Purgatory

A sudden shock of pain tore Seibel from the gentle, dark abyss he had been floating in for who knew how long. A low groan sounded from a battered throat, and as his eyes fought to open the world swam in front of his vision, leaving him feeling dizzy. Not that there was much to see, wherever he was.

What had happened? He remembered resting, someone calling for help. Then… Oh god. The men had grabbed him, then there’d been nothing but the wind pouring around his ears and sharp pain with each jolt and bump of their bike. He must have passed out, as he had no idea where he was now.

The edges of his vision were murky, though he realized with some relief that it was only because of the dim lighting in the room, instead of some damage to his precious eyesight. The sharpest edge of the pain had began to dull, though now it radiated through his body, not offering much respite.

He focused on his breathing, trying to ease it from quick and shallow to something slower. As the moments passed he was keenly aware of the sweat soaking his skin, the uncomfortable heat crawling through his body, and what felt like something else sticky under his shirt.

He didn’t have much time to contemplate it, however, as a figure leaned into view, half blocking out what little light he could see. Blinking up at it did little to help.

“Wh-”

“Not much of a doctor, are you, running out of your safe place at the first sign of someone in trouble? Pretty stupid, if you ask me.”

The voice was familiar, but didn’t immediately register. He said nothing, trying to order his mind.

The flat of a hand connected sharply with the side of his face, momentarily chasing the thoughts from his head, leaving a painful sting in its wake.

“What are you, deaf? I asked you a question.” The figure leaned down over him, taking a hold of the front of his shirt and giving him a sharp shake. The pain it caused his still healing body drew another soft groan from his lips.

“The hell kind of people does Lorcasf surround himself with? Are you made of glass? I swear to-”

“He doesn’t look all that good, boss.” A second voice, far more timid, rose up. Its owner came into sight, leaning down over him. These hands were far gentler as they undid the top button of his shirt and drew the fabric aside, revealing the bandages that lay underneath. “I think he might be hurt.”

“The hell?” The first figure brushed the second aside and half-ripped his shirt open. In the light he could see the face twist and contort. Hands took hold of him, roughly pulling his shirt off his shoulders as he was suddenly turned onto his side.

He cried out as his wounds roared to life anew, his vision swimming. It hurt to be in this position, but they held him firmly still, twisting his body as someone began poking and prodding across his back.

“Look at this, Samon, he’s covered all over in lashes.” Fingers pushed against his bandages, inflaming one of the lash marks Domerin had given him. He bit back a cry.

“Seems an odd state for a doctor to be in, boss.” A calloused touch ran almost lightly over exposed skin, across one of the faded scars on his chest. This wasn’t Domerin’s careful touch, but he hadn’t the strength to pull away from it.

The two of them talked over him, as if he weren’t there, his pain growing by the moment. But, instead of running from it, he pulled his mind in, focused on it. He’d learned this precious lesson under Domerin’s care; how to use pain, to let it help him. He wrapped himself in it like a blanket, honing in on every moment, every detail he could catch.

He focused on their voices, and he finally recognized the first one, and just who he was dealing with. Zemo. The very man Domerin had been hunting. A sinking feeling settled into the pit of his stomach. All Domerin’s concerns had come to naught, as he’d been foolish enough to leave the caravan, practically throwing himself into danger.

“-eird, boss, he’s gone all quiet. Is he okay?” The second voice sounded somewhat concerned as he came back to the moment. The pair turned him, laying him down finally. The floor here was hard, but cold, and that helped numb his now half-exposed back somewhat.

Zemo leaned over him, eyes fixed on him. “He’s still breathing. But what do you know? It looks like good old Domerin Lorcasf likes to beat his people. I knew there had to be something wrong with that bastard. Looks like he’s been beating this one for a good long while, now hasn’t he?”

The man clearly expected an answer but he remained silent. He saw no reason to give this mad jackal anything more than he’d already gotten.

Zemo frowned, and laid the palm of one hand atop his shoulder. Then he pressed down hard, grinding the heel of his hand into his skin. Fire blossomed inside him and he cried out before he could stop himself, but even that didn’t make the man stop. He kept the pressure on for several more seconds before pulling back.

“I expect you to answer me when I ask you a question, old man.”

His body trembled, but not out of fear. This was too much, and he knew it. Domerin had been right that he couldn’t handle more than resting. But despite that he turned his eyes to Zemo and just narrowed them. This man was not Ilinir, not Domerin, was no agent of the faith, and had no authority over him. He was dirt under his heels as far as he was concerned.

Zemo let out a growl of frustration and thumped a fist into the center of his chest, not hard enough to take his breath but enough to aggravate his wounds. And he didn’t stop there. With a look of grim glee the man jabbed fingers into his bandages, took hold of his shoulders and squeezed, slapped his back. The moments stretched into what felt like a small eternity, as the pain threatened to overwhelm him.

Screams eventually tore from his lips, unable to stop them, his vision darkening until he was sure he’d pass out. But he still refused to give the bastard anything more, and would never beg for mercy.

“Boss, wait! Wait!” The other voice called out, sounding half panicked now, but fearful too. “H-he’s old, boss, remember? We need him. Lorcasf won’t give you what you want if you can’t give him back his doctor. Look at him, I think he’s probably learned his lesson.”

That, finally, seemed to calm down his captor enough, though Zemo was huffing and puffing, clearly trying to get his rage under control. For a moment he looked as if he wanted to start beating his companion instead, but he finally stilled and his expression became cool. A look of relief passed across the face of the man he’d called Samon.

“At least the old fool knows who he’s dealing with now, don’t you, doctor? You can see just how much Lorcasf appreciates what he’s got if he treats you like this. But, you know, you don’t have to go back to him. You don’t have to go back to being his slave, and whatever it is he does to you. I can take care of you too.”

