Tenobrous 3640 Years Ago by U77EuDdo

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									                                    Tenobrous 3640 Years Ago

                       Three Thousand six hundred and forty years ago…

                             Post Battle with Tallin Grendorin Modar.

For a while it seemed that everything would be all right, it was a simple matter of reversing the
spell and returning the city to Whispin, from there they could track Tager and An'Thaya's location.
What had not been counted on was the rift -- a tear between dimensions that had been rent into
the fabric of space and time -- by the conflicting magics used when Tallin had made his grab for
the Princess.

Without warning the Castle and city were sucked in, settling in an unfamiliar world where light
never penetrated. Bands of Nuru’Kh-ai, Orcs, and other creatures of the night attempted
repeatedly to breach the castle walls, and the never-ending darkness threatened to drive the
denizens of Corin mad. The army was hard pressed to keep the invaders at bay, and food
became a scarce commodity. Magic resources were used to create enough light for green houses
and defence, the natives of the world seemed sensitive to light, even of a magical nature, and
anyone with Magi ability was pressed into service to keep them out.

At ten years old Y’Roden D’Riel, Corin’s Crown Prince, was terrified, the strange and dark
surroundings beyond the comprehension of a child. When he was fifteen the dreams started,
surreal images of a woman with pale white skin and crimson eyes. She whispered into his
thoughts and coiled herself into his soul, a dark succubus that left him gasping, writhing in damp
sheets in the middle of the night. He would wake screaming her name, Samara, and no amount
of sleeping potion or spells would make the dreams – nightmares -- go away. It came to a point
where he was terrified to sleep, yet desired it more than anything, the taste of her on his lips a
palpable and intoxicating thing.

At the same time, he came into his D’Riel heritage, the conduit deep within his soul blossoming
into power. His responsibility to his people became all-important, the magic being tapped to
provide light, heat and healing. So young an age to take on so much responsibility, childhood was
fading in the daily struggle for survival.

Years passed, and the dreams only increased in intensity. Unable to resist Y’Roden felt he must
be going insane, he was still a child in the Elven sense and his innocence was slowly being
stripped away.

The resources of Corin were slowly depleting, and as a people they were being forced out into
the countryside in search of food and supplies. Such forays often resulted in skirmishes with the
denizens of the place, bands of marauding Nurus and worse. Everyone was expected to join
these hunting parties, down to Y’Roden himself. By twenty years old he was a seasoned warrior,
blooded hundreds of times over. He wore his chestnut hair long in the S’Hean fashion, his
emerald eyes often hidden beneath its fringe. A bastard sword that had once belonged to General
Tager was his chosen weapon; he had worshiped the man as a child, and now honoured him by
wielding it in battle.

It was on such a foray that he finally saw her, a ghostly figure in the background. The Nuru’kh-ai’
were obviously under her command, bent to her will by an immense power. Her blood-red eyes
flashed with something beyond evil, and she wielded a sword with a cruel, jagged edge. She cut
through Corin's soldiers like wheat, bathing in their blood with wanton abandon. Those eyes
seemed to follow Y’Roden.... to beckon him to her. The Prince faltered, ensnared as she stirred
within his soul... she owned him; he had been her willing slave for years.
Come to me my pet, be one with your desire... Her voice whispered into his mind, icy fingers that
pierced him, invaded his psyche, penetrated his body and stirred a dark desire. Shamed, he fell
to his knees, hating himself for wanting her, yet begging for her to come claim him.

And come for him she did, like a dark wind through the ranks of his people, cutting down those
brave enough to stand in her way. Her laughter was mocking as she bent to him, ice-cold lips
claiming his in a kiss that sealed his fate, fingers tangled in lengths of chestnut hair. Hands with
iron strength pushed him to the blood-soaked ground, unmindful of the carnage around them as
she tore at the laces of his trousers. "My sweet boy," her voice hissed in his head, "So much
power yet to be tapped..."

The Prince stared up at her, unable to move, unable to speak, agony gripping his heart as he
realized what he had done. His hands reached up for her, beyond his control, closing on her waist
as Samara lowered herself onto him, claiming his innocence with a cry of triumph. The scent of
blood and death whirled around him as he arched up into the female’s cold form, a sudden heat
emanating from her as she bore down on him in return. He cried out despite himself, hating her,
yet thrusting with a lust belying his innocent state. Hers... totally and completely hers....

He let out a wild cry as control ripped from him, the sound turning to one of pain as she slashed
her jagged sword across his abdomen, his blood seeping out to trickle beneath the Demoness’
thighs as she shuddered in release atop him. "Sleep now sweet Prince.... we have a world to
conquer."

Darkness gave way to flickering torch light, it was freezing, or perhaps it was just him. Pain, it was
a familiar enough thing, but not like this. Y’Roden jolted awake with a scream, curling in on
himself as unbidden tears streaked his face. Techno-coloured light sparked in his minds eye,
explosions of colour that marked his agony. The half-elf could feel Samara twisted into his soul,
like a piece taken from one jigsaw puzzle and jammed into another. She didn't belong, but she
had made herself fit, tendrils of darkness twining through his synapses and nerve endings, like a
parasite latching on to its host.

His abdomen burned like fire, the soft tunic he wore sticking to the dried blood in such a way that
when he tried to move it pulled at the torn skin around the edges of the wound. He kept
screaming till his voice gave out, and even then his body rocked with the soundless effort of it. He
didn't know, or care for that matter, where he was. He barely hung on to consciousness, terrified
and alone. It seemed an eternity passed before his body gave in and passed out, closing out the
pain by shutting him down.

Some time later he was wrenched into consciousness again, a cold trickle down his spine telling
him he wasn't alone. He tried to move, but found himself restrained. Panicked he writhed against
the invisible bonds, only to scream in pain as the open gash made its presence tortuously
evident. Samara loomed above him, and he realized he was lying on a rack in a torch lit chamber.
Her features were as cold and impassive as he remembered, the burning-crimson eyes the only
sign of real life in the woman's face.

Laying still he gazed up at her, his breathing ragged as his soul shrank away from her in terror.
Now, now my pet, I've only come to help. The words were punctuated as she lifted her hand,
something akin to a fire poker, but somewhat smaller, held in her pale-white fingers. Y’Roden
stared at it, the pain dulling his senses so that at first, he was blissfully unaware of what she
intended.

Samara's free hand snaked out and tore his tunic from his wound. Unbidden his body jerked up
from the cold wood, an agonized cry ripping from his lips. Straddling him she held the implement
to the jagged bloody slash, bringing a shriek of pain from the Elven Prince as she slowly dragged
it across torn flesh, burning it closed in a blazing path of misery. Miraculously he remained
conscious, unable to even scream as she continued her ministrations. He gazed up numbly at her
when she drew away, oddly feeling nothing as Samara smiled in pleasure. There now... that
wasn't so bad now was it. Her laughter assailed his senses, driving his soul deeper into hiding.
Oh come now my love... you will come to enjoy the pain eventually... even embrace it. I
guarantee it.

The door opened behind her, but Y’Roden barely acknowledged it. Two males that somewhat
resembled Samara entered, their eyes a cold, dead black in contrast to hers. "Take him." She
spoke aloud for the first time, and suddenly Y’Roden wished he could cover his ears... its was a
piercing sound, shrill and ear-splitting to an elf. "Clean him up."
The bonds disappeared, but the Prince made no effort to escape. He was too weak, and with
stark shame, he realized it was fear paralysing him. She would hurt him again if he tried, and he
knew it. The two men dragged him roughly from the rack; supporting the elf as his feet gave out,
pain blinding in intensity for several moments.

Taken to a bathing room he was shoved into a stone pool of hot water, steam rising off its surface
in the biting cold. The heat was welcome, although it nearly scalded him, and the elf relaxed into
it, closing his eyes and letting the warmth seep into chilled skin. Two females slipped in to join
him, cleaning him with surprisingly gentle hands, eyes never meeting those of the Prince as the
water turned red with his blood, a crimson tribute to his Mistress even as a rare moment to slip
beneath its surface stirred the S’Hean in him. The real wounds, however, were on the inside, and
deep within the Prince’s Soul… something started to die.




                                   Tenobrous 3630 Years Ago

The blood on the rack was fresh, and the youth had grown into a young man of twenty odd years.
There was fear in emerald eyes, but the expression on the half-elf’s beautiful face was
implacable, stubborn, long locks of chestnut hair sticking to his sweat-slick face as he kept a
defiant stance towards the pale skinned Demoness.

On the floor, shaking and terrified was a young human girl, her red hair a stark contrast against
the backdrop. Naked and defenceless, she wept in fear, the words falling from her lips pure
gibberish.

“Kill her.” The order was clear, demanding, and insistent.

Waves of chestnut hair tumbled down the young Elf’s back as he shook his head, denying her. “I
will not. I won’t kill for you… not again.” He made a violent attempt to shrug off the two male
Demons that gripped his arms, holding him prisoner between them.

A talloned fingertip scraped under his chin, drawing a line of blood as Samara leaned in close, a
forked tongue flickering through the blood. “Oh? Then you enjoy what the guards do to you when
you refuse? I know they certainly do.” She gestured to one of them, and he grabbed Y’Roden by
the hair at the crown of his head, dragging the half-elf backwards and bending him over the rack.
“You will kill for me, or it will be your screams creating music instead, your body that is invaded
and used for pleasure, then broken. Make your choice.”

The chestnut-haired elf said nothing, face pressed in a congealed pool of his blood, emerald eyes
focused on the girl. He fought at first, then went still, refusing to feed the Demon’s need for fear
and pain, holding stubbornly silent.
Dissatisfied with her prey’s reaction, Samara grabbed the girl by the hair and hauled her up off
the floor. “When will you learn?” she snarled, “They die anyway, whether by your hand, or by
mine. By yours at least, would have been far more pleasurable for her.”

“NO!” Adrenaline surged, and the Elf threw himself backwards, setting his tormentor off balance,
fighting free and lunging forward… seconds to late.

Samara let the wounded girl fall forwards into Y’Roden’s arms, her blood smearing down the front
of his chest in crimson streaks. It was a wound he couldn’t heal, and one that would slowly,
inevitably, kill her. He slumped to the floor, the redhead cradled in his arms, weeping openly in
frustration and guilt.

The Demoness straightened and dismissed the guards. “Snap her neck, if you have any
compassion. Otherwise… you are free to keep her company as she dies.”

The room was empty, aside from the pair on the floor, the elf choked out a sob, his bloodied
fingers stroking the girl’s hair. She was in pain, he knew she was, but the moment he killed her,
he would be alone again.

Delicate fingers twitched around his arm, the look in her eyes too much for him to take. The Elf
cupped the human’s face and gently kissed her. “It’s alright,” he whispered softly, “I’ll make it go
away, everything will be ok… I’m so sorry.” He was not as well muscled as he would be, not
nearly as heavy, but the young Y’Roden was beginning to come into his strength, and the
redhead’s neck snapped easily with a sharp, brutal twist.

He sat there, rocking, holding her to his chest for a long while, the light in his eyes deadening.
After awhile, he took a sharp piece of metal and cut a lock of her hair, curling it into a tight spiral
and tucking it away beneath the table.

Sometime later, the guards returned, but Y’Roden never looked up as they roughly kicked at him,
then gripped well-muscled arms and hauled him from the floor. Blood-soaked chestnut hair fell
into dead-emerald eyes, as the half-elf’s head fell forward, unresisting as they dragged him from
the room into the bathing chamber.

“Hold him for me.” The words worked into his mind as they paused near the door, one guard
laughing and slamming the Prince face first into the wall as the other tugged at his own trouser
laces. Reality came crashing back in, cold and hard as the male Demon pushed up against his
naked, bleeding back, sweat stinging the lash marks that crisscrossed his flesh. Not again…

With a wild snarl of protest, Ro’s mind finally snapped. A heave of his shoulders and he pushed
sharply back from the wall, catching both males off guard and sending one hurtling into the pool.
A roar of frustration that had been building up inside for longer than he cared to contemplate
exploded outwards and he launched himself at his attacker, adrenaline enhanced strength
slamming the guard’s head into the wall with a crack that left him dazed. Weapon callused fingers
gripped the Demon’s hair and he twisted, sharp and hard until a satisfying snap echoed through
the chamber.

Wheeling, he met the second head-on as he clambered from the bath, both Demon and Elf
crashing into the water and sending a tidal wave across the granite floor. Features twisted in
rage, Ro slammed his tormentor’s head off the edge of the bath, grinning viciously in satisfaction
as the water coloured red, hauling the creature back and repeating the action frenetically until the
body stopped twitching.
Breathless, he pushed away, letting the corpse float free as he stumbled, hands gripping the
stone lip, head spinning with a triumphant thrill. Heady, he barely took notice when the two
women assigned to his care entered the bath, seemingly unfazed by the dead demon floating in
it. The touch of their hands was familiar enough by now, always gentle in stark contrast to that of
Samara, a torture in itself to know the difference.

The sting of soap in an unusually deep wound brought a sudden low growl from the half-elf and
his hand lashed out instinctively, grasping the woman’s ribs with hard fingers and squeezing. A
soft gasp caught his attention and his eyes met hers, recognizing the fear in their depths.
Something twisted and dark stirred in his soul, and the pressure on her ribcage steadily
increased, eyes tracking her panic as it raised right along with it.

Control… there was power in his grasp where none had been before, and the helpless boy that
had cringed in fear was suddenly crushed down beneath something malevolent and cruel. The
movement of his mouth was slow, twisting into what might have been a grin as he closed the gap
between panic and outright terror, ribs snapping beneath his fingers and drawing a scream so
beautiful it was, to his ears, like a tremulous, musical note.

The spell was broken as self-preservation kicked in and the girl struck out at him, struggling
against crushing hands, terrified screaming ringing wildly in the acoustic room. Emerald jewels
cracked with lines of crimson and he yanked the blonde close to his frame, turning them both in
the water and slamming her up against the side of the pool. His body ripped into hers with
merciless thrusts, bending her small frame back at an impossible angle as he bit into her
shoulder, the taste of blood bringing on a frenzy that clouded the vision and heightened a sense
of intense pleasure, punctuated by the sound of breaking bone, high, clear shrieks and the feel of
heated flesh struggling against and around him.

He was never sure exactly when the screams stopped… or precisely when she had died, and
didn’t care.

The second woman had shrunk back against the opposite side of the pool, frozen in terror as she
watched her companion brutally murdered. Watching the lifeless form slide slowly down into the
water as the elf finally jerked to a shuddering halt and drew back, she sucked in a sharp, terrified
gasp of air, her heart stopping as his head turned, crimson eyes boring into hers, and she bolted.

Hard fingers caught flying strands of ebony hair, yanking her back so that she smacked into his
chest. Shaking, she inhaled unsteadily and closed her eyes, frozen beneath his suddenly gentle
touch. His low laughter overrode common sense and the girl’s body betrayed her, pleasure
overriding abject fear she bent willingly to his demands, allowing him to take her, cries of a
different sort filling the room. When the pain came, she accepted it at first, letting it settle where
desire had been moments before until it built up to a level she could no longer stand. Yet, before
she could struggle, the scent of Aethyr stung the air and the warmth of healing brought a wash of
relief through her shaken body.

For a moment, there was hope that he had come back to his senses, just before agony gripped
her frame again. Like the wax and wane of the tide, from pleasure to pain and back again over
and over as time stretched into what seemed an eternity, a cat with a toy, he had learned his
lessons well. Death, when it came, was met with tearful relief just to be set free of the torment, to
sink into blessed darkness as she broke, finally, beneath his hands and slid off to a place where
he could no longer reach her.

There was no such escape for the Elven Prince as he watched himself, as if through glass. All
that had been light was buried helplessly in the depths of his twisted soul, trapped behind blood-
red eyes and a blood lust so thick and fierce it might never be sated…
                                    Tenobrous 2850 years ago

Sickly green mists roiled across the barren landscape of Tenobrous, the never-ending night of the
dark dimension relieved only by sharp slashes of lightning, brief seconds of illumination that made
the next moment of blindness all the more terrifying. The shrieks of ghostly wraiths mingled with
screams of a more corporeal nature and the unmistakable sounds of war rumbled across the
ground.

In the moments of eerie light the castle and city of Corin could be seen, humans and elves
desperately fending off the encroaching hoards of Nuru’kh-ai as they crashed against the walls in
a fleshy tide. Twisted, black-skinned faces, a sea of filth, and depravity that craved the taste of
human flesh. It was their commander that was the most terrifying, however, perhaps because of
his contrasting beauty, dark as it was.

The Warlord, Demon Elf of Tenobrous, once Crown Prince of Corin itself, Y’Roden D’Riel. For
nearly eight hundred years he had terrorized the Corinian people, raping, torturing, killing, all for
the simple pleasure of it, and for her. Forever at his side, feeding from the agony and fear he
engendered, Samara had only become more powerful over the years, the conduit at the centre of
her Warlord’s soul magnifying what she had been before to terrifying levels.

Glorying in his twisted creativity, she often stood back to watch as he slowly skinned his victims
alive, or cut them open to infest their innards with SandWyrm larva, watching them die slowly as
they were devoured from the inside out. It was usually men he subjected to those interesting
tortures, he had a more hands on use for the women, taking great pleasure in slow seduction,
making them want him despite themselves before he slowly broke their bodies and brought them
to a screaming, bloody death.

Humans bred like rats; so they were never in short supply, frequent raids kept him in ready supply
of victims and constant entertainment. Lately, however, it had become more difficult to get his
hands on choice subjects, and he knew exactly what the King and Queen of Corin were up to.
They had learned his tastes through observation over the centuries, and were deliberately luring
him here. The outer settlements had been cleaned out, those he would have taken brought here
to Corin itself, hidden safely within its walls.

Though not for long…

A low moan of agony wound through the air and the slow patter of blood on dirt was a reassuring
sound to the Demon, though he didn’t bother looking at the human that was strung up near his
tent, the male’s lidless eyes drying in his skull, skinless flesh exposed to the elements as he
dangled there, denied the bliss of death. The Warlord’s thoughts were on the distant castle,
pondering the reasoning behind this obvious ploy. In the past they had tired to divert him from
Corin, kept his attention away from its walls and the people within. Since he had taken their
daughter, his youngest sister, raped and killed her, the tunnels had been sealed off, preventing
his entry.

Callused fingers balanced the pommel of his sword, the point digging slightly into the ground as
he spun it first one way, and then the other, a habitual movement that demanded silence from his
Generals. He was thinking, and should not be disturbed.

The spinning stopped, his hand gripping the hilt, heavily muscled shoulders rippling as he pulled
the blade up, “We attack the front gates… now,” he ordered, “they obviously want something, let’s
go find out what it is.”
The way was cleared for him, the Generals pushing their way through the troops of lesser
Nuru’kh-ai towards the walls where arrows rained down into the front ranks in a deadly hail.
Behind them, grunts bore a battering ram, their progression slow as they trailed in the wake of the
Warlord and awaited his signal as shields were raised protectively over their heads to ward off the
missiles from above. Stone faced, the Demon gave the signal and they heaved back as one,
preparing to slam into the gates of the city when the telltale rattle of winch chains sounded from
the other side.

Chestnut lengths of hair rippled down the Demon’s back as he lifted his head, blood-red eyes
narrowed as he lifted a staying hand to the grunts and watched as the gates slowly swung open.

There, standing alone on the cobblestone road was a redheaded warrior woman he had never
seen before. She was diminutive in stature and her skin was a golden tan, a rich complexion that
was sun kissed, striking in comparison to the pallor of those trapped in Tenobrous, who hadn’t
seen the sun in eight centuries. Her hair was like living flame, a blazing waterfall that fell to her
waist, delicately pointed ears peeking from its mass and brilliant, faceted-green eyes met his
without fear.

She was beautiful, very much to his taste, and the unfazed expression in those emerald greens
fascinated him. Without hesitation, he stepped forwards, large fingers wrapping around the
woman’s throat and hauling her upwards… in that moment, he realized his mistake. The touch
brought a tug on his soul, an awakening of a long dead link to a Web he barely recalled, and she
was there, in his head.

“Y’Roden?”

Impossible… but he knew it to be true. How she was here, now, in this dark, Gods-forsaken
place, he did not comprehend. So long ago, now, since he had last seen those eyes… they had
been those of a newborn child then, his day-old baby sister.

The Demon’s expression twisted, a low growl rumbling in his chest as the pressure on her throat
increased, closing off the woman’s airway. It was a trap; he could sense it, though what they
hoped to gain he could not have said. The muscles in his arm bunched and his shoulders rolled
as he heaved An’Thaya from him, sending her sprawling across the cobblestones.

“KILL THEM,” he roared to the Nuru’kh-ai at his back, “every last ONE!”
An’Thaya lifted her head, arms pushing her torso away from the cold stone as she twisted
around, “NOW!”

From the shadows, a blast of Aethyr energy lashed out, blasting into the Demon Elf and knocking
him to the side, his heavy frame hitting the stone wall with a crack as the humans working the
winch desperately hauled on the gates. B’Rodyn D’Riel stepped out into view, his brow furrowed
in concentration as he kept a steady stream of energy flowing into his cousin, keeping him off
balance as Corin’s soldiers rushed in to fight off the Nuru’kh-ai attempting to come through into
the city.

A howl of rage emitted from the Demon Elf and he lurched unsteadily to his feet, head lowered
menacingly as he glowered at the male elf, slowly edging his conduit open, only to be hit with a
second stream of power as An’Thaya stepped up, her conduit carefully eclipsing B’Rodyn’s,
magnifying both streams at once.

“Don’t hurt him.” The voice of the Queen interjected quietly, watching her son carefully as he
railed against the force that was slowly forcing his own conduit closed and held him helpless to
the stone. “Y’Roden is still in there… somewhere.” There was a pause as the gates slammed
shut. “Hurry, we have to get everyone out of here before Samara realizes we have him.”

The face of Se’Liene D’Riel was the last thing the Demon saw as he slipped slowly into
unconsciousness, and somewhere in the depths of his soul, a small spark of hope lit in the
darkness.




                                             Chapter 1

                         Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea

A light breeze teased at Y’Roden’s short-cropped chestnut hair as he paused in front of the
balcony doors, staring down at his rich-black shirt in the light of the beta sunset. He made a soft,
snorting amused sound as he tugged the laces loose at top and gripped the material in one hand
at the back, tugging it over his head. His second-youngest son, R'Avyen, had left sticky
fingerprints all over it when Ro had wrestled him into the bath, then tucked him into bed with his
twin. Tossing it onto the back of a chair Ro scrubbed at the back of his neck, fingers catching on
the heavy chain that hung there and pulling it off as well.

Callused fingers grasped amulet and turned it, eyes catching the blood-red stone and gazing at it
for a few moments, as it seemed to roil in protest to its captivity. His mouth twitched, one heavy
shoulder leaning against the doorframe and he let the pendant fall, the chain dangling from his
hand as he stared out at the roaring waterfalls that surrounded the palace of Windemiire, the
thundering sound drowning out all else.

Ro’s eyes grew distant... the amulet held Samara’s soul, the Demoness who had captured and
subverted him so long ago in Tenobrous. The being that had stolen his childhood innocence and
created the Demon Elf. It had been a lifetime ago, and the road to where he was now had been
unbelievably difficult. Over the centuries he had learned to control the dark urges, to suppress the
Demon… and learned how to feel again. Emotionally he was very still, like the surface of a glassy
pool. At first, it had been more about not really caring, disinterest over the feelings of others and a
simple cold bearing.

Then he had met Ghetsuhm Riker, and her vivacious personality and overwhelming capability to
feel had so deeply affected him that a spark had lit and burned steadily until love had found its
way into his soul. Through her, he inhaled emotion like air; she was his link, and the keeper of the
S’Hean King’s darkest secrets. They shared dark desires that no one else would ever
understand, and a love that had defied the odds throughout the years.

Three thousand years ago, he never would have envisioned this life for himself. Fifteen children
by varying mothers, one failed marriage to Arianne Badb Catha, King, but not of the Kingdom he
had expected to inherit, and now deliriously happy in his marriage to a woman who had held his
heart and soul from the moment he’d lain eyes on her. Y’Roden D’Riel had come a very long way,
he had lived and died through things most couldn’t imagine, but even this content each day was a
battle. The ever constant fear that he would finally lose control, that the Demon Elf would kill
everything he held dear haunted his thoughts and niggled at his soul.

Scrubbing at his hair he sighed and thought back to the moment he had made the decision to cut
it off. It had once been worn in the S’Hean style, loose and wavy, hanging down his back to brush
at his waist. One thousand eight hundred and fifty years ago, just before he had left Arminiea’s
Crystal Keep. He had been alone for days, lost in remunerations and dark thoughts, wondering
where his path was leading. Something had to change, something outward to reflect the slow
changes in his soul.

A favourite dagger had been released from its sheath on his right wrist, emerald eyes gazing into
the mirror in his chambers. It was an old, cracked thing that he had smashed in a fit of rage and
he hadn’t replaced it, thinking it suited him, warping his features and displaying several broken
images of his face. With slow deliberation, he had hacked at lengths of hair until it lay scattered
around his bared feet, leaving a different person looking back at him through the cracked mirror.

Ghet's quiet steps paused; her eyes on her husband's broad back, reading a multitude of tiny
signs in the lie of each muscle, the line of his shoulders. He would know she was there, he
always did. It wasn't some miracle understanding of love that gave him the knowledge, but the
simple, finely-honed instincts of a hunter. She knew that: she had no illusions about the nature of
the man she had married, and she wouldn't have been so powerfully attracted to him if she had.
Neither did she simply believe in her own strength: if he ever did lose that battle for control, she
would probably die, and not quickly. She accepted that, and maybe even some part of her
enjoyed it.

She slipped up quietly beside him, eyeing the pendant dangling from his fingers. At first, the sight
of it had made her nauseous, then vaguely uncomfortable, but these days she hardly ever noticed
it. It was just there. There was even a certain glee in the fact that, in the days of their marriage,
Samara had been present for some things she really wouldn't have wanted to see. "Are you
teasing her again? 'I'm going to drop you - oh, no I'm not'. Poor thing, I could almost feel sorry for
her... if not for, well, you know. Everything."

The half-elf’s features relaxed the moment he felt his wife’s presence and a smile was creeping
up when she started to speak. “I should have had Callan install it on a yoyo string. Though after
thinking that through, it would probably just keep cracking you between the eyes… or thighs.”
Rolling a shoulder so his back was pressed against the doorframe he looked down at Ghet, going
quiet as he just took her in. There was never enough time in a day for him to ever get enough of
the way she looked at him. There had been so many years when she hadn’t been his, at least,
not his alone, and every moment since the day she had come to him on a rainy day in Nenlante
had been treasured.
One lesson he had learned in his long life, was to never, ever take anything for granted. Every
moment was lived to the fullest, which probably explained his tendency to be more than a little
overbearing.

“I’m… well, I’m a little hesitant about going tomorrow,” he said suddenly, “I mean, B’Elya is my
sister, but considering… I just don’t want to ruin her wedding day.” He toyed with the end of the
chain for a moment, then tossed the pendant onto a table inside the door. “I don’t want to insult
Argent by not showing up either. I’m having issues.”

Ghet snorted with laughter, and nearly blushed. "I'm sure Samara's seen more than enough of
my... thighs." She tilted her head to the side, considering, one hand quite unconsciously laid on
his chest. "It's not going to be easy for B’Elya to have you there. It wouldn't be easy for her to not
have you there, either. You can't protect her from what's already happened, Rodi, and if she
never sees you, she can never get used to being safe around you. I know." She grinned
suddenly, sunstrike. "Perhaps she'd feel better if I kept you on some kind of collar and lead
arrangement. I could probably put up with that."

The S’Hean’s dimples made an appearance as he grinned helplessly, “No one can ever get
enough of your thighs, elleska. I’d be happy following you around on a lead, but I’m fairly sure
that doesn’t go well with formal attire.” His fingers slid onto his wife’s shoulder, trailing down over
warm olive-toned skin and tracing the faint pattern of the Talisman of Time where it lay embedded
beneath her flesh. “I know it will look bad if I don’t show… I have to go, I guess I just needed to
say it aloud.”

"I don't know, I've yet to discover anything you don't look fabulous in, and I hardly think a little
studded leather is going to do it." She hugged him briefly, drawing in his scent. "You can always
worry and bitch to me, that's what I'm for. One of the things I'm for. Everything will work out okay
in the end, it always does. And if it was all easy in the middle bits, you'd get bored."

She followed his gaze down, to where his fingers traced over the faint lines under her skin. "I'm
going to give it to Maeve," she said abruptly. "I don't need it any more."

Emerald jewels lifted to meet denim blues, but there was no surprise there. “I wondered when you
were going to part with it,” he said, “Maeve is a good choice.” The S’Hean’s hand moved to
Ghet’s thick red hair, the scent of ginseng and spice warming his senses as he drew her close.
“I’m a firm believer in everything working out in the end these days, I use to be a cynic about it but
lately… yeah, life is proof positive.” Dipping his head he found her mouth, shutting himself up
briefly with a slow, lingering kiss.

“So… when are you planning on making the transference?”

As she drew back from the kiss, Ghet's smile was indolent, openly sensual. "It's hard to let go of
it," she admitted, "I've had it for so long. It has, literally, been a part of me for over a thousand
years. But I can barely remember what it was like to be afraid of losing it... I like things much
better the way they are now." She lifted her head again, reclaiming his mouth. "You know me. It
takes me forever to make up my mind, but once I have, I have to act straight away. I thought I'd
give it to her now. Well, I say 'now'; maybe... in half an hour or so?"

A low, rumbling laugh shook the half-elf’s chest, his eyelids heavy, emeralds burning with rising
desire as the kiss turned hard with want. “Or so…” was the heated response along their private
channel on the Web. Weapon-worn fingers worked Ghet free of her dress and let it flutter to the
floor… it would be a miracle if she managed to leave the room before morning.

                                                  ***
The delicately carved, arched doors closed behind Rem’Sero with a decided bang and he put his
back firmly up against them, rubbing at a spot just between his eyes that seemed knotted up with
tension. Dressed in soft, white trousers and a flowing, white shirt that was laced up the front, feet
bare on the marble floor, he looked as though he should have been relaxed. Unfortunately, he
had run into Gamel Pe’Ris W’Cren and all of that had fled out the proverbial window.

He had, in fact, been subjected to a rant on how the S’Hean race was being slowly diluted into
non existence, with colourful examples including the half-S’Hean King’s offspring, of which not a
one was pure S’Hean, plus his current very human wife and Tyrah. Then there was Y’Roden’s
sister An’Thaya’s children, again, not a one pure blood, and her very dragon husband. Not to
mention Tre’Ver A’Ren’s relationship with the Elen Ranger who had come to live with him, and
Rem’Sero’s own marriage to an Aarataurean elf.

Rem had to assume that it was yet another union that had set W’Cren off. B’Elya was Y’Roden’s
youngest sister, and she was marrying a Taurësúlë. W’Cren had looked fairly close to having an
aneurysm, and Rem’Sero was certain he felt one of his own coming on. The Tyrne and Tyrah
would be away for the wedding most of the following morning, which left him in charge… alone…
with Pe’Ris. Maybe a quiet word to Fadil and the problem could just be swept under the rug?

Faelwen looked up from where she sat on the balcony, a warm smile of welcome curving her lips
as cobalt eyes came to rest on the tall S'Hean. Rising from her seat, the ash-blonde crossed the
room towards him, a hand slipping into his as she rose up on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek.
"You're late," she informed him with a hint of amusement. "I was just wondering if I needed to
send out a search party."

Dressed in a simple gown of pale blue that somehow managed to combine the elegant simplicity
of Aarataurean fashion with the delicacy of S'Hean styling, the elven woman's gaze sparkled as
she looked up at her chestnut-haired husband. Love and happiness gave her a radiant glow that
had not seemed to wear off from the day of their wedding. Despite the unplanned and
unexpected nature of their relationship, Faelwen would not have changed a single thing. She had
everything she had always wanted; a husband who loved her, friends, and family, perhaps one-
day even children of her own.

She tugged gently on Rem'Sero's hand, seeing the strain in his pale-green eyes. "Come and sit
down," she urged softly. "I'll get you something to drink."

“A search party would have been welcome,” the Elder said dryly. “They might have neatly
extracted me from W’Cren’s unique form of torture.” In the face of Faelwen’s good-natured spirit,
he could hardly hold to a grouchy mood. The stress melted away with a soft smile of greeting and
he squeezed Fael’s delicate fingers gratefully, obediently following her out to the balcony.

The cool night air caught at his hair and the S’Hean inhaled the fresh scent of flowers and
waterfalls, a balm to the soul that settled in deep as Rem seated himself and watched the
graceful movements of his wife, a twitch of the mouth betraying his appreciation for the way the
soft fabric of her dress fell against the curves of her willowy frame. “How was your day?” he
asked, the tone of the question reflecting genuine interest rather than polite inquiry.

"More peaceful than yours I think," she replied, handing him a glass filled with rich-purple Mai'Tus
wine. A hint of colour crept into her cheeks as their gazes met, the way he watched her still
having the ability to fluster her on occasion even as it sparked an answering warmth within her.
"The gardens are looking wonderful now. All the plants have bedded in properly and they're
spreading beautifully." Enthusiasm for her pet project was evident in her voice.
Settling into a chair beside him, Faelwen's slim fingers curved around her own glass. She
paused, lost in silent thought for a moment, before asking, "I presume Gamel W'Cren was...
unhappy about recent developments?" There was a delicacy about the way she asked the
question that betrayed her long experience at court politics despite her relative youth.

Rem slid an arm around his wife’s fragile shoulders, his other hand lifting the glass to his lips. The
wine was sweet, though mild, the bottling date older than the most ancient of Terran civilizations.
“Unhappy? Yes… that touches on what he is feeling about it. I could probably give you details,
but considering I’d have to slug anyone that spoke like that in your presence, I think I’ll refrain.”

He grinned teasingly and drew her close, kissing the tip of her ear through soft lengths of pale-
blonde hair. “You will have to show me the gardens as soon as the Tyrne and Tyrah return from
Arlsyn.” There was a slight pause. “Speaking of Arlsyn, I should have Y’Roden introduce you to
his daughter, Shadow. An’Thaya told me once that she is in possession of a rare and quite lovely
strain of blue roses. Perhaps she would give you a cutting.”

Cobalt eyes sparkled. "I shall," she promised, tilting her head as she leaned in to kiss him. Much
of their courtship had taken place amongst the gardens of Nenlante and, given the Aarataurean's
passionate interest in flowers and other plants, it seemed likely that much of their marriage would
too.

"Blue roses sound interesting. They'd go beautifully with the colour scheme in the main bed.
There's a wide swathe of blues and purples running through that that looks wonderful against the
delicate white of the eirëlla that's growing over the arbour." She smiled up at him. "I think you
would like that. It has such a sweet perfume that it is a pleasant place to just sit and relax." The
blonde, who had set down her own wine glass, reached up to touch his cheek with gentle fingers.
"Sometimes you seem to do far too much. A little relaxation would do you good."

Rem’s glass tinked down next to Fael’s and the S’Hean sighed contentedly as he brushed a stray
wisp of hair back from his wife’s face. “I love my job,” he smiled, “most of it anyway. Seeing over
the Rangers has allowed me to keep doing the things I love, despite being a Gamel. It’s the more
political Pe'Ris wrangling that makes my head pound occasionally and when their Majesties
wander off somewhere, that’s when things get stressful.” A fleeting grin lit his features; “Her
Majesty has a gift for putting W’Cren in his place.”

Strong fingers tucked beneath the Aarataurean’s chin and Rem tilted Fael’s face up to kiss her. “I
have only to walk through those doors to relax though,” his voice faded to a murmur, “the sight of
you and everything else just sort of… fades away.” He smiled against her mouth. “You plus the
gardens… well, I may very well turn into a puddle of relaxation.”

"Would that be such a bad thing?" came the soft response. Faelwen sank into Rem's embrace,
enjoying the feel of his hand on her jaw as he kissed her. A deep contentment welled up within
the blonde, a quiet sound catching in her throat. She loved spending time with him. She loved
knowing that she could provide a place where there were no pressures of demands. She just...
loved him.

“Not so bad at all,” came the languid response. Perhaps he should have been ashamed of
himself, really. The S’Hean was well over thirty thousand years old, and his wife a mere five
centuries. Fael was wise beyond her years, however, and the vast age gap didn’t seem to matter
much. He was in love with her, and that was all that truly mattered.

                        Present Day – Castle Corin - Kingdom of Corin
Gardor had never imagined living anywhere else than Wyvern Castle, it was the place where he
had been born, where he had loved and lost one wife and fallen in love with a second, where his
two children had been born and he had ruled as High Lord of Corin for a great many years. As
Regent of Corin it had been necessary to move to the city and take up residence in the capital’s
castle itself, so after King Valin’s death, Gardor and Deirdre had done just that. His son, Brenn,
had been sworn in as the new High Lord Wyvern, and life had continued on.

It seemed wrong, somehow, to the burly, redheaded man that life should go on as normal after all
that had transpired during the last few years. So many Corinian families were gone, the Queen
missing and presumed dead, the rightful King deceased, the three royal children left orphaned.
Despite a lifetime of Feudalism and living by the sword himself, it just didn’t feel right that one day
followed another, people went about their daily routines and Tallin Modar still drew breath.

The only blessing he could count was the peaceful state Corin was in at the moment. With the
majority of Lords who had disputed the D’Riel claim to the throne dead and gone and only the
odd minor scuffle over land borders the Kingdom was enjoying a relative utopian state. With the
installation of the ‘Gates’, traveling from one Lord’s lands to another had become a thing of ease,
cutting out weeks to months on horseback to get from one side to the other without the need to
hassle S’Hea’s portal masters, and with the clever forethought of their makers, preventing any
Lord using them to attack another.

Gardor’s days were consumed with the day to day running of things, and frequent visits to the
D’Riel heirs who were under the care of their Uncle Imoreki and Aunt Helena, who had abdicated
her throne on Ingraelis for apparent personal reasons and moved to her husband’s childhood
home. There were rumours in the hallways these days that the ex-Queen, now Princess of Corin,
was pregnant, but the couple hadn’t made a formal announcement as of yet.

The thought of yet another child in the castle brought a grin to Wyvern’s face as he peered down
into his tankard, sloshing what little ale was left in the bottom around as he crossed his ankles on
the ottoman. Seated in an overstuffed chair in front of the fireplace, a pile of scrolls discarded by
his elbow, he was just winding down for the evening and taking a little time for quiet reflection. It
was how he coped with stress, a system that had worked well for him over the years, though the
last year had brought a lovely addition to the ritual in the form of his new wife. She was late this
evening, which explained the slightly destracted gaze of brilliant-blue eyes into the cup and the
gentling of his features as his thoughts turned to Deidre and the surprising gift of love she had
brought, quite by chance, into his life.

Will I ever get use to all this? Deirdre wondered as he silently closed the doors behind her. She
glanced at the man sitting sprawled in his chair. She hadn’t expected to fall in love with him. It
had been an unexpected turn of events. His offer to marry her was to be a convenience to get her
out a deal her father had set up. Instead, she had shown up at his home to find a burly man
whose presence had consumed her heart. She hadn’t even tried to fight what she felt. She
revelled in it. She loved the feel of his arms around her, of waking up in the mornings finding
herself wrapped close to him, hearing his heartbeat.

In a few short steps she was at his side, deftly removing the tankard from his hands and settling
in his lap. “And, what is my husband thinking of this night?” she asked as she snuggled up
against him.

An amused chuckle rumbled beneath Deirdre’s ear as Gardor tucked his wife’s head under his
chin and wrapped heavily-muscled arms around her slight form. “Hmm… a myriad of things
really,” he admitted. “Gates, Lords, children, my lovely and very distracting wife. He kissed the top
of her silken, blonde hair and made a content sound deep in his chest, “What were you up too
that kept you so long?” he asked curiously, “You weren’t counting your spots in the mirror were
you? I’ve officially proclaimed that my job.” A fingertip gently stroked one of the faint, silvery
leopard-spots on the half-elf’s neck that was hidden beneath her wealth of hair as he spoke, then
roved up to her elegantly-pointed ear.

“Thinking of those things in that order were you?” she questioned him, shivering with delight as
Gardor’s fingertip touched her ear. All thoughts of what she had been doing slipped out of her
mind for a moment as she nuzzled his neck. “Hmm... doing? Was I doing something? I’m late?”

Leaning back she looked at him mischievously. “I was talking to the staff and asking them to not
disturb us, unless there is a threat of death, so that I can have some quiet time with you. In fact, I
locked the door when I came in.”

“You’ve locked us in?” the redheaded Corinian grinned, “just what are your intentions during this
quiet time, Milady?” The tone was gently teasing, his hand shifting to cup her face as Gardor
leaned in for a kiss. “You know,” he murmured against her mouth, “the King and Queen of S’Hea
will be here bright and early for their grandchildren. I’ve set aside most of the morning, I thought
we might sneak away for a while. Y’Roden told me about this little hidden garden that only a few
members of the royal family know about. He used to hide away with Ghetsuhm in there years ago
when he was Crown Prince of Corin. What do you say to a private picnic?”

“Yes love, I locked us in,” Deirdre said, quite pleased with herself. “Hmm, so the children will be
gone. It will be awfully quiet with them not underfoot; they’ve been fun to have about. As for what
I have in mind for now...nothing much, just tormenting you.”

Laying her head on his shoulder her hand trailed across his shirt. "Don’t you have too many
clothes on in here?” Lavender eyes twinkled as she sat up looking at him innocently. “As for
tomorrow morning, that sounds wonderful. We haven’t been on a picnic together. I’d like that.”

“Tormenting?” Mischief bloomed in brilliant-blue eyes as they warmed with something else
entirely. “If that is tormenting, I’m obviously masochistic.” The Corinian looked down at his shirt
and tilted his head, “Quite possibly too many, but that is easily remedied.” His gaze shifted to
Deirdre and his grin turned slightly evil. “You first.”

“You just want to count the rest of my spots. How about I unbutton your shirt and you can
unbutton me...mmm my dress since they’re in the back. We can just have our own meeting and
discuss and practice the ways of relieving the stress of one Regent of Corin.” Leaning in Deirdre
lips parted as she kissed him. "Mmm, you taste good, or is that the ale you were drinking?"

She had already undone his shirt.

“And here I was looking forward to just kicking back and watching,” Gardor chuckled, though his
fingers were already working on the buttons that trailed up his wife’s spine. “You taste pretty good
yourself, much better than the ale.” Callused fingers brushed against the silky skin of her back
and slid up to elegant shoulders. The firelight glimmered softly on Deirdre’s pale hair, giving her
an ethereal glow in the low light of the room and setting fire to softly glowing spots as the material
slid away. “I think,” Wyvern murmured a little dazedly, “that I am the most fortunate man in Corin.”

A shiver traveled down her spine as she traced her fingers around the scars on Gardor’s chest.
“And I, a very fortunate woman, all because you were looking for companionship.” Wrapping her
arms around his neck she laid against his chest for a moment, feeling the warmth radiate
between their bodies. The desire she had for him was unbelievable. “You’ve made a wanton
woman out me instead,” she whispered, blowing softly in his ear. “Here I am, locking doors so
that the staff can’t barge in with some dire need for Corin. But, I sir, have a dire need for your
services. Right now. Right here.”
Slipping from his lap she stood, her lavender eyes never leaving his, letting her dress fall at her
feet. Heat from the fireplace mingled with hunger for her husband and she reached her hand out
to him, “It may be a major notable fact for Corin.” Her eyes were lit with mischief. "Do you think
you can provide those services sir? I think we need to know the number of spots I have. Did you
want to count them? With your lips sir?”

“That sounds serious,” Gardor mused, his mouth twitching with a repressed smile of amusement.
A weapon-roughened hand enveloped hers as he pulled his feet off the ottoman and stood,
drawing his wife up to his chest. “I had better get straight to work on that one, the entire Kingdom
may be at stake.” His arm tightened around the half-elf’s slight waist as he took her to the floor,
the soft, ursal rug cushioning the controlled fall, her glimmering tresses tumbling out across the
rust-coloured hide.

Gardor simply looked at her for a moment before lowering his head into a heated kiss. “I love
you,” he murmured, “more than words.”

"And, I you...sir..."

                                                 ***

Cullen’s home was a small, tidy little house near the northern gates of the city, it was the typical
white with brown, crisscrossed trim, the deep set windows filled with boxes of flowers in a brilliant
splash of colour and an average size, neatly kept back yard. The heat of the day was starting to
dissipate with the setting of the suns and the shutters were thrown open to let in the cool evening
breeze that sent the flames of several dozen candles to dancing. Tucked away on a shelf out of
sight, a delicate little music box tinkled out a gentle, airy tune, the gentle whir of gears barely
audible as an undertone. The table was set, the kitchen emitting an especially tantalizing scent,
and a bottle of Mai’Tus wine sat opened, two goblets partially filled to either side on the lace
tablecloth.

Soft, silken flower petals were strewn across the floor, scattering and whirling in patterns in the
wake of the pair who danced barefoot across the hardwood to the gentle melody, the tall,
chestnut-haired half-elf spinning his dancing partner around so that her blue dress and golden-
brown hair flared out in unison, then catching the elf by her slight waist and drawing her close
again. Lengths of dark hair tumbled into his face as he tilted his head, smiling down at his lover
as they moved, inherently graceful, despite his massive frame.

A silver Elven knot gleamed just at Kara’s eye level, a precious piece of jewellery that had once
been her father’s, and now lay above the heart that was unquestionably hers. Slightly above it lay
a small silver locket that contained Cullen’s past, though the sadness had left his eyes some time
ago, replaced with love and hope for a future by the woman who moved easily in his arms.

“Hungry?” Corin’s Captain of the Guard asked in his low, husky baritone, “or should I wind up the
music box again?”

Kara closed her eyes and smiled. The music box played the last few notes, then stopped,
sending silence throughout the room. The scent of her lover, mixed with the heavenly fragrance
of flower petals and the roast she’d pulled from the oven earlier made her hungry for both food
and her captain.

"I'm hungry...for you," she teased, running her fingers through Cullen's hair. "If you want one
more dance," she glanced from the set table to the music box, "you'll have to wind us both up."
She stood on her tiptoes and gave him deep, lasting kiss. When their lips parted, she whispered
softly in his ear. "If I hear one word about serving you a cold meal..." She gave his long hair a
light tug, leaving the rest of the warning up in the air for him to answer.

“You’ll what?” he asked, mischief sparkling in warm-brown eyes. “Pretty much anything you do to
me is guaranteed to be something I’m going to like.” Pulling her close he nuzzled into her warm
hair, his mouth close to the delicate, pointed tip of her ear. “Where exactly is your wind up key? I
mean… I’m fairly sure I have a good idea.” The tips of his fingers trailed lightly down Kara’s spine
with slow deliberation. “The music you make is lovelier than the music-box tune.”

A soft purring sound slipped across Kara's lips. "So you think you have a good idea do you," she
chuckled, cheeks burning. "Well if you haven't found it by now my captain, you never will."
Tearing herself away from his grasp, she ran over to the music box and flipped it over. Three
twists of the key made it play once again, though the tune would not play as long.

"Now then, would you like stay here and dance, or would you like to go upstairs, where there's
better light to search for that elusive key of mine." She knew full well most of the candles they had
were sitting around them now. "You have until the end of the tune to decide...Key Master."

A feral grin lit Cullen’s features as he reached out to catch Kara’s hand, tugging her close so that
she came up hard against his chest. “And what,” he asked, “is the matter with just searching for it
right here? I’m sure there are enough petals on the floor to make your landing suitably soft,” he
teased. “And,” the half-elf dipped his head, his mouth brushing lightly over hers, “even if this room
didn’t look like a starlit sky at the moment… I wouldn’t need light to find your key.”

Kara's arms circled Cullen's neck while she stared deep into his eyes. "Are we talking about the
key to my heart now," she teased. "You've always had that one, from the first time our eyes met.
And we've already polished the kitchen floor, more then once," she laughed.

"But we’ve never made love under a starlit sky, have we?" She purred, her hands reaching back
to play with the tips of his ear. Jumping up, she wrapped her legs around Cullen's waist and
locked her ankles together. With her arms circling his neck, she pressed her chest against his
and rested her head on his shoulder.

"You know..." she whispered, "We have a perfectly good roof over our head."

The half-elf caught his lover easily, balancing her weight as he spun slowly across the floor.
“Why, Miss Little,” he said with feigned shock, his voice low and rough with more than a hint of
desire. “Are you suggesting that we go the ‘Full S’Hean’ on our rooftop?” He nuzzled into her hair
as the music came to a stop. “All I have to say about that is… why didn’t I think of it myself?”

A low, mischievous laugh warmed Kara’s ear as Cullen made for the stairs, the massive half-elf
carrying her with no more effort than he would have lifted a feather. There was an access
trapdoor to the roof on the second floor just off the master bedroom, though it was the linen closet
he stopped at, nudging it open with a toe. “Grab a blanket,” he grinned, “shingles are undoubtedly
hard on bare backs.”

"And who said I would be the one laying bare back on the shingles," Kara giggled softly in her
lovers ear. With one hand still holding on to his neck, she stretched up and pulled a blanket down
from the top shelf. Throwing it over her shoulder, she glanced down and found her breasts
pressed tight against Cullen's face.

"Still looking for that elusive key are we? I'd best give you a hint," she whispered seductively, "or
we'll be here all night." She kissed the top of his head. "You're getting warmer..."
“Yes… definitely warmer.” Cullen’s voice was muffled as he backed up, bumping into the wall just
below the access to the roof. He shifted Kara’s weight slightly, though he didn’t remove his head
from where it was stuck. One hand released her and felt blindly about in the air until his fingers
caught the chain, giving it a deft tug and stepping aside as the door came rattling down and a
short ladder slid from it, dangling several feet up in the air.

Shifting back below the opening, he gripped Kara by the waist and lifted her upwards. “Up you
go,” he said from somewhere under her skirt, “just… step on my shoulders.”

Kara couldn’t answer Cullen because she was to busy giggling, what with Cullen's fingers resting
just under her ribs. "How can you see where your going, looking like that," she asked at last, her
fingers circling the first rung. Bare feet stepped lightly on Cullen's shoulders then bounced off
them as she made her way up. With her head peeking through the roofs opening, she glanced up
and smiled. "What a delightful view..."

“I’d have to agree,” Cullen’s voice came from below her, though he couldn’t see anything outside.
His fingers tickled one dainty little foot. “Hey lady, you’re holding up the line.”

Glancing down, one of Kara’s eyebrows arched up. "Behave yourself and get up here."
Pulling herself up, she landed on the roof like a cat, her balance perfect. Strolling from one end to
the other, she waited for her lover to join her. Once he stood in front of her, she reached out and
started to unlace his trousers.

"You know," she whispered while standing on the balls of her feet, "we have this whole 'key' thing
all wrong. It's you, the Key Master who holds the key. All you have to do is insert it in the lock
correctly, to open the gates of heaven and hear an angel sing."

Stopping, she glanced down, then back up, giving Cullen an evil smirk, just as a soft wind blew
her skirt up, stopping the stars in the sky from twinkling. "And what have we here? Is this the key
to my heart, or to the gates of heaven?"

“I thought,” Cullen said, catching Kara by the waist and pulling her close, “that the entire purpose
to coming up here, was not behaving myself.” He’d ask her what heaven was later… for the
moment, he snagged the blanket and snapped it out, letting it flutter down onto the rooftop as the
half-elf spun his lover around and took her down until they hit the shingles with a soft bump. He
grinned down at her, though the light in his eyes betrayed far more than just amusement. “How’s
the view now?”

Biting her lip, Kara reached up and cupped Cullen's chin. "I'll let you know, once you tilt your head
to the right," she teased. Then she kissed him, her hands slipping down his back, trying to tug his
pants down.

"You know," she whispered, brushing her lovers hair from his face, tucking each strand behind his
ears, "you're going to scare the neighbours children." She grabbed his shirt and rolled him over
on his back. Straddling him, she pulled her skirt around so it flowed over him, hiding their love
making from prying eyes. Of course having one's pants down around one's ankles was a dead
giveaway.

"Why haven't we done this before," she asked. Arching her back, she stretched out her arms and
purred softly. "You should really see this view. It's so...breathtaking."

Cullen’s reply was lost in a feral growl, the S’Hean’s eyes closing as his hips lifted towards his
lover. His hands closed on her hips, the fabric of her skirt rumpling beneath his grasp, “Aye… aye
it is,” he ground out finally, “I think we should make this a regular event.” Low laughter shook the
Captain’s chest as he reached up for Kara, pulling her down to kiss him.

                              Present Day – Alcarinque – Berelath

It had been a good practice session that morning and Galain had felt alive, energized and
anxious to start the rest of the day. He’d taken his usual swim, then gone through the battery of
exercises required by the no hand method of defensive combat he’d taken deeply to heart. Today
he’d battled with fire, consuming and using it against itself. He’d come away slightly singed, but
victorious.

And then the rest of the day had come and it was precisely the same as every day before, most
likely the same as every day that would come after it. Galain donned the business robes of state
over his trousers and shirt and settled down to listen to reports, read reports and write reports.
Perhaps the last was an exaggeration, but the Elen prince felt the usual hand cramp toward the
end of the day and he buried his head into his hands, a silent signal to assistants, servants and
nobles alike that Galain was done for the day and that perhaps it was time to see what the King
had been up to.

His stomach rumbled and he was reminded that he hadn’t at all eaten since morning. Well, there
was the cold cup of coffee he’d sipped on occasionally throughout the day. The thought of the
stuff made him nauseated though and he slipped his head further down. There was nothing more
to do today except find a balcony and stare out over the remains of what had once been a great
city, nothing more to do but watch the sun set – again.

Soft footfalls in the hallway paused at the doors to Galain’s chambers, Reece Nightfall’s shadow
falling across the room as the Corinian human’s ebony eyes fell on the Elen Prince’s bent head.
Life these days was more than a little strange from the SandShadow’s point of view, and there
were times when he didn’t quite know how to approach the blond elf.

There had been a time when Reece had despised Galain and considered him a complete and
utter fool. It had a great deal to do with Galain’s first wife, whom Reece had known long before
him. Her protector, he had loved her deeply, but never laid a hand on the Amazon that was meant
as anything other than friendship. He had died to protect her, only to be resurrected later to find
she had married Galain Alcarin, and paid the price for it.

Reece had realized the futility of loving a woman who belonged so completely to someone else,
and unexpectedly had fallen in love with Galain’s sister, Summerlin. Now married, the pair shared
a child. An’Thaya and Galain obviously were no longer wed… he had taken a second wife whilst
still married to his first, though he’d thought her dead at the time. In the end, Galain had lost
everything, An’Thaya had left him for Callan, and later, Ghetsuhm had left him for An’Thaya’s
brother, Y’Roden.

Did Reece still despise him? No… Why be angry with someone whose path had dumped them in
so unkind a fate? He had come to realize that everything that Galain had done had never been
out of malice, or even greed, he had simply been… living the best he could given the
circumstances. Something Reece himself had been guilty of in the past.

“Is now a bad time?” he asked finally, his tall, heavily-muscled frame leaning against the
doorframe. “I could come back later.”

"No," Galain replied, unaware of how tired he sounded. He paused and then re-gathered himself
and then straightened and gave Reece a smile. It was a slow and wary one because honestly, he
never knew how he stood with his uncle's Captain of the Guard. He was not Elen, his history was
entwined with An'Thaya's and yet...

He liked the fellow and not just because he loved his sister. Galain regarded Reece slowly and
dropped his hands. Reece was somebody Galain admired deeply.

"Long, frickin' day. What's up?" he said

“Well,” Reece began slowly, lifting a sealed scroll and tapping his chest with it, “Adarin asked me
to drop this off to you when I left for the evening. He and Summerlin are still in with… them,” he
said in a dry tone. The dark haired human hesitated for a long moment, and then shrugged
slightly. “I was just going to get something to eat, want some company? Or have you already
eaten?” By the looks of it, the elf could probably have used something substantial to eat… and
maybe a few good stiff drinks too.

Galain grimaced. He'd missed the council meeting, perhaps purposefully. After all, Adarin had
things he needed to do and Galain wasn't going to do it all. He eyed the rolled parchment wearily
and then nodded.

"I could do with some food," he admitted and pushed away from the desk, standing and shucking
off the dark robe that had almost become his usual costume. He hated the thing, but wore it as a
reminder of what his role in life was now. "I was going to find a balcony -- the sunset's always
pretty decent." He eyed the scroll again.

"How's it been?" he asked, rolling his eyes a little. Even a minute spent with the other Elders
could be taxing on one's patience at the very least.

Stepping into the room, Reece set the scroll down on the desk and shrugged easily.

“The usual, a lot of muttering and complaining with no real resolution. One of these days maybe
the three of you will take me up on my offer and I’ll start cracking their heads together… just for a
break in the monotony.” He grinned suddenly, a dimpled expression that revealed the lighter side
of the generally reserved ex-mercenary. “Sometimes I miss the old days, maybe we should sneak
off sometime and find a disreputable tavern to start a brawl in.”

Galain had decided the scroll could wait a day and was just nodding, envisioning Reece cracking
skulls together, when he mentioned "the old days" and he paused, actually smiling in return, eyes
taking on a faraway look.

"Oh my gods what I wouldn't given for just a day like that -- just walk in, nobody knows or cares
who you are, the wrong word is said or maybe somebody gets looked at cross-eyed and the next
thing you know, beer and a brawl." Beer, brawl and babes even, he thought to himself and then
he shook his head, the smile thinning a little. There was no going back to those sort of carefree
days and he knew it. There was nothing free about them in the long run anyway. He shrugged
and let the smile warm a little again.

"Suppose it's more practical to let you crack a few Elders' heads together instead though. I'd join
in," he said and then he paused, looking thoughtful. "Yes... I'd join in." He looked at the other man
and crooked an eyebrow. "So where's my niece? You give her up to a nurse while you 'bach' it?"

“Practical? Maybe, but not as much fun, I highly doubt they would put up much of a fight, and
where is the entertainment in that?” Reece shrugged good naturedly, his expression softening at
the mention of his daughter, “she has been asleep for a good hour or so, Sum and I checked in
just long enough to tuck her in. That’s the thing I hate about the longer days, not enough time for
Relin.”

Rolling his shoulders, he canted his head, “Let’s go, I could eat the entire hind end of a Herd
Beast I’m so hungry.”

Galain nodded, quite understanding Reece's feelings about the long hours both he and
Summerlin put in. When Aarien was here Galain often made sure his daughter was either directly
underfoot or else the elven prince simply played hooky from his duties for days at a time. Time
with his daughter had become an altogether too precious commodity for him in these past several
years and he relished every second of playtime and conversation he had with his youngest child.

"You take the back end... I'll go for the front end and we'll meet in the middle," Galain said, giving
Reece a quick and rare wink.

“Somehow,” Reece said with mild amusement, “I get the feeling you’ve said those words before.”

"He has," a very feminine voice interjected and Galain blushed. That his sister could say that and
with such certainty was, well, he managed a sheepish grin in her direction.

"I fixed Adarin with Lady Imara and maybe he'll hate me later. Let's find Rel and have some
dinner. Wait, is that where we're headed?"

Summerlin winked at Galain, amused by her rather dour brother's attempt at matchmaking. Or
perhaps it was just his way of keeping Adarin dancing as it were, one never knew.

"We must peek in on Rel first please," she said, almost pleadingly. She missed the days when
she could have simply pled new motherhood and kept her baby at her breast. Their daughter was
growing though and she was a sweet pleasure after the pain of the past few years. Especially
after the loss of Valin, her firstborn.

Galain's lips quirked because he was sort eager too to see his niece. Aarien might have looked
askance upon him, but he loved his family and daughters, sons, grandchildren, nieces and
nephews had grown altogether too dear of late.

"I bet she has to hug her and then she'll awake and we'll have to feed her too," he said to Reece,
the exhaustion of the day momentarily held in check at the moment.

The SandShadow’s eyes twinkled as he hugged and kissed his wife, then winked at Galain over
Summerlin’s head. “I have no doubts about it,” he said, “but no complaints either.”

             Present Day - Sha'Dar        - The Dawn Star Coast - Arlsyn
The palace was buzzing with life as the staff frantically raced about preparing for the coming
wedding and the guests that it would bring. No one was certain of the number, but it was
expected that the Shroudlings would be there to witness. Invitations had been sent to other
Arlsynian races and not to show would be considered an insult. With those invitations were ones
sent to their Outlander allies, Whispin and Aerdon, S’Hea and the Diirlathe. It was the latter that
Argent was certain was the cause for the undercurrent of excitement.

That excitement would be valuable in the hours to come as the last minute preparations would
take them into the wee small hours of the morning when the canopy would be erected on the
beach. A small groan escaped him as he realized the time that he would have to roll out of bed,
but the image of B’Elya that danced into his mind made him smile. It would be worth it.

The Taurësúlë relaxed the moment he turned onto the corridor that led to Relaevna Harith, the
sanctuary of the royal family, and left the traffic behind. He nodded to the guards, who flanked the
arched doorway and passed into the gardens, his destination the gazebo that sat amidst the beds
of roses and orchids.

Perched on the bench seat inside, her feet pulled up beneath the hem of her dress, B’Elya
wrapped her arms around small knees and leaned back, drawing in the scent of flowers on the
evening air as she tried to relax. The S’Hean wasn’t very good with people, and the following day
promised to be… crowded. Marrying Argent was the one and only thing that could ever get her to
stand up in front of that big of a crowd, and there were moments when she wished that he wasn’t
a Szar. It was who he was though, so she accepted with out question. Amusingly enough, even if
she had remained with Dante, her fate wouldn’t have been much better. He was now King of the
Ruauldnahm, which made Belle fairly certain that the fates were just out to get her. No matter
which decision she could have made, the results would have been the same.

Gent was it for her though, she knew it in her heart of hearts, and there was no question that this
was where she belonged. Eyes closed, a smile tugged at the elf’s mouth and she hummed softly,
a slow mesmerizing tune that slowed her heartbeat and cleared her mind.

He stood just beyond the archway, watching her. She had stolen his heart the moment they had
met and she was the reason he learned that sometimes taking your time wasn’t something you
wanted to do. It had nearly cost him the one person he would do anything for.

The Elven Bear probably looked like a love-struck calf, but he couldn’t help it.

The sensation of being watched lifted the fine hairs on Belle’s arms, and one thickly lashed eyelid
lifted slightly to reveal a sliver of a glimmering emerald jewel. “Fa'lite,” she murmured, the
humming coming to a stop, “sneaking up on me are we?” The edge of her mouth twitched slightly,
then curved into an all out smile. “Or are you just making sure I haven’t run for the hills yet?”

“More like admiring the view.” Smiling, he crossed the distance easily and crouched down in front
of her. “Should I be worried? I shouldn’t be too worried since we don’t have hills around here,
mountains certainly, but I think they get a little too cold once you hit a certain altitude,” he
sounded like he was trying to reassure himself.

“Nervous?”

Uncurling her small frame, Belle leaned forward and slid delicate fingers into Argent’s mane of
thick dark hair. A soft smile curved her mouth and one finger curled his silver lock around itself.
Flaming tresses tumbled forwards into her face as she pressed her forehead against his, a slow
inhalation drawing in the Elven Bear’s familiar scent. “A little, but only because there will be so
many people here,” she admitted, “you have absolutely nothing to worry about, y’dynai. I love you
so much; I couldn’t bear to be away from you ever again. I can’t wait to be your wife… I could just
do without the crowd.”

Pulling away slightly she met his forest green gaze steadily. “But for you, I can pretend we are the
only two elves on the beach.”

“I’ll order everyone to close their eyes and I’ll contact the Sildanai and tell them that the sun can’t
fully rise until after, that way any who refuse to close their eyes can’t see.” A boyish grin tugged at
his lips and he stole a kiss. His fingers wove into crimson curls. “Only family will be close and
then not pressingly so,” he reassured.

He had put in a special request for some distance to be between the canopy and the crowd, far
enough away that they would, hopefully fade away into the background, but close enough to hear
the vows and fulfill the role of witnesses.

“I love you too.”

Belle’s features brightened, her eyes softening with a gentle glow. “D’Anke,” she whispered,
grateful that he had been so conscientious about her needs, but hardly surprised. His love and
thoughtfulness towards family were part of the attraction, right up there with the gentle soul that
harboured the fierce passion of the bear. His strength and fury were tempered, and that was
exactly what she needed in a husband. Tilting her head, she brushed her mouth against his… a
thrill winding its way up her spine. Tomorrow… she would be his wife, and everything that came
with it.

Argent pulled back slightly and gazed into her eyes, his thumb tracing the delicate line of her jaw.
“I think I may be the luckiest male in the worlds.”

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin

Ghet was smiling and humming softly to herself as she made her way along the corridor to
Maeve's guest quarters and knocked. She'd given her ex-lover free run of Windemiire, including
the upper floor that she considered to be her own home. She'd still given Maeve rooms a floor
down and respected her privacy: with so many children around the seventh floor was often
complete chaos, and the parents weren't exactly the quietest room-mates, either.

She bounced on her heels while she waited, bubbling with the warm happiness that she
associated both with Maeve, and with giving.

She was still trying to get used to the gravity of Whispin, but aside from the heaviness and the
heat, Maeve was really taking to the place marvellously. She was happy for the privacy of her
rooms, but sometimes she found herself just wandering, never far from the library on those nights
she couldn't sleep or moments she happened to be alone. She perked when she heard the knock
on her door and closed the book with care before hopping off the bed, secretly pleased she didn't
just collapse to the floor as she had once before.

Heading over to the door, she opened it and grinned as she saw Ghet. "Morning, I think, I've no
idea what time it is anymore," she said with a bit of a laugh as she let Ghet into the room.

Ghet hugged her friend on her way into the room. She attempted a sheepish expression, but it
just wasn't happening. "Actually, it's late. Quite late. I meant to be here an hour or so ago, but...
something came up. And given the Shroudlings don't seem to share my conviction that dawn is
an obscene time to be doing anything, 'something' is probably going to have to prop me up at this
wedding tomorrow. How embarrassing do you think it would be if the S'Hean Tyrah fell asleep at
her sister-in-law's wedding? You know you're welcome to come with us. Especially if I keep you
up all night first."

She sat herself down on a chaise in Maeve's main room and took a deep breath. She knew she
was babbling because, now that it came down to it, she didn't know how to begin. "There's
something I want to ask you."
Maeve giggled and curled up on the other side of the chaise, grinning impishly at Ghet. "Dawn is
an awful time to do anything but roll over and go back to sleep. Still, for the chance to see this
wedding, I'd love to go," she said. She watched Ghet for a minute, a smile twitching at the corners
of her lips. "Go ahead Ghet, you know you can ask me anything, right?" She let that smile show
as she wrapped her arms loosely around her drawn up legs.

Watching the tiny woman fondly, Ghet smiled. "Yeah, I do. And you can tell I'm older and wiser
now because I've worked out when I shouldn't ask for something even though I can." Back when
she'd known Maeve first time around, she'd been the sort of person who'd taken every
opportunity that offered. A couple of marriages had sorted that out. Eventually. In theory.

"Okay. Let me tell you a story. Most of this isn't really public knowledge because, hey, you don't
make a habit of telling people what your major vulnerability is.

"You and I, by rights we should both be dead a long time ago, but I guess some people are just
so great the universe does anything it can to hold on to them. With me, in the first place, there
was this necklace. Gods, it's a long story, but what it boils down to is I fell in love. With an elf. The
idea of being with him, and growing old while he stayed exactly the same... I couldn't bear it.
Then my sister turned up and told me that one of the stories my father used to tell was true. A
necklace that gave the wearer eternal youth. Hells, there was nothing to lose. We found it,
separately. It rejected her, and chose me. I was thirty-two at the time, and I haven't aged a day
since.

"But then, about forty years ago, something happened. Something the S'Heans mustn't find out
about. I killed Y'Roden. It's... also a long story, and not as bad as it sounds. It was necessary. But
it was still, gods, so hard. I went a bit mad. I drank his blood. I'd stabbed him through the heart; it
took a while to stop... I took all of it.

"I didn't know at the time, but D'Riel blood has some rather odd side-effects. It's rebuilding me,
making me S'Hean. And one of the things that means is that... I have a S'Hean life span. I don't
need the Talisman any more, and it seems a hell of a thing to be going to waste. Over the years,
I've thought about giving it away a few times, but it never seemed quite right. And of course, it
has to choose. But... I want you to have it, Maeve. I think it would be much happier out playing
with you than stuck here all the time, listening to council meetings and being dribbled on by
babies. It will keep you just the way you are now... it's a quirky little thing, it may also keep you
company. It doesn't talk to me so much any more; I think I'm putting it to sleep. What do you say,
Maeve? Will you take it?"

Maeve sat quietly, listening as Ghet spoke. She didn't say anything for a few minutes as
everything sank in. So much had happened since she had last seen Ghet, so much change, both
good and bad. Impulsively, she hugged Ghet and nodded. "I'd be honoured to have it," she said
finally.

Smiling, Ghet let go a deep sigh of relief. On the very rare occasions when she'd told that
particular story, she'd always been aware that it made her sound like a dangerous nutcase. To be
fair, that was because, in that moment, she had been, and it hadn't been the only time in her life
that her mental fragility had disintegrated. She could never remember the details, but she knew
she was both dangerous and vulnerable. Still, she'd had not one attack since she'd married
Y'Roden. Putting her life all on one plane seemed to have worked.

She leaned back just a little from Maeve's embrace and laid her hand on her own chest.
"Excellent. Now all I have to do is get it out. Normally, it just sits on top of your skin like a normal
piece of jewellery. I had to... well, it's yet another long story. People occasionally try to kill me. It's
understandable. Hang on a minute."
It had been a long time since Ghet had last tried to talk to the Talisman, yet it still came easily.
"So, what do you think?"

"I've told you before," came the necklace's warm tenor. "I think you have excellent taste."

"So you'll go?"

"Absolutely. I'd say 'have you seen that chest?' but I'm delightfully aware that you have." There
was a pause. "I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too. I will. Come on, you know I hate long goodbyes."

Smoothly, the pendant rose up through her skin. It came out cleanly, bloodless, each atom of its
substance separating perfectly from hers. Once it was out, Ghet undid the chain, lifted it off, and
put it in Maeve's hand. "I'd put it on you, but it doesn't really work like that. It has to be freely
given, and freely taken." She smiled, a little sadly. "Take good care of each other."

Maeve looked at the necklace for a moment, feeling the weight of it in her palm.

I'm not going to put myself on.

Maeve's hand tightened over the necklace briefly, the voice she could hear was an almost perfect
match for her mother's. With care she took the chain and bent her head to clasp it around her
neck.

Much better, thank you.

You're uhm, welcome. Maeve tried hesitantly.

Well, you've been taught, that's a start at least.

Maeve bit her lip to hold back a laugh and hugged Ghet once more. "Thank you so much," she
whispered softly, "I'll treasure it."

Her eyes a little damp, Ghet held Maeve, steadying them both. "I know you will, love. It's right,
perfectly right. I couldn't leave it in safer cleavage." She sighed and let go, knowing it was time to
move on. "Alright, if I'm going to get you out of bed before dawn, I'd better let you get in there.
And you two need some time alone to get to know each other."

She stood, and then turned back. "Um. Don't listen to anything it says about me, all right? It
exaggerates."

                                                     ***

The windows were wide open, letting in a cool breeze, and the steady thrum of falling water,
forming a cocoon around the senses that shut nearly everything else out. The S’Hean King was
fast asleep, having stayed where he was after his wife had wandered off to speak with Maeve.
The bed itself was a stunning thing, the effect a labour of love by Ghet herself. Layers of filmy
deep blue curtains and draping complimented the bedding, forming a glowing interior whose
colour could only be found elsewhere by looking into her eyes. Sprawled on his back, a mussed
sheet twisted about his hips, Ro was completely unaware two tiny miscreants were stalking him.
Two fae had found their way in on the breeze and ventured through the curtains, silently zipping
about in the private little haven until one spotted the elf’s single thin braid that wove close to his
scalp above the ear, then dropped behind its pointed tip and hung over his right shoulder.
Between the pair they snagged it up and dragged it across the King’s chest, then amid small
peeping giggles, brushed the end across his nose.

One emerald eye flicked open, causing both fae to shriek in surprise as they realized he had
been playing possum and Ro grinned, blowing a short gust of breath that sent the dastardly little
duo tumbling head over heels through the air. They bounced off a bed curtain and fell to the
sheets where they scrambled back to their feet, peeping in outrage and shaking teeny fists at
him.

"Out!" Ghet's indignation was completely ruined by the laughing. "I told you lot, if I catch you in
the bed, I give you to Aarien." Her sudden descent to the mattress sent the fae bouncing, and
they landed just in time for Ghet's discarded dress to completely envelop them. "I don't know,"
she said archly, casually flicking the sheet back from her husband's hips, "I can't leave you alone
for a minute: women play with your bits."

Snuggled in beside him, and deliberately 'ignoring' their little companions, Ghet laughed. "It's
done. It feels kind of strange. I always seem to be coming back to you with things missing from
my chest."

The half-elf grinned, snugging Ghet into one muscled-corded arm so that her frame was nestled
tight up against his side. “I take it everything went well then?” he asked, fingertips brushing the
soft skin of her chest where the talisman had once resided. “Fortunately, you always show up
with the important bits still intact. Of course, if you are complaining, I can arrange to put
something on there.”

Ghet snickered. "Well, if one of the important bits fell off, I'd fall over sideways." Relaxing against
his arm, she looked up at him with an expression that was light and laughing on the surface, but
also a little wary. "And just what would you put on my chest? A little sign that said 'not intended as
a floatation device'? No, I know. 'Not for improper use'. 'Solely for improper use'?" Despite her
tone, her eyes skittered away from his face, unaccountably nervous.

“How about ‘Solely for Y’Roden’s use’? If you ask me, far too many people latch on to them that
aren’t our sons, and not just because they are so handily convenient.” A chestnut eyebrow slowly
worked its way up into the fringe of hair that hung down his forehead. “Just… what did you think I
was intending on putting there?”

"It's not my fault," Ghet said. "Things just fall in there. Gravitational attraction. I don't think a sign
would make much difference, though; everyone knows they're yours." She rolled forward a bit,
leaning her chin on his chest. "I don't know, what's left on our To Do List? Let me check. Start
sleeping together, stop sleeping together, start sleeping together, break up, marry other people,
have kid, divorce, get married, have more babies... did I forget anything?"

“We have a To Do List?” he asked slowly as his brain rattled through Ghet’s checklist. “We’ve
accomplished quite a bit in the past century or so, that is quite a bit of living.” He looked
perplexed for a moment. “But how does any of that fit on your chest? Though I suppose I could
draw little check boxes…” A light bulb went on at that point and he stopped just short of smacking
hand to forehead. “Ooooh… well, for one, I don’t think I’d ever put a bondmark on your chest, and
two, you get to initiate that one whenever the time is right.”

Ghet bit him, none too gently. "But my chest is all empty! Well, bare. It's definitely not supposed
to be bare. I mean... screw it, you know what I mean." Her lips twisted in frustration as she tried to
work out how she felt enough to put it into words. "I guess I feel... bereft. I lost the Fragment, I
broke the bond to Galain... the Talisman was the last thing left that lived inside me. Now I'm
alone. And yet..." She rolled onto her back suddenly, staring up at the canopy of their bed. "We
have been through a lot. We've both lost so much to get where we are. All that loss... it does two
things. It makes me scared of taking that step, because we both know what it costs to undo, and
we both know that... things change. Nothing is forever, no matter how we might feel now. But if I
do lose you, am I just going to be kicking myself that I never got up the guts to take that risk?
We've never had all the time in the world before, and it took me over a year to make up my mind
just to give Maeve the Talisman. Two years to get mad enough in an argument to tell you I
wanted to have your child. Even if I was ready, it would take me years to get around to making
the call." She paused, thoughtful. "You keep being so patient with me, and I'm not entirely sure
that's what I want."

Ro was quiet for a moment, more startled than anything. Rolling onto his side he slid an arm over
Ghet and looked down at her, a serious expression settling over his features as he studied denim
blues. “I can’t make that call, Ghet. If we bond, there is no going back. There are deep scars on
my soul now and if I merge with you in any permanent sort of fashion… it will be a literal merge.
There will be no sliding apart, no disentangling, not ever, we would be as mingled and connected
as Callan and An’Thaya are… if we survive the process.”

Brushing a strand of deep red hair away from his wife’s cheek, the S’Hean smiled in a quiet,
almost shy fashion that looked slightly out of place on his face. “It’s worth the risk for me, but it
has to be what you want too, with no doubts holding you back.”

Ghet laughed wryly. "We're too alike, you know that? Ro, I've seen the damage it did to you,
breaking your bond to Thorn. And to know... gods, Ro, I love you. If you're waiting for me to be
ready to risk destroying your soul, or tying you to me so completely that you could never get free
of me no matter how much you hated me... Rodi, it is never going to happen." She rubbed a hand
across her forehead. "When I went to Chez, when I made that choice, and I left Galain and I
came to you, I took all of it. All the decisions, all the responsibility, all the blame. How strong do
you think I am?"

“I love you too, Ghettie,” he murmured, strong features shifting from deep, slightly distressed
thought to sudden, resolute calm. “No more waiting then… no more being alone for either of us,
ever.” His lip quirked up, “I’ll take the decision, the responsibility and, if it all goes awry, the
blame.” Sliding a hand under her back, he let it slide up her spine and lowered his head to kiss
her.

With slow deliberation, the S’Hean let his conduit slide open and the glimmering, emerald starred
galaxy spun into view around them. Here and there it seemed ragged and torn, and in one place
there were thick black tendrils shoved in like barbwire, Samara’s legacy. Tentatively, emerald
strands wound down, seeking and teasing at the column of fire that was Ghetsuhm’s soul.

Ghet kissed him, still a little stunned and hesitant. Yet it seemed completely wrong to say, 'no,
look, I didn't mean...', and so right to just let go. If he was sure...

Her bright column of fire flared at the touch of his soul, essential to its nature to expand when fed.
Filaments of her soul wound about the strands of his, binding a surface connection. She did
waver then, inescapably aware of the enormity of what they were about to do. They had always
said it might not last forever, tried so hard to be realistic about their chances. This desperate act
of hope frightened her.
And yet... her soul was lively, compassionate, nurturing. It flowed into the broken places in his,
seeking to heal, comfort. He needed her to be complete, quite literally. "There is no blame. I
swear."

A part of Y’Roden’s soul sparked in recognition, a constellation of stars that had once formed a
fragment deep in Ghetsuhm’s spirit. It knew her intimately and reached out in welcome; calling
her home. There was no hesitation in him, once a course was set, Ro never backed down from it.
He had wanted her from the moment they’d met and now, well over a millennia later, they would
know one another on a level he had only dreamed of.

Heavy shoulder muscles rippled as the S’Hean shifted his weight, settling between his wife’s
thighs and roughly joining their bodies in a physical reflection of the spiritual plane. He grinned
against her mouth and repeated words he had said to her a very long time ago in a cabin in the
woods. "I'll give you anything you desire, just hold on to my soul."

Through the conduit, he reached back into impressed memory and grasped the threads of Soul
Healing taken from Mira Badb Catha when she had fought to hold him together, and with that
knowledge, began a careful melding, shoring up crumbling verdant edges with burning flames.
With each brush of strand memories were shared, glimpses of people, broken pieces of
conversation, flashes of agony, love and joy.

Ghet's soul flared in recognition. It had never forgotten the touch of his, and part of it still bore the
imprint of the Fragment she had carried for so long. That aching vacancy was finally filled, a
sense of rightness like a key in a lock, like his body tearing into hers, bringing pain because there
had to be pain to make it real. She cried out against his mouth, pleasure and agony.

She drew strength from him as he took tenderness from her, determination joining her natural
selflessness, letting her join the weaving, knowing she could match him. There was a savagery in
her that was difficult for most people to spark. "You will give me everything." She was perhaps,
the only one who had really understood what that meant: not just known intellectually, but
understood in the core of her soul, as natural as breathing. She wove flame through the darkest
places, not lighting them, not losing her fire, but making something that was both; red and black,
dark and light. The memories that were full of pain and horror were as much a part of both of
them as any spark of light they'd ever shared, and she could accept them and integrate them. Her
fear of what might happen, her hesitation, that was accepted too, woven into the whole, no
judgement, no conflicts. Simple.

She kissed him deeply, body and soul so full of heat and fire she'd have come apart without his
strength to steady her, totally open and perfectly willing.

Resistance was a thing of the past now; he had struggled nearly all his life to keep the shadows
hidden, to hide his soul from prying eyes. There was no place for secrets here, it was all or
nothing… she knew, and understood in a way no one else ever had. The barriers came crashing
down and everything that was dark and ugly washed out. For several heart-stopping moments he
felt true fear as flames delved into the demonic counterpart within the deepest recesses and he
balked, shielding her.

Not yet… not there…

Close to the core he started to crumble and the S’Hean growled against her mouth. This was
expected, walking the line so close to death, shattering in places to let her in. It was the mending
that was more difficult than he had anticipated, drawing fire close to the conduit and weaving
quickly to prevent it from being sucked into the gaping conduit that slowly started to lose its
stability.
Flashes from the past became more prominent, forgotten moments rising to the surface and
mingling until it was difficult to tell what belonged to whom… and it ceased to matter. Dark lashes
lifted, verdant eyes lit with an internal glow as the conduit pulsed and Aethyr exploded outwards,
rippling through stars and flame until, all around them, it seemed the galaxy had caught fire. His
body carved deeper into hers, fingers gripping fragile ribs with crushing strength as agony soul-
deep laced through them both, sweet torment as release matched the explosion of the conduit, a
new burning pain boring into his flesh just above the heart.

Ghet felt his fear and it became her own; not of what lay inside him, but of her own weakness.
She was spread so thin now, not enough of her soul left wrapped about its axis to hold the rest
together. She had to let go of the core of herself, the essential self she'd always fought so hard to
preserve. She hesitated; terrified of annihilation, and then she saw what she had to do. She
wouldn't hold together unless she drew him into that core, to make up for what she'd given to him.

The moment she did it, everything clicked into place, fire and Aethyr flaring together, pain lancing
through her body as her teeth tore through the skin of his shoulder. She drew his blood into her
until control gave out and she screamed, lost in memory and desire and the most complicated joy
she'd ever felt. Shaking, she curled against his chest and wept, dizzy, off-balance, a mess of
unprocessed sensations. She was too big to fit in her body. Her heart was on fire.

Slowly, she drew her head back; every nerve impulse deliberate as her body tried to work out
what was hers. Her eyes gradually cleared, and the first thing she saw was his chest. Laughter
bubbled up and poured out of her, sweeping away any conflicts and leaving her simply overjoyed.
"That's going to take some explaining."

The half-elf let his head fall forward, bemused emotion naked on his face as he looked first into
indigo eyes, then glanced down to his chest, finding the same colour reflected in the mark
emblazoned on his skin. “Now… didn’t I just say not on the chest?” he asked no one in particular,
“and there I go making a liar out of me.” Balancing on one hand and his knees, he touched at the
bondmark curiously, tracing the body of the scarab, one eyebrow lifting at the D’Riel seal clutched
in its pinchers. Delicate gold wings spread out to either side and all in all, it quite effectively hid
the puncture mark where, once upon a time, Ghet had driven a dagger clear into his heart.

Ro shook his head as if to clear it, unsure whether the sheer amusement was his own, or his
wife’s. The amount of emotion swimming about was nearly overwhelming to someone who barely
blipped on the ‘feeling’ radar. Dragging his gaze from his own chest to hers, he grinned despite
himself and lowered his head to kiss the fresh mark on Ghetsuhm’s skin. “If anyone asked,” he
murmured against the silky texture of her breast, “we can always just tell them it is the Terran-
Egyptian symbol for rebirth. Considering… everything, it’s oddly appropriate in many, many
ways.” And given the fact that Ghetsuhm’s father had been a human archaeologist, the source
likely wouldn’t be called into question. The private meaning, however, was a secret buried in their
soul.

Closing his eyes, the S’Hean simply let himself feel in a way he had never experienced before,
sinking deep into the newborn connection and burying himself in it. Delving into the hued layers of
spirit that sang out tones of ‘Ghetsuhm’ he was struck by how complex and beautiful she was,
and although they had always understood one another on a profound level, he was blown away.
“You,” he muttered, “are simply amazing.”

Smiling, crying, Ghet followed his journey through their soul. She'd always been awed by the
power of his, even with the damage done to it. To share that now would have been intimidating,
except that she could feel quite clearly his awe at her. The complexity and contradictions that had
caused her so much pain over the years made her the perfect complement for him. "If anyone
asks," she said, her voice rough and warm, "you can explain it. It can only be a matter of time
before Callan works it out and spends an hour trying to make me say the word."

She ran her fingers over the mark on his chest; amused at the way it lay over the old scar.
Rebirth. Which couldn't be had without death. Memories of her soul-healing stirred and washed
across them. She'd always loathed the way love and death had woven together for her, and now
it simply made perfect sense. Overwhelmed, she had to lie back, close her eyes, and just steady
herself for a moment. "You... thank you. You were right, it was worth it."

A rare, lazy smile lifted Ro’s mouth as he watched her; he’d always been deeply affected by the
way Ghet looked after he’d made love to her. Languid, sated and ruffled, this time, it was so much
more, and he was content just to watch her relax. “It was… it is… and a natural path for
something that has always been so… right.” Dipping his head he kissed his wife’s exposed throat,
following its elegant line until he found her mouth and licked away his blood from her bottom lip.
“Just a beginning,” he murmured, “another step on a very long road together. I love you Ghettie.”

Ghet's throat rumbled under his mouth, a near purr. She stretched, her movements languid but
restless. She was tired, but unable to settle. "I love you too, Rodi. Gods... I feel peculiar. Spinny.
That's going to wear off, right?" She half-opened her eyes, long lashes brushing her cheeks. "You
know you're not getting any sleep tonight, don't you?"

A warm laugh lost itself against Ghet’s mouth, “I’m pretty much counting on it.” In a hazed reality
of dreams and desires come to fruition, he intended on treasuring every moment, dreading the
hours before dawn when they would have to leave the comfort of their haven.

Forgotten, two disgruntled fae had finally fought their way free of Ghet’s dress and fled through
the curtains, leaving the royal couple to their night of blood and fire.

                          Present Day – The Diirlathe – Planet Aerdon

Golden sand spilled off gemlike ruby red scales as the crimson dragon heaved upwards from a
well deserved wallow, a groan of satisfaction rumbling through her throat as she shook like a
massive dog and stretched out her great, leathery wings. The beast’s wedge-shaped head titled
upwards to the darkening sky, watching the sunset with lazy, faceted-green eyes. A low snort
blasted the dune beneath her, and after a long, languid stretch, she launched herself skywards,
heavy beats carrying her upwards into the air currents until she plateaued, soaring towards the
not to distant Keep.

It’s great, beige-granite structure loomed up in relief against the mountain on the horizon, several
black-winged forms spiralling around its towers as the day came to an end. The Crimson bugled
out a greeting as she glided in closer, passing over the outer walls and the sprawling city, headed
for the Keep proper and angling for the higher floors, her destination the chambers she shared
with her Mate.

Wings flaring back and a long, serpentine tail curling about for balance, she landed neatly on the
wide ledge, talons clattering as her body settled deep into the landing, then sprang forwards with
a ripple of muscle. The rich-red appendages furled inwards, melting into her spine, as the
female’s form seemed to shrink in on itself with the popping of bone and tendon, becoming more
upright as she moved towards the massive entrance. By the time the melded figure reached the
doors, it was more humanoid than dragon, and the delicate hand that touched on the intricately
carved stone, pushing open a door that still hung slightly askew after all these years, was purely
half-Elven.
Copper-gold curls tumbled down golden-tanned shoulders in a flaming waterfall to brush at the
small of her back, the shifting form of a black dragon writhing on the skin there, creating an
illusion of sharp claws tearing into soft flesh and revealing crimson scales beneath. The half-elf’s
diminutive form moved with an ease of grace that came from millennia of skills, both lethal and
artistic. The Amazon was as much a warrior as a dancer, and so very much more.

Bare feet padded across the cool stone of the chamber she shared with her husband, lengths of
hair slithering over soft curves and curtaining her diminutive frame. A sprinkled trail of evidence
from the mother sands was left in her wake as she made an abrupt turn for the bathing room,
passing beneath its great, marble arch and into the open chamber where steam lifted in a mist off
the surface of a massive pool. The magic of the room was that the occupants could see out quite
clearly and enjoy the sky as it lit up with Osiris, Isis and a spangle of stars, but anyone on the
outside could not see in. Not that anyone at the Blackthorn Keep was especially shy… likely quite
the opposite, but even the Emperor and his Empress enjoyed a little privacy every now and then.

Toes curling on the granite ledge, An’Thaya looked upwards for a long moment, enjoying the
familiar view and letting her mind wander to the first night she had stood here with Callan… when
she had belonged to another. Nothing had been the same since then, that evening, beneath this
sky, she had been claimed as his, and she wouldn’t have traded her life now for anything the
universe had to offer. A self-indulgent smile curved her mouth, and with S’Hean enthusiasm, she
dove cleanly into the heated, mineralized water, cutting deep below the surface to rinse the
desert from her skin.

The Emperor had been well aware of his wife's approach long before she'd reached the Keep, but
the Emperor was more than a dictator, he was Tay's lover, a father and friend, and a General.
Today though, he'd been a father first, and had been training his three youngest children in ways
of warfare and self-defence. The main dining hall was truly a mess now, as he'd let Th'Rax, Tay'la
and Cal practice flying in tight quarters and bombing random passers by with hard-boiled eggs.

The bombing practice had rapidly dissolved into an ongoing food fight with a few of the Black
Guard, who ate more ammunition than they threw, and now Callan was covered head to toe with
various food-stuffs, including pudding, syrup and unfortunately, sun-melon juice. In fact, some of
the syrup gave the Emperor a bloody appearance as he finally made it out of the children's rooms
after seeing to it they were bathed and finally tucked in... Strawberries were a novelty in the Keep,
and the syrup was deemed fit to put on everything and anything by the Black Kin.

It was a weary but proud father that began peeling off his sticky, black t-shirt and stained boots
and trousers, then slid to the first few steps of the pool and lounged there, elbows on one step,
the back of his skull on another.

"So.” She was in here; he knew it, just somewhere below the still and moonlit waters, "How was
your mommy's day off?"

The touch of delicate fingertips on Callan’s ankles let the Dragon know exactly where his wife
was as they slid liquid-smooth up his calves, then thighs, tendrils of long, flaming hair curling
about his legs just before she surfaced between them with a fluid, upward motion. Hands on her
husband’s hips the Amazon surged forwards, dripping on his heated skin as she kissed the
Emperor’s still-sticky mouth. “Mmm… sugary,” she observed in an amused tone, licking a bit of
strawberry from the corner of his lip. “My day was… relaxing… though I have a suspicion you had
far more fun than I did.”

Laughter lit up emerald greens as she settled into her husband’s lap. Straddling his hips she sat
back and gathered masses of flaming hair, wringing the water from its length. “I hope you wore
them out nicely, they’ll be better behaved for B’Elya and Argent’s wedding tomorrow.”
A low laugh came from the Emperor as his wife made herself comfortable in his lap and his
fingers curved around her sculpted thighs and slid to her hips, then pulled her tighter against him.
His head lifted as he spoke, "I'm not sure who wore out whom today. I do know Reigh and Tarsh
fell victims to a hardboiled blitzkrieg..." Callan paused as he realized Tay might not recognize his
last word, "er... yeah. The kids bombed the hell out of those two. Ruthless little shits, all three of
them."

For a moment, Callan just studied his wife as his callused hands curled around her arms and
stroked her tanned and scarred flesh, then he let out a deep breath and leaned forward to kiss his
wife. As his mouth hovered over hers, his eyes met Tay's emerald greens, "Just. like. their
mother."

