver Lake to the east.

Oirion shivered despite himself and pulled his cloak tighter as they crossed the long slightly-arched bridge, their footsteps hollow on the old wood. On the far side the trees opened up off to the right.  They had reached the open fields used by the locals to graze their goats, sheep and a few horses during the summer. Once great tournaments were held for horsemanship, arms, and wizardry here.

This early in the year it was mowed low and empty, and it was the perfect place for an ambush.  He tensed and tried to stay calm.

They all felt the scans sweeping the area and the chill that began to gather was more than just the rain. Shannon drew a deep breath as if he was plunging into cold water.  He strode forward along the road, not pausing as the others did.  Oirion felt sick and his stomach tightened, but he followed.

“I feel ill,” James muttered.  “I haven’t been so scared of a fight in a long time.”

“Let’s keep close,” Oirion said softly.  He glanced back.  He prayed that it was just the grim tonight and this worry was all for nothing, but nightmare flashes of the last fight he had been in with Shannon kept coming back.  He did not want Jamie to have any idea how close he and Shannon had been in that fight, but less did he want to repeat any of it.  Still, a part of him knew that if he was needed that way again, he would offer himself up to save Shannon… and it ate at him.

They had only gone a few yards further when the grim appeared on the road.  He wore a long dark cloak, his pale face and eyes glowed green from under the deep hood.

Jamie stumbled away from unholy reek of the thing, but was knocked back hard as the grim targeted him and hit him with a magic that used the weak points where the parasite had been.  Somehow the grim knew that Jamie would be an easy target and ignored Shannon all together.

Shannon slammed up a shield over Jamie; the healer stumbled with relief, gasping for breath and barely keeping his feet. Clearly Shannon had not expected the attack to be at Jamie and looked momentarily annoyed and a little angry at not having seen that coming.

“You interfere.” The grim jerked his attention to Shannon.  “It is unwise to do so, Purtan.  Bow before me and beg for my protection,” he snarled.

“I think not,” Shannon said as he shifted to prepare for a battle.  Oirion felt it more than saw it.  Whoever this grim was, he was dangerous and something about Shannon’s caution warned Oirion this fight was going to cost a lot.  Oirion feared he would, at the very least, end up having to offer up energy to aid Shannon in this battle to keep him from losing control of his darker side.

“You are truly are a fool, then.”  The grim bowed with mocking acceptance.  He swiped the air behind him as he spun about into his own defensive stance.

His claws tore the night, opening a gash into a realm of darkness that was like swirling oil.  Sick green fumes boiled out of the rip and rolled out onto the ground.  Cold so intense their breath froze in the air warned of the power of the demon who was about to appear.  A wicked grin showed the grim’s horrific teeth. The grim fully expected to win this battle.

“Not good,” Eldwar gasped as he staggered back with panic.  Breathless, he collapsed with weakness in the road.

Oirion grabbed Jaime’s hand and locked up a shield with him as they had once learned to do and had done on a daily basis.  It had been decades since they had needed it, but Oirion knew at the appearance of the demon that this was going to get serious.  The grim had come with backup.  The grim alone was bad enough, but this demon was no low rank.  It was rare for such a partnership, but not unheard of.  Oirion cleared his mind of all questions to focus on the moment.

The grim disappeared and reappeared right in front of Jaime and shot his hand out to rip Jamie’s heart right out of his chest.  The grim’s hand hit the shield that Jamie and Oirion held as one.

They were knocked back with the force, but the shield held.  Oirion was up first.  He reacted with a power and speed he never showed in public.  He shot white flames out of his hands at the grim.  The grim blocked with a shield and hissed at Oirion.  The attack had not stopped the grim, but it had to have hurt him.

As the grim made its attack against Jamie and Oirion, Shannon stood waiting for the demon to make its move.  It stayed still a moment, realizing whom it faced, then moved with a fierce hope of gaining the power to obtain the rank of King Demon by beating Shannon in battle.

Shannon slammed an extra shield up just as the demon reached him, knocking it back. Shannon moved in with his hands to strike the demon.

He chose the method of the battle and it was hand to hand with power driving up though every motion.  It was a fight in this realm, by the rules of this realm, and that was to Shannon’s advantage.  He just hoped that Gallus would find the strength to move. Shannon could win this, but not quickly, and the grim was nothing he wanted Jamie or Oirion to even be near.  If he had been alone he would have dealt with this differently, but with the others here he had no choice but to fight.

The grim moved in and met Oirion and Jamie with physical force, as Shannon and the demon stepped into their own fight.  Oirion was forced to fall back out of the grim’s reach.  He was feeling the strain of the fight far too early and realized there was no way he could win it.  The grim was toying with him.

Oirion swore and hoped Shannon would quickly overcome the demon he fought and come to their aid, but from the sickness and nausea that Oirion was feeling, such help was not likely to be the case anytime soon.  The magic of priesthood was not an aid at this point, but was making him weak with sickness, causing him to feel dizzy and off-balance.  Demons had long ago learned to use their reek against priests and the grims were masters of it. There was nothing Oirion could do about it, except to choke down the nausea and keep moving.  Jamie was so sick he was barely able to do anything but hold onto the shield he and Oirion held.

The grim again came at them in a rush and the distance that the last decade had put between Oirion and Jamie caused their lock to give way.  Their hold on each other snapped when the grim hit the shield.   Oirion was knocked back, tripping over Jamie who couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.  Oirion was stunned.  Never in all the years he had known Jamie had they ever tripped over each other.  Not once, not ever.  Even before they were bonded, they had never faltered in their ability to work together. The emotional shock was almost worse than the physical pain of having such a deep and powerful shield snap, but with both at once it was all Oirion could do to blink it away and stay conscious.

From behind them someone drew up great power just as the grim crouched for another attack – an attack that would have been the death of either Jamie or Oirion.  The energy rose up out of the earth as a vortex of blue-white flames and light, coming between the grim and the two stunned men.

The man from the rear leapt over Jamie and Oirion, right through his own magic, and landed between them and the grim.  The man was suddenly transformed, armored in white light that was laced with streaks of blue lambent flames, all of it glowing with stunning power.  The stranger wore his magic.  The grim fell back a step at once; fear flashed over his face.

The man didn’t even pause, but moved with a sword of light and attacked the grim.  It fell back with a shout and tried to escape.  The man threw a blast of power at it and drove it to the ground, stunning it out of escape and forcing it to fight.  The grim had no chance.

The man moved in, swinging the sword around, slicing off an arm that the grin had raised to protect itself; flesh and magic were sliced like mist.  The arm fell and turned to mummified flesh, black and shriveled.  In a step, the man drove the sword though the grim’s chest and sent a blast of power down though the sword.  The grim screamed as it was set on fire.

Roaring white flame flared up, scorching hot.  It was brilliant enough to blind Oirion and Jamie.  Oirion shouted and threw all he had at the demon that fought Shannon.  If Shannon was not prepared, and maybe even if he was, such light and fire would seriously mess with the vampire side of Shannon.  Such magic was horrifically painful and energy draining. Shannon might falter a moment and in such a battle, it could cost everything.

Oirion fought to get his eyesight back even as he was moving to help Shannon. Shannon was hurting and Oirion knew it.  Somehow, he knew very well that Shannon was burned, blind, and in pain so bad he could barely keep from screaming.  Oirion threw up his arm without thinking and shouted as once he had, but then he had done it with another man’s power.  This time it was his own.  The banishment demanded so much of the soul, it dropped him to his knees, stunned and shivering.  His bones were as fragile as glass, ready to shatter at a touch, but it had hit its mark.  A lesser priest would have had his body burn away or his heart give out with such a powerful banishment.