Seibel was awash in agony, not even having the strength to narrow his eyes. He laid still, focusing on his breathing once again, and trying not to fall into whatever dark pit wanted to swallow him up.

Zemo, at least, seemed to realize this and he pulled to his feet with a dismissive huff.

“Just something to think about, old man. Lorcasf has brainwashed you, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You have other options.”

The two men stepped away, and he heard the thud of a door, and the turning of a lock, though in his state there was no chance he would be going anywhere. But the sound of it couldn’t help but remind him of another lock, another chamber, a different pain.

No matter how much it hurt, the pain Domerin bought him was always welcome. He reveled in the sharpness in the moment, and the ache that he carried around with him afterward was like a warm blanket. It was soothing, familiar, comforting.

Not a day ago his god had turned his eyes upon him, and brought him back to his truth path. Now, some godless heathen had despoiled that divine pain, had tried to make a mockery of it. It filled him with anger, and it hurt in a completely different way. The physical pain had started to fade to aches, but it still hurt inside.

What would his god say to this perversion of his penance?

He closed his eyes and Domerin’s face filled his vision. Despite his torment, thinking of him helped to ease the tension in his body somewhat. He thought back over their recent session, how harsh Domerin was and how gentle in turns. His caresses, the bite of his knives, his soft breath against his ear, fingers tight in his hair. It was all one, hard and soft, dark and light, pain and pleasure.

He thought of the man binding his wounds, tending to him so carefully, carrying him to rest. It was everything his faith spoke of to build a person into a better version of themselves. Zemo’s harsh treatment only made that all the more clear to him. How could any man hope to achieve the perfection he had already experienced?

The realization soothed him somewhat and his breathing became easier.

Domerin would come for him. He knew it as much as he knew the sun would rise. He would not allow a member of his caravan to be stolen away like this, not by the very man he’d been hunting.

He sent a silent prayer to Ilinir to watch over and deliver him. He would ask forgiveness, if it came to that, but for the moment he finally allowed oblivion to take him for a time, welcoming its sweet embrace.

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Rude Awakening

Crescent had retired to his quarters not long after the two masters had left the gathering. Usually he looked forward to night-time, but this day had left him tired and more than a little confused. Travel was new enough but the obvious tension between Domerin and Master Abolan had been rubbing unpleasently against him all night, and he found he tossed in bed, instead of falling into his usual easy sleep.

Ire for the guild master was not new, but perhaps it had been the naked way their host had called him out that troubled him so. Either way, he couldn’t let himself dwell on it. They were in for a full day tomorrow and he would be in no shape for anything if he didn’t get some sleep.

He didn’t know how long he was out for before he started awake, every danger instinct inside of him flaring to life. His eyes went wide, straining against the gloom of the room for any speck of light. His hand shot down, quick as a snake striking, closing instantly around the blade he’d tucked between the mattress and bed frame.

Someone was here, and for an assassin that meant a quick reaction, or a quick death.

He swung as he caught motion out of the corner of his eye, though his blade met nothing but empty air. His blood was pumping now, breath quick, eyes darting back and forth as he searched for the intruder. It took everything inside of him not to let the feline erupt from below his skin.

He drew in a few breaths, trying to calm himself. It wouldn’t help if he lashed out wildly, and so he stilled, feeling out whoever had intruded. He could almost feel eyes upon him, though he couldn’t yet pinpoint where they were coming from.

He crouched, ready to spring, when there was a soft click.

Light flooded the room, momentary blinding him in the sudden brightness, as the overhead light came on.

He blinked, on the defensive, but no attack came.

When he could finally see again his eyes widened when he realized who was standing across from him, and for a moment he stared, dumbfounded.

“Master Abolan?”

He was confused and shaken, nearly vibrating from the lingering adrenaline. He was very keenly aware that if the master assassin had wanted him dead he wouldn’t have woken up at all. That bothered him, more than he wanted to admit. But if attack wasn’t on his mind why hadn’t he roused him with the traditional signaling touch?

“Crescent, isn’t it?” The man asked, arching a brow, sounding as if he were reading the mail rather than standing in his room in the middle of the night.

He shifted in bed, drawing the covers a bit closer around him. He was the furthest from shy but for once was thankful he hadn’t slept naked. The question didn’t fool him for an instant. This man was well aware of who he was. He willed himself to breathe and returned the knife to it’s place, taking a moment to compose himself before speaking.

“That’s right, master. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, there is. I must speak with you. Now.”

It wasn’t a request, and he didn’t dare argue, not after seeing how unforgiving the man had been that day.

He would move to get up, but the other man held up a hand, and he paused.

“Right where you are is fine.” He would take a seat in a plush chair that rested near the bed, watching him with that single eye of his. It was impossible to tell what he might be thinking, and he sat very still, as if still expecting an attack at any moment.

When it came, it was not in the shape he expected.

“You’re good, young man. I was only in the room a few minutes before you sensed I was there. Fast too.”

But not fast enough. The unspoken words hung in the air between them. He wasn’t sure what to say, but the older man went on.

“But, you were not raised in the guild.”

“How-”

“You’re much too old to be such a recent graduate.”

That was true, but he got the feeling there was more to it than that. Why would Master Abolan be here otherwise?

“Yes, quite good.” The man went on, as if he were talking to him. “It’s not easy for those raised outside of the guild to make it through the training, let alone to excel. But then again, the former master always did have a very good eye for people. I don’t think he would have made you the offer he did unless he was sure you were up to the challenge.”

Crescent quickly clamped his jaw, and set his face to its most neutral, not letting anything through. He didn’t know what the master was on about, but there was only one person left who knew about that deal, and she wouldn’t have talked.

“Master, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. Is it possible you have the wrong room?” He tried his best to sound innocent, confused, hoping not to offend.

But Seibel didn’t seem put off, instead a knowing smile touching his lips.