“Why Your Emperorship,” his wife’s laugh was husky against the Dragon’s mouth as her emerald
gaze locked on topaz. “I have no idea what you could possibly be on about.” Biting his lip, Tay
growled softly and wrapped delicately-muscled arms around Callan’s neck.

“Like you would expect anything less in the Randii of the Diirlathe’s Black Emperor.” Low laughter
accompanied the words across their bond as the Amazon let herself fall forward onto his chest.
“Let me show you just how ruthless I can be…”

             Present Day – Gala Nodel – The Dawn star Coast – Plane of Arlsyn

The last stars sparkled in the predawn sky like children determined to stay up past their bed time
before finally winking out of sight, sleep sending them into their midnight-blue velvet beds. The
water lapped gently against the sandy shore, its waves hushed as if trying to let the city sleep or
perhaps the Dawn Star was honouring the couple that would join their lives.

For as far as the eye could see men, women and children of varying age and race stood barefoot
in the sands. Forest-green eyes watched his people, the same awe he felt as a child passing over
him at the otherworldly grace, elegance and peacefulness that seemed to spread around the
Shroudlings. The peacefulness he had taken to easily, but grace and elegance was something
Argent could never see himself as having, but the S’Hean that had stolen his heart, he could see
it in her.

A sea breeze tossed his ebony hair playfully and a gentle smile touched his lips. To his family
such things simply weren’t natural. He cast a look to the left and caught his twin winking at him
where she stood with a Human man he had yet to truly meet. His attention turned back as a soft
murmur trickled through the crowds.

The Elven Bear stood beneath the white canopy, dressed in the deep-amethyst and silver of the
Royal house, he waited for his bride the flickering flames of candles lighting the way through their
people, through friends and finally to family. It seemed to him as if the stray stars from the sky
had winked out only to reappear to light the way for B’Elya.

On the other side of Shadow, and thankfully upwind from Turq, Y’Roden’s gaze lifted from the
tapered candle he held, the wax warm and malleable beneath his fingers, to look at Ghetsuhm,
their merging soul full of heat and a mélange of emotion. He smiled just for her, then let his eyes
drift to the sands, following the tiny dancing flames in search of his youngest sister.

Across from them, An’Thaya stood in the shadow of her massive husband, her shoulder brushing
his arm as she tilted slightly, finding it difficult to see beyond the other D’Riels, Silverleafs and
even taller Shroudlings who were gathered further along. A brilliant smile broke across delicate
features, as her sister appeared, Belle's diminutive form ethereal in the candlelight.
The flame-haired bride was all of five feet tall and deceptively slight of build, her heavy gravity
frame making her stronger than she appeared. Barefoot in the sand, she was dressed in a cream
coloured, S’Hean style gown, the skirts playing around her legs as she moved through the dual
column of guests. Her hair spilled over her shoulders in loose curls, glinting with tiny jewels
reminiscent of those that had winked out of the sky and any sign of nervousness was completely
lost beneath the glowing smile. Her focus was straight ahead, and it was likely she hadn’t noticed
anyone else at all.

The hulking Elven Bear dwarfed her, and they were complimentary contrasts of copper and gold,
pitch and flame, forest and emerald-jewels. For the S’Hean who found trust hard to give, he was
the one she had chosen to put her faith in above all others. The differences were blatantly
apparent as she came to stand beside him under the white canopy, her head tilted back as she
looked up, a tiny hand slipping easily into his.

Ghet watched B'Elya with a decided effort. It was too easy to get lost in Y'Roden, and if she let it
happen, it could be hours before she noticed anything else. She was tired, too, and glad the
candlelight hid the grey cast to her skin. The physical exhaustion combined with her off-balance
mental state and made her feel spacey, her awareness spread out all over the shore. She was
still readjusting, realigning her Talent and her position on the Web. All in all, she was very glad
attention was fixed on her sister-in-law.

She shot a quiet sideways glance at Maeve, whom she'd brought with her as promised, and
beyond her at their children, who were all being suspiciously well-behaved. Probably, those who
carried her genes were too half-asleep to make trouble.

Emerald eyes met the denim-blue of her stepmother, a hint of a quiet smile touching Drysi's lips.
At almost sixteen years of age, the raven-haired girl was growing with a rapidity that suggested it
would not be long before she attained her mother's height of six feet. Dressed in a simple S'Hean
style shift of deep green, she watched the ceremony with the air of shy seriousness that
characterized so much of her behaviour. Slim, lightly tanned fingers curled about an ivory taper
whose flame flickered and danced in the gentle breeze, which blew in off the sea. It brought with
the scent of salt and the mysterious odours of foreign shores.

Adaron stood beside his siblings, lavender eyes watching his father and soon to be stepmother
with a soft smile. He couldn’t remember his mother; she had died only days if not weeks after he
had been born. His father’s second wife had been the only mother he had known but despite that,
she still hadn’t seemed to fit into their family.

Astra grinned and bumped her little brother with her shoulder and resisted the urge to point out
that someday he may be in that situation, but the shy prince wasn’t likely to do so anytime soon.
Briefly her eyes shifted and met their mirror in her twin who only nodded, feeling the same
certainty that the rest of the Szar’s children felt. Yet couldn’t put explain the feeling until finally Ithil
had pointed it out. Belle made their father complete.

Taimië stood between the two males she loved most, something that she’d always be lacking in
speaking. Her twin, Devin and her lover, a Silver that caught her attention the first time he
bounced into her. Grinning she slipped her hand into Tarsh’s, her other curled around her candle.

Standing just in front of her uncle and her mother, Naur’s dark eyes ate up everything she saw
with a fascination that she rarely showed for anything other than the fire she was gifted with and
the gadgets in Devin’s workshop.

Conlan was standing towards the back, his sisters on one side of him. It had taken Amilyn and
himself to get Melaina here, and the promise that if she felt the need to leave, they would allow
her to. She loved Argent as her own brother, and was happy for him, but weddings weren't
exactly her favourite place to be.

Sea-green eyes met stormy grey; Conlan checking on her before turning his attention back to the
joining of two members of their extended family.

Dark eyes looked down at the small hand that rested in his then trailed up to Belle’s face. Copper
fingers calloused by time and circumstances of the past wrapped around her fingers, then took
her other hand in his. Time felt like it stood still, the silence filled only by the whispers of the wind
and the sea.

“B’Elya, you are the light in the darkness, a spark that keeps me on my path, and the flame that
lights my way. With you, the world is brighter and I look forward to each new day. You are the
music that lifts my spirit and my peace when the world falls a part. I love you.” Smiling, he offered
her the thes’mirn wedding choker that he would wear, the design uniquely theirs, a merging of the
symbols of their names. “From this day forward, you shall not walk alone.”

Delicate fingers wrapped around the cool metal as B’Elya smiled up into his eyes. “Argent, you
are my anchor, the safe place I cling to during the storm, and the wings that let me take flight.
With you, I can do anything because even if I fall, I know you will be there to catch me. You have
taught me to trust and even more importantly, to love.”

Reaching up, she moved her fingers through thick, ebony and silver locks to fasten the choker in
place. “I accept your token, and the binding of you to me, and I wish the same. I could do nothing
else, and would have no other. I willingly bind myself to thee.”

Balanced on elegant fingertips, she offered up her own choker, the perfect match to his. “From
this day forward, you shall not walk alone.”

Copper fingers took the offered choker and lovingly brushed flame-hued curls out of the way. “I
accept your token, and the binding of you to me, and I wish the same. I could do nothing else,
and would have no other. I willingly bind myself to thee.”

Gent rested his forehead against hers and smiled before raising his head. His voice carried out
over those gathered, “I, Argent Silverleaf, in the name of the spirit of the Gods that resides within
us all, by the Astraheia that courses within my blood and the love that resides within my heart,
take you, B’Elya D’Riel, to my hand, my heart and my spirit, to be my chosen one. To desire you
and be desired by you, to possess you and be possessed by you without shame, for naught can
exist in the purity of my love for you. I promise to love you wholly and completely without restraint,
in sickness and in health, in plenty and in poverty, in life and beyond, where we shall meet,
remember, and love again. I shall not seek to change you in any way. I shall respect you, your
beliefs, your people and your ways as I respect myself.”

Emerald jewels were filled with happy tears as she lifted her own voice to offer up her promise. “I,
B’Elya D’Riel, in the name of the spirit of the Gods that resides within us all, by the Aethyr that
courses within my blood and the love that resides within my heart, take you, Argent Silverleaf, to
my hand, my heart and my spirit, to be my chosen one. To desire you and be desired by you, to
possess you and be possessed by you without shame, for naught can exist in the purity of my
love for you. I promise to love you wholly and completely without restraint, in sickness and in
health, in plenty and in poverty, in life and beyond, where we shall meet, remember, and love
again. I shall not seek to change you in any way. I shall respect you, your beliefs, your people
and your ways as I respect myself.”
Lifting up slightly on her toes, the redhead tilted her head back, copper-red curls tumbling down
her back as she raised her face to be kissed.

Muscular arms wrapped around his wife, gathering her close as he lowered his lips to hers.

A shaft of morning sunlight reflected off of the Dawn Star Sea, turning the blue-green waters into
liquid gold. The first wave of Loramun bathed the newly married couple in glittering light then
swept over those gathered uniting them all to the steady pulse of the land.

Candles were extinguished in the brightness, unneeded as the between disappeared into the light
of day. Finally raising his head, Argent smiled, “Mezel avrun, Javim.”

             Present Day – Castle Wyvern – Kingdom of Corin – Planet Whispin

Wyvern Castle was an ancient construct, though the loving care it had received over the millennia
was apparent in every nook and cranny. It had withstood siege after siege, war after war and
periods of neglect. The High Lords of Corin had almost always held an impressive amount of
wealth and power aside from a scant eight hundred years when Tallin Modar had seized control
of the country. That had been several millennia ago now, however, and any sign of deterioration
from those days was long gone.

The only uproar at the moment was within the Castle’s courtyard and was fully attributed to a
number of D’Riel guests who were, for the most part, just passing through. They had come from
Arlsyn with Aaron Silverleaf and Serendipity Wyvern after the wedding to make sure Princess
Ce’Leste was settled in comfortably and ready to take up her lessons with Serendip herself. That
done, Y’Roden and Ghetsuhm were now in the process of gathering the children under their
charge together for a journey through one of Corin’s ‘gates’.

Normally, they would have just portalled to Castle Corin, but after the soul merge the night before
both the S’Hean King and his Queen were so tired mentally and physically that neither could be
arsed to summon up the strength needed to draw that much Aethyr or perform a task that
demanded pinpoint accuracy. The gates were new, something Y’Roden and Ghetsuhm had
worked on together and implemented a year past to make travel easier for Corin’s magic-barren
humans and, apparently, tired monarchs.

“Yseult, grab Va’Lan for me please before he smacks his head off that fountain,” Ro said with a
deep sigh. At times, herding so many children and grandchildren was about as productive as
nailing Mai’Tus jelly to a tree. “I’m going to key in Corin’s address, so you all had better be ready
to go.” His finger tapped on one of the runes encircling the base of the gate, it lit up and the
verdant eyes on one of the triad of dragons lit from within. “One,” he started the countdown that
generally brought everyone in line at once.

Rhagi's hand shot out and clamped down on Aarien's shoulder. His sister had impeccable timing
and an instinct for mischief he'd never admit to recognising. He was pretty sure that today their
mother wouldn't have noticed if the girl had painted herself purple and danced the Lambada, and
he really didn't want to have to come back for her.

Ghet shot her son a grateful, weary glance and did yet another head-count. "Okay, I think we
have them all penned," she told Y'Roden. "And what are the odds of screwing this up?" She ran
an uneasy eye over the group as a thought hit her. "Anyone get gate-sick?"

The half-elf went decidedly pale and shot his wife a baleful glance. A warrior and a King, Y’Roden
generally had a stomach of iron. That was, until he ran into someone who didn’t. The mere
thought of someone being ill in the projectile sort of way reduced him to a puddle of nauseated
goo. “Gods forbid,” he muttered, tapping the rune again, then reaching for the next one. “Speak
now, and please, forever hold your breakfast.”

There was a giggle from B’Roden as the youngster bounced on the balls of his feet, the naturally
hyper boy eager to be first through the gate. “Hurry up Addah!”

“Keep your knickers on.”

“I don’t wear knickers, the Silverleaf triplets keep giving me wedgies.”

“Well, that is certainly a clever solution you have going on there then,” his father observed.
Pressing the third and final rune, Ro stepped back and watched as lines of Theadenya set into
the granite flared to life, speeding towards the outer circumference of the circle and bringing the
dragons to life with a rumble. Aethyr fire spewed from their gaping maws and the half-elf gestured
to his son. “After you.”

Crossing heavily-muscled arms over his broad chest, Ro couldn’t help but grin as the exuberant
boy practically leapt into the centre of the gate and disappeared from view. Turning away he
smiled down at Ghet as Drysi and Yseult guided Va’Lan and An’Lin through the gate. “What do
you say to a nap?” he asked with a tired smile. Callused fingers stroked a strand of hair away
from his wife’s face and he leaned in for a kiss. “I might actually sleep this time.”

Ghet watched her own children go through the gate, always just a little anxious for their safety,
then gave her husband a tired smile. "And I suppose you're going to try to blame me for that? I
didn't jump on you every time you start to fall asleep... no, wait, actually I did. Still, I think even I
might rather get some sleep by now. You never can tell what's going to happen until I'm actually
horizontal."

She kissed her husband slowly in return, an odd, doubled sensation still full of wonder. She felt
dangerously close to perfection. "It was worth it, though."

“Aye,” Ro agreed, “it was.” For a moment, in the blessed silence of the courtyard, he held his wife
close. Breathing in the scent of her hair and letting himself drift through the slow healing of their
souls, the S’Hean made a content sound deep in his chest and just stood there for several
moments before finally releasing her

“Best go before it shuts off,” he noted. “Or, you know, before one of our offspring causes
someone bodily harm.” A smile brought his dimples to light and for a heartbeat or two, he couldn’t
look away. “Gods… I love you, Ghettie.”

His wife's smile was decidedly smug. It was an expression Ghet had been wearing a lot lately. "I
love you too, Rodi." The sentence seemed hopelessly inadequate for what she felt, but she didn't
think even Ellaha had a word for this. "And the longer we stay here, the longer Rhagi will do that
eye-rolling thing when we get there."

Turning, she walked away from Y'Roden, fully aware of his eyes on her as she moved. She gave
him one last, speaking look back over her shoulder before she stepped through the portal and
disappeared.

Ro’s head canted slightly to the side and he grinned, brushing fingers through his short-cropped
hair and shaking off a shudder as it wound down his spine. “Well,” he said to himself, “so much
for sleeping.” Stepping into the granite circle he entered the swirling Aethyr-vortex and for the
next few moments, saw nothing but Whispin’s surging Gaia.

                      Present Day – Castle Corin – Planet Whispin – A.D

Tendrils of dark-chestnut hair blew into Ro’s eyes on the other side of the gate, rendering him
frozen to the spot as a sense of unease and serious ‘wrong’ invaded his mind. Agony twisted in
the core of his soul and the half-elf’s vision spangled with light, blinding him for several precious
seconds as he struggled to make sense of what was happening. Part of Ghet was still with him,
the soul merge had made sure of that, but there was something blocking their connection… as if
the wards of S’Hea had come crashing down between them. She was there… he could feel her,
but his first attempt to speak along their bond was met with utter silence.

In irritation, he reached up to pull a length of hair from his face, something damp and sticky
smearing across his cheek with the movement. Gaze slowly focusing on a violet tinged sky;
emerald greens caught the movement of an air ship drifting into his line of vision. An airship? In
Corin? Cat-slit pupils narrowed and studied the S’Hean craft more carefully. The verdant runes on
hull and dirigible were unmistakable, and even at this distance he could catch the odd glimpse of
the chestnut haired elves indigenous to his homeland. What threw him, were the menacing
cannons that lined her sides, their technology foreign to the widely traveled S’Hean King.

Refocusing, he drew his gaze to the lock of hair still clutched in shock-stiff fingers, coming to the
slow realization that it belonged to him. The all too familiar creak of armour accompanied the slow
drop of his hand and Ro finally looked forward into Corin’s courtyard. An overpowering sense of
adrenaline coursed through his veins, the vestiges of battle mixed with the copper scent of blood.
He could feel it on his hands, and knew without looking that it was streaked across his metal
trappings haphazardly.

What held his attention now, was not the disturbing state of his own body, but a pair of familiar
figures that were very out of place. The two elves were kneeling not far from where he stood,
heads bowed, but the crop of golden curls on one, and the multi-hued locks of the other were
unmistakable.

“Speak.” The word came out as force of habit from a life he had long endeavoured to forget. The
tone was harsher, more demanding that that he used as the S’Hean King, a reaction to an
undertone he was just starting to put a finger on.

After three millennia of keeping his head bowed Galain magnificently killed the urge to look
sharply upward when his liege spoke. Nevertheless his eyes widened slightly because the silence
had been a little long. Then again, that couldn't be considered unusual either.

"You called for us," he said, keeping his head bowed, but wincing. He'd forgotten an honorific, but
maybe that would be overlooked. "The Imperial Games start tomorrow." And damn, he added
mentally. Welcome, right. I forgot to welcome him. It was a bitter-tinged remark in his mind.

Alternate realities were hardly a foreign concept to Y’Roden, finding himself in one was. What
Galain had said so far only served to confuse him further, answering none of the questions
bubbling about his mind. Imperial Games? So, wherever he was, he was still linked to Callan?
Somehow, given the state of Corin, that was hardly reassuring. The two were good friends, but
both males tread a fine line of sanity that would release hell on the universe if ever breached. A
creeping sensation up his spine lingered on the suspicion that a line had been crossed, and the
two elves before him had paid the price for it.

Who else, then, had been caught in the crossfire?
Emerald greens slowly leeched out to crimson in instinctive response and fell on Railen’s bent
head, hoping to hells that the stripe-haired elf would have something useful to say.

Railen stuffed down the urge to glance over at his fellow Enforcer. The elf seemed to not be quite
as eloquent as need be when speaking with their Emperor, which made him worry for his well-
being. A bit.

“Imperial Majesty…” he spoke up, keeping his head bowed and his gaze on the tip of his boot. “I
have brought a fine selection of fighters for the games. I assure that you won’t be disappointed.
They required a good deal of… convincing.” There was no doubt that he found a dark sort of
humour in that, satisfaction even. But then he’d been the one lucky enough to do most of the
‘convincing’. “But then, the best always do.”

Imperial Majesty? Ro backtracked, rethinking the entire Callan thing. Emperor, that explained the
Imperial Games then. Emperor of what? That was the burning question, and one he was going to
have to figure out for himself. Too many questions would arouse suspicion, and so would a
headlong leap back into the gate on the off chance that it might send him back to his reality. Back
to Ghet, whom he suspected was faced with a terrifying problem of her own at the moment.

“Let’s hope not,” he spoke aloud, falling into the part as naturally as breathing. “I don’t take
disappointment well. You may rise.”

Galain was the first to rise, the same blank look that he'd worn since the first day he'd sworn
fealty to this swine practically tattooed upon his face. He dared to look Ravyel in the eyes for a
fraction of a second, but couldn't pinpoint anything. The Elen was surprised by the... no... he just
couldn't pinpoint and concluded to himself that maybe he was finally just losing his mind. At least
his abrupt manner had been overlooked.

"Your ship is awaiting," Galain said, belatedly adding, "Imperial Majesty." And off they would go.
The Elen's wooden expression seemed to weigh his face down as he looked away and thought of
the Imperial Games to come. An'Thaya would be part of them and the very reminder of that made
his stomach twist.

Ro nodded and moved forward, shoulders drawn back as he fell into the arrogant swagger of the
Demon Elf. It made him sick to fall into the act, but to do anything else could very well cost him
his life. Death had never been a frightening thing, he had met it with grace more than once, but
he was bonded to Ghet now. His loss would mean hers… and it would leave the Demon Elf to lay
scourge to his Kingdom… and everything beyond.

Flanked by the two men in the universe that hated him the most, Y’Roden made his way towards
the airdock where the S’Hean airship was waiting.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” the voice was familiar, and when the other half-elf straightened, Ro
realized why. Cullen Havenlock’s chocolate-brown eyes greeted him from beneath a wealth of
chestnut hair. “Commen hyem.”

A curt nod of answer and Ro was past Cullen as well, standing on the deck of the ship with his
back to the others as he watched the land fall away beneath them. The objective, for now, was to
just get through the ride back to S’Hea and say as little as possible until he could find some time
alone.

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin
Billowing Aethyr flames fell away like mists burned off the ground with the first rays of sun,
leaving the heavy frame of the S’Hean King standing in the middle of Corin’s Gate. Had anyone
been paying close attention to his arrival, he might have looked out of sorts for a split second, a
glimmer of red flashing beneath lowered lashes.

Fingers drifted up to roughly catch at the soft fabric of his shirt, rubbing it between thumb and
forefinger just over the bicep, tracing the line of the S’Hean wedding cuff that wrapped around
corded muscle, then lifting further still to brush at short-chestnut locks. The half-elf’s head turned
slowly to the side, eyes still downcast as he stepped off of the gate onto Corinian soil.

A slow, scenting-intake of air brought his attention slowly around and his frame tensed slightly,
the path of his gaze burning across the ground and up the curvy frame of the S’Hean Queen.
Crimson irises flared, seeming to bore into her back, caught entranced by the deep-red flames of
Ghetsuhm’s hair.

Even before she turned, Ghet’s spine went rigid. Deep, unconscious instinct was screaming at
her that something was wrong. Her head came around slowly until she was facing him, everything
feeling liquid and detached: shock. Lifting her eyes took an effort, her soul scrambling after
Y’Roden’s, after the rest of itself, which was… missing. Gone. Whatever her eyes told her, she
was utterly certain that this was not her husband.

All these years together, some part of her had been trying to prepare for this. It had been bound
to happen sometime, no matter what they did. The Demon, Ro’s Demon… her Demon. Except…
even that wasn’t right. When the Demon was in the driving seat, Y’Roden was still there. Trapped
in the background, yes, but she should still be able to feel him. Something about this was
different.

She staggered, pained and off-balance, her heart screaming for its other half. It was all she could
do to tamp the panic down. Now that she’d looked up, she couldn’t take her eyes off his face.
“Who…” It was just a breath, she hardly knew she’d spoken aloud, but it started her reacting.
Children. Her body was in between him and the children. She never took her eyes off him, as if
she could hold him in place, in check, just with her gaze.

“Yse, Drysi, who wants to open the portal back home? I’m sure you could do with the practice.”

“I’ll do it,” came Yseult’s cheerful answer from somewhere behind her stepmother, completely
oblivious to what was transpiring. Unaware of the blood-red eyes that flicked with the speed of a
predator from Ghetsuhm to herself and back again.

The gaze that settled on the S’Hean Queen betrayed utter confusion and a deep shock of their
own. A feral recognition laced with surprise. “Ghetsuhm.” The tone seemed questioning, as if he
couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.

During the wait for the adults, the twins had handed over Va’Lan and An’Lin to Imoreki and
Helena who had spirited them off for a desperately needed nap. Freed from the responsibility,
Yse had been busily ruffling B’Roden’s hair, much to his irritation. The resulting kerfuffle had
drawn in Drysi, Rhagi and Aarien, keeping all of Ro and Ghet’s children distracted. The platinum
blonde was still laughing as she opened the portal and keyed the S’Hean wards, eager for the
practice time.

A startled looking Ja’Kel Al’Terre stood just on the other side, having just avoided being the
landing spot for the vortex itself. The Foryen of the Hyem-Sirke grinned at the young elf and
bowed slightly, stepping out of the way as the children started filing into a hallway in Windemiire.
“I am sooo sorry,” echoed back out of the portal as the Princess made her apologies, “are you
alright?”

The Demon’s eyes tore away for a heartbeat, watching the children as they disappeared through
the portal, then dragged back to the redhead again.

Ghet never moved, only muscles tensing every time his eyes flicked away from hers. The eyes...
and he knew her name. It had to be him, surely, and still she hesitated. She was confused, and
she desperately wanted to be dealing with this on her own ground. They were just standing in
Corin; anyone could come along. The only thing she had going for her was that he seemed to be
as disconcerted as she was, for however long that lasted.

So she reached out through her fear, her right hand taking his left. "Whoever the hell you are,
we're going to fake our way through the next thirty seconds like troopers. Nothing happens in
front of anyone else, and then you can have me to yourself."

She stepped towards the portal and then waited, knowing full well she couldn't move him by main
force.

He balked, obviously unused to answering to anyone but himself. Seconds ticked by as he
seemed to think it over, then finally moved. The hellish gaze remained locked on Ghet, entranced
and slightly bewildered all at the same time as they moved through the portal and into the
hallway. The laughter of children echoed down the passageway, the light of the vortex giving it a
surreal feel as emerald waves of light shimmered across the architecture.

Ja’Kel bowed slightly from the shoulders in greeting as he opened the massive double-doors that
lead to the royal chambers. “Y’Tyrne, y’Tyrah, commen hyem.”

Ghet smiled, dredging up old habits of hiding her heart with difficulty. "Ja'Kel, it's good to be
home. Can you find Fadil for me, please, and send him up? And other than that, we're not to be
disturbed for a few hours. Your Tyrne needs his nap-time, poor baby."

She shut the doors to their chambers behind them with very mixed feelings: relief, and utter
dread. She'd have liked to be able to lock the doors behind them, but that just might have killed
her.

Finally, she let go of his hand and turned to face him. Her face was livid. "What the fuck have you
done with my husband?"

A steady gaze met hers for what seemed like forever, then slowly drifted away from her face to
the walls as he slowly turned in place so his back was to her. Heavy boot-falls took him further
into the room where he paused beside a table, one hand closing around a brandy decanter. His
head came around slightly, facing a mirror and carefully studying the reflection there.

“I imagine,” he said finally, “the same thing he has done with me.” The Demon’s head canted
slightly so he could see her just over his shoulder. “Only a King here, then?” Still and seemingly
unfazed, he stared hard. “Lack of ambition? Or were you the crux I suspected all along?” A low
laugh rumbled through the room. “The latter I expect… though I must say. I have missed you.”

Ghet sat herself on a chaise, because falling would be a particularly bad move in what she
suspected was going to be a full-on battle of wills. There was such arrogance about him; it beat
on her even in her exhausted state. "How could you miss me? I don't know you." Her mind flicked
back over his arrival: he'd known who she was, but he'd been astonished to see her. Who could
know her, and not expect to see her here? He knew Y'Roden, too; only a king here. Here?

She rubbed her forehead wearily. "You know me. You know the man whose body you've stolen,
though obviously not at all well. 'Lack of ambition'. What more could he want than what he's got? I
think you know where you are, too. Who are you?"

“Stolen?” a trace of amusement laced his tone. “If you think I came here on purpose, you are
quite mistaken. What would I want with this place? After all, I already have it, and much, much
more.” Gripping the stopper on the decanter, he pulled it free to the slight tink of crystal and
poured himself a glass.

“The situation is most inconvenient… but, I suppose there is no harm in entertaining myself until a
way back can be found. I shudder to think what he will do to my Empire.” Swirling the dark liquid
in the glass he stared into its depths in a contemplative fashion. How could she not have foreseen
this?

His head turned abruptly, brow furrowed with thought, “Tell me,” he said, on the brink of a
question, “where is Dúdae? You are here, I am here, so she must be as well.”

Ghet laughed, close to hysterical exhaustion. "Oh, no. I'm not answering your questions until you
answer mine." The name teased at her, something she should recognise but couldn't place.
"Nobody else is getting near you until I understand what's going on. I'm Tyrah here; I get to
indulge my control-freak tendencies. At least tell me what I should call you."

There was utter silence in the room as he calmly emptied his glass and set it down on the table.
“So he married you? I can’t say that I’m surprised. It certainly explains this.” His fingers worried
the S’Hean wedding-cuff, a trace of amusement touching his features.

Turning about to face her, he smiled, a cold expression that raised the fine hairs on the back of a
body’s neck. “You can call me… Ravyel.”

Ghet shot to her feet, her calves slamming into the chaise so she had to throw out a hand to
catch herself. Terror flared out of her, stark white as her face, her lips curling back from her teeth
like a cornered animal. A cornered mother.

“First name basis?” she said, her voice shaking. “Think I’ll opt for something a little more formal if
it’s all the same to you. Ravyel Nodvig Olnelan.”

Crimson eyes snapped with rage and the Demon’s hand slammed into the glass on the table,
sending it smashing into the wall and across the floor. Fingers closed on broken glass, sharp
shards digging into his skin as the stinging scent of Aethyr-charged blood filled the air. A low,
snarling growl erupted and he didn’t move, though his entire body seemed to ripple, as if
containing some immense force.

“Well,” the word was ground out, “it seems we are at an impasse, Your Majesty.” A hard grin
pulled his mouth into a line, tension drawing his lips up to reveal stark-white teeth. “He is more
clever than I thought, I see. Protecting what is his.”

It was quite possible that this particular nasty snarl had never crossed Ghet's face before. "An
impasse? Is that what we call it when I'm in charge, arsehole? It is you, you piece of shit." She
tilted her head to the side, the rush of anger fading. "Except it isn't." Little as she liked to admit it,
she knew Y'Roden's demon quite well, and he knew her. There was a distinct attachment
between the two of them, and this wasn't him.

Everything abruptly clicked into place, all the things he'd said that made no sense. "You're
another one. Another Ravyel from another S'Hea. Wow. You know what's weird? When it comes
right down to it, it barely skrunning matters. So we're clear. You do not touch me. Not at all. Ever.
You don't lay a finger on me unless I give you permission, and..." she giggled, teetering on the
brink, "I'm never going to give you permission. "You don't hurt our children. Wait til you see how
many children you've got."

She sat down, and tried to get a hold on herself, because if she kept laughing she was going to
start crying and degenerate into a dribbling mess. "Just assume that anything you might find
amusing, I'm not going to let you do."

“Oh we’ll see about that,” he hissed softly. “You like it when I touch you, and you never were…”
He shut abruptly, the rage, any trace of emotion suddenly gone as if it had never been there at
all. Drawing heavily-muscled shoulders back, he swivelled on his heel and stalked away from her
into the bathing room, slamming the door shut behind him.

          1107 Years Ago – Windemiire - Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D

The light of a black-laced-emerald portal glimmered across the smooth stone of the Royal
Bedchambers, leaking out onto the open balcony as the hulking figure of the Demon Elf stepped
through, heavy boot-falls and the creak of leather filling the silence. Blood-stained hands peeled
off gore-encrusted spiked-gauntlets and tossed them onto a table. Studded pauldrons heaved
with a deep, slow breath, long locks of chestnut hair falling into his face as he stared blankly out
into the moonlit night.

“Your Imperial Majesty?” the voice belonged to Ja’Kel, one of the Demon’s personal, and most
trusted guards. “Can I get you anything?”

The beast turned his head slightly, crimson eyes catching the light as he looked at the S’Hean.
“Brandy,” came the low spoken answer, “and… the blue-eyed redhead, you know the one.”

“Aye, milord, as you wish.”

The doors softly clicked shut and the Demon shrugged out of the harness that housed his
bastard-sword, tossing it onto the table next to the gauntlets before he picked up the freshly
poured glass of cherry brandy.

It was always the same. The door opened, and every head turned, every woman’s breath held to
see who they’d come for this time. Understandable; it was the only thing that ever happened
here. Life in the harem was long periods of utter boredom punctuated by short bursts of terror.

When Ja’Kel’s eye fell on Ghet, she got to her feet, wishing like hell the thumping of her heart
was just down to fear. They all knew it was her more than anyone else. They counted; there was
nothing else to do. And there wasn’t one of them didn’t hate her for it, whether from jealousy or
contempt. She’d have liked to believe that she’d swap with any one of them, but she wouldn’t
have.

She walked in silence, head down. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d spoken to anyone
but… him. She couldn’t risk getting close to anyone else; she certainly wasn’t taking a lover in the
harem. It would be a death sentence, so far as she could tell.
He had his back to her when she walked in, and she couldn’t get her eyes off him. He was so
gods-damned beautiful; a sick, cruel handsomeness that repelled her while it drew her. The
others might not know why he kept sending for her, but she had no doubts. It started now, her
uncontrollable response to him bleeding out, fear and desire inextricably mixed.

The glass settled onto the tabletop with a soft clink and there was a soft intake of breath, the
scent of her filling his senses before anything else. She was his favourite, something he didn’t
bother to hide, and he never questioned why. Out of all of them, she fed on what he did to her.
There were days away on campaign where sleep was hard to find for the want of her screams…
ethereally beautiful, as he slowly tore her to pieces. It was maddening, and he found himself
wanting it more and more.

“Help me with the straps,” he ordered without turning around, “and pour yourself some brandy.”

Automatically, Ghet padded across the floor to him and reached for the buckles of his harness.
“You need to bend a little, my lord,” she said, her voice rough from disuse but warming and
smoothing as she spoke. “And you know, this would be easier if you didn’t keep getting blood all
over. What did you do, roll in it?” The flippancy was precious, delaying the moment when she’d
throw off the last of her sanity. She kept her focus narrow, trying not to think about what he’d
done to make the straps of his armour so slick with blood she had to dig her nails in for traction.
Trying not to think about how much she missed him when he was gone.

Finally she got the last of the straps undone, and laid his armour aside, careful given it weighed
about as much as she did. She poured the brandy with her head down, trying to keep her hands
from shaking, feeling his eyes on her skin, trying to judge his mood so she wouldn’t put a foot
wrong.

“Do you really want to know?” came his deep, throaty response, eyes riveted to her diminutive
form. Hard fingers dug into thick, red locks, dragging them aside to bare the nape of her neck as
he lowered his head, biting at the tender skin there with just enough pressure so as not to break
it… yet. “I could tell you,” he breathed against her spine, “share every screaming, terrified life
snuffed out… show you every blood-drenched moment. Would you like that?”

Ghet went utterly still, glass to her lips. Every nerve in her body fired at his touch, her breath
quickening. With a concerted effort she managed to put the glass down before the shuddering
started and she dropped it. “No,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper, “I don’t want to
know. I want it to stop.” She’d hoped, for so long, that if she had to live like this, at least one day
she might make a difference, that she might have some kind of influence over him. But nothing
ever changed. Nothing changed except that she’d become so addicted to what he did to her that
if he ever let her go, she might just come straight back. She turned her head as much as she
could, eyes sparkling with what was left of her spirit. “I hate what you do outside this room, you
know that.”

“Such a pity,” he murmured, “out of all the women in my collection, it is you I would want for my
Empress.” Lifting his head he trailed the tips of his fingers down her shoulders, leaving faint
traces of blood as he pushed the gauzy dress down fragile shoulders to catch at her breasts. “So
beautiful… and so twisted… just that last wall you refuse to drop… Sensibilities, they will do you
no good, my love.”

Strong fingers turned her into him, sliding down her collarbones and gripping the material. A
sharp tug rent the fabric down the front, releasing bared flesh into his hands as he caught taut
nipples between thumbs and forefingers, squeezing hard, a low rumble building as teeth grazed,
then dug in to Ghet’s neck.
A strangled whimper escaped her, bending under his hands, trying to fight the urge to push up
into his hands and failing. “If I let it go,” she said, arms going around his neck, fingers tangling in
his long hair and pulling, “if I stopped hating every moment of it, you wouldn’t want me so much.”
She lowered her head and bit into his bicep, drawing his flavour and scent into her. “And if I
actually hated all of it, that wouldn’t be as good, either. I have to love you as much as I hate you.
As much as I hate myself.”

“Love me… hate me… as long as you want me,” he rumbled, releasing one breast and reaching
back to wind her hair round his hand, fisting it and tugging Ghet’s head back. “Want me as much
as I want you… and it's enough.” His mouth was hard on hers, demanding as he backed her
against the table, the remnants of the dress tearing easily away from her softly curved body.
Fingers delved into slick heat as the Demon forced her legs apart, demanding compliance and
more.

Ghet let out a cry against his mouth, her scalp screaming. The passion in her blood was drowning
out the part that stood back and watched in horror, her body hot and wet around his fingers. She
was still tense against him, braced for what was to come, as her hands clawed him from his
clothes, desperate for the heat and hardness of his body. It was like a drug: even though she
knew the come-down was going to be horrendous, she couldn’t resist it. Her mouth moved to his
throat, her teeth scraping across his skin. “Oh, I want you. I’ve tried so damn hard not to, I know I
can’t make it stop.” Her fingers dug in, nails carving bloody tracks along his hip-bones. “There’s
only one thing worse than what you do to me, and that’s if you stopped.”

Low laughter rumbled through the Demon’s chest, edged with rising lust. For a moment, as his
eyes skimmed over hers emerald flickered through, brilliant, revealing a layer beneath that was
forever trapped in hell. Fingers pulled free with a rough jerk as his hips thrust forward, driving into
silk folds with brutal force. The tips of callused fingers slid up her waist, unerringly tapping onto
fragile ribs like a maestro stroking the ivories of a fine piano. The pressure exerted was slow and
building, the creak of bone an irresistible aphrodisiac as the table slid into the wall, bottles and
glasses crashing to the floor.

Her camouflage of sanity shattered, and Ghet screamed. The pain would get worse, but the first
burst was always so intense. She saw it again, too, that flash of green that made her wonder, that
kept her trying to make a difference. He was obsessed with her, he felt for her, and if she could
turn that to love, before he destroyed the last of her self and made her the empress he thought he
wanted…

The pressure on her ribs built, and with a choked laughing scream, she let go control and shoved
her body hard into his hands, her body bowing away from where her hips were crushed against
the table. She lifted her head and sank her teeth into his earlobe, revelling in the pure erotic
charge of his blood on her tongue.

A bellow of pleasure-laced pain exploded out of his chest and his hands jerked, ribs snapping like
twigs beneath iron-hard fingers. He took her roughly to the floor, landing with a hard crack on the
marble and broken glass, spilled alcohol burning into fresh wounds as he pinned Ghet’s body
beneath his heavy frame, driving hard as Aethyr danced across her ribcage, partially healing
broken bones before they snapped yet again, a vicious cycle of agony and sweet mending that
turned in on itself.

He did feel for her, and it was driving him past an edge of madness he wasn’t familiar with. She
stirred and awakened what was hidden deep in the core of his tattered, twisted soul. It was there
that a small, emerald star glimmered, refusing to relinquish its hold on hope. He loved her… that
forgotten child, the half-elven Prince, he loved her, and all that might have been.
The impact with the floor knocked all the breath out of Ghet and stopped her screaming,
outwardly at least. She wept, though, she always did, tears of pain but also frustration, the agony
of something just out of reach. She couldn’t remember any more how it might once have been for
her; pleasure without pain wasn’t even a memory. But too, there was no pain without the most
profound pleasure. She was crushed beneath the force of his body and the sadistic strength in his
hands, and she loved it. Moaning, she clung to her tormentor, her fingers clawing at his back, her
legs twined around his thighs. When he healed her, her voice was a whispered depraved
pleading in his ear, until he set her to screaming again.

Pressure built at the base of his spine, bringing an explosive release that sent the Demon reeling,
and in the moment of weakness, a shimmer of emerald burst through. The hands on Ghet’s ribs
suddenly gripped deathly hard, crushing several ribs, snapping sharp edges that drove into vital
organs. “One of us can be free…” whispered through her shattering mind, soothing through the
agony, “and it can’t be me…”

When Ghet was badly hurt, she lost control of her Talent, and she was lost in his pleasure, the
intense wave of his orgasm rolling over her and triggering her own. Overwhelmed, she simply
couldn’t grasp what was happening to her. Darkness drew her away from the shattered wreck of
her body, but even that had happened before. She would start to drift, and he would pull her
back. This voice, though… she knew it, and she trusted it, even though she couldn’t place it. With
a deep sigh, she relaxed, letting go, sinking into welcoming black. She would be here, in the dark
where she belonged. It was so easy, so peaceful, and by the time her spirit resisted, there was
nothing to draw into her lungs but a tide of blood. Her body gave one last weak cough, and went
limp in his arms.

A single, clear, salty drop splashed between Ghetsuhm’s breasts and verdant-green eyes
glimmered with agonized sorrow. There was utter silence in the room as the emerald star at the
centre of the Demon’s soul snuffed out entirely and crimson rushed back into irises like ink across
satin. There was a startled, disbelieving-intake of air, a stuttering flash of Aethyr, though he new it
was too late, and an enraged, heart-wrenching roar of denial.

Ravyel clutched his lover’s broken, bloody frame to his chest, an indrawn breath of air making
any and all sound impossible for several heartbeats as he rocked desperately, staggering to his
feet and lying her on the bed. He stumbled back a few steps, remembering to breathe again, just
before he snapped entirely.

Outside the door, Ja’Kel pressed his back against the wall, fear glimmering in the depths of his
eyes as the Demon flew into a maddened rage. Breaking glass and shattering stone amidst
animalistic howls tore through the S’Hean night and the Guard made himself scarce when the
doors to the chambers burst open, slamming against the walls and shaking the top floor. He
followed quietly on the Demon’s heels, staying just out of sight as Ravyel thrust open the doors to
the Harem’s chambers, sending the girls screaming in all directions. Systematically, he hunted
down every true redhead in the room, viciously eviscerating them and tossing their bodies aside,
‘culling’ his herd.

When he reappeared, it caught Ja’Kel off guard, and the S’Hean stopped breathing, staring wide-
eyed at the Emperor as he stood shaking in the centre the hall.

“Get rid of them,” the beast snarled, “all of them with red hair.” His head turned back towards his
rooms. “Except for her… I want her entombed. Call in the SandShadow Shakava.” Shoving Ja’Kel
aside, the Demon disappeared down the dark hallway… in the opposite direction from his
chambers.

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin
As Fadil walked up the corridor towards the royal chambers, he heard something smashing.
Listening could save one from a power of embarrassment here, but that wasn’t quite the sort of
sound he’d been expecting.

He knocked and let himself in, to find the S’Hean queen sitting on the floor, leaning against the
wall, her face blotchy and wet with tears. She was surrounded by an impressive assortment of
broken glass and ornaments, mostly concentrated by the bathing room door.

Either she was very upset, or a consummate actress. “Y’Tyrah?”

Ghet looked up, and scrubbed a hand across her eyes. “He’s in there.” She waved a hand in the
direction of the bathroom. “Him. It’s not Y’Roden, the thing that came back from Corin with me.
It’s Him.”

Fadil’s face went stony. The last few years, he’d been preparing for two things, however unlikely:
Ro to lose control to the Demon again, and Ghet to make her move to get rid of her husband.
He’d have given quite a lot to know which one this was. “Forgive me, y’Tyrah, but if that is… him,
why would he be in there, instead of out here…”

“Out here raping me, you mean?” Ghet said bitterly. “Disappointed? Would you rather have got
here just tragically too late? Skrun dai. Gods, what do you mean ‘if’? Do you think I wouldn’t
know?”

Pushing her back against the wall, she got to her feet. “It’s not my Y’Roden’s Demon, anyway.
You’re familiar with other dimensions?”

“I did live in Tenobrous.”

“How nice for you. This guy seems to come from an alternate S’Hea. One where he’s Lord of the
Universe or something. One where, at a guess, Y’Roden never got the upper hand, and the
Demon got out of Tenobrous.” Her face worked as she fought back tears. “And that’s where Rodi
is now, in that bastard’s body, in the hellhole he’s made out of S’Hea.”

His own inner turmoil and indecision completely invisible, Fadil watched while Ghet got a hold of
herself, a thin icy layer of calm setting over her features. “So,” she said flatly, “we have to cover
this up because if W’Cren finds out… Tell them Ro’s ill. People should be used to me not letting
anyone else treat him by now. We have to keep him away from the children. Especially Yseult
and Drysi, I don’t have to tell you why. I have him… contained for now, but I’m not exactly sure
how much control I’ve got, and I think it’s dependent on me. So I’m with him all the time, and
when I have to sleep, you’re with him, or Shadow… your wife if she can be trusted not to shoot
anyone in the back when I’m not looking… shit.”

Without turning to look at the door, Ghet said, “Fadil, meet Ravyel. Y’Tyrne, this is your Hojet
Foryen, Fadil Elgerig.”

It was impossible to tell how much the Demon had heard, the door had swung open with very little
sound and his amused gaze was on the broken glass littered about his feet. Jerking his eyes up,
he examined Fadil for a long, silent moment. “You look very much like someone I eviscerated
once upon a time. I’ve never killed anyone twice before.”

Crossing heavily-muscled arms across a highly-defined chest, Ravyel leaned against the
doorframe. “So, let me guess. The two of you intend to ‘baby-sit’ me until you figure out how to
get your Y’Roden back.” Leaning his head back, he laughed quietly. “My Gods… it has been
forever since I last said that name out loud. I had almost forgotten he existed… poor little
misplaced Prince.”

Pushing away from the door, Ravyel turned his back on them both, “I’m tired, and in need of a
bath. Send me a serving girl and leave me.”

Fadil's lips twitched, and he was startled to see the same bleak amusement on his Queen's face.
"You're right, that isn't him. It's been years since Ro was that big an ase'hel."

"Oh, go on, it's been about a week. He wants a serving girl for his bath. I'm bound to do that,
right? Shall I throw in one of my valgencaren for kicks as well? Newsflash, big guy. You don't
HAVE bath-girls. The minute you touch another woman round here everyone will know you're not
Ro. That might have something to do with the fact that you're tired because your body was awake
all night shagging. And that little lost prince is twice the man you are, fucklehead! My gods, I
didn't think I could get sick of the sound of that voice." She turned abruptly and headed towards
the bed.

Fadil turned cold eyes on Ravyel. "Don't look at me, I don't know why he puts up with her."

“I do,” the Demon shot back with an unsettling grin. “The mouth isn’t so bad when you shove
something in it.” Unlacing his trousers he turned partially back towards the door. “No bath girls?
How about a bath boy?” he asked, jerking his head towards Fadil and clacking his teeth together.
“Want to play find the soap with your Tyrne? She didn’t say I couldn’t touch another man.”

Some things broke through defensive humour, and Fadil couldn't stop the sick revulsion showing
on his face. He still heard it in his mind sometimes, the dull crunch of Ghet's jaw breaking under
his hand, remembered the pleasure it had brought him. "Pity to ruin such a beautiful face, and
such a talented little mouth, but we can't have you running me." With that spark of memory, he
realised what she'd done now: she'd used the name.

"Thanks for the offer," he said stiffly, "but on the whole I'd rather screw a lamia. If my options
were that limited. My vonna wouldn't be impressed either way."

Ghet, meanwhile, had rummaged through her beside table, then come back to join them. "Getting
your pants off already? Such subtlety." She rolled her eyes. "I can watch him while he bathes. I
don't think my self-control's going to puddle round my ankles just 'cause the murdering bastard's
got his kit off."

Dark laughter rolled out of the bathing room and Ravyel’s trousers flew out the door, catching
Fadil in the shoulder. “This is going to be a hideously boring vacation. The sooner someone
figures out how to get me home, the better. What the vedes is with this hair?” The sounds of
splashing followed and a low rumble of satisfaction followed a few moments later as the Demon
sank beneath the surface of the bathing pool.

Ghet reached out and took the pants from Fadil. It wasn't often she felt sorry for the Ra-Vidden,
but he was nowhere near the top of her Asshat List today. "The more bored he is, the happier I
am. Don't go anywhere, I'm going to need you in a minute."

She padded into the bathing room, swearing shortly when her feet reminded her there was glass
all over the floor. Watching the Demon's head under the water, she sat herself down near where
he was going to come up, and started picking out the shards.
Callused hands gripped the lip of the pool to either side of Ghetsuhm and Ravyel breached the
surface in one smooth movement, coming up face to face with the redhead. A rattling growl
rumbled out of his chest and he inhaled sharply, the hue of his eyes deepening then flickering
emerald suddenly as they met denim blue.

"Don't do that," Ghet said quietly, her voice cracking with pain. "You're just making this harder."
She leaned forward and reached her arms up around his neck, holding his gaze. The hiss of the
air hypo was loud in the stillness, driving the sedative through his skin. "I really do call the shots,"
she murmured. "Get your head around it."

Confusion sparked in the depths of emerald greens, and for a moment it wasn’t Ravyel looking
out. The minute the hypo touched on skin, however, verdant green drowned in crimson as he
surged forwards again.

“What the sk…” The words died mid-sentence as he rocked slowly, pupils flaring as the sedative
shot through his system. “Blakeg,” the word was slurred unnaturally slow as the Demon
staggered, eyes rolling back in his head, then fell forward, dead weight toppling into Ghet’s lap as
his forehead hit her shoulder, then slid down to crack sharply onto the marble floor.

"I love you too, dear." Ghet rocked backwards, grabbing instinctively at the heavy body falling on
her. "Fadil!"

The S'Hean captain came through the door and stared. "What did you do to him?"

"Sedative. What did you think I did to him? Get him off me, will you, the bastard's crushing my
legs. Just roll him onto the floor; he can sleep there, and I can have the bed back."

Squeezing between Ghet and the pool, Fadil managed to get hold of Ravyel's shoulders and
slowly pull the Demon off Ghet, who scrambled out backwards as soon as she could. "How long
will he be out?"

"I don't know exactly," Ghet said, "I erred a bit on the excessive side when I made the hypos up."
She got to her feet wearily. "There's another one over there under the thing with the bath salts in
if you need it while I'm asleep. I have to sleep before I go psychotic. Don't look at me like that.
Yes, I have husband-sized doses of sedative concealed around our rooms. There's also a chest
in the bedroom with a set of adamantine chains in the bottom if he becomes a real problem. Don't
judge me. Are we judging me?"

"No, y'Tyrah. I don't even want to think about it."

"Good. Then I need the Gate in Corin shut down for 'maintenance'. Send Holo out there with a
Ranger and get him to do a full data dump. I need to know exactly what happened. And when I
wake up, I need to see Shadow. Oh gods, wait."

Ghet bent over the unconscious body, lifted the head, and slid Samara's amulet off. "No point
asking for trouble," she muttered, heading back out to the bedroom. She locked the swirling
scarlet pendant in a small wooden box and ran out into her garden. Fingers dug quickly through
soft S'Hean loam: she couldn't imagine Ravyel ever taking the slightest bit of interest in plants.

Satisfied she could remember where she'd buried the box, she headed back inside, cleaning off
her hands on her skirt. Fadil was watching her as she reprogrammed the hypo, decreasing the
dose. "What, you think I can sleep without this? I know what I'm doing, I'm a doctor." Of
anthropology... "Wake me if he moves."
                                                  ***

Despite the sedative, Ghet had slept poorly, and woken before Ravyel did. Fadil looked tired, but
she knew he wouldn't flag in his duty: for once, she felt oddly grateful to him, too tired to be angry.

So she was going to take advantage of the opportunity to sneak out. A quick peek into the
nursery to reassure herself that her babies were alright, not even time enough to hold them, and
then she was off to Shadow's rooms.

Her knock at the door was rapid and nervous. "Please be home," she muttered. "Please be
home, please be home."

The forest elf’s head jerked up at the knock on her door and blew a curl of new hair out of her
face in frustration. Who ever it was, they were a welcomed distraction, she decided tossing the
gnawed pencil into the mess of record books that were spread across her bed.

Pulling open the door Shadow grinned at the redhead, “Ghet!” The look on her stepmother’s face
sent a trickle down her spine and her grin faded. “What’s wrong? Wait, my bad, come in first.” In
their family when ever anyone had one of ‘those looks’ what ever it was was best discussed
behind closed doors.

Ghet threw a furtive look back over her shoulder and slipped through Shadow's door. She
couldn't find any words to make small talk, but she knew Shadow would understand.

She sat herself down and tried to work out how to start. At least she didn't have to worry about
sounding crazy, not here. So in a tired tangle of words she told it: coming back from Corin, her
utter certainty that despite appearances this wasn't her Y'Roden's demon, the naming, the
sedative. "I've got some kind of control over him for now, but I'm not sure how much - hells, it
wasn't something Ro and I ever talked about in detail, how it would work. And I'm pretty sure it's
dependent on me being here, which means..." She ran a hand through her hair, a quick
desperate smile flickering over her face. "I can't leave. I have to stay with him all the time. And
there's so much that needs doing, I can't be in two places at once. I need your help, Shady."

The forest elf sat and listened, turning everything over in her mind. Considering the past, if Ghet
didn’t think this was the right demon, she wasn’t about to question her. But even if it wasn’t the
right demon, just the thought that it was here made her skin crawl.

Shadow stood, crossed to a table and poured a glass of Mai’Tus juice, handing it to her friend as
she sat back down. “Tell me what you need me to do and it’ll be done. If you’re the only thing that
is keeping him in check, then stay here, but I don’t want you putting yourself in harm's way
either.”

Ghet took the glass with a nod of thanks and a small, off-balance laugh. "It's never seemed to
matter where I stand, it's always harm's way. But if it was you? Are you going to try to tell me that
you wouldn't put yourself in danger to keep everyone else safe? Because I will point at you and
laugh."

She drank while she tried to order her thoughts. Hells, she'd just work her way down the panic
chain. "I need to get Yseult and Drysi the hell out of here. What he could do to them... it's not
something I want to think about. So I'd really like it if I could stop. I've asked Fadil to tell the
Council Ro's ill. That'll have to do for the kids as well. They have to go to the Keep, Silverthorn's
children, but I don't want to panic them. Could you go and talk to Thorn? get her to come pick
them up?"
“No, because I’ve done it before, but see, the difference between you and me? I’m ready to die at
any moment and know that my children and people are in the right hands, besides, have you
seen a time when I haven’t been allowed to die yet?”

Shadow remained quiet, it looked like peace was something that the redhead needed, but at the
moment, this seemed as close as it was going to get. “I’ll take care of Thorn and explain what’s
going on, I know her, she’ll come.”

Ghet smiled tiredly. “It’s never been that simple for me. It still isn’t now… No. I’ll get the rest of the
children out as soon as I can, Rhagi and Aarien can go to Galain, but I can’t send them all at
once, it would look peculiar.” She rubbed her forehead. “Silverthorn should know what’s
happened, she has a right. So does An’Thaya, and you know Callan…” Ghet anchored her teeth
in her lip until the urge to cry passed. “Perhaps it’s best to bring them back here, and we can all
put our heads together. I took Samara’s amulet off him too; it’s in the garden. I can’t really leave it
there; it just seemed safe for now. He doesn’t seem very horticulturally inclined.”

“Can I make a suggestion? Place extra guards near the nursery; it's better to be safe than sorry.
I’m sure there are some that wouldn’t raise suspicion. Fadil would know who would be best
because of past rotations.” A wry chuckle escaped her, “Whenever the Demon is loose Callan is
the first called on, it shouldn’t be unusual for him to do so now. He’s also the only one who knows
that is strong enough to restrain him.”

Shadow scooted back into her chair, a thoughtful expression her face. “I’d also suggest to give
the amulet over to him for now. He’s faced Samara, he knows what to expect. He also has Aya.”

Ghet tilted her head, considering. "I hadn't thought of that, it's a good idea. As long as, you know,
he doesn't smash it open just to see what happens. He's worse than an elf sometimes, that one."
Ghet's trust of Callan was absolute, if situational. He was one of those people you could trust with
your life, but not your keys or your credit card. She was also perfectly well aware of how much the
Dragon Emperor loved her ronnan.

"I have Fadil and Ild'Ashi I can use upstairs, I'll have one of them there all the time. I don't think
there's anyone else though. I can't tell the Hyem-Sirke to keep the Tyrne away from his own
children."

Ghet smiled tiredly. "I have to tell you, when I was... when I was raped, I was so ashamed, I was
furious at everyone who saw it, everyone who was there afterwards. Now... well. I wouldn't say I
was glad you were there, but I'm glad you know. I couldn't do this alone."

The thief nodded, “He’s the one who forged it, he probably already knows what will happen, but
the idea of having Fadil and Ash there is a great one.” And at some point she’d have to get her
own son out if nothing more than to keep Dae from getting under foot. It was a relief to know that
her other three sons had stayed on Arlsyn.

“I know the feeling.” She couldn’t help the wry smile. Ghetsuhm had seen a part of Shadow’s life
that she was ashamed of for being weak physically and emotionally when the skin on her back
was little more than ribbons of flesh and slick with blood.

“I wish I had found out another way, but we can’t choose the circumstances.” The forest elf
shrugged and chuckled. “I’m here to help where I can. Look on the bright side, you’ll be one of the
few people who have told me what to do without being talked back to.”
"Yeah, cause that slows me down a lot." Ghet and Shadow had known each other for a very long
time, and it hadn't always been the easiest relationship. That a friendship survived in spite of that
said something for its strength.

"I should get back, before he wakes up and starts asking questions again..." She frowned as
something struck her, a word that had sounded familiar but she hadn't recognised. But that
accent, and the S'Hean ability to mimic... "Shadow, he did ask for someone. When he knew there
was a version of me, and one of him, he asked for someone called Dúdae."

The forest elf stopped in getting up from her chair, her head jerking around to stare at Ghetsuhm
with a deer in the headlights look. “Dúdae? Oh Selene’s tears.” Shadow sat back down, hard.
“Uhm, that’s me. Dúdae is my birth name.”

Ghet swallowed hard, holding herself back to give Shadow time and space to get her head
around it. "I'm sorry, honey, I know... I know. If you decide you want to talk to him, just let me
know first. And if you don't... well, I think it might really drive him bugshit."

She stood, and put her hand gently on her friend's shoulder. "Whatever she is, she's not you.
Remind me of that when I start seriously going off the deep end. Now I really do have to go."

Nodding, Shadow reached up and squeezed her hand. “I’m bound to run into him at some point,
but aye, I’ll let you know first. And believe me, I will remind you of that. Right. Okay, you be
careful, please. I don’t want to have to explain to my father that the wrong Demon did something
to you, cause yeah, I might not get that chance if this one is in this body cause Ketai might come
back, cause I’ll kill the bastard myself. Right. I’ll shut up now. You go save the world and in the
morning I’ll head to the Keep.”

Ghet squeezed her eyes hard shut to keep back the tears. "Gods, I almost don't care about the
world. I just want Rodi back. Let's hope I never have to choose." She kept moving, kept thinking,
because if she stopped, she would fall apart. "D’Anke, Shadow."

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D

By the time he reached the top floor of Windemiire, Ro was simply numb. His soul throbbed with
a dull ache and a bone-weary exhaustion had set in so deep he couldn’t even manage ‘surprise’
when he found Ja’Kel guarding his chamber doors. He nodded mutely to the S’Hean as he
passed by, stepping into his rooms and, finally, letting his shoulders slump beneath the weight of
the armour.

Pulling at straps and buckles he left a trail of gold-highlighted, black metal from the entrance to
the bathing room, eager to rid himself of blood and sweat. So much here was familiar, achingly
so, and yet so different it felt surreal; the scent of strawberry soap, the heated water of the
bathing pool, even down to the black and emerald-marble floor.

He just needed to sleep… in the morning, when he could think more clearly; perhaps the way
home would become apparent.

Wrapping a towel around his hips, he made his way into the bedroom, barely noticing the black
drapes that were at least one contrast to home. Brushing aside the curtain Ro fairly fell face-first
onto the mattress, long locks of chestnut hair billowing across the pillow as he released a ragged
sigh and closed his eyes.
The familiar presence of her lover brought what might have passed for a smile to Dúdae’s lips.
Ebony lashes rose high enough to barely show the forest-green eyes that watched the half-Elven
Emperor from door to bathing room. Something seemed…off…but she couldn’t quite put her
finger on it.

Perhaps it was the slumping shoulders or, more pointedly in her mind, was the fact the Demon Elf
didn’t demand that she help him out of his armour. Whatever it was, it would probably reveal
itself. Either Ravyel hadn’t noticed her, which she doubted, or he had appetites for a different
flavour, as she thought of the others in the harem, in which case he’d tell her to leave at some
point.

Unconcerned, the forest elf let her eyes drift closed again and slipped off to sleep until the bed
bounced slightly. Turning onto her side, copper fingers brushed chestnut locks out of their way as
they traced the scars that mapped the Demon Elf’s body.

Compared to some, she was too bold to be the slave that she was suppose to be, but Dúdae had
never considered herself one. It was, after all, how you defined yourself that mattered. Master.
Slave. The words were interchangeable depending on the circumstances of the situation, and it
was also something that could become a vicious circle.

Emerald eyes cracked open in the dark, his body freezing as a light touch feathered over his
back. Internally, Ro quietly berated himself. To have assumed the bed was empty proved how lax
he had become in the self-preservation department, a mistake he wouldn’t be repeating anytime
soon. The Demon never bedded down alone and no matter how tired he was there was no
excuse for a lapse in judgement.

For a moment, he thought about feigning deep sleep, but given the nature of the Demon and his
bedmates, he had a feeling that even all-out snoring wouldn’t deter her… whoever she was. With
silent deliberation he let his irises bleed red, and ever so slowly, lifted his head and turned
towards her.

The compulsion to jump from the bed and yell gripped him when Ro found himself nose to nose
with an all too familiar face, but years of iron will kept his expression stony, barely a flicker
registering in the depths of crimson eyes as he slowly lifted an eyebrow. “Shadow.”

Rising up on to her elbow, she looked down at the half-elf, her own eyebrow arching as she
regarded him coolly. “Milord.” Pushing the covers away, Dúdae rose from the bed, ebony and
silver curls swaying as she disappeared into the shadows, her mind ticking off what should be
done while hoping that who ever wore her Lords skin took her departure as if it was nothing
unusual.

Slipping from the pooled darkness the forest elf padded across her room to a rack on the wall and
the weapons that reflected the moonlight. She couldn’t go back through the hall, Ja’Kel would ask
too many questions, but at the same time she would need the S’Hean’s help.

“Skrun.” The word was muttered as Ro rolled over in the bed, shoving the curtain aside as he
rose to his feet. The half-elf knew his adopted daughter too well to be fooled; at least, he thought
he did. Then again, he never would have expected to find his Desh’iel in his bed.

Callused fingers wrapped around the hilt of his weapon and yanked it from the scabbard, the
familiar weight of the blade comforting as he hefted the bastard-sword into his grip and dropped
into a defensive stance. The trouble with Shady was that she could come from any direction in
complete and utter silence. The one thing in Ro’s favour, however, was a first hand knowledge of
her soul, the colour imprinted on his memory so well that it took mere moments to find the thread
that bound her to the Demon Elf. He could see her now, on a warped, darkened version of the
Web, and track her movements.

“Come on Shady,” he whispered, “you’re too self-confident to take this to anyone else…”

The answer came in a flash of silver just out of eyesight, aimed to hinder rather than kill. Whoever
this was needed to be subdued, questioned, then killed...eventually, she knew the game and had
become a skilled player. Questions were already forming in her mind. How did he fool so many,
who was he working for, and where did he come from?

He felt, rather than saw the strike, anticipating it when he felt her presence. Sparks flew as metal
ground on metal and the half-elf twisted, making a grab for her in the shadows. “Dúdae,” Ro
growled, using her given name as his hand wrapped around a copper wrist and tugged her
towards him. “We could dance around one another all night, or you could just listen to me for a
moment.”

Snapping eyes glared at the hand around her wrist, a growl at being jerked around escaping her.
The use of her name kept her from simply vanishing. “I’m listening,” she hissed, dark eyes
meeting crimson.

Ro didn’t ease his grip, nor did he lower the blade, Shadow’s trust was hard won, but once given,
it was unswerving. If this version was anything like his daughter than he may very well have
stumbled onto salvation.

“Help me,” he said, “and you help him. I don’t want to be here, in this body, anymore than you
want me to be. I have to get home, and to do that; I have to figure out how I got here. We both
know that if anyone figures out I’m not Ravyel, my life is forfeit. If they kill me, they kill him. Simple
as that.”

Eyes narrowed as she tilted her head, studying him with the scrutiny of someone that knew they
held someone’s life in their hands. “What proof do you have that if this body is killed and you die,
that the same will happen to him? Why shouldn’t I just let you bumble then find a way to bring him
and your body here? You will have to give me a better answer than that.”

Heavy shoulders rolled into a shrug and Ro opened the link to the Taurësúlë on the Web. It was a
gamble, but one he had to take. Without her, he ran the risk of exposing himself. “You are joined
to him, and now to me on the Web, take a good, hard look at my soul. See those flames? That is
a soul merge, if I don’t exist the bond breaks and my body dies. Kill this body and Ravyel will
have no place left to go.”

“Why leave,” a voice from within whispered. “I like it here. Your enemies grovelling at our feet, a
beautiful bed warmer and all the power in the universe, I’d be a fool to let you go back… and we
both know, I’m no fool.”

“Shut up. Need I remind you, if I am separated from Ghet for too long, we’ll die anyway? How
long do you think we have? Months? Weeks? Days?” And every hour that passed, every moment
treading the line between Y’Roden and Ravyel, he ran the risk of slipping into insanity. Bloodlust
and dark temptation slithered in the dark recesses of his soul, slowly twining into his psyche. How
long could he hold the Demon in flux, close enough to the surface to pass himself off, yet deep
enough down not to lose his self?

Dúdae buried the memories of a bond that left her with only part of a soul until she was ‘bought’.
Dark eyes disappeared into a sea of swirling green and silver mist. Suddenly she snapped out of
it as if someone had struck her. The future she saw would result in worlds being nothing more
than a burned husk. A wasteland. Her grip loosened on her sword and she nodded, “I’m not
willing to take that risk.

“What name do you go by in your world, Sword of Peace? Behind these doors I’d prefer to call
you by it.”

The half-elf’s blade slowly lowered and he smiled wryly, crimson eyes fading slowly to emerald
green. “In my world…” He paused, in his world; she called him Desh’ketai, which made the entire
situation here all the more wrong. “You call me Y’Roden, or Ro, whichever strikes your fancy at
the time.”

For a long moment, he studied her expression and had to wonder… how had she ended up here?
What twist of circumstance had landed her in the hands of the Demon Elf?

                     2528 Years Ago -Shashya Keep – Plane of Arlsyn – A.D

“He is more than your match,” the words twisted around in his head like a viper, “You. Will. Fall.”
At the time he hadn’t believed the bitch’s words. The Elf was known to fake visions, not to assist
those that resisted the Dead King’s rule, but strictly to piss him off. But this time, it seemed she
had not been faking, and even now he could hear the gloating in her voice as she stood perfectly
still, her eyes lost in a sea of forest-green and silver mist.

Blagden’s mailed fist slammed down on the stone wall, ice-blue eyes staring down at the
outlander army that dared, DARED to step onto HIS land and challenge HIM.

“The Son of Darkness will walk upon the Land of Gates, and take the Keys from the Dead King.”

Sandy-grey hair whipped in the wind that howled around Shashya. The Keep was impenetrable;
its white walls a stark contrast to the brilliant-copper slabs of stone, keeping out the hurled fire.
There were no timbers to ignite. It was positioned in the crescent of a valley, the Krystallis
Mountains a stone wall at its back. There was no way to surround it and only one-way out.
Blagden Llewellyn’s impenetrable fortress had become a death trap.

“You. Will. Fall.”

“Invite him in,” the human hissed between clenched teeth. He was a warlord who knew that he
who surrendered could bide their time, silently grow in strength and lash out once again.

“But Szar!” The man beside him protested.

“LET HIM IN!” Blagden roared into the man’s face and whirled away. This battle was lost before it
started. His prize hinting at what was to come.

The gates to the barbican opened, moments later. The mounted rider dressed in black and
scarlet and holding a flag as white as virgin snow, “My Lord wishes to dine with the victor.”

Long, chestnut locks blew into a face that was undeniably handsome, beautiful even, though the
crimson eyes that settled on the rider’s face ruined the perfection somewhat. The colour of fresh
blood, rage, and hatred… The half-elf rocked back in his saddle, heavy-spiked armour glinting in
the light as he considered the invitation, a curve of the lip betraying victory, and amusement.
“Very well,” the words were spoken in a rich, gravely baritone, like stones tumbling in rushing
water. A subtle movement urged the equine forwards, away from the line of Nuru’kh-ai, Dragons,
Humans and Elves that stood waiting to do his bidding. The movement was one of supreme
confidence, and absolutely no fear. To walk alone into the enemy camp was testimony to the
power he held, to the iron fist of the Empire. “Lead the way.”

Blue eyes stared through the half visor of the Shroudling rider, the Friesian beneath him shifting
uneasily as the Demon drew closer. A firm tug on the reins, and the large horse turned, its gaited
trot beating a tumbling cadence as he led the Emperor into the inner courtyard and dismounted.

A pair of gangly youths in rags skidded out, one sporting a bruised eye. The knight handed the
reigns over then removed his helm and waited. For a fortress that had been defeated, there was
still a pride engrained to them as men continued to repair the damage that had occurred in what
had been a short battle.

Inside soldiers stopped, frozen in their places as they entered, eyes riveted on the glowing-red
eyes of the being that had come amongst them. The knight barked out a single word, though the
language was soft, it broke the trance. Armoured men lined the hall, towering over the Demon Elf.

The Admiral handed his helm to a blonde woman who stepped forward, eyes down cast in
acknowledgement before rising again, head bent to glance at the stranger.

“Szar is in the dining hall.” Lowering her head again, the servant backed away, leaving the knight
to lead the way up a set of stairs and to large double-doors that were swung open by the
Shroudling guards. The Admiral entered, determined strides eating the ground, and halted.

The dining hall was a contrast to the outer walls of the castle. The dark-stone walls reflected the
candlelight, offering a warm glow to a room that was as cold as the volcanic glass that made up
the walls. The vaulted ceiling disappeared into pure darkness, a void of stone.

A circular, onyx table dominated the room, a vestige left from the days when its sole occupant
had been raised on tales of brotherhood and equal rights. Blagden stood, the silver in his sandy-
blond hair reflecting the light in the room. He was dressed in all black, his open doublet brocaded
in purple and gold, the markings of the Nev’vlar family he had married into which had left him as
the only owner of the Shroudling throne.

“Welcome to my humble home,” his raspy baritone greeted.

“Let us dispose with the niceties, shall we,” the Demon said shortly, halting across the table from
Blagden. “We both know what I’ve come for, that it isn’t just Arlsyn I want.” Gauntleted fists came
to rest on the smooth-onyx surface and the heavily-built half-elf leaned forward, the spikes on his
armour rippling like a living creatures as muscle shifted beneath leather and steel.

“Where is she?”

The false smile dropped as the warlord straightened, “You waste your time. Arlsyn is enough,
from here you have access to any world and plane that you want to conquer. She is of no
concern to you.”

“Oh I beg to differ,” Ravyel said calmly, “She is of utmost concern to me, Blagden.” The air
suddenly crackled around him, long strands of chestnut hair floating about his head as an aura of
emerald green blossomed out around his large frame. “You will hand her over, or I will kill you
where you stand. Pick one or the other, it matters little to me.”
Blagden studied the male across from him, or more correctly, the aura that radiated from him. It
was a different kind of power, and one that he was no match for. Not right then. He had a choice,
die on the spot, or hand his granddaughter over and build the strength he needed on his own. It
would take years, if not centuries to gain what he could in weeks simply by siphoning it off from
her.

Ice-blue eyes never left the Emperor’s form. “Xavyer, retrieve my granddaughter, and see that
she is duly dressed for our company.”

“Athd, Szar.” The Admiral’s hand went to his sword hilt as he bowed, turned, and strode from the
room.

“Sit,” Blagden motioned towards the chair nearest the Demon, “it will be some time.”

The half-elf snorted and dropped unceremoniously into the chair, steepling his fingers and
watching Blagden over the tips, “She could be naked for all I care… in fact, I’d probably prefer it.
I’ve heard she is a great beauty… your granddaughter.” The Demon’s head titled, crimson eyes
glinting in the light, “Don’t worry… I don’t intend to wrest all of your power away, Szar. I am
prepared to offer you the position of General Enforcer to Arlsyn for the Empire, you maintain
command, you simply stay out of my way and hand me what I want, when I want it.”

“You mean, like me?” Dúdae’s voiced the question with an arched eyebrow as she stood in the
doorway. She looked more like she was dressed for battle than the Lady and Chosen she was,
fitted black-leather pants disappearing into heavy hunting-boots. The sleeves of a swordsman’s
shirt, the same forest green as her eyes peeked out of the black bodice that she wore, laced at
front and shoulders.

The front of her hair was pulled back to stay out of her eyes, revealing delicately pointed ears,
and joined the rest of the thick locks that cascaded down her back like a moon-kissed-ebony
waterfall that fell to her knees. Around her neck appeared to be a choker made of a silvery-white
metal which held an iron-grey stone in the centre of it, but in truth it was a collar, made to shine
with a bright light when she tried to shift and the stone kept her from any abilities that could
possibly harm the Necromancer that had captured her.

“I said decently attired! As fitting your station and the station of our guest.”

Her eyes moved from the large half-elf to Blagden, “I told you.” Dúdae ignored the outburst; “The
Son of Darkness will walk upon the Land of Gates,” she recited, gloating in her voice, “and take
the Keys from the Dead King. But you did not listen, did you? But then, I didn’t expect for you to.”
Lips so deep a shade of red they resembled black cherries twitched, the corner turning up in a
smile that could only be hers.

The Taurësúlë turned her eyes back to the Demon, traveling over him from flowing chestnut hair,
to blood-ruby-hued eyes; from wide shoulders and down before meeting the crimson orbs. She
bowed her head in respect, “Your Imperial Highness.”

The Demon stood, ignoring most of Blagden’s outburst for the moment as he eyed his prize.
“Exactly like you.” Pushing back his chair, he moved across the room with a casual stride, circling
the Taurësúlë like a stalking panther before drawing in closer, fingers stroking the silver lock that
mingled with ebony tresses. “Beautiful,” he observed, “and deadly… like a viper encased in
glass.”
He leaned in, ever so slightly, nostrils flaring nearly imperceptivity as he drew in her scent. “Her
attire seems quite appropriate to both our stations, if you ask me… except for this hideous thing,”
a fingertip stroked the choker, “something so lovely should never be restrained, and only a fear
paralysed fool would seek to cage it. I want the collar removed, now.”

Blagden opened his mouth then shut it as he began grinding his teeth together. Fear? Oh yes, he
feared the bitch and it grated on him. She would be the death of him; she would bring about his
end.

“I’m glad you approve.” Dúdae smiled, her eyes never leaving his. Her heritage had trained her to
always look a predator in the eye while in other cultures it was considered insane; to her people it
was natural. If you showed no fear, then you would never be considered weak and being weak
was worse than the hell she’d been driven through for the last forty years.

Her smile twisted, her eyes sliding to the Human. “Oh yes, grandfather,” she purred, “Why don’t
you remove it? He’s come all this way, why don’t we let him see a glimpse of what his prize can
do?”

He suddenly felt like he had bitten off more than he could chew as he watched the couple, the
Demon and the lethal women he had created from an innocent, broken child. Yet if he wanted to
live, to gain back what was lost to him today, he would have to play the dutiful fool. His boot falls
sounded muted as he rounded the table and stopped, removing the ring from where it hung from
the necklace he wore, he placed the indention over the stone and turned it. The collar fell to the
floor with a ring of steel on stone.

For a moment she seemed to glow with an inner light as everything rushed back. Dúdae’s lips
twitched and Blagden found himself hurling backwards and crashed into the wall with little more
than a slight jerk of her chin. “May I?” She asked Ravyel, her eyes never straying from the horror
filled King.

The Demon considered for a moment, his head tilting slightly to the side as he regarded Blagden.
“You could have the simple, instantaneous pleasure of killing him now,” he said. “But, allow me to
teach you the finer points of vengeance, love.” Standing just behind Dúdae he nuzzled her hair,
his words a heated breath against a pointed ear, “Keep them alive… for a very long time, and
slowly take away everything they yearn for. Skin them alive, mentally or figuratively, so that every
nerve in their body screams with agony and begs for release from life… and then, never give it to
them.”

Turning his face into the Taurësúlë’s hair, he inhaled slowly. “Which does he deserve, Dúdae?
What reward should he be given for all that he has done to you, these many, many years?”

“I think,” instinctively she leaned back against him, “he should be left guessing. Let him see
everything he wants, and what he can never have.” A delicate, copper hand rose to touch the
Demon’s cheek in what could have been considered a caress. “Or maybe I should return the
favour of what he did to the others…kill him slowly and then bring him back to life to die in some
new fashion…” Tilting her head she watched Blagden with the laziness of a predator who knew
that she could finish the game any time she wanted.

“But then he wouldn’t be of very much use,” her eyes disappeared in a swirl of forest-green and
silver mist, “his part isn’t finished yet. His time has not come but when it does…” the corner of her
lips curled as she watched her tormentor’s death. The vision faded away, and with it the mist that
had swallowed iris and pupil.
Ravyel’s fingers curled around Dúdae’s shoulder, then slid over her collarbone, following the
curve of her breast to the bodice laces and trailing down the front of her torso until his hand lay
flat against her abdomen. Drawing the Taurësúlë more firmly back against him, he peered at
Blagden and grinned ferally as he kissed a soft, copper shoulder. “So be it then… let us take our
leave… is there anything you wish to take with you?”

Her lashes lowered, masking her eyes as she settled back against Ravyel, a sharp intake of
breath the only indication of the effects of his touch. For right then. Her mind wandered for a
moment drifting in cause and effect, his question brought her back.

“Xavyer.” There was no hesitation in her voice as her eyes opened again, meeting the Shroudling
Admiral’s surprised look flatly. “And my weapons. Nothing else.”

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D

Bare feet whispered across the obsidian-glass hallway, pale-white layers of a short cut S’Hean
dress fluttering around golden-tanned thighs as the Amazon stole through the shadowed
corridors. Heart pounding in her chest, she slipped down a curved stairwell, keeping close to the
wall as she hesitated on the landing and peeked around a corner, copper-flame curls falling into
her face as she surveyed the empty corridor ahead.

Convinced it was safe, she darted forwards, moving silently towards the open doors leading out
into the moonlit rose-gardens. A sudden noise stopped An’Thaya in her tracks and she flatted her
small frame against the cool stone wall, holding her breath and closing emerald-hued eyes as the
footsteps of passing soldiers clomped by an adjoining hallway.

Once they had passed, she relaxed, nearly sliding down to the floor in relief. Still for a moment,
she listened to the sounds of the night, fingers stroking the softly glowing rune-collar that lay
against her throat. When it was safe, the redhead pushed away from the wall and fled through the
doorway, obviously determined to be somewhere she wasn’t suppose to be.

And that somewhere was the rose gardens. Galain tried desperately not to pace and was seated
on a bench, knuckles gone white as he fiercely gripped the white marble. He looked down, heart
pounding wildly and then he looked up, catching a quick, breathtaking sight of vivid-red hair and
the damnable collar at her throat. He couldn't help it and stood, revealing his location to
An'Thaya. No words were spoken -- a silent look from eyes darkened by the night was all that
sufficed.

Masses of hair bounced around the diminutive half-elf’s frame as she came to a standstill, a
wistful smile curving her mouth as she met his gaze, then threw herself forward again. With a
shuddering, expelled breath, An’Thaya slammed into the hard armour Galain wore as Berelath’s
General Enforcer, arms wrapping around his neck and body still airborne as their mouths
connected in a fierce kiss.

He wouldn't admit to the hot stream of tears that escaped his eyes, but he dove into An'Thaya's
kiss. They rattled slightly, the damn stuff that he wore not quite up to snuff when it came to secret
nighttime rendezvous meetings. He wished he could throw it all off here. He wished they could
disregard their circumstances. He wished for so much and then his hand, slowly stroking the
delicate curve of An'Thaya's skull and slipping downward, encountered the collar. Kisses would
have to be enough and yet they weren't.

He spun them both around, because the moment was the most important thing. Yesterday and
tomorrow were nightmares they could quash for the moment.
"Hello, love," he breathed against An'Thaya's lips. They could be themselves here and it was a
blessed relief.

“I was beginning to think he would never let you come back here,” she said breathlessly. “Clever,
entering yourself in the games.” Kissing the Elen again, An’Thaya stroked the side of his face with
delicate fingers, brushing aside the golden curls that wisped onto his cheek. “Clever, and foolish,
love.”

The Elen tilted his head into the Amazon's touch and sighed. The softest flit of her fingertips over
his skin was a blessing -- a rare one in so many ways.

"It's stupid," he admitted quietly. "I don't know what he'll choose when it comes to adversaries,
but," he stopped and looked upward a moment. "I didn't bow to him. I bowed to momentary fate. I
bowed to a chance to break us free and live." He was staring into the sky and then he had to look
into deep-emerald eyes. "I love you. And here we are, and it's not so bad, right?" He grimaced
and kissed her. All he could was kiss and hold her. "Tomorrow we're back to our roles and all
business. But right now, I'll give you everything I can."

The tremulous smile was back for a fleeting heartbeat. Stolen kisses in the dark were all they had
ever had. At first, because of her own stubborn refusal to admit she loved him, and then… and
then everything had gone all to hell. She belonged to Ravyel, held in trust for another, part of an
agreement.

Any more with Galain than she dared at this second would result in both of their deaths, for if she
lay with any man willingly a bond would be formed, a mark would appear on his skin and it would
be a sigil of death. So she remained pure, untouched. The day would come when he would claim
An’Thaya and take her from this place. Until then, they at least had these moments.

“I love you, Galain,” she whispered. There was no longer any hope left in her for the freedom he
spoke of, but she could forget… just for a little while.

                 2841 Years Ago – Kingdom of Corin – Planet Whispin – A. D

The screams of the dying were punctuated by inhuman howls and the growling, snapping, snarls
of hells hounds, Nuru’kh-ai, and things in the dark that were much, much worse… The stench of
blood and death caught in her senses and all else was lost beneath the sound of her own
laboured breathing and the frantic pounding of her eight-chambered heart.

Wrong… it was all wrong, and they hadn’t been prepared, not for this. What should have been a
happy reunion had turned to shades of crimson, the twisted visage of her parents, skinned alive,
still breathing as they hung from the gates of Castle Corin, a warning for all those who would dare
stand against him… it… the thing that had once been her brother, or so she had been told.

She let out a startled shriek as something caught at her shirt and she spun around in a dizzy
circle, hissing in pain as a sharp branch slapped across her face, carving a rent in her golden skin
and tangling in flaming locks of hair. She jerked her head back, growling in frustration when it
refused to release her hair. Fumbling at her belt for a dagger, she jerked one free and hacked at
her own locks, shoring off a chunk of glimmering tresses and stumbling backwards as the low
song of a hound rang through the night.

They were tracking her… he was tracking her, she could feel it. There was no portalling to safety,
using the Aethyr would only let him know where she was, most of her troops were dead or dying,
Amazons, S’Heans… all gone, and her damnable Uncle, the one who had been the cause of all
this… had fled with his tail between his legs.

One less enemy, but an enemy that paled in comparison to what she had unleashed.

Tearing off through the trees again she ran near blind, not out of any inability to see in the dark,
but out of fear. In her headlong flight the redhead failed to see the shadow ahead and the wind
was knocked out of her as she ran clean into someone’s chest, a scream dying on her lips as a
flash of golden hair caught her eye. “Galain? Oh gods, you scared the life out of me.”

"I scared the life out of you? My gods... I think my heart just leaped out of my mouth," the Elen
responded. "I'd stop to catch it, but I don't care anymore." He held the Amazon close, willing his
nerves to calm down, but it was impossible. "We have to get out of here. Leave. I don't know how
though."

He was still disbelieving that everything had gone so wrong and so swiftly. If he survived this
debacle he'd try to figure it all out. Right now he didn't have that luxury.

For a moment, she clung to the elf’s tall frame, pressing her head against his chest. During the
last few months she had gone from distain, to loving him, and had no idea when or how her
feelings had changed. Lifting her face she reached up, clasping his face between her hands and
stretching up on tiptoe to kiss him fiercely, “I am so sorry… this is all my fault. Run,” she
whispered, “he isn’t far behind.”

His heart broke. He couldn't run. Not now.

"I'd run, but I won't," he said. His eyes drifted away, and then dragged back. "'Thaya... If I can call
you that... I can't leave you.
We're all screwed up and I want us to run and get out of here, but I have to tell you..." and then
he drifted off. It was all so melodramatic and scary and wrong. He drew himself back sharply.

"I love you," he said, steeling himself and then throwing them both forward. If he ran, he took her
with him and so he did.

An’Thaya’s breath caught, and then they were running headlong for their lives. Tears stung at her
eyes and she knew she should stop, force him to go on without her, but she couldn’t. He was all
she had left… and she loved him too.

They hadn’t gone far when a flash of flame caught the corner of her eye and the Amazon twisted
her head, barely screaming out a warning as the Hell Hound bounded free of the woods and
launched itself at them, knocking both elves flying as the entirety of its weight hit them full on.

Galain tripped when An'Thaya shouted, losing his grasp of her hand as they both crashed to the
ground. If he hadn't been panicked before the Elen was full out terrified, and pissed off. He
twisted around, desperate to free himself and An'Thaya from the creature, but he couldn't reach
his dagger and his sword was absolutely useless at this extremely close range. This was
precisely the delay they didn't need -- they needed to stay ahead of their pursuer.

"Godsdammittohell!" he spat out, kicking viciously, anxious to keep the Hell Hound's jaws from
damaging either An’Thaya or himself.

“That,” a deep, amused voice said from the dark, “would just be sending it back where it came
from.” A command was barked out in a twisted tongue and the beast growled, but backed off,
stone-hard scales clattering as it crouched low to the ground, burning eyes focused on the fallen
pair of elves.

An’Thaya’s head lifted from where she had tucked it, desperate to avoid the Hound’s snapping
jaws, her eyes wide, focused on her brother as he emerged from the trees. Fingers tangled in
Galain’s vest she fought to steady her breathing, swallowing the stark terror the mere sight of the
Demon-Elf engendered.

Blood-red eyes travelled slowly over both elves and Ravyel grinned with undisguised malice.
“This world… Whispin, it will be mine, and then,” his gaze met Galain’s, “then I will have your
world as well.” His hand motioned to someone unseen in the trees, and a duo of Nuru’kh-ai
stepped forward, dragging a beaten and bloody B’Rodyn D’Riel between them.

The S’Hean’s head was down, as if he hadn’t the strength to lift it, though he did make a weak
effort to shake them off as they drew closer. The Demon’s fingers tangled into the Elven Prince’s
long, dark hair and yanked his head up, revealing handsome, near beautiful features that were
twisted in pain and defiance.

“You,” Ravyel addressed An’Thaya and Galain, drawing his bastard-sword, “will obey me, you will
do as I tell you to, or both of you will suffer this one’s fate.” The blade glinted in the moonlight,
flipping in the Demon’s grip as he brought it round and drove it brutally into his Cousin’s torso,
driving straight in to the hilt. No pain flashed through B’Rodyn’s eyes… he had lost that ability
centuries ago. There was merely a calm acceptance as his life slipped away, a word half choked
through blood as he folded over.

“Gwen…”

An’Thaya screamed, but it was in sheer fury this time, her fingers grabbling for the daggers at her
hips as she struggled to her feet, “You Nyfader! ”

Whipping around Ravyel caught the diminutive redhead across the cheek with a well placed
backhand, sending her reeling.

"An'Thaya! No!" Galain had lurched to his own feet, vainly trying to keep the Amazon from
attacking. He caught her in his arms when Ravyel struck her. He spat at the other... he couldn't
call him a man, and then found his eyes drawn inexorably toward B'Rodyn's still form. It would be
so simple to take that route, not that B'Rodyn had been given a choice. His stomach tightened as
his mind raced through so many different variables... if he did, would Berelath be safe, if he lived,
would Berelath be safe? What of An'Thaya -- what would happen if he died? Would she be any
safer if he lived? What good would it do for either of them to die? Or live? Hell for the living no
matter whom those living were.

He drew away from Ravyel, holding the Amazon close in his arms, his spine prickling as he
realized they were surrounded and out of options.

“What have I done?” it was a whispered question against Galain’s chest as she clung to him,
pride and strength forgotten in the face of sudden, horrific defeat. The Demon had taken all of her
family, her parents, her cousin… She couldn’t bear the thought of losing Galain too… but either
way, she knew she would… Dead or alive, she would never have him.

“So,” Ravyel’s voice intruded on her thoughts, “which will it be? Servitude, or death?”
"You've done what you had to do. No telling what the fates had in mind," Galain whispered into
An'Thaya's hair. He gritted his teeth. Yeah, no telling at all, he repeated silently before shooting a
glare toward Ravyel.

"What's the difference?" he asked, his body rigid with hate and anger.

“Nothing more than the lack of decay,” was Ravyel’s response. He nodded towards An’Thaya and
addressed his Nurus. “Take her,” he ordered as they lumbered forwards, “but do not take any
liberties with her.” His leer was chilling, “She is, after all, my little sister.”

The Amazon went rigid in Galain’s arms, her head turning as the beasts came their way. Fighting
down every instinct she had, the redhead held her ground. If she did what he wanted… Galain
would live… it turned into a mantra that played over and over in her mind.

As for the Elen himself he wrapped his arms more tightly around the Amazon, loathe to give her
up to the monsters Ravyel commanded. The idea of any of them laying a hand upon her made
his gorge rise.

"Give them hell," he whispered fiercely into An'Thaya's ear, shaking with rage and the sickening
feeling of helplessness. It shouldn't be happening this quickly, they shouldn't be surrendering so
easily. Instinctively he knocked one Nuru's hand away.

"Don't touch her," he said, his voice hoarse with frustration.

The Amazon’s tiny hand reached out to touch Galain’s, drawing it back to his chest. She briefly
kissed his knuckles, her mouth curving into a desperate smile, “I’ll be alright,” she whispered, “as
long as I know you still live. I love you.” Reluctantly, she let go, eyes still on his as the Nuru’kh-ai
roughly grabbed her arms, hauling the redhead back towards the Demon.

Stepping forwards, Ravyel crossed densely-muscled arms over his chest and eyed Galain. “Kneel
to me,” he ordered, “show your allegiance to my army, and you both shall live.”

Galain stood absolutely still, staring after An'Thaya, his heart pounding at an insanely rapid pace.
A chill had run down his back when she'd kissed his knuckles, and when she moved away he felt
the agonizing reality of her loss bear down on him. That last "I love you" had felt and sounded too
much like a final farewell. His eyes traveled back to Ravyel and he stared at the other man,
scarcely believing this maniac could be An'Thaya's brother. Nausea rose within him at the
command. Galain Alcarin had never bowed to anyone in his life, not even his own uncle who
ruled in Alcarinque. To be forced to kneel before this murderer and acknowledge his army made
Galain's head swim.

"We both shall live?" he spat out. "You've taken her away. She's what you wanted --" he broke off
suddenly, realizing he had to do this thing. If An'Thaya had the strength to quell her own instinct
to fight and resist, he had to find the same strength as well. He shut his eyes and then nodded
imperceptibly. He swayed and then, with every nerve jangling in rebellion, dropped to one knee.

I do not show allegiance, I do not show allegiance, he silently ground out in his head. His eyes
opened shifted, catching sight of B'Rodyn's still form. Oh to have been as strong as the S'Hean,
and perhaps as dead.

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D
“Y’Roden,” she tried the name, “Ro. Perhaps I will do the same. I’m correct in guessing that this
other me goes by Shadow. I have not been referred to by that name in many years.” She paused,
studying him in the light of the orbs; “You must be very trusted by her and very close to her for
her to let you call her Shady.

“Well, Ro,” a simple shift and her wrist passed through his grip. “I suppose, if we’re going to keep
you alive here, we should do something in bringing you up to speed.”

Dúdae placed her sword on a chaise then crossed back to Ro. “I need the key from around your
neck.” She stated relieving him of his sword; she re-sheathed it with a skill that came from long
years of habit.

The half-elf smiled, a genuine expression that seemed a little out of place on Ravyel’s face.
“Shadow and I have a very trusting relationship, she is part of my family and I wouldn’t have it any
other way.” Reaching up he found the chain with questing fingertips and undid the clasp. Letting
the ends dangle, he grasped the key and held it out to Dúdae.

