Embracing Life

by Queen Boadicea

 

Hadrian sighed blissfully as his hand traced idle circles on Caled's chest. Once more he and his lover had brought each other the same delicious pleasure they always knew in this place. This time they had been in bed, in the cabin that was somehow a part of this mysterious spot. He had questioned Caled about the structure's existence. But as usual Caled had been dismissive of his curiosity, simply urging him to accept what was without question.

He had been happy to do so, to lose himself in Caled's hard, greedy hands, his demanding lips and the passion that surged forth for him alone. That bronzed skin with its corded muscles had moved over him, within him, until they'd both exploded into passion.

At moments like this, Hadrian thought he would die. He thought he could die and be completely uncaring of the fact. Afterwards, he'd lain in Caled's arms, watching the flames from the fireplace dancing in his lover's blue eyes. He wondered that one person in the entire world could call forth so much joy and excitement from him. How could one being fill him with so much love?

"Caledon?" he whispered. Only here in this place would the other man let his former name be used.

"Hmmm? What is it, love?" Again, only here would he hear the word "love" come from those lips. Lips that smiled tenderly at him without the sneer of the daylight hours.

"I wish I could stay here forever. The waking life I have is so hateful to me," Hadrian breathed, snuggling deeper into Caled's tanned arms.

Caled raised his head to look down on the smaller man nestled in his embrace. "Don't say that. The world needs you. I need you."

Hadrian ducked his head so the dark strands fell across his eyes. He didn't want his lover to see the sorrow there. "You-that other you-needs me for nothing. He is sufficient unto himself and could survive well enough without me."

Caled reached down to brush away the concealing hair. He ran a calloused finger down Hadrian's pale cheek. "Survival isn't the same as living. Trust me, love. You are the other half of myself. We are bound to each other-like it or not."

Hadrian glanced up, his look fierce and despairing. "He won't believe that. He doesn't care about me. I destroyed his friends, his home. I betrayed him. He hates me for that and wants me de-"

Those lips came down to claim his once more and Hadrian clung to him, devouring him with his mouth. He was not usually so aggressive; he let that role be played by the strong mercenary. But somehow he sensed that soon everything would change and he wanted to bask in the other man's love before being ripped from him.

When Caled released him again, he whispered, "Hadrian, I love you. I may never say it when you wake. But it is there in every word, every glance, every touch I give you."

"Every sneer, every scowl, every blow, you mean," Hadrian said, his features twisting with unhappiness. A hard lump rose in his throat at the thought of the rough treatment he endured at the hands of the mercenary who claimed to despise him and wished him gone from the world.

Caled sighed, exasperated with his ebony-haired lover's refusal to understand. "I love you, no matter what I may profess to the contrary. Why else can I not leave you alone? Yes, I have reason to hate you. But love and hate aren't opposites; they are different sides of the same coin. They share twin passions, twin obsessions and equal targets. I don't hate you when we are awake so much as I hate myself for being unable to resist you as I should."

Hadrian didn't answer, only clasped him tighter, burrowing into Caled's chest as if he wanted to crawl inside him and linger in that warmth. During the daylight, when he was awake, he often felt colder and colder. It was as if Life itself were drawing away, the air and sun refusing to lend him their warmth.

He was used to physical cold from his life on Shard's Point Isle. But this was a different frost. At times it felt as if the heat were leeching away from his very insides. He was beginning to hate Life for its rejection of him as much as Life despised him.

Caled's voice drew him from his dark thoughts. "Hadrian, when you fight against your father, remember that I will be waiting for you-no matter what the outcome."

A bright hopeful light flared in the sorcerer's eyes. "You mean, even if I die, you and I can still be together here? I would love that! I had feared death because it might tear me from you. But if we can be together still-"

Caled pressed a finger in warning against those moist lips. "Don't misunderstand me, Hadrian. I don't mean you get to be with me as a reward. I mean a part of my heart, my spirit, will travel with you wherever you go." He grasped those slender fingers and pressed Hadrian's hand against his heart. "We are bound together. Not even death will separate us."

Hadrian's gray eyes clouded. "I hope so. Life is meaningless to me now without you."

Caled frowned at the dejection in the other's voice. "Don't go into the fight prepared to die. You must be prepared to live."

"Why? Life hates me just as the waking Caled does. I betrayed them both. They both want me erased from the world."