The demon whirled from reaching to Shannon and screamed at Oirion just as the banishment hit him.  The demon shattered into nothing but tiny fragments of black crystals that blasted away and smoke that evaporated quickly.

Oirion could see Shannon struggling to get up off his knees.  He was still blind and off-balance, blood running out of his left glove.  Oirion had one moment of relief to think they had won.  He almost took a step forward to help Shannon, but at that moment the air tore again and the demon that Oirion knew from those years ago on the ship, stepped out of darkness.  Oirion recognized it at once.  He was sick and utterly cold inside at its presence.  It came as a mirror image of Shannon, with a smirk on his face.  Every fear Oirion had ever held seem to have just stepped out with grace beyond words.  Since they had had to struggle to beat the grim and his back-up demon, there seemed no way to escape now in the face of this King Demon; victory seemed beyond possible.

“Well, now, already on your knees.   What a nice surprise,” the demon purred at Shannon. He looked up from Shannon just as the man in white armor swung his sword in a rush at him.  The demon had to drive up a shield and throw an attack.  The man was hit and staggered, but not put down.  Oirion tried to comprehend how much power that man had to hold to withstand the touch of the demon who had been Shannon’s keeper in hell, but he couldn’t.   “Now I thought I had hunted all you little maggots out,” the demon snarled.

“Not quite,” the man said back coldly.  He spit blood from the hit he had taken. He swung the sword around.

The demon smiled. “You cannot beat me,” he said calmly, and hit the man with enough force to hurl him back off his feet.  The demon looked back to Shannon who was stumbling as he tried to catch himself.  With an almost amused look the demon looked to Oirion.  “What saved him last time will be his end.”  He held up a shield against the man in white armor and walked to Oirion, who couldn’t even get up. He was frozen, caught, and unable to even raise a shield.  Oirion tried not to panic, but he felt like a mouse in a lion’s mouth.

The demon lifted his hand.  The pain was blinding and all else was gone.  There was no warning; Oirion was just consumed and mute in the agony.  He felt the demon rip at the bond that was Jamie to get at the deeper bond that was hidden within…. the bond that was access to Shannon.  He heard both Jamie and Shannon screaming.  He saw a flash of light and then another voice roared into his mind.

The pain dropped off; he collapsed back limp and trembling. He had no strength at all and hit the ground as if dead, his body utterly devoid of response. Jamie was there weeping and pulling at him.  As the demon roared, they could see that the mask he wore, the mask that was the image of Shannon, was being shredded to reveal the putrid thing of darkness and unending hunger that it truly was.

A new presence stood solid before it, unwavering. Burning with golden power, the new attacker raised his arms; wings flared out with white robes blowing in winds of divine might.  Oirion could only think it had to be an angel.  Maybe Gallus had been telling the truth and Armond had not abandoned Purt, but was here now to save his forsaken son from going back to hell.

The demon was smoking black and the green fumes were no longer burning off him. The demon tried to move.  It snarled in a voice no longer even trying to mimic Shannon, but of hell and pain.

The man in white armor was there reflecting the golden light, aiding the one in robes of white.  Oirion reached out with his last mental strength and threw his own power into that of the angel, all of it being sent at the demon in a single attack.  They had to stop that demon at all costs; his life was nothing compared to that.

Jamie held Oirion in one arm, weeping, as he reached up with his other hand, sending all his power to assist the angel as well.  The figure in white light flared even brighter with Jamie’s aid, as if somehow doubled in might.

The demon roared, his voice like the howl of a million tortured souls, like thunder that never ended and threatened to scatter all the binding energy that held matter together. The world seemed to waver in an effort to remain intact.  The man in robes of white with the golden power shouted back at the demon in words Oirion never could recall, but which seemed to snap all things back into focus.

The demon’s roar of rage was cut off as he exploded into nothing but fragments of darkness.  Millions of little black crystals showered down on them.

Oirion couldn’t even blink his eyes, but watched with fixed gaze as the angel dropped and staggered.  The light of power faded and the man nearly fell over. Weeping, he turned and dropped down to Oirion, becoming Gallus, shaking and gasping for air.  Gallus reached out and touched Oirion’s face.

“Oirion?” Gallus pleaded that the man was still alive.  Oirion couldn’t move his eyes to look at Gallus, who had a moment ago been an angel, but watched as the man in white armor got up to help Shannon back to his feet.

Shannon was on his knees, shaking.  He held up a hand to keep the man away from him.  Oirion had seen Shannon in that condition before and it was very bad.  He wanted to tell the stranger to stay away from Shannon, to not touch him. Shannon needed shields, not a hand up.  Oirion wanted to ask the man, or anyone, to shield Shannon, but he could not even get his eyes to blink.

Shannon tried to get up, but just as he got a foot under him his strength gave out and he dropped to his hands and knees with a sob.

Oirion felt Jamie’s grip on his hand and knew he had to act fast, no matter how bad it hurt. If Shannon didn’t get help, he would lose all mastery and Riven was not here this time. No one here had the power to aid Shannon and yet be someone Shannon could let go of.  If the demon within Shannon got hold of a healer or a priest as golden as Gallus, he would not be able to make himself surrender such power.

Oirion had to protect them; he had to protect their souls and Shannon’s from Shannon doing something horrific.  Oirion reached up to reopen the bond with Jamie, who responded with a rush of relief, but just as fast, Oirion was hit with a storm of screaming pain and consuming grief that was Shannon.  It almost suffocated him.  Oirion knew that Shannon could feel himself slipping and that he was helpless to stop it.

Oirion was focused and had expected nothing less. By willpower alone he sent all the energy he had left though the bond to Shannon.  It held it only a moment before the pain was too much and Oirion blacked out.

Oirion stood just to the side of the road watching from a very strange perspective.  He could see himself in Jamie’s arms, his graying hair falling back in far longer wavy length than he had thought, his eyes staring blankly up at the sky. Blood had run from his nose into a grey beard that had grown in the last few weeks. Jamie was yelling at him, but he heard nothing of it.  It was just too far away.

Gallus was smoothing Oirion’s face, weeping, trying to convince him to come back.  Oirion looked at Shannon and saw him.  He was Shannon as he always was, but he wore a band of weak white power around his brow with a tiny gem in the center.  It had once been white or clear, but was fractured with lines of red pain though it.

Shannon had fallen back to sit on his heels, his hand over his heart as if his chest had been crushed.  The pain and shock on his face was something Oirion would never forget.  Through the raw and open bond the demon had torn open, Oirion could feel the utter pain, the grief, and wrenching loss Shannon felt.  Somehow it was so much deeper, so much more painful to face than the sudden sense of being abandoned and helpless that Jamie felt.

The man in glowing armor stood looking at Shannon in a helpless desire to aid.  The man saw Shannon, truly saw him and saw the mark of rank he wore in this realm of power and insight.  He stood looking at Shannon.  He saw.  He knew who Shannon was and Shannon knew he did, but at that moment nothing mattered to Shannon but the sudden loss of Oirion.

The man slowly turned from his Prince to where Oirion was in Jamie’s arms.  He moved over one step at a time and knelt beside Jamie and Oirion.