“I understand your hesitancy, but lying will do you no good here. I know you made a deal with the former master, where he offered to buy your contract if you promised to help Master Lorcasf. I knew you’d taken the deal, but lost track of you after that. I must admit surprise that you made it through your training at all, let alone so quickly.”

Crescent bit his tongue. He didn’t want to speak of this but the the other man had details he shouldn’t, unless perhaps the former master had told him about it. One of the masters had whispered that the old man hated Domerin because he’d been appointed heir instead, and stolen his chance to be the guild leader. But if that were true, why would the old master have told him in the first place?

He supposed it didn’t matter right now. Seibel was looking at him expectantly, and he didn’t want to get to the point where the man started demanding.

“I didn’t ask for any special favors, if that’s what you’re suggesting. I worked and fought just as everyone else did.”

“I’m sure you fought very hard, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t benefit from the desires of the old master either.”

“If I did it was indirectly. With all due respect, I know guild law as well as you, master, and I swore loyalty to it when I joined.”

“As do we all,” the man returned, his tone sharp, holding a slight warning edge. “But that stops no one from also looking after themselves.”

Crescent bristled under the not so subtle accusation. He again willed himself to breathe, and shifted back to a tactic he’d used many a time back in his old life

“I’m afraid I’m a bit lost, Master Abolan. May I ask what it is you’re getting at?”

He infused it with as much innocent curiosity as he could. Unlike the nobles and johns back at the brothel, the man across from him clearly wasn’t taken in by the act, but if he wanted to accuse more he was going to have to come right out and say it. He was gambling, but didn’t think the man wanted to go that far.

A tense few seconds passed in silence, each of them looking at each other. Crescent refused to look away, refused to cow or crack.

Finally, after what seemed like a small eternity, Seibel smiled.

“Nothing at all, young man; merely pointing out facts. It’s good to know you’re so dedicated to the laws. We don’t have enough selfless assassins like you.” Though, by his tone, Crescent didn’t get the feeling the other man much believed him.

“As you say, Master Abolan.”

The older man regarded him silently for a few moments more, though it was impossible to gauge his thoughts.

Finally the man smiled again, but it didn’t reassure him, instead making him clutch the covers a bit more tightly. He was sure he’d seen the feline smile like that, just before pouncing, only this time he was the prey. It was not a comfortable place to be, not when the man after him was so high ranking.

“Well, this has been a most illuminating discussion, but I’m sure you’re eager to get some rest. You’ve a long day ahead.” He shifted, moving to get up.

“Are you going to tell Master Lorcasf?”

Seibel stopped at the sudden question. The way his grey eye bored into him made him wish he hadn’t spoken. He couldn’t charm or sweet talk this one, and that made things all the harder.

“Now why would I do that, Crescent? I’ve no reason to tell him, do I?” The man arched a brow, but a chill went down Crescent’s spine. Another word hung in the air, unspoken but ready to drag him down.

Yet. He had no reason to tell him yet.

For the first time in a long while, true fear bloomed in his chest. He was sure everything would be over if Domerin found out the truth. The man would never forgive him for that and, worse, it would break him. No matter how strong he acted, or how much he tried to avoid it, Domerin was, in some ways, more fragile than he would admit.

Master Abolan hated Domerin, and he would not allow him, or anyone, to use their relationship to hurt him. It was only knowing the old man would mop the floor with him that kept him in place when all his instincts told him to attack.

“No, Master Abolan,” he said, trying to keep his voice level, “there’s nothing he need know.”

“Very good. I’ll try my best to see that he doesn’t find out. I look forward to the rest of your visit, Crescent. It should prove to be… enlightening.”

Domerin & Crescent – Deployment

“You don’t need to be honest with me.”

Crescent turned over in his sleep, instinctively nuzzling closer to the warmth in the bed next to him. Hazily, his mind told him something was slightly off and pulled him to wakefulness. His eyes shifted immediately to the clock, where the display read 1:45 am. It wasn’t the time that was off, but the fact that Domerin was no longer under his arm.

The other man was, perhaps, one of the very few people who could move around without waking him, but unlike some nights he hadn’t gone far. Domerin was still in bed, but sitting up with his back straight, and his hands resting in his lap. He was close enough Crescent could still feel his warmth, but he looked in a world of his own.

Some light filtered in through the windows as he shifted to look at the man’s face. Even in the low light he could see the tenseness in Domerin’s jaw, but more telling was the fact that the other man didn’t stir when he pulled himself half-up beside him.

“Can’t sleep?”

Domerin didn’t reply right away, staring across the space at the far wall, lost in thought.

Brows furrowing a bit, Crescent reached out a hand to run it across his lover’s bare leg. “Domerin. Are you all right?”

The other man seemed to come very quickly back to himself then, looking over at Crescent with a flash of surprise in his dark eyes.

“I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”

“Of course not, darling. But are you all right? Can’t sleep?”

Domerin’s momentary silence told him there was something. The other man didn’t need to sleep as much, but usually he laid in bed by his side or went to do work.

Despite the silence he didn’t press, letting Domerin speak when he chose to.

“I’m being sent out on assignment in a week. We were briefed just today.”

Was that all that was bothering the other man? Assignments had always been part of Domerin’s job.

“I’ll miss you while you’re away. Where are they sending you?”

“It’s classified. I can’t tell you any of the details.”

“Well, that’s all right. You don’t need to be honest with me, Domerin. You never did when it comes to work.” Crescent kept his tone light, not wanting the other man to think he was mad at him.

But, unlike usual, the other man’s mood didn’t lighten. Domerin turned to face him and there was something dark and pensive in his blue eyes.

His humor vanished, replaced with concern for his lover.

“Domerin? What’s wrong? This is hardly the first time you’ve gone on assignment since I’ve known you.”