“So tell me, how large of an Empire does Ravyel rule? I take it that Berelath and Tumnambar are
part of it, giving Galain and Railen’s presence when I first arrived.”

The Seeress eyed Y’Roden and took the key. “Part of your family?” She asked over her shoulder
as she knelt in front of an old chest that sat at the end of the Demon-Elf’s bed, slipped the key in
and turned it. Pushing the lid up, she began removing various items until she found the maps that
she wanted.

“It’s hard to say how large the Empire is, the reach of the Olnelan Sar’da expands constantly.
Berelath was conquered before my time, and Tumnambar after I came here.” Dúdae unrolled the
first of several maps on the table in the room. Using various items to hold down the corners,
“Here,” stepping to the side, she gestured for Ro to look at the map, “but Ravyel shares this
control with Araxmarr Zavern Sar’Da, it is the reason for the marking on your arm; it is an uneasy
alliance but a necessary one, they are equals in strength.

“Everything that you see on this map is part of the Empire, and there are several others, most no
more than stepping stones to the more major and important planets. With each conquered planet
a General Enforcer is chosen to act as overseer, as you can probably guess, Galain Alcarin is the
General Enforcer for Berelath, Railen Rossëvirin is for Tumnambar. To keep each General
Enforcer in line something or someone of value is taken, generally a loved one.”

“Part of my family,” Ro answered distractedly. “She is my adopted daughter.” He leaned forward
automatically, eyes studying the star chart with a heavy sense of recognition. “I know these
planets,” he muttered. “Arüìnnbìth, Merlin, Thitsin.” A chill suddenly wound up his spine, “Who are
their General Enforcers?” He was beginning to suspect that the same lives he had touched in his
own dimension had been touched in this one as well. Another question lingered in the back of his
mind, but he couldn’t find it in him to ask it.

“Adopted. Daughter?” Her lips twitched, a soft laugh escaping her, “Oh, that puts things in quite
an interesting light. I’m guessing then she isn’t found in your bed?”

Dúdae studied Ro’s expression then returned to his own question, “Well, few of them come here
so I generally brush them off as unimportant. Let me see, Arüìnnbìth would be Braiden
Kennyr’Tlithar, Mer’Lin would be Willow Mer’lin, and Thitsin would be Mystical Daschael. I
suspect that Kennyr’Tlithar and Daschael will be at the Imperial Games tomorrow, General
Enforcers are expected to compete to reaffirm their ability in their position, those that do not are
expected to have a replacement.”
Y’Roden couldn’t help the sudden smirk. “No, she isn’t found in my bed. We’re close, but not that
close.” It was reassuring, somehow, to have a familiar face to look at and, oddly, a tinge of
Shadow’s humour to distract him.

The smile faded as he listened to the list of names, two of them, at least, he knew well. One a
friend that had been there when he needed her, the other… a traitor in the worst possible way;
Mystical had been trusted by the D’Riels for a very long time, had been the bondmate of
Y’Roden’s sister An’Thaya… but then -- she had turned on them. Marrying the bane of Thaya’s
existence, Tallin Modar.

He sighed and scrubbed his forehead. “So… let me guess, Willow’s replacement is a fellow
named Drake Silverwing?” Perhaps he was starting to get the hang of this place. Everything so
much the same, and vastly different all at the same time...

“No. There is no Drake Silverwing, though she does have an alliance with a Drake Cole, though I
doubt he would be her replacement. They don’t get on very well at best, it doesn’t surprise me
really,” Dúdae crooked a copper digit at a chair, then slipped into when it stopped beside her.
“Willow is spoiled and snotty, her father doted on her far too much which was his undoing. She
betrayed him and took over. I suspect her sister will take her place, but more as a lesson to her
not to displease Ravyel.”

Ro frowned… Drake Cole? Wait, that rang a bell somehow. It was probably the same guy. It was
the mention of Willow’s sister that brought an amused laugh out of him though. “Aspen? If she is
anything like her counterpart, the woman has a sharp tongue. I’m honestly surprised Ravyel
hasn’t killed her yet.”

That could always be remedied.

Stuff it.

“So where are the games held?” he asked out loud, ignoring the dark stirrings deep in his soul.
“More importantly… do I participate?”

“Sharp tongues are more fun to cut out.” The smile on her lips twisted, leaving nothing to the
imagination. She knew what she was talking about.

“Yes, both you and Araxmarr participate, and to steal a phrase from the Black Emperor, for shits
and giggles. Tomorrow morning you will be taken by Airship to the Temple of Twilight. I’m
assuming that you know where that is? But since we seem to be at a difference between your
world and this one, there will be a few differences.” Dúdae flipped through the maps, “Ah, here it
is.” Pulling the blue prints out she placed the aged paper over the star chart.

“The walls were expanded for the stands. Your seat and that of Araxmarr is here, and the box for
your,” she glanced up at Ro and frowned. Wondering just when this was going to start to get old.
A slightly exasperated sigh escaped her. “Ravyel’s,” she corrected herself, “harem sits here, just
below the Imperial box.”

“Harem?” Ro sat back into his chair and stared at the blue print. “That is going to be a problem.”
Fingertips brushed automatically over his bicep, his soul spinning in illogical confusion when the
familiar feel of the S’Hean wedding-cuff didn’t greet them. Emerald greens flickered up and he
raised a questioning eyebrow. “I’m going to need your help. Ravyel is going to have a favourite
for a while. There is no way I could keep up appearances and not have sex with the others, and
not having sex is the goal here.”
His laughter bordered a little on the hysterical side as he shoved Ravyel’s mass of chestnut locks
back away from his face. “A century or so ago, and this would just have been an interesting
vacation. Right now… I’m just incredibly tired.”

A dark brow arched, the corner of her lips curling up into Cheshire cat smile. “He generally does.”
Leaning forward she placed her elbows on the table, crossed her hands and rested her chin on
them. The key she asked for earlier fell and swung, the chain twined around her fingers. “Or do
you think all of us know his secrets?” Dúdae smiled, “Let me explain something about me since it
will be rather vital in the days to come. I’m never far from Ravyel’s side and he doesn’t keep too
many secrets from me because I can see them, anytime I wish. I’m more useful to him than his
armies and General Enforcers, or even the ase’hel he shares the throne with because I can tell
him how to strike and when. Those worlds you know? They fell after I was brought here.”

Genuine amusement sparked suddenly in Ro’s eyes and he couldn’t help but grin. “I don’t doubt
you for a moment.” Canting his head to the side, the S’Hean sobered a little, “It does make one
wonder though… I can’t picture anyone making you, or the Shady I know, do anything, which
makes me wonder just how you ended up here...”

“No one made me, I came of my own free will.” Dúdae shrugged, her confidence overshadowed
by memory. “I’m the collateral that Ravyel has against my grandfather. I’m the only way my
grandfather was able to keep control of Arlsyn. I was forty when I was brought here.” A secretive
smile touched her lips remembering the first time she saw the Demon Elf. “I chose the lesser of
two evils.”

          2528 Years Ago – Windemiire - Nenlante - S'Hea – Planet Whispin - A. D

The doors to the Demon’s chambers closed with a soft snick, the room flooded with moonlight
and the scent of fresh water and roses that blew in through the open balcony doors. The palace
of Windemiire was an odd setting for one such as Ravyel, but he could play the part of Elven
Emperor quite well when need be, the horrors of his pleasures tucked neatly away from curious
eyes. Alone, finally, with the Taurësúlë, he wound his fingers into her long, moon-kissed hair and
stood behind her, watching the looming satellites in their race across the star-spangled sky.

“So,” he murmured, slowly tugging at the laces of her bustier, “why the Admiral? What part does
he have to play in Arlsyn’s future?”

“You’ll need him.” A chill wound through her, though it was from the tug of the laces or her system
still trying to adjust from the frosty Keep to the heat of Whispin, she wasn’t certain. Once again
she was drawn to leaning into him, “Blagden will try to rise to power again, he won’t give up, and
you’ll kill him. I don’t see myself leaving here to return and I don’t want to. Xavyer will take his
place. He is a soldier who has the sense to do as he is told without question as well as the
intelligence to act of his own accord when the need arises.”

Dúdae turned suddenly, ignoring the pain in her scalp from taunt hair. “Better yet, he doesn’t have
the drive to be anything more.” Slender hands slipped a slow trail from his waist, over his
abdomen and to his chest.

Ravyel tilted his head thoughtfully, his gaze burning into dark eyes. “Well thought out,” he said
slowly, a grin slowly turning the edge of his mouth, “you do realize, most women do not come into
my harem willingly. They will resent you… I shall have to keep you separately, I think.” His head
lowered the scant two inches that separated them in height, his mouth a hairsbreadth from hers.

The laces parted at her breasts and he slowly worked them open until the bodice came loose,
pushing it down her shoulders. “Xavyer will suit my purposes well then… and there will be no
need to take anyone else to keep him… loyal.” The last word was nearly lost against Dúdae’s
mouth, the kiss hard, yet encouraging, fingers working on the dark-green hunter’s shirt, tugging it
from her body.

The Taurësúlë returned his kiss with a hardness of her own, born from the freedom that her new
cage gave her, and it was all that it truly was. One Master traded for another, one cage that
allowed her more movement. Nimble fingers found the buckles to spiked pauldrons, releasing
them and shoving them away to land on the floor with a metallic thud.

A throaty laugh escaped her, copper digits falling to the task of relieving him of his breastplate.
“I’m not most women,” she corrected against his lips.

“I had noticed that,” the Demon muttered as the breast and back plates slid away, clattering to the
hard stone at their feet. His hands had found warm, bare copper flesh; smooth beneath war-
battered hands as they slid up her ribs and roughly cupped her breasts. With a choked growl he
released the Taurësúlë for a moment, tugging the soft, black shirt worn under his armour off over
his head and tossing it aside, then dragged her willowy frame up against his bared chest, hissing
as her cool skin met the heat of his own.

“I like unusual… it’s hard to catch and hold my attention,” he said with a twisted grin. Hefting the
elven woman off her feet, he backed towards the bed until the backs of his legs hit it, then let
himself fall through the silky curtains, bringing Dúdae to a sitting position on his hips as they
landed. He watched her predatorily from where he lay, fingers working the laces of her trousers
and forcing the leather back, delving into silken, slick flesh.

Dúdae opened her mouth to reply, but all that came out was a purring moan. Such a different
touch than what she was use to, she wasn’t sure what would happen next, and didn’t care. Need
was a hard shock, something she hadn’t expected, especially not when she’d seen him sitting
languidly at the table.

“Good.” She managed when her thoughts had cleared, “I’ll have to remember that.”

Rumbling laughter was his only response, taking obvious delight in her reaction to his touch.
Rolling, he flipped Dúdae onto her back, hooking hard fingers into the top of her trousers and
slowly working them down her legs. Pausing, he stripped off her boots and tossed them over his
shoulders, the leather pants soon following. “What else do you see,” he asked in the midst of
tugging at his laces, “besides Blagden’s death…”

Her lips curled into her unusual grin, ebony and silver hair fanned across the coverlet, seeming to
slither across the bed as she rose up, resting on her elbows. Forest-green eyes trailed over him,
taking in every hard, muscular angle, every scar. Dúdae’s grin turned into a slow smile. So that
was going to be her place?

Dark eyes disappeared in a glowing, swirling mist of twisted green and silver. “The Son of
Darkness will join forces with DeathDream,” a flickering image of phosphorescent ice-blue eyes
seemed to rise from the depths of the vision then rolled away as destruction swallowed both blue
eyes, and the glowing crimson of the Demon Elf. “Civilizations crumble, worlds will burn and
galaxies will fall at your feet. Upon the ashes a new empire will rise…the Land of Gates will show
the way to Tumnambar.”

The clunk of his boots being kicked across the floor was the only sound for a moment as the last
of Ravyel’s clothing was tossed aside. “DeathDream,” he repeated, fingertips sliding up the soft
skin on the insides of Dúdae’s thighs, “a partner in crime?” Heavy muscle rippled beneath tanned
flesh as he crawled back onto the bed, bracing his hands to either side of the Taurësúlë’s head.
“I’m not sure I like the thought of sharing,” he growled.

A brutally hard thrust put him deep within her and the Demon’s back arched, his head thrown
back as he savoured the velvety heat in a low, throaty groan. Letting his head fall forward he
opened crimson-stained eyes, “But who am I to argue with a Seer?”

A cry caught somewhere between pain and pleasure escaped her, her body arched towards his,
mist roiling out, disturbed by lowered lashes. Phantom sounds of breaking bones and screams
echoed in her ears, images washed in blood filled her sight then condensed to his eyes as she let
the visions go.

A faint trace of what lied within glimmered in her eyes, “Who indeed?” A slender copper thigh
slipped up to his hip. The look in his eyes, the ripple of muscle beneath her exploring hands sent
shivers through her. A throaty, feminine growl escaped Dúdae, her lips meeting his in a hard kiss.

The soft sound drew a slight curve of the mouth from the Demon, lost against hers. Heavy hips
ground down hard, pinning the Taurësúlë to the bed a his hands found hers, one after the other,
and stretched them out over her head, pulling her body taut beneath his. Snarling low in his throat
he bit at his lover’s mouth, drawing blood and licking it slowly from cherry lips. Setting a merciless
rhythm he tightened his grip on her hands until the bones gave, fragile fingers snapping, the
fractures echoing in his own as they healed.

Pain shot through her hands and for a moment she panicked, a moment of clarity that was lost to
an unforgiving rhythm. She writhed beneath him, her moan lost against his mouth as she arched
into him. Her body felt like a spring, coiling tighter and tighter until it was bound to release with a
pain so sharp that it would drown out the crack of the whip that had torn strips of flesh from her
back, or simply break beneath the tension...

Rich, dark laughter wound into what almost felt like a spell, languid and agonizing. Fear, lust, it
was all an aphrodisiac to the Demon, and he bit into his own tongue, letting blood seep into
Dúdae’s mouth in the depths of a kiss until he could smell the sizzle of Aethyr marking her skin,
claiming the Taurësúlë as his even as self-control wrenched out of his grip, instinct slamming his
hips into hers as release sent a mind numbing shock through his nervous system.

Sparks of light ignited from around their mouths Aethyr and Astraheia mingling in their bloody
kiss. Her mind shattered as his hips slammed into her, triggering her own release. Dark lashes
lowered, hiding the expression in their depths, though the curl of her lips gave it away. Tingling
heat started just above the centre of her chest, the skin darkening to ebony scales of an emerald-
eyed dragon, claws digging into copper skin then trailed over her shoulder then under her arm,
claws of back legs appearing to dig into her ribs as its tail wound around her right breast.

Dúdae opened her eyes, her tongue flickering out to taste the blood on his lips.

A soft rumble of approval rolled through the Demon’s chest, his eyes half open as a grin curved
his mouth. “This may prove,” he growled, “to be a mutually beneficial relationship… or at least…
mutually satisfying.” Ducking his head he licked at the tip of the dragon’s tail and brushed bloody
lips over the tip of her breast, then rolled to the side, dragging her with him until she lay atop him,
both lost in Dúdae’s masses of black and silver hair. “You will sleep here for now, until I decide
otherwise.”

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin
Ghetsuhm got back from Shadow just in time: Ravyel wasn't awake yet, but he was stirring. She
sent Fadil off to get some sleep and talk to Ild'Ashi.

She got her medical scanner and went and sat down on the floor beside the pool. He shouldn't
have slept this long, surely, yet nothing seemed to be wrong with him...

Her eyes drifted from the scanner to his chest. Like this, with his eyes closed, there was nothing
to tell her this wasn't Y'Roden. This was his body: it looked like him, felt like him, gods, it smelt
like him.

Unconsciously, her fingers reach out and brushed his chest, lingering on the mark over his heart.
One impulse decision, and it was killing them both, so slowly... No. She'd been there before.
When there was no hope, she would not choose the slow death.

Ravyel’s hand flopped up onto his chest, fingers catching around Ghet’s delicate wrist. A low,
rumble of a noise rolled through the half-elf’s chest as he stirred, chestnut lashes flickering open
as his head rolled up. Crimson eyes stared briefly at the ceiling, then shifted over to look at
Ghetsuhm, minor confusion reflecting in their depths.

“Skrun,” he growled. Reaching up with his free hand, the Demon scrubbed at his forehead. “I am
never going to get used to seeing your face.”

Ghet flinched, pulling back on her hand. "Let go of me." The look on her face, though, wasn't as
hard as it should have been, tinged with confusion, and even concern. "She got to you, didn't
she? I'd never have thought..." She shook her head, but the curiosity wouldn't go away. "What
happened to her? And I don't suppose you'd like to put some pants on?"

The grip on Ghet’s wrist didn’t let up any; in fact, it tightened momentarily as the questions rattled
out of her. “She was everything I wanted… almost,” he said without thinking. A flicker of pain cast
shadows in the depths of his eyes, then closed off abruptly like the slamming of a door.

“She’s dead,” he said flatly. “Your little lost Prince has an interesting perception of mercy.”
Callused fingers uncurled from the redhead’s wrist and hard-cut abdominal muscles rippled as he
rolled up to a sitting position. “Trousers are highly overrated.”

Ghet slid back as soon as he let go, cradling her wrist, her head down so her hair hid her face. "I
don't believe you," she said bitterly. "Not after what you did to me." Her lips twisted, caught in a
confusion of pronouns. "Not you. Ravyel. The one from here. Why do you think Ro gave me the
name? He'd have killed me if Ro hadn't stopped him, and you expect me to believe you didn't kill
her?"

Angry and frustrated, she stood, bare feet pacing on the marble floor. "'Everything you wanted'.
Liar. I bet she didn't even slow you down. She was just an unusually tasty snack."

A bark of a laugh echoed off the walls as the Demon settled comfortably, one leg bending to
laying flat to the floor beneath him as the other rose up to support his forearm with a knee.
Leaning onto his free hand, Ravyel canted his head and watched her from behind veiled blood-
red eyes. “Y’Roden is weak and pathetic. Only once since he was twenty years old has he even
dared to surface completely, never mind speak to anyone. Only once, and it was for you…
however brief a moment, but it was enough… enough time to take you from me.”

The half-elf’s gaze grew distant suddenly. “I doubt she ever even noticed… He saw something I
suppose, that damnable shared sensibility streak that kept her from being what I wanted her to
be. Just a little longer, and she might have been swayed. You would have made a glorious
Empress…”

With an effort, she kept her face turned to his, let him see the tears. She had only come to accept
what she was through Y'Roden. Without him, she could vividly imagine how much Ravyel's
potential empress must have hated herself. As much as that poor lost child trapped inside the
'Emperor'. "At least I know you never broke her. Figuratively. The same can't be said for you
though, not here. And if one Ravyel can be broken, then another one can too. It took them a long
time, but then... they didn't have me."

She pushed a hand through her hair; quietly, honestly grieving. "I want a bath."

“The intent was never to break her.” It seemed a perfectly honest statement, which it was, from
his point of view. “I wanted an Empress, not a finger puppet.

“And just so as you know, using a name to control someone doesn’t break them, it merely makes
life more interesting for awhile… until they find a loop hole. It is like the hypo spray you used,
momentarily incapacitating.” The Demon met her gaze dead on. “Don’t make the mistake of
thinking I’ll fall for that one again. As for a bath,” he made a dismissive gesture, “don’t let me stop
you.”

Ghet snorted inelegantly. "Yeah, I figured that by the way you weren't rolling belly-up on the floor.
And I wasn't planning to turn the same trick twice. But you're not in the world you made any more;
you're in Ro's. S'Hea is strong here, alive. This place is full of love. Home, family... do you think
he'd like to hold his baby? If he's ever going to be strong enough to fight his way out from under
you, it will be here."

She shrugged, walked around the pool a little, and took off her dress. Her personal history was
written all over her skin, and she didn't think he was going to like any of it. "This is all just
posturing," she told him. "We both know it comes down to which one of us cracks first. And I think
we're the only ones who know that." She slipped into the water, letting it take her weight, drawing
some of the stress out of her body.

“Well he can try, I’ve never been adverse to anyone trying to fight their way out from under me. I
may even let him, it’s delightfully cruel, don’t you think, to let him see what might have been if he
had ever grown a spine.” Predatory eyes watched as the dress slid off Ghetsuhm’s lush frame,
lingering on the various tattoos that marked her skin.

His head lowered, gaze dropping to the bondmark over his heart, sliding across to the panther on
his opposite collarbone, then down to the faint quicksilver tattoo below his navel. “Interesting,” he
muttered, “I can make sense of the sword and the seal… but everything else…” There was a long
pause as he focused on his left wrist and an amused chuckle suddenly filled the room. “So, where
is my old friend Araxmarr? Did he ever scrabble out from beneath the oppressive weight of his
Sire? Or is he still bowing and scraping to the whim of Nargus Blackthorn?”

Ghet dipped her hair in the water and started working her shampoo through its length. "Rax? We
call him Callan. He's married to your sister An'Thaya, they have three children. Their eldest gets
on very well with my youngest by Galain, Aarien. Even the dragon emperor puts his claws up by
the fire here. Nargus is dead." It was a flat, cold statement she saw no reason to elaborate on.
"Callan's one of our favourite people. Along with his daughter Mira, who is... luscious."

Ravyel’s attention shifted back to Ghetsuhm. “Callan? What sort of name is… Callan?” A brief
snort betrayed his amusement. “Married to An’Thaya? Really? Well, a far better choice than that
Elen she was besotted with.
“Wait… Galain, that is his name. That whelp fathered a child on you?” Information overload short-
circuited his brain for a moment. “Mira? And who is her mother? An’Thaya?” The Demon rubbed
between his eyes with the tips of his fingers. “The lot of you are starting to hurt my head.”

Ghet snickered, rinsing her hair. Genuinely amused, she could almost forget to be afraid, though
it was always there. "Oh, it gets much worse. I have two children by Galain. I was married to him,
at the same time as An'Thaya was. She left him for Callan, and a few years later, I left him for
you. For Ro, I mean. By that stage Y'Roden and I already had one child, fathered while he was
married to his first wife. This is my third marriage."

She fetched up against the edge of the pool and leaned back, grateful for a relatively
uncomplicated moment. "Mira's mother was a woman called Task. Callan hasn't bred anywhere
near as rabidly as the D'Riels." She sighed. "If you're ever going to step outside this room, you
should at least be able to identify your children."

A chestnut eyebrow lifted slightly as it all sank in. “Third marriage? Second for me… him. This is
all terribly fascinating. Children, right… so educate me. How many could I possibly have?” The
pronouns were getting excruciatingly painful.

“What do you mean at the same time?” he asked suddenly. “Never mind, the Galain here is
obviously a very different creature from the one I know.”

"Well, not at exactly the same time, he's not bifurcated. Though it probably wouldn't have been
that much more awkward. How many children..." Ghet's face went thoughtful, and she started
counting on her fingers. "Thirteen?" she said eventually. "Fourteen if you count Shadow. I think.
It's hard to keep track with all those different mummies.

"But you only really have to worry about the younger ones. The rest are all grown up and gone
away. Fechine's with Armineia in the Crystal Keep. Then there's Rhagi, our oldest boy, he's
nearly fifteen. Then B'Roden, Silverthorn's youngest, who's nine, and our twins, R'Avyen and
Den'Ayat, who've just gone one. Anyone waves a baby at you; it'll be one of them. The blond
one's Den'Ayat. Any questions?"

Ravyel shook his head as if to clear it and pressed at his temples with thumb and forefinger.
“Fourteen? One would think he was attempting to compensate for something. Fechine, Rhagi,
B’Roden, R’Avyen and Den’Ayat. R’Avyen? How touching.”

Crimson eyes narrowed and the Demon looked at Ghet from beneath his hand. “All boys?” She
was omitting something, he could sense it, in fact, she seemed to omit a lot of things despite how
much she said. His hand smoothed down his face, hiding a smile.

“Why wouldn’t I count Shadow? And who is… Silverthorn?”

Ghet stretched in the water, closing her eyes briefly. “"You might not count Shadow because
she’s his adopted daughter. So he didn’t knock anyone up for that one. If he’s compensating for
anything, it might be the amount of control he has to exercise in every other part of his life. He
adores his children, all of them. It’s not like he’s just breeding them for slave labour or anything.
And you know, I’d never thought about it like that before, but we both have a lot more boys than
girls. What, fifteen kids between us, and four of them are girls? I think that’s right. I wonder why
that is, I should do some tests sometime.”"

Reluctantly, she drew herself out of the water and started drying off her dripping hair.
“"Silverthorn is your ex-wife. If you want an objective assessment I’d ask someone else.
Someone she doesn’t loathe."” She wrapped the towel around her head and sighed. “"I’m not
sharing a bed with you.”"

“First things first,” Ravyel said slowly. “I’m hungry. I’m also not sleeping on the couch. Besides, if
you are so intent on keeping up appearances you are going to have to share a bed with me,” the
Demon pointed out. “Otherwise, the staff are going to start asking questions, and we wouldn’t
want that, would we.”

With the inherent ease of a male who had spent a lifetime on the battlefield, he rose smoothly to
his feet and turned towards the bathing room doors. “I’ll play nice… for as long as it suits me. If
nothing else, this is all terribly amusing.”

Ghet folded her arms over her breasts and shook, overwhelmed with fear and revulsion. He was
right; she did have to sleep with him, if only so she'd know if he tried to leave. But how could she?
How could she bed down with that thing, give him Ro's place in their haven? If he touched her in
the night... her throat was closing up with panic, and she was too open to hide her fear. She
dressed quickly, fighting for composure. "I fucking hate it when you're right. No touching."

Gods, if she had to do this to 'keep up appearances’; what the hell was Ro having to endure?

                                                  ***

Drysi was curled up on a window-seat, a large book propped up on her knees. This was a
common position in which to find her, particularly early in the morning. Mornings were not her
favourite time of day, although she had to admit that her twin was worse in that regard. Talking to
Yseult when she had just woken up, or for that matter trying to pry her out of bed at all, was a bit
like trying to do the same to their mother; hazardous to the health.

The raven-haired young woman turned over a page. "What do you think, Phish?" she murmured.
"It looks vaguely interesting. The runes are written down the side, look."

A reptilian head poked out from beneath her long hair, the red draeder that was her friend and
companion regarding the page for a moment and then chirruping loudly in her ear as if he had
understood every word she said. Drysi laughed. "I thought you might say that."

Not far off and through an ornate door, a noise of sleepy protest came from beneath a pillow.
Chyppe was hard at work, trying to rouse Yseult from bed, and the blonde was having none of it.
The purple draeder clamped down on a pale, glistening lock of hair and yanked before leaping up
into the air as the girl’s hand took a swipe at him. It was a morning ritual that the sixteen-year-old
elf found extremely annoying, but couldn’t seem to break him of.

As for Chyppe, he just viewed it as a game that started off the day.

Rhagi gave a quick knock and pushed his head round the door, smiling at Drysi. It paid not to
startle anyone early in the morning, in case you were mistaken for a draeder. Rhagi was a
morning person, something which might explain why he'd been getting his own breakfast since he
was two.

"Gutte Moor, Drysi. Is Yse up yet? I brought coffee." Sure now that nothing was going to leap
from the curtains and trip him, he came the rest of the way in, put the carafe down on the table,
and started pouring. "I'd take some in to her but the last time I did that, she gave me a nose-
bleed."
"Chyppe's still waking her," Drysi replied. Emerald eyes danced with mischief as she looked up at
her half-brother. She knew that she didn't have to say anything else.

"That smells good." She sniffed appreciatively, setting the book down on the window-seat as she
uncurled herself and slid her feet to the floor. The red draeder that was perched on her shoulder
chirruped and then flapped across the room, landing on the table to cast an inquisitive eye over
the drinks.

“Chyppe has a death wish,” Yse said from the doorway to her bedroom. The draeder was,
nonetheless, wrapped around her shoulders and chirruping happily as the blonde teetered
unsteadily across the room. “I hope you brought lots of lisse lante.” She found coffee bitter, and
tended to have a little ‘coffee with her sugar’. Well, technically it was a honey-like syrup, but it did
the same job.

Drysi laughed. "You sound like Ammah does first thing in the morning." The raven-haired girl
caught Phish just as the red draeder was about to dive head-first into the coffee cup.

"Yes, I did," said Rhagi, holding up the bottle and grinning. "Where would you like it?"

Ghet stood in the doorway, Den'Ayat balanced on one hip, and watched with an odd lop-sided
smile. Competition for 'worst morning of her entire life' was pretty steep, but today was up there.
She didn't want to think about what had happened when she'd woken up, so she wasn't.
Viciously. Now she had to lie to her children. She never lied to anyone if she could help it, and
she was damn good at prevarication by now, but there was no way out of this. She had to
straight-out lie, to people who should be able to trust her.

She'd stopped in to see Elizabeth and the twins on the way. R'Avyen was still sleeping, on
account of being awake half the night singing the 'I Like Traffic Lights' song someone had taught
him. He couldn't talk and he butchered the tune, but it was somehow still horribly recognisable.
So she'd taken Den with her, partly because of his repeated requests for 'Dah', and partly to
throw Rhagi off her trail. He could read her far too well, but there was nothing like holding a happy
baby to confuse her emotional scent.

Rhagi sensed her now and turned, syrup hanging unheeded from one hand. "Mum? What are
you doing up?"

"What, I can't get up at the crack of dawn and come visit? Alright, I wasn't sleeping anyway, the
state your Addah's in."

Yse blinked stupidly at her twin for a moment. “I do?” Having never been awake enough first thing
in the morning to actually listen to her mother, she had no idea. Sleepy-jade eyes slid to the bottle
Rhagi was holding up and she beamed muzzily. “Oh… perfect, just hand it here,” she answered,
then made a surprisingly deft grab for it as her brother turned.

“Morning Ammah-Ghet,” Yse yawned, pouring the syrup into her coffee as she flopped into a
chair. Out of habit, she dripped a little onto her finger and held it up to Chyppe, letting the draeder
lick it off as she suddenly tuned back in to what her stepmother was saying. A flicker of concern
rippled over the girl’s features. “State? Is Addah alright?”

Ghet sat, settling the baby on her knee and batting his hands away from the front of her dress.
Weaning Den'Ayat was turning out to be a total pain. "No, honey, he's not. I think he must have
picked up a bug when we were in Corin. A very nasty stomach bug. It's nothing serious I don't
think, I've just never seen him actually get sick before. Anyway, for all these things are violent,
they tend to, well, forcibly clean themselves out of the system in a couple of days. It's just not
pleasant in the meantime, and you can imagine how miserable it's making him.

"Sooo... I was thinking, you guys are pretty much due to head over to the Keep soon. Would it be
okay if we popped you off a bit early? Ro's going to be no fun for a few days anyway."

"Is he very sick?" Concern flickered in Drysi's gaze. She couldn't remember her Addah being ill
very often either. She glanced over towards her sister, "I don't suppose Ammah would mind.
We're due lessons with her and Muirne soon anyway."

“Ah chuff,” Yse muttered. “Poor Addah, he must be completely miserable.” Tilting her head
towards Drysi she nodded. “I could use a break from conduit lessons, and it’s been awhile since
we’ve seen Ammah. I’ve missed her.”

B’Roden’s head poked into the room from the outer door. Like his father and Rhagi, he was
something of a morning person, and had been up for quite awhile. “We’re going to Aerdon?” he
asked with a hopeful look.

Ghet bounced Den'Ayat so he giggled. "Good morning, sweetheart. Yes, you're going to Aerdon,
if that's okay."

She turned back to Drysi and pursed her lips. She loved Silverthorn's gentle daughter and
understood why she would feel so insecure. They'd lost both their father and their older brother
Valin in recent years; death was real for them, and Ro's resurrection wouldn't have changed that.
"Yes, Drysi, he is very sick. But he's not dying. And I promise you, if he did get any worse, I would
let you know. Hells, if he was that bad I wouldn't send you away. Unless it was contagious, which
it well might be... honey, I just need you to trust me, to look after him and to let you know what
you need to know." She was so going to a very special hell for this. If it had been anything else,
she would have told the truth. "And I'm sure your mother misses you, too."

Rhagi had taken his coffee and retreated slightly, watching his mother closely under his lashes.
Something wasn't right. He was getting the same prickly vibe from her that he had when she was
pregnant. She would be anxious, of course, if Ro was ill, but something just didn't add up. He
opened his mouth to question her, realised he shouldn't be drawing attention to himself, and shut
it again. He wasn't getting sent away, too.

“It’s fine with me,” B’Roden answered. Bouncing on the balls of his feet he grinned at his sisters
and made a dash for his room. “I’ll go get my stuff.”

Yse’s pale hair shifted over her shoulders as she turned, tracking her brother across the room. “I
shudder to think what sort of stuff he is bringing.” Turning back to Ghet she smiled, then ducked
her head to sip her coffee. “When are we leaving?”

"Shadow's going to the Keep this morning," Ghet told Yse. "I need her to take a message to your
Dera Thaya for me anyway. If your Ammah agrees, she'll come back with her. This afternoon?"

Drysi considered her stepmother solemnly for a moment, but then nodded slowly. "We can be
ready," she said. Emerald eyes turned to the door through which her younger brother had just
gone. "We should probably go and check exactly what B'Roden's taking with him. It would be just
like him to have stocked up on itching powder or something."

Ghet stood, hiking Den'Ayat up on her hip and doing up the buttons he'd undone while she wasn't
paying attention. "Right, I'll get out of your way then and let you get organized." She was mildly
surprised that she'd got off this lightly, but then, she couldn't really feel more guilty than she
already did. Rhagi had been oddly silent, but she couldn't call him on that, either. "I'll miss you
guys, you know. It's going to be so quiet without you."

Rhagi watched her go, waited until the door shut, and counted to five inside his head.
"Something's not right."

Yse frowned and turned to look at her little brother. She had learned, over time, to trust his
instincts on things. He was more sensitive than she was to the undertones and hidden meanings
behind words and actions, and Ghet was his mother, after all. “What makes you say that?” she
asked.

Rhagi shrugged, frowning as he tried to find the right words. "Mum... feels wrong. Like she's
hiding something that's scaring her. But I've felt like this before and it turned out to be nothing."
He smiled unhappily. "I guess I'm still getting the hang of this."

The platinum blonde bit her lip pensively and looked from Rhagi to her twin, lifting a pale eyebrow
in concern as nervous fingers stroked Chyppe’s back. A sudden thought occurred to her and she
shrugged. “Maybe she is just nervous about Ammah coming here. It’s no secret that they don’t
get along very well.”

Rhagi had to laugh at the understatement, but also he didn't quite know what to say. He was
never entirely comfortable when Silverthorn came up in conversation. But that was another thing
that was odd: when Ghet had stopped coming to S'Hea, he'd travelled here by himself. Surely
Yse and Drysi were old enough to do that: why did their mother have to come here at all?
"Maybe. Although your Ammah doesn't scare her. Oh, I don't know. But if something does
happen, I'll find a way to let you know, okay?"

Drysi was not entirely convinced by her twin's rationale of the situation. She did not have Rhagi's
Talent, but she was a sensitive and observant girl who paid attention to the people around her.
She bit her lip. Things did not entirely add up, but she couldn't put her finger on exactly what it
was that bothered her about the whole situation.

"You could always use the Web," she suggested in the end. "We're never that far away on that."

Rhagi nodded, still pensive. He'd have to slip out from behind the Wards, but that shouldn't be a
problem. "Alright. Come on then, I'll hold B'Roden while you repack."

                         The Blackthorn Keep – The Diirlathe – Aerdon

Shadow grabbed a bite to eat as she headed through the Dining Hall of the Blackthorn Keep and
paused in the corridor outside. Her sight shifted allowing her to see the threads that would lead
the way to those that she had come for. Her footsteps turned towards the familiar jade that would
take her to Silverthorn even as she ‘knocked’ on the enwrapped threads of Callan and An’Thaya.

“Aya? I need to talk to you and Callan, I’m getting Thorn, where should we meet up?”

An’Thaya paused in the middle of feeding Callan a wedge of SunMelon from where she was
perched comfortably on his lap, one of the Emperor’s few actual material shirts hanging loosely
off her diminutive frame. She blinked at him slowly and canted her head.
“Dagar, Shady. Here is fine, we are in our chambers. Uhm… good luck with that, you may need a
crowbar.” Silverthorn was notoriously cranky in the morning, which made Tay wonder why Shady
was braving waking her so early.

“Must be important,” she said aloud to her husband. “You should probably find some pants.”

”No worries, I have a death wish remember?” An image of herself with an impish grin flashed
along the Tapestry as she turned the corner and headed into the Barracks.

“Please don’t let Daemon be in there…” she muttered stopping outside of the First Captain’s
quarters wondering if she should knock or just head in. Propriety wasn’t something that was all
that important at the moment. Deciding to err on the side of caution, she knocked instead.

Buried deep under the covers, it took a moment for the knock to impinge on Silverthorn's
consciousness. When it did it was greeted with an indistinct noise that still managed to sound
remarkably vulgar. Unfortunately the individual knocking didn't seem inclined to go away.

The raven-haired elf went to kick Daemon and tell him to open his own damned door, realised
that her lover must already have left to start his shift, and so emerged from beneath the covers
with a distinctly irritated sigh. "This better be good."

Both feet hit the floor at the side of the bed, a hand fumbling around for a moment before closing
around the nearest garment. Dragging the shirt over her head, Thorn ran her fingers through
tousled locks and stalked across to the door.

"Do you have any idea what time it is?" she grumbled, eyeing Shadow.

“Good morning to you too.” The forest elf smirked. The only reason she had ever become a
morning person was because of the Golden Mornings of home. “I could have been truly evil and
gotten here at the crack of dawn like I was tempted to do.” Shadow raised an eyebrow then
chuckled, “I know exactly what time it is.”

Pushing past the raven-haired assassin, the thief started sorting through discarded clothes, “It’s
time for you to get your ass in gear, and get dressed,” she tossed a pair of trousers at her friend
then focused on locating the woman’s boots. “I need you, Aya and Callan in the same room
because I’m not in the mood to repeat myself.”

A hand caught the trousers automatically. "Why?" To say that Thorn wasn't at her best first thing
in the morning was something of an understatement, although she could move quickly enough if
the occasion demanded it.

"They're in that corner," she said to the other woman, referring to her boots, as she began to pull
her trousers on and cast an eye around for her daggers. She wasn't going anywhere without
them. She always felt far more under-dressed without any weapons on her person than she did
without any clothing.

Shadow threw her an exasperated look, one that she generally reserved for her sons or B’Roden.
The words ‘because I said so’ were barely suppressed. She wasn’t in the mood for this, she
decided, grabbing Thorn’s boots.

“Let’s just say its one of ‘those’ talks. You know the one where the world and various occupants
need saving? Let’s just say the various occupants hit closer to home this go around.”
"Doesn't it usually?" Silverthorn's tone was faintly sardonic. She sat on the edge of the bed to tug
on the boots as they were tossed in her direction, sliding one last dagger into a concealed sheath
before rising to her feet once more.

"Okay, I'm dressed. Let's go and track down their Imperialnesses. Do we get to drag them out of
bed too?" A hint of dry humour shone in her jade eyes, one corner of her mouth twitching into a
half-grin as she looked at her friend.

“Well, Aya was at least awake when I sent a knock along the Tapestry, we’re to meet up with
them in their chambers.” Shadow stopped and grinned, “Though its tempting to flip Callan with a
wet towel.” Chuckling, she indicated for the other elf to lead the way.

An’Thaya was fully dressed when the knock came. Pulling the massive door inwards, she grinned
at both women. The trio had similar reputations in some ways, and an odd kinship formed of
mutual respect. “V’ran duan, y’vannah,” she said, addressing both women as she lapsed into
Black Speech. S’Heans were natural language and accent mimics, so over the years the
redhead’s accent and manner of speaking had swung heavily over to that most commonly spoken
in her home with Callan.

“Come in. Do you want some Kej Wodi?” She gestured towards the table where Callan was
sitting as she turned to lead the way, motioning for them both to have a seat. “What is so
important that you had to wake Thorn?” she teased. “Is there a planet in dire need of rescue or
something?”

“Fa’lite Aya… Eh, Dorian couldn’t get me to drink the stuff, I’m not about to start now.” The forest
elf eyed the table, then grinned, “Fa’lite Callan.”

"V'ran duan, Shady, Thorn." Callan's lazy voice coming from the edge of the bed where he sat,
bare feet on the floor, was in direct contrast to his wife's more-perky greeting. The Emperor
wasn't exactly fully dressed, in fact he was still very naked, but when the Kin were involved,
naked was a relative thing. The Emperor seemed to be clad in a pair of loose black trousers with
a drawstring waist, and nothing else, but in truth it was simply an elaborate fabrication of scale
and skin.

Topaz eyes went from Tay, to Shadow, then back at Tay, then to the sunmelon in the bowl, and
the Emperor gave a soft snort and a sigh, then broke off another piece of the melon and began
eating it with obvious deliberation.

"So," he mumbled around a mouthful and simultaneously caught a drip of juice at the edge of his
lower lip with the back edge of his thumb, "what the Ruhl is worth twanging that tapestry of ours?
This doesn't have anything to do with Daemon and Dorian does it? Because, I'm telling you both
right now, I wasn't anywhere near them last night. I had nothing to do with it."

Slipping into a chair, Shadow smiled wryly at her Ad’Vere. “I guess we should get right down to
business. You’ve hit it on the head, well kind of. Right now things seem to be under control but
we don’t know for how long.

“After Belle and Gent’s wedding the Demon Elf was let loose. Ghet says it’s not the right Demon
though he’s… different… somehow. As no one has run screaming down the halls, I’m guessing
this one isn’t from the world we know. But we’re trying to take the usual precautions, and more so
since Yse and Drysi have come into their conduit.” Forest greens met jade. “She really wants to
keep them safe, the first thing Ghet mentioned was getting them out of there.”
Silverthorn looked at her friend for a moment and then nodded shortly. All trace of humour had
vanished from her face. "They can come here, B'Roden too." There was no question of where her
priorities lay. Getting her children away from the danger came first and foremost. She did not fear
the Demon Elf, she never had, but neither was she foolish enough to underestimate the threat.

Callan stopped mid-chew, then swallowed and cleared his throat before dropping the remaining
uneaten piece of melon back into the bowl, "Of course they can come here, but..." His brows
knitted together as his wife's next words echoed his own thoughts.

An’Thaya’s knees went out from under her and she sat down hard. For a time, she simply stared
at Shadow, emerald eyes skipping away only for a moment to look at Thorn when the
Tauremornan spoke. The Amazon’s mouth fell open slightly and she inhaled softly before the
words came tumbling out. “If it isn’t Ro’s Demon… than where the hells are Ro and his Demon?”

Shadow smiled in relief, more so out of the fact it made one less distraction. It was also the
concern of an older sibling, even if it was by adoption. “She was hoping you’d take them sooner
than planned.” Her attention swung back to the redhead. “To be honest, we don’t know yet and
haven’t started looking, right now everyone thinks Ketai…erm, Ro…Oh hell. Everyone thinks he’s
sick. Fadil told the council, Ghet was going to tell the children the same, which isn’t actually far
from the truth.”

The forest elf slouched down into her chair, “It has something to do with the Gates. I swear
technology and magic are not things to cross. I don’t understand the mechanics of it all, but it
seems they were switched. Hell, right now Ghet doesn’t want me to go near him without talking to
her first. Which is fine by me, he came through asking for me by my birth name.” A shiver wound
its way up her spine, but at the same time bought something else to mind. “Right now she has
some sort of control over him with his name so she can’t leave.”

"So, I hate to ask the obvious, but... if they've been switched? How do they get switched back?"
Callan rose to his feet and held out his hand to An'Thaya, "They can be switched back, right?"

The Amazon’s small hand slid automatically in her husband’s much larger one, letting him pull her
up as she lifted her gaze to meet his. “They damn well better be,” she muttered. “So, let’s go
then. We aren’t doing any good lounging about in here.” A small smile flashed across her
features, though building stress and worry deepened the hue of her eyes as they turned to
Shadow and Thorn.

At that point her shoulders slumped. “Ah chuff… I’ll see to the kids,” she poked Callan, “you get
Yarwin to cover for you. Gods only know how long we are going to be gone.” She lifted an
eyebrow at the two dark-haired women, “a couple of hours good for you two?”

Silverthorn shrugged. "Whenever you're ready," she said, making a mental note to track down
Daemon before she left. It seemed only fair to give him some advance notice that the children
were going to be around earlier than originally planned under the circumstances.

“For the moment everything seems to be under control, he’s playing nice, so I think we can spare
the time, and Fadil and Ash are there to help when and where they can. Oh, before I forget.” The
thief’s hand slipped into a shadow and pulled out the letter that Ghetsuhm had trusted her with
and held it out to the Amazon. “She wanted me to give you this.”

An’Thaya paused and tilted her head, then reached out her free hand to take the letter. “D’Anke,”
she said in a distracted tone, fingers whispering over the parchment. “Robin is with the Quads if
you want to visit before we go. “We’ll meet the two of you in the arbour post-zenith, Whispin time.”
                       Present Day - Temple of Twilight – Whispin – A.D

Ro kept Dúdae close by on the trip to the Twilight Temple, hours of the morning whiling away as
the Airship traversed the Kingdom of S’Hea; just over the mountain-range border to Corin. The
temple itself was a massive monolith atop the highest mountain, and from their vantage point they
could see people traversing the high, narrow pathway that wound its treacherous way to the
entrance.

Y’Roden had been here before, twice. It was the very place where he had finally trapped Samara,
and it was a sour irony to be here with the reflection of his daughter, who had given her very life
to help rid him of the Demoness. Here, however, it had been altered for the games. Certain things
remained the same within the massive, obsidian-glass chamber, such as the two giant statues of
Arthaem dragons, one crafted from rubies, the other from perfect crystals, and the channel that
carved a circle in the centre of the floor.

The differences lay mostly in the carved-out stands embedded in the walls, but there was one
difference in the very centre. Two openings inside the circle that led deep into the bowels of the
mountains lay within the ring, stairwells that led to the network of caverns below where the
‘participants’ for the games prepared themselves for battle.

With what looked to be practiced ease, the Emperor made his way up through the stands, his
Seeress at his elbow, past the currently empty box where his Harem would gather, to the throne
that was already heavily guarded. Inside, Ro was uneasy. Ravyel always took part in the games
and out here, in front of so many people; there would be hell to pay if his ruse fell apart.

As the double suns rose further in the morning sky and the eerie shadows of Whispin began their
daily dance, a portal ripped open in the sky over the temple. The air crackled with outrage and the
concussion thundered through the temple and pounded the walls as the Black Emperor arrived at
the lead of a Flight of Black Guard. He was easily the largest of the Flight, and behind him, seven
Wings, each consisting of seven Black Kin'oth, males and females, began a lazy, downward
spiral to the Temple.

Almost halfway to the mountainside, two wings peeled away and made a flaming run at the
S'Hean airships and narrowly missed setting several of them on fire, and in return the bristling
arms on the ships fired back. The result was low, rumbling laughter that was felt, more than
heard, from the Emperor and his escort as the ships skittered and bobbed around, threatening to
dump their shouting and screaming passengers, before it settled.

One by one the Black dragons' bodies began a melting, staggering shift into Human forms as
they grew closer to the ground. The first pair of booted feet that slammed into the mountainside
belonged to Araxmarr himself, and he was the only one of the group that appeared to be half-
elven, rather than Human.

Slowly, Araxmarr ground his chin to the side and his back began a loud crackle as the
compressed vertebrae realigned with the smaller, half-elven form. The wind from the wings of the
Black Guard ruffled his short-cropped hair and his upper lip peeled up in a sneering snarl as the
throng began to part to allow him to pass with a wide berth.

Moments later the Black Emperor flopped into his chair next to Ravyel and waved over a young
boy. "Hells Fire, boy. Bring me two bottles. One for me, one for my Brother."

He then elbowed Ravyel and topaz eyes slid to his profile. "He's pretty, 'Yel." Rax's heavily
booted feet lifted and he rested his heels on the railing before him, then stretched out his long
legs before crossing them and sinking into his seat with a practiced slouch. "Why the skag hell
didn't you tell me you had him? He looks like he needs to be broken in properly."

Ro grunted, crimson eyes sliding slowly over to eye this mirror version of what could be
considered his closest friend. This was not Callan, however, this was Rax, he could see it in the
Dragon’s body language, in the severe Caesar cut of his hair and the striking black-leather outfit.

“If I told you about every pretty boy in my service, I wouldn’t have a ‘service’ left to speak of,” he
rumbled out. Fingers hooked around the neck of a bottle as the boy returned and tipped it up,
taking a long swallow of the burning liquid. He could handle his liquor, and knew for a fact that
Araxmarr could not. The drunker the Black Dragon got, the less likely he was to notice any
unintentional faux pas.

"You give my appetite far too much credit, Ravyel." Araxmarr's eyes narrowed as his companion
took a deep drink from the bottle. His ice-blue eyes then slipped to the youth who offered him the
bottle.

"You first. I'm not sure what's gotten into him, but I'm not drinking without a taster trying it first.
Drink up, boy."

The youth's eyes darted to the bottle, to the Emperor's, then to the bottle. He was little more than
a child, barely into adolescence, and he was terrified, but he did as he was ordered to do. He'd
barely swallowed before he gagged, sprayed the alcohol into the air before Rax, then began
choking and gasping, struggled not to slump to the floor of the stands. He almost dropped the
bottle as well as he stumbled, but it landed along with most of the boy's torso in the lap of the
Black Emperor.

"Well. I'd say its just fine," Araxmarr drawled the words out and sat up as he patted the boy on the
back, then slowly twined his fingers in his hair before hauling back on the boy's head.

"Why don't you sit by me for now." The Black Emperor pulled the boy up by his hair then ran his
nose down the boy's throat. "You smell... pure. I like that." The boy's throat bobbed and he
nodded carefully, then sat where Araxmarr indicated, which was right at his feet.

A soft snort of something that might have been laughter, or might have not, came from behind the
Emperor. The female was dressed in the armour of the Black Guard, the knots on one shoulder
marking her out as the First Captain. Although shorter and lighter than many of the males beside
her, there was an air of predatory grace about her that suggested it would be a fool who
underestimated the threat she presented.

Her lips curled into the semblance of a smile as Erinya Dhaunae's dark gaze lit briefly upon the
boy, enjoying the scent of pure terror that emanated from him, before looking out towards the
arena.

"If I didn't know better," Rax took the bottle and turned it up, swallowed, drew in a short, soft gasp
as the hard liquor burned its way down his throat, "I'd say you were in a bad mood today."

Y’Roden’s attention had been slightly diverted by the arrival of the Demon’s Harem. He was sure
there were a couple of familiar faces among them and his stomach lurched slightly as he blocked
it out, settling into a unfeeling calm as the suns peaked, the dual rays striking off the massive
jewelled eyes of the Arthaem statues. Saved from answering Rax for a moment by the thundering
noise of the beasts as something within choked, coughed, then bellowed out billowing flames, he
lifted an eyebrow slightly and turned his head to look at his ‘fellow Emperor’ as the oil in the
channel ignited and threw up a wall of roaring flame.

There were of course some 'familiar' faces, though none could have known it. Summerlin Alcarin
took her own place, a fine spot in which to languish and lounge if she so wished. She was a tall
elven woman, but she did not require the space. Instead she sat bolt upright, strawberry-blonde
hair intricately plaited into a loose tail that slid coquettishly over her left shoulder. She'd have
shaved herself bald if she could have.

As it was, despite the perfect tints, the hairstyle and delicate clothing designed to accentuate her
figure, Summerlin felt ugly. Sure, there was the mark of Ravyel on her left cheek -- the sign of
both his pleasure and displeasure, but inwardly too... she was unclean. She'd felt the creature's
quick scan of her, knew he passed on, was grateful. She settled herself and stared forward, not
quite happy to glimpse An'Thaya. It was a mixed feeling. That woman had more than contributed
to why Summerlin's own people, while now wildly successful, were more or less slaves of a dual
empire. And then she paused because despite her personal anger it wasn't An'Thaya who was to
blame. It was a variety of events that had crashed together and resulted in the decisions that had
brought things to this point. She slowly closed her eyes, and then reopened them, wishing
An'Thaya victory.

"My gods," she whispered quietly though. She said no more and waved away even a fan.

“Bad mood?” The cheers of the crowd nearly drowned the words out. “No… just a little
distracted.” Dragging his eyes away to see what had the crowd going crazy, Y'Roden found
himself looking down on his younger sister, An’Thaya, as she emerged from the caverns below.
She seemed flame-like herself, standing alone in the ring of fire, a rune-collar glittering softly at
her throat, black battle-leathers clinging to her delicately-muscled body, framed by copper-fire
tresses that spilled down to the small of her back.

“Your Imperial Majesties,” her voice was steady, and she refused to bow despite her obvious
status as a captive warrior. “Your permission to begin the Games?”

"What a wonderful trait. She still asks our permission." Rax took another drink and leaned
forward, his gaze intent on the Amazon woman, "Of course, after tonight, I'll be the only one she
has to ask permission from. If she's nice, I might even let her bring Galain over to play from time
to time... but only if she promises to share him with me."

Araxmarr's attention shifted to the tiny woman, "Of course, ne'Randii. By all means..."

To Y’Roden’s credit, he didn’t choke on the mouthful of Hell’s Fire he had just chugged. His
naturally cold disposition kept shock from registering on his face, though his eyes did slide
questioningly to Dúdae.

Ne’Randii?

He knew full well what Randii meant in the Black Tongue. It was an endearment meaning mate,
something akin to ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ depending on the circumstances.

Dúdae sat silently in the smaller chair reserved for her, appearing to only be paying attention to
the games, though she kept a close watch on Y’Roden. If he should fail the fact was that not only
was his life forfeit, but so was hers. A fact she kept to herself.
Catching the questioning look she gave a slight nod then turned her eyes back to the figure in the
ring of fire. “An’Thaya is promised to Araxmarr as a mate. It is to enforce the alliance and as an
act of good faith.”

Good gods… what had Ravyel done? An’Thaya may very well have been married to Callan back
in Ro’s own universe, but this? Araxmarr was an animal, far from sane and as likely to kill her as
bed her. Something Rax had said struck home.

“And I’m to hand her over to him… today?”

“Yes. It was agreed to after Araxmarr took power, at the time he was going through the Madness
after the death of his mate. He has recovered quite well.” Leaning forward slightly she caught a
glimpse of the Black Emperor. “If Araxmarr can break her, he would have her conduit at his
command. It is a game of balance, Ro.”

Ro slouched in his chair and kicked his feet up as An’Thaya’s opponent ascended into the ring.
The movement covering the sudden sinking of his heart, there was nothing he could do for her.
For his own survival he was going to have to damn this version of his sister to a living hell. To
survive, a complete emotional shut down was necessary, the problem was, once shut down, he
risked never being able to come out of it again.

“So be it then.”

“I am sorry.” Dúdae’s voice held a hint of sympathy for both him and a female she barely knew.

                                 Present Day - Xudah IX – A.D

Heels clicked determinedly down the corridor. That the elven woman was making the noise at all
was an indicator of her mood. When she chose she could move as soundlessly as a ghost. Slim-
built, her walnut-brown hair was caught up in a tight braid, a style she had evidently chosen for
practicality, unaware of the way that it emphasised the delicacy of her features and her wide-
spaced, jade-green eyes. Her garb was also defiantly practical. A sleeveless vest of forest green
was twinned with matching pants and calf-length leather boots. Only the silver cuff that encircled
her right bicep set her apart from the others that accompanied her.

"Inform General Diamondwood that Kyra Eldredae has arrived," she said crisply, her gaze fixed
upon the man she was addressing. The elves behind her fanned out, their manner
unthreatening... for now. That that could change in a heartbeat if they felt their Queen was in
danger was not in any doubt.

The man's brow rose in curiosity, the Elven Queen had not introduced herself by title, but by
name.

"Certainly, I believe he was expecting you a little sooner though." The man's dark eyes traveled
down the length of the slender woman, beginning at her delicate ears, down to her booted feet,
then back up to her jade-green eyes. It was difficult to tell if the human was surprised or amused
from the crinkles around the outer edges of his eyes and he made no move to go fetch the
requested General for several long moments. When he did move, he scratched at his nose, then
scrubbed his chin and the several days worth of bearded growth, then shrugged, "Follow me,
Kyra Eldredae."

The human's hand pushed on the door behind him and it pivoted soundlessly on its metal hinges
to reveal a room filled with maps, digital images of Aerdon and other bits and pieces of
information. In the centre of the room was a massive round table littered with more maps and
even what appeared to be the schematics of several key citadels in the Imperium.

"I'll apologize in advance for the General's appearance, M’Lady. We do so miss being able to
shave regularly on this side of Xudah IX." He turned and pulled out a chair for her, then bowed,
"Owen Diamondwood, General and Blacksmith. I am pleased to meet you, at last."

Irritation flared in her gaze, wide eyes narrowing as the elven woman returned the visual
assessment. What she saw was evidently not entirely to her satisfaction, a scathing expression
crossing her fine-boned features. "I do not appreciate games, General. Remember that fact and
we both might survive this alliance without trying to kill one another."

Ignoring the chair, Kyra pulled forward one of the schematics, studying it thoughtfully for a long
moment before tossing it to one side. If the truth be told, she had not wanted to be where she was
now. The alliance was not one of her choosing, and if she could have avoided it she would. The
Humans of the Ruauldnahm had never been friends of the Eldredae. Yet the unpalatable truth
was that the Silmetaurea could not stand-alone. They did not have the strength. The destruction
wrought by Araxmarr Zavern Sar'da in that region of Nehlmere had been almost complete. She
herself was the only one of the royal house of Eldredae to survive the onslaught. Only by allying
themselves with others could her people survive.

Fortunately, it was not hard to find those with reason to hate the two Emperors whose appetite for
conquest was the stuff of legends. Wherever the dispossessed and downtrodden survived,
clinging on by their fingernails to what little they had left, there she would also find those who
might be prepared to fight back. No matter who they were or what their past history was with her
people, if they could help her retrieve her throne then she was prepared to talk to them. The
enemy of my enemy was my friend... at least for now.

"It is long past time that we spoke face-to-face, General Diamondwood, don't you think?"

When the offered chair went unoccupied, Owen simply shrugged and spun it in his direction by its
back, then took the seat himself.

"Games?" His eyes went wide for a moment in apparent disbelief, "Queen, you were the one that
didn't give me the opportunity to introduce myself properly. I'd given up on you, truthfully, and was
leaving." The man's fingers scrubbed through his short hair, then he nodded again.

"I agree though. Well past time we met in the flesh, rather than through our soldiers on the field of
battle." Owen's dark eyes went from the Queen's face to the table, then to his fingers, which were
threaded together before him, then back to Kyra. He drew in a deep breath, and expression had
gone suddenly sombre.

"Would you... accept my condolences on loss of your mother? Estalde was... a formidable ruler.
Her death at the hands of Araxmarr brought me no pleasure."

For a brief instant the flare of remembered grief and pain his words brought was reflected in her
jade eyes. Then the elven woman recovered her composure, the woman concealed once more
behind the facade of the Queen.

"Thank you, General." Despite Kyra's best efforts, her tone was husky. "She and my father
deserved better than the end they received. But that is true also of so many others. Too many
others."
Determination hardened her expression. "I cannot let it be repeated."

Owen had never been fond of the Eldredae, and there had been a time when he'd have merrily
cut the throat of any member of the ruling family he'd been left alone with, but everything had
changed when Araxmarr had come into power.

Rather than having any desire to kill the surviving princess, now queen he supposed, Owen found
himself looking away, if even for the briefest of moments, out of respect for Kyra's sorrow. It was
no secret that the love of a mother and father was all the love the Eldredae ever knew. Love
between husbands and wives was unheard of, the Eldredae married for power and financial
gain... or had.

Kyra had lost both her mother and father within a month and Owen simply couldn't imagine the
pain and loss she was enduring.

As the dark-haired elven woman spoke again, Owen's eyes snapped back to her face, "Neither
can I." Seconds passed where the hardened Human General found himself unable to look
anywhere but at her face, then he cleared his throat, "Well. Since we're in agreement," his fingers
scrubbed at the stubble on his jaw again, "why don't you have a seat?"

Kyra hesitated for a moment, and then nodded shortly, sinking with unconscious grace into the
seat opposite him. In some respects he was exactly what she had been expecting, a slightly gruff
human male who bore the scars of battle, yet in other ways he was not and that piqued her
interest. Mentally she rebuked herself. She was here for the good of her people, not to unravel
the puzzle that was Owen Diamondwood. But she could not entirely suppress the spark of
curiosity.

"Since we are in agreement, on that point at least," she said, "perhaps we should test our
agreement further? Neither of us is happy with the repetition of past actions, but I see no
likelihood of them not being repeated if circumstances do not alter. Left unchecked, the Emperors
of the Olnelan Sar'da Empire will continue their reign of terror. Put very simply, what are we
prepared to do about that?"

"I like this new accord between us." Owen laughed slightly and drummed his callused fingers on
the tabletop for a moment, then nodded, "I think, Kyra Eldredae, the question is not what are we
prepared to do, but what are we not prepared to do." Owen leaned forward and his eyes were
dark with intense emotion, "You've lost your entire family, your home. The Eldredae are
threatened with extinction, as are the Humans. Where do we want to draw the line? What price
are we prepared to pay?"

The General said there a moment, his gaze fixed on Kyra. The elven woman had just struck one
of Owen's great passions, or perhaps obsessions, right on the head, and it showed in his face,
his body language, his dark eyes.

"I'm prepared to give everything, even if it just means we unsettle the bastards."

A feral smile curled her lips. "Then everything it shall be," she said.

                    Present Day - Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Whispin

The sound of booted footfalls rang in the halls of Windemiire as the foursome exited a glimmering
portal, arriving on the top floor of the palace. An’Thaya’s hand was, perhaps, squeezing Callan’s
a little too tight. Worry for her brother had her mind spinning in circles, and the though of
Ghetsuhm alone with that thing all this time made her gorge rise.

The tiny Empress nodded to Ja’Kel as they neared the chamber doors, managing a smile for the
Hojet Foryen as she came to a standstill. “Dagar, Ja’Kel.”

“Your Imperial Majesties,” he greeted the Emperor and Empress at once. Moving slightly
sideways, he knocked on the chamber door. Things had been more than a little strange, but he
wasn’t about to offer any comment on it. “Y’Tyrah, the Emperor and Empress of the Diirlathe, her
Highness Shadow Silverleaf and…” there was a distinct and slightly confused pause. “Silverthorn
Badb Catha… to see you.

Ghet came out, pushing a hand through her hair. Normally decisive and then some, she couldn't
work out what to do. She didn't think Silverthorn would want to come back into her old chambers,
and she didn't want Ravyel to over-hear them, but she wasn't comfortable leaving him. And she
couldn't keep them hanging around out here either, because of the children. "You'd better come
in, I suppose. He's in the bedroom with Fadil, I was... having a break." With a lop-sided smile at
Ja'Kel, she led the way back inside, where she stood in the middle of the room in confusion for a
moment before sitting in her usual place. "Shadow told you everything, I take it?"

An’Thaya moved to sit next to Ghet, taking the other woman’s hand in her own in a rare gesture
of affection. She threw a glace towards the doors to the bedchamber and grimaced despite
herself. “She did.” Dragging her gaze back she looked to Shadow, on to Callan, and finally back
to the S’Hean Queen’s face. “I’d ask if you were all right… but, yeah. Do you have any idea how
this happened? I mean, Shadow mentioned the Gates, but they aren’t cross-dimensional.”

Ghet shook her head dismissively, her hand unresponsive in An'Thaya's. She didn't withdraw it,
though. "I'm fine. I'm managing. We talk a lot. Lie to each other. I... he hasn't... we seem to be at
an impasse."

She rubbed a hand over her forehead, unconsciously leaning in to An'Thaya. "I don't know what
happened yet. Neither does he, that's what he says. It was an accident; he just wants to go back.
I sent Holo out to take a data dump from the gate. The records should give us some clue to what
happened. We'll get him back. We have to."

Callan's arms had folded across his chest as An'Thaya had released his hand. The Emperor had
arrived in deceptively casual dress, his usual war-boots, jeans and black t-shirt. No obvious
weapons were visible, but they were there, nonetheless, tucked within his boots and laying
beneath his own skin. His fingers caught the back of a nearby chair and spun it around
backwards on one back leg before he settled in it. His eyes remained on the door that separated
the two rooms, and quietly he felt along the Web he shared with the D'Riel family. Topaz eyes
narrowed as he sensed the subtle change in the Patriarch, and his attention shifted to Ghetsuhm.

"So you tell each other lies?" He drew in a slow breath. She was playing a dangerous, very high-
stakes game of chicken with this version of Ro, and it concerned him deeply, not only for her own
welfare, but for the safety of everyone in Windemiire.

"Why does he want to go back?" The question was abrupt, almost a total shift of thought.

"How do you know he's telling the truth?" His chin jutted toward the closed door, "How do you
know that's all he wants? To go home? Why would he?"
An odd quirk of humour had left Thorn tempted to grin at Ja'Kel's confusion, but her face had
regained its usual controlled impassivity by the time she stepped into the room. The suite had
once been one she had shared with Y'Roden, although it looked very different now. She could not
help but be a little grateful for that fact. She had moved on with her life and, whilst out loud she
might vigorously deny it, the simple fact was that she was happier than she had ever been. Yet at
the same time, it was not possible to pretend that her relationship with Y'Roden had never
happened. It had been a major part of her life for several decades, had had a significant impact
on her life and, if nothing else, had given her four children whom she loved with all her heart. To
have walked into this chamber and for it to seem exactly as it had when she had occupied it
would in some peculiar way have been far more uncomfortable than it did to see it redecorated to
the new Queen's taste.

The raven-haired elf leaned back against the wall, no expression showing in her jade eyes as
they rested on Ghetsuhm, waiting for the redhead to answer Callan's question.

Normally, Ghet was just fine dealing with Callan's attitude. Now her voice was very soft, partly to
avoid being over-heard. "Don't start under-estimating me now, boy. No-one has a firmer grasp on
what happens if I get this wrong than I do, believe me. The weird thing is, even though we've just
met," she gestured towards the door with her free hand, "we know each other. Intimate things. I
haven't exactly lied to him, I just leave things out. He knows I do, but not what. I don't know for
sure if he's lying to me, but every lie is mostly truth anyway, so I still learn. He had a me, Callan,
another version of me, and she broke underneath him before he was bored with her. So I get to
him. I can see it in his face, and I can feel it. If you're ever going to lie to me, you need to do it
with total sincerity. Or in a crowd, that'd work too."

With an obvious effort, she tried to get herself back on track. "He says he doesn't want to stay
here, because he already has this. S'Hea. All of Whispin. Many other planets. All ruled between
the two of them: him, and Araxmarr." The more she told them, the fewer nasty surprises there
would be for them. She met An'Thaya's eye wearily. "He mentioned you, too. And Galain.

"Anyway, he feels sincere. I don't sense any desire to break out and conquer this world too. This
place bores him. The thing is... well, you know how destructive animals and children get when
they're bored. I'm only holding him by a thread, and even when he's playing nice, he's constantly
trying to break that hold. The fewer people I have to protect, the better."

She lifted her eyes to Silverthorn. "Your name wasn't familiar to him. That may well mean he
doesn't know anything about you, or where to look for you. The children should be safe. I... I can't
stop thinking about what he'd do if he got his hands on the girls. Once they're gone I can think
about what to do next."

"It's possible Elemmiire was never subsumed into their Empire," the other woman said with a
shrug. "Neither my home world or its sun are even visible from Whispin. If the likes of myself and
Bran never left, why would either Emperor even necessarily know it exists?" At the moment
though that did not seem like a major issue.

"Drysi, Yseult and B'Roden will come back to Aerdon with me. If need be, Fechine can join us
there later, but for now he should be safe enough at the Crystal Keep. Deities may not be my
favourite people most of the time, but I would be surprised if Arminiea let any harm come to him
or Meghan. That seems out of character."

She met Ghetsuhm's gaze calmly. "First and foremost though, my priority is keeping the children
safe. I will do whatever it takes to achieve that. That may result in this version's death; it may
result in others finding out the truth about Ro and the Demon Elf. I've kept my promise to hold my
tongue on that subject, up until now it served no useful purpose to break it anyway, but if that is
the only way that I can keep the children safe then I may have no choice but to do that. No matter
what the consequences are for my children, or for yours. You say you hold him by a thread. Fine,
in that case for now we'll play this your way. But a thread is easily snapped, and if that ever
happens..." The raven-haired elf paused.

"Keeping the children alive comes first. Given some of the decisions he has made in the past, I
believe even Ro himself would agree with that."

“Now probably isn’t the time for speculation like that,” An’Thaya said softly, but firmly. Well aware
that Ghet was stretched very thin at the moment, the Amazon presented the warmth of calm.
“Take the children, we will deal with what is happening here. With Callan between him and
Aerdon I can pretty much guarantee you won’t have to worry about it.” She smiled wryly, utter
faith in her husband backed up by past events.

"Possibly so," Silverthorn replied. Her manner was quiet, matter of fact rather than aggressive.
"But you'll forgive me if I am not willing to take that on faith. That isn't in my nature and I think we
both know that. Nor do I want people to start pointing fingers if the worst comes to the worst. I
know that working out what happened and then rescuing Ro is a priority, and believe me I'd far
rather our universe's version was back than have to deal constantly with an alternate version that
has no particular affection for any of us, but there are other priorities too."

She glanced back briefly at the S'Hean Queen, "Ones I think we're all aware of. I'm sorry if it
offends people, and I'm not here to start a fight, but if it comes to a choice between rescuing Ro
or keeping everyone safe then rescuing Ro is going to come a poor second. I will not stand by
and let any of my children be subject to the Demon Elf's whims. Being killed would almost be a
mercy, particularly for the twins. A female D'Riel with an active conduit in his hands would put
even the worst of Tallin's atrocities in the shade."

Jade eyes met denim blue. "I'm sure I'm not saying anything that you yourself have not already
thought of. If there is anything I can do to help then I will, for the sake of the children if nothing
else. I guess I owe you for your kindness to them anyway. For that I am grateful. But I am afraid
that I have never viewed the world through rose-coloured glasses, and I think that in a situation
as delicately balanced as this that we all need to know exactly where we stand."

Ghet's fingers tightened on An'Thaya's, her nails digging into the back of her sister-in-law's hand.
Her anger, and the battle to control it, was quite clear in every line of her face. "I don't like lying to
the children. I hate it. But weigh my discomfort against the alternative, which is completely
destroying their happiness and tainting every memory of their father, and it comes to nothing. I
can't conceive of any scenario in which it would actually do the children, yours or mine, any good
to be told of their father's nature. And don't you dare try to tell me what Ro wants. None of his
children know, not one of them. He's absolutely adamant none of them knows, ever, and in his
absence I must respect his wishes. I can't stop you telling them. It's an action that carries its own
punishment, though I don't expect you to work that out until you see it in your daughter's face."

Ghet's jaw shifted, teeth grinding. "I can't stop you. But I can tell them you're a liar. And I'll do that
rather than see them flinch in their father's presence. Rescuing Ro does keep the children safe.
You know full well that he, and I, and everyone here, have their interests at heart. We're just
capable of seeing more than that. Do you have anything constructive to add?"

The Amazon released a wave of calm, drawing on Callan’s unflappable mood in the situation to
wall off Ghet’s rising anger, before the situation got out of hand. The empath’s talents in force
could set off even the coldest nature, bringing out rage where there normally was none. Given the
situation, the S’Hean Queen was dangerously close to losing her normally impeccable control.
“The Demon has no interest in a conduit,” An’Thaya said flatly. It wasn’t his style. Silverthorn had
to know that, she had gone to Tenobrous with An'Thaya and Y'Roden, helped to rescue B’Elya.
That in itself made it clear exactly what use he had for Ro’s female relatives. He wasn’t Tallin,
and never had been.

The Demon wouldn't just kill someone; he’d break him or her. He'd break Silverthorn in front of
her own children, because that is what would cause her the most pain. If he didn’t rape her in
front of them, wearing their father’s face, he’d subtly goad her into a fight until she tried to kill him.
He likely wouldn’t put up a fight, because taking a mortal wound was exactly the thing that would
make Silverthorn's children hate her.

Then he would take her life. He’d make it look like an accident, a kiss goodbye for a woman he
once loved, and his conduit would suck the last living breath from Silverthorn's body, leaving him
whole -- and her daughters at his mercy. To terrorize, to rape, and eventually kill... if they were
lucky.

“Enough.” Shadow shoved away from the table she was leaning against, her eyes flickering
towards Ghetsuhm then around the others. She’d only been close to the woman once when
things became too much, and compared to now, that was a walk in the park, one that the forest
elf had no wish of taking again. “Arguing isn’t getting us anywhere, and neither is saying things
that we already know.”

The forest elf turned her attention to Thorn, “You will take the children and go to Aerdon. You will
keep your promise and you will not. say. one. word. to them about any of this. By following this
you know that it will keep the children safe. They think he’s sick. They will continue to think he’s
sick because that is exactly what this is, a form of sickness. They’re smart enough to know when
something isn’t right, and that’s the reason why everything must continue on the path that we’re
on.

“Thorn, you are a very dear friend, but right now you aren’t thinking very rational. You’re thinking
as a mother, and I don’t blame you, but only thinking that way isn’t going to solve this.” Forest-
greens flickered around to the others, “In this room are four people who can stand between him
and the outside world, three of whom have stood between him and the outside world before and
you’ve seen it. Let us handle what happens within the wards, you handle the children and make
sure they don’t worry about their father.”

"I'll do what I need to. You know me well enough for that," came the calm reply. "I made a
promise once, and I don't do that lightly. I've kept that promise so far and I'll continue to do so for
as long as I am able. Breaking my word is not something I do for fun, and even less so under
these circumstances. I, perhaps more than anyone, know exactly what sort of price I would pay
for doing so. If it is necessary for the children to hate me or think me a liar in order to keep them
safe, however, then so be it. I won't enjoy it. I won't do it unless that is the very last option I have
left. But I will do it."

Silverthorn could feel Ghetsuhm's anger beating against the walls around her soul and mind, but
those same walls that made her seem like a black hole to the most skilled of empaths held firm.
Walking over to the door, the raven-haired elf smiled blandly at the ranger on the other side. "I'm
going to see Drysi, Yseult and B'Roden," she informed him. "I presume they're still in the
nursery?"

                                Temple of Twilight – Whispin – A.D

Dagger’s in hand, An’Thaya stood braced on the rough-hewn floor, the obsidian glass smooth
and slick beneath her bare feet… as much a hazard as the weapons of an opponent. Her arms
were held slightly back, fingers delicately gripping the hilts so that the blades were point down.
Emerald eyes focused unfailingly on the opening across from her, waiting for her opponent to
emerge.

Over the years she had become a favourite in the Games. Diminutive and fragile looking, she
was nonetheless a force to be reckoned with. Lethal, cold, and rarely showing mercy, the ring of
fire was the only place she enjoyed any amount of freedom. The Emperors never took it upon
themselves to say who lived or died at her hands as they did in so many of the other matches.
Blood lust was something they both could appreciate, and the Amazon could be deadly poetry in
motion.

Shoulder length hair, the colour of dark honey, shifted over the sleeveless, lightweight tunic that
he wore. Gre’Yor Ma’Ius stopped at the top of the steps. Flames reflected over the daggers in his
opponent’s delicate hands caught hazel-green eyes leading them up golden skin to hair that
caught the light of the fire and came alive with it.

An’Thaya D’Riel.

Gre swallowed hard.

He’d grown up watching her fight and to now join her in the ring was somewhere between a
dream and a death wish come true. There wasn’t anyway he was walking out of this ring alive,
but he couldn’t think of a better way to go. His fingers shifted on the grips of his own daggers, a
choice he had made when he had learned whom he was up against. At least he might be able to
live just a bit longer.

Impervious to the look in the Ranger’s eyes, the Amazon seemed to slip into a trance, the glitter
of metal hypnotic as daggers spun in small palms, then settled into a sure grip. Predatory, she
padded forwards, closing the distance between them with a slow and easy gait, remaining just
outside his reach.

Circling round him, back to the fire, she came to a languid stop, arms crossing at the wrists to
frame her face with lethally sharp blades. Head slightly to the side she examined the S’Hean with
cool appraisal. “Fine choice of weapons, boy.” One foot slid back and her forward knee bent as
she stretched out her leading hand and drew the other back to her side, both points levelled at
her opponent.

A sharp yell launched her forwards into sinuous movement, weapons dancing in an offensive
pattern, aiming for sensitive knuckles and wrists.

The Ranger twisted to the side, pulling one wrist out of harms way. The blade crossed over his
other wrist, deflecting the blow and turning it to the side with a screech of metal.

“Glad you approve.” Flickering a smile he advanced, daggers flashing, searching for an opening
and steadily working inwards.

The music of metal on metal set the tempo of the dance as Thaya backed up, countering each
move with instinctive precision, the muscles in her back rippling with the lightening-fast pace of
her hands. One bare foot slid back to brace, a sharp edge of glass slicing through the sole as her
full weight balanced on it. In tandem, her daggers clanged into his and pushed outwards,
throwing his hands aside as she twisted at the hips, thigh tilting inwards to angle her foot
horizontally and solidly kick into the S’Hean’s abdomen.
An oath bounced around in his head, a steady cadence that off set that of the fight. Gre quickly
rotated his wrists, the blades slipping under her wrists right before the kick struck. Air left him in a
whoosh, but he took the hit instead of jerking away or standing his ground the Ranger fell back
springing on his feet at the same time so that he slid across bloodied glass.

Thaya’s arms flared out, her head lowering as she propelled herself up onto the balls of her feet
and launched into a spinning pirouette. Pushing the attack with hard arcing slashes and
unrelenting revolving movement forward as her flaming tresses spun about her frame, seeming to
set the air itself afire.

Twisting onto his side, Gre’Yor lashed out, one leg sweeping towards her feet, the other towards
her back, using the slippery floor to his advantage he spun like a top until he could regain his feet.
Panting, he crouched, back dangerously close to the flames. If he still believed, he would have
made a quick prayer to Arminiea or even to Jaran but the likelihood that they would listen was
slim to none.

Taking a deep breath he launched forward.

An’Thaya hit the glass rolling, feet taken out from under her and the kick to her back sending her
airborne. Landing face down she skidded to a halt just short of the burning ring, her head
snapping up to judge Gre’s distance as he lunged towards her. Flipping to the side she bounced
upwards, finding her feet just in time to meet the heavier S’Hean from a crouched position, blade
stabbing upwards towards his abdomen, her body already twisting out of his way.

Gre pivoted, but not quick enough. The Amazon’s blade sliced through fabric and skin, leaving a
crimson line across his torso too shallow to be mortal, but too deep not to hamper his
movements. Despite the burning pain, the opening was too good to pass up. Twirling his dagger
into a different grip he slashed down his aim for where neck and shoulder met.

Stabbing agony ripped through her shoulder as the tip of her opponent’s dagger carved through
the muscle. Features twisted in pain and rage the Amazon shot up, the dagger in her left hand
jabbing up as the momentum brought his wrist down, dragged by the weapon still tearing through
Thaya’s flesh.

Hazel-green eyes widened, a natural reaction to the shock his body felt. He was certain the
dagger’s path would go straight through him until he felt the oddly cool metal of the hand guard
against his skin. Oddly, the first thought that popped into his mind was ‘I’m sorry I’m bleeding on
you,’ but the words came out in a choked, bloody laugh.

Strength left his legs and he crumpled down and forwards.

The Amazon stumbled, Gre’s heavier weight falling against her smaller frame as he fell. Her right
hand let it’s blade fall, clattering to the glass, wounded shoulder losing strength, and she tangled
delicate fingers into the dying S’Hean’s hair as she slid backwards. Tumbling waves of flaming
hair curtained them both for a moment.

“Armineia take you,” she whispered. “Look to the future past.” With a jerk, the tiny redhead
yanked her blade free, then stumbled back out of the path of his falling body. The roar of the
crowd heralded An’Thaya’s victory and after several heaving breaths, she tossed her head back,
clearing her face of bloodied hair and shoving the glittering, gore-slick dagger towards the ceiling.

                                                   ***
The next ‘contestant’ to ascend from the caverns was a Corinian human. Standing a six-feet four-
inches and heavily built he was imposing at it was, but it was the look in ice-blue eyes that truly
chilled the blood. Ebony curls swept down over his bare shoulders to brush at the waistband of
leather trousers, the only stitch of clothing he wore. The rune-collar at his throat was his only
ornamentation, and it wasn’t there by choice.

Tallin Grendorin Modar had been Ravyel’s prisoner for over twenty eight hundred years, but the
fire still burned in the Demon Mage’s soul. As long as he still lived, there was hope of attaining
freedom someday… hope of killing his nephew and taking his Empire.

Padding out onto the rough obsidian-glass he lifted his head to gaze intently at the box where
both Emperors sat and he lifted the great blade held in one hand, touching the flat to his forehead
in greeting, though there was no real respect in the gesture. The games were something Tallin
truly enjoyed, his only outlet, and he took great pride in his skill.

"Oh for the love of--" Galain said more words in Elen that scalded the ears of those around him
when he saw his opponent. He nodded though. The only good thing that had happened so far
was An'Thaya's victory. He'd stayed stone-faced throughout the fight, but inwardly, he'd gloated.
No one could defeat her and no one ever would.

Galain emerged, fully armoured and feeling somewhat of a peacock in the stuff. He paused a
moment and regarded Tallin, and then he tossed off his helm and breathed in hot air. At least it
was fresher. He stalked forward and held his own blade aloft, directing it toward the Emperors'
box, slapping it against his breastplate. Collars or not, the fight would be brutal enough and the
Elen would relish this opportunity to beat Tallin to his knees.

The human grinned viciously, highly amused by the luck of the draw this time around. The only
thing better, would have been facing An’Thaya herself. He didn’t give Galain the time to even
finish the gesture of respect, turning on him in the blink of an eye with a guttural snarl and arced
blade, his heavy frame braced for impact with the Elen’s breastplate.

Of course his opponent was a fellow dirty fighter, the inane thought passed swiftly through
Galain's mind as he left his genuflection undone and swiftly twisted around to face the other man.
He took the brunt of the blow with a gasp, flying backward and landing hard on his back. He
forced himself to move, adrenalin beginning its frantic course through his body as he rolled to one
side, cursed and yet blessed the breastplate. It was a bulky thing that hampered him, but it was a
terrific help. He began tugging at its ties though, a half-formed plan in mind as he got to his feet,
still tugging at its connections. He paused long enough to swing back at the human. It was a
horrible three-way tie between whom he hated the most: Gendorin-Tallin, Ravyel or Rax. Right
now he opted to pour all of his hatred into annihilating Tallin. All of the ruined past, the frustrated
present and the hopeless future, as he knew full well what was to occur tonight, filled the Elen
with a rage so strong he was barely able to control himself.

He nearly tipped off balance, sliding past Tallin and he had to tell himself to mind some control --
or he'd be a dead man -- and that was something that couldn't be afforded.

The tip of the Elen’s blade carved a red, oozing line across Tallin’s chest as he twisted with the
direction of Galain’s strike, falling into the motion and carrying himself mostly out of harm's way.
Dextrous fingers flipped the hilt in his hands; point back as heavy biceps bunched, stabbing the
heavy weapon backwards, aiming for the General Enforcer’s ribs.

Galain knew he'd made contact, accidental or not, and was glad he'd drawn first blood, but he
was about lose some of his own as Tallin's blade slide between the seams of his armour and
skipped over his ribs. Skin and muscle tore open and Galain gasped and pulled away. He
staggered, finally regained his balance and narrowed his eyes at his opponent before he moved
swiftly forward, unbuckling his breastplate completely and using it as a sort of shield and battering
ram as he launched himself squarely at the Corinian.

The force of the impact knocked the wind from Tallin’s lungs and took him back a few steps, dark
hair singeing as it flared briefly through the flames. He snorted, sucking in air as much as
protesting as his grip tightened on the hilt of the sword, feet digging into hard edges of glass to
stop his backward slide. The human hauled back his fist, blade glittering, before unleashing a
heavy punch towards Galain’s face.

There was little time for triumph as the Elen took the full force of Tallin's fist. Lights exploded
before Galain's eyes and he was certain he heard something crack and break. Instinctively he
raised the breastplate, swinging it wildly with one hand as his other hand caught at his face and
he staggered back. Then he tossed the piece of armour away, nothing but a sleeveless tunic to
protect his upper torso now. He gave Tallin a huge, bloody grin and dove back at him, determined
to drive the human into the circle of flames. Searing waves of pain from his ribs and face hazed
his vision, but he felt his sword battering repeatedly down on Tallin's. It was difficult to keep his
balance on the insidious glass flooring, but perhaps this battle dance they were locked in was
what kept either of them from slipping more than they did.

The heat from the ring of fire seared Tallin’s bared back, alarmingly close. His free hand twisted
into Galain’s golden locks and twisted, hauling the Elen sideways and twisting his own body away
from the flames. Metal screeched as their locked swords ground together and the human looped
an ankle around his opponent's, throwing his weight onto the lighter-built elf and falling forwards
into the centre of the ring.

Galain grunted, dizzied by new pain. A disembodied voice somewhere deep in his head told him
he ought to consider cutting his hair the next time around or keeping his helmet on. The elf
grimaced as the heavier man used his weight to his advantage and fell away from the fire, taking
Galain with him. An armoured knee might have made contact with Tallin's body then, followed by
a planted elbow and then a head butt. Galain was already in a world of hurt and was propelled
onward sheer-ly by force of the adrenalin coursing through him. He didn't dare lose to this man,
especially not here.

The slide of metal awakened him to a fresh danger as their swords disengaged. The elf rolled
away, frantic to get back to his feet and gain the advantage.

Shaking his head and snorting in rage, Tallin rolled onto his stomach, fingers gripping the glass
as he shoved upwards to his knees. Both hands gripped his blade as he swung it high, shoulder
muscles rippling, and the sword slammed down towards Galain’s head as the Elen rolled.

His ears rang when the sword crashed downward and the Elen found himself gasping as he
rolled and forced himself to sit upward and then regain his feet. He scooted away from Tallin,
wielding his own sword. He had this awful feeling that he had just limited minutes left and then he
would fail. He kicked outward, and then finally jumped to his feet at last.

Galain’s boot landed solidly in Tallin’s shoulder, knocking the human off balance. A hand shot
out, jarring as he caught his balance, a sharp edge of glass slicing open his palm. Blood, hot and
slick cost him traction and the Demon Mage went down heavily on his side, his head cracking off
the glass and spangling his vision with techno colour.

The Elen wasted no time, seeing perhaps his one chance to finish this particular battle as he
leaped forward, kicked Tallin onto his back and planted a foot firmly onto Tallin's chest. He bore
down without mercy and pointed the tip of his sword against the Corinian's throat, a wolfish grin
on his face as he purposefully drew blood. Bloodlust was barely overridden by the fact that he
couldn't kill Tallin outright. He had to have permission. And so Galain stared upward toward
Ravyel and Rax through narrowed eyes, a low growl rising in his throat.

Tallin’s body surged up once in protest, but the combination of boot and blade kept him solidly
pinned and the human subsided, arms falling to either side of his body as hooded ice-blue eyes
glared up at his opponent. His gaze flicked away to the Emperor’s box, a satisfied grin twisting his
mouth as the signal came, a brief gout of living flame, a tocsin that staid the victor’s hand. The
Demon Mage would live.

                                                   ***

Adrenaline was carrying Y’Roden dangerously close to the line as he emerged from the cavern
stairwell. Stripped down to his trousers, he held the Demon’s blade in a practiced grip, the tip at
rest towards black glass as the ‘Emperor’ stepped out to the deafening roar of the crowd. Blood
already spilled made footing twice as treacherous as it had been previously, and he could feel the
heat of the flames on his skin.

The fingers of his right hand pushed lengths of the Demon’s hair out of crimson eyes and
instinctively, he threw both hands up and slightly to the side, turning slowly in place to greet the
throng as the temple shook with the sound of eager chanting. Ravyel was, and always had been,
a showman of sorts. The movements, the habits, if he let himself… it was all too easy to
accurately emulate the being he had been once upon a time.

Relaxing, he let his arms fall and swivelled to face the opposite opening, falling easily into old
habits, the edge of his sword glinting in the light as the hilt slowly turned in his grip.

Opposite him, his opponent fell into a practiced stance. Easily as tall, if not fractionally taller, than
the 'Emperor', Ter'Nerne Lis'Suna wore only a pair of scarred-leather trousers and the marks of
more than one bout in the arena were visible upon his bare chest. Long, walnut-brown hair fell
about his shoulders.

Hoping to take advantage of the distraction caused by the posturing, the former S'Hean Ranger
lunged. The short sword in his left hand flashed in the light of the twin suns, the point seeking out
the heart of the man before him even as the matching blade in his right came up to engage his
opponent's own blade.

Chestnut hair fanned out as Ro twisted instinctively, millennia of instinct forcing his body to react
on senses other than sight. The serrated sword caught on the Ranger’s, metal screaming and
throwing sparks in the reflection of the flames as brute strength forced it down. The movement of
his body took him inside his opponents dual strike, the second blade scraping against his back as
his shoulder impacted onto Ter’s chest, whose forward movement brought both males to a bone-
jarring halt for a split second.

Crimson eyes met malachite-green for a fleeting moment, reading the gaze of a worthy opponent.
The Ranger was fighting for his life… which made him dangerous. Heaving away, Ro twisted his
right arm around Tre’s left, elbows locked, fingers gripping the other S’Hean’s shoulder and
tugging hard as his left tightened around the hilt of his sword and swung in towards his
opponent’s face.

Pain screamed along the S'Hean's nerve-endings as his elbow creaked beneath the pressure of
Y'Roden's grip. His spine bowed, walnut-brown hair caught by the breeze as Ter'Nerne
instinctively bent back to avoid the deadly thrust.
Desperately, he reversed his free sword, slamming the hilt as hard as he could into the other
man's abdomen even as he fought to wrench himself free of the hard grasp.

The ‘Emperor’ grunted and folded forwards, bending both of their arms at a painful angle in the
process. Red eyes flared as pain lanced through his system and Ro shot back upwards, hauling
his shoulder back and pulling Ter off balance, swinging the S’Hean towards the wall of flame.

His hold on sanity was starting to degrade, worn thin beneath sensory memory and adrenaline.
The Demon within sank claws of suggestion into his soul; trying to rip its way free, hunger for
blood singing through them both.

The heat of the flames scorched the S'Hean's flesh and a bitten-off curse escaped his lips. The
sword hilt swung again, and this time he was able to wrench free. Blood dripped from crimson
crescents in his shoulder where Y'Roden's nails had dug in, red impressions from the other man's
fingers also marking his skin.

Ter'Nerne once more brought the twin short swords up to confront the 'Emperor', although the
pain in one arm made the movements on that side clumsier than they might have been. His
uninjured arm drove one sword point towards the half-elf's ribs, swinging the other almost wildly
in an attempt to drive him back towards the fire that had so recently singed his own flesh.

Metal carved through flesh, digging a rent in Ro’s side as the heat of the fire flickered across the
bare skin of his back. Blood seeped into the band of his trousers; the scent of Aethyr stinging the
air and combining with the aphrodisiac of pain, snapping the half-elf’s tenuous control. His mind
went utterly blank, giving over to his predatory nature and a guttural roar.

Stepping into Ter’Nerne’s range the Emperor rolled his shoulders and threw a heavy punch to his
face, Ro’s other hand flipping the sword slightly to secure a more accurate grip and stab down
towards the Ranger’s thigh.

Bone crunched, blood spurting from beneath the large fist as it slammed into the other man's jaw.
Ter felt his teeth click together, one loosening and falling into his mouth. That pain was nothing
compared to the agony that seared through him as the sword sliced into his leg however. At first
the blade seemed icy cold, but then grew fiery as blood pumped from the severed femoral artery.