"Don't you understand yet? It doesn't matter what Life wants or what I think I want when I'm out of my senses with sick rage. You should embrace the joy of Life just as you embrace me. You love me still, don't you?" Caled tipped up Hadrian's chin so gray eyes met searching blue ones. "Don't you?"

"I do. You know I do," Hadrian whispered, tears flowing across his vision. "That's why your coldness is so bitter to me."

"Then that is your answer. No matter how Life responds to you, love it all the same. Cherish it, respect it and enfold it to yourself. The moment you turn against Life, you turn against me."

Caled bent his head to claim his lips again, shifting so his body rested above Hadrian's. Pale thighs spread themselves and Caled pressed between them. Hadrian's breath caught in his throat as his lover made the first firm thrust.

Soon their bodies were arching together, skin like rare porcelain rising up against the tanned, muscular chest. Hadrian's voice rose higher as his lover thrust himself harder and quicker between those smooth, pale legs.

"Had…rian. Gods, want you so much," Caled gasped. Strong fingers gripped at Hadrian's shoulders, drawing the sorcerer up to him whenever he pushed himself deeper. He sucked in a breath and rocked harder. "Hadrian. Hades. Love you. Move like that…again!"

"Love you, Caled…Cal…Cal," Hadrian chanted. The dark-haired man beneath rolled up his hips to meld himself against the taut body seeking to bury itself inside him. Caled plunged home and a cry wrenched itself from Hadrian's core. Lust blazed across his skin, hotter than the fire, brighter than the sun. His ass tightened, desperate to keep that warmth inside him, and he moaned as Caled pulled back from him.

There was a sharp flare of pain across his face, a pain he sought to ignore, willing himself not to wake into another nightmare. Caled reached between their bodies, knowing fingers grasping and jerking off his straining cock. The pain returned like the crack of a whip and he was brought tumbling from the heights of ecstasy.

He opened his eyes blearily, shading them away from the familiar glaring countenance of his former lover. The man's hand was drawn back, poised for another slap. "Get up, you worthless ass. I've never met anyone so lazy in all my days. You barely make yourself useful during the day and you tumble into sleep at the first opportunity. Why the hell the god of all things saw fit to make sorcerers and mages is beyond me. Common criminals bring more to the world than you do."

"That's not fair!" Syellen cried. She glared at Caled. "Don't judge us all by Hadrian's measure. A great many people use magic and not always for evil. Just because you decided to become a murderer for pay doesn't make you a judge of what is useful and right in the world."

Hadrian dragged himself up from the ground and closed his ears to the sound of their bickering. Let them tear into each other. It was better than when they teamed up to turn on him.

Syellen was jealous of what she perceived as Manix's amorous interest in Hadrian even though there was nothing between them beyond Manix's glancing concern for Hadrian's use of magic. The ageless mage had no sexual interest in Hadrian and Hadrian had none in anybody except Caled. Then again, he wouldn't say no at this point to carnal delights with others.

At moments like this, he wished he'd taken Lio up on his offer. The thief had wanted him and the following morning Caled had hinted of something of Lio's prowess in bed. It would have been Hadrian's last experience with the tenderness of another, even if it had been fleeting. And Lio would have made it good for him; he was certain of it.

He tended to his horse, resisting the urge to scrub at his face. It still stung from the vicious slaps Caled had given to awaken him but he wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of knowing Hadrian was hurt. The brunette sorcerer drew in air with caution, his breath hitching slightly. His ribs still ached from the time Caled had roused him from a particularly lust-filled dream with hard kicks to his side. His whole body was becoming a mass of small aches and pains. It was just as well this would be over soon. At the rate of Caled's petty tortures, he would be moving like a broken old man if the abuse continued for much longer.

The silver-haired mage Manix pulled him aside from the other two. He indicated they should walk a distance away so the redheaded mage-in-training and the mercenary couldn't hear them. "Hadrian, we must talk."

"What is it, Manix? Be quick. If my horse isn't saddled soon, Caled will doubtless kick me to spur me on." Hadrian kept his tone neutral. The mage wouldn't let Syellen or Caled hurt him too much; he insisted that Hadrian be left unharmed and relatively untroubled to keep his strength for the coming battle. But other than that he had no real fondness for Hadrian, and the pale-skinned sorcerer knew it. Who in the world truly cared about the Scourge of Rhiad?