“It’s different,” he said, shaking his head. “We’ve only been together, properly together for, what, a few months? I don’t know how long I’m going to be gone, or if I’ll even be able to check in with you. It’s going to be a dangerous one.”

Domerin hesitated, unable to say more than that, and for a moment he looked wretched.

“What if I don’t come back?”

The man’s words struck him. It was true that this time was different. They weren’t just casually sleeping together anymore. After far too long, they were properly dating, a proper couple. He’d never thought he’d be happy in a relationship like this, but with Domerin it all felt right.

The other man had waited so long for this, and now he had to go away, not knowing if he’d be coming back. No wonder it was troubling him.

Crescent shifted, moving to sit next to the other man. He slipped an arm around his middle.

“You can’t let that get to you, Domerin. I won’t lie to you, it’s going to be a lot harder seeing you go than it ever has been, just as I can tell it’s going to be a lot on you to go. I don’t know what I’d do if you didn’t come back, but I’m with you knowing that’s a possiblity. I know the risks involved. It doesn’t change how much I love you.”

Domerin leaned a bit into his touch, and he gently rubbed a hand across the man’s dusky skin.

“That’s good to know. I guess, after Kail, part of me still worries, even if you’re nothing like him. It was such a production every time I had to go away. He always made such a big deal out of it.”

“You wont ever have to worry about that with me. You have a duty, and the last thing you need is more stress and worry on top of everything else. I understand how important your job is.”

“Thank you for that, Crescent. It does help. And I hope I didn’t make you think I thought of you like Kail.”

“Of course not, darling.” He assured, lightly nuzzling Domerin’s arm.

The man smiled, briefly, but Crescent got the feeling there was still something else troubling him. He waited, not pressing him to speak.

After a time, those blue eyes were turned upon him again. He met them as they searched his face and he tried to project all his love through his eyes.

Lifting his hand, Domerin brushed calloused fingers gently down Crescent’s cheek.

“I have never resented what my duty asks of me. I would never turn my back on my responsibilities. I do neither now, but… I can’t help but want more time with you. Part of me wishes I wasn’t going.”

There was a tinge of guilt in the man’s voice that Crescent had never quite heard before.

“I’ve always known each mission could be my last, but every part of me wants to come back to you.”

Crescent reached up to gently brush his fingers across Domerin’s cheek in return.

“There’s nothing selfish about that. Who wants to leave their loved ones behind? I doubt even the queen would fault you for feeling that way. You’re hardly the only solider to feel guilty about having to leave and do their duty.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“I know you, Domerin Lorcasf. No matter what, you’ll do the job you are sent to do, and you’ll do it to be best of your ability. I want you to come back to me too, but you shouldn’t feel guilty for how you feel.”

“I hear you,” Domerin said, a bit more of a smile finally touching his lips. “I won’t forget. Besides, it’ll be nice to come back home to someone who isn’t going to spend the first week I’m back fussing all over me.”

Crescent couldn’t help but chuckle.

“I’ll fuss, but in a very different way. A man has to welcome his lover home properly.”

He leaned in, slipping his arms around Domerin. The other man responded and gathered him up into his arms. For a time they just sat together, enjoying the quiet and the warmth.

Eventually he leaned his head up, to press a light kiss to Domerin’s jawline.

“And, at the very least, we have an entire week to make all sorts of good memories for you to take with you.”

“I see no reason to wait.” Domerin said.

Crescent could see the hint of a smile on his lips as the other man drew him back down onto the bed.

Separate Truths

Everybody knows – A different universe

The office was blissfully quiet. The constant whir of the ship’s machinery formed a familiar and comforting background hum. The only other sounds to break the silence were the soft tapping of fingers on keys, and the occasional creak of wicker.

Crescent was curled up in his basket at the foot of Domerin’s desk, resting as the man did his work. He was dozing when he heard Domerin grumble softly, and give a sigh.

His ears perked up, swiveling toward the sound, and he lifted his head to look at the man. Domerin was frowning at his display.

“Bad news?”

Domerin knew how easy he was to wake by now, but it was never an issue because he always fell back asleep seemingly just as easily. It was normal for a kattar, and didn’t bother him.

“Not like you’re thinking.”

“Oh?”

“It’s a message from one Laran Imril, asking me if I wouldn’t do him the great honor of visiting to train his kattar. He’d be ever so grateful.” Domerin’s voice took on a slightly mocking tone at the end.

“Another one? You’ve been getting an awful lot of those lately.” Crescent’s ears swiveled back slightly. After helping that first, they’d known this was likely going to happen sooner or later, but it seemed word had really started to spread.

“Oh yes, and this one’s a prince too, on some world or another. He made a point to impress upon that. He has six kattar, considered royal pets. Apparently there was an incident,” the man let the implied quotes hang in the air a moment, “involving a trainer they brought in, and he recently heard about me and my skill.”

Domerin’s expression turned a bit stormy, the man more expressive than he might have been in other company.

“Six kattar is a lot…” He didn’t want to push, but it was rare to find more than two or three in one place.

“It is, Crescent, but we can’t just drop everything with a job coming up.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that. I’ve never questioned that the larger job comes first.”

Domerin was silent, lips touched with the hint of a frown.

Crescent could sympathize. This decision was cut and dry, when you looked at it logically, but it wasn’t so easy when you took in the big picture.

He hopped out of his basket, moving to gently bump his head against Domerin’s arm, lightly nuzzling him in one of his ways of offering comfort. After a few moments Domerin’s gloved fingers slid behind one of his ears, rubbing gently. He always hoped petting him helped soothe the other man.

“Sometimes I wonder if this was the right way to go about things,” Domerin said after a time, his voice soft. The man was looking down at him now, his eyes a bit dark.

“What do you mean?”