Muscle rippled beneath golden-tanned skin as the half-elf tore the blade from Ter’Nerne’s flesh,
blood flying across the glass in fat splatters as lust for blood and pain overrode any remaining
vestiges of civilized behaviour that clung desperately to Y’Roden’s cracking mind. A massive
hand closed around his opponent’s throat, adrenaline surging as he lifted the other S’Hean into
the air and tossed him onto the glass.

The ranger landed with a thud, sliding uncontrollably across the blood-slick surface towards the
flames that leapt hungrily at the edge of the arena. An agonized cry ripped from his bloodied lips
as fire scorched his legs, burning through the leather of his trousers to sear his flesh. The thick
scent of burning hair and meat rose into the air, clashing with the metallic odours of blood and
steel.

Slow footsteps carried a creature that was more Demon than elf across the obsidian surface,
prolonging the Ranger’s agony. Bending down he wrapped weapon-worn fingers into the S’Heans
hair and hauled him upwards, flames heating the serrated blade as it flashed in the light, twirling
in the heavy grip as the Emperor drew his arm back, a clean swipe severing head from body.
The momentum turned the longhaired S’Hean in a tight half circle, the disembodied head in his
right hand sending a wash of blood across the floor. Rocking his shoulders back, he let loose a
roar of victory, holding both weapon and trophy aloft to the tumult of the gathered throng.

                                                  ***

Beneath the obsidian battleground, one very drunk Emperor walked the corridors. In one hand, a
large sword was being spun haphazardly, and the other hand rested on the hilt of a dagger in its
sheath at his hip. This was all part of the fun, staggering about, letting the gladiators wonder if he
was really that intoxicated or acting. He really was that drunk, but no one else knew for certain.

His black leathers were gone, replaced with a pair of loose fitting, lightweight, black trousers, a
sleeveless tunic, his boots, and nothing more. As the Black Emperor made his way through the
slaves and captive warriors, from time to time a yelp could be heard as the sword in his fingers
spun without any concern as to the close quarters, and no apologies were offered to whomever
had the bad luck to be nicked and carved by its progress.

Through the crowd, a mass of flame-red tresses came into his view and he paused his
swaggering walk, and simply grinned at her.

"Blood looks good on you. Especially S'Hean blood, little sister."

Coming to an abrupt halt, the Amazon glowered up at the massive Dragon Emperor, fists
clenching at her sides as she met his ice-blue gaze. One hand came up to wipe away a streak of
bright-red blood from her cheek and without looking; she sucked it off her skin. One crimson
eyebrow lifted ever so slightly as Thaya’s fingers fell away from her lips.

“I’ll tell you what would look better,” she purred, “yours, you drunken nyfader.”

For a moment, a hint of a smile flickered across the Emperor's face. The brief expression was like
watching storm clouds part on the horizon, and then it was gone, replaced with cold indifference.
Araxmarr's hand shot out and callused fingers closed around An'Thaya's throat. Seconds later,
Araxmarr's future bride was slammed against the nearest wall, then slowly he slid her up obsidian
glass until she was eye-level with him.

"Be careful what you're suggesting, half-elf. Don't forget whose bed you'll be occupying in a few
hours." Any haze of intoxication that had been present only seconds before in Rax's eyes burned
away, replaced by the phosphorescent glow of Rage.

"I never minded getting a little bloody before... and during a good bedding... " He exhaled slowly
and leaned closer, ran his nose down her sweaty, blood-smeared cheek, then licked at one
particularly heavy stain, then just as abruptly as he'd grabbed her, his fingers relaxed.

Thaya’s bare feet hit the floor hard and she nearly went down, knees buckling beneath her.
Bloody fingers dug into the wall for support and she sucked in a shaky breath, swallowing past
the pain in her throat. “Trust me,” she rasped out, “I haven’t forgotten.” Her stomach rolled, a sick
feeling making the Amazon’s head swim for a moment.

“Maybe you should just kill me now and get it over with.” Drawing herself up, she made herself
look into cold, ice-blue eyes. “Why would you want someone in your bed that is only going to try
to slit your throat the moment you go to sleep.”
This time the grin that slid into place on Araxmarr's face was one of malice mixed with genuine
amusement, and something else that was totally indefinable, yet horrific and unsettling. It began
to fade into a look that was both predatorial and lustful, yet it somehow expressed something
more: You and I are not so different then, are we?

"Why would I NOT want someone in my bed with homicidal..." One palm pressed to the wall next
to her ear and his eyes lowered from her face to her mouth, then to the upper edges of her
breasts, "desires..." his pale eyes shifted once again to her verdant emerald greens, "An’Thaya?"
Araxmarr's head twisted down and to the side and his right shoulder rolled back, resulting in a
dull crunch of popping joints, "Anything else would just be... boring."

The Amazon leaned back tighter against the wall, a raging flush of colour staining her face, neck
and chest as his gaze seemed to strip her bare. Thaya opened her mouth slightly, embarrassed
and furious all at the same time as the erratic pace of her breathing rendered the S’Hean
momentarily mute.

“Don’t you have something you should be killing?” she hissed.

"As a matter of fact, I have two somethings I should be killing. By all means, do watch. I think
you'll enjoy it." A low growling laugh came from deep in the Emperor's chest as he straightened
and started stripping off his shirt as he walked away from her. The skin revealed was scarred with
the map of his life. Marks from every battle, whether in bed, in the arena, or on countless worlds
covered his back and arms, and at his right shoulder blade was the Blackthorn crest, the mark
that all his Black Guard bore. As the distance between them grew, his boots seemed to melt
away, leaving him clad in nothing but a pair of loose black trousers.

Beneath the entrance to the arena floor, he paused, handed the blade he'd been carrying to the
Arms master, Thraxyn Vingar, one of his own Black Guard, then waved him off as he offered
other weapons to the Emperor. As Rax stepped into the shaft of sunlight and his dual-shadow
stretched behind him, the Emperor turned to look over his shoulder at the redheaded Amazon.

"I leave it up to you, Thaya... if I wear blood to our wedding, or if you want to bathe me first."

A look of pure hatred flashed in emerald eyes and Thaya’s mouth pulled into a hard line as she
pushed away from the wall, spine ramrod straight as she glared at the Emperor. Turning away
from him she willed herself around the nearest corner and out of his sight before her shoulders
slumped again. Leaning against the wall she blinked back angry tears, a single choked sob
escaping that she drowned out with a half-hysterical laugh.

An’Thaya’s life had been a living hell since her eight hundredth year, but tonight… tonight she
would be living a special hell.

                                                  ***

Daschael sat off by herself amongst Ravyel's harem, dark hair pulled up in a high ponytail that
hung down over her body. She walked a fine line in the empire, both a member of Ravyel's harem
and a General Enforcer for Thitsin. She was silent as she watched the games, one hand resting
on the blonde at her feet.

Bria sat mutely, her eyes glazed over as Mystical's hand stroked her hair. Once, she would have
fought, but now, it was pointless. The bruises on her body were fading, as she'd not been called
to his bed lately, but the wounds on her soul would never fade.
Dark eyes roved over the women in the harem, slight amusement in their depths. In Cullen’s
opinion, the Demon had fine taste in women. Every specimen in the collection was a striking
beauty, the best their race had to offer. He found it odd that there were so few redheads in the
collection these days, Ravyel’s taste for them seemed to have waned after the death of his
favourite.

The General Enforcer’s attention swayed to his own lover, his gaze raking up her lithe form. A
grin curved his lips and hard fingers squeezed Kara’s waist for a moment as he looked over her
head at the ring of fire below. He was on reprieve for this round, but would fight on Aerdon in a
few months time.

"I saw you looking their way," Kara purred, her own hand coming up to cover that of her lover,
steel fingertips stroking tanned skin. "Looking to replace me? Or were you looking for someone to
spice up our bed? You know how I hate to share," she said in a somewhat teasing tone. "Now sit
still. The next round will start soon enough without you staring down at the ring. It will not make
things go any faster you know."

Leaning over she whispered, "I'd go for the raven-haired beauty. She looks... tasty."

A short bark of a laugh shook the S’Hean elf and he kissed the top of Kara’s light-brown tresses.
“I’d prefer to keep my head on my shoulders,” he said. “Touch something of the Emperor’s and
one is likely to find their noggin separated from their shoulders in a timely fashion.”

"Well," Kara sighed, "we wouldn't want that, now would we? But if he ever tried to take your head,
he'll find a wildcat on his back. I'll scratch his black heart out and feed it to the ravens. No one
hurts my lover... except me." Looking up through long lashes, she gave her lover a lopsided grin.

"Now who's up next? Anybody we know?"

“Shh,” Cullen shushed his lover, dark eyes flickering to the crowd around them. “You are going to
get one or both of us killed talking like that.” No one seemed to have noticed, or if they had, they
were feigning deaf.

“Araxmarr is up next I think,” he said finally. “He usually comes out right after Ravyel.”

"If I were her owner," a seductive voice whispered near Cullen's ear, "I would place a collar over
her wagging tongue to keep it still. She's bound to get you both killed with such talk. Not that I
blame her, mind you." The spaded shaped end of a long, red tail ran down the length of the
General Enforcer’s arm.

"You are after all a fine example of elven flesh, and those ears look so... lick-able. And tasty too
I'll bet."

"Demora," Jack warned. "You're talking to the Emperor's General Enforcer. Have some respect to
his office and mind that tail of yours. Or else you may end up losing it."

"But I think he likes it," Demora teased, then quickly pulled it back. "I don't think his little assassin
likes it though. A shame you know. She looks... enticing enough. A might frail, but most female
elves are."

Jack groaned as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "You'll have to forgive her manners, Sire. I'm
still trying to teach her to behave. As you can see, she's not taking to her lessons well. But I feel
with a bit more... discipline, she'll come around."
"Oh? Are you going to spank me again, Jack? Better yet let her do it," Demora said as she eyed
Kara, her lips parting just enough to show two sharp fangs. "I'll even bring the whip and chains."
She licked her lips slowly. "Enough, for everyone."

Without a sound, Cullen reached back and caught the retreating tail, yanking it forward and
tickling Kara beneath the chin with the pointed tip. “I could just bend her right over the Harem
box,” he suggested in a low, growling tone that had nothing to do with anger, “but it wouldn’t be
for a spanking.”

Sitting near the Harem box, Aspen had been staring at the combatants. She should have been
out there today. But, things had gone awry, giving her time to watch, assess and plan. She looked
at the women in the group nearby wondering if Dara was still with them. The emperor was
notorious for killing off his ladies. She didn’t wish that on anyone. Death that is, except for two
people. She needed to get the hell away from here. Each year only made the urge to rip apart her
sister and that damn knight more desirable. It gave her a reason to stay alive each time she
entered the arena. Revenge for being here. If she could escape.

The voices nearby her distracted her. Turning she saw Jack Cole, Drake’s brother. “Turncoat,”
she muttered to herself as she watched his companion being yanked back by Cullen. She stared
straight at him, her green eyes lit with gold and something else.

Summerlin looked over once toward a small ripple in the crowd. There were so many to keep
track of, but a small, derisive smile upturned her mouth as she glanced toward several minor
lords and their women. She slowly looked away and closed her eyes. It was as if they wanted the
Emperors' attention. Why would they want such? she wondered to herself. She touched the mark
on her cheek and simply stared downward. Both An'Thaya and Galain had survived, but she
wondered if it mattered.

"Don't even think it love," Kara warned, "or I'll tie that damn thing in a knot. And I do not mean her
tail." She tried to bite the end of Demora's tail that was tickling her chin, but it jerked back, like the
head of a snake ready to strike back. "Steele, I suggest you collar that demoness. Or I'll wear her
tail for a belt."

Jack wasn't paying much attention to Demora or the young assassin. He felt as if someone was
watching him, all but staring a hole in his back. When he turned and spotted Aspen he was sure it
wasn't a hole, but a dagger sticking from his back. Eyes narrowed as he searched for Dara, but
she was nowhere to be found. Cursing under his breath he turned back to Demora, who was still
undressing Cullen with her eyes.

"Damn it! I can't take you anywhere without you causing some sort of scene. You're lucky I even
let you out in public. Now sit still and behave. Gods, what I wouldn't give for something cold and
strong to drink right now."

"How can I behave," Demora cooed, "when he has my tail."

Xavyer watched the fights intently, trying to get an idea as to who would pass on to the next
round. Several didn’t surprise him. Favourites that the Emperors would continue to allow to live
until they grew bored, if they grew bored. The Shroudling had learned long ago that those that
were sparred had a bloodlust that echoed their own.

Dúdae sat alone in the Emperor’s box except for a few members of the Black Guard who
remained, the concern she felt hidden behind a mask of indifference. She hoped that this Ro was
as much of a warrior as her Lord, one slip up now and things could become tedious.
Cullen looked over his shoulder, pausing for a moment when he caught sight of Dúdae. The
Emperor’s Seeress was a creature most kept their distance from… she saw too much, and too
deeply. She intrigued him however; the half-elf suspected that the Taurësúlë was where much of
Ravyel’s power lay. He kept her close, yet she was free to do as she pleased unlike the other
members of the Demon’s Harem.

Letting go of Demora’s tail he gave a dry snort and dragged his gaze to Jack. “I’ll see that you are
provided with a Rune Collar to restrain her. Otherwise, the Emperors are likely to cut out her
tongue.”

The scent of blood was thick on the air, a mingling of her own and that of the Ranger she had
slain in the ring. Sitting on a cold stone bench, Thaya was bent forward, elbows braced on her
knees as the healer worked on her shoulder. Teeth gritted against the pain, fists clenched, she
took a slow breath in as the bone needle made a last pass through her torn flesh, thread tugging
it closed. The Amazon’s body was a map of scars, faint white against the golden tan of her skin.
Today’s was merely one more addition.

Cold water sluiced over the wound, rinsing the blood away. There were other cuts and bruises,
but none that warranted stitches. The rest would heal on their own, given time. Waving the healer
away, Thaya reached up with delicate fingers to probe at the wound, making a small noise of
approval. Pulling one dainty foot up onto her thigh, she pulled a fresh cloth from a clean bowl of
hot water and saw to the cut on the sole herself.

Galain was nearby in another small chamber fixed amongst the honeycomb of rooms and
corridors. He was alone at the moment, not having been attended to yet, mostly because he'd
glared at the healer who'd hurriedly stepped back, not at all desirous of earning anything more
than that glare from a General Enforcer.

The Elen was feeling deflated. So much was to occur today and not a whit of it was within his
power. He could have just as easily been defeated today, but would the Emperors have cared to
grant him mercy if he'd been in Tallin's position? He didn't care to know, certain only that if he had
simply been strong-willed enough he'd have gone against Ravyel and Araxmarr and finished
Tallin Modar off.

Because what did it matter anymore... if he was alive or dead, Galain thought bitterly, feeling the
blood slowly ooze from the wound in his side. What did it really matter?

A small sound caught his attention. He wasn't sure what it was; perhaps a quickly indrawn
whisper of a gasp, or perhaps it was simply a small verbal nod of sorts. The Elen recognized its
tone and straightened on the bench he was seated upon.

"An'Thaya?" he called out cautiously. He knew there were ears and eyes all over this place.

The Amazon’s head lifted, curls bouncing down her back as she looked to the closest wall.
“Galain…” Letting her foot slide to the floor, the diminutive woman stood and padded over to the
stone barrier, delicate fingers touching its rough surface. “Thank the Gods. I heard you were
going up against Tallin. Is he… did you kill him?”

Fear kept her from looking around the separating wall, from leaning the few inches it would take
to see his face. Not for herself, but for him.

"I would have," was the low, gruff reply. He stood up slowly and then made his way to the wall
from where he heard her voice. "Gods, I would have." His own bloody fingers touched the
separating wall and then slipped downward, assuredly finding where An'Thaya's tinier ones were.
He leaned his damaged face against the coolness of the wall and closed his eyes, imagining
An'Thaya was right there with nothing at all separating the pair of them.

"Are you all right?" he asked, paused a beat and added. "I mean... are you... all right?"

The redhead touched her forehead to the cool stone, drinking in the sound of his voice, its
vibration touching the depths of her soul. “You’re alive,” she said softly, “so I’m all right.” Every
breath Galain took was her reason for pressing on. Every moment, every agony, if it kept him
alive, the effort was worth it.

“Galain…” Her voice trailed off and the Amazon turned her head slightly, lips parted as she drew
a shaking breath. A tear tracked through the dirt and blood streaking her cheek. “Promise me,”
she whispered. “Promise me you won’t do anything tonight… nothing to give them a reason to kill
you.”

The Elen was quiet. At first just listening to her voice. She hadn't answered him, yet she had in an
oblique way.

"Yes, I'm alive," he answered. He clung to the wall as if it was An'Thaya herself. He heard her
words and hissed.

"But it's you An'Thaya," he said. "It's you." He couldn't speak more. His fingers were gripping hard
against the wall and he waited and wilted.

"I love you 'Thaya," he said at last. "I am a coward. I want us to run and run and run. I want us
away from here. I can't find the way out though. I can't believe that after all these years tonight
will happen and we couldn't find a way to get out."

It hurt too much to breathe. Pressing her frame against the wall Thaya squinted her eyes shut,
biting her lip to swallow a sob. “Tonight doesn’t matter,” the words wrenched out. “Do you hear
me? It doesn’t matter. No matter what they do to me, it won’t take away what we have. It just
can’t.”

Her emerald greens blazed fiercely as wet lashes lifted. “I love you. They can’t change that.”

He gritted his teeth, because he felt like they had nothing but dreams and wishes to hang on to.
He was desperately afraid of what would physically happen to An'Thaya. He didn't want her to go
through the night. He didn't want to deal with her fate alone.

"They can't," he said finally. "They wont, An'Thaya. All night I'll be thinking of you. We can't feel
each other, but I know that somehow... I want you to know that I'll be with you all the way through
it all -- not just tonight."

He paused and went quiet. The healer couldn't ignore him for long no matter how many glares he
sent. He had a fairly mortal wound if left untended and besides, everyone was an agent. He
sagged against the wall.

"'Thaya?" he said quietly. "I'll be awake tonight."

A silent sob wracked the Amazon’s body and she slid her face along the wall. Thaya knew it
would have been a blessing to him if she could have found some way to let him go, but selfishly
clung to hope. What response could she give to words like that? They both knew what was going
to happen, and Thaya didn’t want to think about it, she didn’t want him to think about it. The
shame would be hers to bear.

“I love you, Galain,” she said simply. “I have to go. The guards will be here soon.” Moving away
from the wall, she slid unsteadily onto the bench and struggled to regain her composure.

The Elen was silent, backing away to his own bench where he simply sat, staring broodingly at
the floor until the healer ventured to return. It would be only the outward wounds that could be
treated.

                     Present Day - Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Whispin

Ghet stood, releasing her stranglehold on An'Thaya's hand with a wry grimace. She had no wish
to hate Silverthorn and she wished it was possible for the two of them to be civil, but apparently
that wasn't going to happen.

Her eyes fixed on the closed door while she was thinking, a brief flash of total ruthlessness
showing on her face before she caught it and turned to Callan. "You came all this way. Seems a
shame to leave without popping in for a chat with Mister Bastard."

The Amazon made a small snorting noise, shaking out her hand as she slid off the couch. A
quizzical expression flashed across her features for a moment, but the S’Hean really didn’t want
to know what Ghet had been thinking right then. Far too many people had underestimated the
lahaya in the past. An’Thaya, however, was well aware that the S’Hean Queen was far more than
‘sex on legs’.

“Don’t wreck the place,” she said to her husband. “Malik gets a little tired of fixing your messes
after a while, you know.”

Shadow leaned back against the table again and shoved a hand through her hair. She had to
trust that Silverthorn understood her reasoning and if she didn’t. Well, if the assassin was upset
with her, she’d find out about it eventually.

The forest elf looked up, eyeing first one redhead then the other, then Callan and back again, the
corner her lips curled up. “Aw, but Aya, he just does redecorating, that’s all, and it never hurts to
make sure the foundation is sound.”

Callan's eyes were on the door, and where Thorn's back had been. His expression was
unreadable as his eyes slowly slipped to An'Thaya, then to the door that separated them from
Y'Roden.

"Malik is the forgiving sort." Callan finally said, then rose to his feet, "So." His attention shifted to
Ghetsuhm, "Open the door, Ghet."

Ghet smiled tentatively. "I think he has a full set of replacement windows tucked away
somewhere." She rubbed her fingers over her eyes, not interested in arguing any more. Nothing
was going to change what she had to do.

She moved smoothly across the room, pushing the doors wide open. "Thank you Fadil, you can
go. Get some rest." She was deeply grateful for the respite he gave her, but she knew he
wouldn't want to hear that.
Fadil nodded, then bowed to Callan and An'Thaya, genuine affection showing through his
weariness. "He is all yours."

Ghet's face flickered as Fadil left, but she kept quiet until he was gone, then lifted her eyes to
Ravyel. "All this time with you and it wasn't half as aggravating as five minutes with your ex-wife. I
don't know whom to congratulate. I brought you some visitors."

The Demon turned from where he stood close to the doors leading out to the balcony, blood-red
eyes roving slowly over Ghet, then An’Thaya. A chestnut eyebrow lifted slightly at the sight of his
‘little sister’ and the Demon’s head tilted. There was something different about her here… besides
the fact that the collar was missing.

His gaze shifted to Callan and a grin curved his mouth. “Araxmarr, I wondered when you’d show
up, crazy bastard.” There was a slight pause, “You need a haircut.”

Falling suddenly silent, Ravyel took a step forward, looking past the Dragon Emperor with
sudden, intense interest. “Dúdae. You are here.”

An’Thaya returned Fadil’s smile as the Ranger left, then went suddenly cold as she felt those
eyes on her. She returned the Demon’s gaze with cold dispassion, but a warning tingle slid up her
spine as his mood shifted with the sight of Shadow. The step back was involuntary as he
suddenly surged forward, pushing past both Ghet and herself to get to the Taurësúlë.

“What the skrun are you doing!” Tay snapped, emerald eyes popping wide as ‘Ro’s’ weapon-worn
hands cupped the forest-elf’s face and tilted her head up, the gaze fixed on her as far from
‘fatherly’ as it could get.

The familiar tingle of pain in her head forewarned her as to what would happen, but even then
she didn’t have time to brace for the blurry vision that flickered before her eyes, the only outward
sign that it had even occurred was a change of her eyes that drowned them in a swirl of silver and
green and was gone just as quickly.

There were no clear images she could grasp onto, nothing that she could dredge back, but the
feelings that went with the vision left her with the unsettling feeling that whatever ‘Dúdae’ meant
to this…thing…was something that she didn’t want to dwell on and something that meant she
was going to have to put up her guard. Something she had never done before where Ro or his
Demon were concerned.

Shadow jerked her head back, basic instinct kicking in. Before she even thought ahead to the
consequences she drew her arm back and swung. “Here. I go by Shadow, and you, vakren, are
in my father’s body.”

Her fist cracked into the Demon’s jaw, snapping his head sharply to the right. Blood trickled from
the edge of his lip and in the movement that brought him back around his dominant hand came
up, swinging his weight into a heavy backhand.

The forest elf planted her feet, carefully watching for signs as to what the Demon would do next.
His knuckles slammed into her cheek, let it happen purposely so that when she shifted it was like
yanking a walking stick out from under someone leaning heavily against it. The strike was going
to leave a mark, but she didn’t care.
Shadow’s shifted hand slammed into his chest, fingers solidifying and wrapping around his heart.
The corner of her lips curled up in a twisted grin. “I don’t know what kind of weakling I am in your
world, but here, I’m a different animal.”

Ravyel’s lips peeled back from his teeth in a hard grin, his shoulders rolling back and chest
expanding outwards, instinctively arching into the agony, eight-chambered heart pounding
against the Taurësúlë’s fingers. “Weakling?” Low laughter rumbled through the room. “Hardly that
love. Just as deadly, we have a lot of fun, you and I.”

An’Thaya made a low, disgusted noise in her throat and used the opportunity to turn on her heel
and burst through the doors to the balcony. The pair had given her the perfect excuse to exit, and
Ghet the logical opportunity to follow. Don’t let them kill each other, eh? she sent to Callan across
their bond.

An'Thaya's sudden exit was the first time in the whole proceeding Ghet had been surprised.
Furious, yes... but she'd briefly forgotten she was supposed to leave while she fought her own
internal war against the guilt. Shadow would cope, she was strong enough on her own and she
had Callan to back her up.

She opened her mouth, then shut it again, unsure who to say 'don't do anything stupid' to. "Call
me if you need me," she said, and slipped out behind An'Thaya.

"She is that." Callan answered calmly and quite deliberately allowed his soul to grow cold, to
intentionally revert to the killer he was, not the father, husband and friend he'd become.

"Ask Dorian Ashev... perhaps you know him as Asmoor where you come from. They're good
friends here, despite all the stab wounds and claw marks."

Callan's attention shifted to An'Thaya and he nodded sharply as she left the room, then quietly
began to pour himself and 'Ro' a drink.

"Why don't we cut through all the bullshit, and trying to sort out who's who in this world, and who's
a po'assa and who isn't, hmm? I think, after all, you and I understand each other quite well, in any
Verse we meet in." His attention shifted to the Tauresule, "Shadow, care for a drink?"

One ebony brow arched, “Aye, well Desh’ketai and I have fun too, but you’ll have to wait until you
get home to have the type of fun I’m sure you’re use to.” Shadow’s attention turned to Callan and
grinned, “Of course, when did I pass up a drink? I’m hoping there’s whiskey over there.” The
forest shifted and passed through ‘Ro’, leaving behind an unearthly cold as she did so.

Ravyel’s spine tingled, a shiver rippling through his body. Crimson eyes closed for a moment and
he growled, low and rumbling in his chest before turning around to eye Rax with interest.
“Dorian… Dorian.” His jaw shifted in thought as he crossed the room and took up the snifter of
brandy. “Oh! Dorian! The brother of your dead lover, I remember him now.”

Peering down into his glass the Demon went silent for a moment, then flicked an amused look in
the Dragon’s direction. “I find it extremely amusing that you are married to my sister here. Even
more amusing that she seems to be a perfectly willing mate. I’d seriously like to know how you
ripped her out of Galain’s arms, seeing how everyone is all ‘I have a right to my own life’ around
here.”
Callan had handed Shady her drink as she rematerialized and had casually slung himself into a
chair and stretched his long legs out in front of him, seemingly perfectly comfortable and un-
rattled in the presence of the Demon Elf.

He took a slow, testing drink of the liquor, then nodded and swallowed. "Of course its whiskey. I
had to try to break Y'Roden of the brandy at some point, after all."

The Black Emperor's attention shifted back to the Demon Elf and he chuckled quietly, "See, there
you go, doing it again. Pushing buttons, digging and prodding. I swear, it’s like putting a box full of
bells in front of a Puurumph. Just gotta figure out what's inside, how it works, how to tear it down
to get at the centre."

"And it isn't working, but yes, that Dorian. As to An'Thaya?" Callan shrugged, "How I won her?
Simple enough. I offered her her freedom, and then walked away."

                                                  ***

Silverthorn pushed open the door of the nursery, a hint of a smile touching her lips as her gaze
settled upon the auburn-haired Corinian woman sitting in a chair as she quietly mended a skirt
hem. "Still destroying clothing, I see," she said.

Beth's head jerked upwards in surprise. "Your Maj..." Then she hesitated, the same confusion as
had crossed Ja'Kel's face visible on the nursemaid's.

The other woman laughed. "Don't worry about it, Beth. It wasn't as if I didn't try to get people to
dispense with the ladies and majesties even when I was Queen. I think we can safely stick with
Thorn from now on. Are the children ready?"

"They should be," Beth said quietly. "The twins were helping B'Roden with his packing."

"Oh gods! What was he planning to bring?"

"Ammah!" Drysi interrupted, hurrying out of the bedroom at the sound of voices.

"Vendui, sweetheart. Where are your brother and sister?" her mother asked, hugging the raven-
haired girl.

“But I want to bring it!” came a loud protest from the bedroom and what sounded suspiciously like
a punch.

“You little brat!” Yse’s indignant tone rose to match her brother’s and three draeder exploded out
of the room, squeaking in panic as something crashed and indistinct, muffled yelling ensued.

"Nothing changes," Silverthorn observed sardonically. She ducked as Phish swooped overhead,
the red draeder flapping frantically and getting himself tangled up in Drysi's long hair in the
process.

"Phish!"

Leaving her daughter to disentangle herself with a little help from Beth, Silverthorn headed over
towards the bedroom.
"You know," she observed, "there are some creatures that eat their own offspring, and on
occasion I can understand why. Yseult, what exactly are you trying to stuff down your brother's
shirt?"

“He’s lucky it’s not his foot!” the platinum blonde exclaimed. The girl’s hair was plastered to her
face and she was seated on her little brother who was screaming and thrashing beneath her as
she crammed something down the front of his shirt. “You want to bring it! Fine! Here you go! I
hope it goes off in your shirt!”

“Ammah! Help!” B’Roden squawked, one hand waving wildly in the air as the other tried to twist
Yseult’s wrist.

"You remember that little chat we had awhile back about consequences?" his mother asked
mildly. "If you put itching powder in Caolan's bed, not only does your cousin get red and itchy, but
he also tries to feed you to the wyverns? Well, I think this might be another one to add to your
list."

By this time, she had reached the struggling children and urged Yse to her feet with one hand. "I
think you've made your point," she said to the girl. "What was it? Ah, a stinkbomb. Well, that
should make him nice and smelly anyway. It's a good job the Keep architects were designing for
dragons. They put nice big bathtubs in it."

B’Roden’s eyes were watering, namely because the bomb had indeed gone off in his shirt. He
coughed and gagged a bit, but grinned madly anyway. “It was a good one too,” he grinned.

Yse dusted off her hands and beamed at her mother, no longer having to look up quite so much
to do it. At sixteen she was quickly drawing close to matching Silverthorn in height. “He’ll need
more than a bath,” she said. “He put some sort of oil in it this time which, no doubt, will seep right
into his skin. I am not sharing a room with him.”

A wry smile touched the Tauremornan's lips. "I don't think anyone will want to share a room with
him if we can't get that smell off." Her nose wrinkled at the odour drifting up from her youngest
son. "Unfortunately, we'll just have to live with it until we get to the Keep. I know how hard it is to
pry any of you three out of the bath once you're in it so I'd rather deal with that sort of issue when
we get there."

She hugged Yse. "All ready to go?" she asked, and then cast an uncompromising look at
B'Roden. "Finish your packing, kiddo. And no stinkbombs. I will check, so be warned."

The blonde laughed, hugged her mother warmly and kissed her cheek. “All packed and ready,”
she said. “We missed you, you know.” Grinning, she bounced off to grab her suitcase. “Can we
bring the draeders?”

The smelliest D’Riel had subsided on the floor, watching his mother with adoring eyes. “Do I get a
hug?” he asked with a completely innocent tone.

Silverthorn's lips twitched. She didn't believe the innocent tone for a moment. "Perhaps," she
said.

The raven-haired woman crouched beside him, a hand ruffling his dark hair as she leaned in to
kiss his cheek. "But only if you finish your packing." And then she winked at him.

"Ow! Claw! Claw!"
"Stand still, Drysi," Beth said, and then, "there." The nursemaid handed Phish to the girl. "Now
don't let him go until you get to the Keep."

"I won't." The raven-haired girl hurried over to the bedroom and stuck her head around the door.
"We were taking the draeders, right? I thought I heard Yse ask."

"She did, and we are. As long as you all promise to take good care of them anyway," her mother
replied. "Yse, can you track down Chyppe, and you'd better look for Sahlt too. Your brother has
some stinkbombs to remove from his luggage. Drysi, where is your case?"

"Over here." She picked it up in one hand, the other still tightly wrapped around an over-excited
red draeder.

B’Roden sat up and grinned at his mother, “Alright.” Scuttling over to his case he rifled through
and tossed several of the ‘bombs’ onto the bed. With all the care of a nine-year-old boy, he
crammed his clothing back in and closed the case. “Done,” he announced.

Yse watched for a moment and shook her head in disgust, though it was laced with amusement.
Jade eyes met their reflection in her mother’s gaze for a moment, then she nodded and turned
towards the door. With uncanny accuracy, she formed several chittering noises with the eerie
S’Hean mimicry gift. The race had more than one set of vocal chords and a talent for echoing
language, accent, and animal noises.

Two answering chirps came from outside the room, and a moment later two draeder swept in
through the door. One a rich purple-indigo, not unlike a Mai’Tus fruit, the other a glistening white,
tails entwined as they swept in close to one another, then diverged to land on their respective
children.

"Is that everything?" Silverthorn looked around to make sure. "Good. In that case..."

She gestured and a fine silvery mist poured from her hand, spilling down to the ground and then
rising up to form a shimmering, mirror-like surface. Wrapping her arm about B'Roden's shoulders,
the raven-haired woman hugged him to her side.

"Off we go," she said.

B’Roden smiled up at his mother as the white draeder settled on his shoulder and briefly wrapped
his arms around Silverthorn’s waist, hugging her tight as Yse passed through the portal ahead of
them, a hand firmly on Chyppe as they stepped into the Keep.

Silverthorn waited for Drysi to follow her twin through and then stepped through after her, her arm
still around her son. "Rooms first and then we'll find an empty bathing pool to dunk the imp in,"
she said as the portal snapped shut behind them.

                                                 ***

Nodding her thanks, Shadow perched on the edge of a table, seemingly more interested in her
drink than the discussion between Callan and the Demon Elf. Except for the snort that escaped
her when Daemon was mentioned. Her attention turned away from her own thoughts and back to
the conversation.

“I don’t see where casual observation equals button pushing,” the Demon commented dryly. He
eyed the doors to the gardens; a booted foot propping up on an ottoman as he leaned causally
forward onto his knee, glass held in hard fingertips, the dark liquid swirling in the base of the
snifter. “Was it something I said?” Shrugging, Ravyel grinned, “I suppose it usually is.”

Crimson eyes shifted ever so slightly in Callan’s direction, shaded by thick, chestnut lashes. “So,
just what are the two of you suppose to distract me from?”

"Well, some things never change. By gods, you are a suspicious bastard, aren't you?" Callan
grinned maniacally and snorted into his drink.

"If we were distracting you, I'd have brought dancing girls and a couple of oil girls from the Keep.
I'm assuming the Rax you know still has those around, or has he bedded and killed them all off?"
The Emperor took a leisurely drink and let his head loll back. Seconds later, after staring up at the
ceiling, his topaz eyes riveted back on the Demon-elf.

"So you say I took Daemon as a lover there? Huh." Callan snorted and shook his head, "And he's
dead. Care to enlighten me on how it happened?"

“You even have to ask?’ Ravyel snorted in amusement. “Your Sire tore him to pieces. After that,
you were all too willing to form an alliance and overthrow the old bastard. Crazy… you were crazy
for a very long time, but that just made things all the more entertaining.” Straightening, the Demon
set his glass down and dropped lazily into a chair.

Plucking a Mai’Tus from the fruit bowl gripped the stem, flicked his wrist, and then caught the ripe
fruit as it dropped from the spiralling rind. “Come to think of it. You’re still insane, just on an
entirely different level. That Roesor d'Viggtuii shit is quite something, but now that you are safely
out of it… oh skrun. I’m going to miss your wedding.”

“Dancing boys,” he said suddenly. “You prefer dancing boys.”

"As do I." Came the ready answer, then, "Safely out of it?" Callan snorted a laugh, "What makes
you think he or I, either one, is safely out of it?" The Black Emperor's grin was more than a bit
disturbing, "None of us ever, really, come out of it. We just learn to hide it better with every
passing year."

Callan took a thoughtful drink. So the alternate Daemon had suffered a similar fate to the one of
this realm? That made him wonder why. Clearly there was no Y'Roden to help take him from the
Gardens, no Task to kill Nargus. All in all, it was utterly fascinating to consider the possibilities.

"I'm sorry." Callan blinked and tilted his head, "Wedding?"

Ravyel grinned at the Dragon Emperor and held his silence long enough to chew and swallow a
few purple wedges of fruit. “You’ll be delighted to hear, you are taking my sister as a mate this
evening, right after the games. I can’t say she is entirely thrilled about the idea, but you seem…
entertained with the entire situation.”

He sighed and tossed the remaining fruit onto the table. “I was really looking forward to watching
Alcarin during the ceremony. All these years keeping her under lock and key, pure, untouched,
and I miss the climax… so to speak.”

"Oh, thank GODS!" Callan seemed visibly relieved and leaned forward, elbows on knees and
waved his drink around, "Because, for a minute there, I thought you were going to tell me I was
marrying GALAIN! I mean, he's pretty and all, but damn. Hard to get an heir for a throne on him,
wouldn't you say?"
“Oh,” Ravyel said in a low tone, “I think getting an heir for the throne on someone is the furthest
thing from your alter-ego’s mind.” Shrewd eyes glimmered for a moment, then faded to apparent
disinterest again. “He is about as interested progeny as I am.”

Kicking his feet up on the table the Demon slid an arm behind his head and rolled heavy
shoulders. “Heirs complicate things, I’m sure you’ve noticed. Why add blood relatives to the head
lobbing competition.”

Shadow had just taken a drink of her whiskey when Callan made his announcement, making the
forest elf choke, slap a hand over her mouth and force herself to swallow…and amazingly didn’t
pass out or slide onto the floor. “Oh Selene’s Tears,” she laughed, “I don’t know which image is
more amusing.”

Pushing away she headed back to the liquor, passed up refilling her glass and took the bottle
instead, “So,” turning back around she took a drink from the bottle, lowered it and tilted her head,
“I take it you think you’ll live forever, or are you planning on finding a necromancer?” she asked
dryly, then looked back and forth between the two. “Refill anyone?”

Ravyel stretched slightly, an expansion of his massive chest as he settled deeper into the chair.
“That is what your Granddaddy is for, sweetheart. Should it ever happen -- then again, I may be
forced to kill him, which may put a serious hitch in my plans.”

The Taurësúlë stilled, eyes narrowing, “My Granddaddy? Just which one are you referring to? For
that matter, how did I, er, she. Oh hell, how did Dúdae end up in your hands? That might just
explain a few things.”

“Same answer,” Ravyel shrugged, “your Granddaddy Blagden.” Blood-red eyes flickered to
Callan, then back to Shadow. “It is truly amazing how that freedom thing can really win someone
over to your side.” Standing abruptly, the massive half-elf padded to the opposite side of the room
and back. “How long does she expect me to stay pent up in here? I need to burn off energy
before I explode.”

Shadow turned his answer over in her head as she took a drink, “News flash, Demon boy, she
chose the lesser of two evils. It’s what I would have done.” She thought on that for a moment and
realized it was the truth. She would have rather signed herself over to the Demon Elf than stuck
with Blagden; luckily in this dimension that hadn’t been one of the options.

Callan watched the Demon Elf from under hooded eyelids. His overall expression was one of
boredom, which few made the mistake more than once of assuming it meant he truly WAS bored.

"And... what... would you suggest? Exactly? To burn off that energy? Bearing in mind the obvious
answers are out of the question."

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Ravyel snorted, “no bath girls, no bath boys, no touching the redheads or
the daughters. You people really don’t know how to have a good time. You could at least give me
something to kill. Or at least maim. Then I might be inclined to keep playing nice.”

"Tell you what." Callan sat down the empty glass on the table next to his chair with a crystalline
tink, "You keep playing nice..." his topaz eyes slowly leeched out to a pale, icy blue and sparked
with a faint phosphorescence, "and I think I can... get something arranged. I promise, it'll be worth
it. Sound fair?"
The Taurësúlë's eyes went from one male to the other. She was certain that whatever Callan was
up to, he knew what he was doing.

“That,” Ravyel said as he fell back into the chair, “depends on how long I have to wait.”

                               Temple of Twilight – Whispin – A.D

Araxmarr was given no introduction, none was needed as the Emperor walked casually out onto
the slick, glittering floor of the arena. He was no stranger to the Games, they'd evolved out of the
Tourney held at his own Blackthorn Keep every month, and his active participation in the Games
was more than a show of strength.

It was a show of fealty to the Gods and Goddesses of Aerdon, a tribute to Ny-emarr, the goddess
of battle and death, to Flame and Chaos, to Destruction and Wrath. Nothing less than blood
would do to show his devotion, and blood he would give them in generous quantity, be it his own,
or more than likely, those who had the bad fortune to face him.

And maybe, in some way, it was a temptation of Fate. Maybe, just maybe, someone would have
the luck to sever his spine, to slit his throat, to somehow end his life. It was something he'd
dreamed of, fantasized about, and despite the veil of Madness having lifted, some small part of
him he would never acknowledge still wanted his own life to end.

So here he stood, completely unarmed, and dressed in nothing but a pair of loose, black trousers.
Sweat beaded across his forehead and ran down his back and chest in slow drips as he felt a
twisted smile creep across his face. As the roar of the crowd grew, his head tilted back and his
arms rose, clenched fists held high. Slowly, he opened his fingers to show he bore no visible
weapon and the noise only crescendoed - it was time to see whose blood he would spill before
his wedding.

Brisen entered quietly, eyes cast down at the ground. He looked up only once, not at the Emperor
in the ring with him, but at the Queen who'd sent him here. Fathomless black eyes gazed
accusingly at Daschael, but she merely smiled, as if to remind him that he was a toy to her,
nothing more. His life had become forfeit the moment he'd tried to take a place in her life that was
already claimed, and he was well aware of that.

Muscles rippled as he assumed his stance, feet shoulder width apart, hands clasped in front of
the tie to his loose trousers. His chest was bare, as were his feet. Looking back towards the
ground, centering himself, he waited.

And then one more figure stepped forward, sans trousers or anything else although Pyetr had
managed to have himself painted in full war paint as befitted a Brendari: especially as the son of
a clan chieftain and especially as a Brendari warrior who knew he was going to his death. Sure,
the other might be an ally – in another arena, but surely not here.

Pyetr Runin had made the terrible mistake of assuring his wife and two infant children that he was
simply going on a reconnaissance, that he was simply going to scope out the pathway of an
Imperial ambassador and his retinue and that he would simply return home. He’d ignored his
father’s warnings and stalked on out of their village, leading a group of thirty men, knowing full
well that a third as much would have been the proper count for a true reconnaissance.

And instead of merely observing and retreating they’d observed, signalled and attacked, utterly
failing to account for the secondary Imperial force following after, a sure plan on the part of the
Empire to somehow ensnare some of the Brendari guerrillas so determined to undermine what
they could of Ravyel and Araxmarr’s control.

And now Pyetr found himself staring forward, twenty-one years old, his father’s heir, a father
himself and facing death before this day was out. He looked downward and read his death within
the markings that covered him and then blue eyes settled upon Rax.

“I choose this day to die so might my children live,” he said quietly and he stepped forward, spear
in one hand, short knife in the other. And then he ran pell-mell for Rax, conscious of the obsidian
sharpness beneath his feet, but far more aware of the adversary before him.

Rax's upper lip had curled back into a disgusted sneer at the sight of his first opponent. The man
was a whore's whore, a po'assa of the worst kind, and as soon as he got around to it, he would
snap his neck and it would be over.

But first, there was the Brendari. THIS one would make a worthy challenge. THIS one had a
family, children, a reason to want to live, a reason to fight. As the naked and painted Human bore
down on him, Rax's weight dropped and his feet shifted. The spear shot over his shoulder and its
razor sharp head sliced into it. From the back of Rax's left hand, a long, onyx blade sliced
soundlessly through his skin and lengthened, wickedly sharp. As the Brendari's momentum
carried him past Rax, the Black struck the Human's lower hamstring with a powerful back-swing.

Pyetr stumbled and then fell to his knees, skidding over the slippery sharpness beneath him. He
sucked in his breath and twisted, tucking into a roll as best he could. He knew he'd cut his
opponent, but the damage done was minimal compared to what had just been dealt to himself.
He got back to his knees, hissing with pain and eyeing Araxmarr through narrowed eyes. He was
not going to be a mouse to the Emperor's cat. He would either die cleanly or somehow escape
this place. Images of his family flashed before his eyes and then he forced them to the back of his
mind.

"Lucky cut," he said. He dragged himself to his feet, unable to support himself wholly now.

"Melori?" A woman's voice came from where Araxmarr had been. While the Human had been
getting his bearings, Rax had been delving into the Illiansaad about his neck.

"Pyetr?" A bare hand was clapped to the bleeding wound at her shoulder. Her simple, homespun
dress was torn and filthy, her hair matted, and a dark bruise coloured one cheek purple. Petyr's
wife stood where the Emperor had been.

"Why... why are we here?" The Brendari woman swallowed and covered her mouth with bloody
fingers as her eyes lifted and the crowd seemed to go berserk with screams and applause, then
her dark eyes shifted to Pyetr then the spear, "Pyetr?"

The Brendari stared. Of course he couldn't comprehend what he was seeing and hearing and he
stared around, vainly trying to find Araxmarr.

"Rosen?" Pyetr blinked and shook his head. "This is a trick and it's a lousy one!" he shouted. He
haltingly advanced upon the image of his wife, hopeful it was she, fearful it was, and then he
stopped, eyeing the wound.

"I wounded him there," he said, pointing toward his wife's shoulder. He wanted to kneel down and
kiss the wound, but he stood still, wondering, if she was here, then where were their children?
Two baby boys, one still suckling even.
"Him?" Her dark eyes roved wildly around the arena and settled on the only other man in the
arena, "A trick?" Her fingers left the wound and she started dumbly at the blood coating her
fingers, then shook her head slowly, "I don't... understand." For a moment, her fingertips closed
around an amulet at her throat, and for just a moment, the confusion seemed to clear and an
eerie ice-blue light cut through her brown eyes, as if someone else were looking from behind
Rosen's face.

"All I remember is... pain. Fire... the babies... They..." The flickering light seemed to slide back,
leaving her eyes a true brown. Trembling, she took a step forward and lifted her hands as if she
wanted to touch his face, and froze as her husband lifted the spear and shook his head,
disbelieving.

Tears began a slow slide down her face and carved a clean trail through the grime and blood,
then her sorrow began to submerge beneath a twisted, malevolent smile.

"And she screamed soooo prettily." Araxmarr's voice came from her throat as the Brendari
woman's right shoulder rolled back and her back popped audibly.

"As did your children." The woman faded, replaced by skin and scale, talon and jaws. The woman
was gone, as was the half-elven form of the Emperor. In his place was Araxmarr in his true
shape, in the form of the beast that he truly was. Black leathery wings stretched wide and onyx
ram's horns curled back along his jaw. Moments later his sinuous tail whipped forward and
impaled the Brendari and flames engulfed the slave Mystical had offered up for sport. He'd never
taken the opportunity to strike and died without the Emperor's respect.

Unlike the Brendari.

"Burn him on a pyre." Araxmarr's orders to Thraxyn rang through the corridors as his half-elven
form, covered in the blood of the Brendari, strode from the arena.

"He fought with courage. He deserves a proper funeral. Show him respect."

                    Present Day - Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Whispin

The outer doors of the Council chamber were thrown open to the rose gardens, letting in a cool
breeze off the waterfalls that was welcome after the heat of Zenith. There was a general murmur
in the room between the dark-haired elves gathered at the round table. Parchments were strewn
across its dark-marble surface, hiding most of the rampant D’Riel Dragon in the centre so that
only the large emerald embedded within its claws was visible, glinting softly in the light of the
suns.

The inner doors swung open to admit an eighth Lord, his long, chestnut hair blowing back in the
breeze as forest-green eyes alighted on three empty chairs. One was his; the other two were
suspiciously vacant. “Where is the Tyrne?” Pe’Ris W’Cren asked sharply, looking to Rem’Sero
who was to the left of the King’s empty seat.

Pale-green eyes lifted from the conversation he’d been engrossed in with Lord T’Elle, their castes
were tightly interwoven as Rangers and Hunters, one scratching the other’s back, and it was
often necessary to coordinate their efforts. “Hojet-Foryen Elgerig was here earlier. Tyrne Y’Roden
has taken ill… the stomach flu according to the Tyrah. He’ll not be joining us today.”
Pe’Ris snorted as he crossed the room and sat down, tossing several scrolls onto the table and
raising an eyebrow. “So, in other words, he got falling-down drunk at his sister’s wedding and it’s
taking awhile to sleep it off.”

A choked laugh came from Lord Ja’Mel Al’Terre. “I doubt its alcohol keeping His Majesty in bed.”
Leaf-green eyes jumped to the naked portrait of the Queen on the wall, then slid back to Lord
W’Cren. Ja’Mel grinned wickedly, “I’d be feigning ill too.”

Ge'Wain Bel'Myn muttered something inaudible and rustled the documents in front of him.
"Feigned illness is not a suitable reason for missing a council meeting, Gamel Al'Terre, as well
you know." Keen on protocol as the Lord of the Gatherer caste was, to his mind there was no
good reason for missing a council meeting.

“He probably did wake up sick after thinking of what he was in for.” Gamel T’Elle muttered,
rubbing a dark finger along the bridge of his nose. It never failed that when Ge’Wain and Pe’Ris
were in the same room he felt a headache coming on.

"I'm sure the Tyrne is really ill," Mer'Lan said with his normal pathological mildness. "Otherwise
he'd be here. He's never let the Tyrah's attractions keep him away before."

"No," Ra'Meh said dryly, tapping the end of a scroll against the table because he knew it annoyed
Mer’Lan; "they bring it with them and don't pay any attention. Is there any point in us being here if
neither of them can be bothered turning up? Even if the Tyrne is sick, shouldn't the Tyrah be
here? Perhaps someone should go and ask her what's going on." The twinkle showed clearly in
his eyes: the head of the architects caste was not known for his compassion. "Pe'Ris? She likes
you."

Lord W’Cren shot a look at Ra’Meh that could have set him aflame. He’d had the misfortune once
or twice in the past of walking in on the Tyrne and Tyrah at the most inopportune moments. He
was positive Ja’Kel had done it on purpose. “If he is so ill, why hasn’t anyone sent for my wife?”
he asked. W’Cren was the overseer of the Healer Caste, and his wife Am’ Elle was first among
them.

Rem’Sero snorted lightly and straightened in his chair. “From past experience, do you really think
Her Majesty is going to let anyone but herself see to her husband? Tyrah Ghetsuhm is a perfectly
capable Healer.”

"That she may be," Ra'Meh said archly, "but she's not S'Hean. Hojet Gamel W'Cren is quite right;
surely a S'Hean healer would be... more appropriate?"

"Contacting Amene W'Cren would be correct protocol," Ge'Wain confirmed. "Mild stomach flu or
not, such illnesses may spread. To keep the Kai Samen in the dark seems unwise."

Ligh- emerald eyes rolled towards the other Gamel. "Ge'Wain." T'Elle stated carefully, restraining
the patronizing tone that threatened to bleed in, "If it is an illness that spreads, wouldn't it be best
if Her Majesty sees to the problem herself rather than infecting any one else? Would you like for
Amene W'Cren to become sick and then infect Gamel W'Cren as well?"

The Lord of the Gatherer Caste turned to his colleague. "Do you then propose that all Healers
should avoid the sick just in case they themselves happen to become ill?" he asked him in ironic
tones. "Amene W'Cren is aware of the necessary procedures, I am sure, as is Gamel W'Cren
given his own responsibilities. Let us not forget that the Tyrah has not quarantined herself, even if
the Tyrne is confined to his bed. Others have seen her; Hojet-Foryen Elgerig for one. The risk of
the spread of infection is already present. I suggest merely that we follow normal protocols and
ensure that the Kai Samen are informed in order that they might identify such symptoms should
they arise elsewhere in the population."

Mer'Lan raised an eyebrow coolly. "A little early to be talking about an epidemic, isn't it? Perhaps
it would pay to let the Tyrah deal with the situation for now, and if the Tyrne doesn't recover, then
perhaps we could talk to her about sending for Amene W'Cren. It's my impression that if Her
Majesty thought she needed help, she'd ask for it." Mer’Lan had mostly dealt with Tyrah
Ghetsuhm in the library, and in his eyes the voracity of her reading on S'Hean history pretty much
excused anything.

T’Elle sighed and ran a hand down his face in exasperation. “Epidemic? Not I. Though it would
appear some lack the understanding of sarcasm.” The Lord of the Hunter Caste stated dryly.

As silent as always, Ar'Dal Lis'Suna merely raised an eyebrow, steepling his fingers together
before him as he listened to his fellow Lords.

Rem’Sero scrubbed at his forehead for a moment, his pale-green gaze fixed to the tabletop
before lifting to travel over his peers one by one. “We will give it a few days, if the Tyrne hasn’t
made an appearance by then, we’ll approach the Tyrah on it.

For now,” his attention focused on Ge’Wain, “we have more important matters to talk about. For
instance, as I was just telling Gamel T’Elle here, the Ra’Vidden have found evidence of a chimera
in the northeast foraging quadrant. I would have your Gatherers exercise caution for the time
being until they can track it down and kill it. No-one should enter that area without a Ra’Vidden
guardian for now.”

Bel'Myn inclined his head. "I shall ensure it is so," he agreed. The Gamel paused and then
continued, "the presence of the chimera has been particularly strong in that quadrant this season.
Is that coincidence or is there perhaps a breeding colony?" He looked enquiringly at the Gameler
of the Hunter and Ranger castes.

“The Rangers haven’t found any eggs as of yet,” Rem answered, “but that doesn’t really mean
anything. They are pretty adept at hiding them. It could just be a rogue male this time though.”

Ja’Mel’s interest seemed piqued as he leaned forward, resting a forearm on the edge of the cool
marble. “Either way, it’s good news for my caste. The horns and hide bring a hefty weight in trade
with the humans.”

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D

The world was beginning to fade behind a red haze, reality, alternate as it was, feeling surreal.
Perhaps it was a dream, and at any moment he would wake up to find Ghetsuhm snugged in
against him within their indigo haven. Or perhaps Ghetsuhm, all of it, had been the dream, a
phantasm of a mind struggling with insanity and searching for something to cling to. No… he
could feel the flames of her in his soul, that was real. That was what he clung to.

His wife gave him hope, and a purpose. There had to be a way back to her, and to do that, he
had to stay alive. Every step he took now was necessary, and he could not stay his hand, any
sign of weakness would be suspect. So, as much as he hated it, Ro would have to give over his
little sister to an insane Emperor, knowing exactly what Rax would do to her.
With a casual air, fingers balanced beneath the round curve of a goblet, he drained the last of the
Mai’Tus wine and held out the glass for a refill. Relaxed on the throne, he presented the perfect
picture of Ravyel after a satisfying day at the Games. He didn’t look to Dúdae where she sat in a
smaller chair to his left, but he was aware of her presence, could feel eyes on him from
everywhere in the room. Several General Enforcers were present for the ceremony, and deep
down, Ro had never felt sorrier for Galain Alcarin, who stood among them.

The words were drilled into his head, what to do, what to say, exactly how to send An’Thaya to
her fate. All cold and calculated, and designed to hurt in the most unfeeling, painful way possible.
It was what Ravyel did… sought out weakness and exploited it to the extent of his ability. There
was one last presence Y’Roden was painfully aware of, and shock had settled into his soul when
the realization that his ex-lover and mother of four of his children was held captive in Ravyel’s
Harem. Summerlin Alcarin… a woman he had wronged in his own life was trapped here in a living
hell. She was here, put out on display to keep her brother firmly in line.

The only people missing now were Araxmarr and An’Thaya themselves.

Summerlin was standing some distance from Ravyel and his throne. Cullen was altogether too
close and she was aware that he would fatally stab her rather than let the upcoming proceedings
fail. She was the guarantee against her brother's rebellion. The guarantee that he would stay still
and let the woman he loved go to a living hell. She ducked her delicate head, not quite seeing the
floor before her. She already lived her own hell... she knew that Galain did too. They liked to say
that what they did was for their people and oh... how grand their people had become! And then
long, tapered fingers brushed slowly across her marred cheek. She'd laughed at Ravyel the first
time he'd taken her. She'd cursed and laughed at him and he'd slapped her -- and marked her.
And then he'd finished her. At least he seemed to have little taste for her these days anymore.
Her hair wasn't a vibrant, living hue of red, but it was enough.

Or so she hoped.

She watched Ravyel signal for more wine and she dropped her eyes, disgusted, before she finally
found her brother's eyes. He nodded back, as slightly as possible, light-headed and tired, but
desperately aware of what was about to happen. Galain's healer had done the best possible, but
the Elen had suffered a distinct loss of blood. He'd tried to rest, but had been unable, the memory
of his last words with An'Thaya still rolling through his mind. The reason for the feverish look in
his eyes was twofold: pain from the day's battle and pain for what was about to happen to the
woman he'd lost his heart to so long ago. It stung him that they'd never been able to escape this.
There had been so much time and then... too little.

He couldn't look at Ravyel and didn't. He just gritted his teeth and held still, knowing that any
outwardly rebellious action on his part would result in instant death for Summerlin and an
uncountable punishment against his people. He stared away from his sister, angrily wondering
where Araxmarr was, then momentarily hoping the idiot was too drunk to make it here.

The idiot in question was far from too drunk to make it to his own wedding. He was, however,
vastly amused. Weddings... what a farce. A joke, nothing more than a contract... at least that's
what they were to his kind. Still, Araxmarr wasn't going to miss an opportunity to bastardize the
moment.

His wife-to-be had been stubborn to the end, and no amount of beatings or demands had made
her cave. He was wearing blood to the ceremony; she'd refused to bathe him. Which was fine
with him.
He had, however, ordered her stripped. She would attend her wedding in true S'Hean fashion,
completely naked, but just as bloody as her future husband. He'd even had a garland of flowers
made and lay across her brow, and the contrast between the living, pure white flowers and the
sticky, dark stains of blood was simply poetry in motion.

So it was that the blissful couple appeared at the end of the long march to the throne, An'Thaya
naked, beaten and in chains. The scent of blood and sweat clung to her like perfume. Araxmarr
himself was in the crimson shirt and light Imperial armour, albeit, stained in as much blood, if not
more than An'Thaya's skin, and the grin on his face as he looked first to Galain, then to Railen,
then to Ravyel was nothing short of the coldest malice laced with twisted glee.

The Amazon’s head was held high, refusing to cow down in the face of her ‘husband to be’.
Sweat-and-blood-damp curls clung to her frame, curling over her breasts and hipbones, sticking
in various places to drying blood. Her gaze met Ravyel’s without flinching as she started towards
the throne, fists clenched, wrists crossed in front of her solar plexus as the chains dangled down
the front of her body.

She refused to turn her head, refused to look at Galain. The sight of him would have broken her
with shame. Galain himself had given Araxmarr the blackest of looks before letting his eyes flicker
over the top of An'Thaya's head just once. But the blood had drained from his face at the initial
sight of her and he gave her all the silent respect he had, refusing to look at anything but her hair.

Ro watched his sister with cold resolve. The An’Thaya he knew was stronger than most, had
walked through the flames and come out the other side. She had Callan, however, a far different
creature from the one currently walking at this version’s side.

As the pair came to a halt before him, Ravyel’s hand gestured wordlessly to Dúdae, a silent
instruction to hand over what was now rightfully Araxmarr’s.

The Seeress rose with the grace that was inherent to her race, but also of the Black Panther that
was her totem. Forest greens flickered over the couple as Dúdae descended the dais to stop
before the Black Emperor. She inclined her head slightly to Araxmarr and held out the scroll that
held the code to the Amazon’s collar.

"And so you now belong to me, An'Thaya D'Riel. Not the House of your brother." Araxmarr's eyes
flickered bright, then dark as his still-bloody fingers curled around the scroll, "Every beat of your
heart, every breath you draw, will be only because I continue to allow it."

Pale-blue eyes shifted back to Ravyel and one callused hand gripped An'Thaya's, forcing it to
cover the hand that held the scroll. As he leaned forward, his nose inhaled her scent and he
nodded approvingly, "I accept your gift, Brother, pure but flawed though she may be."

The Amazon grit her teeth, emerald gaze firmly on Rax. Her frame tensed, spine rigid and she
stood stock-still and listened as her brother rose from his throne, heavy boot-falls slowly
descending until he stood next to Dúdae.

“As per our agreement,” ‘Ravyel’ said in a disinterested tone. “She is yours, and is to be your one
and only recognized mate, the mother of your heirs, the final tie to bind our houses.” A gesture
beckoned a slave forward. “The cuffs. Release her from the chains, and let the ceremony begin.”
                           Present Day – Alcarinque - Berelath – A.D

The vast spreading of fir, pine and other trees known to the Elen of Berelath as the Taurë was
oddly silent as Laurealin Nieninque moved beneath the spreading branches. Grey eyes
narrowed, a hint of a frown creeping across her delicate features. With barely a sound, she
loosened the hunting knife she carried sheathed at her right hip. Something was not right.

She froze. There it was again. The faintest of sounds, but one alien to this place. A sigh, or
perhaps a groan of pain.

Creeping forward to crouch behind some bushes, her eyes widened at the sight of the body lying
in the clearing. Cautiously, she looked around. Whoever it was, they seemed to be alone, but how
had they gotten there? Where had they come from?

After a moment, the Ranger approached. The frown came again, this time at the sight of the
many cuts and bruises that marred the elven male's flesh. Whoever he was, wherever he had
come from, he had quite clearly been in a fight. A few inches shorter than was normal for an Elen,
nonetheless he had the same fair hair and complexion. Was he one of her people? It was not
impossible, although she had not seen him before herself. She was still puzzled though.

Gentle fingertips touched his cheek before moving down, checking methodically to see what the
extent of his injuries were.

Elhion's last coherent memory had been of searing pain, the thunderous sound of a crowd, and
then the total relaxation of his body as blood loss, exhaustion, and if he were lucky, supremely
lucky, death, overtook consciousness.

Elhion had never really been the lucky sort.

How long had he lain there, fading in and out of awareness? The call of birds and the gentle
change of day into night, night into dawn had escaped him, and the elf had only known cold from
warm, pain from relief, thirst from sated. Elhion's lips had cracked and the blood had crusted over
the minor wounds. His body had been stripped, except for the most basic garments that covered
his lower regions, and he'd been left covered in the blood of both himself and his opponent, as
well as the many cuts and bruises.

Simply put, he'd been dumped somewhere as an example, but he wasn't sure where. None of the
birds or insects he'd heard sounded familiar to him, and his tie to the element of Earth felt...
wrong... yet it was there.

The thing that finally brought him around was the gentle, if clinical and precise, prodding of his
body.

"Naldra..." His voice was a hoarse whisper, "Naldra ummage Ir?" Elhion's words were slurred,
mumbled and probably half-thought as he asked the stranger where he was, "Aj..." a fit of
coughing overtook him and he managed to double up on his side in a near-foetal position until the
wracking of his lungs stopped.

Clear cedar-green eyes rolled open and cut around to the stranger, and somehow, the only thing
he could focus on was a single, long blonde braid of hair, a pair of elven ears, and the profile of
an elven woman.

"Aj olseri ahn?"
Laurie muttered a faint imprecation as the male shifted restlessly beneath her hands. "Lie still,"
she said to him, instinctively using her native tongue. "Ir tirnes?" Then, realising he did not
understand her, repeating the question in Common. "What is your name? Where did you come
from?"

With one hand, she pushed him on the shoulder, forcing him to lie still as she finished examining
his injuries. Unconsciously she shook her head at the extent of the damage, wondering how he
had managed to survive the night, let alone wander around the Taurë in this condition.

A moment of total confusion overtook Elhion as the elven woman asked her question. Ir meant I
in his language... and what she was speaking wasn't his language. But it sounded an awful lot
like... Elen. There'd been an elf, two cell doors down while Elhion had been a guest of the
Emperors... and she sounded an awful lot like him.

Which meant this one could very well be a Ranger of Alcarinque.

Elhion's body began to shake as mad laughter welled up in his chest. He'd survived the games;
he'd been dumped and left for dead on Berelath... of all places, Berelath.

He'd survived, only to be found by a Ranger.

His laughter faded out into wheezing rasps as he finally managed to gather his wits and answer
her questions. It didn't matter anymore, who he was, where he was from, or if she knew. She was
a Ranger, which meant she'd promptly take him to the General Enforcer of this world, Galain
Alcarin.

"Elhion... Khael... Second Captain of the Nahmenrae." The world began to spin around him and
black began to creep into the edges of his vision, "The Silmetaurea..." his head rolled back and
staying awake was such an effort, so difficult when his body felt so heavy, "... is my home."

The Silmetaurea? Where had she heard that before? Laurie spent as much time as she could in
the forest these days. The city, and in particular the court, repelled her. Too many of those that
frequented the elegant hallways were mere butterflies with no real use to society, and those who
were not were wasps whose sole purpose was to ensure that the hold of the Olnelan Sar'da over
her people did not break. As skilled as she was in the games of politics and intrigue, they held no
real attraction. In the forest she could breathe. In the city she just suffocated.

Then the name clicked, a vague memory surfacing from the depths of her mind. The Silmetaurea.
Aerdon. The stranger was an Aerdonian, an Eldredae presumably from his appearance and
speech.

The Elen Ranger swore under her breath.

"Don't you dare pass out on me," she bit out, slapping Elhion none too gently across the cheek.
She couldn't leave him here. If she did, given his condition, he'd be dead by nightfall. An image of
the Ranger Headquarters flickered into her mind, but she shook her head. It was too far away.
She'd never be able to manhandle him all that way, even if she could get him to help her a little.
That left only one other choice.

A sigh escaped the blonde. "Come on," she said, "on your feet." By a combination of gentle
encouragement and definite bullying, Laurie got Elhion into an upright position, staggering slightly
as she took most of his weight.
This was not going to be a fun journey.

Almost an hour later, Enddar Nysenth was on his knees in his rose garden, his hands working
carefully around the roots of his prized flowers. A quiet song was being sung by the Elen as he
worked and from time to time, a soft breeze would tease his blonde locks and tickle his face. He'd
long ago given up being a Ranger of Alcarinque; these days he preferred living a quiet life far
removed from the bustling city and the Court therein.

So it was that the playful breeze found Enddar in his garden, and brought with it the scent of
blood and pain... and of Laurealin.

Enddar was on his feet immediately, and despite his 'retirement' a knife was ever present at his
hip, and it was there that his hand strayed. Seconds later, he could see her, coming up the
forested path, and with her, a stranger was being quietly badgered and dragged along.

"Blessed Aeglos! Who is this!?" The former Ranger rushed to help Laurie and ducked under one
almost limp and very filthy arm, "I thought you knew better than to bring home strays?"

"I didn't bring him home. I brought him to your home," came the somewhat acerbic, if technically
correct, reply. Hauling near-dead-weights around the Taurë for the better part of an hour had
begun to strain even Laurie's usually calm demeanour. "You weren't planning to turn him away
were you? I'm sure if you ask nicely he could do cute little lost-puppy type expressions."

Her breath hissed out between clenched teeth as the three of them stumbled over a stone and
almost went down in tangle of limbs. "His name is Elhion Khael. A Second Captain of the
Nahmenrae apparently. I found him in the Taurë. What was I supposed to do? Leave him there?"

"Yes, that's exactly what I expected you to have done." Enddar made an exasperated sound as
he helped haul the Elf to his garden. Once safely behind the living fence of hedges, rose bushes,
and other prickly, unforgiving plants, the 'fence' sealed itself at the entrance, thus shielding the
trio from the outside world seemingly all on its own.

"He's a Nahmenrae then? He's a Ranger, Laurie." Gently, he guided the semi-conscious elf to a
grassy spot located under a bower of dangling blooms.

"Why he's here though, I can only guess." Enddar looked to Laurie from where he knelt beside
Elhion, "I would assume they thought him to be an Elen and wanted to send a message to
someone." The Elen sighed and raked dirty fingers through his hair.

"Well. No matter. He's here now. Let's get him cleaned up and some broth down him, or he won't
last the night."

Grey eyes met midnight blue for one timeless moment, and then she looked away. Her heart
seemed to be pounding like a drum. "I couldn't have left him, Enddar," she said softly. "I know it
might have been the sensible thing to do, but I couldn't. It wouldn't have been right."

Rising to her feet with a weary sigh, the blonde dusted the grass and dirt off her trousers. "I'll get
a bowl of water and some rags."
                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin

Driving down her 'to do' list, Ghet was powering through the evacuation of Windemiire, getting her
loved ones out at the fastest non-suspicious rate. Probably faster than that, to be honest, but
hopefully no-one was putting two and two together yet.

The simple truth was that doing something constructive was keeping her from going off the deep
end. If she kept moving, the cracks didn't open up too much.

She knew it was irrational, but she was convinced that Ravyel shared the same tastes as his
counterpart. More patience, more cunning, but still, the way he looked at her... she was getting
Maeve out of here now, while he still hadn't seen the tiny red-head.

So here she was again, knocking on Maeve's door, in such a different state of mind from last time
it was giving her irony burns.

With three books open on the bed before her, Maeve jumped at the knock on the door. Looking
up she absently brushed several curls from her face before setting one of the larger tomes down
gently. She wondered if she’d missed a meal. It was bad enough at home when she was caught
up in reading. Around Whispin though she was still getting used to the days and missing meals
had become entirely too common.

Hopping down from the bed, she padded over to the door, and opened it, grinning, "Ghet, come
in," she said opening the door wider. Going back to the bed she made room, "Sit, I'll just get this
out of the way first."

Ghet smiled as she walked in, genuinely heartened by the sight of so much normalcy. "That's
okay, I'm glad to see you making yourself at home." Speaking of which, she pulled herself up
onto the bed and sat with her legs crossed in front of her. "It's been a long couple of days, it feels
like forever since I last saw you." Her eyes drifted to the pendant round Maeve's neck, then down
to the mark on her own chest, which was only partially concealed by her dress. It was too big to
cover completely without changing her normal style of dress - either alternative was going to
make her self-conscious.

"Um. I don't know if you heard, but there's a problem with Y'Roden. He's not well. I can't... gods,
Maeve; I'm so worried about him I can't think straight. I'm just not much good for anything right
now. So... I wondered if you'd like to take a trip. We have a retreat, sort of like a holiday home at
Silver Dragon Ridge. It's the most amazing place, scenery like you wouldn't believe, but what
really matters is there's an archive there. The D'Riels have been keeping it for, honestly,
hundreds of thousands of years. All these crystals, like holocubes. A few years ago, when S'Hea
was ill, Ro and I tried going through it, but it was completely uncatalogued. There were thousands
of the things, it was hopeless. I don't want that to happen again.

"I've been meaning to get one of the scroll-keepers and go up there and start working on it
myself, but I never seem to have the time. It's not the sort of thing you want to have to keep
stopping and starting. So... I know it's a lot to ask, but I wondered if you wanted to give it a go."

Sitting on the bed, Maeve pulled Ghet into a hug. "It'll be all right, Ghet, 'Ro's strong," Maeve said.
Sitting back she gave Ghet a reassuring smile. "You know I can't say no to research, and if it will
help at all, I'll be more than happy to help.
"It's not a lot to ask, Ghet," she said, a smile playing on her lips, "I love being up to my elbows in
work. Just, do me a favour; take care of yourself as well ok? I know you're worried about him, but
I think the last thing he'll want is for you to worry yourself sick."

Maeve's words touched Ghet more than the other redhead was ever going to know, and the
S'Hean queen returned her embrace, tears leaking onto Maeve's shoulder. She could almost
hear Y'Roden's voice. You've been bottling again... haven't you? You know what happens when
you bottle. "You're absolutely right," she said, her face still buried against Maeve's shoulder. "He's
always been big on knowing what's best for me, annoying tosser. And he is strong, strong
enough. He'll get through this."

She sat up, brushing hair and tears roughly out of her face. "Come on then, I'll introduce you to
Hojet Gamel El'Haie, he's one of our saner lords. He can find us a scroll-keeper from his guild to
take with us. Well, when I say 'sane'... just don't spill any Mai’Tus juice on the scrolls and you'll be
fine."

A couple of minutes later, they were in the library, a place Ghet knew well, and she was
introducing Maeve to Mer'Lan El'Haie. "It's probably several weeks' work," she concluded, "so it
would need to be someone who can be away for a while. It would help if it was someone who'd
done their stint with the Ra’Vidden too. Just to be on the safe side."

Mer'Lan regarded the little human woman seriously for a moment, then nodded. It went against
the grain to give something this important to a non-S'Hean, but if the Tyrah said she was up to it,
then she was. "Alright. I think I know just the person."

He led the two redheads through the shelves to where he'd left Ner'Ius. "Y'Tyrah, this is my
bedre-ceren, Ner'Ius. Ner'Ius, the Tyrah and her friend... Maeve? need someone to go to Silver
Dragon Ridge and help with an archiving project for a while. Would you be free to do so?"

Ner'Ius smiled, he knew that this task must be of great importance if the tyrah herself wanted it
done. "I would be honoured," the scroll-keeper said. A project like this was just what Ner'Ius
needed at the moment.

The scroll-keeper found himself even happier about going to Silver Dragon Ridge when he took a
good look at Maeve. It had been a long time since Ner'Ius had even noticed a woman, but Maeve
had certainly changed that. He hoped he wasn't gawking too much.

Ghet's expression was slightly abstracted as she did family tree maths in her head. She wasn't so
distracted that she failed to notice the way Ner'Ius looked at Maeve though. She'd seen that
expression a bit as the tiny redhead made her way around Windemiire, and it always made Ghet
feel a kind of proprietary pride. It was one of the reasons it was so important to get Maeve out of
Windemiire.

"You're B'Rodyn's fette then, aren't you?" she asked Ner'Ius, keeping most of the smirk off her
face. "So you're practically family. I'm sure Maeve couldn't be in safer hands. Which is just as
well, because she's very dear to me, and if anything happens to her, I'll nail your balls to a ptwang
tree." She was grinning broadly and her tone was light and teasing, you just never knew with her.
"I'll let the two of you get organized, then, and we'll meet up and portal out in an hour or so, and I
can give you the tour."

Maeve noticed Ner'Ius' gaze; she was more than familiar with them, and perhaps had her mind
been anywhere but academia and concern for Ghet and Ro she might have paid more attention
to the looks. She cleared her throat to cover a laugh and nodded, "Sounds good to me."
            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D

Beneath the iron cuffs, An’Thaya’s skin was raw and bleeding, flesh peeling away with the
manacles as they were removed from her wrists. Her jaw clenched, she kept the pain from her
face and stared up into her brother’s face as the S’Hean wedding-cuff was placed in her hands.
The Theadenya was warm to the touch, breathing with the magic infused into it. The glint of
emerald and topaz caught the light as the Amazon turned woodenly towards Araxmarr and
offered the piece of jewellery up to him.

She knew all the words to the S’Hean ceremony, and was grateful that Ravyel - who had no use
for proclamations of love - had viciously struck much of it down.

“It is my wish,” the words seemed to stick in her throat, but she forced them through gritted teeth
none the less, “to be bound to thee.”

"Liar." The single word was a quiet Sending from the Emperor to his bloody bride, but his spoken
words were very different. Ice-blue eyes peered down at the band in her hands. A slightly twisted,
sickening grin touched his mouth as he looked into her eyes, then spoke, "Then I accept your...
desire... to be bonded to me," The false shirt he was wearing rippled and the sleeves vanished,
leaving his arm exposed but just as blood smeared as the shirt had been, "And I promise to enjoy
you when in health, and when in sickness, to be merciful and put you out of your misery... Vonna"

The Amazon’s mouth drew a hard line as she shoved the delicate little cuff into Rax’s fingers.
“Then take the damn thing,” she growled, holding frozen as she waited for him to fix it onto her
bicep.

Ro’s eyes flicked from one to the other; aware that silent dialogue was shooting back and forth
between the couple and thanking Arminiea he couldn’t hear it. In his callused fingers he held
Araxmarr’s larger cuff, the metal malleable beneath his touch. The entire thing was a
bastardization of a treasured S’Hean ceremony, one that he loved and had shared with his own
wife. It was meant to be a joining of equals, the ultimate expression of love and respect. This?
This was cruel and twisted -- made all the worse by the presence of tokens meant for something
else entirely.

Galain's eyes darted from the top of An'Thaya's head to -- inevitably -- Araxmarr’s face. There
was something going on, he couldn't read it, and it tore at him. He didn't and he wanted to know
what was happening. He shot a look toward Ravyel and was unable to stop the look of pure
loathing and hatred sent his way. And the worst thing? The Emperor didn't care.

Galain's eyes glazed as he remembered what had happened so long ago. Hope was flushed
away, lives sacrificed, and all for what? The Elen forced himself to blink. He and An'Thaya should
have fallen on their swords that day when they'd finally been tracked down.

With the twisted smirk still in place, Araxmarr slid the cuff up the redhead's arm,” I love you too,
An'Thaya." "Bitch" The profanity echoed simultaneously through a Sending as he spoke her
name and the Black Emperor laughed quietly as he turned his attention back to Ravyel.

"I find her... acceptable... to be my wife," The word meant nothing to Araxmarr. Daemon had been
his Randii, and he was dead and marriage was just a contractual agreement, a way of solidifying
his alliance with Ravyel and insuring the lines of the two Emperors would go on. Though,
Araxmarr had no intention of getting her pregnant any time soon, or in fact, in the next dozen
millennia or so.
"And the child she will bear will become the heir to my throne," Unless you die first, Brother. The
thought was carefully guarded, Araxmarr was no fool. Having an heir by An'Thaya gave Ravyel a
hold on HIS throne; a foot on his territory, and Araxmarr would be receiving nothing in return
except a redheaded female that would be more trouble than she was worth... Unless Ravyel was
the first of the two Emperors to die.

"So shall it be." The smirk became a sneer as he held out one hand and his callused and blood
stained fingers closed around the much larger armband.

"And it is my wish to be bound to thee, An’Thaya D'Riel." Tonight promises to be fun, beloved.
Two liars, bathed in blood, consummating their mutual affection for each other. I vow to have you
screaming before dawn-break."

Delicate fingertips closed around the warm metal, the words falling from her lips in a drone as she
moved, having to reach up to fasten the cuff around the Emperor’s massive bicep. “I accept your
band, and the binding of you to me.” Thaya bit off the rest, unable to choke out the ritualistic
words, simply letting the band lay dormant as she pulled back, refusing to meld the ends into the
eternity symbol.

“By the ultimate power of the Olnelan Sar’Da Empire,” Ravyel’s voice interjected, “I proclaim you
Ronnan and Vonna.” Y’Roden seemed to have turned off his awareness as he spoke, his tone
detached. “Araxmarr, you may kiss your bride.”

Frighteningly gentle fingers cupped An'Thaya's lowered chin and jaw, then slowly tilted her head
back to a near-painful angle, "Vonna." The Emperor's head lowered and his fingers began to
tighten, his fingertips began to press in crushingly, "Kiss me or I will make certain Galain Alcarin
has... an accident."

Luminous-emerald eyes filled with hatred as they bore into topaz, but a shadow of fear flickered
in their depths. Nothing Araxmarr said could ever be taken lightly, and Thaya knew full well he’d
make good on the threat. She swallowed hard against a stomach threatening to rebel. “Nyfader.”

Shaking with rage, she nonetheless held still and dropped crimson lashes, unresisting as his
mouth covered hers. The instinct to bite was nearly impossible to quell, but she held a firm picture
of Galain in her mind’s eye and found a cold, impenetrable calm.

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D


It took Ghet a while to track Holo down: he could be a bit erratic in his habits depending on his
mental state. You could always rely on people having noticed him though: the wiry redheaded
human stood out in so many ways.

Sometimes she liked to play little games once she'd found him, sneak up on him and see how
badly she could freak him out. She was too preoccupied for that today, which if anything
increased her chances of pulling it off. "How'd it go? What did you get off the Gate?"

Holo jerked in surprise, sending a shower of red Talle Konte leaves flying through the air. The
Tech was seated cross-legged on the floor, various instruments and recreational objects circling
him on the dark marble. His face was slightly aglow, illuminated by the computer screen that was
set directly in front of him and there was the typical, slightly glassy look to his blue eyes.
“Oh, hello Ghet.” Nimble fingers picked up a S’Hean pipe from his right along with several other
items, clearing a spot for her. “I got an energy spike, but I’ll be damned if I know where it came
from,” he said, patting the floor in an invitation before his voice dropped off to a mutter as he
plucked flower petals off the keys. “Have a look for yourself.”

Ghet dropped gracefully to the floor, rolling onto her stomach and kicking her legs up behind her.
It was an old habit from her Academy days, that she dropped into when there was a book or a
screen around, a habit she'd been unaware of until Ro had painted her in this very position and
hung the result in the council chamber. At least this time she was wearing clothes.

She pulled the screen round slightly to face her, brushing the last of the petals away. She
recognised the unusually strong pull of the drug as a sign she shouldn't touch it. She was staying
away from anything stronger than Mai’Tus wine, simply because the pull of oblivion was so
compelling. She could not afford to let her guard down around Ravyel.

Quickly, her attention was caught by the data. She hadn't realised just what he meant. "That's
huge. S'Hea's not even industrial; there's nothing on the entire planet that could do that. Well...
nothing artificial, and see how it's all rough and uneven on the edges? That looks natural to me.
How the hell... I mean, okay, Aethyr, but even for that... you'd have to blow a conduit or
something. Now, there's a thing to see. Ro did it once when..." She stopped, and took a moment
to swallow the huge lump in her throat. When she got Ro back, she'd have to ask him how he'd
coped with that particular run of events, when she'd been kidnapped and he'd helped to track her
down with his wife and her husband.

Ghet rubbed a tear off her cheek absently. "So... what natural event could cause a power spike
that big?"

“Sure someone didn’t?” Holo asked. “Blow a conduit, I mean. Or maybe the planet burped?” He
scrubbed at his reddish-blonde hair and let out an explosive sigh. “It really wouldn’t surprise me,
this place is really, really weird. Just in case you haven’t noticed or something.” The Tech looked
slightly squicked for a second, “I swear the land here is alive or something.”

Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he swerved back to the topic at hand. “Large scale
electro-magnetic pulse strong enough to disrupt an electro-magnetic field?” The human frowned
and tugged at his earlobe. “Solar flare? Given the plenitude of sunnage in this system it’s highly
likely.”

Ghet stopped chewing her lip long enough to snigger. "Honey, how long have you been here? I
know its weird, hells; I can feel it and I didn't wanna know about it. But when they say 'the King is
the Land, the Queen is the Soul', they mean it literally. You think it's weird feeling like it's alive;
you should try having sex with it. So yeah, if the planet had 'burped' or something, I'm pretty sure
I would have felt it."

Frowning in concentration, she swivelled round and sat up, hugging her knees. "Wouldn't we
have noticed if... no, shit, you're right. Of course we wouldn't notice a solar flare here, Whispin
has no EMF. The only thing on the whole skrunning planet that has an electro-magnetic field is
the Gate system." She thumped Holo solidly on the back. "I think you've got it! This explains
where the power comes from, now I just need to know..." She stopped, stared fixedly at the TIF
tech, and bit her lip.

During her time in the service, she'd spent time at the grunt level, looking for answers when she
didn't know what the question was because she didn't have high enough clearance. The number
of times that she'd found out afterwards what was going on and thought, 'well, if you'd bloody told
me that in the first place'... "Holo. Big shush now. Oddly, you're just the sort of person I'd tell State
Secrets to. What this did... was make the Gate cross-dimensional. It swapped my husband with
his pattern match from another dimension. Another Y'Roden. Now I know how it happened.
Obviously, the next thing I need to know is where it sent him. Where is he now, my Rodi. Is there
anything in the Gate data that might tell us?"

Holo blinked, then blinked again before eyeing the talle konte leaves suspiciously. “Bs hax,” he
blurted. “You’re pulling my leg, right?” All of this, of course, after he finished coughing over the
back smacking. “Cross-dimensional? Wait… I need another pipe.” Maybe several before he really
got his head around what she was saying.

Cramming several petals into the bowl he fumbled around for a small, pocket device that heated
without flame, pushing it into the bowl and inhaling slowly. Holding his breath he eyed Ghet as the
hazy feeling settled back in, then expelled smoke in several little O’s.

“Ok… So you are saying the gate swapped… what? His soul?” The wiry fellow frowned and
stared at the screen. “Maybe that registers as the energy signature? I can try to break things
down and figure it out… it might take awhile though.”

Ghet laughed at the sound of l33t, genuine delight at the connection with her ancient past. She'd
never really lost hope because she simply couldn't afford to, but now the problem was becoming
one of maths and physics, however complicated, it was solvable. "What really boggles me is that
in order for this to happen, the other Y'Roden must have been part of a Gate system too, in the
energy matrix at exactly the same time. Dammit, I should have asked him." There was no good
way Ravyel could have got hold of TIF technology.

Absently, her fingers lifted to brush idly backwards and forwards across her bond-mark. "But yes.
It should show up as energy. Even if we can find the point at which it entered and left, we'd have
a direction. If we can just get the right damn universe, I can find him." She knew enough, though,
to know just how complicated Holo's job would be, sifting through all the data looking for a needle
in a very big haystack. "I can never thank you enough for this, never. Anything you want, you just
let one of the Rangers know, and if they don't get it, they can send for me..." She trailed off,
thinking. Holo was the only one who could do this. He'd just become the most important person
left in Windemiire.

"How would you feel about taking this to Silver Dragon Ridge? It's our family retreat; it's quieter
there and... well, obviously it's Not Good if people know about this. I've just sent Maeve up there
too, so you wouldn't be on your own."

“Maeve is that hot little redhead, right?” Holo said with a grin. “Yeah, sure, somewhere out of the
way will be good. Can’t say I won’t get distracted by the scenery though… Just let me get packed
up and then you can send me along. They do have talle konte there, yes?” He paused and met
Ghet’s gaze, though he was slightly unfocused. “I assume you don’t want her to know what I’m
doing either?”

"The scenery is pretty damn spectacular," Ghet said, grinning. "Maeve is... yeah. In spades. And
she's human... never did find out if she came from the same Earth as us. It's not polite to talk with
your mouth full. What was I talking about? Yeah. No, she doesn't need to know. It's not that I
don't trust her, it's just..." Something. She was too precious to risk, or something. Ghet couldn't
put it into words. "And I'd never send you anywhere with no drug supply. Let me know when
you're ready to go and I'll portal up there with you, check in on Maeve, make sure they're fully
stocked."

Holo’s attention seemed to have wandered right about the time Ghet mentioned ‘mouth full’. “I’m
sorry… were you saying something?” he asked. “I was stuck back on the redhead-on-redhead
action. Uhm… yeah, that was horribly inappropriate. I tend to do that. I’ll just get my stuff.” It was
quite possible that the Tech was blushing… though it may have just been a reaction to the drugs.
“Give me five minutes and I’ll be ready to go.”

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D


All of the bathing in the world couldn’t remove the taint of the body he wore. The guilt ripped at his
innards and wouldn’t be soothed away. It had taken a long time for Ro to learn how to feel, and
now… it was becoming his downfall. Even if he found a way out of this place he would forever
carry the knowledge of what he had done for self-preservation.

The room was making him claustrophobic, closing in on him until it was impossible to breathe.
Dressed in nothing but a pair of soft-leather trousers, he stepped through the double doors
leading out onto the balcony and wrapped weapon-worn fingers around the railing. Drawing in a
long, ragged breath the half-elf closed his eyes, drinking in the familiar scents of waterfalls and
flowers.

For a moment, he could forget. If he cleared his mind for long enough, it could be his Windemiire
he stood in. Yet there was the nagging knowledge that when he opened his eyes, it wouldn’t be
Ghet’s garden he saw… it would only be the naked roof of the palace.

Emerald eyes cracked open and his shoulders slumped as Ro looked out into the darkness,
tension suddenly creeping into his shoulders as the glint of a reflective surface caught his gaze.
His features twitched with morbid curiosity… what would Ravyel have placed out here on the
roof?

A glance to the side revealed a set of stairs leading down to where, in his reality, Ghet’s garden
began. Pushing away from the rail, he followed them down and out onto a path of obsidian glass,
drawn inexplicably by the light in the dark.

Ravyel’s long locks tugged back in the wind, playing over massive shoulders as the Emperor
paused on the path, staring blankly at an intricately-carved quartet of columns that joined together
with graceful arches. S’Hean Runes were carved into the pale stone, and as the translation ran
through his head… Y’Roden’s blood froze in the vein.

Joy of a Summer’s Morning.

Cold fingers brushed aside gauzy curtains that stirred in a damp breeze and he stepped beneath
the archway, breath catching so hard in his chest that it hurt. An emerald-hued crystal coffin lay
within the memorial, moonlight glimmering on its smooth, translucent lid. He hesitated, not
wanting to see, fearing the reality that would slap him in the face if he looked, yet unable to turn
away.

Wooden footsteps carried him forwards, eyes drawn down by lead weights as they bored through
the crystalline surface and recognized the much-beloved face. The world seemed to shift and
somehow he was kneeling, one palm pressed to the top of the coffin, the other to his face, fingers
hooked across the bridge of his nose as the S’Hean rocked with soundless grief.

A choked strangle turned into a roar of frustration and hard fingertips gripped the curve of the lid,
muscles bunching through biceps, shoulders and back as he heaved up, straining hard until the
telltale crack of the seal shot through the night. Shoving the heavy slab halfway down the length
of the casket he gripped the edge of the container to steady himself as pain rendered him
momentarily blind.

She was perfectly preserved, eyes closed, expression peaceful, body clad in a softly layered
S’Hean dress. Her hair still glimmered with life, though olive skin had gone pale and slightly blue.
He tugged the redhead’s limp body upwards, the scent of ginseng bringing him to tears as he just
held her for a moment. They trickled into deep-red hair as he stroked it back, shoulders shaking.
It was her… and yet it wasn’t. His soul screamed for what she must have gone through, his
Ghettie or not…. She deserved so much more than this…

A cold monument to a woman of passion and fire…

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “He should have loved you, Ghet. Not this… Gods… never this, you
saved me.” Ro shook his head in disbelief, lost to the gut-wrenching grief that held him
momentarily paralysed. “Why? Why couldn’t you save him? Save yourself…”

They were questions he would never know the answer to -- they were gone with the long-dead
woman in his arms.

It was a long time before he released his hold, lay her gently back into the cold sarcophagus,
carefully smoothed her hair and dress. Warm hands drew cold fingers to his mouth and he kissed
the backs of them softly. “You are loved,” he said in a tone that was rough with emotion. “In ways
you probably couldn’t have ever imagined… by so many people. By me, Ghet… I suspect even
by what vestige is left in the version that belongs here. No matter the life, I can’t help but love
you. That’s the magic of you and me, you know. It was never a choice, never a logical decision;
we have the kind of love that surpasses all of that. We can’t fight it, no matter how hard we try.”

The half-elf pressed his forehead to the back of Ghet's hand, then lay it back at her side. Leaning
in he touched the side of his face to hers. “Where ever you are now, I hope you are at peace,
love.” Drawing back, he turned his face up into the moonlight, watching the celestial pair race
across the sky.

“I’ll find my way home, Ghettie… just hold on.”

               Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin


Seated at Y’Roden’s desk, his feet kicked up on a pile of parchment, Ravyel spun a child’s
runeball in the tips of his fingers, a bored expression on his chiselled features. Every once in
awhile he would hit a random combination of runes and a magical landscape would fill the room,
bathing his face with light as the scenes played out. The toy had obviously been left by one of his
alter-ego’s children and had been serving as a makeshift paperweight until it’s owner came back
to claim it.

A snifter dangled precariously from his other hand, brandy sloshing lazily against the sides as he
shifted slightly in the chair. The Demon was a creature of action, and the chambers were
beginning to stifle him. The afternoon’s distraction had been amusing enough, and he had come
away form his conversation with Callan armed with several burgeoning ideas that simmered
slowly in the back of his mind.

Sometimes, what seemed like random conversation on his part could draw the most interesting
reactions out of others. The shift of an eye, the tensing of a muscle, a word misspoken – Ravyel
was an expert at reading beneath the surface. It seemed, however, that Callan was as well, and it
fascinated him.