“He’s gone,” the man told Gallus, putting a hand on Gallus’s shoulder.  Gallus looked up a moment, then over at Shannon.  Gallus closed his eyes and looked up to heaven.  Oirion could almost hear his prayer, but it was as if it was a language he did not know and just out of hearing range.  Gallus bent and lifted Oirion’s head in his hands and blew into his mouth.

Oirion understood then: he was dead and Gallus was trying to bring him back.  The words of the Holy Writ rose in his mind… that the Pontiff of the Church and Holy Disciple of the God of Purt would battle King Demons and cast them to shards upon the earth, would raise the dead, and would hold the power of the Angels in his hands… so he would be known and so he would be honored.

Whatever battle Gallus had fought within himself to find the strength to raise his arms to the demon had been the last test of soul, and God had chosen a True Pontiff.

Oirion felt himself beginning to change, to be as ancient as the stars, as deep as the furthest reaches of universe, a terrible calm started to sink into him.

“Oirion, don’t…” Shannon begged, such a tiny distant whisper, but so terrified, so desperate.  Oirion knew that in a moment he would recall himself as Truth.  But as he looked upon that face, he knew Shannon would be utterly alone and that darkness and grief would consume him. Shannon’s grief would reach beyond all things and would swallow the world. Oirion hesitated as he felt a tiny golden thread reach for him.  Darkness closed over his mind.

“Oirion,” Shannon voice pleaded to him, calling him back with desperation and fear.  That voice so close, so intimately in his mind woke him with a jolt.  He did not expect the pain that he was jarred into and heard himself gasp.

“Oirion,” Jamie’s voice was closer somehow and yet distant in a way Oirion could not understand.  Oirion blinked painful eyes that burned and spilled over.  He tried to see, but there was only darkness and blurring tears.

He felt Jamie’s hand on his face.

“Oirion,” Jamie said again, crying himself.  “Can you hear me?  Would you say something, please?”

Oirion swallowed his gasping breath and the pain that caused it.  He blinked away what tears he could.  He did not cry for nothing and even though this was very painful, he found his strength and comfort in mastering himself enough to catch his breath.

“Ouh,” he said.  “I really hate that demon.”

The whole group around him let out a shuddering sigh of relief.

“Oirion, can you sit up?”  Gallus asked.

Oirion tried and with a little help, did so.  A faint light rose up allowing him to see the man who had been in the glowing armor before him.  The stranger moved to help.  He took Oirion’s face in his hands, turning it this way and that, and then pulled out a cloth to wipe the blood off Oirion’s face from his bloody nose.

“How do you feel?” Gallus asked.

Oirion looked at Gallus and saw all his clothes were beached white.  Oirion knew he should be in much more pain.  Carefully he reached inside and touched on the bonds that the demon had ripped into and found them sore and painful, but not torn.

“Better than I should be.  Thank you.”

Gallus smiled a little. “Thank Shannon.  He taught me the banishment on the train ride up here.”

“That wasn’t what I was thanking you for, Father,” Oirion said.  Gallus lost his smile and looked about ready to cry. There were other things more important at the moment that needed to be taken care of before events got even worse.

Oirion accepted Jamie’s help to get to his feet. Eldwar was trying to get up, but was still sick and shaky.  Oirion looked to where Shannon stood, back on the outside of the group, more hurt than any of them. Oirion had to make certain the vampire was under control.

He didn’t want to think too much about how painful and strong a reaction Shannon had endured at Oirion death, but Oirion would never be able to forget it.  Oirion wanted to deny it, to think it played only one way, that Shannon affected him, but not that he affected Shannon.  The truth, however, was shown in the tears on Shannon’s face.

“You alright?” Oirion asked Shannon.

“I’m as alright as I ever am,” Shannon said, collecting himself, the mask of stone-cold self-control taking over.  He took several steps over to the others and tried to say something. His breath was shaky and he was struggling to stay steady on his feet.  Oirion surprised himself and moved quickly to catch Shannon by the arm, offering support. He was in little shape to be helping anyone, but he feared for anyone else to even be close to Shannon, let alone to touch him. Shannon didn’t pull away from him.

“It’s gone now, you know,” Oirion said.  “Gallus destroyed him.  That thing is gone.  It will hunt you no more.”

Shannon nodded.   He wiped his cheek, then made a sound of disgust as he smeared his own blood from his hand over half his face.  He grabbed the hem of his tunic to wipe it off.

“Let’s try to get to the estate before this place is swarming with the curious,” Jamie said.  “I, for one, do not want to try to answer questions to the local Troop.”

Oirion thought about the long walk to the estate and doubted he could make it.  The rain didn’t help at all.  He was soaked and was shivering.  He looked at Shannon, who looked no happier than he about the long walk. Shannon had said he was alright and the vampire was under control, but he could not be feeling so well right now.

“We could cross the fields and reach the Market Inn,” Oirion offered.

“There is safety at the Earl’s that we may need,” Shannon said wearily.

“I can help,” the new man offered softly to Oirion.  He would take over aiding Shannon if Oirion needed it.  But Oirion kept hold of Shannon’s arm.  More than once Shannon had proven he would not hurt Oirion, but Oirion doubted anyone else had such an assurance. The Deal Oirion had made in Norwood was his shield and he knew it.  He wondered if Shannon had suspected one day it might matter and so bound himself from ever harming Oirion.

“No, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Oirion said back just as softly when he felt Shannon catch his hand as if to not be let go of.  It was such a small gesture and yet Oirion felt the power in it. Shannon did not trust himself yet and Oirion knew it.

They all stopped now to look at the newest arrival.  The man gestured up and cast a soft white light among them as the last light of the fight faded away.  He was a handsome enough Purtan man, with a wicked scar down the right side of his face.  He was dressed in studded travel clothes, likely a mercenary of some sort, his age showing in his hair and about the corners of his eyes.

“James,” he nodded to Jamie.

“Grim,” Jamie said with a slight nod back.  “What are you doing here?”

He wiped blood off his lips.  “Helping.  I figured you wouldn’t mind the backup without proper hellos first.”

Jamie grunted.

“We need to get off the road,” Shannon said softly, his Whisper dropped for the weary voice of a man too tired to hardly stand.  “Talk as we walk, if you must.”

Gallus reached to take Shannon’s other arm to help him walk.

“Don’t touch me, Gallus.” Shannon flinched back, almost falling into Oirion.  “Please… just… don’t touch me.”

Gallus stepped back. “Sorry, I only meant to help.”

“I know, but you can’t.  Let’s just get to the inn.” He moved with Oirion’s help to get off the road.  Oirion felt Shannon trying to not lean on him, but unable to move without the support. Oirion recalled a time when he had leaned on Shannon almost exactly that way as they made a slow walk down a snow-covered mountain.  It had been very hard for Oirion to accept help from Shannon and he was fairly certain Shannon accepted his help with no more ease.   The others followed them off the road.  The man, Grim, tried to talk to Jamie.  Jamie just held up his hand.

“Shh,” was all Jamie said.  The others just fell into step with them.

Jamie let them walk ahead and caught his breath.  He was so shaken inside he could not even begin to think straight.  Any sort of power was out of the question.  He was in a type of pain he had never felt.  The bond with Oirion felt rather like it had been shredded and then crushed back together and was bleeding.  His sides ached, his head pounded, and he couldn’t even begin to heal, as his healing core was the source of most of his pain.

He did not understand what had happened and was not sure he wanted to.  He just walked mutely behind the others through the rain, through the pain.  There was so much going on inside him that he could not even begin to understand it all.  All that and now Grim was walking with them.  Of all people in the world to happen upon, it was that one.  He just wanted to rest and be still inside.  He needed a drink.