Domerin sighed. “In the email he said my name was brought up at a party, and that every one knows me as ‘the kattar whisperer’.” There was a hint of disgust in his voice when he said it. “The guy you could call in to bend your animal to your will. A real miracle worker.”

Crescent grimaced. Two-legs really didn’t understand things that weren’t like them. He gave Domerin a sympathetic look.

“I can’t say I’m surprised. We knew this wasn’t going to be pleasant when we decided to go forward with it. I just try to remember it’s for a good purpose.”

“Of course, and I don’t regret doing this. That still doesn’t mean I’m comfortable being thought of like that. Everyone knowing I’m a grumpy hard-ass is one thing. This is quite another. They might as well be calling me a good slave trainer.”

“That’s true.” Crescent’s ears laid back against his head for a moment, and he laid his hand on Domerin’s arm. “I’m sorry, Domerin. I know that can’t be easy.”

“It’s not, but my name has been tarnished before. I can take it.” The man looked very tired for a few moments, though.

Crescent moved to stand, and slipped his arms around Domerin’s neck, leaning close to him. The other man smoothed his gloved fingers over the fur of his arm a few moments later, looking contemplative before he went on.

“Things are changing, in ways even I didn’t expect. I had a message come through last week from a company I’ve worked with before, saying they don’t want to continue our association, since I’m promoting the exploitation of exotic pets, as they put it.” A wry smile touched the man’s lips for a moment. “I guess it’s good at least some companies have ethics.”

“I didn’t realize it would have an impact on the company like that.” They couldn’t always go anywhere to get what they needed, and losing a contact could be a blow. “I never wanted to make things harder for you.”

Domerin shook his head.

“Don’t let it worry you. That’s just how things go, and you well know I couldn’t have stood by and done nothing.”

Crescent did know, and he thought all the more of the other man for it. He gave the man a gentle squeeze.

“Even so, you’re not in this alone. I know the sort of man you are, and so do the others. If you are the kattar whisperer, think of it like this: among us, you will never be the whip, the rope, the bars of our cages. You’re the hand that’s helping give us the key to freedom. Time will reveal all, and we will never forget your name. For now, we will whisper it to each other, in our own tongue, from ear to ear, until the day comes when we can speak it aloud.”

Domerin looked up and him, and the hint of a small smile had touched his lips.

“Thank you, Crescent, it does help to hear you say things like that.”

“Its only the truth,” he returned, nuzzling the top of the man’s head lightly. “Everybody knows that.”

Luka – Very Few are Left

Very few are left

The hospital halls were white, and stark. The air was cool, perfectly temperature controlled, and a slightly acrid smell permeated the air, a byproduct of stringent cleaning. He was always somewhat amazed at how you could walk into almost any medical facility in the world and find the exact same things, no matter their purpose. This place was a last stop for the elderly, living out the remainders of their lives. He was sure there was some life here, but at the moment the hallways were mostly silent.

No one had seen him enter, and no one saw him making his way down the long hallways. This was personal business, and no one needed to be privy to that. He’d come here searching for someone it had taken him a very long time to find. Part of him had been sure this one had been lost, but he had been relentless in his search. It had taken years to bring bring him here. He stopped in front of a room with a nameplate on it. It wasn’t the name he’d known the man under, all those years ago, but there was little doubt in his mind this was who he was seeking.

He opened the door, and stepped into the small room beyond. Sunlight streamed in through a window, the sound of birdsong somewhat muted through the glass. There was an empty bed, dresser, some small touches that made it look homey. No pictures though, he noticed. A man like that had never had need of a family. There was a man inside, sitting at a table, a jigsaw puzzle set out in front of him. He was shuffling around peices with a withered hand.

He was old, and it showed, likely in his 80s by this point, though time had not been kind to him. He looked even older, weak and wrinkled. Such a change from the strong frame and powerful hands he remembered. Once the door had closed he allowed himself to be seen once again, a lean, small figure, garbed from head to toe in white. He likely would have looked like a ghost to some, or death itself to others.

He turned red eyes to the man at the table, who finally seemed to notice he was there. Somewhat milky eyes took him in, but there was no recognition in them. That wasn’t all that surprising, he looked rather different than he used to. It wasn’t his appearance he was hoping to catch him with.

“Who is it?” The old man’s voice sounded like something sharp being drug across a bed of small stones, no doubt from a lifetime of smoking. He remembered the acrid stink of cigarettes clinging to a white coat sleeve as it passed close over his face, like a curtain.

He shook away the memory and sat down at the table across from the other man. The jigsaw was half finished, a placid pastoral scene. How old had be been before he’d realized that places like that actually existed? His childhood had been blasted facades and twisted metal, bare hallways and locked doors. It didn’t matter now.

“A visitor, Mr. Andreas.” He said, fixing the man in his red gaze. “Or, should I call you Dr. Gudelj?” There was again no moment of shock, no gasp, not even a hint of recognition. Had this man lost himself in his own cover story? That displeased him. He wanted him to know who he was, before he did what he’d come here to do.

“Doctor? No, I’m an electrician. Was an electrician. I worked on many buildings. Over decades. I was very good. Why are you here? It’s not dinner time yet. Why do you look so strange?”

He was silent a few moments, before answering. He’d come expecting fear, and a sharp mind he could threaten. Another tactic, then.

“I’ve come to tell you a story, Mr. Andreas. That will explain how I look. If you’ll indulge me.”

The old man seemed unsure, a little frown touching his thin lips, but eventually he nodded. “So long as you’re done by dinner.”

He nodded, settling in his chair as much as he would allow himself to. “This was a very long time ago. Nearly twenty years. It was somewhere far away, that most people in this fat country will never have heard of.

There was a group of scientists, and researchers. All of them had been dismissed from the wider world for what they wanted to do. And their disregard for ethics. They went underground, where there were no rules or review boards to govern them.