“I want out of these rooms,” he said suddenly, not bothering to look at Ghetsuhm. “Tomorrow. I’m
tired of staring at these walls.”

Ghet looked up, lowering the scroll she was reading into her lap, and stared at him levelly.
"Really? Why didn't you say so. And here I thought you were loving it." She shrugged, the motion
dislodging the shoulder of the loose gown she was wearing. "Alright. Just as soon as you can
work the green eyes thing and do a passable imitation of my husband, you can go anywhere you
like. With me, of course - we're so devoted." The smile she gave him was saccharine and brief.

She leaned back, tilting her head to the side, watching him. "It's an interesting concept, you know.
I mean, I know Y'Roden can fake being you. That's still inside him. But you... there's no core of
feeling for you to fall back on. You've never known love, can you pretend it?"

The runeball clunked down heavily onto the desk and Ravyel grinned unsettlingly at Ghet. His
fingers hooked onto the handle of a drawer, pulling it out and one by one, he drew forth small,
square memory-cubes and lined them up on the wooden surface. “Fortunately, for me, you sleep
sounder than I do, love, and your husband keeps the most interesting things in his desk.”

He tossed one of the cubes easily into the air and caught it again, closing his eyes and relaxing
his features. When chestnut lashes flickered up again, emerald jewels looked out at her. “Yona
elleska dai, Ghettie,” he murmured in Ro’s warm baritone, his features softened in a mimicry of
an expression the half-elf only wore when looking at his wife.

Laughter rippled through the room. “I’m a quick study. Why don’t you come over here and I’ll
show you what else I picked up.”

Ghet's face twisted in revulsion, parchment crushed in her fingers. Her throat worked for a minute
before she could speak, fighting the pain. "Alright, yes, that's good enough to fool anyone but
me." It was, actually, just like watching a recording of her ronnan: the words, the expression,
without the emotional resonance behind them. "The difficult thing will be me pretending not to be
repulsed by you."

She pushed aside the pile of documents she'd been working on and got to her feet, making her
way across the room and pouring herself a brandy. At first she'd held herself completely rigid in
his presence, but that was tiring, and normal grace and softness had returned to her movements.
She perched on the edge of the desk and looked down, wondering. She didn't know what was in
her husband's desk; going through it would simply never have occurred to her. She had no idea
what Ravyel knew about her now, but then... he already knew her darkest secrets, just by being
who he was.

So she leaned in and put her hand on the side of his face, perversely sucking down the pain it
caused her to look into those eyes. "I love you too, Rodi. Not you, you. I could love you." She
pulled her face back and laughed bitterly. "You should have done this with her, the other Ghet.
I've been through Hell for Ro. If she thought you loved her, she'd have ruled it with you."

Confusion warred in the depths of his eyes, one facet of his personality eclipsing the other as
they struggled for control. “Don’t say that,” the tone was anguished. “She never would have ruled
with him, she hated what he did.” The brandy snifter slipped from stiff fingers, bouncing onto the
floor and spilling its contents across the stone. Y’Roden gripped the edge of the desk, knuckles
turning white as he clung to it as hard as he clung to the surface of consciousness.
His gaze riveted on Ghet’s he searched her expression. “You don’t know me,” the half-elf ground
out. “Neither of us was worthy of her love. All I’ve ever done is sit back and watch him destroy –
everything.”

With a choked sob, Ghet leaned in and wrapped her arms around him, cradling his head against
her chest. It was pure instinct in the face of such pain. "Don't blame yourself," she said, her voice
nearly harsh with tears. "After what you went through... it's not your fault. And it's not too late,
elleska. I know what you're capable of, I know how strong you are, just to survive." Her fingers
stroked his hair, comforting him as she would one of her children. "Love isn't earned, it's not a
matter of worth, it's just given. And it says more about the one loving than the person they love."
Warmth flowed out from her, a gentle, familial love. "I don't know what would have been," she
said softly, "and neither do you. But there's an awful lot of future still in front of you."

“I killed whatever future I might have had,” the words were choked out. Overwhelmed by Ghet’s
familiar scent and the soft, unfamiliar feel of love the S’Hean broke down, tears biting at his eyes
as heavy shoulders shook with restrained emotion. “I couldn’t,” it was almost the sound of a
plaintive child. “I couldn’t watch her suffer anymore, not like that.”

Wet, chestnut lashes dropped and Y’Roden ground his teeth, partially drinking in the soothing
comfort he hadn’t experienced since childhood, the rest of him straining to keep the enraged
Demon beneath the surface. “Nobody knows,” he whispered, “nobody knows I’m here… and
there isn’t anyone powerful enough to kill us.”

Holding him close, Ghet started to rock. She could not have behaved any other way, for all she
knew that she might only be hurting him more in the long run. "Hey, it's alright. If she was like me,
back then... she wouldn't have been afraid to die. It was right." Part of her distantly registered the
shock: Ravyel hadn't lied to her about this at least. "She would have wanted to die at your hand. I
know, okay? There have been times I would gladly have let Ro kill me, and I was happy. She...
yeah."

She bent and kissed the top of his head. "I know. I know you're here. And if it's what you really
want..." Gods, how could she be doing this? What the hell happened to not interfering? "I'll find a
way. I promise. But I still think you can do it. Y'Roden, love, don't give up."

The half-elf exploded up out of the chair, Ravyel’s roar of rage blowing Ghet’s hair back as one
heavy, weapon-hardened hand shot to the redhead’s throat. With a smooth, angry movement he
slammed her back onto the desk and lurched forward, his face a hair’s breadth from hers. “If you
ever do that again, I will snap your neck like a twig. Are we clear?” Emerald drowned beneath
crimson as Y’Roden lost the battle and sank back to the place he had been trapped in for
centuries.

“I loved you, and he had no right to take you from me.”

Caught off-guard and open, Ghet's reaction was obvious: fear, and much more. She'd been raped
several times during her long life, but Ravyel held a particular distinction - he'd made her enjoy it,
and it was impossible to explain how much worse that was. The flash of naked lust left her
shaken.

In spite of that, there was also a kind of triumph in her face. "Made you say it. You loved her.
Could you really kill me, and lose her all over again?"

Hardened rubies glared into denim blues for the beat of a heart and a grin spread over his face.
He could smell the change in her; feel the rising heat of Ghet’s body. His mouth crushed hers in a
bruising kiss, holding the redhead pinned beneath his heavy frame with burning intensity, then
just as suddenly pulled his head up. “Do you really want to find out?”

His free hand found her ribs, stroking gently over the fabric of the dress. “I could make you beg
for it… and we both know it.”

Ghet swallowed hard. Under the surface, this was a test of her, not him. For how much longer
would she bother to stop him? His scent, the touch of his hand, it was all so achingly familiar. "I
can't argue," she said softly. "Alright, you know. You can play me. You can make me scream and
beg. And maybe after that, you could make a ball bounce, or a dropped rock fall. It's my nature.
You can play me, but you can't make me feel the way Ro makes me feel. You could kill me, if I let
you, but you could never equal him. I've broken and bled under his hands too many times to
count, and I have been loved right through it. I've felt the passion I bring to him right in the core of
his soul. You're nothing next to that."

She'd held perfectly still under him, knowing any struggle would simply please him more. "Get off
me."

“For now,” the words were like silk whispering over granite, “but the game – the game has just
begun, love.” Releasing her he jerked back and shoved the chair out of his way. “Tomorrow I will
get out of these rooms. I need to spar – after all, you wouldn’t want your husband’s body to get all
out of shape, now would you?”

Without waiting for an answer he headed for the bed, stripping off the soft, black shirt he was
wearing and tossing it over the back of a divan. Snagging a bottle of brandy he fell back through
the curtains and sighed in what seemed relative contentment, staring up into the softly glowing
blue haven above him.

Shakily, Ghet got back to her feet, trying to contain her frustration. It was rare these days but
familiar, like the visit of a very old friend: her disgust at herself. There was no way she should be
reacting like this to anyone who wasn't her husband, let alone Ravyel. Without Y'Roden, she was
simply weak and perverted.

She retrieved her brandy glass, drained it, and filled it again. "Callan's the only one who can give
Ro a decent workout," she said remotely, switching herself off as much as she could. "I'm
assuming you want a challenge, and not something you could just snap. But if you're well enough
to spar, you have to be well enough to attend council meetings. That should be amusing." She
rubbed a hand over her forehead, staring blackly at him lying in her bed like he belonged there.
She would have to get Aarien and Rhagi away first thing.

                                                  ***

An’Thaya threw open the double doors that led into the private chambers she shared with Callan
in Windemiire, boot heels clicking on silver-laced black marble and coming to a halt in the middle
of the room. As the doors closed behind the Dragon Emperor, Tay delved into the front of her
breastplate with delicate fingers and worked the amulet free of her cleavage. A snort of
discomfort and the horseshoe shaped bit of metal pulled free, the round gem - suspended in it’s
centre by fine chains – roiled with Samara’s displeasure, the red mist seeming to boil and shift
within the clear-obsidian stone.

“I think she’s upset,” she observed in a tone that held absolutely no sympathy for the Demoness,
who had been more than ‘trouble’ for the redhead in the past. It might have been Samara,
however, that had forced An’Thaya to realize how much she wanted Callan Blackthorn, whether
she wanted to consciously face it or not. In a strange way, the Demoness had done her a favour.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had complaints about my cleavage before.”

"Well, you've never almost smothered in there either," Callan quipped and eyed first the cleavage
at issue, then the amulet, "Of course, I can't help but think... what a way to go." Topaz eyes
watched the roiling colours within the stone for a moment, then flopped onto the bed and began
shoving off one boot with the toe of the other. The socks came next in similar fashion, then he sat
up and peeled off the t-shirt he'd been wearing, "I don't think she's upset about being wedged
between your breasts though. An empty Illiansaad must be a lonely place. Infinitely confining, yet
limitlessly vast... and very permanent."

Callan seemed to become thoughtful as he tossed the shirt to the floor, "I'm not sure which is
worse, being stuck in there alone or with thousands of angry Remnants."

“Iiiii should be the one complaining,” she sniffed, “this thing isn’t the most comfortable object to
have crammed between one’s breasts.” She looped the chain around one finger and spun it
lightly through the air, the metal links twining around the delicate digit. “What are you going to do
with it?” she asked, knowing full well her husband would never let another illiansaad touch his
neck ever again.

She snorted suddenly and laughed, “I suppose it’s like she has been put in Solitary Confinement.
Serves her right, really, she never could play nice with others.”

"Yeah, well. Neither could I. At least not for long." Callan looked thoughtfully at the amulet, then
extended his hand, palm up, "Well, you're right, I'm not wearing the thing. I think the best place
for it is with Sha'tris." The Emperor referred not to the physical arena at the Blackthorn Keep, but
to the entity which was Aerdon's Gaia, "But that means going back to Aerdon." Callan seemed to
mentally wander off as he considered all the ramifications of letting the amulet out of his sight,
"And somehow, I doubt Ghet wants this being taken off-world."

As his wife laid the amulet in his palm, he scrubbed his face with the other hand, "I'll wear it." The
abrupt decision made, Callan rose and went to a nearby chest, flung the heavy lid open, and
began raffling through the contents. Odd things were dropped to the floor, things like a black
Zippo lighter with an orange design that said 'Harley', a toothbrush, a S'Hean bath brush... which
had actually been cracked over his head once and his posterior threatened with it... that had been
Tay's mother, a pair of baby shoes which had clearly been Mira's from the embroidered name on
the toes, and finally, a dark blue, very soft velvet pouch which he held aloft as if it were a trophy.

"I need a cord or something..." His head popped up, "Have one?"

An’Thaya’s eyebrows shot up in surprise over her husband’s sudden announcement, though her
expression turned quickly to amusement as he rifled through the trunk. “Are you sure,” she asked
demurely, “that you only hoard land? That looks suspiciously like a hoard of mementos,
Ol’Shann.” The Amazon gazed down at the toe of her boot and the large, Callan-sized hot-pink
thong that had looped around the end of it. “I can’t believe you kept that,” she snickered. Kicking
her foot forward she tossed the scandalous undies into the air and deftly caught them.

Pursing cherry-red lips she thought for a moment, emerald greens sliding towards the bed and
the dark curtains that hung around it. “Sure,” she answered, moving towards one of the posts and
working the knot on one of the delicate, black ropes that hung there. During the day they were
used to tie the curtains back, but one would serve the purpose nicely.

Dangling the silk rope she grinned at the Dragon Emperor, then threw it to him.
"Yeah, well," The cord was caught, its momentum causing it to wind around his fingers and drape
across his wrist and ivy marked forearm, "that was the very first time you ever had a hand in
affecting my sundries, An'Thaya of the Silver Dryad and She who Poundeth my Head into the
Floor Unprovoked."

The cord began to change in Callan's grip as his attention turned to a rarely used ability,
transmutation, and soon, a few of the woven strands began to have a metallic glint. The cord
became interwoven with steel, then shrank to a more easily concealed thickness. Moments later,
the pouch was tied shut and its drawstrings tied securely around the cord, which was then
knotted.

"As to hoarding things, I never claimed to NOT hoard... stuff." A boyish grin framed Callan's face
and the dent in his cheek made an appearance, "I just said my MAIN desire is to hoard land. All
the rest of this is a hobby."

Callan held one hand up and hanging off his finger was a single fluffy-bunny house shoe,
"Remember these?"

“Oh I wouldn’t say your main desire is to hoard anything,” An’Thaya observed coyly. She eyed the
slipper for a moment, then blushed profusely. “I look horrible in pigtails,” the Amazon said as she
flopped into a chair and started pulling off her boots.

Releasing a soft sigh she collapsed back against the cushions and eyed her husband seriously
for a moment. “I’m worried about Ghet. She’s so fragile right now – I’m not entirely sure how long
she is going to be able to hold it together. And gods -- Ro --.” Delicate fingers scrubbed at her
face, “I have these gods-awful pictures in my mind of what he is going to have to do wherever he
is to avoid giving himself away.”

There was a non-committal grunt from the vicinity of the chest followed by the lid lowering to
reveal Callan's topaz eyes peering at his wife. His expression was unfathomable, and his words
were far from reassuring.

"He'll do whatever it is he has to... and I have no doubt in my mind he'll do it very well."

              Present Day – The Blackthorn Keep -The Diirlathe – Aerdon – A.D


"Wake up." The words were softly spoken but held all the deadly authority wielded by Araxmarr.
Ice-blue eyes watched his new bride where she lay sprawled out on a pile of spotted furs and
other rich bedding. The 'bed' was little more than a slab of beige granite, which had been
wallowed out by all the eons of Blackthorn Emperors who had come before the current ruler.

"We're off to a good start, don't you think?" Araxmarr paused to study a golden liquid held in a
large, bell-shaped glass. Battle-scarred fingers swirled the crystal container and the alcohol
seemed to flicker and glow with a light of its own but was truly reflected light from the enormous
fire in the hearth behind him. Pale eyes slowly tracked across the room from the drink to the limp
pile of bloodstained hair and tanned skin.

"I know you're awake. I can hear your heartbeat... I can smell the hate oozing out of your skin."

Emerald gems cracked open slightly, watching the dragon warily through the haze of pain. The
half-elf’s head was pounding and a fresh wound slashed across her temple where a sharp blow
had robbed the Amazon of consciousness. He hadn’t tried to touch her yet, that much she could
be grateful for, but the ever present fear that he would had kept her still, the act of prey
attempting to stay beneath the notice of a predator.

Now, aware that he saw right through the charade, she sat up and pushed matted locks out of her
face. Cold fingers pulled at a blanket, tugging it around her frame against the biting cold of the
Diirlathe. Her eyes flicked away from him once, glancing to the dancing invitation of warm flames,
then darted back to Araxmarr’s face. She remained on the bed, drawing her knees up inside the
warmth of the comforter.

“If it annoys you so much, send me to another room. Why bother holding me here? One set of
chambers is just as good as another.”

Araxmarr's soft laugh ended in a light drink of the liquor in the glass, then resumed after he'd
swallowed, "You've never been to the 'Lathe, have you?" One hand rose and he crooked his
index finger at her in a gesture for her to 'come here'.

"I never said it annoys me... and... send you to another room?" His laughter became cracked,
somehow off-balance. His head rolled back and his free hand, still stained with the blood of the
Brendari, pinched and scrubbed at the bridge of his nose.

"I bring you here as an Empress and you demand to be treated like a slave..." His laughter
stopped abruptly as his mood swung wildly from amused to something else entirely. Araxmarr's
elbows pressed into his thighs as he leaned forward, "Come here."

“Isn’t that what I am?” she asked without moving. “An Empress is an equal, someone you
respect. All I am to you is a walking bargaining chip to keep my brother in check.” She slid tiny
feet out from under the blanket and over the side of the granite slab to touch soundlessly on the
cold stone floor. “You said it yourself,” the Amazon continued as she let the blanket fall back and
padded across the floor to him, “I am yours, every beat of my heart, every breath I draw, will be
only because you continue to allow it."

She came to a halt in front of the Emperor where he was seated before the roaring fire, grateful at
least for the heat, though her expression didn’t change. Delicate fingers touched the collar at her
throat, the glimmering fire cast off by the runes slithering across her skin. “I’ve been naught but a
slave since this little trinket was fastened around my neck. A commodity for entertainment, a
dancer, a killer, and now a bride – blooded in battle, but untouched by any male. My body, my
blood, my soul has all been sold to you for the price of an Empire.”

"That is true. I said it." Araxmarr agreed with a soft snort of laughter, "and I meant it." Thick,
callused fingers shot out and snapped around her neck with frightening speed, then he hauled
her closer, but only squeezed hard enough to make a very direct point.

"I wonder... which would be worse for you?" He canted his head to the side, then leaned forward
and drew in a deep breath of her scent before raking the tip of his tongue across a swatch of
dried blood on her jaw, "To be ignored until I need an heir... or to have that... precious purity...
your brother is so proud of, ripped from you?"

He seemed to contemplate the question a moment, then released her with a shrug and a slight
shove.

"I understand it is customary to offer a new bride a gift, yes?"
A flicker of fear sparked in the depths of An’Thaya’s eyes and she forgot to breathe until his hard
grip tore away. She offered no comment on his speculating, not stupid enough to choose one or
the other -- he would undoubtedly do the opposite of whatever she elected. To be ignored would
be a slice of paradise, but far too much to hope for. Rax was like a cat with a new toy, bound to
pounce on it and tear it to pieces over and over until he was tired of it.

Swallowing she stared at the dragon for a blank moment. “I hardly think I would be interested in
any gift you have to give,” she said blandly. Unless, of course, it was a dagger – the Amazon
wondered passingly how far along she would get in carving out his heart before he killed her.

"Hmph." The sound came out as a soft snort as a long, needle-sharp blade slithered out from
beneath the heel of Araxmarr's palm, "Defiant bitch." He rose to his feet and closed the slim
distance between he and his new 'Vonna'. The drink was finished and the glass flung over his
shoulder. It landed with a sharp clink against the wall, but did not break as it clattered to the floor -
obsidian glass was only one of the many imports Araxmarr enjoyed.

"Your brother may have thought this was necessary," The Emperor tilted her head back by
gripping her chin. For a moment, the point of the black spike hovered dangerously close to one
emerald eye, then moved in a slow, leisurely scrape down her cheek, jaw, then to the collar, "But
I always wondered just what sort of killer could you be, if you were not in chains."

A unique pattern was tapped out on the runes with the tip of the spike and the collar fell away,
collapsing to the floor with a metallic clank.

"My gift, Vonna... is your freedom. The Keep is yours, go where you please, take as many lovers
as you want," Rax stepped away from her and one booted foot kicked the collar across the room,
"but get pregnant with anything other than my heir, and I will publicly rip the unborn child from
your womb and display it in MY pit, along with its father impaled.

"Anything in this Keep is now yours. Blade, bow, women, men, clothes, food. Whatever. Stay
away from me, and I'll stay away from you, and we'll both be happy. Sound fair?" The armour the
Emperor had been wearing melted away, as did all of his clothes. Naked and covered in Human
blood, he turned and walked away from the new Empress and began pouring himself a new drink,
in a new glass.

"You'll find a bath through those doors." His head jerked to a massive carved wall as he uncorked
a new bottle. The 'wall' in question in truth was a dragon-sized set of doors, within which was a
smaller, 'human' sized set of doors, and it was to those he gestured.

"I'll have food brought up. Towels and appropriate sleep clothes, if you want them, are in the
bath."

Shock held An’Thaya frozen to the spot, eyes downcast, focused on the collar that lay at her feet.
An involuntary sound that was almost the moan of a lover fell from her lips as the Aethyr slid
through long unused pathways, firing her blood and awakening the mage within. Her conduit slid
open of its own volition and the redhead’s body crackled with emerald power, her hair lifting on
unseen eddies of the spirit plane, and when she lifted her face, the Amazon’s eyes were aflame
with it.

Shaken, she gazed at Araxmarr in silence for a long moment, unable to restrain the open emotion
on her face, the pure sensual joy of Aethyr singing in her soul. Drawing in a shaking breath,
Thaya opened her mouth as if to speak, then blushed hotly and fled towards the bathing room.
The doors slammed shut behind her and the Amazon pressed her back against them, sliding to
the floor in a daze – fighting to get a grip on herself.
Gods damn him – he had hit where it mattered, and she had no idea whether to be grateful, or to
hate him all the more.

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin


Ghet stood in the doorway, watching her son. The older he got, the more he looked like his father,
though she was sure he didn’t know it. There was something about his cheekbones and round
the eyes that reminded her of B’Rodyn too, oddly. Rhagi… gods, he’d been a source of conflict
since the moment of his conception, shrouded in secrets and half-truths. If anyone hurt this boy,
she quite literally wouldn’t be responsible for her actions. It wasn’t a choice, just a fact.

He looked up from his computer screen, unplugging the scanner from the side. He’d known Ghet
was there, and known she would wait until he was ready. Now he watched her while she watched
him, pushing a stray lock of hair back out of his eyes and hooking it behind his ear, where it would
come loose again in a couple of minutes. She looked tired.

Accepting that he was ready, Ghet walked into his room and sat across the desk from him. “I
need to ask you a favour, Rhags.”

He swivelled round in his chair to face her, steepling his fingers under his chin. “I wondered how
long it would take. I’ve hardly seen you since you sent the girls and B’Roden off, I figured you
wanted something.”

Ghet frowned, a little twitch by her mouth betraying pain. “That’s not fair. I’ve been busy with your
father.”

“Yes,” Rhagi said weightily, “you have.”

Irritated, Ghet puffed air up through her fringe. “Look. Aarien needs to go back to Galain, and I
don’t have time to take her. Obviously you’ve noticed how horribly short I am on time. I’d like you
to take her to Riker’s, and then Marius can take her the rest of the way to Alcarinque. He can get
through the wards… and you know, I’m sure Galain would really like to see you.”

Rhagi leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m not going. You can send the others
away because they’ve got somewhere to go, but this is my home. I can’t make you tell me what’s
going on, but I am not going to get shoved out of the way again.”

“Rhagi, please, it’s just for a little while…”

“No! You’ve been doing this my whole life, shunting me around like I’m a parcel. When you went
to bring Addah back when I was ten, you just took me to Silver Dragon Ridge and left me there. I
didn’t see you for months, when you came back to the Ridge I didn’t even see you, and when
Addah took me back to Windemiire, you came and got him and you both went to Ridge and left
me again for weeks. I had no idea what was going on, and there was nothing to do but think
about it. I couldn’t even talk to Drysi and Yseult, obviously.”

Tears in her eyes, Ghet was trying very hard to stay calm. Her son had a right to be angry, and
really he was just frustrated, wanting the responsibilities of an adult and the comfort of a child.
She was exhausted, though, and over-wrought, and this was the worst possible time for her to
have to deal with all this. Except that in a way he was right: it was always the worst time. There
was always something. “Rhagi, I’m sorry. There were reasons for what we did, and we did at
least tell you we were going, but… we couldn’t tell you what was going to happen because we
didn’t know. We hoped, but we didn’t know, and we didn’t want you to hope and then be let down.
We thought it was best.”

Rhagi felt like a heel hurting his mother like this, but it was also the first headway he’d ever made
and he didn’t want to back off and let it slip away again. “Don’t you think I should get to decide
what’s best for me? It’s my life. I’m not a little child any more. I’m old enough to understand things
and make my own decisions. I’m old enough to be included.”

“How can you know that,” Ghet snapped, “if you don’t know what you’re asking to be included in?
Your father was dead, Rhagi! It wasn’t a trip to the freaking zoo! Yes, we do want to protect you
from what we’ve been through, of course we do, it was horrendous. It’s not that we don’t think
you’re capable, we just don’t want you to suffer, especially when we can prevent it. You kids have
had enough to deal with and I’m sorry about that and the odd times over the years when we
haven’t put you guys first. But there is nothing I can do about that now.”

Emerald eyes were deep and serious on her face. “You can not send me away. You can tell me
what’s going on, and you can let me help. I don’t like watching you suffer, either.”

Ghet smiled weakly and reached her hand across the desk towards her son. “You’re great, you
know that? I love you. One of my greatest joys has been being able to give you a safe, loving
home. I’ll do anything I can for you, you know that. I’ll fight like a rabid bitch to keep you safe.
That’s why I have to stay here, and you have to go. Please. Take Aarien to Riker’s for me. Will
you do that, at least?”

Rhagi could feel his mother’s pain, and it seemed to be genuine, for all he could tell. He took her
hand, because he couldn’t not. He wasn’t cruel. “I can do that. Will you tell me what’s wrong with
Addah? Is he going to be okay?”

Here, she could not lie. If she lied to him, and he felt it, he would never trust her again. “I’d like to
tell you he’s perfectly safe, but I can’t. He will be, though, I really believe that, okay? You can tell I
believe it. This thing he’s working through will pass, and everything will be all right again. It’s just
hard while he fights through it. We’ve been through worse than this before. Will you stay with
Marius for a while, if you won’t go to Galain? Spend some time with Foxx. I miss her.”

Rhagi grimaced, well aware he was being emotionally blackmailed. Still… he thought very
carefully through exactly what she’d just said. “Yes. Yes I will.”

“Promise?”

“Promise. Where are you sending the twins?”

Relieved that he’d agreed, Ghet was caught totally off-balance by the question. “I’m not sure. I
think I’ll get Elizabeth to take them to Silver Dragon Ridge. I don’t want them too far away, and
this is the only home they’ve ever known. And you know the Council will knot its collective
knickers if I send the S’Hean heir away while the Tyrne is sick.”

“I’m sure you can sell it,” Rhagi said with suspicious blandness. “Is Aarien ready?”

“I’ll get her.”

                  Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D
Dúdae tilted her head, watching Ro from where she sat curled up on the chaise; the heavy tome
in her lap hadn’t been touched for some time and she made no move to correct that situation. The
S’Hean style dress did nothing to hide the fact that she wore skin-tight black leather pants
beneath. It seemed no matter where or what version, the Taurësúlë would never willingly wear a
dress without the extra article of clothing.

Ro was changing; the half-elf that had taken her Lord’s place was closing himself off from who he
was to survive in a life he wasn’t meant to have. Calculated concern hardened her features.
There was very little of the goings on in Windemiire that escaped her attention, she made it her
business so the knowledge could be passed on. So that Ravyel could decide what should be
done about it.

Some thought she was searching for a higher position than what she had. They couldn’t
understand the loyalty, couldn’t understand the ‘madness’ that made her go willingly to the
Demon Elf’s bed. But Dúdae had a secret, what she did went beyond loyalty and it was
something she had no intention of naming for fear of the consequences.

Forest-green eyes drifted to the balcony, and more importantly what was just beyond. That
damnable woman. The thought was carefully guarded. The redhead was a touchy subject with
Ravyel; she didn’t doubt for a moment that Ghetsuhm was also a touchy subject with Ro.

“If it makes you feel any better, he loved her, as surprising as that may be. The night she died,”
Dúdae shook her head, “I hadn’t heard a sound like it in years.” Only one other time had she
heard that gut-wrenching cry and she had never expected to hear it again. “It was the roar of a
wounded animal, the cry of someone that had lost the most important thing in the world and there
was nothing he could do about it.” The Seeress’ voice lowered unable to hide the sorrow she felt
for the Demon’s loss.

She was suddenly annoyed with herself that she would show such an emotion in front of the
stranger, but she trusted Ro, and whatever secrets he would find out about her she was certain
he would take them with if he ever returned home. “I’ve never seen him that way since.” Dúdae’s
eyes returned to Ro, “Please don’t think he killed her for the pleasure of it. I didn’t know her well,
purposely avoided it, but she went to him willingly and knew the dangers.”

Ro’s head jerked up in response to the sound of Dúdae’s voice and he regarded her blankly for a
moment. The early morning sunlight glimmered off his chestnut hair, warming the soft locks with a
glimmer of gold. Emerald gems dragged back to the balcony and the monument beyond and he
leaned heavily against the doorframe, arms crossed over his broad chest.

“She’s my wife,” he said in a barely audible voice. Silence hung in the air for a moment before he
cleared his throat. “I know she did -- it’s in her nature. It’s just… nobody should have to see the
person they love more than life like that. I suppose I had it coming though, I’ve put her through
hell.”

“Ro, do you have the Gates where you come from?” She asked suddenly, “Or were you portalling
when you came here?”

The change of subject caught the half-elf off guard and he shifted, turning with weight on his
shoulder to look at his alter-ego’s lover. “Yes,” he answered, “we have gates, it was a concept I
came up with a few years ago.” He turned and slid into a chair at the table near the double doors
and tilted his head, wondering where the Tauresule was going with her line of questioning.

Dúdae’s legs slid off of the chaise as she stood, her finger marking the spot in the book. Leather
clad legs disappeared beneath the gauzy skirts of her dress. “I think I might have found
something of interest for you.” Crossing the distance, she placed the tome on the table in front of
the half-elf and tapped the section in the page she had marked with a fingertip.

“I’m no technician, the TIF male bored me in his explanations, but his screams were pleasant.”
She cleared her throat, “I learned enough from him though, and some of the books that have
been brought to the library have been interesting to read… I’m getting side tracked. The Gates
remind me of the Gates on Arlsyn,” the Taurësúlë crooked a finger at a chair, turning her attention
back to Ro while the furniture floated towards her. She slipped into it as it landed. “I don’t know
much as to how the technological part works, but I do know about the magic part. The Gates on
Arlsyn work with a power surge, usually a heavy lightning storm. If it connects to just the right
place in the ground it opens a type of vortex that connects to a sister location on another world or
plane allowing others to pass through.

“You stepped out of the Gate in Corin, aye?” Dark eyes sparkled with scholarly enthusiasm.
“From what you’ve said, my dimension and your dimension is, for the most part, the same. At
least physically. What if the same happened? Perhaps not a storm, I don’t remember one that
day, but some sort of disturbance? Some sort of power surge? I don’t know, something that
interfered that happened in both places at the same time. If you were both in the Gate at the very
same time then the surge could have distorted the coding, caused a glitch in the system
something, and when it corrected itself it over corrected?”

Ro ran callused fingers through his thick, dark hair and shook it back over one shoulder, eyes
scanning the text in the book as his brow furrowed slightly. “I’m a little sketchy on the technical
side myself, that is Ghet’s realm, not mine, and even she had to bring in a specialist.” He rubbed
at his jaw, deep in thought as he considered her theory. “It makes sense just from a layman’s
point of view, though I can’t imagine what could have caused that big of a power spike.”

His gaze met hers and a chestnut eyebrow lifted. “I suppose it is too much to hope for – is the
tech still alive?”

Dark humour curled her lips, “I may get by with murder,” considering the twists that had happened
in her life, the saying took on a whole new meaning, “but I know better than to kill something that
could be of use.”

She shrugged and stood, crossing the room to the dresser, “Ravyel taught me where the line is
and the art.” She said over her shoulder as she pulled a slender piece of leather from the drawer
and returned to stand behind him. “Human males are so easily broken, so I had to be careful,”
gathering the chestnut locks she deftly tied it back before returning to her chair, “I can’t say he’s
mentally stable in a few areas, but his knowledge on the subject is still intact and its the only area
he shows any sanity.”

Dúdae waved a hand towards what she had just done, “I’m sorry, that was annoying and at the
rate you were going you were probably going to cut it off. But yes, the tech is still alive, and even
better is no one will believe a word he says unless he’s spouting the technical gibberish.”

“Thank you,” Ro said a little sheepishly. His hair had been short for several thousand years now,
and the length of Ravyel’s was starting to become bothersome. Settling into the back of his chair
he stretched long legs out beneath the table and crossed them at the ankles. “Good, we should
be able to have him look at the Gate in Corin without raising too much suspicion then. Call it
general maintenance or something.”

Reaching for a snifter he poured a glass of brandy and looked at Dúdae, holding the bottle in a
silent question over a second snifter. “What is on Ravyel’s schedule next?”
The Taurësúlë nodded in answer to the half-elf’s silent question, “Mer’Lin. The new demon troops
have been formed, he prefers to inspect them himself. You will have to take Dara Cole with you
as a reminder for Willow and Drake to behave themselves.”

Ro snorted slightly in twisted amusement as he handed the glass over to Dúdae. “Ah, yes,
parading the captive in front of the loved ones. He certainly knows how to grind the boot heel
down on the neck, but then, I’m hardly surprised.” The half-elf sighed and paused to pretty much
drain his snifter.

“I suppose I should make sure she has a few nice bruises before we go.” Emerald greens lifted
for a moment. “How am I doing so far? Anyone asking any questions?”

Sipping the brandy, the Seeress chuckled, “Of course, the more bruises the better.” Shifting
slightly, she pulled her legs up into the chair. “You are doing fine, but in the doing so, don’t lose
yourself.” Dúdae pointed out and took another drink.

“There have been a few whispered comments as to the attention I’m being shown.” Draining her
glass she sighed and placed it back on the table, “You’ll have to start requesting other girls from
the harem.”

The S’Hean winced visibly and snagged the entire bottle. It was a long time before he spoke
again, and the bottle was empty. “Alright. I think I have a solution. I’ll call for one tonight – just be
waiting in the shadows to give me a hand. There is only so much I’m willing to do, and it has to
look good.”

“I would say that females don’t interest me but I don’t quite think that is what you have in mind.”
The corner of Dúdae’s lips curled up into her unusual grin.

                                   Present Day – Riker’s Asteroid


Rhagi portalled through into the bar at Riker’s and let go of his sister’s rather sticky hand. Aarien
stuck close to his side anyway, not used to this place like he was. It had never been home for her,
and it was too dark and crowded for her taste.

Not seeing either his older brother or his Dera Foxx anywhere down here, Rhagi made for the lift.
The staff didn’t recognise him any more, and he had to politely fend off a couple of good-natured
sexual advances on his way. It was no big deal, just instinctive behaviour he’d picked up in
childhood.

Aarien loved the lift, and they had to go all the way up and back down three times before she’d let
him get out and call for Marius.

The Roman was in the lounge, sprawled across the couch, covered in sample books. He’d never
have believed it when he started, but Marius was heartily sick of looking at lingerie. He frowned
and sat up at the sound of Rhagi’s voice. “Ave, Rhagi, what are you doing here? Oh gods… hello
Aarien.”

The little blonde girl climbed into his lap. “Dagar, Marius. What’s that? Ooo… that’s not pretty.
That’s pretty, that blue one, but it looks really slippery. Wouldn’t you just slide off? Oh wait, that’s
what the ropes are for, right? A’ma sent Rhagi to bring me to you so you could take me to A’po.
Won’t that be fun? Where’s Raoul?”
Marius slid Aarien off his knee and hurriedly shut things. “He’s upstairs, I think. Why don’t you go
look for him, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you. No-one plays with him any more.” Once she’d
thudded off at the volume only produced by combining small children with stairs, he raised an
inquisitive eyebrow at Rhagi. “That seems complicated even for Ghet. What’s going on?”

Rhagi slouched into an armchair. “Ghet says Addah’s sick. Some kind of stomach bug. She had
Silverthorn come and pick up her kids yesterday. Today she asked me to take Aarien away, and
she wants me to stay here.”

Marius frowned, mulling, and then shrugged. “You know what she’s like about Y’Roden. No
offence, lad, but she probably just wants you out of her way so she can fuss in peace. Ghet can
have a bit of a one-track mind.”

Rhagi shook his head, frowning slightly as he mentally reviewed what he’d felt from Ghet since
they’d come back from B’Elya’s wedding. He’d never been all that close to his older half-brother,
and somehow that made this conversation easier. “She’s terrified. She’s been like this before,
and it always seems to hinge around either Addah or his kids. Their kids… me and R’Avyen and
Den’Ayat, I mean. Marius… when you first found out Galain was your father, it mattered, right?
You wanted to know where you came from and who you were.”

Marius’s cool blue eyes were wary. He could sense a trap here somewhere, but he had no idea
how to get out of it, and he was really wishing Foxx were here. “Yeesssss… It turned out to not
be as important in the long run as I’d thought, but yes, I did need to know.”

Rhagi’s casual pose was totally undermined by the tension in his face and voice. “So, what
happened when I was conceived? Don’t! Don’t make that joke. You know what I want to know.
Mum was married to Galain. Y’Roden was married to Silverthorn, not just married to her; Drysi
and Yse are less than a year older than me. I saw Mum once in tears because Addah had pretty
much gutted her with a spoon to keep Silverthorn happy. So, what, he tripped and fell on Ghet
and everyone went, ‘oh well, never mind’? Marius, it doesn’t make any sense, and I need it to.”

“I really don’t think you should be asking me,” Marius said, shifting uncomfortably. “It’s not really
any of my business. You should ask Ghet.”

“I’ve tried talking to Mum. Push just a little bit about this and she gets really upset and changes
the subject. Addah tells me how much he loves her, and how much they both love me, and that’s
it. I need to make them tell me, so I need to know enough to know what questions to ask. Please.
It matters.”

Torn, Marius got up, paced about, poured them both a whiskey, and sat back down. “Alright.
Look, I don’t know much. I know what people said, and I know a little bit more than… Some of it
doesn’t sound good, okay? I need you to be patient and listen all the way through before you
jump to any conclusions.”

Long, slender fingers rubbed over his temples as he thought. “About ten or eleven months before
you were born, I came back here after a visit to Ingraleis with Foxx. Ghet wasn’t in a good state,
she’d shut herself away in the penthouse and she wasn’t coming out. Security was a lot tighter.
And all the staff here were talking about how someone had got in and attacked her in the
medbay. Blood all over the place. They had pictures of whoever it was from the cameras outside
– there aren’t any inside the medbay, obviously. Rhagi, it was Y’Roden.”

He held up a hand to forestall any comment, and waited until he saw Rhagi’s protest subside.
“Nobody connected that with your birth, because the timing was wrong. Because you were
S’Hean, and they didn’t know that. Ro never came here, so they never realised your father was
the same man. I did know all that, though, and yeah, I did try to work out what might have
happened. I think everyone did. I’m not saying this is the absolute truth, all right? Just the only
thing I can think of that makes any sense.

“He’d never hurt her like that, that goes without saying. And even if he was capable of it, he’d
hardly need to, would he? He was badly wounded when he got here, and Ghet wouldn’t let
anyone else treat him. You know how possessive she is. I know it’s not a comfortable thing to
imagine about your own parents, but caring for him like that, seeing him so hurt… I think it would
have been enough. Enough to weaken them both. And what might look like a violent assault…”
Good gods, how did you say this to a kid about his parents? “I don’t think that would have been
unusual for them. Her behaviour afterwards… well, she was pregnant and she’d hurt Galain.”

Rhagi was quiet for a long time, running through what Marius had told him, testing it, trying to
make himself picture it without flinching away. It made sense from Ghet’s point of view. She was
highly emotional and lacking in self-control, but that was exactly what made her the polar
opposite of his Addah. Could Y’Roden really get that carried away in the moment? He tried
awkwardly to express this doubt to Marius, who laughed.

“Rhagi, welcome to the hardest part of being the Son of Ghetsuhm. Our mother could make a
slab of granite get ‘carried away’ if she put her mind to it. If that girl upstairs grows up to be
anything like her you’re going to have to push your way through a drift of dribbling lovesick
morons every time you go outside. The definition of suicidal is the feeling you get when a girl you
fancy tells you she’d consider ‘jumping the fence’ for your mother. Drink up and get used to the
feeling. How long are you staying?”

Rhagi accepted the change of subject, given he’d got everything he was going to get, and said,
“Mum told me I had to I had to stay with you for ‘a while’, and ‘spend some time’ with Foxx. So I’ll
be leaving an hour or so after Foxx turns up. She can send me away, but she can’t keep me
away.”

Marius shook his head. “You have to learn the hard way, don’t you? Still, why should you be any
different? You might even be right, I don’t know. My gods I hope I never have kids.”

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin


Ghet sat with Den'Ayat on her lap and R'Avyen leaning against her leg. The bigger of the twins
was working on his walking with fierce determination, wobbling his way between his mother and
Elizabeth, their nurse. They weren't the quietest children, but given the last couple of days, Ghet
found being with them incredibly soothing.

She pushed Den's hands away from her dress reluctantly. Having decided to stop feeding him,
she could hardly go back on that now. Bouncing him to stop him grizzling too much, she said, "He
doesn't want to wean. He doesn't need it any more, he's driving me crazy." She bit her lip,
wondering if she was being too obvious. She second-guessed herself all the time now, and the
'discussion' she'd had with Rhagi hadn't settled her any. "Maybe it would be better if we were
separated for a bit. To break the habit."

Beth's grey-green gaze met that of the Tyrah for a moment, and then she inclined her head
slightly. "If that is what you wish," she said softly. Born and brought up in Corin, the auburn-haired
human woman knew better than to argue with her betters. She was of the serving class, as had
been her parents and their parents before them. As kind to her as the royal family always were,
she could not help but be aware of the vast social gulf that separated her from them. Whilst she
adored her charges and treated them as if they were her own, she was careful not to overstep the
mark with their parents.

She held out her hands, smiling, as R'Avyen wobbled in her direction once more. She did not
understand the undercurrent of tension she sensed in the other woman, but neither was it her
place to comment upon it. Steadying the boy, she ruffled his hair with one hand.

Not for the first time, Ghet bit back her frustration. She was used to having staff, she could not get
used to having servants. All the years in Alcarinque hadn't changed that. "I don't know what I
wish, I haven't had this problem before. And R'Avyen doesn't give a monkey's, its just Den." She
smothered a small snicker: it wasn't, in fact, just Den whose hands she had trouble keeping out of
her cleavage. "But yes, even if it's just for a few days, and with the other children away, this would
be the perfect time. I can't think when it's been this quiet around here before. I just sent Maeve
and Holo up to Silver Dragon Ridge; Ner'Ius is there too. Would you like to take the twins there
for a while? A nice change of scene, it would be just like a holiday, except without the bit where
you stop working."

Since the nursemaid rarely took holidays, and wouldn't know what to do with one if she did, she
could not quite repress the flicker of surprise that flashed through her expression. Usually it was
her that remained in the palace with the children, whilst the others went off to do whatever
needed doing. She couldn't remember the last time any of the children she cared for had 'gone on
holiday' without at least one of their parents.

"Silver Dragon Ridge is a pleasant spot," she said slowly, although the Tyrah's choice of
company was a surprise. The three mentioned were barely even acquaintances. It was possible
that they had no idea who she even was. Yet the brief glimpses she had had of Holo in particular
had not caused her to consider him an ideal choice of babysitter. Admittedly, she would be there
as well, but still...

"Forgive me if I am being rude, y'Tyrah, but is anything wrong?" Beth asked hesitantly.

"You're never rude, Beth," Ghet said gently, her eyes fixed on her son's blond curls. She lowered
her face to Den'Ayat's head, breathing in his scent to ground herself. "I'm tired, Beth. I'm
exhausted. With Y'Roden sick, I'm doing his job as well as mine, and I know full well there are
people who don't like it. I haven't got time for the kids and I feel terrible about it. Rhagi went off at
me this morning and I..." She gave a quiet laugh and turned her head to look at the nurse. "I need
a holiday. I need to lie in the grass at the Ridge and fall asleep in the sun for a couple of days.
Given that's not an option..." She shrugged, and blew in her son's hair, making him giggle. "The
less I have to worry about, the better. I need to know the twins are safe and happy."

"Then I will willingly take them away for awhile if it will help," the auburn-haired woman replied
quietly. Compassion shone in her grey-green eyes. It was true that Ghetsuhm did seem tired. So
many responsibilities did not always combine well with a young family, even if there were other
people around to help.

A faint smile touched her lips. "Although I suspect your friend, Maeve, and her companions may
wish I had not." All of the children she cared for had ways of making their presence felt.

Ghet laughed, though there was still something in her eyes that wasn't humour. "Maeve's a
sweetheart, she'll be fine. She's remarkably patient. I don't know anything about Ner'Ius, but
Holo..." Ghet's smile became a bit more genuine. Rhagi had grown up spending at least some of
his time surrounded by what most people would consider to be a rather 'undesirable' crowd, and it
was her opinion that it had benefited him enormously. "I certainly wouldn't leave him in charge of
making sure the kids don't tip over the cliff, but he's harmless. Just distracted."
She kissed Den'Ayat's forehead, then scooped R'Avyen up off the floor between herself and Beth
and hugged him. "I'm going to miss you two so much, yes I am. You be good for Beth now." Her
grief in letting them go wasn't much touched by R'Avyen's flailing arm smacking his brother in the
face. "Let me know when you're ready to go," she told Beth, "and I'll organize a Ranger and head
up there with you."

"Of course, y'Tyrah," came the quiet reply. The nursemaid studied the little group for an instant
and then smiled gently. "But perhaps you'd care to help with bath time first?"

She could not offer the other woman much, but a little playtime with her youngest sons was within
her power to do.

                               Present Day – Plane of Arlsyn – A.D


The merchant caravan crawled through the lightly forested area. The winds were starting to pick
up, the oncoming storm making the animals restless. “As if they weren’t already.” The Captain of
the guard muttered from where he sat in the wagon beside the driver, sword lying across his
knees.

He hated this stretch of the road, hated it like a Kelendral hated the sunlight. He’d lost good men
on this route to attacks. Two supply trains so far that month had been ransacked. Nothing had
survived. His men and merchants slaughtered. Horses, children women missing, supplies taken,
slaves, all of it gone, vanished without a trace. But it wasn’t the people or the beasts that had his
life on the line. It was the weapons. “For the Emperors,” or so the General Enforcer said but
Staver was certain that Blagden wanted them for himself.

There had been rumours for years, ever since the Demon Elf had taken that damn female and the
Admiral, that Blagden would strike back, rid Arlsyn of the lot of them. Some prayed that it would
happen and soon. Others afraid that he would indeed overthrow Ravyel and Araxmarr. Staver
was fairly sure that it didn’t matter how many weapons, or how much power the old warlord
gained, the likelihood that they would ever be out of the control of the Olnelan Sar’da Empire
unless one thing happened.

It was that one thing that he was sure would never happen. His chest swelled with pride at the
thought. Arlsyn would never be destroyed. Gates were discovered everyday and stabilized,
reports sent back to the Emperors of their locations of what was discovered on the other side.
Those that supported the Emperors were certain that Arlsyn was the crown jewel because of its
history, others mourned it, either way, there wasn’t any chance that the Land of Gates would ever
be removed from the Olnelan Sar’da.

Quinn walked along the same route the caravan was taking, his head in the clouds. Only he was
headed toward them, not away. After hearing 'Marvin' laughing in his head he felt the wind
stirring. Looking up, he watched storm clouds rolling over him, churning and boiling, like an
unwatched pot. Lightning flashed, turning the clouds silver for an instant, with shades of black
along the edges. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts he stopped, and gave a great sigh.

"It was all a dream," he whispered, thinking his encounter with a lovely young Djinn was just that,
a dream. "I'm still on Iggy 5, and I'm still walking the same path away from the university."

But the road looked more worn than he first imagined, a bit wider, and the forest didn't look so
thick as it once did. But he took it all in stride, seeing how it had been ages since he’d walked
anywhere.
Walking on, he came to a small rise in the road and spotted what he thought was a State
Caravan, heading towards Squirrelrash University of Divination and Alchemy with supplies for the
fall. Short on supplies himself, he thought to stop them, to buy the things he needed and be off
with little or no trouble.

"What harm can it bring," he laughed. "After all that's what they do." Unsure if they could see him,
what with the storm brewing overhead, he stood in the center of the road and waved his arms.
Thunder crashed overhead and lightning lit the skies behind him.

"Stones! I must look like a fool."

Staver called for the caravan to halt and hopped down from the front wagon, warily watching
Quinn as he approached. “Name yourself and where you’re from!” he called out, making sure that
the stranger saw the sword in his hand.

Unknowingly the men and caravan were being watched. The movement of undergrowth or tree
limbs moving in such a way that it could be easily be mistaken as the winds from the oncoming
storm.

Norq shifted slightly from his crouched position to watch the guard and stranger on the trade
route. His eyes flickered back to the blonde close by and held up a finger. They would have to
wait until the Outlander was with the others. They had to know who that man was.

Eluned nodded. Storm-grey eyes narrowed, watching the stranger with cool assessment. The
darkly neutral shades she wore blended easily into the background; the shirt and trousers
designed more for practicality than fashion. It was the air of serenity that truly enabled her to
become one with the landscape, however. There was no sense of movement to draw the eye.
Nothing but an apparently soul-deep well of tranquility.

Quinn thought it rather odd that the head of a State-run caravan would be flashing a weapon at
him. He was after all a Third Level alchemist, and known by anyone, storm or not. But it was not
done in a threatening manner, so he allowed it.

"My name is Kane, Quinn Kane. That's spelled with a 'k', not a 'c'. Everyone gets that wrong." He
stepped closer in case the guy did not recognize his attire. "I was just coming from the university
up the road here, and I have need of a few supplies. I wish to be away soon, what with this storm
brewing overhead. Now be so kind to show me your wares. And be quick about it before the
heavens open up and drown us all."

“You’re an Outlander.” Relief washed over the Guard. “Lad, there isn’t any university here. Looks
like you’ve been sucked through by a Gate because of the storm. We don’t have any wares that
you’re use to I’m sure of, but you’re welcome to catch a ride on one of the wagons until we get to
a town. You’re walking down a dangerous road.”

"Outlander? Gate?" Quinn questioned. "I'm no Outlander, sire. I am a Third Level Alchemist, from
the Squirrelrash University of Divination and Alchemy that resides just down this road apiece. I've
yet to see 'The Gate', let alone be privileged to pass through it. As for catching a ride, I regret I
must decline your offer. I'm headed in the opposite direction, to the nearest Solar Port. And this
road can't be all that dangerous. The State would not allow it."

Staver ran his hand down his face, “An insane, confused, Outlander, I have the worst luck…” he
muttered, then turned. “Have it your way, I have a load of weapons to get to the General
Enforcer.” Turning, the guard headed back towards the caravan. "And no time to baby-sit you," he
called over his shoulder.

Quinn felt as if he had just been slapped across the face. Standing straighter, he pulled on his
coat sleeves in a huff. "My good man," he said, his neon eyes glowing, "I am neither insane nor
confused. As for being an Outlander, whatever that means to you, I am not. And no alchemist
worth his stones needs to sit upon any baby. The sheer thought of such an act is unnerving, and
down right dangerous to the child." Raising his hand he shook it over his head, just as lighting lit
the dark skies and thunder tried to drown out his words.

"You will be reported to the proper authorities for your unorthodox manners." The wind picked up
strength, threatening to blow his top hat away. "But first I must find shelter from this storm. It
strikes me as rather odd, seeing how it was a clear night when I first started out." He stared up at
the sky and ever so slowly his eyes fell to the forest canopy. He swore he saw someone, or
something watching him from the forest.

"Shadow dancers," he muttered under his breath thinking it was nothing more then that, shadows
dancing throughout the forest. He thought nothing more about it and started moving forward,
taking long strides, his eyes looking straight ahead.

"All I wanted was a dry suit. Was that too much to ask? And why would a caravan be carrying
weapons? The State has alchemist to keep proper order."

“I don’t know what an alchemist is, or where you’re from, but you are in the southern part of the
Eastern Continent of Arlsyn, lad. If you’re wanting protection from the weather find a driver that
will let you on, otherwise move out of the way.”

Climbing back up into the seat of the first wagon, he replaced his naked sword across his legs,
“And if you’re wanting dry clothes, someone may have a spare tunic and some proper boots.”
Staver nodded towards the back of the caravan then motioned for his driver to start forward
again.

Eluned watched carefully, melting back into the trees as the supply train rumbled closer. Who
was the stranger? From this distance it was hard to tell, but they could not take the risk of a report
reaching the Emperors. Innocent or not, he had just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong
time.

The thief-assassin signalled discreetly to the others, indicating that she would go after the
stranger. A quick extraction was just her speciality. The warriors amongst their party could deal
with the men and their wagons.

"The southern part of the Eastern Continent of Arlsyn?" Quinn repeated as he stared down at his
own boots. They were in need of repair, and the soles were a bit thin, but they were comfortable.
"That must mean Iggy's been overthrown? But by whom? Why is it we at Squirrelrash University
are always the last to know these things?"

Standing there, he rubbed his chin in thought. "There can only be one logical explanation. Purists!
The State's has been overrun by Purists."

As the alchemist spoke, carts had already started to rumble slowly past him.

"You can explain things how the hells you like," one Wagoner growled. "But if you don't climb
aboard soon, you'll be standing there for a very long time."
Holding his hat, keeping the wind from blowing it away as the storm grew ever closer; Quinn
weighed the man's statement. His brow arched and his eyes followed the caravan as it moved off.

"That last statement makes no sense at all. I am very capable of moving from this spot on my
own. Gravity may be a strong enough force to keep my feet planted firmly on this earth, but it still
allows us all to move about freely. And why would I wish to remain here, when there's a storm
brewing overhead? Might I also remind you sir, we're both heading in the opposite direction." He
pointed in both directions to make his point.

"Why would I feel the need to go backwards, when I wish to move forward? Though I am at a
Quantum, a crossroad of sorts. I should move forward toward the nearest port, but I am also
compelled to return to the university, to tell them of the uprising. I know." He reached into his
pocket and pulled out a single coin.

"Heads I move forward, tails I go back." He flipped the coin high, watching it spin in mid air,
unaware he and the caravan were being watched.

Norq nodded at Eluned’s signal. Trust was something that each one had for the other, had to
have, but when it came to the Shroudling, it reached a higher level.

The Taurësúlë counted. One…two…three… then gave the signal.

A shower of arrows came from the branches and brush around the wagons. One arrow screamed
towards Quinn, striking the coin from the air and ricocheted, slamming with a sickening thud into
a man’s chest.

More arrows rained down, drawing shouts as well as cries of pain from the wagoneers. The
raiders attacked with swift and efficient brutality, many cries abruptly silenced as a sword pierced
a chest or a knife sliced across a throat.

A feminine hand covered Quinn's mouth, jerking his head back as the tip of a dagger poked
meaningfully into his ribcage. "Make a sound," Eluned murmured into the alchemist's ear, "and
you will be joining your companions in their trip across the Veil." Even as she spoke, the
Shroudling was drawing the stranger away from the heart of the carnage, her storm-grey eyes
ever aware of her surroundings.

Quinn felt as if he was witnessing a nightmare. Men were being murdered as he stood there.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion as he started to reach up to pull a stone from one of
his pouches, but a feminine voice whispered a harsh warning in his ear. Eyes wide, he was
helpless to do anything except follow orders, what with a dagger pressed to his ribs and his
mouth covered.

His mind raced as he was being dragged away. Who is this woman, and where is she taking me?
And why are they attacking the caravan? Could she be from the State? Wait! Only Purists would
carry weapons, for the State uses Alchemists such as myself to hold order. How could I have
been so blind? It all makes perfect sense. He slowly started to relax, but deep within the back of
his mind he could hear Marvin's voice echoing in his ears.

So Alchemist, explain this if you can. If she is from the State, why is she threatening to kill you?
She must think you were meeting the caravan, to help them overthrow the crown. I'll bet she
thinks you're a spy, not a State Alchemist. Surely you can wrangle your way out of this mess.
After all, she's only a mere woman. She can't be all that tough to beat. Laughter rang in his ear.
Closing his eyes, Quinn started to struggle.
Despite herself Eluned rolled her eyes in faint exasperation. Men! Why did they always have to
do things the hard way?

The grip on the Alchemist seemed to loosen, but just as it looked as though he might break free
the Shroudling reversed her dagger and brought it down behind his ear with abrupt and
professional precision.

The loud clap of thunder overhead did nothing to drown out the scream of the man in front of
Norq as the guard was sliced open and fell away. The last of those loyal to the empire were
quickly dispatched and the Taurësúlë went into action.

“Get the supplies out and portal them back. You two, set the wagons on fire and make sure that
there isn’t a trace of the portals left behind then take to the trees, take the long way.” He barked
out the orders and turned away, grabbing a cloth wrapped bundle of weapons that was being
handed down and headed through the portal that another had opened.

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin


Rhagi had ended up spending quite a few hours with Foxx and Marius. It was nice: he'd forgotten
how much fun they were, how nice it was just to kick back and be silly for a while. Aarien had got
a little 'over-stimulated' and was currently heading to Alcarinque completely hyped up and
unbearable.

Her departure had sent his thoughts back to his own problems and the mystery of what was going
on at home. He'd slipped away quietly while Foxx wasn't looking, although he was pretty sure she
knew he'd gone anyway.

Now he hesitated outside the door to his parents' chambers, knowing full well his mother didn't
want him going in there. But really, what could it hurt? This was his own home.

He pushed the door open gently and wandered into the sitting room. "Mum? Addah?"

Then there's Rhagi, our oldest boy, he's nearly fifteen.

Ravyel had an excellent memory, a combination of eidetic and mnemonics that allowed him to
recall nearly everything he had ever seen or heard with startling clarity. It was a useful talent for a
creature who ran an Empire as vast as the Olnelan Sar’da, co-Emperor or no.

Ruby eyes watched the young half-elf from the shadows, curiosity lighting their depths as crimson
slowly leeched out to emerald. The door closed behind Y’Roden’s son with a quiet snick and
Ravyel arranged a suitably welcoming expression on his features. “Dagar, ceren.”

Rhagi smiled, his expression full of relief, although deeper in his eyes there was still a shadow of
unease. "Addah, how are you? I didn't think you were out of bed, from the way Mum was talking.
Are you better now?"

“Yes,” the answer rolled off his tongue without hesitation, “much better.” Moving away from the
doors, Ravyel briefly placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, giving a friendly squeeze as he passed
on by towards the divan. “Is something bothering you, Rhagi?”
With his back to the S’Hean King’s offspring, he poured a glass of brandy. It would be easy
enough to inveigle the young man with a façade of his father, and the Demon never passed up a
chance to snatch up a useful tool.

Rhagi sat down by his father, then hesitated, biting his lip. It wasn't often that his loyalties were
divided. "I'm worried about Mum. She's very upset. Sometimes she just doesn't seem quite...
right. Do you ever... I mean, you don't have to tell me, but I think maybe I should know if she's
not... well." It was hard enough to imply that his mother might be unstable or even insane, he
couldn't say it.

Ravyel turned his head slightly, watching Rhagi from the corner of his eye. Without a word he sat
down on the couch next to him and swirled the rich liquid around in the bottom of his snifter. “I
worry about her too,” the Demon said in a confiding tone, keeping his eyes on the bottom of the
glass, “but trust me, Rhagi. I’ll take care of your mother.”

With practiced ease, Ravyel lifted his head and gazed into emerald eyes. “Don’t say anything to
her about it, but if you notice anything come straight here to me with it, alright? We’ll take care of
her together.”

Rhagi's mouth twisted, not sure whether it was better or worse to have his suspicions confirmed.
He nodded, though, knowing there was no-one better to take care of Ghet than Y'Roden. He was
also rather flattered: when his mother had been ill three years ago, he'd been kept away from her,
not competent to help. That much had changed. "Why is it? What happened to make her that
way?"

“It has to do with how sensitive she is to other people’s emotions,” the Demon replied without
batting an eye. “Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming.” A lazy smile slid across his mouth.
“Ghet just needs rest, some peace and quiet, and I intend to make sure she gets it. With your
help I’m sure we’ll have her feeling better in no time.”

Setting aside the glass, he laced his fingers, one thumb rubbing the side of his hand. “Now tell
me, how are you siblings? I’ve been a little out of it the past couple of days.”

Frowning, Rhagi put the first comment aside and started on the easy question first. "Aarien's
Aarien, she doesn't notice anything that doesn't fall on her. Marius took her to Alcarinque not long
ago, I think Galain's going to have his hands full. I haven't heard from Drysi, Yse, and B'Roden
since they left with their Ammah. The girls were worried about you, though, and I said I'd let them
know what happened. It'll be a weight off Drysi's mind to know that you're better, she worries."

He leaned back, and his frown deepened. "Addah, if it's the Talent that makes Ghet so...
overwhelmed, won't it happen to me too? It's only a couple of years until I have to decide if I want
to go on with the training. She should have told me! How can I make that choice if she doesn't tell
me what I'm choosing?"

So she was clearing house, so to speak -- fascinating.

Ravyel rolled easily with Rhagi’s reactions, his mind quickly clicking along from one nugget of
information to another and assimilating every nuance. “Not necessarily. I think how it affects you
depends very much on your personality, on how you deal with things. Some people, like me, are
just natural shock absorbers. No matter how much you throw at them, it just seems to dissipate.
Other people, like your mother, draw emotion into a confined mental space.
“Think of it this way,” he gestured to the thundering waterfalls outside the windows, “when you
stand under a waterfall you feel the pressure, but you won’t be crushed by it. Channel the same
amount of water through a hose and the pressure will knock you clear off your feet. You are
different from your mother, she knows that, and given your genetics she probably thinks the
greater risk would be in not training you.”

Rhagi pulled on his lip while he thought for a moment. It did make a sort of sense. It was hard
without knowing anyone else with the Talent to set a sort of benchmark. "Marius told me-" He
stopped abruptly as a wave of panic slammed into his back, knowing before he turned that his
mother had come in.

Ghet stood in the doorway, her face deathly pale. She swayed, reaching for the wall. "Get away
from him! Gods, Rhagi, come here!"

His face pinched with worry, Rhagi looked from Y'Roden to Ghet and back again. He had
absolutely no idea what to do.

“Elleska?” Ravyel’s tone fairly burgeoned with worry, his hand slowly lifting to close on Rhagi’s
shoulder, though his eyes were locked on Ghet’s. “What’s wrong, vonna?”

“Careful,” the words wound silently into her mind, “you’ll frighten the boy. Worse – you’ll give
away your secrets, and we wouldn’t want that, now would we?”

Ghet's eyes narrowed, her expression livid with rage. "You fucking bastard, that's my son! How
dare you touch him?" Her mental voice was full of hysterical laughter. "I can't lie to him, anyway. I
don't mean I don't want to, I mean it's not physically possible. He's like me. He can read me like a
skagging book."

Slowly, deliberately, she looked her son in the eyes. "I thought I told you to stay with Marius and
Foxx. What are you doing back here?"

Guilt added to Rhagi's confusion. Pretty much the only constant in his life had been the
knowledge that his mother loved his father. She was terrified. Instinct told him to stay with her, to
protect her, but it made no sense logically. Ro was the best thing for her, not something she
needed to be protected from.

Rhagi, it was Y’Roden.

No. It couldn't be, it wasn't possible. She was over-wrought, she needed to rest. He gave his
mother a diffident shrug. "I came back. I didn't want to stay. Aarien's off, she's fine. I'm tired,
though, I missed Zenith. I might go have a nap."

The boy turned, slipping out from under his father's hand and facing him. "Take care of her."

“Then I would suggest calming down.”

The expression that crossed Y’Roden’s features was warm, even loving. “I promise I will,” Ravyel
said, “it’s alright, go ahead and get some rest ceren. Your mother and I need some time alone.”

"I'll come talk to you later," Ghet said to her son's retreating back, getting a subdued nod in
return.
As soon as he was gone, she headed for the wine. "Calm down. Don't you think I would if I
could?" She had leaned on Ro too much for too long. Without him, her stability was gone. "He's
been through enough in his life, Rhagi. Let him be."

Ravyel shrugged and lay back on the divan, kicking his feet up on a pillow and crossing his
ankles. “He came to me,” he pointed out. “What would he have thought if I had tossed him back
out the door?” Reaching for his glass he took a drink, tucked an arm behind his head and settled
in comfortably. “Interesting boy -- but not the heir. I checked his shoulder twice. That is
fascinating.”

By that stage Y'Roden and I already had one child, fathered while he was married to his first wife.

“Just how did you get him to cheat on his wife?” he asked bluntly. “The S’Hean King doesn’t strike
me as the type to be unfaithful.” Eyes that had reverted to unsettling red swept up Ghet’s sensual
form, “Even for that. ”

Ghet leaned back on the edge of the table, drinking with determination. "You think so? You don't
think if I put my mind to it..." She shrugged. "It wasn't Ro's fault. He never intended it; he never
meant to hurt Silverthorn. Accidents happen." It was an explanation she'd given many, many
times over the years, bald and true as far as it went. There had been an accident. It didn't feel like
enough, though, not for someone this perceptive, and in her vulnerable state, the memory was far
too close and obvious. "It wasn't something either of us wanted. And I wasn't supposed to be able
to have children. Funny how no-one ever asked how Ro could make me cheat on Galain.

"Rhagi was the heir briefly, after Rodi and I married. Seeing as we weren't married when he was
born, R'Avyen's the heir now. Those emeralds have changed host so often in the last forty years
or so I'm surprised they're not dizzy."

Ravyel went silent awhile, his mind obviously clicking over several items of information. “I
suppose I might have asked that, if I had known you were married to Galain at the time. Then
again, if he is anything like my General Enforcer of Berelath, the question would be moot. I think
we both know how Y’Roden could make you cheat—,” Silence fell again, then suddenly shattered
under amused laughter.

“By Haldanuru’s blood-red ass, that’s hysterical. Does the boy know he was fathered by me?”

Ghet flushed a deep red and her glass went flying towards Ravyel's groin. She'd always been
prone to flashes of rage. "He does not. Because he wasn't! Y'Roden is his father. I don't
particularly care if you believe that or not, it's still true."

Livid, she crossed the gap between them in a couple of strides. "And my gods, you still don't get
it, do you? All right, I need it. You can slap me in the face and I'll roll over. But you need it too.
You know damn well you can get something from me you can't get anywhere else. So stop
rubbing my fucking face in it!"

Lightning fast reflexes caught the glass, but not the contents that splashed up over his chest. A
moment of anger blazed in the depths of his eyes as the Demon shot up from the couch, letting
the glass drop as his heavy hand slammed against Ghet’s cheekbone, snapping her head to the
side. “You forget yourself,” he hissed, then seemed to go completely cold.

A short bark of a laugh went off like a shot in the room. “Maybe,” he said calmly, “you need it a
hell of a lot more than I do. I have an entire room full of women willing to scream and bleed for
me, and some of them even like it.”
Rough fingers tangled in deep-red hair, twisting her face towards him. “You’re dead, remember? I
didn’t fade and die away with you -- on the contrary. There is one particular little gem in my
collection -- maybe she reminds me of you? Luscious little Maeve – come to think of it, what do
you suppose your loving husband is having to do to keep up appearances? Maybe she squeals
and moans just as eagerly for him as she does for me.”

For a moment, Ghet was simply so furious she couldn't speak or see straight, her face throbbing.
She had to force herself to breathe, not knowing what to argue with first. "I don't forget," she
hissed, meeting his gaze full on. "I remember. Pick on something vaguely credible: if my husband
wouldn't cheat on Silverthorn with me, he wouldn't cheat on me with Maeve. Especially knowing
how much she means to me. Here, she was my lover. I sent her out of Windemiire yesterday,
sorry. And now you tell me I'm keeping her safe in your world as well, just by having you here?"

She went to shake her head, but she didn't have that much movement against the fingers in her
hair. "And if raping me was the same as abusing any other woman in your collection, then you
never scraped the surface of my potential. Unless it's stacked full of the Talented? Do you have
them, a stable full of women who can drown you in their pain? Agony and lust so strong you can't
breathe. No doubt they take the edge off, all those lovelies, but then..." she smiled, the first edge
of madness sparkling in her eyes, "you've had better, haven't you?"

The Demon’s eyes narrowed and a low growl rumbled in his throat as he leaned in close.
“Careful,” he growled in a low tone, “lest I rip what I want from your tender flesh.” Ravyel closed
his eyes and inhaled audibly close to Ghet’s ear. “I know what you’re afraid of, Ghetsuhm, and I
can make every last nightmare – reality.”

The S'Hean Queen shook in his hands, but she didn't baulk. Her fear was very real, but it didn't
stop her. Her voice was low and ragged with feeling. "I swear to you, if I don't get my husband
back, I won't give a damn what you do to me. I won't care enough to stop you, and you want me
to care. No pain you can give me comes close to what it costs me to lose him." She hadn't been
exaggerating when she told An'Thaya that she would die without Ro, it was just a simple truth.

“We’ll see,” he said. Shoving her away Ravyel released Ghet’s hair and stalked off towards the
balcony in search of after-zenith breakfast.

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D


Ja’Kel stepped in through the door in answer to Ravyel’s summons, looking expectantly to where
the Demon Elf sat casually at his desk, unbound hair flowing over heavy-muscled shoulders as
he finished appending his signature to parchment. The Emperor spoke without lifting his head,
the low, rumbling baritone slightly indifferent. “Bring me one of my girls, something delicate,” he
ordered, “but not too placid.”

“Aye, Your Imperial Majesty,” the Hyem-Sirke replied, bowing low as he backed out of the
entrance. Closing the double doors, Ja’Kel made his way down the hall to the network of
chambers set aside for the Harem and stepped inside. A wave of tension seemed to flow through
the room and a multitude of eyes turned his way, a garden of living flowers, varied, but each one
tragically beautiful.

His eyes roved over several blondes and brunettes, and then came to rest on a diminutive
redhead. “You,” he said, pointing at her, “come with me.”

Maeve wasted no time and made her way over to Ja’Kel. It didn't matter how many times she
walked the same path, her stomach twisted in the same anxious/excited knots it always did. Her
tastes before meeting Ravyel had been slightly rough. Looking back they now seemed downright
vanilla. Time and experience had a funny way of changing perception.

Life on Whispin had other effects on her as well, with a healthy dose of Ravyel's blood thrown in
for good measure. Her hair was a deeper red, and her eyes were a deep green instead of stormy
grey. Even her ears were slightly pointed. The changes had scared her perhaps more than the
idea of permanent servitude, but she had grown accustomed to her life here. The person she
used to be was barely a memory, a dream of someone else's life.

The S’Hean said nothing, simply leading the tiny redhead down the hallway and through the
chamber doors, pausing only long enough to bow to Ravyel and make himself scarce. It was bad
enough having to listen, he had been unfortunate enough to witness what the Demon did to his
women on the odd occasion, and the experience had taught him to be a little quicker on getting
out of the line of sight.

Ro’s head came up as the door snicked shut, crimson eyes coming to rest on the harem girl. The
shock failed to register in his steady gaze, though the elf's heartbeat stuttered slightly as he
recognized Maeve, despite the changes -- slight differences that he could only attribute to one
cause.

For a moment the S’Hean considered calling Ja’Kel back in and sending for someone else – but it
was too late now. The game was in play, so Maeve it would have to be.

Sitting languidly back in his chair, the Demon gestured lazily towards an empty glass and a
crystal decanter of Mai’Tus wine that sat on the table near the door. “Pour yourself a drink,” he
instructed, “and come here.”

Snapping from her reverie, Maeve padded over to the decanter and poured a glass of wine.
Taking a drink she smiled at Ravyel as she headed toward him. Straddling his lap, her grin turned
impish over the glass. "Are you trying to get me drunk before you debauch me Ravyel?" She
giggled at her own joke and finished off the rest of the wine. Stretching she set the glass down on
the table. The little clothing she was wearing, stretching taut across her body.

She could feel the familiar warmth of the Mai’Tus wine slide through her body. Faster than usual,
but not unexpected. One of the downsides of being so short. Straightening she licked her lips and
leaned forward. "What do you have in mind for today," she asked her eyes flashing
mischievously. She had long ago learned that the risks of provoking Ravyel far outweighed the
pain afterward.

A lecherous grin turned the edge of Ravyel’s mouth and his fingers caught on Maeve’s ribs,
wrinkling the gauzy material of her dress. “Drunk, sober, it doesn’t much matter,” he growled, “just
as long as you are screaming and slick.”

Ruby eyes flashed and he ran a callused finger along the edge of her flimsy gown, “I thought we
would try something a little different today,” he rumbled. Silently in the depths of his mind, Ro was
slowly counting. “Why don’t you lay back there on the table,” he murmured in a low, suggestive
tone, “and start the entertainment.” The Demon smirked, “I feel like watching for awhile.”

She couldn't repress the bubbling laughter and she wondered vaguely why the hell the wine was
affecting her so quickly. The thought left before it could be formed, and she slipped back from
Ravyel's lap and onto the table. Grinning she slid the thin material from her shoulders and let it
fall to the floor carelessly. It was entirely too warm for it anyway.
Sliding her hands down her skin she watched Ravyel through her eyelashes. Her breath hitched
in her chest and she stretched out on the table one leg crooked, her heel hooked on the side to
keep her stable. The warmth from the wine was quickly spreading everywhere and Maeve felt
that drowsy cozy feeling invade her. She fought it, but it was getting harder to keep her eyes
open, even as her fingers traced the familiar sensitive lines of her inner thighs.

Ravyel’s eyes burned over the redhead’s naked form, but behind jewel-like eyes Ro patiently
waited as the seconds ticked by. He didn’t dare look into the shadows where Dúdae stood
watch… not yet. Any shift of attention would plant a question in Maeve’s thoughts -- leave an
impression in her drug-hazed mind.

“Beautiful,” Ravyel’s voice encouraged, a sinuous reverberation of sound at the edge of Maeve’s
fading awareness.

Maeve gave a sleepy purr, and her hands slid lower. It was good that she was laying down, her
head felt too heavy for her shoulders, and it was getting harder to keep her eyes open. Her leg
slipped down from the table and she tried to keep her eyes open, but the ceiling swam, and she
finally gave into that warm fuzzy feeling throughout her body and succumbed to sleep.

Y’Roden sat in silence for a few moments longer, listening to the soft, even rise and fall of
Maeve’s breathing. Lifting his gaze, he stared into the shadows. “I hope, Dúdae,” he murmured,
“that you are a consummate actress.” Emerald gems flickered to the door and back. “It’s time for
the light and sound show.”

Amused laughter trickled down the thread that tied her to the half-elf as the Seeress sashayed
out of her hiding spot.

“Oh, Ravyel.” Her voice mimicked Maeve’s in tone and pitch as copper fingers picked up an
object from the desk and dropped it to the floor to be joined by others as she swept her arm
across the top, sending glass, metal and paper crashing to the floor. Mewling cries, soft moans
and a scream of pleasure-pained release were faked with perfection. Then silence.

Dúdae by-passed the decanter of Mai’Tus and reached for the brandy, refilling his glass she
poured her own and took a sip. Closing her eyes, the Taurësúlë savoured the burn of the liquid
down her throat. Her lips curled up in her unusual grin, “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”

The expression on the elf’s face was caught somewhere between extreme amusement and
profound trauma, but he managed a quiet laugh. “Best I’ve had since I got here,” he said dryly.
Shifting forwards the S’Hean got to his feet and leaned over the unconscious Maeve, studying the
redhead for a long moment before sighing in resignation.

Sliding a weapon roughened hand beneath the human’s back he lifted her upwards --arms
dangling, head lolling slightly as lengths of flaming hair cascaded towards the tabletop. Ravyel
was as much an artist as Y’Roden himself was, and the canvas was flesh. With cold precision, he
brutally snapped fragile ribs and bit into the tender flesh of Maeve’s shoulder, streaking her body
with blood. Aethyr crackled beneath well-practiced fingers, lancing over golden skin and settling
into muscles that would be sore in all the right places come morning. Broken bone healed, but
bruises and crimson stains remained, a palate of evidence convincing enough to fool even Maeve
herself.

“Pull back the sheets,” he said to Dúdae, wiping the blood from his mouth with the back of one
hand. “Let’s put sleeping beauty to bed.”
“Considering you’ve been spending most of your time with me, I don’t know whether I should be
insulted or not.” She said dryly, eyes dancing in amusement. Placing her drink back on the table
she crossed the room, automatically following orders.

A bark of a laugh followed her as Ro gathered up Maeve’s slight frame and crossed the room,
laying her out on the bottom sheet and tugging the comforter over her. “Well,” he said critically, “I
think that should do it. Now I just have to make it through breakfast.” The S’Hean looked at
Dúdae helplessly, “What were the odds on that, do you think? I mean, an entire floor of harem
girls, and he brings me Maeve. Somewhere, I’m fairly certain, the fates are laughing their asses
off.”

“Oh, they’re probably in the harem as well.” Tilting her head she watched the half-elf, “You knew
this one? Perhaps then we should find a time to catch you up on who else is here so that there
will be no more shocks, we canna afford them.” Squeezing the half-elf’s arm she smiled
reassuringly, “You will do fine, if you need me, you know I’m not far away.”

“That is probably a good idea,” Ro said dryly, “I don’t think I can take anymore surprises.” He
looked down at Maeve and shook his head in self-disgust. “She’s a friend – I’m fairly sure I’m
never going to be able to look her in the eye ever again.” Without thinking, he gave Dúdae’s hand
an affectionate pat, as he often did Shady’s. “Thank you.”

          1106 Years Ago – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D


The universe was laughing at her; she just knew it. Maeve wasn't sure how long they'd been
travelling, but she was now absolutely positive that being the butt of a cosmic joke, truly and
inexorably sucked. Absently she tugged again the collar around her neck and struggled to sit up
in the cage as it bumped along the now dry road.

She had given up trying to speak to those who caught her, and after what might have been the
third day she stopped trying to run away. Somehow she'd get out of this, Maeve was sure. It was
just a matter of time, a little planning; perhaps a lot of planning, and maybe a shower. Hell, right
now anything would be good.

She jerked in the cage as the wagon went through another hole in the road and she fell forward
and smashed into the bars. Cursing colourfully, she picked herself up from the floor of the cage
and glared at the slaver laughing at her. Giving him the finger she hissed as he grabbed her hair.
He said something incomprehensible, then threw her back into the cage as they came to a halt.

Three guards stood watch as they opened the cage. Considering her height and her lack of
training it seemed odd, but Maeve was privately pleased that she managed to incapacitate at
least two of them before they took her heels. Stilettos were finally good for something... too bad
she no longer had hers. She might have been tempted to pull a Single White Female on one of
the guards.

They prodded her to the lake, and one of them too perverse pleasure in shoving her that last inch
into the frigid water. Gasping she stood up, spluttering and pushing her hair from her eyes. Her
shirt, along with everything else, was soaked once again. And the words some mornings it just
doesn't pay to chew through the leather straps were plastered against her breasts.

She washed up as much as they let her before shoving her wet and shivering back into the cage.
Where they were going she still wasn't sure, but this was getting old awfully fast. She almost,
almost wished she had been sold already, if only to get away from those who held her now.
Another sudden stop accompanied startled, raised voices and the clatter of hooves, conversation
rising and falling in questioning until an overly large black horse sidled closer to the wagon. Large
fingers wrapped around the bars and the rider leaned in, blood red, cat slit eyes boring into the
soaked woman for a long, searching moment.

The massive half-elf leaned back and turned in his saddle, barking out an order to the slavers
who seemed suddenly in a terrible hurry to do his bidding. The man who had grabbed the captive
by her hair earlier now unlocked the cage with shaking fingers, throwing the door open and
grabbing her by the arm before hauling the redhead to her feet.

Those eyes were on her again, trailing slowly down wet clothing that clung to soft curves, and
what looked like a trace of amusement as they read the words on the front of the plastered tee.

“You are not from Arlsyn,” he observed in perfect English, “Terran, I presume.”

She was almost giddy when she heard English. "I don't think I've ever been so happy to hear
someone speak English before in all my life," she said as she craned her neck to look up at him.
Brushing her already curling hair out of her eyes she tilted her head, "Damn you’re big," she
breathed, "so, judging by the general fawning by the slavers I'm to assume your some sort of
bigwig huh?"

There was something odd about the half-elf’s features for a moment, as if there was something
about her that niggled at memory. He smiled, and it seemed an unnatural expression somehow.
“You could say that,” he said, “and I hear that a lot.”

A breeze blew his hair forward, obscuring crimson eyes from view momentarily until he suddenly
leaned over, his arm flexing as he stretched forward, “Grab hold,” he ordered, then barked a
command to the Slaver, who released his grip on the redhead and stepped back without
argument. There would be no payment forthcoming, and he knew it. The Emperor took what he
wanted, and anyone that stood in his way unfailing died in the doing.

Grabbing his hand, she managed to quell the urge to stick her tongue out at the slavers. Logic
stopped playing a role in her life right about the time she landed in mud a week before, so she
happily ignored the screaming voice in her head telling her that she'd be stupid to go anywhere
with tall dark and creepy. Well tall, dark and creepy knew English, and the way he seemed to get
the slavers to react was rather impressive on its own. She eyed the horse a bit askance, "It's not
going to bite me is it," she asked as she did her best to climb up, "there goes my promise never to
ride anything with more than two legs."

The Demon’s bicep bulged as he flipped the tiny redhead around, his arm catching at her waist
and hefting her easily up into the saddle, settling her against his broad chest. “Ziv? No, he doesn’t
bite anyone unless I tell him to.” His nose brushed against Maeve’s neck, a slow intake of air
breathing in her scent. “Go ahead,” he murmured into her ear, “I know you want to… ‘flip them the
bird’ as they say on Terra. There is nothing they can do about it now… you’re mine, no one else
will ever touch you again.”

She shivered and clutched his arm reflexively as if to stop from falling. The voice in her head was
positively screaming sense at her but he managed to do something that quieted it down. Licking
her lips she suppressed a giggle and did as she was told, "Oh I like you," she said as she looked
up at him, "you're fun. Tell me, you have a name or is there something I should be calling you?"

“Most call me ‘His Imperial Majesty’,” he answered, “but those in my Harem I allow the luxury of
Ravyel.” His arm tightened as Ziv lurched forwards, stretching out into a full gallop as the
Nuru’kh-ai fell in behind them. Ahead, an emerald and black portal yawned open, crackling
across the road and tugging at them with wisping tendrils as they thundered through, emerging at
the end of an airdock that was attached to a floating palace among rushing waterfalls. The
Obsidian slowed, coming to a more sedate pace as they approached the well-tended rose
gardens.

Dismounting, he reached up, gripping Maeve’s slight waist and hoisting her out of the saddle.
“This will be your new home,” he told the redhead as he set her down. “You will be well cared for,
in fact, there is nothing you will find wanting here.” Turning, he made his way to the double doors
that opened before them and started on up the stairs. “Your only responsibility will be to come to
my bed when called for.” The Demon halted, turning slightly on the steps, his gaze raking over
her form, “which for someone of your size, will be responsibility enough.”

Her head was spinning and she felt as if a sudden weight just landed on her shoulders. The first
thing she did was fall to her knees as he moved away. Stumbling to her feet she headed after
him, she managed to make it up a couple of stairs before looking up at him, "H-harem?" That
more than explained the looks she was getting. She looked at him and sniffed, "Don't think I can
handle you," she asked before she could stop herself.

You're just batting a thousand today Maeve, no really, she thought as she looked at him, "Well,
ok so you’re rather... big." Climbing the stairs to meet him, she licked her lips and craned her
neck, "Ok very big, and I think I'm just going to shut up right now. Where do I sleep?"

“For tonight,” he said as they reached the final stair, “with me.” The Demon nodded to Ja’Kel who
was eyeing Maeve with morbid curiosity as he opened the chamber doors.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” he said, bowing low and stepping aside.

“Bring us something to eat, Ja’Kel, and something clean for the girl.” Long strides took the half-elf
across the room as the main chamber doors shut behind them, and he threw open the secondary
set to the bathing room. Without looking back at Maeve he started in on the straps to his armour,
removing it piece by piece and letting it clatter to the marble floor beside the pool. “Strip down,”
he ordered, then grinned slightly as he turned his head, watching her from beneath unruly
chestnut locks, “and we’ll see how well you handle me.”

She followed him as quickly as she could and looked around the room curiously. Turning in a full
circle, her eyes landed on Ravyel. Her mouth went dry and she managed a nod as she struggled
from her tight tee. Her bra had seen better days, but that fell with her shirt and soon she was
struggling from her leather pants. "Note to self, leather pants and water don't mix," she grunted as
she kicked off the last leg.

She walked over to Ravyel slowly, the jewels in her navel ring glinting with a shaft of sunlight.
Looking him over, Maeve swallowed hard and a short nervous giggle passed her lips, "Have I
mentioned it's been a while?"

“Terran leather,” he said, “you’ll find S’Hean leather something else entirely.” His fingertips
touched just above her navel, stroking down to caress the ring with interest, “very nice,” he
murmured, then snorted in amusement as he leaned down to close the near foot in height
difference between them, “all the better.”

Redheads, he had a passion for them, though he had not taken one into his harem since the…
accident. He missed her still, and denim-blue eyes haunted his dreams. One slip up and he had
killed the one thing that he’d ever held dear.
Grey eyes… this one had grey eyes, and she was beautiful, on the small side for his tastes to the
point where he hesitated for a moment. Her flippant humour and open disposition was rare…
killing her was not what Ravyel had in mind. This one, he wanted to keep.

“So fragile… something will have to be done about that.” Callused fingers curled around her
shoulder, then up to fist in her hair, pulling Maeve’s head back, “but first…” his mouth was hard
on hers, demanding, and somehow… searching.

A shiver raced down her spine and the muscles in her stomach contracted. She never took her
eyes off him, "I'm tougher than I look," she said with a bit of grin, "with six brothers your size and
bigger, I learned to be tough." That was her last actual thought as he kissed her. She wrapped
her arms around his neck as she closed her eyes. It had been too long since she had someone
take complete control, and Maeve let slip a muffled moan as she returned the kiss. Her slim
fingers threaded through his hair and she held on as her legs threatened to give out from under
her.

His free hand hooked behind one shapely thigh, lifting Maeve from her feet and urging her legs
around his hips as the Demon dropped to his knees. A growl rumbled against her mouth,
pleasure in her willing response, and he laid her back on the cool marble floor. Pushing up onto
his hands he took in the way her brilliant red hair fanned out across the emerald-laced black
stone and the expression caught on her features as he rolled back to sit on his heels.

With slow deliberation he mapped out her body by touch, beginning at her collarbones, down over
soft breasts and taut abdomen, stroking over delicate hipbones and delving hard into the warmth
at the apex of her thighs. All the while, he kept his attention focused on her face, reading the play
of emotion.

She loosely wrapped her legs around his waist and gasped with the touch of cool marble against
her skin. She licked her lips and held his gaze, moaning with each touch of his hands. Maeve
gasped and the muscles in her legs quivered and the muscles in her stomach jumped as
pleasure raced through her nerves. Later she might wonder what happened to her sanity, but for
now she pushed those thoughts aside as she sat up and kissed him hard, biting his bottom lip.

And therein, the beast was unleashed; a visceral response to pain that had never quite been in
his control. Grasping Maeve’s waist he brought her down onto himself, thrusting hard up into slick
heat as his fingers tightened on the redhead’s ribs, the bone groaning in protest and the skin
bruising beneath the crushing pressure. His head jerked back, dropped, and teeth bit viciously
into her collarbone, the taste of blood burning copper on his tongue as he controlled the
movements of both their bodies.

It was more pain than she was used to, and she whimpered, her short nails dug into his skin with
the first thrust. Her back stiffened and she gasped as teeth tore at her flesh. He pushed against
her limits, and she couldn't breathe as pleasure and pain warred along her nerves. Clinging to
him, she cursed and rocked her hips as much as he let her, "P-please," she whispered, although
she wasn't sure for what or why she was begging.

The whispered sound only seemed to urge him on and the first of her ribs snapped neatly
beneath his fingers, followed by the heated pleasure of Aethyr as it wound through her body, a
pop in the Demon’s own ribcage betraying the nature of his healing power as both fractured
bones knit back together at a rapid pace. He groaned, low and throaty, with the pain, drinking it in
and snapping another, then another, giving and taking pain, healing and winding round again.

She gasped and choked on a scream, clinging to Ravyel as her ribs broke and were healed once
again. The pain was beyond what she'd ever felt in her life, and for a moment the words for him to
stop lodged in her throat. They stuck as logic argued that he wouldn't hear those words, and she
felt her nails dig into his flesh as she rode the pain. She didn't know how much she could take,
but she was bound and determined to find some measure of pleasure in it.

A pained groan passed her lips as she forced her body to relax in his arms. There was a bit of
pleasure, hidden beneath each snap and crack of her ribs, each healing brought its own relief and
she focused in on the feel of him inside her. She knew her own kinks allowed for a lot; right now
she just had to find room to allow for more. With effort she began rocking her hips into his, a
moan on her lips as she finally felt more than just the snap of a rib.

Blood-red eyes focused in on Maeve’s face, a flicker of surprise fleeting in their depths. A grin
twisted the Demon’s mouth as he slid deeper into twisted pleasure, more than pleased to find her
willing to match him if she could. Heavily-muscled arms enfolded the redhead’s slight frame,
crushing her up to his body as a tightening warning gripped his lower spine. Fingers curled
around Maeve’s shoulders in a vice grip, jerking her frame down hard onto him as a building
growl erupted into a yell of agonized release, the impact so hard that it resulted in the sharp
fracturing of her pelvic bone.

A scream tore from her throat, lost amidst a choking gasp as she collapsed against Ravyel's
shoulder. She stared at the marble, the emerald veins blurring against black. She blinked rapidly
to clear her sight and clung to Ravyel in an attempt not to move an inch. Each breath was enough
for her to wish she had blacked out, but by some misfortune or miracle she was still conscious.
"A-almost," she croaked, "handled you."

The Demon’s low laughter swirled around them and his fingers stroked almost gently down her
spine. There was an odd glint in his eye, though she couldn’t see it. There hadn’t been a redhead
in his harem for a while… when she had died, he had killed every last one of them. He hadn’t
even looked at a flame-haired beauty since, but something about this one had caught and held
his attention, and now he knew why.

“You did very well love,” he murmured, Aethyr rising from his skin and melding with Maeve’s
body. His hips shifted beneath her with a crack as the wound transferred and the Demon’s head
fell back, a low gasping moan rumbling through him with the pain, and subsequent healing of
them both. “You will learn to do better.”

Twisting slightly at the waist, he reached back into the pile of clothing and drew a slim, sharp
dagger from the inside of an arm guard. “We will make sure of it this time.” He seemed to pause,
as if he hadn’t meant to say the last two words, then snorted and drew the razor like edge across
his left wrist where a black, blue-eyed dragon seemed to writhe. “Drink, and live longer than you
ever imagined,” he ordered, pushing her back from his shoulder and offering up his arm, blood
welling dark and sticky from the wound.

A shiver raced his touch down her spine, and she moaned as her pelvis was healed. She wasn't
sure if the endearment was a good thing, or if she really wanted to do better, but she was pretty
sure she didn't have much choice in the matter any longer. She stared at the blood along his wrist
for a moment. She knew a bit on blood-letting kinks; dating Anna in high school had opened her
eyes wide to vampire fetish.

Swallowing hard, she couldn't still the tremble in her hands as she took hold of his wrist. As she
pressed her mouth to the wound she couldn't hide the wince at the acidic taste of blood washing
across her tongue. She had never really liked this part of the whole thing. But right now she really
didn't think she could handle him hurting her anymore, so she swallowed as much as she could
before it made her gag.
The skin along her hip tingled and shifted as a mark formed. Looking down she watched as black
scales shimmered and writhed, two emerald-green eyes glinting in the light. "Well that's a new
way of getting a tattoo."