The Market Inn was not far from where they had been on the road, but no one except a local would be able to find it in the dark and with the rain.  Oirion took the lead, though the trees, along a path that was more mud than not.  They reached a paved road that took them to the large inn built over hot springs. Once it been on the trade route into Norwood, but now was a hideout for locals who were there to drink and eat or to soak in the hot pools for a reasonable price.

No one noticed the men who entered the tavern room from the rain.  Everyone was wet, muddy, and in hooded cloaks.  Most of them were workers on their way home who often stopped to eat or those who had ducked in out of the weather.  Oirion picked a booth in the darkest, most private place in the building he could.  It was oddly quiet and the lights here flickered faintly.  There were no bards tonight, no dice games, nothing but a low mummer and uneasy tension.  The battle that had just been fought was being felt and they all knew it, but no one said anything.

“We should not stay here long,” Shannon said softly.

The man Jamie had called Grim went to the bar at once.  The others sank into chairs, so sore and beat up it was all they could do to try and hide it.

“How far to your family’s place?” Gallus asked Oirion.

“Several more miles.  We might be able to hire a carriage from here, though,” he said, running a shaky hand through his hair to get the wet curls out of his face.  He had a lot to think about.  He could not deny what he knew now.  He and Shannon had a bond every bit as real as the bond he had with Jamie.  It worked exactly the same and was enough that a demon could use it to get to Shannon.  If that was known…  He felt sick at the thought of it.

Oirion tried to think if he had ever heard anything about a man having had two bonds and nothing came to mind.  In the far past it was said people could pick up a new bond if a bonded partner died in battle or some such, but two bonds… never.  It would be too hard for the man in the middle.  He could not even begin to understand the magic involved or why it would happen, why the angels would allow it to happen.

“Who is that man?”  Gallus asked of the man who had joined them on the road and was now talking to the woman at the bar counter.  “I have never seen magic like that.”

“He is an Imperial Guard,” Shannon said in his weary voice, his head hung, his hands in his lap.  “The magic is not learned, it is given.  He has to be, at the very least, several thousand years old.”

“How do you know him?” Gallus asked Jamie.

Jamie shifted uneasily, looking over to where Grim was.

“I met him when Oirion was missing.  The last time I saw him… I broke his jaw…. among other things,” he muttered.

“Not friends, then?”  Gallus asked.

Jamie shook his head.  “It’s a long story.  My head hurts.  Gallus can we not talk about it.”

“We need to get to the estate,” Shannon muttered.  “This place is about to erupt with demons and the like.  I’m bleeding and we do not want another fight.  For these peoples’ sake, we need to leave.  I need to get to the Valreen lands.”

Grim returned. “There is a carriage coming around to the front,” he said to Shannon alone, as if the others were not even there.  “It is hired for people here, but he will take us to the Earl’s if we hurry.”

They didn’t argue, but made themselves get up. Shannon pulled his hood up, hiding under the black leather he wore.  He held his left hand to his chest, moving stiffly and clearly with pain.  Oirion would have offered help again, but was so sore himself that he was having difficulty just trying to walk.  His balance kept spinning and his chest hurt.

Somehow they all got out of the building, hurrying back though the rain to a carriage that they needed help to get into.  The drive wasn’t that far.  It felt very long, but they reached the border of the Earl’s land in under ten minutes.

They went through the gates to the estate and across the wide great bridge into the Hennen lands. The river that roared under it was a barrier and a defense.  The bridge could be pulled back and the lands kept safe.  More than once in ancient times the bridge had done just that.

Great forests rose up on the Hennen side of the river.  It had been kept clean of deadfall for millennia and the massive trees were kept thinned out so the trees here were fantastic and rose a good 100 feet taller than the trees on the south side of the river.

Dense moss and great wide-leaved plants grew with patches full of berry bushes and brush for the wild life in the summer.  It was quiet here and felt very much like a different world; the wall of misting rain only made it feel more so.

No one spoke and no one noticed the surroundings until they passed though the second gate and the trees fell away.  Rising up was a low mountain range that was seen as a skyline against a flickering storm.  Great hills rolled up toward the mountains with thorn hedges and fields of grapevines and swaths of stubble of the harvested wheat and barley.  Over looking it all was the House of Hennen.  It was a Purtan palace whose halls were once walked by the Kings of Valreen.

It was awesome and even from a distance the size was clear. The great towers and halls were all of the ancient style of the 3rd Von House. The style called for high arched peaks and soaring buttresses. It was an impressive thing in any age and with it being unsoiled and so well kept, the closer to it they drew, the greater and grander it became.

Not only was every stone cut to fit without mortar in both the walls and the pavements in the walks, the stone was melded in the manner of old where there was no seam or line to be seen.  Once through the palace gate, the world outside was lost and one was surrounded by what felt like a private garden.

Trees so old that moss hung in draping lengths off their gnarled limbs rose upward toward skylights.  Their limbs not touching the ancient spelled glass.  Banks stood with a lush growth of thousands of years of collecting leaves, compost, shrubs, and flowers.  The road wound though this garden of ancient design and perfect care.

Jamie looked around with a sense of awe.

“Wow,” he said softly.  “Someone has taken care of this place.”

The carriage turned off the main road and went up a slightly narrower road that wound steeply upward and into a carriage house that appeared out of the wall of shrubs and a great boulder garden.

Inside, the carriages were parked in neat rows.  The floors were paved and various men were working at different tasks in the upkeep of the Earl’s property.

The carriage they were riding in was pulled around the others to the back and near the door.  A maid and several young teenage boys waited for them.

The only luggage the travelers had were small packs they all still wore.  The young men took the things from them and hurried away.  The maid, an older woman, looked at them all a bit surprised. Her eyes settled on Oirion and she smiled a little.

“I will take you to the Earl,” she said.

Oirion almost objected, but let it go and followed her into the foyer of the palace despite how tired he was.  He and Shannon both looked at the stairs that wound up several stories out of the hall with a heavy sigh.  It was a lot of work for all of them, but the most for Shannon and Oirion.  At the top was a great chamber that was enclosed with massive skylights.

Light poured down from set stones along the ceiling, almost, but not quite, making the storm outside hard to see.  An ancient cherry tree grew up out of the floor toward the light which would be cast down into the hall during the day. The leaves of the cherry tree were just appearing, tiny specks of green, hints of new life.  Grim touched his lips and made a small gesture that was almost unnoticed, but Jamie saw it, as did the maid who looked back at them.

Another maid came down the stair in a hurry.  She was a young woman with a pretty face and a quick foot.

“Governess,” she said, “the Earl has just received word from the constable and he has to go at once.  He bids the guests to be given baths and clean clothes while they wait for his return.”

“Thank you, Mandy,” the older woman said and gestured to them. “Please, this way.”

Oirion sighed heavily. He knew the way to his own room and headed up the stairs, holding onto the rail.  He took one step at a time and the others followed, none of them feeling well.  At the top of the stairs, instead of climbing another level up, the governess took them down a side corridor and through a great hall with tall stained glass windows with the Angels of Purt in the art work.  A great rose window dominated the far end of this grand hall.  They passed through a doorway under it and into a long corridor.

The woman gestured to an open door for Gallus.

“Please, bath and change.  There are clothes in the room for you and your pack as well.  Your things will be washed and returned to you, so empty out your belonging and separate that which you do not wish washed by staff,” she said.

“Say that fast five times,” Grim muttered as they went up the corridor to the next open door.  She pointed to Grim and gestured to the room.