They found a place, filled with war and death. Where they could pick through the ruins of bomb blasts for subjects. Who would miss the dead? Or the half dead?”

He paused, searching for signs of recognition. None came.

“They were free to do as they liked with those they took. The hallways were filled with despair, pain, madness. How many did they dismantle or break in their quest, do you think? Imagine being helpless, tied down, the bright light in your eyes. They speak of you as if you are not there.

Imagine days, years, of torment, being warped into whatever shape they feel you should take. Those that went in rarely came back out again. Or, if they did, they did not emerge as the same people.

But, one escaped, after being there for a very long time. One became strong and, after many years, came for those who were still alive. It was not easy. These were smart men, used to hiding. But they inadvertently taught this one all the patience in the world, and filled him with a desire to see their blood run free.

Very few are left. The cunning ones, or the forgotten ones, like you. I’ll not be stopped by anything. Another decade, perhaps, and I’ll have you all.” He paused. His throat hurt. He wasn’t used to speaking so much at once.

The old man was looking at him, a bit of a frown on his lips. He’d long since stopped working on the puzzle, clearly not liking the tale. The visitor couldn’t help but bear his teeth slightly, displeased with the reaction. If the old man couldn’t remember what he’d done, then perhaps he could show him. There was nothing left for it, though it galled him to have to do this. He let his guise drop. The white skin and red eyes melted away. He stood there, revealed, in all his horror. The creature returned to his Dr. Frankenstein.

The old man saw. He saw the yellowed, spotted skin, dry and brittle like aging parchment. Saw the wild black hair, streaked with grey. One perfect, beautiful blue eye took him in. The other was a milky white. The face was the worst of it, crisscrossed with marks, and sutured lines that had healed into still visible, thin scars.

For good measure he even pulled off his gloves. One hand was that same yellow, the nails greyish, the other was formed of a shiny black metal. Prosthetic fingers curled neatly around the fabric. It was the best current science could offer, cutting edge. He’d learned you could get what you wanted if you went to those outside review.

“I am Luka Petrovic, Dr. Gudelj. One of many you took apart.”

For a moment it looked like the man recognized him, and then his eyes went suddenly wide. “You!” This was the reaction he’d been looking for, and a grin split his lips and he stood, looming over the old man.

“I will not allow you to live out the rest of your days here.” The old man scrambled up, pushing his chair back and hurried across the room, as if trying to run away. Luka hadn’t tried to stop him, not thinking there was anywhere he could go, but the old man had pulled a remote from his bedside, and pressed an alert on it, no doubt to call the nurses.

He cursed softly as he heard footsteps in the hallway and made himself invisible again, as nurses rushed inside. The old man was frantic now, crying and pleading about a ghost, as the nurses worked to calm him down.

Luka retreated to a corner. He was patient, he could wait. It took a long while, but the nurses managed to calm the old man down and, with assurances of dinner soon, left him be.

Luka waited awhile before he appeared again, crossing to the bed where Gudelj was laying. There was once more no recognition in the old man’s eyes. It was just as well. He’d wanted him in full preservation of his facilities, but sometimes you had to settle for what you were given. It would have to be enough that the man had known him before his end.

He did him the one courtesy of not disappearing again, as his delicate, but deceptively strong hands, wrapped around the slender neck. He wouldn’t bother bloodying his knife on this one, if he even had any blood left to spare in that body of his.

He squeezed with practiced ease, and the milky eyes were wide, panic within them. The old man was too weak to fight it off. It would have felt somewhat poetic, if Luka could appreciate such things, how their positions were reversed. He hadn’t know why he’d been so tormented all those years ago. Let the old man die with the same question in his mind.

It didn’t take long before he eventually gave in. He could tell when the life had left him, and he stepped away. He didn’t bother to close the staring eyes. He felt a sense of, not peace, but a sort of rightness, and contentment. There was one less, and he could put that particular ghost behind him.

Sesha – And Drink to Forget

First time getting drunk

8:05 P.M.

He cursed softly as he fumbled, nearly dropping his keys. He was carrying too much, and was hardly in the right mental state to deal with it all right now. His hand jabbed blindly at the lock a few times before managing to get the key in, and the door open. Pushing his way in he shed shoes, bag, box, and coat in quick succession. Usually, he was very careful to assure everything ended up in its place. Tonight he kicked his shoes off by the door, set the box in the middle of the entry way, and half tore his coat off before dropping it into a heap on the ground. None of it mattered.

He made his way to the kitchen, feeling in turns as if he wanted to rush, and crumble to the floor. The hallway felt like a forever. Everything was falling apart. Everything hurt. He was a doctor, trained to heal the body. He gave his life to bring succor to those in pain. He wasn’t as good at doing that for himself. Besides, this wasn’t the sort of thing medicine could fix. Well, he thought, as he flicked on the light, perhaps it could. But he didn’t want to go down that road.

He shifted the canvas bag he’d been carrying off his shoulder. It came to rest on his kitchen counter with a loud clink, as the contents gently rattled against each other. Pulling the canvas down revealed a small bounty of bottles. He’d skipped beer and wine, and gone straight for the harder stuff. There was a bottle of whiskey, vodka, and oddly enough, Kahlua. He’d just grabbed bottles of liquors he knew the names of, not much caring what they might taste like. He picked the whiskey bottle up. It felt weighty in his hands, wonderfully solid. Maybe it was the only thing that was real. He might not be able to ease his pain through medicine, but maybe chemistry would do the trick.

8:15 P.M

He’d arrayed the bottles on the counter, and peeled back the plastic wrapping over the cap of the whiskey bottle. The strong scent of it assaulted his nose almost immediately after opening it, unlike anything he was used to. At least he knew better than to try and drink it straight from the bottle, and he poured some of it into a glass. He’d chosen the whiskey first because he knew it would do the job fastest. He didn’t want to think about the world anymore, even if some tiny part of his brain was still trying to warn him away from this.