Ravyel’s fingers caressed the newly formed mark, seemingly pleased with the location. “You’ll
find it to be a little more than that,” he whispered through her mind, palms closing on Maeve’s
hips as he lifted her from his body and moved to rise, “Now, a bath and something to eat seems
to be in order, and then you may rest.”

She blinked rapidly and shook her head a bit before staring up at him for a long second, "Oh now
that was unexpected," she whispered. She gazed up at him, wondering if she was actually just
hearing things. And that would just be strange now wouldn't it, she thought idly. Shaking her head
again she leaned against him fully, dizzy, "Ok, bath, eat, sleep, I like that plan. Even if it was only
in my head."

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D


Ro, Demon Elf or no, had always been an early riser. He had slept uneasily beside the drugged
redhead, his mind on the Gates and the way home to his wife. As the Alpha sun started to rise,
he slipped out of bed, bathed, and wandered out onto the balcony for breakfast. He watched the
slow break of light over the mountaintops, lost in thought as he nursed a cup of jeronovise.

Part of him was alert to his surroundings, listening for the telltale sounds of his ‘bedmate’
awakening. The difficult part was over, at least. He could manage ‘Ravyel’ over breakfast with
little difficultly, barring any surprises.

Stretching like a cat, Maeve felt the telltale pop of several vertebrae and the familiar aches of the
night before. Opening her eyes she curled her arms around the soft pillow and stayed there,
content for a few moments not to move. Finally giving into the urge, she slipped from under the
covers and padded from the bed. Catching sight of Ravyel, she wandered to the balcony and
perched on the railing.

"Morning," she said, smiling. She looked from Ravyel to the view, it didn't matter how many times
she saw it, it was still breathtaking. Looking back she crinkled her eyes, light catching and
reflected off the green as another smile played on her lips, "So, what's on the menu this morning,"
she asked, her stomach grumbling softly.

Ruby gems watched Maeve’s movements and Ravyel appeared completely relaxed where he sat
sprawled in his chair. The changes in this version of Maeve were appealing, there was an
ethereal look to her now, enhancing the natural beauty the human had always possessed. She
suited the surroundings.

Ro had to wonder what Ghet would have thought, had she been able to see – then again, she
likely would have been repulsed by the entire situation.

“Ketser bacon,” he answered, then pointed to what appeared to be fried eggs on his plate.” Some
fried ammah-mai, toast and Mai’Tus juice. Help yourself.” Ro arranged a suitably lecherous
expression on his features, “How are we this morning?”

A grin spread across her face as she took a seat across from Ravyel and poured a glass of juice.
"Pleasantly sore, and happily fucked," she said, taking a sip. Relaxing into the chair she tucked
her feet under her and took a piece of bacon from her plate. "Did you sleep well, for the life of me
I barely remember my head hitting the pillow last night," she said with quiet amusement as she
popped the bacon into her mouth.

Had he been slightly less Ro-ish, the S’Hean likely would have spit his Mai’Tus juice out across
the table. He always had appreciated a certain level of blunt, however, and couldn’t help the grin
that flashed a stunning set of dimples. “That’s probably due to the number of things it hit before
the pillow,” he lied. “I slept just fine, I was terribly tired for some reason. I couldn’t possibly
speculate on why.”

She laughed, and her eyes danced as she looked at Ravyel from over her glass, "Mmmm." No,
she firmly told herself she wouldn't be smug. Still... Setting her glass aside she took a bite of
breakfast, "Anytime you wish to speculate further, I'd gladly help."

A rumbling laugh shook Ravyel’s chest and he eyed Maeve with a hungry look as he set down his
glass. “As much as I love to start out my mornings on a high note, I’m afraid I have a few early
morning appointments today, or I’d gladly give you an instant replay.” He gestured dismissively,
“Finish your breakfast, and then you may return to the Harem Chambers.”

Ro flinched inwardly; the quicker he could get her out of here, the better. Rushing, however,
would look terribly suspicious. Regarding her with apparent interest as he dug into his ‘eggs’,
Ravyel lifted a questioning eyebrow. “Is there anything you want?” the Demon asked. “Aside from
another round of head trauma. I’ll leave Ja’Kel at your disposal today, he will take you down to
the market and buy you whatever you like.” His grin held dark intent, “never let it be said that I
don’t reward enthusiasm.”

Maeve dug into her breakfast, thinking over Ravyel's proposal, she would like to get out of the
harem for a couple of hours at least, even if she purchased nothing, getting out would be more
than enough. Flashing a smile to Ravyel she nodded, "I'd like that," she said as she finished her
'eggs'. Taking a sip of Mai'Tus, she laughed, "I've always been an enthusiastic student, it just
helps you're a particularly good teacher."

She picked up the last piece of bacon from her plate and popped it into her mouth, chewing
thoughtfully. Standing she walked over to Ravyel and ran her fingers along his forearm, "And with
your permission, I do believe I'll go make use of the baths, then do a bit of shopping. Have fun
with your appointments, but remember, 'all fun and no play make Ravyel a very dull boy'."

“Gods forbid,” the words rolled off his tongue in an instinctive response. “Enjoy yourself -- I
certainly did.”

Fortunately, Ro had many years of roguishness to fall back on in a pinch. He had never quite
shaken the ‘tongue in cheek’ humour that was at the root of a great many troublesome situations
in his history, despite his marriage to Silverthorn who had been likely to slide a dagger between
his ribs for the wrong word at the wrong moment. Ghet, of course, was completely different. They
were just words, and she knew it.

Ravyel shifted the arm Maeve was stroking and caught her tiny hand, nipping the side of a
delicate pinkie finger as he brought it past his mouth. “You may go.”

"I'd call you a tease, but you deliver too well for that to be true." She laughed and her eyes
flashed as she felt his teeth against her finger. A slow smile spread on her lips, "Thank you, see
you Ravyel," she said, a purr catching in her throat. She slid her fingers from his and went into
the bedroom, padding her way to the bathroom to relax and work out some of the kinks before
going shopping.
Ro relaxed as the redhead disappeared into the bathing room and released an inaudible sigh of
relief. Rough fingertips rubbed the bridge of his nose in agitation, a habitual gesture that normally
set his short fringe of hair to shaking. With Ravyel’s long locks, however, it did absolutely nothing.
Crimson eyes bled emerald as he stared sightlessly out over the rooftop, “I’m starting to lose my
skrunning mind,” he murmured quietly.

                      Present Day – City of Corin – Planet Whispin – A.D


The city of Corin was Cullen’s domain as General Enforcer of Whispin. It was the training ground
for off-world troops, cavalry and infantry both, the central nexus of the Demon Elf’s armies. The
Gate system had been set up to shuttle fighting men to temporary quarters as the city itself was
often overwhelmed with them, however, the system had been down over a day now for what
Ravyel had called ‘general maintenance’. It was an inconvenience, but one that Cullen endured
without complaint.

People learned fairly quickly that complaints were not met with patience where the Emperor was
concerned.

The current batch of warriors was coming along quite well. The training had weeded out the weak
and incompetent – they had lost about a fourth in the first open combat simulation. Those that
had survived had proven their right to live, and their right to die in battle for the Olnelan Sar’Da
Empire. Humans, Elves, Dragons and Demons, it was an equal opportunity army.

From his vantage point in the stands, Cullen watched the blooded troops battling it out in the
arena, a trained eye picking out those who would be most valuable as Man-at-arms. “I think they
are ready,” he commented to the man with the steel hand who stood next to him. “Which is just as
well. Ravyel is picking up a fresh load of Demon Infantry on Mer’Lin in a few days.”

"I hope they are better than the last one's," Jack replied, his arms crossed, his eyes watching yet
another demon falling to his death by his opponent’s blade. He had been around long enough to
know who he could talk too without getting his throat slit, or worse. Cullen was such a man, one
who would listen, and judge him fairly.

So long as he didn't cross him.

"The emperor's going personally you say?" Jack didn't wish to sound too excited, but his plan was
starting to come together. One that he had been working on for what felt like ages. "Don't you
think that's rather redundant at this date and time? What with the gate down for maintenance,
where on earth are we going to place all the new recruits?"

The General shrugged, a roll of heavily muscled shoulders that rippled long, chestnut hair. “I’ll
move some of the trainees by portal myself. Depending on the number he brings back, I may
have to move some by airship. Lord Arketh has room in his barracks, we can force him to play
host for awhile.”

The half-elf scrubbed at his chin with thumb and forefinger. “Hopefully the Gates won’t be down
for too long and life will get back to normal soon enough.” Brown eyes shifted to look at Jack’s
profile. “How is that demoness of yours coming along?”

Jack laughed. "Lord Arketh will not take those orders lightly, but he'll have no other choice. I
would love to see the expression on his face when you tell him."
Jack gave a deep sigh. "Demora's coming along. She's quick with her blade and her tongue, and
both are just as sharp. I fear my brother had something to do with that too, but proof is stranger
than fiction. And before you ask, the answer is no. I haven't collared her just yet. I'm hoping her
wild side will come around to my way of thinking without resorting to anything I may regret later.
And I fear she has a crush on me, and anything else on two feet."

His steel hand came up, its silver fingers caressing a faded silver locket he kept hidden under his
shirt. "Tell me, how are you handling your little assassin? Tara's her name, isn't it?"

“Heh -- Rhodry can be a handful,” Cullen muttered, “it’s a little unnerving when he starts walking
through walls. I’m afraid the Olnelan Empire would be in a bit of trouble if all the SandShadows
got together and decided to change things. Fortunately, most of them are pacifists until you start
pushing. Ravyel knows enough to leave the Obsidian Nomads alone though, he doesn’t press --
they don’t rebel. Rhodry… on the other hand, might be a completely different animal.”

The General grinned suddenly. “She’s quick with her tail too, if I remember correctly. I’d have
collared her long ago.” He snorted slightly. “Kara, her name is Kara, and I don’t so much handle
her as manhandle her. Which seems to suit both of us just fine. She is on a job this week so I
don’t expect to see her for a few days at least.”

"I should be so lucky," Jack laughed. "I swear, I turn around and Demora's there, looking at me
with those demon eyes of her, all the while that damn tail is crawling up my leg. I swear it has a
mind of its own. Cutting it off doesn't do any good either. She'll simply grow a new one."

Watching the warriors battle, Jack decided now would be the time to ask, "So tell me, do you
think Ravyel would mind if we tagged along? Demora and myself I mean. After that last batch we
received I think I should be there, to help oversee things. I swear my brother has been sendint us
a stock of inferior demons. I had one demoness who tried mating with every barn animal in the
stockyard. Though some of them didn't seem to mind, until she ate them. Demora put her down
though. She said she was a bad example for all demons. Myself, I think she was just jealous."

Cullen paused, eyeing Jack silently for a moment. “If Ravyel wants you along, he’ll ask for you.
He doesn’t take requests very well. If you are right about the inferior stock I’m sure Ravyel has
noticed. In fact, it may very well be the reason he is overseeing it personally this time.” The half-
elf smirked, “And in that case, I wouldn’t want to be your brother.”

"True, but I'm sure my brother can take care of himself. And if not," and Jack shrugged his
shoulders. "As for making a formal request, I'll wait to hear for our emperor. We both know not to
make waves when it comes to his temper, but I would love to see my brother's face when Ravyel
asks why so many of the demons he's sending us are idiots. Make's you wonder what he's doing
with the better ones, doesn't it?"

It would give him the opportunity he was looking for, if he were able to go with the emperor to
Mer'Lin. He could assassinate Ravyel off world, with little or no repercussions. After that saving
Dara would be a cinch, with the army he was secretly building. Staring down at the blood soaked
field, Jack slowly shook his head.

"What do you think? Think they've had enough for one day? Or should we push them harder, and
see who survives?"

“Just a little longer,” Cullen said quietly, “there are a few left I want to see culled, and by the looks
of it, they are about to be.” A low laugh filled the space between them, “of course, we could
always lay bets. Have any favourites?” He kept a quiet suspicion to himself, but made a silent
note to himself. He’d be watching Jack more closely in the weeks to come, there was something
slightly off – he just couldn’t put his finger on what yet.

"I have a few favourites, but I'm not about to point them out to you," Jack laughed along with
Cullen. He made a mental note of his own, not to press any more issues concerning Ravyel. He'd
spent too much time, effort and gold to raise an alarm now, one which could get him killed. He
wasn't ready to die just yet.

"Anyway, Ravyel pays you far better than he does me. I need all the coins I can carry, just to
keep Demora happy. You're a man of the world. Tell me, are all females, demoness or otherwise
so wanton? I mean she wants this, she wants that. It's enough to send me to the front lines
naked, with my testicles painted red and blue. At least there I may get a little peace." Truth be
told he didn't know what he would do without her.

But he wasn't about to tell her that.

                               100 Years Ago – City of Corin – A.D


The Golden Griffon Tavern on Whispin was bustling with activity, what with new recruits coming
and going with every waking hour, and battle-weary souls who fought their own wars in their
minds. Those who wished to remain alone, when no table was available, hugged the bar like
blowflies, standing elbow to elbow, their backs arched, heads down, their arms circling their
mugs, protecting them like a newborn child. Few words were spoken, but they too were soon
drowned out by the cry of a demon who failed to follow orders correctly.

Jack sat at the nearest table by the bar, looking down at the half empty mug of what the inn called
ale. But it tasted more like watered down swill, with a bubbly head of foam. The type of foam
which sticks to ones throat for hours, leaving behind a bitter, salty after taste. But it was wet and
cold, that was all that mattered at the moment.

And it was cheap.

Sitting across from him was a young woman dressed all in black, highlighting her full figure and
long, strong legs. Hair the colour of autumn leaves fell over broad shoulders and across well-
tanned skin. Almond-shaped eyes of grey scanned the crowd with an animal like gaze, while full
red lips parted slowly to reveal a sharp set of fangs.

Two small ivory colloured horns protruded from her forehead between her long bangs, and the
long spiked tail dancing around her chair told a different story. Demora, the demoness sent to
help Jack sat there, watching the crowd, the tip of her tail twitching in time to the beats of her
painted red fingernails as they struck the table. Hanging from her side was a long, thin blade and
matching daggers rested in the top of her knee high boots.

Jack tried to ignore her, thinking back to the day he received the news of his nieces kidnapping.

He was sitting in a tavern, much like the one he was sitting in now, enjoying a fine meal, and
much better tasting ale, when three men came in and stopped. He recognized the larger man
right off, a giant of a man with long silver-white hair which hung loosely over massive shoulders,
cold-blue eyes narrowing sharply as he pulled on his braided moustache.

"Don't bother me Svenson while I'm eating," Jack snapped as he placed another bite into his
mouth. "I know my snivelling brother sent you. He's always sending you to fetch me..."
Svenson moved like a man on a mission, pushing anyone, and anything out of his way as he
made his way over. Towering over Jack, he placed both palms down on the table and leaned in,
his cold-blue eyes staring a hole into Jack's plate.

"You're ta be come'n with us without question Jack Steele. I have my orders ta use force if'n I
must, but we're both grown men, and neither one of us can afford the damages we'd be cause'n.
My Captain wishes to speak with you..."

"What does he want now? Tell my deadbeat brother to go slay a dragon or something. I'm not his
slave or one of his tin men he can order around as he sees fit. And why didn't he come himself?
Afraid I might do something stupid, like touch him or something." He pulled up his steel right
hand, gloved in leather.

Svenson slowly stood as the other men approached, but he held his hand up, stopping them from
doing something foolish. "This has nothing ta do with the hatred ya have for your brother Jack."
The man reached up, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Dara, your niece has been kidnapped, taken away by the Emperor himself, along with Aspen,
the queen’s sister. Your brother tried ta stop the Emperor, but he was helpless to stop him. I...I'm
sorry."

Jack stopped chewing and looked up. "You mean he didn't try hard enough, so now he wants me
to risk my life to get her back, is that what you’re saying?"

Wiping his mouth clean, Jack stood, kicking the chir back behind him, causing two men to make a
move for their weapons. But one glance from Jack, and their hands fell to their side. "That
bastard, allowing the Emperor of all people to take my niece. She never should have been seen
near him, and I can only blame myself for that."

Svenson's brow arched, but he remained silent, knowing Jack would speak when he felt damn
good and ready. He followed him out of the tavern and watched him mount up on a large black
stallion. With a gesture the other two men mounted after him and they all rode off together in
silence.

                                                    ***

"How long has she been gone brother," Jack asked as he stood over Drake's desk, staring into
eyes of blue. "How long has she been missing?"

"A month, maybe more," Drake replied, watching his brother spin on his heels, turning his back to
him. "I know what you’re thinking Jack, that I didn't try hard enough to stop him. But trust me, I
tried. And it's your damn fault for her being there."

"My fault," Jack asked. "How do you figure?"

"She was spying for you," Drake said as he leaned back in his chair. "Don't think I don't know
she's been spying for you the moment she could walk and talk. It's your fault for her being taken,
so live with it. I tried to save her, remember that."

"You're still alive. In my book you didn't try all that hard."

Turning, he slammed his fist on the desk, watching papers and books fly up. "She's your only
daughter damn you, and my only niece. You allowed that...that demon to waltz in here and take
her, like taking a piece of candy from a bowl, and here you sit telling me it's my fault she's gone?
That's bullshit! And you haven't even tried to get her back, have you? You're just as weak as our
mother..."

"Do not bring our parents into this Jack," Drake snapped. "You don't even know our parents. You
left us to go to war. Remember? Even though mother pleaded with you to stay, to protect her
from our father you still had to seek your so called fame and fortune, leaving us alone to feel our
father’s abuse. The long nights we spent alone, the smell of stale ale on our father’s breath when
he stumbled home from the taverns. The hardship that went with empty stomachs, welts and
bruises inflicted by him. Our mother died in my arms Jack, and her last words were her wishing to
see you. So don't tell me how weak our mother was. Keep her out of this."

"Is that why you killed father," Jack taunted, "for revenge? Or was it the gold he kept hidden
under the bed, the blood money he made by taking innocent lives?"

"There was a war going on Jack and you know it. We had no idea he was murdering elves for
their ears, receiving rewards for each set, until after mother died and I killed him in his sleep. I'll
bet you didn't know I received a beating that damn near killed me. And for what? Not running six
miles on bare feet to bring back a healer for mother, a healer we never thought we could afford in
the first place? And for what? For a woman who wanted to die? I killed our father because he was
a soulless bastard, and he deserved to die. My only regret was I didn't do it sooner. Of course
you wouldn't know any of this. You were too damn busy fighting your own war." Leaning back,
Drake laced his fingers behind his head.

"By the way...how's Meylor?"

Jack saw red and punched Drake square in the jaw, sending him to the floor. Diving over the
desk, Jack had his brother down, his hands wrapped tightly around the knight’s neck. "You know
damn good and well she's been dead for some time, and you were asked never to speak her
name again. I'll kill you with my own bare hands if you ever say her name again."

Reaching up, Drake slowly pried Jack's hands away and struck a blow of his own. Black armour
struck Jack's jaw, causing him to see stars."We can keep fighting," he said while trying to catch
his breath,"until one of us kills the other. But that will not help us get Dara back. Now if you'll shut
up and listen for once, I'll tell you my plan."

"Jack? Jack, are you listening to me?"

                                                   ***

"Jack? Are you listening to me?"

Jack looked up and blinked. "Yeah, I hear you Demora. I'm not deaf you know." His mind slowly
focused to the here and now. Those memories were ages ago. More then hundred years had
gone by like a blink of an eye, and he was no closer to his goal then, than he was now.

But he was on Whispin, and a Captain for the Emperor's elite guard, mainly manned by demons
of his own choosing. Demons who would back him up, knowing Jack could set them free from the
pain collars they were forced to wear.

He was one more step closer to his goal.
Demora smiled as her tail slipped around and started to run up Jack's open pant leg. "You were
lost in your thoughts, weren’t you? Thinking about your brother again? You know how angry he
makes you, so why do you test yourself so much?"

"Because it fuels my anger and makes me strong. And if you don't want to lose that tail, I suggest
you stop what you’re doing, before I pull it out by its roots and hand it back to you."

Demora laughed. Her tail slowly retreated, wrapping itself up the back of her chair. With a teasing
tone she leaned over, resting her chin in her hands. "You know what they say Jack. Once you
bed down a demoness, you'll never go back to the old ways. I can make you forget all about your
brother you know. Just give me the word and I'll wash all of your troubles away."

"And kill me in the process? Thanks but no thanks. I enjoy life to much to be eaten thank you very
much." From the day he met the demoness he knew she had a thing for him, teasing him with a
glance, or a faint smile. But he was holding true to his words, words spoken over his beloved
Meylor's dead body. But it was becoming a strain to keep those words alive, for he cursed his
brother’s name every time he looked up. Demora looked so much like Meylor it made him wonder
if the magic the Wizard Salem used to bring her into this realm really needed a strand of his
beloved hair to work the spell.

"He wouldn't dare," he mumbled under his breath. Reaching up he pressed his hand to his chest,
feeling for the silver locket that rested there. Within it was a lock of his beloved hair, the hair that
saved his life.

Demora smiled, showing off a set of sharp white fangs that fell over her lower lip. "I won't eat you
Jack. I may...nibble on you, but I promise not to eat you. But as I was saying, while you were
studying your mug, the two...so-called 'people' your brother requested are here looking for you.
Should I call them over?"

Jack looked up and frowned. Two Doppelgangers stood just inside the doorway, dressed in long
flowing cloaks of tan and green, but even with the shadows hiding their faces, he knew who they
would become at the right time and place.

They would be spitting images of Dara and Aspen.

"I don't know why my brother sent those two here. After I kill the Emperor, we'll have no need to
exchange those two with the real Dara and Aspen. It's a foolhardy risk just having them here."

Demora nodded. "They are safeguards Jack, in case you can't get near the Emperor, we can at
least exchange them and still meet our goal. You still wish for Dara to be free? Don't you?"

"I want the Emperor's head first," Jack replied. Downing the rest of his ale in one swallow, he
crushed the mug in his hand and frowned.

"Send them over, but tell them to keep themselves cloaked. We don't need a battle on our hands
if the other demons get a whiff of their scent. Both are mortal enemies you know."

"Only some demons hate them, but not all," Demora teased. "Care for another glass?"

Jack smacked his lips. "No thanks, unless it can wash this aftertaste away. And no, you can't
wash it out for me. I still remember the last time you tried to kiss me. I can still feel that damn
tongue of yours tickling my guts. I should have bitten it off then and saved us both a lot of
trouble."
"You loved it," the demoness smiled. Standing she walked away, her hips swaying to and fro
while her tail danced slowly behind her. The three gathered by the door while Jack looked on,
straining his ears to hear what they were saying and his thoughts came full circle.

"You're a dirty son of a bitch, little brother. You really are," as he adjusted himself before settling
back into his chair. "Now all that needs to be done is get close enough to the Emperor, learn
where he's keeping Dara before I kill him, and we'll be all set."

At least that was the plan...

                 Present Day – Silver Dragon Ridge – S’Hea – Planet Whispin


Holo’s faded-blue eyes watched the numbers on the screen flicker by with patient interest. The
comp was settled onto a low tabletop in front of the chair he was seated cross-legged in, the light
from the screen playing over his face in the dim illumination of the room. One finger played with a
small metal device that was clipped to his ear, apparently adjusting the volume, a process that
kept the hyper tech still for several seconds as he found a sound level he was comfortable with.

There was a talle konte petal melting slowly under his tongue, the rich, chocolate-like flavour
soothing his senses as the drug seeped into his system and he started to hum, then sing aloud,
tapping his fingers off jean-clad kneecaps as the music rose in tempo. He seemed completely
oblivious to the fact that someone else was in the room… though that was a common mistake
where Holo the redheaded human was concerned.

Maeve raised her head from the ancient looking laptop she was poring over. She had several
documents open; and no matter how many times someone mentioned better inventions, the beat
up old thing with a it's cracked cover, and ancient processor, still ticked away just fine for her
liking. That it was one of her last remaining possessions from home was also another reason she
kept it around, even if she had to find a few interesting methods for keeping it powered. But it
wasn't really holding her attention right now. She stared at Holo for several seconds, debating
whether it was because he was stoned or if he was always this way.

Part of her remember the years spent in the dorms, and she laughed, "I'd ask if you know how
loud you're getting but something tells me you know and don't care." She grinned as she
catalogued another crystal. "What are you fiddling with, anyway," she asked, unable as ever to
quash her rampant curiosity.

Ner'Ius returned from the underground archives with a few more crystals to begin cataloguing. He
entered the room and caught sight of Holo. "Oh um...I did not know...um...that anyone else was
here."

The scroll keeper found it hard to get out a simple sentence around Maeve. Her beauty
overwhelmed him and he was not quite sure how to act around her. He wanted to impress her but
was not quite sure how to go about doing it.

Holo hit pause on the comp and looked at Maeve, flashing her a grin. He had been about to
answer her, but Ner’Ius entered the room at that point, interrupting his train of thought for a nano-
second. “There are plenty of people here,” he answered the S’Hean. “They only show up when its
time to drop off food or tidy up, but they are skulking about.”

Turning his attention back to the stunning redhead, the human grinned. “Just some readjustments
for a project I’ve been working on for Ghet.” He held out a baggie full of petals. “Want to try
some?” he asked, his blue eyes sparking with mischief. Unlike Ner’Ius, he knew just how to go
about impressing Maeve – or something along those lines. Impressing wasn’t exactly what he
was going for.

“What is that thing you are working on anyway?” The tech’s fingers were practically itching to get
his hands on the antiquated piece of technology.

Maeve flashed a smile to Ner'Ius before leaning forward to take one of the petals from the
proffered bag. Breaking it in half she popped it into her mouth. She barely checked a moan at the
chocolate flavour, and glanced down at her laptop, "The laptop? Oh, just something I brought with
me from home. It's held up amazingly, although I've had to learn my way around a soldering iron
from time to time fixing bits and pieces of it.

"I could use something else, but this still has college papers on it, and how else could I charge
this thing?" She rolled her hips as she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the slim black
case. Grinning she handed it to Holo, "My brother bought that for me before I left for university. I
would imagine by now it would seem rather clunky."

Holo’s eyes lit up as he examined the ancient music player, his fingers running almost lovingly
over it’s casing. “I can probably help you out,” he offered. “I’ve pulled information off of worse…
and it would be fairly easy to recharge this, I’d just have to rig up a chip based power source. Just
a matter of replacing a few components and rejigging a few things.” He looked up and grinned a
little self effacingly, “It’s a hobby – everybody needs one.”

She giggled a bit more than she intended, and would have let out a telltale squeal had she not
clapped her hand over her mouth. Scooting over to Holo she waved her hand, "Listen, I know all
about hobbies, I've had my fair share; many of them the two legged variety, but I also did make it
my mission to try to read all of the books in the Arlsyn library. And I do believe these things are
some sort of drug," she said as she popped the other half of the Talle Konte petal into her mouth.
"If there's a way to keep the information, I'd love too. Most of the songs, I haven't heard in
centuries. I'm sure there's a copy of them somewhere, but depending on the time and what's
happened to Terra since I've left, I might have a few of the only copies." Giggling again she
leaned back, "Go ahead, I trust you, Holo."

Ner'Ius smiled at Maeve saying she had tried to read every book in the Arlsyn library. This
woman is not only beautiful, but also intelligent, and shares the same hobbies with me, the
S'Hean Elf though to himself.

"Actually, you are right. It is a drug. It is called Talle Konte. It causes euphoria, triggers hormones,
and relieves pain and stress. I have never tried it myself though," Ner'Ius said, a tad surprised he
had managed to get out a sentence to Maeve.

“That, love,” Holo said with an impish grin as he leaned in close to the redheaded woman, “could
be a horrible mistake on your part.” He beamed suddenly, “Certainly not where anything
technological is concerned, but other than that, I’m horribly untrustworthy – take my word for it.”

His gaze jumped to Ner’Ius again and he offered up the baggie. “Try one,” he offered, “a little
recreational euphoria is good for the soul.” His attention, such as it was, swung back to Maeve
again. Dropping his chin into the palm of his hand he balanced an elbow on the arm of his chair
and leaned in to her, “So – tell me all about these two-legged hobbies of yours. Does this happen
often? Is there, perhaps, an application?”

She giggled, "So you want me to trust you when you say you're untrustworthy?" She grinned and
tucked a leg under her as she got comfy in the chair. She turned quickly to look at Ner'Ius and her
hair flipped into her face, "I'd say 'all the cool kids are doing it', but that would completely age
me." She laughed and brushed the hair from her face.

Concentration was fluid and her attention span was little better than a cat hyped on catnip. She
turned back to Holo and laughed, "Nope, applications mean essays and that just takes too much
effort to read through; I much prefer live auditions. Are you looking for a casting call?"

“Well that depends,” was his instant response, “is the part of ‘leading man’ up for grabs?” At this
point it seemed that the wiry human had completely forgotten about Ner’Ius. Either that, or Holo
was completely unabashed about his horrible innuendo.

Ner'Ius found himself to be a tad jealous of Holo. Not only was the human capable of talking to
Maeve, he was clearly flirting with her as well. The scroll-keeper wished he were more outgoing
when it came to women. Maybe it's the Talle Konte; he thought and grabbed a petal from the
baggie. He mumbled, "I think I will try it after all," and inserted it under his tongue.

"Hmm, you think you fit the part?" She giggled then and sunk down in her chair, "You'll have to
audition then." Maeve leaned forward and her eyes sparkled a bit, "I wonder how much further we
can take this euphemism, I mean we haven't even begun discussing props yet.

"Of course that might be a conversation kept for later," she said with a giggle. By now she was
completely happy and had that feel good feeling through her entire body.

“Pencil me in,” Holo said with a grin. “I’ll bring plenty of props.” He cast an amused glance at
Ner’Ius, thinking that the next few hours were going to be a fascinating adventure in S’Hean
psychology. “Damn… all distracted again, good thing this has a dependable pause feature…”

                        Present Day – Alcarinque – Planet Berelath – A.D


It was the morning of the second day after the farce of a wedding between Araxmarr and
An’Thaya and Galain Alcarin was stone cold sober. It was a difficult state to maintain because he
badly needed a drink, desperately required some sort of numbing balm to soothe away the rage
and frustration that rubbed his soul and heart raw with hurt. That first night had been horrible as
he had indeed stayed awake all night, alone in his grief, unable to do anything more than keep
An’Thaya’s image firmly planted in his mind’s eye. An image of her from the early days, in a rare
instant of happiness when faceted emerald eyes had sparkled with her dry sense of humour and
he’d felt the living tangle of her fire-hued locks against his arms. He had no idea what had
occurred on that wedding night, and most of him didn't want to ever know.

He’d fled for Alcarinque as soon as he could, fending off anyone who might have stopped him. He
had that amount of power at least. No one would bother him unless they wanted to court a date
with immense pain or perhaps even death. And now he stood within grand quarters fit for a king,
no perhaps even an emperor. He supposed that given the power he had over the planet of
Berelath that he was more that than anything else. His lips curled at the thought as he stood
within a high-ceilinged chamber decorated with brightly hued frescoes and tapestries against a
background of stark white. It was a beautiful place that boasted of all that was the finest amongst
the Elen culture. He didn’t see it though.

He’d given his people a new chance at life, an opportunity to flourish and become a force to
recognize and respect again. He’d watched his people grow from a mere thousand or less to a
sprawling population that boasted long life, a balanced birthrate, excellent health and a strong
grip over the Berelathian races that might have annihilated them otherwise.
But at what cost?

Galain pondered that particular question, grinding his teeth as he turned toward an open balcony
and stared blindly out over the gleaming white city that was his. It was a pristine thing at first look.
But it wasn’t his alone. It was owned by the Emperors he swore allegiance to, the two men he’d
sold himself to to guarantee a future for his people and a chance for survival for An’Thaya and
himself. He stared downward, his face twisted with anger. Did any of those damnable little ants
down there care about what he’d just sacrificed? Did they know that he’d just lost the one reason
that had kept them all alive? He didn’t care about whatever the least of his subjects worried
about… he wanted them to know he’d been screwed over and thus so had they.

And they had been… Galain knew this. The life and promise of a union of love between himself
and An’Thaya could have created was weighing heavily upon his heart. They’d had something
that would have transcended their personal life and spread amongst his people and he was
certain of it. They’d carefully stayed the course, thinking that perhaps one day their sacrifice
would reach the fruition they had desired. That somehow… somehow the insanity that had
engulfed them so long ago would be destroyed and they would triumph.

That illusion had been destroyed though just two days ago and Galain was bitterly regretting the
deal he’d made. Nothing was worth the loss he was feeling and he gripped the stone of the
balcony he stood on and considered something new: actual treason.

But how? That was the question. Too much rode upon the actual well-being of his people. He
hissed as he realized yet again that he'd sacrificed all that he held personal. Okay, he had known
what he was doing when he murdered his uncle and sold his sister to Ravyel. He and An'Thaya
had purposefully chosen survival over whatever personal gains they might have had, which had
been nothing at the time of their surrender. And yet oddly, he'd been so certain that somehow,
someway...

He'd already been down that trail, in the last five minutes too. He shook his head and then bent
forward, resting his forehead against the cool white of the balcony. It was always cool, no matter
what season. He'd find a way. The decision was made. He would find a way to tumble down the
maniacs that had held him in thrall for too long. For the moment he was held by grandiose ideas
of taking out both Ravyel and Araxmarr with a mighty crash of an Elen army, himself wielding a
sword of fire that would strike both men down at once. It was a ridiculous thought though and he
actually barked out a laugh at himself.

Treason, at his level of power, would frustratingly, require more subtlety. But how? He'd find a
way, he knew it.

               Present Day – Resistance Headquarters – Plane of Arlsyn – A.D


Norq passed his bundle off then moved out of the way of the others coming through. He threaded
his way through the catacombs of caves that had become home and sanctuary for so many. The
floor and walls had grown smooth with the wear of hands brushing along the walls and feet
across the floor.

Offshoots were used for supplies; weapons and goods separated and catalogued for easier
access. Each usage was recorded so that those on raids and those that left to go to the cities and
get the supplies needed would know what to look for.

The tunnel turned. The next grouping of offshoots were used for medical facilities and beyond
that were the living quarters. Children laughed as they chased each other then grew silent at the
sight of the bloody warriors that passed them. The Taurësúlë’s heart sank as he rounded the
corner and took the natural stairs up into the council room, passing his weapons off to a young
teen to clean.

Barnaby looked up as Norq entered the room. “Mostly weapons, a few other supplies but we’ll
have to use our contacts to locate more and send a few into the cities.” He told the older male,
answering the silent question, “We’ll know the damage to our side soon enough, has Eluned
return yet?”

"Did you expect otherwise?" There was just the faintest trace of cool amusement in the words as
the Shroudling melted out of the shadows. Storm-grey eyes locked with forest green for the
barest instance, before she turned to incline her head politely to the older Taurësúlë.

"Meshzi."

She released her burden, letting the alchemist finally slide to the floor. Bound and gagged as he
was, he could have done little to prevent his fall even if he had been conscious. Eluned, however,
was a professional. She knew exactly how to render someone unconscious with the minimum
amount of fuss and bother, and how to ensure that they remained in such a condition until such
time as it was convenient for them to come around.

"The stranger," she announced calmly. "I thought you might wish to talk to him."

Norq’s lips twitched, “Just setting up your entrance, Eluned.” His eyes glanced briefly to one of
the warriors who slipped away as the leader of the resistance crouched down in front of the
unconscious man and removed the gag.

“Nybus ney.” He glanced up at the assassin as he stood and took the water jug that the warrior
had returned with. “Let’s wake our friend up here and find out what he was doing, shall we?” Eyes
sparkling with amusement, he pulled back the container and hurled the chilled liquid onto their
‘guest’.

Quinn was having a wonderful dream, watching a million stars sparkling across a sea of
darkness. He felt himself floating, his body limp, his mind cluttered with wild thoughts of
abandonment. Suddenly a cold wave crashed over his face, one that caused him to choke and
gag. The darkness and stars melted away and he blinked and slowly shook his head. His face felt
damp, water dripped to the hard floor he rested upon. Thinking he’d made it to the ship, he took a
much-needed breath, and spat.

“The Dark Seas have cast me back from the brink of death,” he mumbled and tried to stand. He
found himself unable to bring his hands up for support, and a terrific pain behind one ear caused
him to suck a breath through his teeth, his jaws locked tight. Straining to break free, he looked up
and spotted a number of strangely garbed men staring down at him.

“Stones! I’ve been taken captive by the movement.” Thinking they looked rather odd, dressed as
Elves and such, he shook his head slowly to clear the rest of the water from his eyes. Straining to
reach one of his stones, he failed, finding them out of reach. He tried to sit up, but the pain came
back stronger, demanding more from him than he could give. At last, he rolled on his back,
resting his head against the smooth stone floor and gave a great sigh.

“This is all a simple misunderstanding you know. Free me now, and no harm will fall upon you
and your kinship. You know not who you’ve taken captive.”
“I’m sorry, but you don’t know who you were taken captive by.” Norq chuckled, others doing the
same. The Taurësúlë’s dry amusement faded, “I’m sorry I can’t do that, stranger. We don’t know
who you are, where you come from, and whom you were sent by. If I let you go without finding
out that information I put my people in danger of death, rape and slavery.” The fact was stated
with the weary bluntness of a man who had seen those scenes over and over again yet refused
to give up the fight to stop it.

“Do you understand? If you answer me truthfully then we’ll be able to help one another, if not,
well.” The copper-skinned elf shifted in his crouched position. “I won’t lie to you; your life right now
is without value and I would not hesitate in ending it if it means saving those that trust us,” he
looked around at those in the room, “to keep them safe.”

Quinn thought the man kneeling before him sounded sincere, and he believed he would be killed
if he did not answer him correctly. But the pain behind his ear made thinking rather difficult.
Struggling to break free once again, he found his hands bound tight, but not with chains, and they
were tied behind his back. He gave the man a cockeyed grin and slowly settled down.

“Well if you must know,” he sighed and closed his eyes.

“I am Quinn Kane, spelled with a ‘K’, not a ’C’. Everyone seems to get that wrong. However, my
friends call me ‘Q’. I am a third level Alchemist, having just graduated from the fabled Squirrelrash
University of Divination and Alchemy. I was on my way to the spaceport, to take a solar ship
home when I happen to run into a caravan along the way. The man there wasn’t very helpful you
see, when I asked to see his wares. I simply asked him to see his best wet suit, seeing how I
forgot mine, and a storm was brewing overhead. I even offered to pay him with good coins too.

“He told me such a tale, of this world which he called Arlsyn. I of course corrected him, telling him
he was sadly mistaken. You see, this world is called Iggy 5...”

Norq nodded as he listened, it sounded as though the man said the truth, and certainly wouldn’t
have been the first one to be confused or even deny what happened when they were ripped from
their own world. “So you were walking from a college. Did anything unusual happen? A sudden
change in scenery? Did the man have an accent unusual to what you normally hear? Is my
accent different than what is on this Iggy 5?”

Quinn laid there for a moment, trying to come up with some sort of answer, though he had more
questions of his own filling his thoughts.

"Well, the storm did come up rather quickly, and the man driving the wagon was not very pleasant
to me. As for an accent, he did have one, but I thought he might have been a Highlander, truly
barbaric individuals with little care for us alchemists. Now you're accent is more direct. If I had to
guess, I would say... Lowlander, honest, hard working people, courteous, with a flair for the
theatrics. But tell me, why are you dressed as Elves? Everyone knows they have not been seen
for a millennia.”

A chuckle escaped the warrior. “That type of Human generally is. I am an elf; actually, a
Taurësúlë to be exact, the lovely female there is actually a Shroudling, there are many races
here.

“I am sorry to tell you this, but the storm is the reason you are here. You are on a Plane called
Arlsyn; somehow storms seem to interfere with portals or create a rip in time and space that pulls
others from their homeland. I believe, Quinn Kane, with a K, that is what the problem is here. If
that is the case we will try to get you back home.”
The Taurësúlë frowned in thought, “We do not have alchemists here, we do have mages, but
where are my manners. Clyde, get something for our friend’s head.” He turned briefly to give the
order then looked up towards Eluned, “Can you do something to relieve his pain?” He then turned
back to Quinn.

“Do you know of the Emperors, or where that wagon was going? Who ordered the weapons and
what were they for?” He did believe the stranger, but he had to ask.

Quinn shook his head, which was a bad mistake. Gritting his teeth, he hissed through them and
tried to reach for one of his pouches once more. Ever so slowly a bluish glow formed under him,
and he brought his now free hand up slowly and felt the goose-egg-sized bump on his head.

"Was I hit by lightning?" he asked, making a face as his fingers pressed against the bump. "We
stone alchemists attract lightning like flies to dung, if you'll pardon the expression. It's the
lodestone's we carry. And I swear you just said you were an elf, and she a... Shroudling," he said,
rolling the word off his tongue.

Lowering his hand, he held it out and flexed it slowly, feeling the blood flowing through his fingers
once again. "You'll forgive me for setting my hands free. It was very uncomfortable lying on them,
and I needed to assess my injuries. I'm sure Clyde there is a fine healer, but if you'll allow me the
pleasure of healing myself, I'll answer any question you may have. You are correct on one
account thought," he turned to stare at the Shroudling. "She is indeed very beautiful," he pulled
his other hand free. Eluned regarded him impassively, a slight rise of one blonde brow the only
response to his observation.

"You must be asking yourself how I was able to break free from my bindings. I used the art of
Transmutation, the conversion of one object into another. You see, you must learn to bind an
alchemist properly, or they'll escape every time. I would show you how one properly binds
someone like myself, but I feel the need to keep it a secret. Nothing personal mind you. It's just
one of many rules we must follow. You do understand... don't you?"

Turning back to Norq, he asked, "She doesn't look very happy to meet me. Did I say, or do
something wrong?"

One dark eyebrow arched at Quinn’s freed hands, the sight caused those with weapons to draw
them.

“Transmutation is an ability of those Black bastards, for all we know he may be one of them!”

“Barnaby, get him out.” He waited until the sound of retreating footsteps faded away. “She is
indeed,” Elven Bear grinned, “and deadly. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. My
name is Norq Thesar. You stumbled into a raid shortly before it struck; she took you out of the
line of fire for questioning.”

A boyish grin turned his lips, “That’s alright, you keep your secrets. We can always kill you, it’s
simpler.”

"Much simpler," Eluned agreed mildly. The tall blonde crouched beside Quinn, apparently
unconcerned about any threat he might pose. Slim fingers tilted his head back to survey the
damage to the back of his skull.

"You will live," she said after a moment. "For now."
Quinn looked up, and for the first time noticed his glasses were missing. His eyes followed the
man being lead away, and flinched when Eluned checked his wound. "You know the man's wrong
don't you? I'm neither black, nor a bastard. I'm Sylvan." HE held his hands up as if to prove his
point.

"And I pose no threat to you, or her for that matter. If what you say is true, and I am on this...
Arlsyn, I must take orders from whoever rules. State Laws bind me to such facts, unless written
orders are given to say otherwise. Seeing how that looks to be you sire, I place myself in your
care, and any secrets I have shall be shared."

Glancing down, he reached up to touch the bump again and flinched. "I can hardly believe a mere
woman such as yourself could possibly take down a State trained alchemist so easily." Tilting his
head toward the Shroudling, he suddenly remembered the off chance of him being killed.

"But I could be mistaken. I was momentarily distracted you see."

"Of course you were," Eluned replied blandly. She rose to her feet, casting an enquiring glance in
Norq's direction.

"I was! Honest," turning to see if Norq would agree with him, his hands searched through each
pouch and pocket for his glasses. Having never been turned upside down, let alone tossed over
anyone’s shoulder, the stones that were resting in his pouches were now a jumbled mess. One
brow cocked up as he turned to stare at the blonde haired woman, and he spoke with a straight
face.

"Excuse me, but you haven't been fondling my stones, have you?"

Norq nodded, “Then we will have to see what you can and can’t do…and get you something else
to wear. Those clothes will make you stand out and they are wet.” Forest greens met grey and he
nodded again. They would take him in; learn what they could, but keep a close eye on Quinn until
certain that he wasn’t a threat.

Pulling a dagger, he sliced through the bindings at the alchemist’s feet. “She is quite capable of
holding her own and then some.”

The Taurësúlë repressed the urge to laugh as he stood. The corner of his lips twitched. He wasn’t
going to say a word about the fondling of stones and chose to inspect the maps on the table in
the center of the room. He was sure that life was going to be a bit more interesting with the
stranger around.

                     Present Day – Castle Mer’Lin – Planet Mer’Lin – A.D


Deep beneath Mer’Lin’s castle lay the catacombs, dimly lit corridors filled with the scents of
sulphur and brimstone. They had come this way via a hidden passageway behind the Queen’s
throne, walking ever deeper into the darkness. The thick air was filled with bestial growls and
shrieks, attesting to the nature of the creatures held here. Voices infused with the power of magic
echoed in a constant undertone as Wizards and Magi strove to keep the Demons under tight
control, punctuated by the snap of flaming whips as they lashed across demonic flesh.

Ravyel turned faintly glowing eyes on Drake Cole, an expectant expression on his features.
Y’Roden hadn’t been surprised to find Drake Silverwing here, be it under a different name, the
fate of the Knight and Willow herself seemed a tangled skein, no matter the dimension. He had
quietly marked the difference in their relationship as formal greetings had been exchanged.

“How many do you have for me this time?” the Emperor inquired. His fingers idly fingered the
gilded leash that led to a delicate collar at Dara’s throat, the runes burning softly on its surface.

Drake’s face showed little or no expression, as he looked straight ahead, unwilling to turn his
eyes to address the Emperor. His heart was aching at the sight of his only daughter, being led
around like some animal on a leash. Her eyes remained downcast, her spirit looked broken. Bile
rose in his throat and he forced himself to swallow before speaking.

"We have well over two thousand souls, not counting the one's we've been unable to control.
Those ones remain locked behind warded bars, until we can decide what to do with them.
Bringing them here is one thing. Sending them back is a different story all together."

Crossing his arms, he pointed at a small group of demons being lead away by one of the Magi,
and for the first time since Ravyel's arrival, he smiled. "As you can see, we've acquired a number
of different races from the four elements. The Blue is water, the Green earth, the Red is fire and
the Silver is air. Each of them has the power to bend these elements to work with them, and
against all others. Of course we keep them in sets, because they cancel each other out. But
separate them, and you'll have some very powerful demons on your hands."

Turning, his blue eyes narrowing, he asked with an icy tone, "Care for a little demonstration?"

Ravyel’s mouth pulled into a rictus grin and he nodded, making an imperious gesture that
indicated they could begin the demonstration right there and then. The Demon had no fear of
Mer’Lin’s demons, and for very good reason. All elements, air, water, earth and fire, bowed down
before Aethyr, the fifth and most powerful element. It controlled the spirit plane itself, and bent to
Ravyel’s will.

“Chin up, lovely,” he said coolly to Dara, “you wouldn’t want to miss a moment of this. Then,
perhaps, your father can explain to us why the previous shipments have been substandard.” The
part was becoming easier to play with each day that passed; there was little effort now, the
emulation blending into Ro’s mannerisms seamlessly

Willow stood listening to Drake and Ravyel. She so wanted to wipe the expression from the
latter’s face. She was aware that on his world he was in command of the elements and she knew
he felt he was here too. In a sense he was, only because she knew that whatever she threw at
him he would only turn back on her. A stalemate of sorts, one that she was sure he wasn’t aware
of. One day she would find the right moment in time, for now, she would continue to appear as a
weak woman, one of little use other than ruling this world or keeping someone’s bed warm.

She didn’t like his tone and spoke, “If they were substandard it was most likely an occurrence in
their being transported to your world. As much as I hate to admit it, Captain Drake here has done
a superb job with the training of the demons. It’s probably your men’s lack of skill in controlling
them, thinking they are women or non-intelligent beings.”

She briefly glanced at Dara, hiding the pain she felt for the young woman. No woman should be
treated as the emperor treated them. He wasn’t even worth being called a man…animal yes, but
not a man.

"Captain Drake, what about the group of Demon's that revolted against my father? Are they ready
yet? I understand that they have sworn an allegiance to you and to serve Ravyel." She looked at
them both, then just at the emperor. "Their intelligence is quite something. Their understanding of
warfare, from what Drake explained to me is far beyond many of the great armies of many of the
worlds that exist."

Dúdae remained silent, her hands behind her back. Unlike Dara, she was unbound; there wasn’t
any need to be. Dark-green eyes turned to regard Willow coolly, as if looking at a specimen under
a microscope. She didn’t trust the General Enforcer or her ‘pet’ Captain any further than she
could throw either of them.

The Seeress’ eyes narrowed at Willow’s words but still she refrained from speaking. Her Lord,
whether it was actually him behind the crimson eyes or not, could handle the idiot woman himself.

Ravyel raised an eyebrow and turned to look directly at Willow, as if he had only just noticed her
presence. “That is an interesting observation, Miss. Merlin, considering Drake’s brother is in
charge of their handling. Are you saying Jack is incompetent? If that is the case, I’m sure the
situation can be remedied the second I get back to Whispin. A simple beheading, and we can find
someone more suitable for the job.”

He titled his head ever so slightly, sending long locks of chestnut hair tumbling over a heavily-
muscled shoulder. “Or, perhaps you are implying that I think Demons are stupid? That would be a
little hypocritical on my part – wouldn’t it?” His crimson gaze caught hers, boring deep. “Trust me,
Willow – I never underestimate an opponent, or an ally either. It isn’t good for my health.”

“It depends on who or what the Demon is doesn't it,” Willow said evenly as her green eyes
glanced over Ravyel and his other companion.

“As for Jack, it's neither here nor there what you do with the man if you feel he is inadequate.
What I am saying is those that Captain Drake has sent from here have been or were perfect
specimens when they left. Finely trained. If you wish to put the blame on Jack for the demons
being supposedly substandard, then that is your choice. But, frankly a foolish one, unless you are
looking for a scapegoat for your own men’s inability to deal with or command them.”

Drake pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn't give a damn if his brother lost his head or not.
The only true thing he wanted was to have his daughter back in his arms. And his queen was
starting to give him a headache.

"I can speak for myself Willow, thank you very much," he snapped, turning to face both Willow
and Ravyel. "Yes, the demons that revolted against your father are ready for travel. As for my
dear brother," he spit out the words like they were poison, "he may be a fool, but I doubt he would
jeopardize his own head to save mine. If the last batch of demons were inadequate, then the
blame must fall upon the demons, for they were formerly trained before leaving here. I'll assume
they simply ran across someone far superior, be it because of strength, speed or intelligence. If
that were the case, then yes, they would surely fail. There's no denying that fact."

While the four elemental demons fought behind them, he stepped forward and pointed at Dara.
"But this last batch should make things even between us. I've done as you've asked Ravyel, the
quota you yourself sat before us has been fulfilled. Now will you hold up your side of the bargain?
Will you give me back my daughter? You'll still receive your monthly quota, but you no longer
have any need to hold her life in the balance."

Dara looked up, her eyes wide. Suddenly, she gave a guttural growl, her face a mask of anger.
She lunged forward, her hands glowing and crackling with dark magic, only to come up a few
inches short, the leash in Ravyel’s hand holding her at bay. With a laboured breath she screamed
and clawed at the collar that was starting to burn the skin around her neck, the runes glowing
brighter with each breath.

"I'D SOONER KILL YOU BOTH," she spat, one arm straining to reach for Willow's throat, then
that of her father's.

Ravyel yanked back hard on the leash, grabbing Dara by the hair and tossing her into Dúdae,
movements fluid and lightening quick as he brought one arm around and cracked the back of his
hand across Willow’s cheekbone with crushing force. “You will learn to speak in a respectful tone,
woman, or life is going to get a hell of a lot harder for you. As it is… you’re a deal breaker.”

The Demon’s head shot around to look at Drake. “She’s costing you, every venom laced word
she speaks is costing you. Either you both learn your place, or she,” he gestured to Dara, “will
pay the price. In blood, sweat and screams. ”

It was a morbid backdrop to an internal monologue deep in Y’Roden’s head.

Charming… we’ve hit Willow, the most fragile creature we’ve ever called friend.

She’ll be lucky if we didn’t fracture her zygomatic bone. This is far more entertaining than
anything back home. Should we hit her again? She seems far for resilient than the Silverwing
version.

Shut up, Ravyel.

You disappoint me. Though I must admit, that was a very pretty speech. Almost worthy of me…

Pretentious bastard.

Dúdae snarled at the blonde human that was thrown into her. The Taurësúlë’s hand curled
around Dara’s throat, one nail shifting, elongating into a feline like claw that was pressed against
the girl’s jugular. “I would suggest,” she hissed, “that you calm yourself and remember your place
as well.”

Dara tried to laugh, but she could hardly breathe. Instead she smiled, then with all of her strength
she spat a mouth full of blood and bile in Dúdae's face. "Kiss my ass bitch," she wheezed. "I'll
take no orders from you. Kill me, or set me free."

Willow had landed face down. The copper flavour of her blood slid down her throat as the pain in
her jaw was replaced with a desire to obliterate the beast that had dared to strike her. Consumed
by it, it took everything within her to not lash out. The time was not right. The bone in her face had
been broken. She would not give any of them the satisfaction of knowing that. She laid there
briefly as the mists within healed what had been broken, yet left her face discoloured in shades of
purple.

She rose slowly, her thoughts not on Ravyel, but Dara. Why had she tried to strike her with the
dark magic? What had she meant; sooner kill you both? Did she mean Ravyel or Drake and
herself? ?

Standing she stared at the Demon Lord, searching his face, sensing something amiss, yet not
knowing what. She stared a moment longer then dismissed his presence as well as that of his
Seeress and Dara. She knew she had gone to far and better curb her temper when speaking to
Ravyel. For the moment.
Straightening, she faced Drake, her voice filled with venom. “Since when have you been able to
speak for yourself, and who gives you the right to make any bargains? You need to remember
your place Captain Cole. Dara is not the only price we pay this...this Emperor.”

"I know the price we pay," Drake shot back, his lips trying not to twitch into a faint smile. "I've
been paying for it with sweat and blood for well over a hundred years now. You on the other hand
haven't even lifted a finger to help me. All you do is sit on that god forsaken throne and stare out
toward that dark tower you trapped your father in, fearing he'll escape and retake the throne from
you."

Turning back toward Ravyel, he pointed. "Tell your pet to turn my daughter loose. She's suffered
enough, without her help. Don't make me kill her Ravyel. We've just had the floors cleaned. And
tell me, since when do you need someone like her to order others around?"

Drake no longer cared, not after seeing how Dara reacted around him. She hated him. She had
been turned against him, and his heart and soul was shattered. His only daughter. He could see
the pain, the hurt within her eyes. She wanted him to kill her, to end her misery. And the worst
part of it all? He didn't have the heart to do it. No matter how much she hated him, she was still
his one and only daughter. He'd sooner die than harm her.

Ravyel smirked, his head lowering dangerously as crimson eyes fixed on the human male.
“Dúdae, my love,” he murmured, “break her fingers -- all of them -- on the right hand. You see,”
he said with a cool tone, his gaze wandering to the battling demons beyond as if losing interest in
the conversation, “the benefit to ruling an Empire, is that you don’t have to do everything yourself.
If I had to kill every idiot that has trouble holding their tongue personally, I’d never get any sleep.
Delegating responsibility allows for a lot of leisure time. Maybe that is something the two of you
should take into consideration. Willow, for one, looks like she could use a good skrunning.”

The words just tumbled out of Willow. All intention of being respectful to the half-witted Demon
Lord turned to dust. “Skrunning? Hell, there isn't a man around who would have the guts to try,"
she spat out at Ravyel.

Her eyes glanced on Dara then the Seeress, "Besides, any idiot can order a lackey to do his dirty
work, especially when he isn’t man enough to do it or too busy trying prove he is a man and lay
every woman he can touch to prove his penis is large enough to boast about. Which usually
means it isn’t. Torturing women to prove you can only makes you lower then scum in a pond."

She felt her green eyes glazing over as sparks filtered through them, “As for you Drake Cole, if I
didn’t sit on that damn throne, and deal with the day to day dealings of our so called kingdoms,
those demons would be eating you and your men for snacks.”

Rich, dark laughter rumbled out of Ravyel and he held up a hand to stay Dúdae from the
instructions he had given a moment before, though not before she had already snapped two
digits… with pleasure. “Never mind,” he grinned, “it’s punishment enough to leave him to the shrill
daily dialogue of this delectable shrew. Send the shipment when it is ready, Cole, and I’d advise
you to sleep with one eye open.”

Gesturing to Dúdae, he opened a portal back to Whispin. “Take her through. As for you.” He
paused beside Willow, grabbing her face with hard fingers, digging into bruised flesh and tilting
the woman’s head back. “I’m starting to like you. Keep it up, and I’ll rearrange your attitude a little
personally. You can get a first hand, up front judgement on my boasting rights.” The Demon
growled suggestively and snapped his teeth just short of her mouth. Shoving her back into Drake,
the Emperor turned his back on them both and followed the two women through the portal.
“Strip her down,” his voice filtered back as the vortex began to close, “I love a good argument, it
gets the juices flowing.”

Was that entirely necessary?

Why yes… I think it was.

                    100 Years Ago – Castle Mer’Lin – Planet Mer’Lin – A.D


Rumours were running rampant. The Emperor was on Mer’lin and headed for the castle. Willow
paced the floor. It had only been a few months since she had lured her father to the Black Tower
and sealed him within it forever. She hated what this world had become. She hated her father for
losing control of it and allowing the Emperor of Whispin to take control. She hated forming an
alliance with Captain Drake Cole, leader of the Knights of the Black Rose, but there nothing she
could do. She had no warriors of her own, no elite guards. Merlin had let things go, his world now
in ruin. Now she needed to bring it around. To show its wealth, to show those there of her
abilities.

“What’s wrong little sister? Bit off more than you can chew?” snarled Aspen as she entered the
room.

“Shut your mouth,” Willow snapped back. “Has Captain Cole got here yet or do we have to pay
him to get his knights off their backsides to stand guard while we await the Emperor. Why in the
nameless god isn't he here now?"

Aspen enjoyed seeing her sister rattled. She remember seeing the Emperor but once…when he
had taken her mother away, for insurance he had said as he raped her in front of Merlin and his
small daughter. Memories filled her with hatred. “Who knows? You’ve sent the gold and silver that
he demands so it has to be for other reasons.” Aspen’s heart suddenly quickened. Mother!

Both turned towards the door hearing footsteps outside the doorway.

Two Nuru’kh-ai burst through it, immediately making room for the hulking half-elf who was one of
the Dual Emperors of the Empire. He came to a halt just inside, eyes raking over Willow in what
may have been surprise, though it faded quickly into a leer as he eyed Aspen.

“Where,” he asked in a low hiss, “is Merlin?”

Willow stared at the being that had just thrust his way into room, “Who do you think you are to
burst in here asking questions? Aspen, go find Captain Cole.”

Aspen turned and stood stalk still, hatred streaming from her, “I think we’re suppose to be bowing
and scraping, instead of looking for the Captain,” Aspen said, showing absolutely no signs of
doing so, her voice filled with venom.

Catching her faux pas Willow held herself straight as she faced the Emperor. “Merlin, is no longer
with us. I’m Willow his daughter.”

A chestnut eyebrow rose ever so slightly and crimson-bled eyes focused on Willow. “His
daughter, is it? And how is it that I haven’t been informed of this… switch, in power?” Heavy war
boots trod forwards as the half-elf drew closer, never taking his eyes off of her, “I find myself…
most displeased.”
His footsteps brought him up alongside Aspen just at that moment, and with the speed of a
striking snake he lashed out, the back of his gauntleted hand cracking into the side of her face
with enough force to take the woman to her knees. “Bad news, I’m afraid, Aspen my love. Your
mother took a turn for the worse when I accidentally snapped her neck. So sloppy of me really…
now who, do you suppose, could take her place?”

“You son of a bitch” Aspen spat out as she staggered forcing herself not to fall. “You dirty…”

“Enough Aspen.” Anger boiled inside of Willow as she spoke, “displeased? Why? I sent word.
Months ago. Father was unable to fend for himself anymore. Aspen was off world and I’ve taken
his place. It's as simple as that."

She kept herself totally focused on the man, showing no emotion at his news or treatment of her
sister. He was pure evil, she could feel it. It filled the room. Savage. A multitude of emotions
flowed though her. None of them she liked. Where was Captain Cole and Dara for that matter,
she wondered. She wanted to unleash her anger on him but something told her not too. She
wasn’t liking the odds at the moment.

Drake was sitting behind his desk, looking over the books with a timid looking man sitting across
from him. At times he would glance up and watch the mousy looking man swallow, then wipe
beads of sweat from his brow.

"Everything seems to be in order Mandrake, but I saw a note on the last page. Explain that one if
you will."

Mandrake swallowed as he slowly stood to look over the mark he made. "That's a mark for non-
payment sire. The demon we...you captured last week. The payment has not been paid to us yet.
The wizard sees fit to neglect his duties sire."

"I see..." Drake said as he pulled on the tip of his moustache. "Do we still have the demon
contained?"

"Yes sire..."

"Then set him, or it free with an apology from the queen. Maybe after he takes a few more
innocent lives the wizard may see fit to pay us. Twice if we have to come out to contain it again.”

“Father,” a young female voice called out, catching Drake’s attention. “Are you busy?”

Drake looked up and waved Mandrake away. “See to my orders, and Mandrake…”

“Yes sire,” the small man cowered.

“Set the demon loose near the wizard’s home. As an incentive you see. You may go now.”

Mandrake hurried off, glancing at Dara from behind wire rim glasses. "He's in a fine mood today.
Don't spoil it for the rest of us."

Dara simply smiled and she quickly covered her pointed ears before entering. “You’re needed
father. There’s some sort of trouble in the throne room. Lady Willow wishes to see you, and a few
of your men there. Sounded important too.” Dara knew full well she shouldn't have been spying,
but she was her father's daughter, and it came naturally.
Drake stood and smiled into his daughter's eyes, seeing her mother in the child’s features.
“Spying again I see. Tell her I’ll be there,” he whispered, “when I’m damn good and ready.”

Dara's laughter filled the room as she leaned up, kissing her father on his cheek. Rubbing the
kiss off she smiled and made a hasty exit, but not before she called out over her shoulder. “The
Emperor of Whispin has graced her with his benevolent presence, and he sounds angry,” she
said mocking him. “He’s asked to see Merlin.”

Drake could only curse under his breath, following Dara out of his office and down the hall, only to
find her gone, her bare feet making her movements silent.

“She has her mother's temper and grace. Someday both will get her in trouble.” Turning to an
open doorway he called out, "Svenson, I need you and a few good men, to the throne room.
Pronto! We have uninvited guests." He knew full well the rumours they had been hearing were
true.

"And Svenson, tell them not to make a move without orders." He quickly disappeared, hearing
Svenson barking orders to that affect.

The Demon gestured to one of his Nuru’kh-ai forwards without looking, his expression
unchanging as he barked out orders, “That one,” he pointed at Aspen, “pick her up off the floor.
She’ll be joining my Harem.” Emotionless eyes held firm to Willow’s face, “After all, we cannot
have Miss Mer’lin here getting any illusions of grandeur.”

The slavering beast shuffled forwards, grabbing Aspen roughly by the arm and hauling the
woman to her feet.

“Go ahead… fight it,” the half-elf suggested, “he likes a good fight, and its his bed or mine, make
your choice.”

“Get your filthy hands off me,” the half-fae spat at the Nuru’kh-ai. She looked at her sister with
open dislike, “Now you are rid of both of us…father and me. You should be quite happy. “

Paying no heed to Aspen’s words, for it pained her more than she wanted to admit to see Aspen
cornered, Willow stepped closer to the Demon. Anger took over as she spoke. “There are no
illusions unless they are yours. I’m no fool to not know you assume to control this world, you and
who is the other one that assumes to rule? Rax? Isn’t that what they call him? You collect women
for you harem like some sex starved puppy that has to rule by his balls instead of his head.”

Hearing footsteps outside the throne room she let her eyes travel to the door.

The Demon’s low laughter rumbled through the room and he stepped closer, fingers grasping
Willow’s face and forcing her head up. “Careful, wench, lest it be you warming my sheets instead.
Though, honestly,” he sniffed carefully, “virgins aren’t really my thing and… you wouldn’t really
interest Rax either.” He grinned suddenly, his tongue darting out to lick her lips, “I do so love to be
underestimated.”

Dara stopped just inside the doorway and froze, her hand coming up to a hidden dagger, ready to
defend against anyone that came near her. She glanced first toward Aspen, who she'd disliked
since the moment the woman opened her mouth.

She deserves no less than what she gives out, Dara thought, the corners of her lips turning up.
Turning her eyes to Lady Willow she stifled a moan, knowing how uncomfortable she must be
feeling at that very moment. Clearing her throat, she stood there on the balls of her feet, hands
resting by her side, acting as a servant, not the daughter of the elite-guards captain. With her
eyes turned down in submission, she spoke with a clear, even voice though deep inside she was
shaking with fear.

"My lady, Captain Drake Cole will be here momentarily, as you requested. He is...delayed at the
moment," she said, knowing her father was telling Svenson to pick the right men for the job. She
had only seen the demon once in her life, but here he stood, towering over her queen, reeking of
evil, and her smile faded, her nose flaring.
"May I take my leave now, my queen?"

Pulling back away from the demon elf Willow glanced at the young woman who had just entered
and a sudden fear filled her. Dara was beautiful, full of life and of late, her confidant. It would
behove Dara not to be in the room. Quickly she answered, “Yes Dara and thank you.”

Ravyel’s head lowered predatorily and swung around, seeking out the scent and sound that
suddenly perked his interest. “No,” he ordered, “I think Miss Dara will stay. Won’t you?” A line of
Nuru closed in behind the girl, cutting off her only means of exit. “Come forward and greet your
Emperor.”

"If'n it's all ta same to you," a rather heavy accented baritone voice called out, "Miss Dara may
stand 'er ground if'n she's a mind too."
Standing behind the line of Nuru was a giant of a man, dressed in black armour that sparkled in
the pale light of the throne room. The armour seemed to flow over his body like black-liquid ink,
leaving no seams for a weapon to strike flesh. His silver-white hair hung loosely over his massive
shoulders, cold-blue eyes narrowed sharply as he pulled on his braided moustache. Resting on
the floor was a large battle-axe, its hilt in the palm of the man's hand. Four other men stood
behind him, not as tall as their sergeant, but all were wearing the same armour, with the emblem
of a black rose on their breastplates. Each man had their weapons drawn, waiting for orders.

"Stand down Sergeant," Drake barked and the four men parted to allow their captain through. He
too wore his armour like a shield of valour, but his black blade rested on his hip, not in his hand.
Stopping beside Svenson he placed his hand over the larger man's and patted it twice.

"I see I'm not to late for formalities." He stepped past Svenson and around the Nuru, to stand
beside his daughter. His eyes fell across Aspen, watching her struggling with one of the Nuru’kh-
ai and he offered her a faint smile.

"I'd watch that one. She bites."

Turning back, he reached down, took Dara's hand and placed it on his arm. "I believe the
Emperor wishes to meet you," he said, all but dragging her forward. He knew the demon well
enough to know when to show force, and when to submit. He didn't want to start a war, not just
yet. Instead he looked into his daughter's eyes and smiled.

"It'll be alright."

Placing his hand over hers, to keep her from running or pulling her dagger, he stopped within a
few feet from the half-elf. He could hear Svenson holding back his anger, and his men were ready
to strike. All he had to do was glance their way, or nod, and blood would spill. "Emperor, this is
my daughter, Dara Cole. Dara, say hello to the Emperor."
Dara stood there, her eyes pointed to the floor, her fingertips crackling with dark magic until she
made a fist. She was nervous, yet excited in a strange, dark way that she didn't fully understand.
Every nerve in her body woke, and all of her senses were suddenly on full alert. She felt alive, for
no better word to describe it. But at last she raised her head and swallowed.

"G...Good day to you...Sire," she whispered while taking a stiff bow, then quickly lowered her
head, her arm circling that of her father's as she buried her face in his shoulder.

"You'll have to excuse her. She's a bit shy at times."

The Demon Elf smirked, eyeing Svenson like a cat would eye an overly developed mouse, dinner
-- a full course even. “Hmm… I like the ones that bite,” he said distractedly, finally dragging his
gaze to Dara whom he studied with some amusement. “Shy, however… has its merits too.”

The power balance on Merlin was of great interest to Ravyel. Willow seemed to think she held the
power, but it was Drake Cole that wielded the military might, and if he ever turned on his Queen…
there would be hell to pay. All in all, it mattered little to the Emperor who ruled over the planet,
though it did disturb him slightly that no word had ever reached him of the switch. Obviously, a
messenger had been eaten along the way… somewhere.

“Look at me child,” he ordered. Hard fingers gripped her chin, forcing Dara’s head up so he could
clearly see her eyes. “Very nice, Sir Cole. I’ll be taking her too.” Crimson eyes slid to the side,
catching the dark knight’s, “One can never have too much insurance, now can they.”

Dara eyes went wide with fear. She tried glancing over toward her father, but she could not pull
her eyes away from the half-elf's. They seemed endless and her breath caught in her throat. She
could feel his hard fingers against her skin and she all but melted into a puddle. "F...father?"

Svenson started to make a move, but Drake held him back with glance. Reaching up, he placed
his hand on his daughter's shoulders to comfort her. What he was about to say might get them all
killed, but Dara was his, not one of the Emperor's play toys.

"I cannot allow you to take her Emperor, for she is my only child, and by the treaties signed by
you, Rax and Merlin, a child cannot be taken if she is an only child under protest of said law. A
law made and signed by your own hands. So said protest is given and she's to remain here, with
me."

Glancing over to where Svenson and a few of his men were gripping their weapons harder, he
tilted his head and smiled. "I think you've found someone for the Games though. She'll make it
worth your while, and she'll give you far more pleasure than my only daughter ever will."

Ravyel’s grin went beyond amusement as he raised a chestnut eyebrow, “It takes a big man to
admit to room full of people that he is sterile. Really, Drake, I’m shocked. You have read the fine
print, yes; it specifies the only child of a parent who is unable to spawn more. Besides… do you
really think I put much stock in a little piece of paper?”

A heavy hand clamped down on the Knight’s armoured shoulder, “Keep sending me grunts for my
armies and perhaps I will return her… when I’ve finished with her.” A spark of Aethyr ignited and
fired across Drake’s armour, harbouring a power that even QuickSilver couldn’t hope to stave off.
“And if you ever… say the word allow to me again? The Order will be looking for a new Captain…
are we clear?”
With a rough jerk, he hauled the girl from her father’s arms and wrapped a heavily muscled arm
around her neck. A leer twisted the Emperor’s mouth as he licked the side of her face, “However,
should you send me shoddy merchandise… I’m afraid I shall have to keep her. Now, call off your
dogs before the Empire’s Hammer wipes this excuse for a planet out of existence.”

Drake bit back a curse as his arm went numb. Never before had he felt so much pain at one time,
sending him almost to his knees. Once again he waved his men off, knowing they would be killed.

The Emperor needed no excuse to kill.

"You will receive your...grunts as ordered," Drake hissed between clenched teeth. "But once the
order is filled, I wish to see her returned to me, unscathed and alive. There will be no...shoddy
merchandise, I'll see to that."

What he didn't offer to tell the Emperor was that some of the demons might try to kill him, and not
their intended victims. After all, it takes only one good strike to the heart to kill a man, Drake
thought as the feeling slowly returned to his arm.

"Father?" Dara pleaded.

"Go with him child, and may the gods watch over you. Do as you’re told and you'll be fine. There's
nothing I can do. I'm...sorry." He gave Lady Willow a hard look. She could have stepped in; she
could have offered something, or someone else in exchange for his daughter.

But she didn't.

Turning, he left with his men in tow.

"Ya can't be do'n this," Svenson said, his voice held low. "T'isn't right ya know. She's but a child.
Ya should'a taken 'is head off."

"This is not over my friend," Drake spat, "not by any means. Find Jack Steele, find my brother and
get his sorry ass over here. I have a job for him! Tell him I'll pay any price. Just...find him."

                  Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin


Ghet had been driving herself crazy trying to work out what the hells to say to her son. Once the
immediate danger had passed, she’d been back over the scene in her head, over and over again,
trying to work out what he’d seen and how it might have looked from his point of view. Then she
could only imagine what had been said between Rhagi and Ravyel before she’d arrived, and what
he might have heard in the way of yelling and thumping if he’d listened outside the door.

It was all just such a horrible mess. She’d always known she was going to have to deal with
Rhagi’s past at some stage, but she’d never imagined having to do it alone. Y’Roden had always
been there for his son, at least.

Anyway, now the swelling in her face had gone down and she’d managed to go a few hours
without another fight. She needed to talk to her boy, before his natural curiosity made the
situation worse. She needed to be convincing, plausible, and yet… she’d meant what she’d said
to Silverthorn. She would never tell any of the children about Y’Roden’s secret, not behind his
back. In desperation, she’d come up with something of a compromise plan.
Rhagi looked up when his mother came into the room, searching her face. He’d been avoiding
both his parents: it just seemed the best thing to do when he was so conflicted. He’d been lying
on his stomach on his bed with his legs kicked up behind him, reading, and now he sat up and
swung round so Ghet could sit beside him. He couldn’t think of anything to say to her, though,
and an awkward silence settled between them.

Finally, Ghet sighed, pushing a hand through her heavy hair. “Okay, look, Rhags… You know
something’s not right. I don’t want to do this, but I think… I’m not keeping you safe by not telling
you, I’m putting you in danger. I want so much to protect you, but… I have to let you protect
yourself. Rhagi, there was an accident when we came back from B’Elya’s wedding, through the
Gate. Something happened to Y’Roden. I’ve done everything I can to cover it up, but that’s not
your father, in his body, it’s someone else.”

Rhagi stared at her for a long moment, Y’Roden’s warning about his mother’s mental state
tingling in his mind. Finally, he said the only thing he could under the circumstances. “What?”

“It’s not Ro. It’s Ro’s body, but it’s not his spirit, his mind, his soul. That belongs to another
Y’Roden, from another dimension. His name is Ravyel, and he’s had a very different life from the
man we love. It’s made him brutal and extremely dangerous. He’s got no love for any of us, but
he wants to go back where he came from, and for that, he needs me. He doesn’t need you or any
of the other children, that’s why I sent you all away. To him, you’re just tools he can use against
me if he needs to.”

Rhagi frowned, his face a picture of pain and confusion. He got up and started walking around the
room, his fingers worrying at the wolf claw he wore around his neck. He didn’t know. How could
he trust anything she said? She felt sincere, but if she was mad, she would believe what she was
saying. “How? How could that happen? How can there be other Y’Rodens? And how could they
swap places? The Gates can’t do that. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know it doesn’t. Holo thinks there might have been a solar flare. I’ve sent him to the Ridge to
work on the problem, where he’s safe. Rhagi, why would I do that? Why would I send him up
there? Why would I send the babies away? Why would I invite Maeve to come and stay with us
and then make her leave?”

Rhagi came and sat back beside her. “Well, I thought maybe… you weren’t feeling very well.
Perhaps you got it into your head that something was wrong, and you… over-reacted.”

Ghet stared at her son blankly. “What in… oh no. You think I’m crazy, don’t you. Did he tell you I
was mad? That cunning bastard. You love him, and trust him, and he tells you I’m insane, so
nothing I do has to make sense. Skrun, why didn’t I think of that?” Despair closed over her. He
was too clever for her, too ruthless and too strong. She’d done everything she could, but he was
going to take her son from her and leave her like Kassandra, speaking the truth and never
believed. She covered her face with her hands, lost, but still there were no tears.

His heart bruised, Rhagi reached out and put his arms around his mother, comforting her,
stroking her hair like she had with him when he was little. Her grief weighed heavy on him. Guilt
made him feel like he had to explain. “You were so scared, I could feel how scared you were, and
it didn’t make any sense…” Except of course now it did. In fact, she was right. If you accepted
what she said, then everything she’d said and done made sense. She’d confined Y’Roden to their
chambers, and he was always either with her or Fadil. Fadil, who was surely the second to last
person Ghet would ever trust. “He sounded like Addah,” he said hesitantly. “He knew things…”

Ghet laughed, a nasty bitter sound her son had never heard from her before. “I told him things. I
told him what he needed to convincingly be Ro. He got up in the night and went through all of
Ro’s things, skrunning nyfader, so he knows things I haven’t told him as well. But he doesn’t
know everything, not near. He wouldn’t know what he gave you last birthday. He wouldn’t know
what you like or what you’re good at. He probably doesn’t know about that bloody Aerdonian
horse Callan gave him, the one that bites everyone but you.”

“Shades bites me too, Mum, I just don’t tell you.”

This time when Ghet laughed it was no more level, but warmer. “I thought as much. I wish I knew
which one of us that means you take after. Oh gods… I miss him so much. So much.”

They were simple words, but they came with a wave of agonised longing, the sort of pain Rhagi
prayed he would never feel himself. In that moment, he believed her utterly. These were the
genuine emotions of a woman locked in a nightmare. It would be perfectly easy to check up on
what she had said, but what she needed from him now was faith. “Do you want me to go? Back to
Rikers? You could come with me.”

She smiled sadly. Ghet knew she should sit up, be a grown up, but she kept her head against his
chest and let her teenage son comfort her. They both needed it. “I have to stay here. And… you
were right. I can’t send you away. If you want to stay here, then stay, but be careful. Very careful.
Let’s not tell him you know, okay? He thinks he’s got you fooled, let him think that. Remember
what I keep telling you, boy. No bastard out-cheats a Riker.”

            Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin – A.D


Y’Roden fell into a divan and stared at the door which had just clicked shut. He had held out
Dara’s leash to Ja’Kel, who unquestioningly took it and led the girl back to the Harem. Now he
was alone with Dúdae again, free to let the façade drop.

“What the hells was that?” he shook his head. “Why does Ravyel let those two live? Or is he just
amused when they start a pissing contest they can’t win?” Scrubbing between his eyes in
irritation, the half-elf sighed and reached for the brandy decanter. Emerald greens shifted to the
Seeress and studied her for a moment.

Ro knew what Willow was, what she was capable of, and knew what would happen to her if she
ever unleashed it on Ravyel. The General Enforcer of Mer’Lin seemed to have a grand delusion
of destroying Ravyel when the moment was right, but the truth was… the moment his conduit
latched on to pure magic; it would suck it into the vacuum of the conduit and magnify it. The
resulting explosion -- or implosion, could possibly destroy entire galaxies. Not to mention Willow
herself -- the Demon, of course, would likely go unscathed. The conduit protected itself and its
vessel from harm. Divulging that information to Ravyel, however, could be catastrophic.

The corner of Dúdae’s lips curled into an amused smile, “Aye, he likes watching them strut
around preening like peacocks. They are taxing though, aren’t they?” The Tauresule frowned
slightly, “I do wish he’d let me get my hands on that Knight…” her voice trailed off and her smile
twisted as her imagination ran rampant with images.

“That and for the demons,” she added as she came back to the present. “But I doubt a good, or
even a bad, skrunning would ever change that weakling’s mood.” The Seeress’ smile turned
impish, “Wonderful suggestion though.”
Ro choked on a laugh. “Gods, you know, I like the Willow back home. Wonderful woman, I’d
never ever speak to her that way. Drake isn’t a bad guy either; we’ve had some fun moments.
After today I think I’ll be staying away from them for awhile though – if I ever get home.”

Taking a long, slow drink, the half-elf seemed to settle into a more congenial mood. “It is a
wonderful suggestion, isn’t it – not that I’m suggesting skrunning her, or anyone else for that
matter… Gods, I’ve changed a hell of a lot in a very short time. Fifty odd years ago I would have
worked my way through half of Ravyel’s harem by now.”

The expression on Ro’s face was near painful. “ I really miss Ghet – not just for that, but come to
think of it – I haven’t gone without it for this long since…” he seemed to think on it for awhile.
“Well, between my divorce from Silverthorn and my marriage to Ghetsuhm. That Tech had damn
well figure out something, and fast.”

What he didn’t say was that his soul was slowly starting to lose its integrity, and as time passed, it
would become more and more unstable in its orbit. The more it disintegrated, the further he would
slide into madness.

“He is working as fast as his little broken mind can go. He knows what to look for, and from the
peek I saw it is quite a bit of data,” Dúdae shucked off her boots, “The only other option would be
adding another, but if we had two insane men babbling about the same thing, someone would
start to question.” Padding towards the cart of liquor, she poured herself a glass of strawberry
wine, then chose a chair to curl up in.

Forest-green eyes studied Ro, taking in the slight nuisances and shifts of mood; she tilted her
head, “So like him, and yet so different, he is a part of you. Sometimes I see him,” she murmured
then shook her head. “I believe we have just discovered a difference between here and there. I
know of no Silverthorn.”

Ro smiled dryly and shrugged, “I have to say I’m profoundly relieved. My marriage to the woman
was hardly ideal, but I’d hardly wish Ravyel on her. With her – personality quirks, it would have
ended badly for her, I think. Not that I was much better for her, but at least she is alive.”

Emerald greens settled on Dúdae’s copper features, Ro’s expression growing thoughtful. “Aye,
he is a part of me, something I’ve tried to deny for a very long time. At the moment, however,
there is no escaping the fact. I know him too well, emulate him too easily. As much as I’d like to
deny that he is just another facet of my personality – it is becoming painfully clear that he cannot
be anything else but that.” He snorted softly. “I hate it when Callan is right.”

She swirled the liquid in her glass, “It is only understandable to want to deny a part of yourself
that you despise for one reason or another. Eventually you have to except it; you just don’t have
to like it.” Dúdae chuckled, “Ravyel’s not so bad, really, but then some question my level of ‘bad’.
But he leaves most of the harem alone; they’re only there to keep the General Enforcers in line
and only called upon when he wants a different flavour. I don’t see why they should complain,
they have a roof over their head, food to eat, and he counts them too valuable to kill. A few of us
come from less than preferable backgrounds. It may be a prison, but the ones that have their
uses are rewarded.

“Who is Callan? Tell me of your home, and the people you know there, perhaps it will make the
time pass faster, and by doing so the memories should help with your homesickness and ease
both of our hurts.”
Y’Roden’s eyes went distant and he seemed to look straight through Dúdae as images of home
filled his thoughts. A wistful expression settled over the half-elf’s features as the dwelt on what he
had fought so hard for, and lost in the blink of an eye.

He would have it back – or die trying.

“Callan is my dimension’s version of Araxmarr. He is still crazy, but he walks a fine line between
light and dark. Over the years he has proved a trustworthy friend and ally, and he has been
married to my little sister for several years now.

“Home – I rule S’Hea as its Tyrne, and that is enough to keep me content. I’ve been married to
Ghetsuhm for a few years, though our relationship goes back for millennia. I have fourteen
children, including you, several stepchildren, a bushel of grandchildren and life is – more than I
ever thought I deserved. Despite my uncle Tallin’s constant interference, I think we are all fairly
content and happy. It’s obvious, I suppose, otherwise I would have been perfectly content to set
up shop here.”

The relaxation that had set in as the half-elf started talking disappeared, “Including me? No. I’m
not yours. My father is dead; my grandfather killed him along with my mother, my grandparents
and my brother. When I was a child you didn’t exist to me. I didn’t know you or Whispin and had
never heard of the Empire.” Dúdae’s grip tightened around the stem of her obsidian glass until
her knuckles turned white.

Ro paused and carefully eyed Dúdae for a long moment. “No, not biologically,” he said. “You’re
adopted, and I love you as much as I love any one of my children by blood.” He reached up to rub
his collarbone, where on his own body, there was a bondmark to Shadow. He sighed, missing the
familiar feel of the panther draped over the Sword of Peace. “Not that Ravyel would be above
bedding a blood relation.”

The half-elf suddenly froze, his faceted eyes focusing penetratingly on the Seeress. “Dúdae – are
you familiar with the name B’Elya?”

Carefully, the Seeress relaxed her grip, the creeping fear of loss of ancestry slipped away, though
her hand shook as she emptied her glass. “Don’t scare me like that,” she half-heartedly laughed
and set the glass down.

Dúdae took in the same frozen stance that had gripped her only moments before and carefully
nodded. “There was a historical scroll I read that briefly mentioned her, a sister I believe? She
died, many years ago, before Ravyel escaped the Demoness.”

“Oh my Gods.” The S’Hean was visibly shaken, his normally implacable attitude falling away in
horror and sick grief. “He actually killed her.” Bracing an elbow on his knee, Ro leaned forward,
face half hidden in the palm of his hand and he breathed slowly – in and out, finding the calm
centre again. He knew it for certain, despite everything, Ravyel would have returned to
Tenobrous for B’Elya had she been alive. She would have been a valuable tool to him, even as
An’Thaya was.

“No wonder there was no bringing him back. He crossed a line the other Y’Roden can never
come back from. He is completely mad.”

Dúdae found herself at a loss, not knowing how to deal with the emotions that Ro showed.
Violence she knew how to handle, but the tangible anguish was foreign to her.
“Yes,” she said carefully as if ready to be struck and readying herself to strike back. “He is far
more the dangerous of the two.”

“He’s a child.” Ro’s voice was soft, full of regret. “Nothing but a child trapped in a nightmare. He
doesn’t know any better and Ravyel drives him down – into the depths where he never sees the
light of day. B’Elya’s death would have robbed him of hope, proven that he was the monster. He
probably killed Ghetsuhm in some misguided attempt to save her from the Demon Elf. Ravyel
never would have done it himself.”

Lifting his head the S’Hean lifted shimmering eyes to the ceiling and merely stared. “It might have
been me – I was a hairsbreadth away from that fate. B’Elya lived, and it saved my soul. That was
the key, I can see that now, she was the Flame in the Night, the light leading me out of the
darkness and back to life again. Because of her, I had a soul to salvage and a heart to give.”

Rising from her chair, Dúdae rubbed her arms, suddenly feeling cold, an odd feeling since it was
a rarity to her race. “No. He wouldn’t. He placed her on a pedestal,” a mere hint of bitterness
tinged the small voice.

The Seeress moved around the room idly. She hated Ghetsuhm, not only because she was
Human but because she had made the Demon Elf weak and weakness was not something
Ravyel could afford. The Human woman had also shaken the foundation of her own position and
left her with the nagging feeling that she would no longer have been needed and sent back to
Blagden.

Something in the Taurësúlë’s tone drew Y’Roden’s attention and he turned his head to watch her.
It was impossible to stamp out instinct, and he had always been sensitive to Shadow’s moods
and – despite her tough exterior – a spirit that was easily hurt. “Are you alright? I didn’t mean to –
oh hells, I seem to be on a roll here. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be insensitive, with any of it.”

“Am I alright?” Forest greens widened at the courtesy, “Why wouldn’t I be alright?” The forest elf
straightened, “I can do what I want, when I want without fear of being stripped and beaten. I’m
depended on, not exploited. Why should I care what your feelings are towards your wife?” Dúdae
demanded. “What I am concerned is what your wife is doing to my Lord. Here she was his
weakness, she didn’t make him stronger. Anyone could attack him through her and he didn’t see
it!”

A copper digit pointed towards the shrine beyond the balcony, “She is still on that pedestal, she is
still that weakness and he still doesn’t see it! What is it about that Human that would have made
him want to make her his Empress? An Empress should enhance a seat of power, not drag it
down. Your sister is that, she may hate you and she may hate Araxmarr but she can enhance
Araxmarr’s power, not destroy him.”

Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly, “Do not apologize. I asked, the fault isn’t yours.”

Y’Roden smiled, but it wasn’t amusement that touched his features. “Don’t underestimate my
sister. She is fully capable of ‘destroying’ Araxmarr, and he would never see it coming. It is love
that stays her hand, she puts Galain’s life above her own and Ravyel knows it. She’ll do anything
he bids her to, as long as that Elen goes unharmed.”

He knew full well what it was about Ghet that had held Ravyel in thrall, but decided it was best not
to voice it aloud. He suddenly saw something about Dúdae that was slightly disturbing – but
understandable. She loved Ravyel. It was probably going to destroy her in the end, but no one
can ever choose where their heart falls.
“I think I’m going to turn in,” he added finally. “I need some time to think on all this.”

“It wasn’t physical destruction I was speaking of, and you know it.” Crossing the room she began
straightening things up, the motions jerky with pent up anger. “Too bad he’s needed to keep her
in check. By the looks of him, he’d have a lovely screaming voice. It’s a pity Tallin slipped,” she
snapped out.

The decanter in her hand slammed down onto the table, doing more harm to the wood than to the
glass. “Retreat then.” She remarked to the obvious dismissal, when she turned her eyes were a
glowing whirl of mist. “You will need your strength soon, Sword of Peace. The Hand of Steel will
strike; the Old Worlds have gathered their strength and will unite to rise and dethrone the
Dragons and what is left will turn in on itself.”

Snapping out of the vision, she stared at Ro. “Your Tanaii-Ka and his, for now, are one and the
same. You cannot escape it.” Pushing away from the table she leaned against, she crossed the
room to leave. “Should you choose wrongly, you risk killing us all.”

Dúdae paused before a lengthening shadow, “Think on that as well,” she stated without emotion,
starring into the darkness before merging with it.

                         Present Day – Shashya – Plane of Arlsyn – A.D


Roughened fingers drummed steadily on the ancient desk as the once powerful warlord brooded.
For centuries now he bided his time, a General Enforcer who enforced the Emperors’ law,
dutifully sending his tribute and letting those black-skinned beasts roam HIS land. Blagden had
shed blood, admittedly ‘some’ of it not his own, for Arlsyn only for Ravyel to take it all away.

There hadn’t been any major bloodshed that day and the time that followed said little for the
destruction that had brought the Dead King to his seat of power. All it took was for the Demon to
acquire his new ‘pet’ that had become known as his Seeress. Dúdae had made quite a name for
herself once she was in the Demon’s possession and was a willing pupil.

Blagden picked up a goblet of wine, one of the host of items that was strewn over the scarred
surface. Maps and scrolls, various weapons and mystical objects littered the surface and across
the floor. Discarded items piled along the far walls where they’d been thrown when their use and
value were lost.

He would regain what was his, all these years of grovelling, he’d taken his own cut, carefully
avoiding being caught by not always keeping the better items to himself, and at the same time
gathering his own power, restoring what was lost when his granddaughter had been taken from
him. Now he was certain he was back to where he should be. But he wasn’t foolish enough to
take on the Emperors straight on. He knew that Ravyel was stronger than himself and Araxmarr;
well that arrogant bastard was too busy pleasing himself in one way or another.

No, he would first cut the Emperor off from Arlsyn, build his power up even further, raise an army
that could be used to strike out.

“The Emperor’s Seeress is strong,” the musical voice intruded upon Blagden’s thoughts, “the path
is blocked.”

Pale-blue eyes studied the Taurësúlë girl. She was as physically like her predecessor as she
could get. Her ebony hair lacked the silver that reflected even the smallest of light that left an
ethereal glow. It fell to her knees in a cascade of curls that covered up more than what the
provided garment did. Her eyes were the same shade but seemed dull as they looked out from
the copper face that still sported a bruise across one cheek and cherry-red lips were darker and
fuller than they normally were because of the swollen wound found there.

She couldn’t look any closer to Dúdae without being a duplicate and he could almost over look
the minor differences if it wasn’t for the lack of attitude. The haughtiness that dared anyone to try
to break her that made up the last daughter of the now dead Sildanai.

“Then the reverse had better be said as well.” The girl nodded solemnly and stepped back as he
waved his hand.

“My Lord, there is more,” her voice was hesitant.

A snarl escaped him, “Well? What is it? Can’t you see that I’m busy?”

“The weapons caravan was attacked, the resistance fighters left no survivors,” the girl cringed at
the snort. Her Master’s obvious lack of interest in life cutting, “Nothing but burnt wagons were
left.”

“The weaponry?” Blagden stood, his heavy chair letting out a slow shriek as he pushed it back.