“Please, bathe and …”

“I heard you the first time,” he said and went in, closing the door abruptly.

The next door was for Shannon with the same recitation as she had for Gallus and again another for Eldwar.  She led the way up the corridor and up another short flight of stairs to a double door room at the top of the stair.  The one door was open.  She bowed to Oirion.

“I expect he will not be longer than an hour.  Try to sleep if you need to.”  She left Oirion and Jamie at the door.  Oirion scowled, but went in and went to his bed without aid of light. He dropped face first into the great soft bed and groaned.  He hurt so badly that the lack of pain earlier had to have been lingering effects of Gallus’s magic.  He was paying for it all now.

Jamie looked around at the massive room.  The room looked to belong to a younger man than Oirion.  Several trunks that were clearly out of place were set at the end of the bed. They were old, battered, and locked.  The rest of the room was flawless.  Bookshelves lined one wall, great windows were draped, and along the back wall stunning furniture was set about.  Jamie ran his hand along the back of a chair that stood in a small group.  His fingers touched on gems that were set as nail heads to hold the fine soft leather padding to the back.

“This where you grew up?” Jamie asked him.

“No.  I got this room when I turned fourteen.  It was a reward for staying alive, I guess.  My grandfather insisted on it.”

“They take your toys away?”  Jamie asked as he picked up a small statue of Saint Tyredelle that stood on the bedside table.  There were several new candles there, as well as a small gold box that was likely to hold holy oil.

“I had very few toys growing up.  Books.  I had a lot of books.  Jamie, I don’t feel very good.   Can we not talk?  Just lie down and rest.”

Jamie sat on the side of the bed, very quiet. “Oirion,” he said after a long time.

Oirion tried to open his eyes. “Hmm?” He was almost asleep and wanted to escape the pain in his head and his soul, but knew Jamie needed to talk or he too would be lying down.

“What just happened?”

“I’m not real sure exactly, but it hurt.”  Oirion made himself roll over.  “Please lie down, Jamie.”

Jamie made himself lie down next to Oirion, but he was not about to sleep.  His cores were shifting, burned, and in pain.  Shields were sparking and flashing through him.  He was half afraid to even try to work a healing right now for fear it would fail or even cause him permanent damage.

“Oirion?”

“I know, Jamie.  This is bad; I just don’t know what to do.”

“Oirion,” Jamie scowled a little, staring up at the ceiling.

“What, Jay?” Oirion asked, his voice muffled in the pillow he had pulled to himself.

“Why didn’t I get my own room?  The others did.”

“I told you… they think you’re my consort.  They don’t understand that the bond is like having a twin brother, not a matter of romance.”

“If it’s so offensive to them, why not force me to have my own room?”

“I can call for one if it bothers you so much?”

“No, I’ve been sleeping next to you for fifty years, Orry; just trying to understand the politics inside this house.”

“Don’t waste your time.  There’s a reason I left.”

They both fell asleep for what felt far too short a time before there was a knock that made Oirion roll awake. He hit the floor, unable to catch himself when he reached the edge of the bed.  He forced himself up and staggered to the door while Jamie sleepily got up as well.

“The Earl is back,” the governess at the door said.  “He will see you.”  She looked him over with a bit of disgust.  “You didn’t bathe.”

“I am sure it won’t matter,” Oirion muttered.

They followed the woman up more stairs and down a long hallway that opened up in many places to a balcony that was lined with windows.  A storm was thrashing against the glass, the thunder a low, almost constant rumbling.  They entered an office away from the balcony wall.  The office was darker than Jamie would have thought.

It was lined with books behind locked glass doors and had various artifacts set along the shelves.  Behind a great desk was a Purtan man who was clearly old.  His hair was white without so much as a black strand to it.  He wore it cut short in the current fashion of the Empire, but his clothes were the same line and cut of the Empire from thousands of years ago.  He wore dark, almost black leather, studded with silver rivets.

He was wet from the storm, but his cloak had been removed.  In a chair to the side was another man, fairly heavy, with curly red hair, balding on top. He wore shockingly bright clothes.  Clearly this man was more human than not and looked somehow older than the man behind the deck, but with none of the wisdom or power in his eyes.

The fat man was sipping a hot drink while the other was going through papers on the desk.  Both men looked at Oirion when he entered.  Oirion stopped halfway to them and bowed.  Jamie copied, but was sure he did so with far less grace.  It was old style honor and nothing Jamie had ever seen Oirion do, not even for Shannon.

“You didn’t even bathe?” the fat man demanded in Valreen.

“What were you thinking?” the old Purtan demanded.  “Do you see what you have done?”  He pointed out the door at the storm that was crashing outside.  “I have spent the last three years trying to recover the weather in the area and you do this?  What were you thinking?  Purt is on the verge of famine because of the weather and you start throwing magic around like that?  Have you lost your mind and all sense of compassion for your people? ”

“If I had not been attacked, I would have used no magic.”

“You, Oirion, are about a breath away from being on the Pontiff’s heretic list and yet you think it wise to come here?”

Oirion didn’t say anything, but stood staring at the front of the desk, just as he had as a kid before the abbot when in trouble.

“Of course you have nothing to say.”  The fat man threw up a hand.  “You never do.  It’s all about you, isn’t it?  You run off in your adventures and then get famous with it and deny us… to show up here when you’re filthy and look like you have been on the run?  Did you have to bring your…,”  he gestured at Jamie with disgust,  “friend?”

“I do not think we will be long,” Oirion made himself say.  “If I had not been attacked, I would have used no magic at all.”

“I will be cleaning this up for a great while” the old man said firmly.  “Why don’t you go ahead and eat something.  I will deal with this,” he said to the fat man.

The fat man got up and looked at Oirion with clear dislike.  “You have been nothing but trouble since the day I laid eyes on you.”  He left the office, not even looking at Jamie.  When the door closed, the old man folded his arms over his chest.

“Are you alright?” he asked in a far different tone and with concern in his eyes.  “Your shields look like hell.”

“I’m alive,” Oirion said simply, with a hint of irony in his voice.

“That was not what I asked.  I have a dozen men gathering up demon shards.  What the hell happened out there, Oirion?  You set off such a storm that no magic is working well.  I need to know what happened if you hope for me to have any chance at protecting you.”

“We were attacked by a grim and a couple of very powerful demons,” Oirion said.  “We decided to keep our souls and fought back.  Bishop Gallus opted to end the fight and deal with the situation a bit more powerfully.”

“Gallus did that?  Gallus of Brosten? He shattered a demon?”

“Yes, of Brosten, and yes, I am pretty sure. I think I was on my knees screaming at that point, but I’m pretty certain he did it,” Oirion said with a slight shrug.

The old man sighed with almost weariness. “Oirion…”

“Does the Pontiff know yet?” Jamie asked.

The old man looked at him for the first time since they had entered the room.

“No.  The storm has made it very hard to use any magic and for my part I am cleaning up as fast as I can.  What’s going on?  I have demon shards all over my front yard and you two show up looking like you just crawled out of hell,” he pressed.

“It’s a very long story,” Oirion said.

“I imagine it is.”

A servant entered with a cart, bringing in a meal for them.  Just behind him came the others of the group.  They had all cleaned up more than Jamie and Oirion had. Shannon entered last and looked like himself for the most part.  His face was white as snow and his eyes seemed a bit bloodshot; his hair was not newly braided and his clothes were not perfect, but few would have noticed.