Taking up the glass, he held it in a slightly shaking hand, wondering, for a moment, if he should drink from it. A laughing face appeared in his mind, twisting the knife in his guts another turn. A face he’d once so loved, who he thought had loved him in return. Lies. It had all been lies.

Without another thought he put the glass to his lips and drank. He eyes went wide and he sputtered, coughing as the burning liquid went down his throat. His eyes watered and he bent over the counter, needing a few moments to get his breath back. The face in his mind laughed, calling him pathetic in the same voice he’d used to say “I love you”. He took another drink, more slowly this time. Despite the burning he felt a warmth already gathering in his middle.

8:30 P.M.

He’d moved to the living room with his glass and the bottle, nearly melting on the couch, still in his good clothes. His anger still burned but it was fighting a losing battle with his sadness, and pain. Memories of smiles and happy times came unbidden. Romantic dinners, nights of passion, waiting eagerly for his return. He’d been so in love, and such a little fool. He took a drink, trying to swallow it all down along with the whiskey. That bastard wasn’t worth his tears. If so, why did it hurt so much?

It wasn’t his first time drinking, but it was his first time drinking alone.

Medical school and residency had never just been about anatomy, rounds, facts, or even patients. Doctors were social creatures. Many craved attention, and praise. Over the years there had been so many parties, celebrations, gatherings. Big and small. There had always been alcohol, but outside of an occasional glass of wine or a bottle or two of beer, he’d never much developed a taste for it.

Tonight was different. It wasn’t about the taste. He didn’t care about the vintage, or even where it had come from. He just wanted to forget. Maybe it had been foolish to go out and buy all this, bring it all the way home, and drink while sobbing on the couch, but he hadn’t wanted to break down in a bar. He’d stop as soon as the pain eased up.

9:15 P.M.

The edges of his world had dulled, everything gone soft. He felt warm all over, and had undone the first few buttons on his shirt, trying to cool himself off. He didn’t want to move other than that, except to bring the glass to his lips, over and over again. He wasn’t sure how much he’d drank so far. The pain was still there, but it was further away. It was as if he were looking at his thoughts from the outside, through frosted glass.

Almost six years they’d been together. Six happy years with the man he’d considered the love of his life, the man he’d been planning to spend the rest of his life with. He thought he could have taken it if he’d just been dumped, but finding out it had all been a ruse had broken him in ways he hadn’t realized were possible. Aleron hadn’t loved him. He’d been a good lay, a good cook, someone to play with. His former lover was already getting married to another.

He’d always been something of a romantic. Dating, love, the sweetness of a relationship between two people. He’d grown up hoping for that for himself and he’d been so sure he’d found it. He would never be so foolish again. He would guard his heart from anyone who might be able to hurt him. He didn’t need love, and he would be successful on his own. He’d show everyone he could do this his way.

He reached for the bottle. It felt heavier than it ever had. His fumbling fingers slipped and it fell to the carpet with a soft thunk. The bottle landed on its side, whiskey leading out from the mouth, staining the carpet amber. At the moment, he couldn’t have cared less.

9:45 P.M.

At some point his vision had blurred along with his thoughts. He felt as if he were floating, not only away from his mind, but his body as well. Try as he might he couldn’t even lift the glass to his lips any longer. It was cradled, like a child, in the crook of his arm and pressed up against his chest. The hard glass was welcoming. Better than the softness he was used to. He didn’t need anyone.

10:13 P.M.

He woke with a start on the couch, having fallen asleep. As he tried to sit up his vision swam, his head spun, and he felt seriously sick. Pitching forward, the glass he’d been holding joined the bottle on the floor. His feet were hardly willing to obey him as he stumbled as quickly as he could to the bathroom. He hit his shoulder hard on the door as he made his way in, not even turning on the light as his stomach rebelled. He managed to hit the toilet as he vomited, nausea moving over him in waves. It seemed to take forever to empty his stomach.

When he was finished he tried to stand. He thought to head back out into the living room, lay down on the couch, but his legs gave out under him and he slid down to the floor. Oblivion soon took him, and he lay prone there on the hard tile.

9:34 A.M.

He woke with a start. His head was pounding, his mouth dry, and tasting as if something had died in it. He felt sick again, dirty, and realized with a growing horror that he’d passed out on the bathroom floor. He managed to pull himself up on shaking legs, half falling against the sink where he splashed cold water all over his face. The shock of it helped, a little. What looked back at him from the mirror was a terrible sight to behold. He looked like hell, and felt like it too.

He felt emptied, hollowed, sick. But, he realized too, the drink had helped. He felt nothing about what had happened. No sorrow, anger, or pain. That was what he’d wanted all along. It was perfect. He could harden his heart, he’d just needed something to show him that.

He could mange, going forward. He was sure of it.

Quetzal – Understanding

But no easy answer would come to the serpent in the days following Domerin’s rejection of his advances. Try as he would to dismiss the conversation they’d had his mind kept swinging back to it, as if pulled inexorably by a force he could not explain. It had been so easy in the past to brush the man off, to forget him in the moments he wasn’t serving his desires. But even he realized that over the years that had become harder to do. He’d never wanted to admit that a mortal had any sort of power over him but as terrifying as the thought was part of him knew it simply wasn’t true anymore. He wanted Domerin, wanted what only Domerin could give him and that made him more precious than gems or temples built in his honor. Even the simplest thing could take on the greatest of meanings given the right situation.