“Taken.”

The goblet in his hand flew towards her; the Taurësúlë slave unable to turn away in time felt it
crash into her skull, glass breaking to slice through her skin. She fell to the floor choking back a
sob. She couldn’t make any noise. If she did, the beating would be worse. More pain…

“Leave her.” The warlord growled to the only other person in the room as the Shroudling Warrior
knelt beside the fallen Seeress. The man instantly shirked back, returning to his alerted position.
Blagden stopped just short of the trembling woman and looked at the Shroudling male. “What are
the stores.”

“We have enough weapons to arm those within the citadel and those in Sha’Dar. Another
shipment will be ready in two days time in Brightglade.”

Nodding, the Dead King turned away, stalking back to his desk and shoving papers aside, letting
them topple to the floor until he found the one he wanted. His eyes took in the small sketches of
each elemental gate that dotted Arlsyn. “Bring me those Priestess. I don’t care how many you
have to kill. I want those Priestesses here. NOW!” He shouted, slamming his fist down onto the
desk.

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin


"I love babysitting duty." The phrase was mumbled out as Callan drew in a deep breath of the
humid Whispin air, then rolled his shoulders and head to cause his spine to crackle as it aligned
itself in the smaller, half-elven form. Dual shadows slithered along the emerald sands of the
training pit and the Blackthorn Emperor grinned internally as he felt the light tickle of living power
dance through his bones and prickle his skin.
"Good morning, Al'thadryn." The name was one he'd come to call the gaia of Whispin, the Aethyr
itself and in response, a slight crackle of verdant green electricity carressed his ankles, then
vanished beneath the sands.

"So." Callan grinned at his 'companion' and the metallic thrum of the Emperor's Claymore being
drawn from its scabbard at his back broke the early morning silence. Black scale sliced out from
beneath his half-elven skin and melded into a seamless breastplate, greaves and bracers. A
crimson shirt the colour of rich blood peeked out from beneath the edges of his armour and black
D'Riel dragon on his sword hand writhed, then stilled.

"Let's have some fun."

Ravyel’s mouth pulled into a grin, crimson eyes watching Callan in an assessing manner as the
Dragon prepared to spar. A smooth movement loosed Y’Roden’s bastard-sword from his back
baldric and the Demon rolled his shoulders, the creak of metal pauldrons echoing through the
arena as the heavy half-elf settled into an easy stance.

“Age before beauty,” he said, deceptively blasé, though his blood was on fire -- eager to let loose
pent up energy after his extended ‘vacation’ in the royal chambers.

"Age before beauty..." Callan muttered, "Skagging pu'tah. Ghet didn't tell me," The blade whorled
in the air and descended with a crash as Callan stepped into the offensive blow, "you were funny
too."

“I don’t think she’s noticed,” Ravyel observed as he brought up his blade, the impact of the
swords sending a concussive force rippling up both of the combatants’ arms. “She seems to have
very little in the way of a sense of humour.” The hand-and-a-half screeched along the claymore,
falling away and dropping towards Callan’s thigh.

The edge of the bastard-sword carved a gash into the Emperor's flesh before he was able to
swing his body away. The pain seemed to dull as adrenaline flooded his brain and Rage began to
course through his veins. The grin that met Ravyel as the Claymore was brought around and up
with Callan's next swing was a strange mix of malice, wrath and joy.

"Oh, I promise. She has a sense of humour. Otherwise, you'd still be locked in Y'Roden's room."
Callan's leer never broke as he met the Demon's scarlet-streaked gaze, "Maybe you just have
trouble recognizing 'subtle?' A lot of people seem to suffer that same affliction."

The edge of the claymore caught Ravyel’s shoulder as he turned with the swing, an ugly red gash
slithering across tanned flesh. The Demon’s eyes sparked with pain, his mouth peeling back from
his teeth as adrenaline surged through his borrowed body. “I’ll admit to that, subtle is terribly
boring.”

Despite the jovial words, he suddenly looked uncomfortable, and it didn’t seem to have anything
to do with the wound on his shoulder. There was a distinct twisting ache coming from his wrists
that seemed to have no rhyme or reason, and the level of discomfort was swiftly rising to agony,
as if something was seeking to burst through Y’Roden’s flesh. It was distracting enough that
Ravyel nearly dropped his instinctive defences.

Disturbed, he threw himself into the attack, dropping his wounded shoulder low and shoving
forwards into Callan’s chest in a solid tackle.
Callan's own weight shifted slightly as the heavy bulk of Y'Roden's body pushed forward. The
demon-elf's bloodied shoulder slammed into Callan, then slid past the Black Emperor and Callan
used the brief unbalance of Y'Roden's bulk to take him to the ground. The Claymore dropped to
the sand with a glittering spray of emerald and Callan's knee drove into the half-elf's lower back.
One ivy and dragon tattooed forearm snaked beneath Y'Roden's jaw and the Emperor hauled
back on his head to expose his throat.

"Missing the subtle is dangerous," Callan muttered in the demon-elf's ear, "you, right now, are a
perfect example of that, but not knowing the subtle that dwells within is deadly."

The Demon howled as great spikes burst through the flesh at his wrist, the precursors to what
was to come next. A horn exploded from his temple, dangerously close to Callan’s face as Ravyel
twisted in his grip. The scent of Aethyr-rich blood stung the air as the shift took over, turning skin
to hardened armour the colour of bone around vicious protrusions and hair solidified into soft
flowing black spikes.

A tail lashed up instinctively from behind the Dragon Emperor and coiled around his neck, hauling
the heavier male backwards as the Demon strained forwards with heaving shoulders. “I wouldn’t,”
he gasped, “call this – subtle.”

Blood began to ooze down Callan's neck and his face had twisted into a mad cross between a
grin and a grimace as his fingers curved into talons and tore at the tail threatening to strangle
him. As the muscular appendage wriggled and tightened, black scale welled up melded into semi-
rigid guard around his throat. While it didn't stop the constriction entirely, it did manage to give
him enough breathing room to remain conscious.

"Oh, he's subtle. I take it you two haven't met in another life?" The words were ground out and
Callan's mass shifted to give him enough leverage to not be dragged over and his fingers curled
around the bloody horn and used it to twist Y'Roden's head to the side, forcing the demon-elf to
look at him as he leaned forward, "He's been watching, waiting, standing in the shadows and you
never knew the predator was there, did you?"

“I think you are a little confused,” Ravyel snarled. Without warning, he dropped his left shoulder
and twisted sideways, driving the other elbow into Callan’s side as he rolled, toppling the Dragon
Emperor to the glimmering sands into a rolling flip. A spiked wrist slammed down, hitting sand for
the most part, though one gouged between breastplate and trousers.

The Demon grinned at his opponent, “The only predator in here is me. Everyone else left the
building somewhere in that Gate.” Ripping his arm free, he rolled to his knees, a pair of bone-
white wings unfurling from his shoulder blades. “This is interesting – however -- where in Hells did
he pick up Demon DNA?”

Crimson eyes flashed with intent as he leered down at the Dragon Emperor, “A most useful
adaptation – if I do say so myself. No need for armour and built in weaponry – makes him more
than a match for you, doesn’t it.”

Callan's eyes flared a brighter phosphorescent, then leeched out to near white as Rage rolled
through him and deadened the pain temporarily. A low growl rumbled out of the Emperor as he
rolled to his feet and straightened, poked at the bleeding flesh wound for a moment, then grinned
at the Demon-elf. Blood-slick fingers waggled in the air as he spoke, "Oh, he and I have a lot of
fun. One time? We tore down a good portion of the Pit stands during a tourney and got to visit the
Tabas Kahl beneath the Keep."
Ice-blue eyes eyed his fingers for a moment, then he sucked the blood off his thumb. As both he
and the Demon-elf began to circle each other, Callan's expression shifted to a dark, crooked grin,
"But I wouldn't say it makes him MORE than a match for me." His chin jerked up slightly, "I made
the mistake of assuming you didn't know what you're dealing with," Within the swirling infinity of
Callan's soul, a hopelessly empty black pit began to creep open. Emerald power coalesced then
erupted out into the whirling galaxy of his memories and at the same time, the Aethyr around
them seemed to gather like faint ripples of emerald light, dancing and drawing near Callan and
Y'Roden.

"But then?" Callan's eyes seemed to bleed with their own second colour, molten Emerald, "So did
you."

Ravyel blinked, his armoured body tensing for a moment as he felt the change in the Aethyr, and
witnessed its effects in the dragon’s eyes. The Demon’s eyes narrowed, and his talloned fingers
twitched. “Well – isn’t that interesting.” The words came out in a low hiss between elongated
teeth. “Bit of a stalemate then, isn’t it.” A sudden grin hideously twisted his mask-like face,
“Doesn’t take any of the fun out of a good sound beating though.”

Lashing his tale and flaring crimson-membraned wings he gave the momentary appearance of a
cat about to pounce. “So, let’s get on with it -- shall we?” A sudden leap had the two heavily-
muscled males colliding in a spray of emerald sand, a bone jarring impact that was just the
beginning to an afternoon’s entertainment.

                                                ***

Rem’Sero sat back from the table and slid an arm around Faelwen’s shoulders, his fingers
rubbing gently on the sleeve of her dress. Pale-green eyes were trained on his cousin, Pe’Ris
W’Cren, who sat opposite him with Am’ Elle W’Cren, his vonna. Rem’s thoughts were a curious
mix of things, though at the moment he was considering how different Perry was in the presence
of his Healer wife.

She had a calming effect on the temperamental Gamel, and in Rem’s opinion, the patience of a
Messenger. As a matter of fact, he was fairly certain that Chezlar would lose his cool faster than
Am’ Elle W’Cren.

“So,” Gamel W’Cren said as he interlocked his fingers with his wife’s, “word has it that the Tyrne
has been seen out and about a few times, once even in the Practice Arena with the Black
Emperor. Seems a little strange to me that he hasn’t shown up to any of the council meetings.”

"Perhaps he is not yet completely well?" Faelwen suggested in a soft voice. She leaned in slightly
against her husband, enjoying the warmth of his hand through the thin silk of her gown. Even that
could not completely distract her from the concern that had darkened her cobalt eyes however.
Fond as she was of the royal couple, the faint undercurrents that seemed to flow through the
palace at present disturbed her, and her last conversation with the Tyrah herself had done little to
reassure her. Ghetsuhm's words had been innocuous, the explanations straightforward and
comprehensible, but the redhead had seemed to be under more strain than a simple ailment
would cause. Faelwen could not quite shake the feeling that something wasn't right, but neither
could she put her finger on what it was or why.

“Maybe,” Pe’Ris conceded, “but going up against the Emperor with compromised health strikes
me as – unwise.”
Rem’Sero laughed softly and lifted a brow. “You have met our Tyrne, yes?” he teased his cousin,
“wise isn’t always his first choice, especially when it comes to pummelling someone – or being
pummelled – in the practice ring. Or anywhere else for that matter.”

“It is…a possibility.” Am’ Elle said thoughtfully, smiling at Rem’Sero’s amusement. “Sparring with
the Emperor would assist in the Tyrne regaining his strength. I doubt the Emperor would push
him beyond his limits.”

Pe’Ris frowned, but didn’t offer to refute his wife’s comment. He did look at her for a moment,
then seemed to simply deflate a bit. “I’d still feel better about it if he would consent to see you,”
the Gamel said to his wife. “For all we know, the Queen is poisoning him.”

Rem’s eyebrows shot upwards. “You want to say that a little louder?” he asked, “If he ever hears
you say something like that, Y’Roden will toss you from the highest balcony in Windemiire with
his own two hands. I know you are full of hot air, but I highly doubt you’ll float. Stop worrying
yourself, I’ve caught a glimpse or two of him myself and, besides being seriously in need of a
haircut, he looks just fine to me.”

Am’ Elle caressed her husband’s hand with her thumb, a tender movement filled with love. “I
would too, Ronnan, if for nothing more than to quell any worries and to back up what the Tyrah
has said.” She was well aware of her husband’s distrust in the Queen, and was used to his ‘hot
air’ as Rem’Sero so neatly put it.

“Pe’Ris.” She stated gently, and softened the rebuke by turning to the other couple as if she had
meant to the entire time. “Rem, Faelwen, you work more with the Tyrah more than I do. Is there a
possibility that she can be approached on the subject with no mention of the King not going to
council meetings, but with the fact that it would be to put minds to ease for those that doubt only
the words of one person?”

Faelwen hesitated, glancing up at her husband. "I have no doubt that the Tyrah's priority at this
point is the Tyrne," she said after a moment. "Whatever opinion you may hold of her, Gamel
W'Cren, I can assure you that as a couple they are devoted to one another. I find it hard to
believe that either would harm the other. That being so, she might perhaps be willing to listen. On
the other hand, such an approach if handled badly comes very close to calling her a liar whose
word is not to be trusted. That is not something that most people handle well, and it is true that
the Tyrah has seemed unusually distressed anyway in recent weeks - concerns about her
husband's health, no doubt."

The look that Pe’Ris cast at Faelwen made it abundantly clear that his opinion of her was on an
equal plane to that of the Queen. He wisely kept his mouth shut, however, as Rem’s pale-green
gaze levelled on him. The Gamel subsided back into his seat, mutely accepting that he was not
on an even playing field here.

“Well, I can approach her if it would make you feel better,” Rem’s words were directed to both
W’Crens, his eyes veiled with a warning as they met his cousin’s. He turned a questioning glance
on Faelwen, “I’m sure my vonna’s observations are accurate, and Ghetsuhm and I get along just
fine so I’m sure a few quiet questions would be met with her usual grace. She has seemed a little
distracted, but as Faelwen said, it is only natural given His Majesty is ill.”

“I don’t suppose you want to speculate on why she has sent his heir away from the capital then,”
Perry muttered.

“I have to agree, if the King is doing better, then why was the heir sent away? If he is regaining
his strength then the chance that the illness could be contagious has passed.” Am’ Elle withheld a
sigh. Things simply didn’t fall into place, and Pe’Ris’ questions only cast a better light to reveal
flaws in the cloth. “I am sorry, but there does seem to be more questions than answers, and the
more answers the more questions.”

Mint greens slipped towards the other woman, “Any wife’s priority is their husband, but her
situation is more difficult than that. She also has a duty to the people to ease their natural
concerns for their Tyrne. She also has the disadvantage of her race; if a S’Hean healer was to
see the Tyrne and come to the same conclusion as the Tyrah it would not be a case of calling her
a liar only to find out she was correct, but a case of only proving she is a capable healer in her
own right and that there was nothing to be concerned about.”

"I am not disagreeing with either of you," Faelwen replied gently, "merely observing that subtleties
are easily lost when anxiety is already present. I am no healer and cannot comment on the skill of
anyone else, that I leave to others. If Rem'Sero is happy to speak with the Tyrah on this matter
then that should be sufficient for now, do you not think?"

Pe’Ris snorted slightly, then nodded hesitantly. “All right, but if you don’t get anywhere, Fette, I’ll
be questioning Her Majesty myself,” he agreed.

Rem’Sero simply grinned at that point, “I’d pay good money to be a witness to that one,” he
teased. “I wonder if she hits as hard as His Majesty. You bruise spectacularly.”

Pe’Ris glowered at his cousin and unconsciously fingered his jaw where the reigning monarch
had once cracked him one, landing the Gamel flat on his arse. “It is fortunate, then,” he observed,
“that my wife is such a capable healer,” he admitted with a touch of humour, “people seem to
want to hit me a lot.”

                                                   ***

Ghet sat on the edge of the bed, brushing out her hair. Once upon a time, in a past she could
barely remember any more, this had been a ritual she'd found soothing, settling herself for the
night, knowing Ro was watching her. Now, she just used it to put off getting into bed, oblivious to
the line it gave her upper body, the way it made her hair glint in the light, waking the warm,
distinctive scent of her shampoo and making it pool around her.

Finally, her arm dropped limply to her side, her shoulders hunched and miserable. The first
couple of nights, she'd dug out a nightdress, but S'Hea wasn't meant for sleeping clothed. It had
been too uncomfortable, and he knew she was only doing it because of him anyway. Better
naked than giving him that satisfaction.

Steeling herself, she turned around and got into their bed. The worst thing about this, the worst
part of the day, was that it was all so much the same. She didn't miss her husband's scent
because it was still here. The canopied bed still held the echoes of years of affection and passion.
It would take longer than this for that level of feeling to bleed out. Sometimes when she woke up
in the morning... She pushed her stomach back down where it belonged and stared blankly
straight up. "We need to trim your hair soon."

“I think not,” came the rumbled response from Ravyel’s side of the bed. “It is just starting to get to
a length I can tolerate.” Flat on his back, one arm tucked behind his head, the Demon stared
upwards into luminous layers of fabric. The bed annoyed him, he could feel his self from this
dimension lingering here, sense a deep contentment and happiness, two emotions he had no
understanding of. Passion, he knew that one well, but there was a layer to it that evaded his
grasp and left him in a state of agitation.
“We’ll just say I’ve decided to go back to my roots. I’m sure some of the Lords will be pleased with
a set of S’Hean locks on their monarch.”

Ghet made an inelegant little snorting noise and doused the last of the lights. It was never really
dark with the moonlight pouring in through the windows. "Those aren't the ones we want to
please. And for anyone who knows Ro, it'll set alarm bells ringing." She tried to think who that
would be, who didn't already know. Rem'Sero... ah, she was so tired, it was too hard to
concentrate. She was losing the energy and the will to keep fighting every little battle. "It's nice
short," she said absently, hardly speaking to him at all. "It suits him, and it doesn't fall in my face
all the time. Nothing like trying to work out whose hair you're choking on. I guess I could always
give Callan some scissors and see what happened."

“Let the alarm bells ring, a body has a right to change their fashion sense once in awhile, they’ll
get over it. Besides, giving that Dragon scissors would end badly for both of us. Everything but
hair would get cut, and I’m sure you would prefer to keep all of Y’Roden’s delightful bits and
pieces right where they are. He’d look terribly funny without his ear tips.”

There was silence for a minute, then a nearly audible grin. “On second thought, go right ahead
and give him the shears. I’m always up for an hour or so of entertainment. Just leave my hair
alone, it’s not like you have to be concerned about choking on it – unless you are.”

Ghet actually laughed. At the same time, she rolled into her natural sleeping position, on her side
facing in. "There's nothing wrong with round ears, as far as I remember. It's been a while. The
point you're missing is that it's not your hair."

She shrugged tiredly. "Hells, I'm about ready to start telling people to just mind their own
skrunning business. And people may just not notice. I've been wandering around with a brand
shiny new bondmark the size of my hand on my chest and no-one's said 'hey what's that?'."

“It’s my hair for now,” he pointed out dryly, and just a little sleepily. “Routinely telling people to
skrun off is good for your health, I highly recommend it. I hate to tell you this, but the fact that
nobody has noticed the mark is probably due to the very obvious distraction it’s perched over.”

Rolling onto his side Ravyel shoved his hair back and rearranged the pillow slightly before settling
in again. “The hair stays.”

"I keep thinking people will get bored with breasts eventually," Ghet murmured, restraining the
arm that wanted to drape across his shoulders. It was odd how much she missed just holding her
husband. It hurt, not having his physical comfort. "You do not hate to tell me that either, not
unless you've been desperately trying not to tell me I have nice breasts." She shook her head,
long lashes closing on her cheeks. "Don't make me like you."

“I don’t think there is any fear of that,” he snorted in amusement. “Nobody likes me. Lusts maybe,
or hates, but nothing in between, I’m just that sort of guy.” There was a long period of silence, and
one might almost of thought he had drifted off to sleep.

“Nobody ever gets tired of breasts, that is entirely the point of them.”

Ghet let herself drift, listening to his voice in the dark, some part of her pretending. "It's not
entirely the point, but I'd agree, you can never have too many. I know you don't want to be liked."
She smiled sadly, sleep washing over her. "But I'm not like other people. That's the point of me."
Ravyel lay in the dark for a long time after that, his senses filled with the rise and fall of Ghet’s
breathing. The night was a time of peace for the Demon, cocooned in the thunder of waterfalls
and the deep, languid feel of the shadows. He could let his guard down in the silence and be
alone with his thoughts.

Usually they were along the lines of conquest and domination of the Empire, plans to expand and
to exert control over what was already his. These past few weeks, however, they were a
confused muddle of pain and anger. Fury over his present situation, this woman he shared his
bed with and nothing else, and a feeling of being restrained. Helpless was not something Ravyel
did well, and he was living with the fact that someone else was seated on his throne, making his
decisions, and likely sharing a bed with his Seeress.

The S’Hean’s attention shifted back to Ghetsuhm and he wondered what she was hiding from
him. Obviously she wasn’t going to just sit around and let Y’Roden find his own way back – so
what the hell was she doing to solve the problem?

Soon, he would have to corner her on it and find out…

                                                   ***

Early morning sunlight cast pale golden beams through the gauzy veils surrounding the bed.
Eyes closed, Faelwen stretched lazily and then rolled over. A slow smile curved her lips as she
encountered a warm body, golden lashes flickering as her eyes opened.

"Gutte Moor," she murmured, one hand gliding over Rem'Sero's chest as she leaned in to kiss
him.

Thick chestnut lashes flickered up as the S’Hean awakened beneath his wife’s touch, turning his
head on the pillow to eye her sleepily. “Gutte Moor, elleska,” Rem’Sero murmured, smiling as he
pushed his wealth of chestnut hair away from his eyes, then reached out to touch Faelwen’s face
and return her kiss.

The arm that had ended up beneath her wrapped around the Aarataurean’s delicate frame and
pulled her closer, fingertips brushing over a soft shoulder and playing with golden tresses.

A breathless laugh escaped her, a delicious shiver rippling down her spine as she snuggled in
against his larger frame. "Keep doing that and we may never make it out of bed." Mischief
gleamed in her cobalt eyes, a delicate wash of colour creeping up into her cheeks. The way her
husband could make her feel still had the power to leave her breathless and blushing at times.

“I really don’t see anything wrong with that idea,” Rem rumbled, a grin losing itself against Fael’s
mouth. “Why rush the day with something like getting out of bed? See, with vast age comes
wisdom, and I’ve learned that rushing a good morning is a dreadful waste of time. Much better to
take your time and,” he paused to kiss her again, “appreciate it.”

"Then in that case, perhaps I should learn to show proper appreciation," she murmured. An
elegant hand slid caressingly over his torso. Her lips lingered against his, before trailing delicately
along his jaw.

"Show me," she whispered in his ear.

The S’Hean shifted his weight, rolling to his side and tucking Faelwen’s slight frame against his
heavier body, long dark hair falling across her face as Rem’s lips found his wife’s. Weapon-
callused fingers entangled with one of the Aarataurean’s hands and pinned it back against the
bed as feather-light kisses trailed down the pale skin of her throat, slowly playing homage to both
the morning and his golden-haired lover beneath the blazing trail of his mouth.

Her fingers curled around his, long locks spilling over the pillows as her slim figure arched into the
heat of his mouth, one smooth leg sliding against his as her knee bent. His lips seemed to brand
her skin, creating flames that licked over her body. Soft sounds of pleasure spilled from her lips,
golden lashes lowering to partially veil her gaze.

With a low, rumbling sound of pleasure, Rem turned his head -- letting his face trail over Fael’s
creamy-smooth abdomen. He nipped slowly at her hipbone, then rolled heavy shoulders, pushing
up off the bed to sit back on his knees and drew Faelwen up to straddle his lap. “Yona elleska
dai,” the S’Hean murmured, words trailing off into a groan as their bodies connected, heavy
hands gripping the Aarataurean’s hips as he kissed her. “I can only hope I’ve made you as happy
as you’ve made me.”

"Never doubt it." Her fingertips dug into his muscular shoulders, her body moving against his in a
rhythm as old as time itself, one she could not have fought even if she had wanted to. "Tye-
mela'ne," she gasped out. "More than I ever dreamed possible. Rem..."

Cobalt eyes darkened, an involuntary cry tearing from her throat as her body shuddered in his
arms.

In the grip of release, Rem buried his face in the crook of Faelwen’s neck, a choked noise lost in
her hair as his arms crushed her close. The S’Hean held her locked there for awhile afterwards,
breath warm against the Aarataurean’s neck, then gently lay her back on the bed and leaned over
his wife with a lazy smile curling the edge of his mouth.

“See – now that is the way to start off a morning.”

A soft, contented murmur purred in her throat. It seemed almost like too much effort to persuade
her relaxed limbs to move, one hand lifting just enough to brush through his long, chestnut hair as
it fell in a silken screen about them.

"It is a very good way to start off a morning." A gentle smile lit up her delicate features. "Never
doubt how much I love you, Rem'Sero. I made my choice, and I have never regretted it. Not for
one moment. You are the one I want to be with."

The S’Hean’s expression softened, “I know, I just like to check every so often to make sure I’m
holding up my side of the bargain – so to speak. I want to give you everything you want, it’s
important to me that you are completely happy.” A teasing smile lit his features, “Is there
anything, my lady wife, that I can give you?”

Amused suspicion flickered across her face. "What sort of 'anything' did you have in mind?" she
asked, delighted by the teasing light in his eyes even as experience had taught her to treat it with
wary, if amused, caution. She had gotten into more trouble then she had ever imagined before
she had learnt to do so, although she had to admit that the trouble had been highly enjoyable.

“Whatever your heart desires, of course,” the S’Hean answered. “Sparkly baubles, pretty flowers,
would you like me to round you up a unicorn?” His eyes shot off to the side, and he leaned over,
plucking several subtle-blue flowers from a vase and slowly tucking them into Faelwen’s hair
where it lay all lovely and ruffled about her face. “I could feed you breakfast – worship at your
feet? Any number of things really.”
"I don't require worship," she said gently. "Not even pretty flowers or sparkly baubles, although I
admit they have their good points. All my heart desires is to be loved. All I have ever really
wanted is a family to care about." Faelwen smiled. "I am quite a simple soul really."

A curious light illuminated pale-green eyes and Rem canted his head slightly to study his wife’s
deep-blue eyes. “A family hmm? As in – you and me, plus a few more? Now see, those are the
sort of wishes that are easy to fulfil, and much less dangerous than unicorn wrangling, if I do say
so myself.” He leaned in to kiss her softly, “Not to mention, the getting there is far more
enjoyable.”

"You don't mind?" she asked quietly. "I know you already have Rem'Mieris, and he's very nice,
but..." A dreamy expression of hope and maternal yearning glowed in her eyes. "The love
between us is more than I ever dreamed of having. You know that for my people love is a bonus.
Marriage is about social status, money and politics. Even if I never had anything else, I could be
happy with just what we have now." An oddly wistful smile touched her lips. "But I have always
wanted a child."

“Mind?” there was a startled element in his tone, “why would I mind having a child with my wife?”
A tinge of amusement lit his eyes, “You have noticed that I am S’Hean, haven’t you? We get
positively giddy over the prospect of parenthood, it’s a racial quirk.” The heavy muscles in Rem’s
shoulders rolled as he leaned down to kiss her, “We could get started on that right now, if you
want to. Give us about – oh, just under an hour or so and junior will be well on his – or her, way.”

Slim fingers glided over his chest, wrapping around his neck. "A little boy," she whispered against
his mouth, "as handsome as his father, or a little girl that will have us both wrapped around her
little finger." She laughed, and in the silvery notes could be heard pure joy.

A little girl,” Rem said gently, “as beautiful as her mother.” Words fell away to soft sounds of love
and pleasure – and as promised, there was a new spark of a soul beneath Faelwen’s heart in just
under an hour…

                                                 ***

When Rhagi caught up with his mother down at the airdock, she was still swearing a blue streak.
It didn’t take much to set her off these days, but what really puzzled him was that she seemed to
be amused as well as exasperated. That and whatever it was, it seemed to require him as well.
“Mum? What’s going on?”

“Rhagi, good, you got here. I’ve made a monumental bollocks-up, I’m afraid.” She snickered.
“You know ages back I said I was going to get you a TIF tutor? He’s here. I got word this morning.
I had them put down in Corin, near the border, I’ve had to send Rangers out to get him because
we can’t use the Gates, and now I have to bring him here because I can hardly tell him to turn
around and bugger off after dragging him halfway across the galaxy just because I forgot he was
coming and I’m not ready for him.”

“Mum? Breathe. Um… wow. We’re really quite skrunned, aren’t we? There must be something
we can do with him until… things get back to normal.” He wasn’t quite at the point yet where he’d
have been happy to go back to being left out of things, but it wouldn’t be long. “Perhaps you could
send him to the Ridge and wave Maeve in front of him. That seems to work.”

Ghet raised an eyebrow at her son and thumped him on the back. “And when did you start
noticing things like that, hmm? I think that’d be a bit much even for Maeve, and actually… oh,
here they come.”
Matthew Becker stood in the prow of the airship and watched intently as they docked by the
palace. He hadn’t seen it until they’d been up close and he was still trying to work out how that
worked. He’d started adjusting to the gravity while he’d still been on board the ship that had
brought him to Whispin, but the heat and humidity were wringing him out. In spite of that, the trip
in the airship had been freaking awesome.

Climbing onto the dock, he was trying not to stare too hard at the pair waiting to meet him. The
woman, though obviously someone’s fantasy as the breeze from the lake moulded her dress
against her body, was very definitely not his type. The youth at her side was another matter. He
had impossibly green eyes, a leanly-muscled frame that was obviously still filling out, and an air
of diffident shyness about him that Matt bet just made people want to take him home, tuck him up
in bed, and give him milk and cookies. Give him another five years and they’d want to take him
home, tuck him up in bed, and shag his brains out.

Given it seemed that this was his new pupil, this had better be the last time that thought crossed
his mind.

Ghet tilted her head to the side and smiled despite herself. This guy was gorgeous. Tall, lean, fit,
young, and obviously bright, it was no wonder he’d got into trouble teaching at the Academy.
Back in her day, Ghet would have eaten him alive, or at least given him a serious licking. If this
didn’t stir things up in her all-too serious son, she didn’t know what would. She was dying to say,
‘see, isn’t your Mummy cool, look what I got you!’, but she was pretty sure Rhagi would drop dead
on the spot.

So instead, she stepped forward and offered the man her hand to shake. “Dagar, Dr Becker,
welcome to Windemiire. I’m the Tyrah, Ghetsuhm Riker, and this is my son Rhagi. I’m afraid my
husband couldn’t make it down to meet you, busy being king and all, but I’m sure you’ll catch up
before too long.”

Bemused, Matt shook her hand, and then did the same with the boy, who seemed a lot less
certain how it went. “Call me Matt, I much prefer it. It’s nice to get here finally, I feel like I’ve been
travelling for months. Hello, Rhagi, I’m looking forward to getting to know you.”

Rhagi shifted from one foot to the other. “Hey.”

Ghet rolled her eyes elaborately and shrugged, indicating an incomprehension of all things
adolescent. “You must be tired, the heat really takes it out of you until you get used to it. Rhagi,
why don’t you show Matt to his room? Show him how the bath works too, it’s the most
comfortable place to be, for the gravity as well as the heat. I have one or two things to sort out
before Zenith. Make sure your father hasn’t eaten anyone. And then Matt, I hope you’ll join us for
Second Breakfast.”

He wasn’t entirely sure he could have heard that right. “Second Breakfast?”

Ghet was rather bemused by the look on Matt’s face. He appeared to think she was winding him
up, and she couldn’t see anything funny in what she’d just said. “Yes, we’re coming up on the
hottest part of the day. We sleep then, and then we get up, and have breakfast again, just like we
did when we got up this morning. You’ll get used to it. You’ll need to eat like a pig here, and you’ll
pile on the muscle. Happens to the best of us. I’ll leave you two to it.”

The Tyrah kissed her son’s cheek and then left, heading back into the palace in a swirl of hair and
draperies. In the following silence, it felt like about a dozen people had just left.
Rhagi wasn’t entirely sure what his mother thought she was playing at. She knew he wasn’t
comfortable around strangers. He shifted uncomfortably, then said, “Um, okay, come on then.
Don’t worry about your stuff, the servants will take it up.”

Matt followed the boy into the palace, making occasional comments about the architecture and
the temperature and getting awkward monosyllabic replies in return. He was too tired for this:
he’d work on it later. Mind you, if the boy had grown up around that mother, he’d probably never
needed to actually talk…

                         Present Day – Shashya – Plane of Arlsyn – A.D


Seven black-robed figures entered the room, their hoods drawn forward to hide the details of their
faces. Each moved with an ethereal grace that whispered of the power that was held within the
fragile feminine forms. The Seeress felt that power as surely as the Dead King who watched with
open lust.

“My Lord, the Rahibe…”

Blagden waved the man away as he stood, his eyes never leaving the seven women. “So these
are the Seven Keys?” A bark of laughter escaped him as he circled around the priestesses and
stopped, his hand reached out to jerk one of the hoods and hissed instead as it was met with a
shock.

Dusky hands rose to push back the cowl, revealing a dark-skinned woman with wide brown eyes.
A wave of black hair spilled from its confines with the movement. “We do not like to be touched,
Dead King, but we are here at your request. What is it that we can do for you?”

Blagden glared at the pale-skinned woman who had turned to look at him when he reached for
her hood then back to the woman who spoke. “You are the leader?”

Kiannara nodded, “I am.”

“Then I only want to talk to you, send your sisters away.”

“You speak with all of us or none at all.”

His face darkened but he moved on. They were too valuable as allies, “I need for the Gates to be
closed down until a time of my choosing. Starting with the Gate to Whispin. Can it be done?”

“It can.”

An unusual smile touched Blagden’s lips, “Good, good.” He walked away from the others and
stared out the window into the courtyard where metal flashed in the dying sun. “How long will it
take?”

“When do you need it done?” Kiannara replied, exchanging glances with her sisters. The man
was mad if he thought he could close down the Gates without anyone noticing. Sooner or later
someone was bound to notice.

“As soon as possible.”
“As you wish.”

                 Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante – S’Hea – Planet Whispin


Ja’Kel bowed respectfully as an unexpected guest arrived on the top floor of Windemiire. Not only
was Rem’Sero a Lord, he was the one responsible for Ja’Kel’s particular caste and he happened
to like the elder S’Hean a great deal. In the Captain’s opinion, some pretty strange things had
been going on in the palace of late, comings and goings that struck him as a little odd –
particularly the lack of ‘goings’ on the Tyrne’s part. Rem’Sero’s arrival was greeted with no small
amount of relief, if only in that the Ranger suddenly felt reassured that he wasn’t going out of his
mind – judging by the expression on the other male’s face.

“Hojet Gamel Al’Teron,” he greeted.

“Dagar, Foryen Al’Terre. I would like to see the Tyrah, if she isn’t terribly busy,” Rem responded,
nodding to the Captain of the Hyem-Sirke.

The Ranger turned obediently and knocked on the double doors, waiting patiently for a response
from within. One just didn’t burst in on the royal couple, at least, not anyone that wanted to avoid
mental trauma – though of late even that seemed to have stopped. Understandable if the Tyrne
was ill, but in Ja’Kel’s unprofessional opinion, Y’Roden looked just fine to him.

Ghet put her Baoding balls back in their box almost with relief. The concentration required to
manipulate them without making them chime was supposed to help her relax. This set had been
a gift from her father, and they were two and half thousand years old now. That didn't mean they
worked. Nothing worked any more.

She took one glance back towards the bedroom doors to make sure they were shut tight before
she replied. "Come in."

Ja’Kel stepped soundlessly into the room, bowing respectfully to the Queen. “Y’Tyrah, Hojet
Gamel Al’Teron requests an audience with you.” He managed not to look at the closed chamber
doors, keeping his bright-green gaze solely on Ghetsuhm.

"Rem'Sero?" Ghet managed, as far as she could tell, to look mildly puzzled instead of like she'd
been expecting this for a while now. "Alright, Ja'Kel, thank you." She leaned to the side and
smiled. "Dagar, Rem'Sero, come in. What is it, is Faelwen alright?"

Ja’Kel nodded and stepped back to make room for Rem’Sero, who brushed past the Captain with
a murmured thank you as the door snicked shut behind him. “Dagar, y’Tyrah,” a bow echoed that
of his fellow S’Hean, and the Lord managed to look slightly embarrassed as he straightened. He
coughed softly, “Uhm, yes, Faelwen is just fine. More than fine.”

He studied Ghet for a quiet moment. “May I sit? I have a few questions and it may take a while.”

"More than fine?" Ghet gave him a little smirk, and then gestured to the chaise opposite. "Of
course you can sit. You don't have to ask to do that, you know. Rem, you look awfully
uncomfortable. What is it?"

For a minute, he had trouble sorting which ‘uncomfortable’ she was referring to. He decided to let
Faelwen tell her about that little bit of news. Clearing his throat, the S’Hean sat across from his
Queen and brought his gaze up to meet hers. “I think you know, Ghetsuhm,” he said, becoming a
little less formal. “Certain – people – are starting to ask questions.” Pale-green eyes shifted to the
bedroom door, then back again.

“Y’Roden’s continued absence has them irritated, and the absence of the heir has been – noted.”

Ghet's eyebrow arched upwards. "R'Avyen? Oh for... He's up at the Ridge! I sent the twins away
so I could wean Den'Ayat off the breast. Perhaps you could explain to certain people that the
Tyrah was looking forward to giving her breasts back to the Tyrne's tender attentions? I could
bring R'Av back, I guess, but I need Beth to stay with Den'Ayat, and I just don't have the time to
look after him myself."

With a sigh, she sat hunched forward; taking one of the antique steel balls back out of its box and
rolling it round her fingers. "Y'Roden... he's been absent longer than this before, you know.
Before we married, we were gone for weeks, up at the Ridge. The world didn't end then, but of
course back then it was B'Rodyn sitting in for Ro. So... what's the problem? Is it that Ro's out of
circulation for a while, or is me being in charge?"

Rem watched the steel ball with cat-like eyes and sighed softly. “You know what people like
W’Cren are like, if he doesn’t know exactly what is going on he tends to fry a synapse or two. He
would feel a lot more comfortable about things if you would let Am’Elle have a look at Y’Roden.”
The S’Hean shrugged, “It would shut him up at least – for maybe five minutes or so.”

He lifted his eyes to meet denim blue. “We both know he would rather you not be at the helm, but
there isn’t anything he can do about that. He’ll push every other button he can, though, and make
a general nuisance of himself. Just knowing where R’Avyen is should put a stop to wherever that
particular thought process is going.” A flicker of a smile touched Rem’Sero’s features. “Pe’Ris is
my cousin, but I don’t pretend to understand the way he thinks.”

"But I told them... it's the same thing, isn't it? They don't trust me. Fuck's sake. I'm sorry. It didn't
occur to me that they'd freak out because they didn't know where my babies were. They're my
babies. But I am NOT going to prove myself to them any more. Skrun it, I am not being checked
up on by Am’ Elle! Nobody else touches my husband."

She drew in a deep breath, reining in her temper. But also, she would far rather show anger than
fear, and if she pushed the rage forward, it would cover her dread of having the S'Hean healer
examine her husband. "I know I sound completely unreasonable. But... okay, look. Ro and I both
share... a very peculiar pain response. It makes healing a profoundly intimate thing for both of us.
Sexual. It ties us together, and I will not have anyone else interfere with that. At this point, I just
don't care any more if I sound completely skrunning irrational. I'm perfectly competent to look
after him. If Pe'Ris has any doubts, perhaps he could talk to Callan Blackthorn. Tell him I'm not
competent to heal someone important."

She got to her feet, pacing, bouncing the Baoding ball in her hand like it could go through a
window at any moment. "No. If Am’Elle sees him, and then he recovers, which he will, people will
put it down to her. If she doesn't, they'll have to accept that it was me. And if he didn't recover
they'd blame me anyway. I'm not going to be checked up on like a bloody first year med student!
It's hard enough managing him at the moment as he is. You know what he's like. He's got no
stamina yet, but he wants to be doing everything again and he keeps wearing himself out..." She
rubbed a hand over her eyes. "No. Sorry."

Rem’Sero was, by nature, a patient and calm person. He watched Ghet storm about with an
implacable calm, his expression unchanging and unflinching. “Don’t apologize, Ghet,” he said
dryly, “I’m not the one questioning you. If it were up to me I would just leave the two of you in
peace until Ro is ready to go back to work. I’ve done what Pe’Ris wanted of me, now the ball is in
his court.”

Sitting back, he shrugged mildly. “Y’Roden has always been stubborn, more so than his Cousin,
and I’m aware that he has a volatile nature. Pe’Ris is aware of it too, which might very well be
what keeps him from confronting you himself – but I wouldn’t count on it. If I were you, I would
prepare for a visit from him. Usually giving him both barrels straight off will back him down, but
that’s up to you.”

Ghet smiled ruefully, aware she'd just unloaded on someone who didn't deserve it. "We can do
better than that. If he's going to come anyway, he can do it on my terms. Let's make him an
appointment. Tomorrow afternoon? He can see Ro. I'll have to be there, of course. I do believe
sometimes I make him just a little uncomfortable, and I do so love to see him uncomfortable."

Rem smirked despite himself and coughed to cover it. “Well, I’ll let him know,” he responded a
moment later with an amazingly straight face. “About the appointment that is – not about your
affection for his discomfort. I’d rather he learn all about that part on his own.”




                      Present Day – Shashya Keep – Plane of Arlsyn - AD

The wheels creaked as the caravan rolled up to the gates of Shashya Keep and waited for
admittance. Norq sat beside the wagon’s driver, a naked sword across his lap and the cowl of his
cloak pulled up to hide his face from the sporadic downpours. Forest greens stared straight
ahead as the reinforced gates finally swung inward, admitting them into the compound.

As the gates swung shut behind the last wagon, a falcon took to the air, a signal to those below to
start their dig into the solid stone.

Storm-grey eyes lifted, watching the flight of the bird-of-prey before turning to the man beside her.
"Time for your big moment," Eluned said coolly to Quinn. "Show us what you can do, alchemist."
Her expression was impassive, no trace of emotion visible, as she simply - waited.

Quinn too watched the bird's flight, then turned his attention back to the job at hand. With a soft
sigh, he pressed his palms against the great wall of stone, staring at it through rose-coloured
glasses. "I sense an ounce of doubt in your voice, my dear. You really should relax more. Try
breathing through your nose. It may help."

A soft blue glow started to seep out from under his hands, forming a transmutation circle. The
circle shone brightly against the solid rock, with strange arcane sigils dancing and shifting before
his eyes. The circle looked three-dimensional, with layer upon layer of light.

"To obtain," he whispered, his body leaning against the stone, "something of equal value must be
lost." He started to move forward, the stone simply vanishing with every step he took, leaving
behind an open archway as smooth as glass.

"You did say you didn't want any type of an explosion, though I think a loud bang at the end
would have added a bit of flair to our arrival. After all, this feat should be written down in the Great
Book. It's not everyday one of my calibre, that being Third-class Alchemist, can make solid stone
vanish without so much as making a sound. Now then, I do not wish to get carried away, but
where are we headed? You see -- I have a terrible sense of direction..."
Eluned ignored what she viewed as deliberate provocation. She knew he could detect nothing in
her voice. She had more self-control than that.

"Explosions are contrary to our purpose," she said. "We are not the distraction. That is the role of
those above." The Shroudling nodded to the small group who accompanied them, and
immediately the warriors ran swiftly and silently through the opening, fanning out into the corridor
beyond.

"Good," the tall blonde murmured as she followed them and took a swift look around. "We are in
the subterranean levels of the Keep." She gestured to two of the warriors. "Conceal our entrance,
we may need it again, and guard our backs. The rest of you, this way."

Quinn felt rather giddy, reaching up to admire his handiwork while everyone else rushed by. He
was in no hurry to leave the newly made tunnel, but he glanced back down, watching Eluned and
the group starting to head out and he quickly followed suit.

"I hope we stumble into someone along this little jaunt. I haven't had this much fun since we
learned how to turn water into wine. I'm a bit rusty too, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat,
but I can pretty much take care of myself." He pulled a small grey stone from his pouch, holding it
up between finger and thumb. The rough-looking stone seemed to sparkle with a life of its own as
he turned it at different angles.

"I can't wait to try this one out. It's a Lode Stone, dormant at the moment, but once she awakens
she can be a handful. It has a very attractive personality you see," he said, grinning at his play on
words.

"Would you care to see a demonstration?"

"No." Eluned shot Quinn a look. "Now be silent."

She nodded to one of the warriors, and the elf took hold of the alchemist's arm, pulling him to one
side out of the way. More than one of the Resistance had wondered whether the outlander was
more of a liability than an asset, despite his abilities with stone. His loose-lipped chatter would
bring guards down on all their heads if he didn't learn to keep his mouth shut.

The Shroudling had glided forward silently to the next bend in the corridor, cautiously looking for
trouble.

“It’s about bloody time!”

Norq ignored the words as he climbed down from the wagon and headed towards the back to
throw aside the tarp. It was all a part of the plan, after all. The man that was spouting and
demanding to know why it had taken them so long or how they were able to get through when
others hadn’t was one of their own.

Javob threw in a growl as his questions went unanswered then grabbed his captain and spun him
around. “I’m talking to you!”

Norq slammed back into the wagon hard enough to toss his hood from his head. “I don’t have to
answer your questions; my duty is to deliver, now if you don’t mind?”
“How dare you speak to someone in service of the General Enforcer!” With those words the fight
broke out, swiftly spreading as armed men jumped out of their hiding places in the wagons. Javob
and Norq slipped out of the ruckus to one side.

“Blagden is in his upper study, Jabrea is in the lower and is ready.”

Norq nodded, “You better go, you’re suppose to be with her and the faster we get her out of here,
the faster we can be rid of all of them.”

Javob nodded the men squeezing each other’s shoulders before heading their separate ways.
Norq back into the small battle, the Shroudling Admiral inside to help the rescue group.

"This way." Deep in the bowels of the Keep, one of the Tauresule nodded. "I remember from the
blueprints. Left here, and then third right."

"Good. Dian, Cahya... take the lead. Yvain, bring up the rear."

The small group fanned out at Eluned's command, warriors jogging forward as quickly and as
quietly as they dared. The dagger fell easily into the tall blonde's hand, others holding blades and
bows poised and ready.

Suddenly, a shout went up, metal clashing against metal. "It's a patrol! Fall back!"

The Shroudling swore, gliding into the shadows just as a man in the General Enforcer's colours
came charging passed. Her dagger lashed out, slicing up between his ribs before he even knew
she was there. His shocked gaze met that of Quinn as he fell to his knees before the alchemist,
blood staining his fingers as he clutched at his side. With clinical precision, Eluned stepped up
behind him and slit his throat.

Quinn stood there, holding his own throat as blood pooled around the toes of his worn boots.
Glancing back up, he slowly took a step back and shook his head. "I would have dealt with him in
a more sensible manner. But if blood must be spilled, let it be theirs, and not ours. Next time
though -- please warn me. Blood is so hard to get out of clothing you know."

Stepping over the downed man he moved past the assassin, holding the stone tightly in his hand.
"Now tell your men to get a real good grip on their weapons and shield them from my lode stone.
I'm about to disarm these ruffians before they get the upper hand. Unless, of course, you wish me
to stand here and remain silent -- it's your choice after all," he said, giving her his best grin while
peeking over the rim of his glasses. It did not appear to have any effect on the Shroudling,
however.

Glancing over her shoulder, Eluned snapped out a quick series of orders. "Do what you need to
do," she said to the alchemist, "but make it quick. We're running out of time."

"This shouldn't take but a moment," Quinn said. Glancing around the chamber, he caught sight of
one man who was standing alone, looking for someone to stand against. Whistling, to catch the
man's attention, he took a step forward and smiled.

"Catch!" he called out, tossing the small grey stone toward the guard. Taken by surprise the man
caught it and held it up.

"You must be joking, right?" The guard laughed. "You're a fool to think this little stone can harm
me."
"Wait for it," Quinn said, giving the man a wink. Suddenly a flash of blue exploded from the small
stone. Two rings of light ran up and down the man's body, and when they faded away the man
was left standing there, frozen in place. He had been turned to stone, but not any ordinary stone.
Ever so slowly every blade that had not been shielded started to sing and quiver. Within a blink of
an eye, they were pulled from their owners grasp by some unseen force, sticking to the stone
statue like glue. Belt buckles, daggers, anything made of metal soon followed suit, causing more
then one man to stand there unarmed, holding their pants up with their free hands to keep them
from falling around their ankles.

"The magnetic attraction will hold their weapons until I release the stone from his hand," Quinn
said as he glanced back. "You may kill them easier now, if you so wish."

                            Present Day – Nal'Tasi – Arüìnnbìth - AD

Nal'Tasi's solitary castle stood on a hill overlooking the sprawling city, surrounded by trees and
rocky outcroppings. Had the builders been able to they would have changed the structure of the
hill to accommodate the castle. But the human builders had been blocked. So the castle was
perched precariously atop it. Elven artisans had tried for millennium to form the stone and meld it
back into the earth; now after so long the castle still looked out of place and imposing. More so
due to it's current occupant.

Braiden Kennyr'Tlithar stood, leaning against the balcony. His advisors were arguing just out of
sight in the throne room. Men carefully chosen among his top elite. Only those he trusted to be
greedy enough to work with him, but cowardly enough not to go against him. He didn't trust any of
them as far as he could throw them; trust was something he couldn't afford.

He sipped slowly from the glass of wine in his hand. Of the eight men in the room there were
maybe two Braiden was almost positive that hadn't been bought by either side. And he trusted
those two even less than the rest. The others would keep status quo as long as orders told them.
He just hoped when the Tar'amael cack hit he could duck fast enough.

Bits and pieces of the argument drifted out to the balcony, and Braiden turned slowly. He had a
feeling his father was somehow involved in all of this. How, he still wasn't sure, especially since
he should be locked up on Aerdon. The mark across his shoulders tingled, but otherwise lay
dead. An annoyance. A reminder, from the gods perhaps, for what he'd done to their treasured
family?

Breaking from his thoughts, Braiden walked back into the throne room. Strewn with maps and
other refuse it looked more like a war room, and perhaps it was. If this resistance had anything do
say about it. "We've been arguing over this for hours, we know what they're planning. Where's the
difficulty here?"

"But your highness, there are eight mines in this area, if we miscalculate even by one, this plan of
yours will completely fail. Your popularity among the populace is already growing thin," Ragir
said. Oldest of his advisors Ragir wasn't afraid of Braiden, or at least he never showed it. Braiden
was also sure that if anyone had been bought by the Olnelan Sar'Da to keep an eye on him,
Ragir had been.

Braiden smiled thinly over the rim of his glass, "I'm not in this for a popularity contest. I don't care
how many of those half-breeds you have to torture, find out where and when the attack is coming.
I'm going to have heads hanging from the walls gentlemen, just pray they aren't yours.

"Now, see yourselves out." He turned on his heel and left the throne room from a side entrance.
Once the door closed behind him, he ran his fingers along the left wall and felt for the small
indent. Pressing he released the catch. The humans were paranoid in their day, Braiden could
give them that. The extensive tunnels and interconnecting pathways through and under the castle
could be used as escape routes, but most of them were either blocked, or lost to time.

Walking down the dark, damp hallway, he turned the corner and slammed the smaller figure
against the wall. "What are you doing here Maidar, I told you not to come back without proof."

The human shifted and his hood fell back, revelling dark eyes, and scarred skin. Braiden
grimaced, of all the spies in his network; Maidar was perhaps the most tortured. But unlike the
others, Maidar had carved his own scars. A desperate attempt for human magic or some
nonsense. Braiden hadn't been really listening.

Maidar grinned, and tilted his head, "Do you really want the information about your little raiding
party? Or would you rather something better," he asked as he reached up, and slowly wiped the
blood from his mouth and split lip.

Braiden sneered, "Get on with it, Maidar, I don't care about your side projects."

"You will though, especially if it helps you get rid of that thorn in your side." The blood on Maidar's
fingers began to glow faintly in the dark passageway. "I found the secret, and I know where your
grandfather hid them. You want them don't you?"

"If you're lying..."

"Why would I be lying, your highness?"

Braiden laughed shortly and stepped back, pushing Maidar down the hall, "Find the resistance,
and I'll give you whatever you need for your little project."

"Done," Maidar whispered. The light from one of the guttering torches glinted off a bit of silver and
Braiden watched as Maidar sliced from his palm to elbow, and whisper something half heard in a
sibilant tongue, before disappearing within the walls.

                       Present Day – Shashya Keep – Plane of Arlsyn - AD

Jabrea paced the room, her eyes casting back towards the stairs that led to the upper study; fear
that Blagden would hear the fighting in the courtyard lashed at her nerves, leaving the Seeress to
jump at every sound.

The Taurësúlë spun back around, hissing at the pain that shot through her with the movement.
Bruises marked her skin and her hair did more to cover her figure than the clothing she was
wearing. Every step that took Blagden closer to his plans made him more volatile, something
she’d learned only too well.

Forest greens went back to the staircase and she wondered if she dared to lock the door that
secured the General Enforcer’s sanctuary. Finally she gave in, padding barefoot across stone,
woven carpet and animal-skin rugs to silently push the door close. A smile curled her bruised lips.
So confidant in his dominance the necromancer had left the key in the door. Jabrea turned it,
elven ears picking up the tumblers as they clicked into place, securely locking Blagden away.

Eluned paused at the sound of the faint click, storm-grey eyes going to an elven warrior who
nodded. The small group had left the Keep's defenders dead behind them, traveling ever
onwards into the fortress. They only had a little time. The distraction would not last forever.
"Secure the area," she said softly.

Yvain nodded and moved away.

"You know," Quinn whispered, "I was only kidding back there. You really didn't have to kill all
those men. I could have placed them in a safe, though confined space if you had asked real nice.
And you really must learn to express your feelings more. Keeping them bottled up inside only
brings out more anger, and a lot more deaths."

Watching the man called Yvain leaving, Quinn suddenly felt even more vulnerable around the
assassin. Reaching into one of his pouches, he pulled yet another stone from it and slowly started
rubbing it with his thumb.

"Why are we whispering?"

His only response was a glacial stare from Eluned. The seer was nearby, the Shroudling knew.
Once Blagden's obsession with females with his niece's abilities, not to mention her appearance,
was known, it had been relatively straightforward to plant one loyal to their cause in his camp. Her
position close to him made her valuable, but it also put her at risk. If they were to strike the
General Enforcer down before the Emperors could act, then it had to be now. Surprise was their
only hope for freeing Arlsyn from the Olnelan Sar'da.

When all was in position, Eluned glanced once more at Quinn. "Your only task is the seer," she
said in his ear. "Understand? We go in. You make sure that she gets out. Nothing else. Do not
interfere, no matter what else might happen. If you do, I will kill you myself."

The cold stare was enough to cause Quinn to remain silent. He nodded slowly, then remembered
Eluned had not answered his earlier question. He brought one finger up and opened his mouth to
ask again, but quickly dropped it and fell silent.

But not for very long.

"So this seer? She must be very important to you. Is she pretty?"

The admiral skidded to a halt, quickly taking in the scene. “Eluned,” Javel nodded in grim
greeting, “Norq sent me, there aren’t enough down there to hold my men off much longer; we
need to hurry.”

The Shroudling briefly glanced over at Quinn then dismissed him. It wasn’t his place to question
the decisions of his true King. “This way. Now.”

Eluned nodded, she and others of the team following quickly after the admiral. They had little
time, and what they had was swiftly running out.

The heavy oaken door swung inwards. Jabrea spun around, what looked like little more than a
penknife in her hand, ready to attack anyone who entered. Forest greens took in those in the hall
and a relieved sigh escaped her.

“Selene’s tears, Eluned you are a sight for sore eyes.”

Javel grabbed the Taurësúlë’s arm, “Where is he?”
“Blagden is locked away upstairs, I don’t know how long it will last though.”

Nodding the admiral shoved the woman towards Quinn. “See to it that she gets out of here alive
and unharmed.”

Quinn nodded as he reached out to catch the Seer. "It will be my pleasure," he said with a
roguish grin. Giving Eluned a wink, his attention quickly turned back to the Seer.

"This way M’Lady," he added, gesturing toward the door. "I'm Quinn by the way, Quinn Kane.
That's spelled with a 'K', not a 'C'. Everyone seems to gets that wrong you see. I'm here to save
you. Now if you'll just lower your weapon and follow me, we'll be on our way," he continued as he
stuck his head through the doorway.

"Now let's see? Do we go right, or was it left..."

Usually Jabrea would have wondered where Quinn was found but decided to let it lie. The
Seeress hissed as Quinn’s thumb touched a recent bruise. “It’s this way.”

Slipping past the alchemist, she headed back the way the others had came.

Javel raised an eyebrow at Eluned, “I’m not going to ask where he was found. You should be able
to get out un-accosted. Meshzi.” The Shroudling nodded, a hint of a wry smile touching her lips in
acknowledgement.

"Mezhzi," she said in reply.

Norq dispatched his opponent and took a step back, trying to get an idea of how things faired,
and growled at what he saw.

“We can’t keep this up much longer!”

Forest greens turned to Kayne and he nodded, “Sound the retreat!” The Taurësúlë fell back as
the order was shouted over the clang of swords. “Portal four times before returning so that the
trail is lost!” He sent along the bond that the resistance had created.

Norq waited, watching those that could wink out of sight before doing so himself.

Quinn quickly turned the Seer loose after she hissed at him. He didn't think he was squeezing her
arm all that hard, until he saw her bruised skin. Following the Seer, he soon found himself back in
the subterranean levels of the Keep. Stopping near the tunnel he had made earlier, he waited for
the others to return before sealing the tunnel for good.

             Present Day - Windemiire - Nenlante - S'Hea – Planet Whispin – AD

Sapphire eyes scanned the halls of the palace as he was led to the throne room. With each step
his mouth became drier and his hands became sweatier, his heart pounding so hard he felt that it
was going to beat right out of his chest. This was the last place he had ever expected to be, but
there was something strangely right about it.

Talfryn Braith remembered that long ago trip that resulted in the freeing of the abomination that
was the Demon Elf. What was to be a rescue for a lost brother and kingdom turned into a blood
bath. But it wasn’t the release of the Demon Elf on Whispin that had haunted him; it was the
release of the Demon Elf on Arlsyn.

Ravyel had crippled Blagden’s hold over Arlsyn, but in doing so, Tal had condemned his
homeland to not one, but eventually two tyrants in the form of the Emperors. But now, now he
had a chance to make it right.

Ruby-like eyes watched the doors open, tracking the movements of the Telepcal elf as Cullen led
him into the room. He looked familiar somehow, but Y’Roden had never laid eyes on him before
in the flesh. A shared memory from An’Thaya and B’Rodyn had shown the half-elf the faces of
those that had aided the Amazon in her quest to free Corin from Tenobrous, and by default – had
released him from the hold of Samara Mirage.

The expression on the Emperor’s face was disinterested, as if chronically bored – an outward
reflection of Y’Roden’s slow but steady descent into insanity. Day by day madness increased its
hold on his mind, and part of him welcomed it – the ruby-eyed, blood lusting facet of his
personality that called itself Ravyel. The line was so blurred now the two were nearly indiscernible
as a numb acceptance settled into the S’Hean’s soul.

There was no way to deny it now, no turning away from the mirror reflection. In any case, it was
keeping him alive – what better way to emulate Ravyel, then to become him.

“Speak,” he said in an emotionless drone. “Tell us what brings you to the foot of our throne.”

Nervously, Talf wet his lips, his eyes shifting from the Emperor to the Taurësúlë beside him and
back again. The woman’s hatred was kept in check by the cool expression on her face. He knew
she recognized him and it only served to heighten his anxiety.

“The leaders of the Arlsyn resistance have recently come across information that they thought
you would be interested in.” He paused before continuing; hoping that that bit of information
would be enough to keep him alive until he was finished.

Ravyel’s fingers drummed slowly on the arms of the throne, a slow cadence that seemed to make
the seconds draw out longer. “Information? Why should I believe anything from such a dubious
source – do I look like a fool to you, Telepcal?”

“No, not a fool, but a little too sure that all of your General Enforcers bend a knee to you without
working towards their own gains behind your back,” Talfryn stated, knowing that it didn’t matter
whether he lived or died. If he died, then the resistance would get what they wanted anyway and
would be left to deal with Blagden on their own.

“You can believe what I tell you or not, but would we even bother telling you if the true leaders of
Arlsyn didn’t benefit from you knowing?” He plunged on.

The Demon’s brow lifted slightly, and he fell into an ominous silence for the space of several
heartbeats. “And what,” he said finally, “is it, that the true leaders of Arlsyn wish for me to know?”

It took everything that he was made of not to shake out of his skin in the silence while waiting for
Ravyel’s reply and even after it was difficult not to turn into a babbling fool.

Tal cleared his throat and tried to focus just beyond the Demon yet appear to be meeting the ruby
gaze. “We have discovered that Blagden has been in the process of raising an army. Recently he
spoke with the Rahibe to begin the process of closing down the Gates to Arlsyn.”
Dúdae pulled out of her cold silence, rage causing her darkening eyes to snap. “He dares to
attempt to cut Arlsyn off?” Copper fingers curled into the arms of her chair as the air began to
crackle.

Ravyel rose from his throne in a smooth movement, his gaze snapping to Cullen Havenlock and
back again. “What a fascinating bit of news,” he said in a deceptively calm tone. “General
Enforcer Havenlock – prepare the troops, we will leave for Arlsyn at the earliest convenience.
Dúdae, search your wardrobe for something appropriate to wear to a beheading. It seems we
have family to dispose of – and a resistance to crush.”

Descending from the dais he paused beside Talf, then cast a look back at the Tauresule. “Kill
him,” he said coldly, “but make it quick – he was useful for a moment or so.”

Dark eyes watched Ro; the line between the half-elf that had taken Ravyel’s place and his own
Demon was becoming blurred, leaving her with mixed feelings. But even if that line disappeared,
he’d never be her Ravyel, but right then it didn’t matter.

Jagged light of silver and forest green split the air, slamming into the Telepcal, a loud crack
echoing after. The lightning consumed Talf from the inside out, setting him to blaze, the electricity
leaving him screaming long after he was actually dead. The Seeress rose from her seat and
descended to the main floor, skirting around the smouldering ashes that had been the Arlsynian
elf as she headed towards the door.

                    Present Day - Windemiire - Nenlante - S'Hea – Whispin

It was, in fact, several days later -- once schedules were worked out – when Pe’Ris W’Cren
climbed the stairway to the top floor of Windemiire. He was in a foul mood, partly because of
Rem’Sero’s thinly disguised amusement over the entire thing, and partly because his request to
have Am’ Elle see the King had been refused.

It wasn’t just that Pe’Ris disliked Ghet -- he didn’t like Y’Roden either. Sword of Peace was a half-
breed, the son of a Corinian King and a S’Hean Princess, not a full-blooded elf like B’Rodyn had
been. The lack of purity on the throne rankled the High Lord, and he wasn’t above making it
publicly known – and often.

He glowered at Ja’Kel through straight, chestnut hair as he approached the door, hunter-green
eyes glowing softly in the sunlight. The Ranger bowed and opened the door, “Her Majesty is
expecting you.”

Hearing the outer door open, Ghet took one last look in the mirror. She'd avoided anything as
ridiculously obvious as unusually tight or skimpy clothing, it was just that, every now and then
when she moved and the light caught it just right, the deep-cobalt dress she wore went quite
translucent.

Then she turned to look at Ravyel. "You know we're only doing this because this is the one guy in
the place you could punch and no-one would be surprised. I'd still rather you didn't." She might
also have been doing it because, deep down, she found the idea of Ravyel and Pe'Ris in the
same room actually amusing.

Knowing she could be seen through the door, Ghet kissed her husband's cheek and walked away
into the sitting room, trailing her fingers across his chest as she moved past. "Pe'Ris. Glad you
could make it. Wine?"
Ravyel’s laugh was barely audible and his eyes were the vibrant-emerald green of the half-elf as
he stepped from the shadows, following Ghetsuhm towards the divan. He had been trapped here
for four Whispin weeks now, which worked out to roughly two Terran months. Y’Roden’s normally
short-cropped hair had grown out about four inches, giving him a ruffled, unkempt look. S’Hean
hair grew at a startling rate, attesting to their high metabolisms, and Ro was no different. Keeping
his hair short was actually a chore, and not one that the Demon particularly wanted to bother with.

His appearance startled Pe’Ris slightly, and he openly stared at Y’Roden for a long period of time
before he realized Ghetsuhm had asked him something. Jolting slightly, the S’Hean tore his gaze
off of the King, redirecting his attention to Ghet, whose dress happened to catch the light just at
that moment. The Lord’s face went a little funny at that point and he shook his head, “No, thank
you.”

“What can we do for you, Pe’Ris?” Ravyel asked as he slid onto the couch and settled back
comfortably. Setting a booted foot on one knee, he tapped heavy fingers on the arm of the
furniture and raised a slightly angled eyebrow.

“I… uh…” Pe’Ris seemed to recover himself then. “The Tyrah said you were ill, you haven’t been
to the council meetings in weeks, I wanted to see for myself how you are doing.”

Ravyel canted his head, chestnut hair falling into his eyes. “Well?”

“You seem – just fine,” Pe’Ris continued, “not sick at all.”

“It comes and goes,” the Demon said dismissively, “I’m having a good day.”

Ghet shrugged lightly, poured for both herself and Y'Roden, and then sat beside him, tucking her
shoulder in under his arm. "He is, indeed, having a good day today. I'm trying to keep him on a
light workload." She snickered, looking at her husband from under lowered lashes. "No heavy
lifting for you, I keep saying. Still, he should be back on full duties soon. When I'm satisfied that
his stamina has returned." She smiled sweetly at Pe'Ris, an expression that made people who
knew her normally brace for impact. "He's raring to go. I'm practically having to keep him tied
down. Aren't I darling?"

A warm chuckle came from ‘Y’Roden’ and he rubbed his fingertips up and down Ghet’s arm, then
let them slide up into her wealth of deep-red hair. “Aye, she is going to have to break out the
heavy-grade restraints if I give her much more trouble,” he said. The Demon grinned openly at
Pe’Ris as he lifted the wine glass to his mouth and drank slowly, watching the S’Hean with a
slight predatory edge.

The Lord barely covered a venomous look shot in Ghetsuhm’s direction, his deep-green eyes
hard as flint as they flickered past denim-blues to meet emerald green. “We will be,” he paused
for the right word, “pleased – to have you back, Your Majesty. There has been some concern for
your health.” The look in the depths of Y’Roden’s eyes was somehow disturbing – more so than
usual, and it made Pe’Ris profoundly uncomfortable. “I had been hoping that Am’ Elle could have
a look at you, just to be sure, but her Majesty forbade it.”

“So do I,” Ravyel said abruptly. “I don’t want anyone else poking and prodding at me. Ghetsuhm’s
– ministrations, are more than enough, thank you. I’m not dying, it was just a bug of some kind,
and I’ll be just fine. Now if you are feeling all reassured, you can run back to the other Lords and
tell them all is well with their Majesties.”
Ghet leaned her head back into the fingers in her hair, her expression openly sensual, although
she spoke to Pe'Ris. "Tell Am’ Elle I'm sorry, I really am. I have every respect for your wife's
abilities. I should, she took very good care of me. If I'm ever baffled, she'll be the first person I go
to. But I'm also absolutely sure that, were something to happen to you, she would want to tend
you herself, so she should understand my position. And my knowledge of S'Hean anatomy is...
very thorough."

Pe’Ris straightened, crossing his arms across his abdomen briefly in an unconscious defensive
posture, then forced himself to relax. He nodded curtly to Ghet. “I’ll pass that along,” he said,
backing suddenly towards the door. “D’Anke for seeing me, Your Majesties.” He bowed with a
jerky motion, his eyes still on Y’Roden.

The King smiled at him, then turned to Ghet, gripping her chin with thumb and forefinger to turn
her face sideways and upwards. “That was very sweet,” he told her, as the door opened, “no
wonder I love you so much.” The Demon kissed her, slowly and deliberately as Pe’Ris turned and
shut the door firmly behind himself.

Outside in the hall he exchanged a look with Ja’Kel, “I want to talk to you,” he said, “come to my
chambers when you are off duty.”

The Ranger nodded, startled, and watched as the Lord stormed off down the hall.

                  Present Day – Silver Dragon Ridge - S'Hea – Planet Whispin

Holo’s features were frozen in a frown as he stared at his computer screen, a stylus tapping
slowly against his temple as he read and reread a block of data. His reddish-blond hair was
tousled, sticking up every which way, and he was dressed in a pair of faded jeans, his shirt
tossed over a nearby chair.

With a low grunt, he used the stylus to highlight several lines of numbers and copied them into a
file. He had finally isolated Y’Roden’s energy signature by comparing dates and time, made all
the easier by using the base signature created when the S’Hean King had been the first to try the
Gate. The series of numbers he had just stumbled upon were similar, but there were subtle
differences. Now, it was just a matter of figuring out if the pattern belonged to one of his sons, or
to the alternate dimension Ro.

“Bugger… why do D’Riel genes have to be so aggressive,” he muttered, “its damn hard to tell one
from the rest. Though – I have to admit, there is something pretty funky about his majesty’s
pattern…” Talking to himself was a lifelong habit that helped him work through problems, and had
irritated classmates and coworkers to no end.

Maeve stretched and set the crystal she was documenting aside. Her eyes were dry, as if she
forgot to blink. Getting up, she stretched her legs out before pouring a couple of glasses of wine.
Sitting near Holo she handed one to him, "Genetics in general just boggles my mind. I've always
been interested in it, but staring at it for any length of time is like looking at hieroglyphs without a
Rosetta stone."

She took a sip of wine and shrugged, "As long as he gets better," she said quietly, "sick or not, I'll
kill him if he worries Ghet much more."

Holo stuck his nose in his glass, hiding the odd expression that crossed his face for a moment as
he gulped down half the wine in it. Bobbing his head the tech glanced at Maeve out of the corner
of his eye. “I’m sure he’ll be fine,” he said carefully, “his buffliness seems a resilient sort of fellow.”
Hitting pause he slid back against the back of the divan and stretched his free arm out behind his
companion’s shoulders, turning slightly to look at her. “How goes the great Crystal Catalogue?
Anything interesting on those? Scintillating family secrets or something?”

Maeve laughed softly, and shook her head, "Nothing yet, but given how much there is, there
might be something buried underneath it all." She settled back and shifted to face Holo as she
finished the rest of her wine. "The only problem with too much information, is how long it takes to
find something juicy.

"I think I'm done for the moment though, my eyes are ready to fall out of my head if catalogue one
more thing. More wine?"

“I can relate to that, my head starts to hurt after watching that screen for too long.” Holo held out
his empty glass and grinned, “I don’t think I’ve ever turned down ‘more’ of anything in my life.”

Feeling comfortable and fuzzy – as usual – the Tech was more than happy to spend an afternoon
in Maeve’s company. She was fun, interesting, and intelligent, which left him slightly smitten and
a whole lot in lust.

“You know,” he said thoughtfully, “I think I got that Ner’Ius guy hooked on Talle-Konte, he has
seemed a little too happy lately.” Blue eyes suddenly lit up impishly, “He has a crush on you, you
know.”

Standing, she walked over and grabbed the decanter of wine. Bringing it back she smiled and
chuckled softly, "Oh I know," she said refilling their glasses. Setting the decanter down she took a
sip and shook her head, "But he reminds me of one of my nephews, even if he is older than me."

She giggled and relaxed into the divan, "Nothing wrong with him letting loose a little. I've met too
many stuffy history types for my liking. I think it's a hazard of the profession."

Holo let loose with a sputtering laugh that was almost a giggle -- the sort that said that he was
probably way too high, “I’m sure he’d be crushed to hear it,” he observed, and then blinked. “Wait,
I don’t remind you of any sundry relatives, do I? I warn you, I’ll be horribly traumatized, and
terribly disappointed.”

Maeve drained the rest of her glass and set it down, giggling as she shook her head, "Nope,
you're safe... well you're not safe, but you don't remind me of one of my relatives, which is good,
because that's just not one of my kinks, and I do believe I'm getting drunk, and rambling to boot."

“Oh good,” Holo grinned, “then you won’t mind if I…” The Tech leaned forward, cupping Maeve’s
face with one hand as he leaned in to kiss her. “Do this…”

Maeve knew that she was slightly tipsy, but that had little to do with why her hand ended up on
Holo's chest, or why she leaned forward. That had more to do with the feel of Holo's hand on her
face, and the shiver that ran down her spine. Moaning softly, she smiled against Holo's lips and
nipped at his bottom one, "Been waiting for that."

Holo’s free hand blinding reached to set his wine glass on the table, and he seemed quite
unaware that the glass missed it’s mark, sliding off the edge and spilling onto the carpet. The
wandering hand had already found it’s way to Maeve’s thigh as in a warm haze; he pushed her
back onto the couch. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear it,” he murmured, nipping back.

                               Present Day - S'Hea - Whispin - A.D
The gentle pitch and yaw of the S’Hean airship rocked the deck amidships beneath Ravyel’s
thick-soled boots. Ruby gems scanned the loaded armada and the ground-troops below, his
armies preparing to move on command. Heavy-muscled shoulders rolled beneath bristling
armour, various blades shifting within their sheaths and settling again as the Emperor’s frame
relaxed. Long locks of chestnut hair whipped back away from his face in the updraft as he turned
to Dúdae, then to the open sky in front of them.

“Open the Gate,” he ordered in an emotionless tone. No part of Y’Roden rebelled at what he was
about to do. He remembered Blagden well from his own dimension – and if Galain hadn’t killed
the bastard, the S’Hean would have done it himself. Murdering this one was, if he was honest
with himself, a sincere pleasure – almost a second chance to do what instinct had demanded so
many hundreds of years ago.

Perhaps he should have been alarmed by the fact that he was starting to enjoy this. Bloodshed
and power came so naturally -- as easily as breathing -- like sliding into a second skin. The
thought led to the possibility of carving Blagden’s flesh off and leaving him to die slowly. After all,
it had been quite some time since he had given someone his or her just desserts and Shadow’s
‘grandfather’ had certainly earned a skinning. In fact – Ro’s daughter’s ravaged soul and brutally
scarred back almost demanded it.

Dúdae closed her eyes, mentally reaching out for the pathway that would link Whispin to Arlsyn.
The forest elf cocked her head, her brow furrowing as the pathway darkened; the shards of stars
that floated through the Astraheia that linked her blood to that of the essence of Arlsyn flickered,
dying away into nothingness.

The Seeress delved deeper, caught up in the ebb and flow of the astraheia until it stopped, as if a
tourniquet had been tied around a vein slowing her down until she could push no further.

Forest greens shot open, her hands clenched, forcing her nails into the skin of her palms. “I can’t
get through,” she growled.

Ravyel snorted quietly, staring at the gateless sky with interest. “I should have seen that one
coming,” he murmured. “Obviously he has already managed to close Whispin’s Gate – and he
has probably cut off Aerdon’s as well.” Turning on his heel he strode past Dúdae and signalled
Cullen Havenlock.

“Bring out the S’Hean Magi and prepare to open a Galactic Gate,” he ordered. “We are going
through Berelath.” Turning his head back towards the Seeress, he lifted a dark brow. “How fast
can the Rahibe act? A game of Gate-Whack-A-Mole is going to really perturb me.”

Dúdae spun around, watching Ro…Ravyel? as he strode past, she didn’t like the feeling of failure
and knew that she could force it open in time. Time they didn’t seem to have.

“It depends on what element is needed to open or close the Gate and what age that priestess is.
But if I know Blagden he is having the most dangerous ones closed down first. Berelath wouldn’t
be considered dangerous since they care more for their baubles. He will try to out think you and
try to guess which world you would jump to next if this was discovered.”

The smile that slid across Ravyel’s features was chilling. “You would think – by now – he would
have learned that trying to out-think me is an exercise in futility. It is a lesson, it seems, that he’ll
have to learn the hard – permanent way.”
Turning around fully to face the prow of the ship the Demon brought his arms up to his sides,
palms facing out as the S’Hean Magi formed a semi-circle behind him. The conduit made an
audible, sucking sound as it siphoned power from the grouping of female elves, a glowing nimbus
of emerald-light enveloping Ravyel’s form as he gathered the energy to himself, then forced it
outwards in an explosion of Aethyr that rent the air and rippled outward to form a massive vortex,
the wind setting the armada to bobbing and the troupes below scrambling.

Beyond the portal could be seen the glistening-white city of Alcarinque, home to the Elen. “Vedet
ode!” The command filtered through the ranks and the commanding officers began the long
process of a planetary relocation in orderly file. Ravyel’s army was nothing if not obedient and
well trained.

                          Present Day - Windemiire - Nenlante - S'Hea

Pe’Ris closed the balcony doors and turned to face the Captain of the Home Guard who stood
near the entrance of the sitting room. Lord W’Cren’s expression was dark, reflecting his mood in
forest-green eyes. Crossing the dark-marble floor, he took a seat in a high-backed chair and
propped a bare foot on one knee, letting the other fall to the side.

“So,” he said coolly, “why don’t you tell me what the vedes has been going on in the Royal
Chambers, Ja’Kel? There is something extremely off about the Tyrne – and not in the usual way.”

Ja’Kel assessed the Gamel’s mood carefully, his long chestnut hair whispering over the material
of his livery as heavy shoulders straightened, a reaction to a tensing spine. Refusing to meet
W’Cren’s gaze, he stared straight ahead and clasped callused hands behind his back.

“What goes on in the Royal Chambers is no business of mine, Y’Gamel. It is my duty to guard the
royal family, not to eavesdrop on personal conversations.”

The skin around Pe’Ris’ eyes tightened as they narrowed dangerously. “Your duty is to your
people, Foryen Al’Terre, and if something is wrong with your King – it puts the people at risk.
Y’Roden is not himself, and I want to know why.”

Leaf-green eyes remained steady on the balcony doors, unwavering. “I have no idea what you
are referring to, my Lord. I’ve noticed nothing unusual about his behaviour,” Ja’Kel lied. Truth be
told, Y’Roden had made him nervous lately. There was something in the King’s tone – something
about the depths of his eyes that was unsettling. At first he had chalked it up to illness, but as
time went on – it didn’t strike him as something that would be caused by being sick. At least – not
physically…

Maybe Fadil was right – maybe Ghetsuhm wasn’t what she seemed to be. Ja’Kel was no fool; he
had noticed the fresh bonding marks on the Royal couple. What if the Tyrah’s mind had snapped
and she had dragged Y’Roden down with her?

W’Cren’s entire body had tensed, lines of anger hardening his face, fingers clenching at his sides.
Shooting up from the chair he stalked across the room and stepped in front of Ja’Kel, forcing him
to meet his gaze. “I think you forget your place, Captain. Have you forgotten my title? You will
answer when spoken to and tell me what it is I want to know.”

“You are not my High Lord,” Ja’Kel snapped back, suddenly leaning forward in a threatening
posture, “I answer to Hojet Foryen Elgerig and Hojet Gamel Al’Teron, not to you.”
Perry’s eyes snapped, but there was a semi-triumphant expression on his features. “So it’s true
then – there is something wrong, or you wouldn’t be so bloody defensive. That human bitch has
done something to him, hasn’t she?”

Ja’Kel’s fingers dug into W’Cren’s shirt and he hauled the other elf off balance. “Shut your mouth,
Pe’Ris,” he snarled, “or I’ll shut it for you. Stop looking for trouble where there is none, before
trouble finds you.”

“Let. Go.” Dark-green eyes glowered at the other S’Hean from behind tousled, chestnut hair. “I’m
going to report your behaviour to Foryen Elgerig.”

“And say what?” Ja’Kel laughed. “That you were shaking me down for information about the
Monarchs in your unending quest to purge the bloodline? I’m sure that will go over very well. Stuff
your theories, W’Cren. Even if you’re right, who the hells is going to listen to you? All these years
all you’ve done is bitch and complain about the half-breed on the throne, anything you say is just
going to look like another attempt to bring B’Rodyn back to ruler ship. He has accepted his own
abdication, try to do the same Pe’Ris – before you destroy what is left of your career.”

“And what,” Pe’Ris said in a low tone, “if I am right. It’ll be you that didn’t step up and take action
when it should have been done, Ja’Kel. What do you think is going to happen to S’Hea with an
insane King on the throne? You think I didn’t see it? The madness in his eyes? You are putting us
all at risk with misplaced loyalty!”

The Captain loosened his hold on W’Cren’s shirt and shoved him backwards. “Well, that is just
something I’ll have to live with, isn’t it. I trust them, both of them, if there is something wrong they
will do the right thing. I’ve never seen either of them do otherwise. No matter your bigoted views,
Pe’Ris, you can’t deny that. Just let it lay, or you could start something you won’t be able to stop.”

Whirling around, he grabbed the door handle and yanked it open, not bothering to look back as it
slammed behind him.

Pe’Ris lifted a canted eyebrow slightly at the ornate door, then calmly straightened his shirt. “We’ll
see,” he murmured, “we’ll see…”

                            Present Day - Silver Dragon Ridge - S'Hea

Beth laughed softly, scooping up R'Avyen into her arms and making as if to toss the small boy
into the air. Grey-green eyes sparkled with affection. "What have you been up to?" she teased.
"I've seen that expression before." She tickled him gently.

Carrying a few more memory crystals above ground, Ner'Ius entered the room, "I wonder what
secrets lie in this crystal. If only it would tell me how to catch Maeve's atten-," Ner'Ius said,
stopping speaking when he noticed someone else was in the room.

"Oh, I am sorry. I did not know anyone else was here."

The nursemaid spun around, clutching R'Avyen to her chest in her surprise. She felt her cheeks
grow warm and ducked her head shyly, one hand lifting to tuck a lock of auburn hair behind one
ear.

"Latha math dhubh," she murmured, and crouched to set her young charge back on the floor
beside his twin brother. "We were just exploring a little. I'm sorry if we are disturbing you." Grey-
green eyes lifted to view the scroll-keeper. "Would you like us to go elsewhere?"
"There you are," Rhagi said, ambling through the door with Matt behind him. "I wanted to show
Matt my frogs but they're not there. Oh. Um. Beth, this is Matt, he's my new teacher. Matt, Beth.
She looks after the younger kids. Those are my brothers, R'Avyen and Den'Ayat. And… one of
the scroll-keepers. Ner'Ius? Why's R'Avyen looking like that? Has he got my frogs?"

Rhagi had been hoping to show Matt what happened to the lil'ron'deren when you fed them bugs
that had been fed talle konte petals, but the tiny frogs were missing from their cage. Normally he
would have suspected B'Roden, who liked to toss the frogs down Aarien's dress because she
'screamed really loud', but he wasn't here.

Matt smiled at the others, noting the colour in the woman's cheeks. He'd made fabulous progress
the last couple of days getting the boy to open up to him, but only on academic subjects. Anything
personal and Rhagi closed up. His mother was overly bright and explained too much, and he'd
been packed off up here before he'd had a chance to meet the father. All in all, he was curious.
"Hi. Sorry to intrude. There's an awful lot of people here, is it always like this?"

A genuinely warm smile curved Beth's lips as she greeted Rhagi, her affection for all the children
that came under her care evident.

"I am afraid so," the nursemaid said to Matt. "The palace can be worse. Silver Dragon Ridge is
more of a private retreat. Oh, R'Av. No, don't eat that. Where's your brother? Rhagi, can you take
the frog off Den'Ayat, please."

Crouching, she began to prise the little green frog out of R'Avyen's grasp.

"Oh, no!" Rhagi exclaimed. "Den, don't eat Pe'Ris! Bad!" Den'Ayat, whose huge blue eyes and
blond curls made him look positively angelic, laughed brightly and waved the tiny green frog at his
brother before aiming it straight for his own mouth. Rhagi was left with no choice but to tickle the
toddler until he lost his grip.

Ner'Ius began to laugh, he wasn't sure why the situation with the frog was so funny to him, but it
was. Later, Ner'Ius would chalk it up to the Talle-Konte, which is a substance that Ner'Ius had
grown to be very fond of since coming to the Silver Dragon Ridge. At this time, all the scroll-
keeper knew was what he saw in front of him was very amusing.

Finishing his chuckle with tears in his eyes, Ner'Ius remembered his manners and turned to face
Rhagi, "Yes, you are right, I am Ner'Ius El'Haie. I am surprised you knew my name."

Amused, Matt went over, crouched down, and held onto R'Avyen so he couldn't wriggle away
from Beth. "Hey kid. Let go of the frog, okay?" He raised an eyebrow at Beth. "Kids are not my
strong point. Let me know if I stuff something up."

The auburn-haired woman smiled shyly. "You seem to be doing fine," she said, relaxing
imperceptibly.

Gently prising the frog out of R'Avyen's grasp, she looked up at Matt once more. "You are Rhagi's
new tutor? The Tyrah had mentioned that she was considering organizing one for him."

Still holding the little boy, Matt got to his feet. "Yes, I am. I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed
to be doing, though. I only just got here - to Windemiire - and Ghetsuhm sent me away. To here.
That was a terrible sentence, it's just as well I'm only supposed to be teaching him science. I
know he has sisters about the same age; I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be doing with them.
The Tyrah seemed a bit... distracted." He'd got the feeling from his early communications with
Rhagi's mother that she wanted her son prepped for the TIF Academy entrance exams, but how
that worked for a young prince living in what was literally and figuratively a completely different
world, he had no idea.

"Anyway." He looked uncertainly at R'Avyen, who appeared to be weighing Matt up for
something. "I guess we'll be seeing a lot of each other."

Having retrieved his frog from the more docile twin, Rhagi straightened up, frog in one hand and
baby brother in the other. He shrugged diffidently at Ner'Ius, his natural shyness kicking back in.
"I... yeah. Mum and I spend a bit of time in the library. And Drysi. And Mum says you're family." In
fact, Ghet had given him a somewhat scattered but fairly comprehensive briefing on everyone
she knew was up here before she'd sent him, and now he wasn't sure how much he was actually
supposed to know.

"Well, I guess you are right, we are related," Ner'Ius responded with a smile, "My late Dera B'lana
was married to Y'Ardyn D'Riel, and you are related to him. So we are related not by blood, but
through marriage. But we are related none-the-less."

"What brings you to this place and who are your friends?" the scroll-keeper asked Rhagi.

Rhagi tilted his head to the side, as if he had to work out what Ner'Ius was saying before he
replied. He was usually slow to answer when he was just getting to know someone. "My mum
sent me up here for a break. For her, I think, not me. That's my tutor Matt, my nurse Elizabeth,
and those are my little brothers. The small blond one is Den'Ayat, and the bigger one thinking
about sticking his fingers up Matt's nose is S'Hea's crown prince, R'Avyen."

As he said his brother's name, he realised just how much it sounded like the name his mother
had given to the person in his father's body. Ravyel. The thought stopped him dead, some self-
protective reflex in his brain simply refusing to process it.

"Yes, he has several siblings. Drysi and Yseult are probably the closest to him in age. They're
with their mother and younger brother at the moment on Aerdon." Beth's grey-green gaze
dropped to R'Avyen as Matt's did, and she blushed suddenly. "Oh, I'm so sorry. He's supposed to
be my responsibility, not yours. Here, let me take him. And perhaps you should have the
lil'ron'deren. I'm sure Rhagi will want his pets back. They usually live in a cage in his room.

"Rhagi, perhaps you should take the lil'ron'deren back to their..." The nurse's expression
sharpened into one of distinct concern. "Rhagi, is something the matter?"

"No, I'm fine," Rhagi said abruptly. "Here, I'll take that." Gently, he took the tiny frog from Beth so
she could take R’Avyen from Matt. "I'd better go put them back, I'll see you later."

Matt watched the boy's back disappear through the door in mild astonishment. "Is he like that a
lot?"

Almost absently, Beth took R'Avyen out of his arms, her attention fixed on the doorway. "He can
be," she said quietly. She glanced back at Matt. "Their family is complicated and there have been
a number of changes in the last few years. Rhagi is not the only one of his siblings to feel
unsettled at times. I thought things were getting better though."

She could not prevent herself from looking back towards the door. "Perhaps one of us should go
after him?"
Matt let go of the baby with relief and gave Ner'Ius an apologetic shrug. Rhagi had sort of stalked
out mid-conversation, and that was rude. Probably, unless it was normal for S'Heans. "Teenage
boys," he said generally. "They do get moody at this age, he might just need some time to
himself. But then, I've only just met him."

He gave Beth a wry smile. "I know it's not good form to talk about people behind their backs, but if
you could tip me off a bit about what's going on with the family and why everything's so... odd, it'd
be a big help dealing with him."

"I barely know him, but even I can tell something is bothering him," Ner'Ius said.

Grey-green eyes went from one male to the other. Then she sighed. "As we are undoubtedly
bothering you," Beth said to Ner'Ius. She glanced down at the memory crystals the scroll-keeper
still held. "We should leave you to your work."

She gave Matt a small smile. "And I should get these two down for their nap. If you don't mind
carrying Den'Ayat, I could tell you a little about the people you're most likely to meet on the way to
the nursery." Like him, she considered it a little rude to discuss others without their knowledge,
but she cared for all of the children she looked after - even those now old enough to begin to fly
the nest - and she could see no other way for him to avoid the many potholes the complicated
family life of the House of D'Riel had created.

                   Present Day - City of Alcarinque – Planet Berelath - A.D

There was a gentle bump as the S’Hean Warship slid into the airdock at Alcarinque and a general
flurry of activity as S’Heans and Elen worked together to secure the moorings. The Emperor had
a boot braced against the inner part of the gunwale in casual readiness for the impact, his
Seeress close at hand – as usual.

As the ramp was rattled into place, he moved towards it -- heavy boots sounding hollow as he
disembarked and made his way towards opposite end of the dock, where he expected Berelath’s
General Enforcer to be waiting.

Galain was indeed waiting at the end of the dock, his skin crawling as he watched the man he
knew as Ravyel approach him. The ships and ground troops being transported via Berelath's gate
bothered the elf deeply and to be quite honest, the sooner they were gone off his planet, the
better.

He gave the Emperor a low bow, the expression on his face inscrutable.

"Welcome to Berelath," he said.

“General Alcarin,” Ravyel said coolly, “my armies need to be fed for at least two days until we can
mobilize again and relocate to Arlsyn. See that they are taken care of. The Seeress and myself
will be staying here, in Alcarinque, I expect quarters to be ready within the hour.”

Y’Roden shifted uncomfortably internally, though not a trace betrayed itself in his outward
manner. He hated this elf for so many reasons, yet this particular version of him had done
absolutely nothing to deserve it. He was beginning to lose cohesion mentally however, and the
line between one Elen and the other was starting to blur. It didn’t help that the Soul-Fuse with
Ghetsuhm had bled certain memories into his conscience that he could have done without.

“Ready the Elen infantry,” he added, “Shashya Keep is well fortified, they will be needed.”
Dúdae stood in her usual position, forest greens scanning Galain then dismissed him. Inwardly,
her attention shifted to Ro. With the change in the half-elf, she’d taken to monitoring how much
the line was blurring.

“Ro, they are not the same. If you lose the difference then you lose yourself, if you lose yourself,
where will that put your wife?”

Outwardly the Emperor didn’t react, but inwardly Y’Roden subsided slightly. “I know – it doesn’t
remove the temptation, however. My life would have been much more pleasant if Galain Alcarin
had never been in it. It’s easy to think – how could she possibly know if I offed this one? But she
would – we share a soul. If I ever find my way back, she’ll know.”

As the two spoke Galain was doing the Emperor's bidding. Naturally he had no idea who the
other man truly was. Maybe it might have made a difference, but that wasn't in the cards of fate.

He'd nodded and turned away, dead eyes flashing silent commands and receiving assurances
that all would be as it should be, meeting the demands and needs of Ravyel. He was quailing
inside. More of his people would be needed? It reinforced the already rapidly growing mound of
mutinous thoughts in Galain's heart. He simply turned back toward the Emperor and his Seeress,
his face expressionless as he spoke.

"Your quarters are ready, your Elen reinforcements will await your command."