The Earl opened his mouth to say something, but stopped when he saw Shannon.  The Earl shifted on his feet and folded his arms over his chest.  He seemed a bit nervous as he watched Shannon.

Shannon moved to take a seat at once.  He still moved a bit stiffly and sat with the care of one who is in great pain.

“I am doing everything I can to clean up the weather outside and all the magics of what happened last night, but soon I will have to explain it all and I do not know what happened well enough to do that. I have to know so I don’t get caught in a lie and can keep Gerome out of Valreen if at all possible.  Someone tell me what in the hell is going on.”

They all stood silently.  No one spoke.

The door opened to the fat man who entered a step and stopped.  He gasped as he saw Shannon. “You,” he hissed. “Again!”

Shannon looked over at the man, not amused at all.

“Do not pick a fight,” the Earl told the fat man.

“Everything started when he showed up!  He put some sort of spell on Oirion.  Oirion was a normal boy until he fell into… his hands.”

“Enough of that.  Please, go have breakfast and let me deal with this.”

“I…”

“I will deal with it,” the Earl said firmly.

“All for the better,” the man said.  “I had no wish to deal with Oirion, anyway.”  He left the office again.

“Will you tell me what happened?” the Earl asked Shannon. Shannon looked at him a long moment.

“Had we known you were going to be here, we might not have come.  I am certain none of us have any wish to burden the Lord Senator of Purt with our troubles.”

The Earl almost twitched.  Oirion was certain he had never heard Shannon sound so cold with anyone but himself.  He had to wonder how much each knew about the other.  The question had never even occurred to him.

“The Senator of Purt still has his family line and house,” the Earl said firmly.  “My political stance is not necessarily that which it might seem.  I am trying to keep that line alive and Oirion is already under enough focus; he does not need to be found running across Purt with you right now.  Gerome is already questioning what to do about my grandson and I would rather he not draw attention.  Will someone please tell me what has happened?”

“A grim is hunting Father James.”  Grim said.  “He came armed with a demon that he called on to deal with the others in the party.  That in itself was no real issue.  Between us, the matter was well in hand until the King Demon, who was the main force behind the events at the palace of Rasha, attacked as well.  I would say things were about to go very badly when His Holiness,” he gestured to Gallus, “had quite enough and shattered him.  So, the real event you need to worry about is that a True Pontiff has been revealed and it sure as hell is not Gerome.  Oirion had very little do with it at all.  He was more of a bystander who got caught in the middle of a very old war.”

“And you are?”

“They call me Grim,” he said.  “I am nothing real special; I excel at killing grims and thus the name. That allowed me to stay alive when others didn’t.”

“Truly?”  the Earl asked Gallus.  “You shattered a King Demon?”

“I guess I did,” Gallus said.

“It takes more to reveal a pontiff.  Who died?  You all seem to be pretty sure on the truth of the revelation.”

“Oirion,” Grim said.  “It happens when a demon rips through your soul and you give your last breath to another.”

The Earl stood a long moment with his hands folded.

“Oirion, I need to talk to you, alone.  Please, the rest of you, eat.”  He gestured.  “I had it brought here so you would not have to deal with Oirion’s brothers.”  He motioned Oirion to follow him out a side door, hidden behind the bookshelf.

Oirion left them to follow his grandfather out of the office, down a narrow hallway to a door that took them out to a balcony over the cherry tree court yard.

Outside the sun had risen, but the storm was still slamming against the glass and keeping the lights on.

The old Purtan stood with his hands on the rail a moment.  “I am a very old man, Oirion.  I have seen a great deal.”

“I know.”

He turned and leaned back against the rail, looking at his battered grandson.

“I am also a master of illusion.   I do not truly look like this.  I am old, I am scarred, I am… ill,” he said sadly.  “That is why I came home.  I suspect I am being poisoned at court and I claimed to wish to come home to die.  The weather and the failing crops was another good reason to excuse myself from Ulam Bac.  This storm is going to push my very limits, though, and people will starve.”

“I did not mean…”  Oirion started to explain.

They stood under the storm that was unheard except for the rolling of the thunder.  Oirion didn’t know what to say, he gave up trying.  He had already said it.  It seemed odd that his very old grandfather was ill.  Why would they poison him; would he recover?  Why in Oirion’s lifetime?  The Earl was a full-blooded Purtan and a powerful wizard. He should have far outlived his grandson, who was already nearly 5,000 years younger than he.

So many years of his life he had spent angry and hurt by his family, he didn’t know what to think when faced with the fact he was almost scared of the thought of his grandfather’s death. He had fled from his family, but perhaps not his grandfather so much.  Still, the old man served Gerome in the highest of offices.  He felt confused and upset, tired and battered.

“Life is complicated, Oirion,” the man said with a faint smile.  He ran a hand over his hair with a very troubled look.  “How would you sum up your childhood?”

“Unpleasant,” Oirion said, folding his arms over his chest.

“If you had thought as a ten-year-old boy that you would be a great warrior, would you have believed it?”

“No,” Oirion said.  “I was very uncomfortable in my body and it showed.”

“I suppose it felt rather like you were stuck in someone else’s body?” he looked at his grandson.

“I felt terribly out of place and still do at times.  So what?”

The old man gripped the rail and leaned a little out, looking down at the yard as several servants walked across the room below and out a side door.

“I have devoted my life to sparing one child at a time from hell, as well as I could.  I wanted no other child to watch his family be tortured and murdered, as I did.  I still wake with nightmares, hearing my father….

“I figured the closer to Gerome I got, the better chance I would have to spare the children of his victims.  One child I failed was Tharadon Lords… and his son.”  He rubbed his eyes.  “How he did not break, I don’t know, but that man has the will of a god to yet hold onto his soul.

“And you needed to bring me out here to tell me that?” Oirion asked, as he caught himself from his knees giving out.

“It is very complicated, but you are not who you think you are,” he said softly.  “You are my grandson; that much is true.”

“What do you mean?”

“Gerome is almost obsessive about making the bloodlines of kings have his blood in them.  He has hunted them out and killed the male heirs, raped the women, and made the line of kings all carry his blood.  Your mother was taken by him, but she already carried a child.  You.” He looked over at Oirion with a sad expression.  “He missed something along the way and he already had the line.  She was his granddaughter.  So when the demon scanned and was asked if the unborn had his blood, the answer was yes.  He thought you were his son.  He thinks you are heir to the kingdom of Amdor, and you might well be, but you are the son of my son, not of my daughter.  You are truly the heir Von Valreen; the only human blood in you is that of Gerome generations back.

“But…,” Oirion gestured to the house with the people he knew as brothers and parents in it. “That is not…” he couldn’t even find the right words.  It seemed too far-fetched to be real.  “They are not my parents?”

“No. Your mother, Gerome believed, was the Princess of Amdor and was most certainly a rebel.  That was how she knew your father.  He supplied weapons and information to them.  Gerome knew him, but didn’t know he was my son or that I was behind him. They were both taken in the same battle and your father was killed.  Your mother was taken to Gerome, and I am quite certain she did not go willingly to him.

“I took you and offered to hide you here as my daughter’s son and make you heir.  Gerome agreed, thinking it grand that you would be in a position be King of Valreen.  You did not, however, prove to be the heir he wanted.  You proved to be very difficult.”  He sighed.  “You are also very little human.  The older you get, the more the Purtan will override the human in you and make you more Purtan.  I have laid magics in and on you since before you were born to hide that.  To be hidden from Gerome, you must seem to be half-human at least.  You have no idea how much work it was to hide your distinctive Purtan-red hair.  It took me decades to master that trick. Red Purtans are rare and you just had to be one.  He sighed again.  “The magics had strange side effects: the incapability of your body to work quite right, you were nearly blind, you were a fat little kid, you had health problems, and all the rest of it that you felt from the inside.