With no urgent business in the city to occupy his mind the first day he’d tried to separate himself from his vessel, thinking being in his own form would rid him of the bothersome feelings. Surely whatever was bothering him lived in mortal flesh, some sort of taint he could easily rid himself of. But even on another plane, with the myriad forces at his call, he could not let them go. They were there, unavoidable like a grain of sand inside an oyster, and worrying over them was making it larger and larger. Frustrated and determined to find an answer to his questions he returned to the mortal plain. It had been the middle of the night when he’d reentered Sesha, dragging the man out of his sleep and pushing him aside while began to replay bits of his vessel’s memories, trying to find an easy solution to his quandary. Hours passed. He maneuvered the body almost without thinking to take care of any annoying biological functions but otherwise he seemed to just sit there, ignoring all else, focused on the within as he tried to understand.

Usually when he returned to Sesha after the man had spent time with Domerin he focused only on any information that would allow him to play and torment. He’d known the moment the man had begun to desire Domerin all those years ago and he’d used it well against him in the time since but after knowing it he’d had no reason to return to it, to live inside it. Each new thought and feeling had only been useful to him as fodder. Everything he was given he used to further himself. Hadn’t Domerin said as much of him? He’d been ruling over mortals since time unremembered but that didn’t mean he understood how they really worked. Now, though, he played through memories slowly trying to understand the why.

The morning came and went while he jumped from one memory to another until he found one that suited. He watched, as if standing over them, a recent memory of Domerin and Sesha joining, focusing on his vessel’s face. Domerin’s words came back to him asking for his moans, his trembling body. In the moment he watched again, letting each feeling from his vessel wash over him uninterrupted, the sheer intensity of a human feeling that was not fear or simple lust. It was so different from what he was used to feeling and even outside of the pleasure there was the sense of something else, something that one person could not do alone. He realized the closest he’d ever felt to it was with Domerin in his chamber, two working towards one goal. Slow or fast, it didn’t matter. He was not sure what compulsion took him then, perhaps some last attempt to show he would not be affected, but lastly he watched the memory once more but from Sesha’s perspective. He’d never tried to do this before, the thought had never crossed his mind, but now he wanted to feel it. He expected to fear being on his back, being under, being entered. But In those moments none of that were what mattered. The moans were his and it was his body that trembled beneath Domerin. The man was inside of him and he wanted it more than anything. He wanted it to last forever. He was part of something with someone else, completely, and it felt so right. In those moments, before he could stop himself, he understood why someone would desire this.

He’d pulled back from it feeling shaken, unsure, and exposed. Never before had his vessel felt so confining. The only person who knew was Sesha and though the man wasn’t laughing at him he felt him very strongly there in his mind, as if he were watching. He knew he shouldn’t have touched the memory in such a way but it was too late to take it back now when even his anger could not burn through the feelings left over. He remembered other conversations as if his vessel were offering them up to him, the priest’s only way to rebel against his master in his moments of weakness. Domerin saying so frankly that he did not like to be taken, that he hated it in part because he felt discarded, that it didn’t mean anything. Snippets of conversation that he’d heard but passed over for years as not important. But even if it was not important to him it was important to Domerin. He’d never thought of someone else’s feelings in that way before, at least not this seriously.

Part of him knew he had to fight against this. The god’s anger swelled inside of him, coils trying to close around his heart and mind. Surely it was his right to take whatever and whoever whenever he wished!? He’d said as much to Domerin in their last conversation but each time the man had refuted him. Each time he’d tried to explain the the thing he’d just felt inside of a memory. How could you put something like that to words? Unbidden he remembered Domerin’s hands running over a body as if it had been his own. Domerin’s scent, and weight, and heat and in those moments the flesh he wore shivered along with him. Never before had he felt so connected to the body he walked around in. He remembered so vividly Domerin’s whispers of pleasure as he tortured him in the chamber. His wish that those moments could last forever if only they could. He wanted Domerin again like that but knew it was not possible now. Denial was anathema to a god but it was there, unavoidable. Hadn’t Domerin said he wanted the same thing? So many thoughts he could not banish all rushing for his attention was a torment in itself. His need swirled inside of him mixing with his anger, and his fear. At some point he’d banished the servants from entering, though how many days had passed he could not quite say.

Domerin was not just any man, not just some cowering mortal. This was the man who’d challenged him from the moment they’d met, refused to bow to his whims. He’d desired him then as a possession, a toy but they were beyond that now. Another memory sprang up, his vessel’s shock when Domerin had spoken that he’d rather die than keep on this way. He’d given him his freedom then, thinking it would be enough. Instead he’d been surprised at what Domerin had done with it and been angry. He’d assumed things wouldn’t change. Of course a wolf on too short a leash would long to roam free. Domerin had left him. He’d left without word and returned without word. The only man in the world who would have dared to do such a thing. He could leave now if he wanted and never return and it was painful for the god to realize that he did not want him to go. Out of all the mortals in the world, if pressed, there was only one he would keep.

He was a serpent and it was in his nature to choke, to poison, to coil but what was the point of something if it lived but was not alive? It was Domerin’s fire that had drawn him to the man. Now he was faced with Domerin either leaving him or staying but being gone in spirit. Which was worse?

There was so much to process, so much he’d never had to deal with before Domerin had come into his life. Through the tumult he formed new thoughts of his own, new assurances for himself. He could change this fate. He was a god, he had the power to do whatever he wanted. He could give Domerin what he desired, really desired, and he could keep the man with him like he wanted. It wasn’t weakness to walk into something knowingly, to chose, and knowing he would get what he wanted out of it too. In the end only Sesha and Domerin would know. Sesha could never tell anyone and for all the trouble he’d given him Domerin had at least never betrayed his secrets. For the first time he felt secure that he could give this part of himself and not worry about being devoured, about being weak. He felt sure he’d solved the riddle. He could do this.

What remained now was to call the man. For the first time in days the windows were opened, a bath was drawn, food was brought in, clothes were laid out. He would make himself up and call the man and tell him he would finally get what he wanted. Things would be different.