It was amazing how many opportunities there seemed to be to kill this particular Emperor, yet
Galain knew, those opportunities were merely illusions. He would have to bide his time.

He beckoned toward the pristine-white city of his birth.

"Please, be welcome."

“Excellent,” was Ravyel’s monotone response. He held out his arm to Dúdae, the gesture one
more of possession than politeness. “Come along, love, I’m hungry, and the city of Alcarinque
awaits.”

                 Present Day - Silver Dragon Ridge - S'Hea – Planet Whispin

Shifting Rav gently in her arms as she opened the door of the nursery, Beth glanced back over
her shoulder at her companion. "What did the Tyrah tell you when you arrived?" she asked
quietly, wondering where to begin and how much needed to be said.

Matt had ended up carrying Den'Ayat because it seemed to make sense. The boy seemed pretty
docile, unless he was just warming up to something. "She said her husband was busy and I'd
meet him later. She kept saying that, and I never did. I had... some kind of meal with her and
Rhagi. Ghetsuhm talked all the time, but I don't think she actually said anything. She did mention
that there were sisters, and that they were with their mother, so I know there's an ex-wife or
something somewhere. I'm assuming those girls are older, then?"

"By about a year," Beth confirmed. She walked over to R'Avyen's bed and laid the small boy
down in it. "The Tyrne and Tyrah have what might be called a 'yours, mine and ours family'. They
share a number of children between them. The oldest of the Tyrne's was Valin, his son by an
Elen named Summerlin. Valin was the King of Corin. Sadly, he died just over a year ago. The
High Lord, Gardor Wyvern, is now acting as regent until Valin's son is old enough to take the
throne.
"Valin's sister, Si'Lyen, and their half-brother, Imoreki, you are also unlikely to see little of. Both
are adults and spend much of their time away from S'Hea. Ki and his wife, Helena, currently live
in Corin. Si'Lyen pays frequent visits to the Obsidian Basin. Another half-brother, Y'Roce, is older
than both of them. He is currently a member of the Ra’Vidden."

She smiled. "That brings us to the children you are likely to meet. The next oldest in age is
Fechine. He, along with the twins, Drysi and Yseult, and their younger brother, B'Roden, are the
children of the Tyrne's first wife, Silverthorn. Fechine is currently a student at the Crystal Keep, as
is his friend, Meghan. Drysi, Yse and B'Roden are the ones the Tyrah said were with their
mother. She has lived on Aerdon for a number of years now."

Gently, she tucked R'Avyen into bed and gestured for Matt to pass her Den'Ayat. "Besides Rhagi
and these two, the Tyrah also has two children by her previous husband, Galain Alcarin. Marius is
an adult, so you are less likely to run into him. However, you will almost certainly meet Aarien.
She and B'Roden have a way of making their presence felt, particularly when they are both
around at the same time."

Matt passed Den'Ayat over, rubbing at the drool marks on his shirt. It gave him a minute to think.
"Wait a minute. How does that work? Rhagi's half-sisters are only a year older than he is? And
B'Roden is younger?" The look he gave Beth was confused, verging on pole-axed. "Is that normal
in S'Hea, to have children by different women like that? Because it sounds like he spent the last
twenty years alternating which wife he knocked up." He shook his head, bemused. "No matter
what this guy is like, when I finally do meet him, it's going to be a let-down after this."

"The Tyrne is an unusual man," Beth said. "I do not presume to understand the relationships of
others. But no, such complexity is the not the norm in S'Hea and yes, B'Roden is younger than
Rhagi, and Aarien is younger than B'Roden." It seemed better to get those particular details out of
the way right at the beginning.

"But..." The nurse's calm disinterest utterly flummoxed him. "Aren't you a bit curious how that
happened? Okay, yeah, I understand not wanting to butt into other people's business, but it must
affect the kids. Don't they ask questions? Do they all get on in spite of that? And the parents. Do I
need to worry about custody battles or snatching or... sorry, this is all a bit much to take in."

"It isn't my place to be curious." Grey-green eyes studied him for a second before Beth turned
away. She was silent as she tucked Den'Ayat into bed, then she stepped back.

"I am not S'Hean," she said. "I am Corinian. In Corin, a member of the serving class would not
dream of questioning their superiors. I may now work in S'Hea instead, but I cannot alter the
values that shaped me into who I am today." The nursemaid glanced at Matt to see if he
understood.

"However, in answer to your question, for the most part they do get along. There has been the
odd moment though when that has not been the case, and I cannot deny that the children have
been more curious than I as they have grown older."

She paused. "It is so hard to know what to say or how to explain. The situation as it is today has
been many years in the making, and I have been there for much of it. To explain it to someone
who has not is unusual for me. Perhaps a short history lesson would help though."

The auburn-haired woman walked over to a seat by the far window where their discussion would
not disturb the two boys and gestured for Matt to join her. "The story of the D'Riels is a
complicated one and if you want their full history then you would be better talking to one of the
scroll-keepers than I. However, as far as the children are concerned, we need to go back about
ten years ago, give or take a few months. At that point in time, the Tyrne was Crown Prince of
Corin and married to his first wife, Silverthorn. The Tyrne's father, Derwin, was King of Corin, and
his cousin, B'Rodyn, was King of S'Hea.

"There is a history of trouble between the main branch of the family and Derwin's younger
brother, Grendorin, now known as Tallin Modar. At the time we are talking about, Tallin once
again made an attempt to seize the throne and invaded Corin. By the time the dust had begun to
settle after the first battle, both Kings lay dead and Y'Roden D'Riel found himself holding both
thrones. An alliance with a demoness, Samara, had also resulted in the kidnapping of Fechine,
Rhagi and three of their cousins. Whilst the attempt to free Corin went on, a further kidnapping
took place. This time Drysi, Yseult and their cousin, Muirne, were taken by their half-sister, Linnis,
to Elemmiire. As you can probably work out for yourself, all the children were subsequently
rescued, and Corin was freed, but the experiences of that time left their mark.

"About five years later, trouble flared up once more. The land was poisoned, and all tied to it
began to grow ill and die. The Tyrne himself died. At the same time his marriage to his first wife
ended. It was an extremely distressing time for the children. Their father was dead, others they
knew were seriously ill. B'Roden had to be taken to Aerdon by his mother in order to save his life.
Add to that the general confusion not uncommonly associated with divorce, and as you might
imagine several of the children were very unsettled and unhappy."

She paused. "The Tyrne was subsequently resurrected, the land was healed and, after her
divorce from Galain, Ghetsuhm became the new Tyrah. Over the last few years things have
grown, if not always better, then at least more settled. Yseult and B'Roden accepted their new
stepmother with open arms and, whilst Drysi was slower in doing so, that is also perfectly in
keeping with her more reserved character. Rhagi has, I believe, also been happier since his
parents' marriage. Custody is shared equally, and those of the children whose parents are
divorced generally divide their time between both places, hence Drysi, Yseult and B'Roden
visiting their mother on Aerdon."

Sitting down was a relief. There was a lot here that Matt didn't understand at all. It was best, he
thought, to not even try, especially when it came to resurrection.

He leaned back in his seat and crossed his ankles. "I've always found that the more I know about
my kids, the easier it is to understand where they're coming from and how to teach them. I guess
if you've known them since they were babies, it's different. And I've never worked off-world
before, so there's a lot to get used to. Like my pupil being kidnapped by a demoness. Not really
what I had in mind, but I guess it explains a bit. I should be here for at least three years, sounds
like I won't get through that without something 'interesting' happening."

A hint of a smile touched Beth's lips. "It seems unlikely," she agreed. "Interesting seems to be
what this family does best."

Her head tilted as she studied Matt. The relaxed way he had received her story after his initial
surprise was quietly reassuring. "Where did you work before this, if you don't mind my asking?"

Matt smiled wryly, wondering how much of what he had to say Beth would understand. "I was a
professor at the TIF academy in San Francisco. On Terra. Your Tyrah is a graduate, but from
before my time. I taught botany to some big classes. But then... I had to leave. It wasn't my fault,
and Ghetsuhm understands that. I took private pupils for a while, which was interesting, travelling
with their families and stuff. And then an ex-pupil of mine put me in touch with a Captain Theris,
who was looking for a tutor who was prepared to go off-world. I'd been teaching Xenobotany for
years and never left the planet, so it was a dream opportunity. I expect to get a couple of great
papers out of Whispin. I guess I didn't think too hard about how different it would be actually living
here. It's tough to get used to."

"The heat and gravity?" the auburn-haired woman guessed, having heard similar remarks from
others in the past.

Tilting his head to the side, Matt considered. "No. Well, I mean, sure, that's hard. I spent some
time on the ship trying to get used to it, but I'm still pretty wrung out. But I was expecting that: it's
almost all that's in the Whispin dossier. No, it's the way people live, how they behave. I mean,
where I come from? We don't have servants. Sure, you pay people to clean your house or mind
your kids if you're lucky enough to have any, but they're not servants. Nobody has 'betters'. And...
cars, phones, ships, terminals - everything here is on paper, I've never seen so much paper. And
so few power points... But then, I've never seen water this clean, either. You can't swim in the St
Lawrence, and I reckon you could walk across San Francisco Bay these days." He shrugged.
"Guess I'll get used to it. Getting some swimming in first, though."

She laughed quietly. "If swimming is a favourite pastime, you should get on well with the
S'Heans," she said. "The water is very much their element."

The nursemaid hadn't understood everything Matt had said, but she did understand the emotions
that had created that tone of voice. Leaning forward, she touched his arm gently with one hand, a
simple gesture of support. "I'm sure you will find that you fit in in no time at all. It may look and
feel different, but I have met enough different races now to realise that in some ways people are
just people too."

                Present Day - Windemiire - Nenlante - S'Hea – Planet Whispin

The nursery was eerily quiet without the various children running around. Kegan, Cade, and
Kaiden had remained on Arlsyn; Fechine was still with Arminiea; Yseult, Drysi and B’Roden were
still safely with their mother, and Rhagi and the twins were away with Beth, which only left
Daerkal behind.

Shadow watched her youngest son as they sat on the floor together with a silver-coloured puzzle
box that one of her other children had sent. His face was drawn into a scowl as he tried to figure
out the sequence of the puzzle she had created.

“Tricky!” Dae giggled causing his mother’s lips to twitch. He’d figured out the first level and
received a slight shock when he pressed the wrong rune. His amusement faded away as he
concentrated once again.

An’Thaya eased the door open, fiery locks tumbling about delicate features as the Amazon
peeked into the room. A smile came unbidden as she watched Shadow with her youngest son for
a moment before speaking.

She had parted ways with Callan in the hallway, figuring his straightforward personality was what
Ghet needed at the moment. Sometimes, having someone to yell at that wouldn’t be offended
was the best therapy a body could get.

“Dagar, Ad’Vere. Care for some company?”

Shady looked up and grinned, “You’re one of the few that can come around any time, thought you
knew that by now. Pull up a piece of floor and join us for a electrifying game of find the right
sequence or get shocked?”
An’Thaya laughed lightly and closed the door behind her as she moved into the room. “Around
here, it always pays to check first. It’s like D’Riel whack-a-mole, you never know what kind of
mood you are going to encounter behind any given door.”

Dropping easily onto the floor she winked at Daerkal, curling her legs around to the side and
leaning on one hand to watch him play. “Oh, a puzzle box,” she observed in that impressed tone
adults often use with children, “I’m not quite sure I’m up for a shocking though, my hair is curly
enough.

“Have you been staying up here in the nursery?” she asked Shadow, “or have one of the other
Nannies been staying with Daerkal when you’re not here?”

“Riiight.” Shadow snickered, “When it comes to you and Ro I’m as likely to get my arse kicked as
I am to kick someone else’s, I think that puts us on fair ground. Anyone else I just smirk while
they take swings and miss.”

Dae looked up and grinned, “Hiya Kara Aya!” The four-year-old nodded sagely, “Is hard, Mieve
keeps putting in timer thingys.” Forest greens studied his aunt’s hair then nodded, “Too curly,
yup, you’d look like one of those poodle things in Cade’s picture book.” By the time he was
finished talking, his attention was already back to his box.

“Actually, we’ve been splitting our time between here and my rooms, mostly sleeping in my rooms
and days in here because he has a chance to play with more toys.” The Taurësúlë shrugged,
“Since Beth has been gone it’s just been easier if I take care of him. My luck he’d find a dagger
somewhere and try to play with one of the other Nannies and send them screaming for the hills,
or pass out when their charge disappears.”

Emerald greens sparkled with amusement and An’Thaya laughed as she reached over to gently
ruffle Dae’s hair. “Miscreant,” she accused.

The Amazon nodded in response to Shadow and sighed. “I’d be a nervous wreck if – you know
who -- was down the hall from any of mine. Mind you, it would probably be a much-deserved
punishment if those three got at him. I’m sure half of the Black Guard has gone grey and gained
fifty pounds by now, they never know when the airborne food attacks are coming.”

Shadow turned her eyes back to her son, “It’s one reason why I keep him so close, and I certainly
can’t send him away. I’d be doing more harm than good. Besides, he wouldn’t be interested in
him. He’s not connected to the right people.” The forest elf paused then barked out a laugh, “So
that is where Dorian was getting the grey hairs, here I thought it was because I frustrated him. I’m
not sure whether I should be amused or insulted.”

Tay tilted her head slightly in an odd sort of agreement. “One can never quite tell with him though,
its best to err on the side of caution. He’s yours -- that might be reason enough. A grandchild is
as good as a child, and love matters more than blood.”

She smiled genuinely then and grinned, “I’d like to think I’ve contributed to a few of those grey
hairs myself. He doesn’t really seem to like my daggers much – can’t think why. If I were you,
though, I’d go for amused, it has sort of been a community project.”

Shadow took the words to heart. “I think I liked the other version more, he was easier to put into
place.” Luckily for her, though, she hadn’t had to actually deal with the Demon Elf just that one
time and it was enough to sent a shiver down her spine; it wasn’t fear that had caused the feeling,
but the expression that was on his face.
The Taurësúlë snickered, “Dorian tends to take offence to anyone who carves on him. But its
good for him, takes his mind off that idiotic brother of his.”

“Well, you know. Y’Roden is stronger than He is here. This version seems to be quite the
opposite. Ro is in there – somewhere, but he isn’t the Ro we know and love.” She smiled dryly, “I
can’t imagine what its like for you knowing your other self – well, yeah.”

An'Thaya grinned then and shrugged. “Dorian likes it, he can deny it all he wants but it won’t do
him much good. It seems to be a racial trait.”

“It’s probably one none of us want to know either.”

A snicker escaped her, “It seems to be, I probably should have said he takes offence if he can’t
carve back, but honestly? I think he could have kept that glass to himself.” Shady smiled, “I miss
fighting with him.”

Tay lifted an eyebrow. “Just the fighting?” She couldn’t quite help the smirk, fighting with Callan
was always – invigorating, so she could definitely relate. “What is going on between you and Turq
anyway? If you don’t mind me asking.”

Shadow glanced purposely toward her son who had seemed to fallen deeper into concentration
as he wasn’t interrupting and he had his tongue stuck out, then back to her Ad’Vere. “Yes,
fighting.” She snickered then grinned. “I don’t mind, and to be honest? I don’t know. There’s
something there, we just haven’t really stopped and put ourselves in the same place long enough
to figure out what.”

“Ah – been there done that, it might be worth pausing at some point and doing some thorough
investigating though,” Tay suggested with a wink. “After he has had a nice long bath,” she added.
“I like Turq a lot, but he would really do well to develop a closer relationship with soap.”

“I’ve gotten use to the smell, but thorough investigating calls for soap and a hard scrubbing.”
Shady laughed, “There’s always been something in the way, guess there isn’t so much now, eh?”
The corner of her lips curled up into her usual grin, “I think after all this is over with, I’m going to
track him down and figure out what’s going on.”

“That,” An’Thaya said impishly, “sounds like a fabulous idea.”

                                                  ***

Ruby gems glittered beneath partially lifted chestnut lashes, watching the double doors to the
garden close behind Ghet as she left the room. He lay there waiting long enough to be sure she
was down the stairs and into the garden proper before moving, silent as he slipped off the bed
and out into the sitting room. Callused fingers caught a black shirt that was tossed on the back of
a chair, left there minutes before when he had retreated to the bedroom. Heavy shoulders rolled
as he shrugged into it, then paused in front of a mirror, running fingers through his ruffled hair and
watching as crimson faded into emerald green. Satisfied, he turned towards the doors that led out
into the hallway and slipped through them, giving Ja’Kel a friendly nod and smile before turning
right into the archway that housed the Royal Family’s private stairwell.

Bare feet made little sound as he padded down floor by floor, descending from the seventh floor
down to the second. Emerging into an empty room, he glanced briefly to the left where another
hallway led to the throne room, then turned right. Passing through succession of rooms that
served various functions, but were empty at this time of day, he finally came out into the library.
“Your Majesty,” a Scroll Keeper greeted him almost immediately with a respectful bow. “Is there
anything in particular I can find for you today?”

Ravyel arranged a suitable expression on his face and nodded politely. “I need several scrolls
from the diplomatic and cultural sections. Any worlds we have political relationships with, or those
we have earmarked for possible treaties.”

“Right away, M’lord, if you care to take a seat, I’ll get them myself.”

“D’Anke.”

The S’Hean disappeared between stacks of books and scrolls, leaving the Demon to slide into a
chair and tap his fingers on the surface of the desk. A servant appeared from the same direction
the Scroll Keeper had exited in, and without a word, set down a glass and a decanter of brandy
before disappearing again. Ravyel lifted a slightly amused eyebrow and quietly poured himself a
glass as he waited for the librarian to return.

He didn’t have long to wait, and the stack of scrolls the male brought was impressive. Ravyel
nodded his thanks, waited until the elf went back to his duties, then unrolled the first of the
Scrolls. The half-elf appeared to just scan down the page briefly, a common misconception where
Ravyel or Y’Roden were concerned. In a matter of seconds, he had assimilated the entirety of
S’Hea’s relationship with The Diirlathe.

“Interesting – but useless,” he muttered, reaching for another. “Beta Blu, ah – here we go,
something new. Not very useful though – I hate desert planets. Easy to conquer however, and the
blue nimbus makes it rather unique. Maybe Rax will want it – land to hoard and its shiny. So kind
of them to include the coordinates – Windlings, what the vedes is a Windling?”

The next two scrolls contained information on Berelath and Merlin. The differences in the two
planets compared to the ones he was familiar with caught the Emperor’s interest briefly, for about
as long as it took to scan the contents, and then he was on to the next. Another unfamiliar name
was scrawled across the top -- CathEska.

“Furry Elves? You’ve got to be kidding me.” Ravyel snorted with laughter as he read through,
noting natural resources and cultures before putting it aside with the scroll on Beta Blu.

“Pixies,” he shook his head in disbelief as the world of Garden was revealed. “Rax will be
impressed – that many pixies is a veritable sugar mine. He’ll be eating candied Elf for a century or
so.”

Leaning back he took a slow drink from his glass while he read on, taking in the differences of the
planets Grova and Arüìnnbìth, then stumbled across another planet that he had never heard of.
Dark eyebrows drew in and his forehead furrowed as Ravyel sat back up, his expression one of
intense interest. “Elemmiire – now there is a planet I could sink my teeth into.” His eyes came
abruptly to the end of the parchment, then abruptly flipped it over. With a frustrated snarl he
crumpled the scroll and whipped it across the table where it bounced off a shelf and rolled across
the floor. “Skrunning useless without coordinates.”

His luck improved with the next several he went through, Haven and Krystallos holding particular
interest. The planet Terra looked to be a good source of slave labour, if nothing else, but there
was very little information on a planet called World. After that, he found himself back in somewhat
familiar territory with Thitsin and Tumnambar – and then finally, Arlsyn.
There were several more places listed that were fairly useless as far as the Empire was
concerned, having nothing to offer, or no provided coordinates. There was an interesting mention
of an alternate Arlsyn that caught his eye and gave him pause. Meylor i Blackheart, the name
tugged at something. Jack Steele? That would mean more than one alternate – the prospects
were starting to hurt his head. An entirely technical version of Arlsyn, however, was almost too
good to pass up.

“Xudah IX,” the words were murmured as the second-last scroll passed through his fingers.
“Silver’s Prison planet?” Chestnut eyebrows shot straight up and he ferreted the Diirlathe scroll
out again and spent several long moments comparing between the two. It was when he
unravelled the final parchment, however, when his features settled into a rictus grin. “Well I’ll be
skrunned.” A low whistle rang through the library, followed by a low, dark chuckle. “Rax – Rax –
perhaps you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do.”

A few minutes later the seat he had occupied was empty. On the table lay the last scroll, left open
to a paragraph that read; The Silmetaurea, home to the Eldredae elves and the Silver Kin…

                                                  ***

The scent of crushed grass rose up around Ghet's bare feet, taking her back. Gods, out here...
she could almost hear his voice. She'd desperately needed to get out of the cage she shared with
Ravyel, get away from his presence over her shoulder all the time, feel the sun on her skin. She
was only out in her garden, not far away, close enough to be there if anyone needed her, but far
enough away to breathe.

Sitting on the grass, she shut her eyes. The past was so strong it could swallow her. She'd done
all this before. Alright, not the sleeping with the enemy bit, that was new, but the slow descent
into death and madness, the knowledge that she was going to break and it was just a matter of
when. In a way, it might not be that bad... in sickness and in health, in plenty and in poverty, in life
and beyond, where we shall meet, remember, and love again. She couldn't tell if she really
believed it, or if she just desperately needed to.

In silence he watched her as he leaned against the entry into the garden. It was there, all around
her, he could feel it; see it in her thermal pattern, in the colours of Aethyr that swirled around her
feet. The knife's edge of madness was toying with her, and he could feel it as surely as the
breeze that struggled to make its way across the gardens through Whispin's heat.

"How are you holding up?" Callan's arms unfolded and he padded through the garden. His face
and body were still bruised and fading cuts laced his arms, hands, chest and face. The Emperor
was dressed in nothing more than a loose pair of S'Hean-made trousers and his ribs were
bandaged and patched for broken ribs and deep puncture wounds. Topaz eyes settled on a vivid
pattern of colours on Ghet's chest as he sank to the ground across from her, "I'd ask what that is,
but I'm pretty sure I already know... and..." his eyes lifted to meet her denim blues, "I don't mean
your breast."

"Callan," Ghet said, her voice mildly puzzled, as if she was taking a moment to place him. She
hadn't heard him coming. Callan. She'd told Ro once; she didn't really understand her relationship
with Callan. She'd never had one like it before. "It's a perfectly nice breast," she said, light teasing
failing to cover an underlying weariness, "but yeah, I'm pretty sure you've seen 'em before. That...
is my death warrant. Tay'll have told you... we soul-merged. The night before I lost him. It's odd,
you know, when the pain is there all the time, you almost forget. It does hurt, but..."
She shrugged, and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her knees. "We've never shitted
each other before, Callan. Have you come to see how far I am from cracking and just giving the
ase'hel what he wants?"

"She didn't have to tell me. What she knows, I know, and vice versa... and I felt it on the Web. It's
unmistakeable if you know what it is..."

Silence crawled between them as Callan watched her breathe, studied her face, her hands, her
posture, her scent, then nodded slowly. "So is the Madness, and I don't care if you're Kin or not,
Madness is Madness... and yes. It hurts. I think it's the worst pain a person can endure." Callused
fingers pinched at the bridge of his nose, then scrubbed at the inside corners of his eyes for a
moment.

"And yeah." His hand dropped as he leaned forward and looked intently into her eyes, "You're
right. We don't shit each other... that's exactly why I'm here."

"There's a difference between knowing something, and talking about it," Ghet said remotely.
There was a flat echo of very old pain in her voice. "No matter how closely you're bound, how
much you can know, you have to never stop talking."

She pushed her hair back and shrugged, staring out across the garden. If anyone else had said
what he had said, it would have been with pity, and she would have cried. This was why she
trusted him so much. "It comes and goes, back and forth. Sometimes it's so close I can taste it.
It's worse when he hits me. It's not as bad when we talk. Sometimes, he's almost a person."

She turned her head, rested it on her knees, and looked Callan in the face. "I could do it. You
know that. I could be everything he wants me to be. It's always been in me. Dammit, do you
understand this? Why I can tell you this? I know that if I tell you, Thaya knows. I love her, I do, but
I couldn't talk to her like this. Silverthorn would never have gone down, she'd have died fighting.
She'd have died, of course... but me, I'd be there on my knees for him for the rest of my life.
Anything he wanted..."

Abruptly, she dropped to her back on the grass, staring straight up. "My gods I need to get laid. I
am not supposed to be alone."

Callan's eyes remained on Ghet as she fell back and laid there. Several long seconds later, he
snorted softly, "Well. I can't help you with that last part... but none of us are, you know." Black
wings welled out from his back and one incredibly sharp talloned tip tucked itself under as he
nudged her a wingtip. The leathery appendages rustled as they curled back, and like an extra set
of arms and hands, braced the Emperor as he leaned back, weight comfortably supported by his
wings, long legs crossed at the ankle.

"Meant to be alone. But Ghet... he's not your Ro..." Callan paused and leaned forward again,
black wings stretching, furling, then spreading slightly again, "And he's not your Demon. Could
you? In the end? Be everything he wants you to be?"

Ghet laughed lightly, a deliberate skimming over the surface. "You didn't answer my question.
Nice dodge, boy." She was quiet for a moment, not settling for a quick, pat answer. "Not and stay
sane. But that's hardly a barrier, is it? Most people wouldn't consider the things I've done with
Y'Roden to be sane. Callan, the absolute worst thing you can do to a lahaya is leave her alone.
Couple of weeks, her mind snaps. Nothing to feel, it's like having no air to breathe. So we
Stockholm Syndrome like nobody's business. If there's only a complete ase'hel, it's better than
nothing. Y'Roden wasn't the first. The best, yeah, but it wasn't him who taught me, who
conditioned me like a dog to a bell."
She rolled onto her side so she could look at him, head propped easily on one hand like they
were discussing drink mixers. "No. He's not my Ro. But he sounds like my Ro, looks like him...
Callan, he smells like him. When he lies in my bed with me in the dark he smells like my husband.
And… the Ghet he had, in his world, he loved her, he actually loved her. And the Ravyel here...
he raped me, he broke me completely. But he's a part of my husband, how could I not love him?
So yeah, I've thought about it, and I could, and the last sane part of me would be screaming for
the rest of my life, but it wouldn't matter much."

She stared at his face, wondering. He'd lost Task, and gone utterly mad. He'd come within a
breath of losing Thaya. He knew, too, that she'd lost Y'Roden twice, and that they both knew grief
and loss and madness as real, tangible things, not an abstract hypothesis. "I hadn't thought
about... if I do, if this all goes to hell and I can't get Ro back and I turn, you're the one who'll have
to decide what to do. It doesn't matter who's officially in charge, it'll come down to you."

"Which question? Why you can talk to me, or if I understand?" Callan shifted around in the grass
until he was beside her, wings casually supporting him once more as he leaned back. "There
were two questions I dodged, not just one." He grinned for a moment, then eased back onto his
back. The Emperor winced, sucked in a breath through his teeth as his broken and separated ribs
rebelled against the motion, then he exhaled.

"I can understand madness, pain, grief, loss, and believe me, I know he smells just like Ro. We
had a few up close and personal moments in the training arena... he tastes like Ro too, by the
way." The crooked grin pulled harder at one corner of his mouth as he turned his head to look at
her, then back up at the sky.

"You know what I think you need?" He nodded and stretched out one arm over his head, then
pulled it under his neck, "A visit from one really hot looking soul-healer. She looks like me you
know?"

He was making light of the moment, but what he wasn't saying was that he knew, in the end, it
would come down to him... and he knew what 'coming down to him' meant. The Demon-elf might
look like Y'Roden, might smell like him, sound like him, even taste like him, but Callan wouldn't
think twice about letting that thing live... and killing it would probably be the last thing he ever did.

"Callan, have you been snogging my demon-emperor husband-lookalike behind my back?" Ghet
queried, fluttering her eyelashes. "For shame. Yeah, I know what he tastes like, too."

She shook her head, smiling ruefully, a hank of dark red hair falling across her face. "Mira does
not look like you. She's much hotter. Sometimes I regret there's not enough of me to go around;
I'd have done your daughter like a dinner. And I eat with my hands." She sighed, closing her eyes
for a moment, coming out of hiding. "An'Thaya said that too. The thing is... I don't know. I'm not
sure if I want to stop it. I was planning to talk to her, and Bran, before things got too bad. Well, not
much before."

She opened her eyes and looked straight at him, a sudden sureness in her expression. "Because
you've never told me I'm a selfish whore who deserves to die. Not all my friends can say that.
Because there's nothing I could say that would shock you, not because you're desperate for your
Cool Points, but because it just wouldn't shock you. Because you never under-estimate me, and
mostly because I've never fooled you for a minute."

"Yeah, well," He shrugged and poked at the ground with a wing-tip as he studied her face,
"Emperor or not, my kind don't live long unless we're a damn good judge of character, and we
don't hold a throne long unless we can tell a bluff from the real article... and who would I be to
judge anyone? Task and Tay are the only two women I've had sex with and not eaten for
breakfast... well. Aeryn, and that was luck." Callan let all the possible jokes and off-coloured
comments lie, it was no secret that for most of his life, his biggest thrill had been living the life of a
serial killer, and to have eaten a woman was meant in a very literal sense where he was
concerned.

"So. Since we can't shock each other, and since we can't fool each other, Ghet, you have to
know... if we can't get Ro back, I can't let that thing live." His topaz eyes watched her intently,
unflinchingly, "You understand what telling me, ultimately it comes down to me, means... and
what we all are going to lose if it's done?"

Ghet's gaze was steadily and unusually serious, through to a place she hadn't particularly wanted
to go. She and Ro had asked Callan to be the one to execute their children if necessary for a very
good reason. He knew what it was to do what was right, regardless of how other people might
feel about it. To take the responsibility on, fully knowing people were going to hate you for it. "I
know, Callan. If we don't get Ro back, I'll die anyway, and if I die, he dies. Either it's all
recoverable, or all three of us die: me, Ro, Ravyel. And the heir to the S'Hean throne is a one-
year-old boy. Sometimes it makes me mad as hell. Eleven hundred years to get to this point, and
I only get Ro for three years? Fuck that."

She shook her head slowly. "I wish I could tell you I wouldn't fight you if it did come down to that,
but I might. And I wish I could tell you my kids would come up to you afterwards and pat you on
the back and say, 'Dude, it's okay, we understand'." Her imitation of Rhagi's current cracking
pubescent voice was uncanny. "I really wish I knew what was going to happen to me when I die.
You and me, the ersatz D'Riels. Are we good enough to get through the door and do we want to
be part of a club that would let us join anyway..." She winced, humour failing, tears pricking in the
corners of her eyes. "Yeah, I've thought about it, I understand. I think maybe I might have
accepted it just a bit much."

"You won't have to worry about fighting." Callan rolled over on his stomach, pushed himself up on
his elbows and crossed his forearms. Black wings stretched and folded, then vanished beneath
his skin and out of sight, topaz eyes remained on her face, but his expression wasn't unkind, just
honest.

"You just won't know when the time comes, and you won't feel any pain." His head shook slightly
side-to-side, "I can promise you that." Callan spoke an uneasy truth; he had spent all but the last
eight centuries as a General, but also as his sire's Right Hand, the assassin of the Black Empire.

"But... Ghetsuhm? I don't think just a few years are all you'll have with him, or have had in the
past. What the two of you have is Infinity; it’s in your souls, its mapped out in your essence, and
its bound the two of you together. You'll have him back..." in this life or the next was left
unspoken..."I'm sure of it."

                                                   ***

An’Thaya slipped past the nursery doors and started down towards the Royal Chambers, bare
feet soundless on the marble floor and flaming-red locks tumbling about her shoulders. She came
to the t-shaped junction of the hall and Ja’Kel moved to open the doors for her just as movement
to her left caught the Amazon’s peripheral. Stopping, she watched Ravyel emerge from the
private stairway with Ro’s easygoing manner, a smile of warm greeting on his face as he came
towards her.

“Dagar, little sister. Coming in for a visit?”
“I was – yes.” The words were spoken with no hint of the emotion swirling in the depths of Tay’s
emerald eyes, and the smile seemed real enough. She didn’t even flinch when the Demon placed
a hand on her shoulder, catching her neatly with his forearm and guiding her towards the opening
doors. A heartbeat… two, and Ja’Kel had closed them.

The Empresses’ shoulders immediately tensed and she attempted to shrug Ravyel’s arm away,
which only made him tighten the grip. “Where the vedes were you?” she hissed, “and let go.”

Ravyel tugged the tiny redhead close, letting the emerald seep from his eyes as a grin twisted his
mouth. “Nowhere that concerns you, lovely. You are a nosey little piece, aren’t you? Callan really
ought to teach you some manners. I’m rather disappointed in him.”

The dagger that jabbed into the Demon’s throat pricked deep, just missing the carotid artery.
“Callan wouldn’t know what manners were if they bit him on the ass,” Tay said calmly.
“Apparently, neither would you. I suggest that you back off, and now before I lose my temper.”

“Is that supposed to deter me? I thought you knew me better than that sweetheart.”

“Ravyel, honey, I’ve been putting you in your place for close to three thousand years now. Don’t
embarrass yourself by making me do it again.” She twisted the dagger a little, just to make her
point.

“I don’t embarrass easy,” the word was a growl as his fingers grabbed the Amazon’s delicate
face, squeezing her jaw as he forced her head up. “And I’m horribly bored.”

The creak of bone brought a spark of pain to An’Thaya’s eyes and they darkened in hue, a flash
of rage starting to build in their depths. Without warning, a razor-sharp crimson spike exploded
from the shoulder that was still crushed in Ravyel’s massive hand, exploding through his palm
and bursting out through the bones, tendons and flesh.

Crimson eyes popped wide with surprise and the hiss of pain was laced with something else
entirely. In a knee-jerk reaction he yanked the redhead off her feet, finding his hands full as
crimson wings exploded from her back and a scale-gauntleted fist cracked him in the eye. Caught
off guard, the Demon dropped her, snarling as stars exploded in his vision. Heavy muscles
heaved and rippled as he swung around, the back of his hand impacting on a delicate cheekbone
and sending the Amazon spinning into the divan.

Landing in an explosion of wings and flaming locks, the Amazon laughed a little hysterically. “This
could just keep escalating,” she panted, shoving masses of hair out of her face, “or you could just
skrun off before I have to kill you.”

The look Ravyel levelled on her was angry, but slightly bemused. “What the vedes are you?” He
made no move to approach her again, crimson eyes studying the various mutations with mild
curiosity.

Wiping at a rivulet of blood that trickled from the edge of her mouth, the Amazon grinned ferally at
the Demon. “You just go home and keep pushing at that other me, nyfader, and maybe you’ll find
out.”

“Fair enough,” Ravyel said dryly, shrugging out of his shirt and binding his hand with it to staunch
the bleeding. “Though that may be a little difficult. I could have Araxmarr do it I suppose – he likes
to play that sort of game – and she is his wife by now.”
“Yes, well, that’s unfortunate for her, I’m sure. Or maybe not – depends on how crazy you’ve
driven her – it may actually be a relief just to get away from you. I know I’d prefer it if you’d just go
away.”

“I’m hurt.”

“You’ll get over it.”

“I’m there already.”

              Present Day - The Blackthorn Keep - The Diirlathe - Planet Aerdon - A.D

In the three weeks, at least in Whispin time, since she had been forced to marry Araxmarr,
An’Thaya had spent a great deal of her time alone. She was unused to the company of others,
and the occupants of the Keep made her uncomfortable. Her days were spent exploring
abandoned areas of the massive structure, her nights spent wrapped in furs before the fire. It was
dead winter in the Diirlathe, and the cold seemed to seep right into her core.

In Whispin, her days had been spent training, and it wasn’t a habit she intended to let go. The
morning found her alone in a room that hadn’t been used in what looked like centuries. Torches
guttered on the wall, throwing light in the darkened room and casting odd shadows across the
floor. The Amazon’s hair was braided back and she was clad in a simple pair of black leather
trousers and a cut off black shirt, her feet bare on the granite floor.

Tanned skin glimmered with sweat as she moved in a tantric dance, avoiding flying steel throwing
stars that were kept airborne by the newly released magic in her soul. Twin daggers glinted in the
light, occasionally ringing loudly as they deflected the flying weapons. It was a difficult exercise
that demanded intense concentration, which made the out of the way room ideal – private and
silent.

"You know," the voice appeared out of nowhere, "you can get terrible lines if you frown that hard
all of the time."

A black-gauntleted hand snatched a star from out of mid-air, obsidian scales rippling back to
reveal alabaster skin. Erinya touched a finger delicately to the point, near-black blood welling up
as it pierced the tip. She laughed, the sound low-pitched and husky.

"Of course, that might be what you want." Rich-brown eyes sparkled with malicious enjoyment as
she licked the blood away as delicately as a cat.

The voice startled An’Thaya enough to throw her timing off by a nano-second. She whirled
instinctively, right into the path of a screaming star that carved a thin line across her cheek.
Dropping into a crouch she released her hold on the spell and the airborne missiles dropped
unanimously to the floor with a sound like metallic rain.

“It might be,” she said hesitantly, “but then, I’ve never been an inherently cheerful person.” The
S’Hean’s nose twitched slightly as the scent of iron-rich blood tickled her senses. Emerald gems
studied the female black carefully for a moment, searching memories of Rax and his personal
guard. “Erinya,” she said finally, “Erinya Dhaunae, isn’t it?”

The ebony-haired woman inclined her head in amused acknowledgement. "An'Thaya D'Riel, isn't
it?" she returned, the seemingly polite question laced with quiet mockery.
She prowled forward, the movement as elegant as that of a hunting cat. "You're bleeding." A
fingertip hovered over the cut on the redhead's cheek, and then danced away without quite
brushing the skin. Dark eyes gleamed. "You really ought to be more careful." A sardonic smile
curved her lips. "There's a fine line between lust and lunch."

“It happens,” An’Thaya said dryly, “quite often, really.” She couldn’t quite help feeling like a
mouse in front of a cat. Living in a Keep full of creatures that could shift at any moment and bolt
you down in a bite or two tended to have that effect. On the other hand, perhaps being eaten
would be far more preferable than just waiting around until Araxmarr called her to his bed.

“Careful is boring – and I’ll have to take your word on that.” Straightening the Amazon sheathed
her daggers with a smooth movement that had the blades twirling about her fingers one moment,
then resting against her hips the next. “Did you come here for lunch or entertainment?”

"Could it not be both? The Black Kin do enjoy getting the most out of a meal... Every. Last.
Nuance," Erin purred. "And redheads always did hold an attraction for me. They always seem to
have a little more spice than any other."

She circled the other woman, her expression speculative.

“Well – there is that,” An’Thaya agreed. “Though on the down side, all this hair would likely catch
in your teeth. That, and Rax might be a little cranky if you ate his bargaining chip – not that
anyone would notice a marked difference from his usual emotional state. I’m sure he’d get over it
quite quickly anyway.”

The Black came to a halt behind her. She laughed. "Rax can drag out 'crankiness' far longer than
you can imagine even in your worst nightmares. And look at what he has achieved because of it.
Vindictive bloody-mindedness does have some merits, you have to admit."

An alabaster finger coiled a fiery curl about one knuckle. "It's a pity Rax never really learnt to
share his toys. I think you could be a lot of fun if you really wanted to be."

“I’ll have to take your word on that one too, I’m afraid I don’t know my husband terribly well. I
really don’t have any intentions of finding out either.” The Amazon turned her head slightly to eye
the Black female and she smirked slightly. “Just what did you have in mind?”

She was getting a little bored, being left to her own devices, and Rax had given her carte blanche
to do as she wished – not that she intended to take him up on most of his suggestions. After so
many years of being watched every minute of every day, it was freeing to have time to herself, to
live on her own schedule. She still lived in a prison – but it was a very large, very interesting one.

“Something tells me you have a really twisted idea of fun.”

"What's fun without a little screaming?" Erin tugged slightly on the hair wrapped around her
finger, just hard enough for it to sting, but no more. "A little pain, a little blood?" She smiled
wickedly. "A lot of blood?"

The light seemed to strike her eyes in such a way that they glowed a deep garnet red, the same
shade as old blood. "I can be as twisted as people want me to be, but it's far more entertaining to
be as twisted as I want to be."

“I never said there was anything wrong with it,” An’Thaya replied, “its just twisted, is all.” A feral
glint lit emerald greens in response to the sharp pain in her scalp and for a moment, the redhead
didn’t quite know what to do with the reaction that bubbled up. She bit her lip, hard enough to
draw blood. “I seem to attract twisted – I’m not sure what that says about me.”

The ebony-haired woman's breath was warm against her cheek as she leaned in closer.
"Perhaps," she whispered, "like recognises like? Maybe you're just a little twisted too? Deep
down inside, part of you likes the idea more than even you realise. But you can't disguise the
change in your body chemistry. You can lie all you like with your mouth, but scent never lies."

Her fingers slid free of the crimson locks, gliding along one shoulder. "Would your elf have given
you that, I wonder. Oh yes, I know all about him. The Enforcer of Berelath. Love of your Life. The
Grand Sacrifice. I make a point of finding out about anything that has the potential to bite us in the
ass."

Erinya's throaty voice whispered like black velvet over skin. "It's a fabulous fairytale, my dear, but
is it anything more than that? Really? Or did you give him an easy way out? Wouldn't a man who
really loved you at least try to fight for you rather than just watch you be handed over to someone
else?"

She stepped back.

"You might want to think about that."

An’Thaya’s eyes darkened slightly – reflecting her sombre mood. “It doesn’t really matter anyway,
does it,” the Amazon said. She had made a choice, and this is where it had landed her – she had
to live with that. Galain was better off without someone who just gave her word to another man –
because that is what she had done. Perhaps under duress, but she belonged to the Black
Emperor now, no matter what her heart wanted.

“Araxmarr can give me all the freedom in the world but he knows as well as I do, I won’t willingly
lay down with any man. Not now – not ever.”

Dark eyes lifted to meet garnet and she smiled self mockingly. “Have you ever loved anyone? I
really don’t recommend it – for a Fairytale, this is all terribly tragic, don’t you think?”

                 Present Day - Windemiire - Nenlante - S'Hea – Planet Whispin

Weapon-roughened fingers tugged at the laces of a black doublet with emerald-green highlights,
then smoothed down the front as Ravyel looked at other-self’s reflection in the mirror. Shoving
shaggy chestnut locks back from his face he concentrated carefully on the hue of his eyes and
the set of his shoulders. There was a more casual air about Y’Roden’s mannerisms than there
was to his own. The S’Hean King still moved like a predator, but it was obvious that he wasn’t too
worried about a sudden knife in the back. It showed not only in the way he acted, but also in his
style of dress. The complete lack of armour revealed a confidence that Ravyel could never have
afforded.

“Did you have a nice friendly visit?” he asked Ghet without looking at her. “You seem a little more
relaxed after your conversation with the dragon.” The Demon smirked slightly. “I must admit I’m
feeling a little better myself. My little sister is vastly entertaining in this dimension – not so much of
a martyr.”

Ghet watched her husband's beauty perverted with barely a visible flicker. "Relaxed? I suppose
so. You could call it that. I made a promise, and I like to keep my promises. One way or another,
this won't go on too much longer. Your little sister..." Checking her own reflection from behind
him, the sit of her deep wine-red dress, she laughed. "Packs a hell of a punch. Callan is not
conducive to a martyr complex. Nearly everyone is malleable to some degree. They change with
the people around them, don't you find?"

He touched at the bluish bruise beneath one eye, then the fresh wound at his throat, the mirror
reflecting the ragged flesh where An’Thaya’s spike had gone through his hand. “She does at that
– it’s quite refreshing. I’m starting to think she might survive Araxmarr’s attentions after all. I was
worried he’d kill her before getting an heir on her, but I might be mistaken.

“Then again, there isn’t a dragon lurking beneath her flesh. I don’t suppose you know how that
happened?” Emerald eyes shot Ghet a look in the mirror and the Demon rolled his shoulders,
“Ready if you are.”

"I wasn't around when it happened," Ghet said coolly. That was another question she wasn't
stupid enough to answer. "And why would you be so keen for your co-ruler to sire an heir, hmm?
It's all right, that was a rhetorical question. The next time you're going through my things while I'm
asleep, you can look up 'rhetorical' in my dictionary."

She gave her reflection a last studied look. Replacing food with alcohol in her diet was starting to
show in her face. Ghet lifted her gaze to the reflection of his face, searching, then she gave a
small nod. "Yes. I'm ready." She turned abruptly and headed for the door.

Ravyel gave Ghet a dry look but – for once – said nothing as he trailed behind her to the door and
out into the hallway. They were about to put his façade to the test and attend a Council. After
Pe’Ris had paid them a visit, the Demon had become increasingly confident that he could pull it
off.

It was a game that mother and child had played more than once, their own special kind of hide-
and-go-seek where Shadow was always ‘it’ and Daerkal would shift from the shadow world to the
light world and back again, each shift put the boy on a new floor or in a new hall way. But this
time there was more at stake and the fact that it was a learning game meant nothing.

A giggle bubbled out of the four year old, he’d shifted from one place to another so many times in
the last few minutes he was almost certain that it would take a bit for his mother to unravel the
trail. It was his own way of getting back at his mother for the puzzle box as well.

Dae skidded around a corner, clutching his prize to his chest, one he knew that his mother wasn’t
going to like. Forest greens widened in surprise and a child’s war whoop escaped him as he
made a dash for Ghet and Ro.

“T’Oppa! T’Oppa! Looky! I stoled Desh’mieve’s dagger!”

Taurësúlë? It was immediately apparent to Ravyel just who this child belonged to. The sparkle in
emerald eyes was attributed to his amusement over being called Grandfather rather than what it
appeared to be – genuine affection for a grandson.

“My, my – such a sharp little sticker for a tiny little boy.” The hulking S’Hean crouched down to the
four-year-old’s eyelevel. “Such a clever little fellow you are. Come here to T’Oppa and let me
have a look.”

Dae frowned, straightened and puffed out his chest, doing a remarkable imitation of how his
grandfather usually stood. Or rather considering how much he admired the S’Hean king, maybe it
wasn’t as remarkable as it was expected. “I’m not tiny, you’re just big, T’Oppa. See? You’re even
taller than T’Omma.” He pointed out, grinning up at Ghet.

The elfling turned a beaming face to Ravyel, “See?” He asked, following his grandfather’s
request.

It was a minute before Ghet started breathing again, a curious mixture of fear and longing locking
up her chest. Gods, but she missed her own children so much it made her ache. At the same
time, seeing Ravyel so close to his grandson showed her exactly why she'd sent them away.
She'd known Shadow hadn't done the same with Daerkal, and knowing how strained that
relationship had been, she'd kept quiet.

She laughed, quite warm and genuine-sounding. "It's true, Daerkal," she said lightly, "your
T'Oppa is very big. Or I'm very small. Which do you think it is?" She laid a hand lightly at the base
of Ravyel's spine. "Where's your desh'mieve, sweetie?"

Ravyel took the offered dagger by the blade and turned it around to look at the hilt, his callused
fingers rubbing over the amethysts set into it. “Well, you are a clever fellow. This is your mieve’s
favourite dagger.” The Demon reached out and ruffled the young Taurësúlë’s hair, “Did you know
that this was a gift from your mother’s mother? It’s very special to her – be careful not to lose it.”

His spine tensed ever so slightly beneath Ghetsuhm’s touch, but not a whisper of emotion
betrayed itself on the S’Hean’s features.

Daerkal looked from Ghetsuhm, to Ro then back again, “He’s big, Desh’mieve’s right, he needs to
go on a diet.” With a four-year-old’s wisdom he nodded.

Looking around to see if the older Silverleaf had popped up, the elfling grinned at Ghetsuhm,
“We’re playing hide-and-seek by thread. Is fun!” His head swivelled back to Ravyel before he
blurted out he’d been told not to go beyond the fifth floor without his mother while his grandfather
was ‘sick’. But he couldn’t help it. He wanted to make sure his t’oppa was all right, and if t’oppa
was sick then his t’omma would be sad, and that wasn’t very good either.

Forest greens widened at Ravyel’s words, “It is? Really? I won’t lose it, I promise!”

Ghet swallowed hard, suppressing rage, pushing forward the frivolous, feeling the cracks widen
just a little bit more. "He's not getting as much exercise as he's used to, Dae, that's the problem.
And Hide and Seek is one of your T'Oppa's favourite games, too. Maybe you should get him to
play with you one day."

“There’s a good boy, and T’Omma Ghet is right, it is one of my favourite games,” Ravyel said with
a smile. “I’d be delighted to play with you sometime soon. Right now, though, I have to do one of
those Kingly things that are horribly boring. Why don’t you go find your Desh’Mieve now and
sneak up on her – like a surprise – sometimes its fun to turn the tables when the other person is
suppose to be ‘it’.”

“Cause he hasn’t been feeling good, right?” Dae asked, looking up at Ghet.

“He doesn’t need to,” Shadow stated flatly, slipping from a shaded area, “the game is over.” She
interrupted her son before he could ask any more questions. “I’m sorry, I told him not to come up
here without me, I hope he hasn’t been too much trouble.”
The Taurësúlë picked up her son, easily balancing him on her hip as she did so. “Give T’Omma a
kiss and we’ll head up to the nursery for a bit, play with the swords, dyh?”

Grinning Daerkal nodded, “Dyh. Can’t I give T’Oppa a kiss?”

Shadow glanced towards Ghet then towards Ravyel, “Only if he feels up to it,” she stated, trying
to keep the reluctance out of her voice if only so her son wouldn’t pick up on it.

“It’s alright,” the Demon said in a smooth tone, “I’m not contagious.” Pushing up from his knees,
Ravyel straightened to his full height – then leaned forward to kiss Daerkal’s cheek and paused
long enough to allow the child to return the favour, though his eyes were focused on Shadow’s.

Ghet put her hands gently on Daerkal's waist from the opposite side, swinging him up the
moment Ravyel pulled back, throwing him towards the ceiling and turning him smoothly before
she caught him again and kissed him. "Now, you mind your desh'mieve next time Dae, okay? We
mummies have to stick together."

“Okay,” flashing his best innocent grin the four-year-old kissed Ghet on the cheek then blew a
raspberry against it for good measure, laughing when he leaned back.

“Thanks Ghet, he seems to think since his brothers aren’t here he can do what he wants to…like
stealing Mieve’s daggers, give me that you little snipe.”

Giggling, the elfling snuck his grandmother another kiss on the cheek. “Okay, down please, gotta
beat Desh’mieve or she’ll get the good sword.”

Laughing, Ghet swung Dae back down to the floor. "Go on then, off you get. We'll hold her back,
get you a head start."

She looked across at Shadow over Dae's head. "Anything I can do. Really."

Nodding, the Taurësúlë smiled, “Thanks Ghet, it works both ways.” Shady looked over Ghet’s
shoulder, “I better go catch up with him before he starts sticking other things in his pockets.”

She chose to pass on Ghetsuhm’s side, the look Ravyel gave her made her skin crawl. “Have fun
tormenting Pe’Ris.”

The chuckle that rolled out of Ravyel had a low, ominous timber to it and he grinned at Shadow
before glancing briefly down at Ghet and turning on his heel towards the private stairway. “You
people,” he observed casually, “have absolutely no sense of adventure.”

               Present Day - Blackthorn Keep – The Diirlathe – Planet Aerdon

"M’lord..." Walter's elegant lilt carried into the private chambers of Callan and his Empress. "She
is here, as is her Randii."

Out on the sun-lit ledge, Callan stood looking out over the sweeping plateau, and for a moment,
he remembered another time when Walter came to him, M'lord... she is gone. Mira had borne the
brunt of his wrath and grief, and so it had been for many years she'd not called him 'father' but
Callan. Turning to face her then had been so very difficult... the only child of his union with Task,
Mira had been a constant reminder of her mother, and he'd cursed her jade-green eyes so many
times he'd lost count.
Always it had seemed Task had watched him from behind her eyes.

He'd had no idea how true it was until the day of his marriage to An'Thaya.

"M’lord?"

Callan's head snapped around and went first to Mira, then to Bran, then to the major-domo,
"Yes... thank you, Walter. You can leave us."

As the heavy door swung shut with a low, echoing boom, Callan's eyes flicked to An'Thaya, then
to his daughter and Bran.

"I think..." His booted feet carried him into the room and his shadow stretched long across the
sun-baked floor, "The two of you should sit down. I have both news, and a request.... Neither of
which you are going to like to hear."

Bran's arm tightened instinctively about his wife's waist, a protective gesture he was barely aware
of making. Something in the Emperor's tone set alarm bells ringing in his head. Part of him
wanted to turn straight around and head back to the chateau. Unfortunately, the rest of him knew
that he couldn't.

"Perhaps we should start with the news first," he said, "and then move onto the request."

An’Thaya smiled fleetingly at the pair, she was deeply fond of them both for various reasons –
well beyond the fact that she owed Mira her life and vice versa. Emerald gems met Callan’s topaz
gaze briefly before she slipped into a chair and pulled one leg up, wrapping her arms around a
small knee as she held her silence.

Despite the fact that all of this revolved around her brother – this was Callan’s tale to tell – Mira
was his daughter and there was a history here that affected her.

"Hai. I'll keep to my feet as well. Spare me the cushion. What now?" Mira eyed her father, then
An'Thaya, then her father again. Unconsciously, she leaned closer to Bran and felt her soul pull
the threads of their bond a little tighter around her, like a cloak against weather that was about to
turn sour.

"Alright." Callan nodded slowly and eyed Mira, "I don't think you and I have ever had this
conversation, but I know about your time as a captive with the demon. Ro's demon. You know its
part of his soul, just as the killer lies within my own."

The Emperor himself chose to sit, and he did so on the edge of the war-chest at the foot of his
and Tay's bed, both palms curved around his thighs, then struggled to find the words to explain
what was going on in Nenlante.

"Y'Roden, the Y'Roden we know, is gone. In his body is... a dimensional version of Ro. In this
one's soul, at least I assume, Y'Roden is like a faint emerald thread, whereas in Y'Roden's soul, it
is the opposite. He's in Nenlante, under the supervision, if you will, of Ghetsuhm."

Mira's head had slowly tilted to the side, as if the position of her ears would alter what she was
hearing and her arms folded across her chest as she struggled to not hug herself in defence
against the memories.

"Gone? Gone how? Gone as in…dead?"
"Nooo... I would say more... exchanged... for the moment. We hope." Callan added the last two
words with more haste than he intended, "And this demon-elf had no idea you existed, and
seems to have no interest in you at all."

Callan eyed the Illiansaad embedded under the skin of Mira's chest and gestured to the bed for
her to come closer and sit. Reluctantly, she did so, and sat at the corner of the bed near her
father.

"Mira," Callan shifted around and twisted at the waist to face her, "I remember once something
that was said, like in a dream. Your birth was necessary... and somehow, fate conspired to bring
you to life. I always wondered what my mother meant, when I was trapped in the Illiansaad, when
she told the others 'she must be brought to life'. I understand now."

"What..." the dark-haired Vesai shook her head, not understanding, and her fingers went
involuntarily to the amulet buried under her skin. It was warm, reassuring, familiar... comforting...
a far cry from what her sire had known of it.

"What are you trying to tell me, Callan?" She fought the involuntary shudder that started rippling
up her spine. The demon-elf had taken... a shine... to her once, when she'd been strung up in
shackles at the wrists. It had taken a long to time trust Y'Roden again... even though that demon
had only been a copy, a doppelganger.

A crooked, rueful smile came to Callan's mouth, "He didn't know about you. However, he does
now. Ghet and I had a long, long talk about him... I exist in the universe he knows, and that me
slaughtered your mother. The love that brought you to life didn't exist. Without that, without Task,
without you, that version of me knows no mercy, no pity, no remorse, no honour. They and their
armies have slaughtered and raped their way across the worlds we know, and now that version of
Ro is stuck here, in Ro's body... and there's no one to deal with him, knowing what he is, except
for Ghetsuhm."

Mira had caught herself leaning closer and closer, listening in disbelief. From time to time, her
jade eyes would flick to Bran, then to Tay, then back to her father's face.

"So that's the news?" Mira's head shook slowly, "Gods help me, I know what the request is then.
You want me to go there, don't you? You want me to help Ghet, isn't that it? What about Ro? Our
Ro?"

Callan didn't answer at first, instead, he simply watched her. The wheels were turning, and he
could see realisation dawning as her thoughts answered her own questions in rapid-fire
succession.

"Oh my gods. You don't know, do you? Any of you?" She looked to Tay, then Callan, "If you can
get him back." Her normally dark complexion paled, "And if you can't..." Her eyes drifted slightly
lower as she looked not at anyone in the room, but into a possible future conjured by her own
extrapolations.

"Sweet merciful Fates." Her callused fingers dug into the down-filled comforter folded at the foot
of the bed. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze lifted and she looked her father straight in the eyes,
"What kind of possible future have they saddled us with now?"

"That's all it is, Mira. A possible future. No, we don't know if we can get him back. And no, the
possible future is not good if that thing is allowed to stay here." He drew in a deep breath and
nodded, "That was my request, yes. Go to Nenlante, talk to her. Do what you can to shore her up.
I don't think I have to tell you why she needs you, both of you, and she won't ask for you. I tried
that approach, as did Tay."

Callan looked to Bran, "You two have put her back together before, now its time to reinforce what
you did, and if we can't get our Ro back?" Callan didn't answer, but it was clear the Right Hand of
the Imperium would not be held in check.

“We will get him back,” An’Thaya’s voice held a certain ferocity as it followed Callan’s. “I’ll be
damned if all I’ve done, all he has done over the centuries to drag that rat-bastard out of the
darkness was for nothing.”

It was very rare for the Amazon to show the sibling-love she held for Y’Roden – truth be told she
had been his support for a very long time after he had come out of Tenobrous – his guide after
his time in the Crystal Keep as he learned how to interact with people on a normal level again.
Family was important to D’Riels – and with their parents dead and gone, the three D’Riel siblings
were all the more important to one another.

There was only a question in her clear-emerald eyes as they met Bran’s jade-green, however.
“So – should we save a seat for you at the dinner table? Or not?”

Bran's fingers caressed the nape of Mira's neck, a simple gesture of comfort and reassurance as
he absorbed what he had been told. A nerve flickered for a moment in his jaw as he met
An'Thaya's gaze, then he turned away to look at the dragon-elf. Ghetsuhm was someone he
cared about deeply, someone he would do just about anything to help. But he would not sacrifice
his wife's sanity for her. He had seen first-hand the damage the doppelganger of the Demon Elf
had done to her, had supported her through the nightmares that followed. He knew how hard it
had been for her to trust Y'Roden again afterwards. The idea of her being at risk again went
against every instinct he possessed, and he would not be pressured into making the decision
rashly by anyone. Not even the Empress.

"I would like a moment to speak with my wife," he said calmly. Jade eyes met those of An'Thaya
and Callan. "Alone."

"Fair enough." Callan nodded slightly, "I can't force either of you to go, no more than I can force
Ghet to ask you for your help... or might I add, receive you with open arms if you do go." The
Emperor looked to Mira, then Bran, then to his daughter, "Mira, I don't ask that you have contact
with him. All I ask is that you talk to Ghet. I don't even expect you to use your ability on her..."

"Good." Mira replied shortly, but not unkindly, "Talk I can do, but the other?" Her head shook to
the side and one hand lifted to cover Bran's at her neck, "You both know it is not for a Soul-
Healer to dive into everyone's souls and ease all their pain or tribulations. Some things are meant
to be endured and conquered, or sink in." Her jade gaze shifted to An'Thaya, "But that doesn't
mean she has to be alone in a physical sense while she deals with it. Let us talk, and we'll give
you your answer before you have to tell Cook how many will be having dinner tonight."

An’Thaya gave Bran a lopsided smile – he’d obviously misinterpreted her intent somehow, given
his expression. “We will wait on your decision then,” she said, jewelled eyes shifting to Mira.
“Trust me – I don’t want you near the Demon anymore than either of you do. I understand –
believe me.

“Anyway, I wanted to check on the children whilst we are here anyway. If you’ll excuse me.”
Releasing her knee, the redhead slid gracefully from her chair, flame tresses bouncing about her
shoulders as she disappeared through a side door that led to the nursery.
                Present Day - Blackthorn Keep – The Diirlathe - Aerdon – AD

Copper hair fanned out over the pillow, a sultry purr vibrating in the woman's throat as she
wriggled back against the warm body beside her. Aquamarine eyes glowed with satisfaction, but
there was a trace of a pout on her lips. "Why do you have to go? You've only just got here."

"Because Araxmarr ordered it," Erin replied simply. She shrugged unconcernedly. "You know the
way the system works. The Emperor says jump, and we all ask how high."

"No wonder Eden objects to him so much."

Behind Vierna, dark eyes sharpened, but Erin's voice was as smooth as silk. "What do you
mean?" Alabaster fingers glided over the other woman's hip, curving her body back into the
cradle of her own. Vierna sighed, stretching languidly as Erin's hand cupped her breast.

"Oh, you know Eden. She's never happy unless she's bitching about something. She'd control the
world if she could."

The redhead rolled over, her lips meeting Erin's in a long, heated kiss. "But why are we talking
about my sister?" Her hand caressed the smooth skin of the other woman's shoulder, and then
down over the lithe curves of her body. "When we could be doing other far more interesting
things?"

Fingers tightened painfully about her wrists, slamming them down onto the bed above her head.
Vierna's vivid aquamarine eyes widened. "Erin?"

Dark eyes glowed garnet red as they looked down at the petite woman's pale flesh, stretched out
like a sacrificial victim beneath her. Her chest rose and fell in short; hurried breaths and Erin
could smell the subtle changes in body chemistry as the lethal cocktail of lust tinged with just a
trace of fear raced through her veins. A predatory smile spread slowly across her lips.

"Perhaps I want you to answer a few questions first?" she murmured, bending her head down
towards her. Ebony hair brushed across porcelain skin and Vierna shivered, arching up into the
mouth that traced a warm trail between her breasts.

"Erin, I... Oh Gods!" A choked moan spilled from her lips. "Erin, stop! No, please... Oh Gods,
again. Do that again!"

"There's nothing to be afraid of Vierna. There's just you and me and those more interesting things
you mentioned."

The redhead's answer was lost in the husky gasps she could not choke back as teeth left perfect
red impressions on her flesh. A heady blend of pleasure and pain sent heat spiralling through her
body. Vierna arched upwards, winding a leg around Erin's thigh as the other woman's touch
alternated between soft teasing and near-painful pressure. Broken pleas for more whispered from
her lips even as she tried desperately to remember what it was she supposed to say through the
fog that had begun to cloud her mind. There had been a question, something important.

"Tell me about Eden, Vierna."

"Eden doesn't tell me anything. You know she doesn't." She gasped as a knee pushed her legs
apart, pressing up against the sensitive flesh between her thighs. An involuntary moan escaped
her, her hips rocking upwards. Desire was like a living thing, clawing at her insides. Why were
they talking? She didn't want to talk, she wanted to...

"Vierna..."

"I don't know anything, I swear I..."

"Don't lie to me." Erin's eyes blazed as her head snapped up, bones grinding together in Vierna's
wrist as her hand tightened. The other woman carried out involuntarily. Erin's voice softened.

"Don't lie to me, Vierna. You know that you only get hurt when you do that."

"I'm not. I don't remember. I don't..."

"Perhaps we shall have to remind you."

And then the screams began.

Eventually, Erinya rose from the bed and stretched languidly, raising her arms above her head
with feline grace. Crimson splashes painted her alabaster flesh as she prowled across the room,
unconcerned by her nakedness. An expression of sensual satisfaction lingered in her lambent
gaze.

"There, now don't you feel better for telling me that?" she said. "You know, you remember far
more than you give yourself credit for, my sweet." Picking up a brush, she began to drag it
through her ebony hair. "I'm afraid I will have to leave you now, but you understand I'm sure. Duty
calls."

Behind her, aquamarine eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling, blood beginning to congeal
beneath the slowly-cooling corpse.

                Present Day – Windemiire – Nenlante - S'Hea – Planet Whispin

Pe’Ris’ attention was focused out on the terrace that led down into the rose gardens, his deep-
green eyes glassy with thought. The other lords were talking amongst themselves, filling the room
with a generalized hum that failed to penetrate his reverie. It was the sound of the doors opening
again that finally snapped his attention to the present, drawing his gaze towards the entrance as
Ja’Kel’s voice filled the chamber.

“Their Royal Majesties, Tyrne Y’Roden D’Riel and Tyrah Ghetsuhm D’Riel.”

Ravyel made the customary pause as the Hyem-Sirke spoke, his hand covering Ghet’s where it
rested on his arm, then led the Queen towards their seats at the round table.

Ghet had done this so many times; she could just let go and let habit take over. That was
becoming easier in general. She let 'Y'Roden' seat her, her fingers trailing over buttock and thigh
muscles as he sat next to her quite unconsciously. Her gaze went round the table, watching the
faces of the gathered lords, assessing. Too many people for her to get a read on anyone in
particular, but she could still take the mood of a room.

She crossed her legs and leaned back in her seat, projecting her usual self-assurance. She never
questioned her own right to be here. "Gentlemen, nice to see you all again. Before we start, I
want to apologise. I didn't let people know before I sent our children away, and given the state of
the Tyrne's health, I should have. I've just had a report from Silver Dragon Ridge this morning,
and Beth assures me that both boys are well and safe. They'll be home again before too long." A
quick glance at Pe'Ris threatened to go into the 'why' in graphic detail on the slightest
provocation.

"And," she continued cheerily, "I'm sure you're all almost but not quite as happy to see our Tyrne
back on his feet as I am. So with all that out of the way, we can get back down to business, yes?"

Rem’Sero smiled at Ghet and nodded politely before pale-green eyes turned to Y’Roden. “We are
very pleased to see you are feeling better, Your Majesty,” he said, reaffirming Ghetsuhm’s
statement. “Our first order of business is to report that the breeding colony of Chimera interfering
with hunting and gathering in the northeast quadrant has been eliminated. The Ra’Vidden hunted
down three females and an alpha male. We are keeping an eye on the remaining nests and – so
far—the other predators in the area seem to be taking care of the egg problem.”

“D’anke,” Ravyel said calmly to Rem, a Ro-ish smile flickering across his mouth, “its nice to know
my health is of such – interest – to the Council.” He listened quietly to the report and nodded.
“Excellent.” Emerald eyes flickered to Ghetsuhm. “A few Chimera steaks for dinner tonight
elleska?”

Ghet snickered, the look she gave her 'husband' arch. "You know me, love, I'll try anything twice.
How many days do you have to marinate Chimera for?"

“That depends on which end you intend to gnaw on,” was the immediate comeback.

"The gathering situation has improved significantly following the elimination of the colony," Gamel
Bel'Myn said. He shuffled the documents in front of him. "As escorts from the Hunter and Ranger
castes are no longer required, productivity has also increased along with efficiency."

Gamel T’Elle raised a dark brow briefly, glancing at Rem’Sero with a ‘should we try to wind him
up?’ look, then returned his gaze to Bel’Myn. “I’m glad to hear that the Gatherers were well
protected, I do apologize for the Hunters participation in the obstruction of productivity and
efficiency.”

Ar'Dal Lis'Suna's lips twitched slightly at his fellow Lord's enthusiasm for efficiency, but leaned
forward to say only, "As another matter of business, the runes on the new airship have also
recently been completed. We expect the vessel to be ready within the week."

Mer'Lan El'Haie raised his eyes slightly from the parchment he'd been making notes on.
"Rem'Sero, would it be possible to get an estimate of the egg-count? I've been working on a
record of species recovery since the snowstorms and the land sickness. Should this ever reoccur,
the data could be invaluable."

Gamel Ra'Meh snorted. "Yes, we could use the scrolls to repair the roofs again. Not that anybody
did that last time."

"Very funny."

"Danke. Gamel Lis'Suna, let me know when you're going to start doing test runs with that new
ship. I'll get in some replacement beams for the docks."
Rem’Sero just barely managed to hide his amusement at the ongoing banter, and nodded an
affirmation to Gamel El’Haie. “I’ll ask Fadil to get that together for you, Mer’Lan.”

Pe’Ris finally leaned forward and addressed Y’Roden directly. “Y’Tyrne, our supply of certain rare
herbs is running low. I’d like to request permission for some of the Healers to make a foray to the
West Coast of the Kingdom, it is the only place we can find them and they are essential.”

Ravyel nodded, “You have my approval, I take it you will need a Ranger escort?”

“Aye, Y’Tyrne, and an Airship, the mountain range isn’t easily traversable without it.”

“Granted, Gamel Al’Teron, Gamel Lis’Suna, see that Gamel W’Cren has what he needs.”

Ar'Dal nodded. "Of course," he said, as succinctly as always. He was never one to say more than
was needed.

Ghet watched Ravyel quietly, her normal heavy-lidded expression useful for hiding her feelings.
He was good. He could do this if he had to, rule without cracking heads. The knowledge prickled
at her. She was as tactical with people as he was with armies: could she actually make this work?

The Demon could feel her watching him, but the façade remained un-cracked as he relaxed
briefly into his high-backed chair. “Well then, if there is nothing else?” He glanced around the
table questioningly.

“This meeting is adjourned.”

Turning his head, Ravyel smiled at Ghet and rose to his feet. There were certain advantages to
having a mind like a steel trap. Whatever he read, whatever he heard was retained and utilized.
He’d had a feel for the room and its occupants two minutes into the conversation. Offering his
hand, the Demon locked his gaze on denim blues. “Elleska.”

Ghet stood, smiling, and moved inside his personal space, an inch or two from his body. "We
often leave last. It makes Pe'Ris wonder what's happened to the table."

“Is the painting for his benefit too? That is a lovely pose, by the way.” The Demon ducked his
head and kissed her, pointedly ignoring the Lords who were talking amongst themselves again on
their way out. He heard one of them pause, felt eyes on him, and then Pe’Ris – by the scent of
him – exited as well.

Ghet did more than let him kiss her, her natural instincts too much effort to fight. "Not just for his.
For yours as well." If she stopped paying attention, it was just like having her husband back, a
dream she could live in if she just let go of everything else.

                                   Shashya Keep - Arlsyn – AD

It should have surprised him – how easily the Warlord re-emerged – but it didn’t. It all came back
as naturally as breathing, the tactical genius, the cold clear precision as troops were deployed
and the enemy was mowed down like wheat beneath the scythe. He had never been one to hang
back and let his army do all of the bloodletting; he took pleasure in carving through the ranks of
Blagden’s men, in sending a clear message.
Closing the Gate to Whispin had been a fatal mistake and ‘Ravyel’ was about to bring
permanence to the title ‘The Dead King’. The Demon Emperor would apparently have to find
another necromancer – because this one wasn’t going to be able to help out with that particular
problem once Y’Roden was finished with him.
Shashya Keep was not put under siege; it was mercilessly shaken to its foundation by armies of
the Olnelan Sar’Da Empire. Demon, Dragon, Elf, Nuru’kh-ai and other sundry races raged over
and under the earth and scarred the sky. When he wasn’t on the battle field, Ro watched it all
from the deck of his ship, ruby eyes studying the wax and wane of the battle, the hilt of Ravyel’s
sword twirling one way, then the other between his fingers, tip embedded in the deck.
At last, when the point had been made and driven sharply home, it was Ravyel himself who stood
before the gates and gathered his will, opening the yawning conduit of his soul and gathering
power screaming into its vortex. A wall of balefire exploded into the Keep, the concussion
stunningly silent as the energy expended drowned out even sound itself. Then, with a casual air,
he offered his arm to Dúdae and led her through the shattered remains of timber and stone, into
the Keep proper.
Dúdae’s eyes flickered around the Keep, that the place made her skin crawl was carefully hidden;
the only expression a confident smirk that she had worn when she had first left. She was looking
forward to this day, she had been for sometime. The Taurësúlë had dreamt of the different ways
that Blagden could die.
Forest greens shifted to Ro. There was something that was driving him. This was more than
acting like Ravyel, this was a personal vendetta.
Calloused hands released their death grip from the stone window sill, frigid blue eyes watching
the chaos below as the Olnelan Sar’Da troops poured in behind the Emperor and his Seeress.
Blagden, spun away, his eyes landing on Javel. He still blamed the Shroudling for the loss of
Jabrea who seemed to be the reason for the ‘unexpected’ visit from Ravyel and now he
wondered just how deep the resistance had penetrated into his administration. It was starting to
click into place.
The Dead King stalked towards his admiral but did nothing more than jerk the offered sword from
his hands before going out the door. If he was going to meet his end, he was going to do it
fighting.
Ravyel came to a halt just beyond the rubble of the ruined wall, jewelled eyes roving over the
Keep itself as the troops gave himself and Dúdae a wide berth and clashed with Blagden’s
soldiers. Within the open circle, the S’Hean drew his blade and released the Seeress to the side.
“This may take awhile,” Ro said dryly, “after all, we must make an example of traitors to the
Empire.”
The corner of her lips curled, “Take your time, I’ll find my own entertainment.” Dúdae flashed a
smile and pulled her favourite daggers from their sheaths that were strapped to her hips and tore
into the closest Arlsynian with a vengeance.
He hadn’t had time to don any kind of armour, and he was so secure of his power that he didn’t
see the need to wear it in his own Keep.
Blagden sliced through soldiers, taking out his own and the Empire’s men until they seemed to
create an alley that led straight to Ravyel as if they were aware, in their own fight, that to interfere
in the Demon’s ‘sport’ would result in death, and possibly not a very desirable one.
A barely discernible smirk flickered before Ravyel turned away from Dúdae, striding forward
through the clear pathway with the Demon’s arrogant set to his shoulders and a confident pace.
Adrenaline was starting to build, surging through Aethyr-charged blood as Y’Roden advanced on
the Dead King.
Without slowing down he laid into Blagden, throwing a muscular shoulder into a heavy punch that
caught the human in the jaw. “Treason,” he said calmly, “is punishable by death – and I am judge,
jury, and executioner.”
Blagden stumbled backwards and was bounced back by a wall of fighting bodies, “You forgot
megalomaniac,” he hissed out, then spat blood onto the cobble stones.
“This is MY land,” he snarled, charging Ravyel, his sword sweeping towards the half-elf’s side.
“No – I didn’t forget – I just didn’t think it was necessary to state the obvious,” Ravyel grated out
with a vicious grin. The edge of his blade slammed into Blagden’s sending a shower of sparks
through the air as the heavy half-elf shoved forward, throwing the Dead King’s arms to the side
and slamming his forehead into Blagden’s with a sharp crack.
“This land, this plane, these people, all of it, belong to me.” Ruby eyes snapped as a massive
hand closed around the human’s neck. “You are nothing more than a vivid example of what
happens to someone who crosses me.”
“Cross you?” Blagden choked out, “is that what the bitch said? She has a history of crossing
others.” The fingers of his free hand inched towards the dagger at his side, slipping it free he
slashed towards the Demon’s abdomen.
The tip of the knife slid under Ravyel’s breastplate, carving a red line across tanned flesh,
scalding blood running in rivulets down his abdomen and over an old, ragged scar. The pain only
seemed to spark the madness that had slowly been building in the depths of Y’Roden’s mind and
he snarled in Blagden’s face. “Call her that again, and I’ll make sure you die weeping for your
mother,” he growled, squeezing harder. “I don’t need a Seeress to know what you’ve done,
Blagden. Closing that gate was a mistake – a fatal one – on your part.”
The Demon tossed down his sword, the metal clattering across the cobblestones, his hand
grasping Blagden’s and squeezing the bones of the human’s hands until the fingers snapped,
releasing the dagger. “Of course, I’m going to make sure of that anyway,” he said grimly.
The bloodied steel came up against the Dead King’s face, the tip digging into the soft flesh where
his face and the top of his ear conjoined and slicing slowly down towards his jaw. “I am going to
make you scream – like you made her scream. I’m going to mutilate your flesh, and scarify your
soul… take your pride and your dreams away until you beg me for merciful death.”
Blagden gritted his teeth, trying to deal with the pain from his shattered hand to the dagger
carving into his skin. Pale-blue eyes blazed with hatred. A hoarse cry was ripped from him,
causing the human to lose focus. “Never. Beg,” he bit out, spitting blood in the Demon Elf’s face.
Ravyel grinned, a twisted expression that marred the beauty of his bloodied elven features.
“That,” he said coldly, “is what they all say – at first.” The edge of his blade slid between skin and
muscle, slowly peeling it away from Blagden’s cheek towards his nose and mouth. “These hands
have brought a symphony of agony from thousands of voices, yours will be one of a chorus, lost
among the many who have gone before you.”
“I’m starting to think we are enjoying this.”
“Shut up and let us work.”
“Is that what we are calling it now? Very well then…”
Blagden’s involuntary scream rose above the screech and clang of swords, and the cries of the
dying like a soloist rising above a macabre choir and symphony then faded away as vocal chords
reached their limit and gave out, proving a point. The Human would not beg.
At least not with his voice.
“See now, his voice was strained too hard – we’ve cut off our symphony. How is he suppose to
beg now?”
“Sorry – we’re a tad out of practise.”
The internal monologue dwindled off as Y’Roden’s hands remembered the art – the practised skill
that skinned a man, but forced him to live through it – aware and conscious. The twisted pleasure
in it seeped through his mind, the scent of blood, agony and fear swamping his senses as what
was once a man pared down to a quivering mass of bloody flesh.
“I’d tell you to blink once for yes and twice for no – but that is impossible to do without the aide of
eyelids,” Ravyel noted casually. “It’s up to you really, do I end your life now? Or should I just
leave you lying here and let the carrion eaters finish the job?”
Her grandfather’s scream had reached her ears, making her pause and close her eyes to enjoy a
sound she had wanted to hear for at least two millennia. Dúdae shifted, allowing her to pass
through the battling soldiers to Ravyel’s side.
Pain-hazed eyes barely flickered in their sockets from the Demon to the Seeress just behind him.
Death. It didn’t matter how it happened now, it was coming and begging would, hopefully, bring it
quicker. Pride was something that a dying man couldn’t afford to keep.
A bloodied copper arm slipped around Y’Roden’s waist, “It would be more fun to let the carrion
eaters have him.”
What was left of a nerve caused Blagden's eye to twitch, the only way he had to show his
annoyance.
A slow, twisted smile tugged at Dúdae’s lips, “Or he could just be healed and the process started
over again, what do you think, Grandfather?”
“Now that idea has merit,” Ravyel rumbled in an amused tone. He leaned threateningly over the
skinned human and reached out a hand, as if about to begin the process. “I don’t think I’ve ever
had to re-grow all of my skin before – it could be a stimulating experience.”
He paused, a thoughtful expression lighting the back of his eyes. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the
time to waste. I have a new General Enforcer to swear in and troops to organize – I’m a very busy
Emperor. Xavyer will make an excellent replacement.” With a lethal jab, he buried his hand up to
the wrist beneath Blagden’s ribcage, callused fingers closing around the Dead King’s heart.
“Goodnight – Blagden Llewellyn.” The beating organ was yanked from the human’s chest and
offered disinterestedly to Dúdae as Y’Roden watched the light snuff out in Blagden’s eyes.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for a very long time,” he said in an emotionless tone. An image of his
adopted daughter flickered through the half-elf’s mind as he turned to look at her mirror image.
He smiled dryly, and as if to honour Shadow herself, fell back on terrible humour in an
inappropriate situation. “Now – never say I’ve never given you anything. Where is Xavyer? Let’s
get this over with so I can go back to finding my way home. ”
“I can tell.” Dúdae took the offered heart and eyed it. “You,” the Taurësúlë pointed out one of her
late grandfather’s men who seemed to have decided that changing sides would be a good thing.
“See to it that this is placed in a box.”
The Shroudling looked down at the slowing, beating heart.
“She’ll appreciate it, and so do I.” She wiped the blood from her hands onto her trousers, “Not far,
he’s never very far.”
                                   Silver Dragon Ridge – S'Hea

It was just after Zenith and a cooling breeze was blowing through the windows at Silver Dragon
Ridge, bringing with it the scent of waterfalls and canopy trees. Holo was stretched out on his
stomach on the bed, wearing nothing but what the Gods had given him and a curtain that kept
wandering across his backside.
A stylus caught between his teeth he was eyeing a block of data on the screen, but his attention
kept wavering -- straying to the set of dainty feet poking out from beneath the sheet near his head
and it was hard to restrain the urge to tickle the soles with the stylus. Behaving himself for the
moment, he put it to its intended use instead, isolating the chunk of numbers he had been looking
at and dropping them into a box.
“Aha -- cheeky little monkeys – I have you now. All D’Riels accounted for and isolated. Now –
what do you do when you are looking for a needle in a haystack?” Lightning-quick fingers typed
out a sequence on the keypad. “You burn the haystack,” he told himself as he hit ‘run program’.
“Whatever you have left – is the needle.”
Humming to himself, the tech watched as the computer dumped all non-D’Riel data from the
records. “Ah… my precious little data bits, its just you and me now.” With practised ease, he
typed another set of commands in and hit ‘run program’ a second time. Holding his breath, he
watched as sets of data matched up and were eliminated, one energy pattern at a time.
He was just about blue by the time the program finished running, and a single pattern flashed on
the screen. With a jubilant whoop, the redheaded human shot up to his knees and bounced on
the bed. “YES! You sneaky little bastard, I’ve got you now!”
Maeve was entirely too comfortable to bother moving, although Holo's running commentary was
enough to make her giggle she stifled the sound and just listened to him. It was cute, and
something she'd done on occasion when hunting down that last piece of a puzzle. Stretching as
he jumped, she sat up, and looked at him. Laughing softly, she grabbed his wrist and tugged him
down.
Kissing him, she grinned and bit at his bottom lip, "I think this calls for a celebration, don't you?"
The squawk of surprise that came out of Holo wasn’t entirely ‘manly’, but he was grinning by the
time his mouth met Maeve’s. “We need an excuse for a celebration?” he asked. “Well then, I’ll
have to start making things up.” Several filthy suggestions zipped through his brain before the
tech had time to voice them, but by that point he had shut up and got on to the celebrating.
Agile fingers snagged the sheet and tossed it aside as hazy-blues locked on soft-greys, then
traced bared skin with a gentle caress. Hard kisses left Maeve’s mouth, burning down her throat
and over her collarbone. The thought that she would go very well with talle-konte petals sprinkled
here and there drifted through his mind for a moment.
Maeve shivered and thread her fingers through Holo's hair. Tugging gently she leaned down and
kissed him, sucking on his bottom lip gently, "Can't wait to see what you have in mind," she
whispered. Tracing her fingers down his neck and shoulders she slid her palm against the flat
planes of his chest, tweaking a nipple gently as she nipped along his collarbone.
“A little of this,” Holo murmured as he tucked Maeve’s small frame beneath him, light muscle
rippling as he braced his palms on the mattress and nuzzled her ear, “and a little of that.” The
computer slid off the end of the bed, bouncing onto the carpet. Fortunately it was a sturdy thing
that could withstand a good impact or two.
Oblivious, the tech buried himself in his redheaded lover’s slick heat, words falling off into a
breathy gasp of pleasure.
Anything Maeve wanted to say was cut off with a hitch of her breath and a low moan. Wrapping
her leg around Holo's waist she shivered and dragged her finger nails along his back. Rocking
against him, she nipped Holo gently at the adam's apple, and swiped her tongue slowly along the
mark.
A ragged cry echoed pleasure interlaced with a slight edge of pain – just enough to keep it
interesting. Holo’s weight shifted onto one elbow, his free hand running up Maeve’s frame, thumb
and forefinger catching a pink nipple with slow pressure as he set a slow pace -- carving his way
deeper into her body and a low groan reverberated against Maeve’s mouth as he kissed her.
She gasped against his mouth and tightened her legs around Holo's waist, moving with him as he
set the pace. Pleasure built and slid through her nerves with each touch. Her breath stuttered in
her chest with each moan as she slid her hands over along his chest and back. Teasing, she
sucked on his tongue and gently scraped her finger nails over his chest.
Slow torture rose in cadence as the minutes passed to fevered pitch and sweet release, leaving
the wiry tech shaking against his lover after a wild cry of triumph.
After a long moment catching his breath, Holo laughed softly into Maeve’s hair and nipped at her
neck. “Was it good for you?” he asked teasingly.
Her breath hitched and she let out a giggle. She pinched Holo on the ass and kissed him, "I think
I'm going to have to do a bit more research before I give you my answer."
                                           Xudah X – A.D

Kyra linked her fingers together, reaching her arms up high above her head as she stretched. The
muscles in her back burned, and the Eldredae Queen could have sworn that each vertebra was
fused to the next.
Sighing, she leaned forward in her seat once more, stabbing her finger down upon the map of
The Diirlathe spread out on the table before her. "Okay," she said. "If these rumours are true, we
have a situation that can be exploited, but how? We only have a finite amount of time in which we
can act. Leave it too long, and Araxmarr will have acted instead. Any advantage we might have
gained will have been lost."
The perpetual frown Owen had been wearing for the past several weeks deepened and his
forehead creased between his eyebrows as he leaned forward, then looked up at Kyra.
"Someone has to go in there. That's the only solution I see... but it's going to be someone who
can get the job done, and done quickly, quietly, and correctly, or they'll be lunch... or worse."
"Any suggestions?" A dark brow rose. "As you say, whoever it is needs to know exactly what
they're doing. This isn't a job for an amateur. I'd go myself, but an elf sticks out like a sore thumb
down there unless they happen to be wearing a slave collar. And a slave does not seem like an
ideal disguise under the circumstances."
Owen's serious expression suddenly lifted and he grinned roguishly at the Queen, "Aye... and I
understand elves are expected to be naked too." He leaned back in his chair, "I think it should be
you."
With the icy hauteur only the knowledge of generations of royal blood in your ancestry can give
you, Kyra looked down her nose at the General. "You would," she said succinctly. "However,
might I point out that even if it was me and I was naked, you would not be around to appreciate
it."
"We could always do with a full dress rehearsal, or undress, as it would be." Owen shot back
without hesitation, and he made a point of adding a bit of hope to his expression, which faded
once it hit the cool aura Kyra kept around herself.
"No? Well. Damn then. I guess I'll have to go, in that case. Do you want to see me naked before I
go?"
The question caught the elf by surprise, and only a lot of practise and many years of politics kept
her jaw from dropping open. She felt her face grow hot and knew a betraying red colour was
staining her cheekbones.
"Why," she said with as much disdain as she could manage, "would you think I would?"
Somehow she suspected the facade wasn't quite as good as usual.
Part of Owen, the part of all Men that was still very much a young adolescent, wanted to jump up
and shout HA! I KNEW IT! YOU DO want to see me naked!... and he managed to squelch it.
Instead, the General cleared his throat and gave her a slight but crooked smile, which quickly fell
away to something far more serious.
"Tell me, Kyra?" Brown eyes shot through with green met her jade greens, then studied her face
in the flickering candlelight, "Do the Eldredae grant the last wishes of dying Men, or would you
prefer a Man would be left to rot in the hells without the memory of knowing you?"
"The Eldredae grant few wishes to Men. You know that very well," she said. The colour in her
cheeks had faded to an icy pallor. Palms rested on the table-top as she pushed herself to her
feet, something that might have been pain darkening her gaze before it was swiftly concealed.
"I do believe, however, that you see fit to mock me. I do not know exactly what I have done to
deserve it, and I do not appreciate it."
Owen's own motion echoed Kyra's as he shoved his chair out behind him and rose to his feet,
palms on the table, and leaned forward, which brought his face close to hers.
"I promise you, milady, I do not mock you." The Human's eyes studied her own with a strange
intensity, "I have just seen so very little beauty in my life, and your smile is something I covet, but
your laughter... that is something I treasure. Forgive me for taking such a crass tact at trying to
get you to smile a bit more." Owen drew in a slow breath, then nodded, "I'll go."
The intensity in his expression stopped the breath in her throat, but it was his words that slipped
beneath her guard to touch the heart beneath. She might almost have believed he was telling the
truth, but that made no sense. Why would any Man feel so strongly about any Eldredae, let alone
one of royal blood? Their races were unwilling allies at best.
And yet...
"Wait." Her hand reached out to catch his arm as he turned away. "Don't go."
The General paused and his back stiffened slightly as his head turned. His eyes settled first on
her fingers at his arm, then on her face as he looked over his shoulder.
"Someone has to go," Owen shifted on his feet almost uncomfortably, "and it has to be someone
that understands fully what must be done, and understands the danger." His hand covered her
fingers and he found himself daring to squeeze them slightly, "Besides? What's one more smelly,
hairy human spent in this quiet little rebellion?"
Hearing him say that bothered her. She knew many of her people thought that way, and had
heard them say so. Perhaps at one time she might even have thought that way herself. The
words sounded ugly now though.
"The same as any other spent in this quiet little rebellion," she said softly. "Necessary perhaps,
but still a death that should never have been necessary. We say so many things, don't we? Our
people remain in their little cliques, watching one another warily. Perhaps we forget that a life is
still a life nonetheless, no matter what race it happens to belong to."
"Which is exactly why I want to be the one to do this... one mistake, Kyra, and more than just one
life will be lost. It's only a matter of time before we cross the line from nuisance to being fully in
Araxmarr's sight... and Man or Elf," Owen's eyes searched hers, "I don't want more blood shed
than necessary... that's exactly what we have forgotten - we all bleed red, no matter what shape
our ears are."
"Hai." Her fingers slid from his arm. "We do."
She paused. "Be careful. This is one mistake we cannot afford to make, and besides..."
Something that might have been a smile, albeit faint touched her lips. "I think your men need their
General."
Owen nodded slowly, then looked to her fingers as they slid away, "Aye. They do... But..." He
stopped short and his eyes snapped up just in time to catch the little smile she spared him, "As
for being careful? I do believe I'm just a little tired of being careful." A slightly evil grin pulled at
one corner of his mouth, "After all, look where it's gotten me? Alone on this rock with a bunch of
smelly Humans and aloof Eldredae. I think... for just a little while, careful is not what I need to be."
Then, before he could come to his senses, the General's fingers wound deep into the Eldredae
Queen's hair, cupped the back of her skull, and he kissed her quite soundly before pulling his
mouth free of hers.
"See? Now I have to come back so you can kill me." Owen winked at her, turned on one heel,
and strode out of the council room.
                                            Berelath – AD

"So, what you're trying to tell me, while not saying it," a blonde-haired, elven male scratched at
his jaw and eyed the objects in front of him, "That toddlers can pick up Elen faster than I can?"
Cedar-green eyes shifted to the slender woman at the table across from him; Laurie had been
teaching him her own native language and he had been reciprocating... and to do so, they'd
resorted to rudimentary teaching skills... using fruit, knives, bowls, cups, and the like and
constructing more and more complex sentences about the objects.
"Well, just for the record," He leaned back, clearly frustrated and sucked in an involuntary breath
as he accidentally pulled his ribs at an odd angle.
"You're not getting any better at Eldredae."
"I, however, am not surrounded by Eldredae at present. You cannot say the same about Elen,"
the ranger observed. "Nor are you getting any better at the notion that you need to rest if you are
to heal. No wonder the comparisons to toddlers get made."
Sunlight gleamed on her long blonde braid as she leaned in closer to examine his ribs. "I won't
bother healing you again if you're just going to undo all the good work that is done."
"Yes, but you're smarter than I am," Elhion winced as her fingers began poking at his injured ribs,
"And good work it has been." The Eldredae held as still as he could while she examined away,
"But..." But what? What else was he going to tell her? He had to re-train his body to fight like it
once did? That he had to find a way to lash out at the Imperium, to strike a wound against the
Emperors?
"But... I... just have a difficult time taking care of myself as I should." Quiet laughter actually
caused his green eyes to light up more than usual, "Probably a good thing I have you and Enddar
clucking after me like an Achk hen."
"I do not cluck." She poked him deliberately with the tip of one finger in a spot she knew was still
tender. "I co