“I felt terrible about it, but had no idea how else to protect you.”

“You’re telling me I am the great grandson of Gerome?”  Oirion asked softly, scared that was what he was being told.

The old man nodded. “When you were little, you were such a bright little child.  You loved me once,” the old man sighed.  “I don’t know what happened, but I was told you fell in the river.  They said you were brought home by a Purtan dressed in black.  You were never the same.  You became shy, scared, cried a lot.  Your body began to reject the magics and it was all I could do to keep Gerome from sensing the illusions on you.  If he had, both of us would have had a very ugly end.”

Oirion didn’t know what to say.  He wasn’t even sure if he trusted the old man.  The Earl did work for Gerome and now all of this?  He felt sick in his gut, though, and wanted to go curl up and be left alone.

“If you are hit by the right magics, your illusion will break and at that time, Oirion, you won’t look like you at all.  You might even find your magic will change and your very cores will shift.  It will also change your energy signature.  For all intent and purpose, Oirion Hennen will die and the Prince of Valreen will appear.  That might save you someday.  It might send you to hell.”

Oirion didn’t care at the moment.   He wanted to go lie down.  He hurt inside and out.  This information was just too much.

“Can I go now?”  Oirion asked.  “I am about to pass out and need to lie down.”

“Yes.  I have said what I meant to.”

Oirion left at once.  In the office where the others sat eating, he didn’t even stop.

“I need to talk to you later,” he muttered as he went through and out.

“Was he talking to me or you?”  Jamie asked Shannon.

“I am not sure,” Shannon said, too tired to even lift his cup of tea.

****

“Who is that?”  Gallus asked Jamie.

Jamie leaned on the rail of the balcony over the grand hall below, looking at the painting on the wall across from him.  It was a painting of a boy who was not quite a teenager.  He was a chubby unhappy-looking child.  Red hair, freckles, and glasses… he barely even looked to be Purtan and yet the painting hung on the wall with the princes of Valreen.

“That,” Jamie said with a gesture to it, “is Oirion.”  He half smiled.  “I remember the first time I saw him.  I felt sorry for him, stumbling over his own feet and dropping his books.  Then I found out who he was.  Did you know he was the only one in the whole academy to have a private room?”

“That had to be hard to deal with,” Gallus said.  “You, struggling to even get a chance at a life and here he was, handed it,” he sighed.  “Never thought you’d be his best friend, did you?”

“I certainly didn’t make his life any better,” Jamie admitted.  “I was horrid to him.  I should have been expelled.  I took all my anger and frustration at the unfairness of the world and punished him for it. I was a very mean young man.”

“He’s forgiven you.”

Jamie shrugged. “I’m not sure about that.  I remember not so long ago, just us out in the woods, doing what we did.  I loved it.  I felt like I had a place and a family…. a purpose.  It’s hard to know it now, but once we might well have been twins, a breath away from being able to meld on a whim.  Maybe if we had had a reason to need to, we might have… but we never did.” He looked over. “I didn’t mean any harm when I left camp,” Jamie said. “I just wanted to talk to the old man, vampire I guess, and find out the truth.  Oirion was so… focused and so set in the law…”  He shook his head.  “I don’t know what happened that year, but he was never the same.  What we had was broken and I guess both of us had too many secrets at that point to tell each other.  How sad is that?  We outlived our jobs as Hunters only to lose it all to something so petty as lack of trust.”

“I think you don’t give Oirion enough credit,” Gallus said.  “I think he trusts you so much he forgot to consider that you might not tell him things.  He is still trying to not be that kid,” Gallus said looking at the painting.  “I cannot imagine trying to compete with you.  I think on that level, it has to compare to Gerome trying to compete with Tyredelle.  It might well drive a man crazy.”

“Oirion is a prince.”

“His bloodline says prince; his body and face and heart do not.”  Gallus folded his hands before him.  “I think, also, that you are trying to be what you ‘think’ you should be.  I think you need to let go of the concept of whatever that is and let it be what it actually is.”  Gallus smiled.  “I want you to come with me and listen to something.  It’s sort of sneaky, but I think you need to hear it.”  He motioned and led the way.

Gallus went to Oirion’s room where the man was sleeping on the top of his bedding, still in his dirty clothes.  Jamie waited just inside the door, taking a seat in a butler’s chair.  Gallus got clean clothes, poured water for Oirion and went to the bedside.  He touched Oirion’s shoulder.

“Oirion,” Gallus said softly.

Oirion made himself roll over just enough to see it was Gallus. “Thought you were Jamie,” he muttered sleepily.  He rubbed his eyes.  “What did you need?”

“I need to talk to you.”

Oirion pulled his pillow under his head. “About what?”

“You and me, Jamie, Shannon.”

“That’s awfully vague.”

Gallus chuckled a little. “Alright,” he said.  “I need you to tell me about Jamie.”

Oirion closed his eyes. “In what context? I am half asleep, Gallus, what are you asking me? I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

“I do not understand what is going on and I do not understand Jamie.  I hear stories of how great you two are and then I meet you and the two of you barely talk.  We can start there.  Here, I brought you water.  Armond sent me here to help and I don’t even know what is going on.”

“Thank you,” Oirion said as sat up on his elbow to take a drink and then lay back down.

“Jamie and I have a very complex relationship.  We don’t talk much anymore because I don’t talk.  He is a thinker and I am instinct.  He knows I don’t think like he does and I think he got tired of talking at me.  I try to listen, but…,” he yawned, “Jamie and I don’t even need to talk about some things.  We know each other well enough to just react.”

“Is that why you’re both so happy?”

Oirion rolled on his back and rubbed at his eyes, trying to wake up. “Are you asking as a friend or as a holy man?”

“I suppose both.  I would like to think we have become friends and you would talk to me about things, but I also feel I need to know what is going on.”

“I don’t think things through.  I react.  I stick my hand into the fire far too often and I keep getting burned.  Unfortunately, one of those things was to take off when I lost track of Jamie for a moment and we both took a lot of damage to our hearts and souls.  I look at it now and I think we were both just trying to protect the other from the effects of that year.   But while Jamie’s demon has gone away, mine is resting down the hall.  I can’t just let go.  I don’t have a choice.  The very best I can pray for is that Jamie does not get strung into it too much.

“That is what happened on the road yesterday.  Jamie got hurt in the deepest parts of his soul because I had stuck my hand in a fire and got myself put right in the middle of a war that I am not so sure I am fit for.  I do not have the mind Jamie does or the strength of soul that Shannon has.  I am just… paying the price.”

“Let me see if I understand this right.”  Gallus took a slow deep breath as Oirion took another drink.  “You somehow ended up dealing with Shannon some years ago and somehow you two tangled with a demon, the same one that was on the roadside.  I am guessing Shannon was attacked back then and you stepped in and saved him.  In the process there was some sort of magic that linked you to him somehow.   But this time the demon was able to use it to get past Shannon’s shields.  That link, however, was also a direct link to Jamie.”

“That’s pretty close,” Oirion said.  He sat up, slumped forward with how tired he was.

“You gave Shannon your last breath.  You died, Oirion, to give him energy.  Why?”

“That fight would have robbed him of everything he had.  In his case, that is very bad.  Half of Norwood is warped by what happens when Shannon loses self mastery.  I gave him the energy to remain in control.”

“You chose with your last breath to save him, at the cost of Jamie.”  Gallus said.

Oirion drew a deep breath and ran a hand though his tangle of gray loopy curls.

“If Shannon was to lose control, who do you think would be the first he would reach for?”  He looked at Gallus.  “Jamie has the cores exactly as Shannon once had.  The very perfume of a healer of that power has to be incredibly hard for him to even be around, let alone make it a healer priest.”  He shook his head.  “Even if my death had killed Jamie as well, dead is better than the end that would have been.”

Gallus rubbed his palms. “Do you know, truly know who and what Shannon is?”

“Yes,” Oirion nodded.  “Yes, I do.”

“Tell me, then.  I want to hear those words with no questions left.”

Oirion searched the man’s face a moment. “Shannon is the soul energy, the bits and parts of a hell-bound body, and the mind of Tyredelle Von Armond.”

Gallus nodded. “And who are you, Oirion?”

Oirion laughed a little.  “God only knows Gallus.  I thought I knew once and I was wrong, and then I thought again that at least I knew my name and how I got it, but it seems I was wrong about that as well,” he shrugged.  “I don’t know.”

“One last question,” Gallus said.  “Do you think that between you and Jamie, you could heal Shannon?”

“Heal him?  You don’t understand.  All he has is the charred remains of a body that was burned away.  He is not a mortal man and he does not have a normal body.  You cannot heal clay.

“He was molded, made by demons to be able to dwell and hide in this realm.  He is not a man as you think it.  Yes, he feels pain and his body suffers because demons understand that.  They can make the shapes of bones and such, but he does not feel the wind on his skin.  He does not need to breathe – it’s a habit.  He does not eat; he does not feel physical hunger.  He is a lot of things, but he is not a man as you and I are.

“He is not who he was once: the same soul, very different reality.  I tell you that because I know who you are.  Like it or not, you will stand toe to toe with Gerome.  He is in your throne.”

“It is not my throne,” Gallus protested.  “I cannot be pontiff as you imply.  I have no partner.  The magics demand it.”

“Magics change.”

Gallus looked at Oirion a long time, just thinking. “Maybe you two should both tell each other what happened in that year and be honest about it.” He rose from the bed.  “I am going to go and pray for your grandfather and for you.”

As Gallus slipped out the door, Oirion only then saw Jamie.

They didn’t say anything.  Oirion just sat looking at him, not sure what to do about the fact that his partner had likely heard the whole conversation.  Jamie got up eventually and walked over to the bedside. He folded his legs as he sat on the great bed.  He dusted mud chunks that had dried and fallen from Oirion’s clothes, off the blankets.

“I got drunk – a lot.  I locked areas of my cores so I could drink myself into oblivion.”  He half smiled.  “Family custom, I guess.”  He twisted the ring he wore on his left hand almost guiltily. “I was sleeping in the street.  Grim hauled me home and made me eat, bathe, and let me sleep in his bed.  I had a job as bartender at the place he worked.  The better friends he and I became, the more I missed you until I thought I was going to go crazy.”  He sighed with a great deal of weight to it.  “Two things happened.  One was that Grim got too close, he misunderstood some of my actions, and I reacted very poorly.

“The last time I was with him, I am pretty sure I shattered his jaw.  He was bleeding and nearly dead on the floor.  I turned around and I walked out to a very bad part of the city and tried to get hold of you.  I found a demon summoner and thought to contact your soul though him.  Only, you weren’t dead.  It didn’t work so well.  It was pretty ugly and I lost the keys of the magics of the priesthood. I felt it,” he said, shaking his head.  “But I knew then you weren’t dead.  I went back to Norwood and started trying to find you.  I did, a month later.”

Oirion held his hands in his lap looking at them, trying to think that maybe they weren’t even his.  He let Jamie’s story sink in.  It was likely he had told it because Grim was here and possibly going to tell it from his side.

“I saw you go; I knew it was a vampire… I froze.  I stood there too long and when I tried to find you, the trail was lost.  At that point I didn’t think I wanted to find you… just in case you had been turned.

“I was going to go home.  I didn’t know what else to do.  I got on board a ship and it got blown off course.  It went through the Barrier and a little raft of us crashed on the north shore.  We had to hike across the continent to try to get to a place where we might get back across the Barrier and escape.”  He folded his hands together.  “I was not in a good mood.  I didn’t even have my sword.”  He shook his head.  “I was set off by Shannon.  Everything about him made me angry and upset, and I didn’t do well in hiding it.  A lot happened, Jamie.”  He shook his head.  “But I suppose the part that matters first is that I fell off a mountain.  I hit a river and shattered my back.  I was being stupid and acting like I had never hiked a mountain before.  Maybe though, I thought death might be better then dealing with what I assumed had happened to you.

“Shannon ran after me and caught me in the river.  My God, I was in pain.  That was what happened to my back.  I reacted as I do and reached to hold on, to live.  I guess I stuck my hand in the fire and grabbed on with more than my fingers.

“I could hear him praying to God for strength to endure.”  He shook his head.  “I thought it was an angel praying with me.  It took a long time for me to admit that it was a link.  That it was his voice in my head.”  He rolled his shoulders to try and relax.  “It was a terrible year.  I fought zombies, was healed by orcs,” he ran a finger over a ring with a lavender stone that he wore,  “went to war against the Church, fell into rivers, was captured by elves, sold as a slave…”  he shrugged.  “A lot of things happened, but in the end, on the ship, as we crossed the Barrier, that demon came.”  Oirion closed his eyes trying to not see it, but the memory seemed to rise up like a magic about him.  He could taste it, feel it, and inside his gut he could feel the bond ties that were linked to Shannon.  “He was terrified,” Oirion whispered.  “We were defeated and even as scared as he was, he stood there trying to protect us.  I reached out…” he tried to think of how to explain without thinking about it. The memory of it made him shudder at the sheer pain and trauma to his soul.  “It was just a reaction.  I provided a chance and he took it.  He banished the demon back to the abyss, through me.

“I felt his ribs crushing in the demon’s grip, felt the realms being ripped apart, felt…” he actually gagged.  “I woke up in bed with you sitting in the chair and didn’t remember any of it until we were in Norwood.” He shook his head.

Jamie sat very still a long time.

Oirion went on, “I was just told by my grandfather that I am not the son of the people I thought.  I am his grandson, but I am also Gerome’s great grandson.  My grandfather has been installing illusions on me since before I was born.”

“That would explain a lot,” Jamie said, suddenly understanding something he should have understood before.  It seemed obvious to him at that point.

“Do you think that by being Gerome’s great grandson, it might somehow be what ties me to Shannon?”

Jamie had that look in his eyes that he got what he was truly thinking about something interesting.  Oirion actually felt better for it.  It had been a years since Jamie had gotten that expression.

“It’s possible,” Jamie said with a slight scowl.  “I don’t know.  I would have to look at it closer and I am not sure I am up for that at the moment.  I am not sure you are, either.  I’ll think about it though.  I should go talk to Shannon as well.  If you are leaking energy to him, it might explain a few other things that have been going on.  Like the fact your eyes are getting so bad again.” He leaned forward, rubbing at his stubbled face.  “You should get up and go bathe.  You look like hell, Oirion, and you don’t smell real great, either.”

Oirion laughed at his partner.  That was the Jamie he knew. “As ordered,” he said.

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