"Keep your voice down." Manix flicked his eyes in the direction of the other two, watching them quarrel. He lowered his voice. "Caled may not have told you this. But a geas has been laid on your lives. If you die before stopping your father, Caled will die."

"What?" In spite of Manix's admonition, his voice rose and the other man gave him a warning frown. "You can't do that!"

"I can and I have. Caled is aware of this."

"He is?" So that's why Caled hadn't killed him yet. Caled had been named Gavedon's Bane and Gavedon feared the mercenary as the one who would finally kill him. That's why he had forced Hadrian to destroy all the mercenaries in Rhiad in the first place. But Caled had escaped from the destruction of Rhiad, vowing to kill the treacherous son and his murderous father.

If anybody could kill Gavedon, it was a practiced and cunning assassin like Caled. So Hadrian had wondered why Caled continually spared his life while threatening to kill him on a daily basis. Now he had his answer.

"Why are you telling me this, then? I thought you didn't want me distracted when I went up against my father," Hadrian pointed out.

Manix shrugged. "That's why I have kept silent up until now. I didn't want the worry of this looming over you until it was absolutely necessary."

Hadrian's mouth went very dry. "And-why is it necessary now?"

The ageless seer bent a measuring gaze on him. "Your father has been sighted."

__________

Hadrian stood opposite the hooded figure. There was nothing wrong with his father's appearance. He still bore the arrogant beauty of his middle years, magic and luck combining to make him a handsome man. The hooded cape hid nothing disfigured or ugly; it was simply for dramatic effect. It made him look menacing…although not as much as the lightning sparkling from his fingers.

Hadrian had good reason to dread this encounter. To defeat a mage of his father's caliber, he would have to open himself to Life itself and all Life hated him, the Scourge of Rhiad, the Taker of Life. But what choice did he have? Either he defeated his father or Caled would die. And if Caled died, then Hadrian might as well die with him.

He dodged his father's eldritch blasts and frantically ripped away his protective gloves. Dropping to his knees, he dug his hands into the soil.

Immediately, the power of nature, of the swelling earth, rose through his hands and slammed into his body. Hadrian shuddered with the impact and nearly laughed out loud. This was power incarnate, the very lushness of the earth itself running through him and causing his whole body to tingle with its strength.

He heard shouting. It could have been himself or his father. He didn't know nor care. He bounced to his feet, the energy crackling through him, and sent it in a vicious arc towards the hooded man. Gavedon erected a shield of mystical light and the ray bounced harmlessly off it.

Well, perhaps not completely harmlessly. Hadrian could have sworn his father staggered just a little. Hadrian ni Leynanon smiled to himself and it was not a nice smile. He had the magic at his command and he would raze the world with it!

The next moment Life recognized him, as it always did. The magic twisted and seemed to snarl its very fury at the Scourge of Rhiad. The caressing light turned to burning fire and Hadrian gasped and then shrieked with the agony. The energy buzzing in Hadrian dug in with eagle claws, clutching and ripping at his heart, at his very being.

The man swayed and fought not to fall to his knees. But Life knew him, knew the monster trying to twist it to his will. The pain intensified and Hadrian struggled to regain a measure of control. He needed to grab hold of Life and force it to his bidding, not let it spiral out of check.

His father had rallied and was on the attack. Hadrian recognized the spell being cast and rolled out of the way just in time. The bolt fell where he had been standing and the earth bubbled and melted like a pat of butter on a griddle.

He reached deep inside himself as he tried to wrestle the hostile energy into some form of obedience. But it refused, howling and hissing. It bucked and the grip on his heart intensified. Weakness began to spread inside. Was this what death was? Life was grabbing him and leaving death in its place. The contradiction would have amused him if he had had the vigor to laugh.

He couldn't control Life. No one could. His father had deceived his followers if he actually thought the immensity of the living world was something he could bend into submission. Life mocked his efforts and Hadrian collapsed to the ground. It was over before it had barely begun. His father would win…and Caled would die.

No! That couldn't happen! Hadrian tried to summon the strength of will to dominate the energy whipping through him. But what could he do? Life was unmanageable, without restraint and ultimately unknowable. How could he grasp such a thing? And why would he want to when it hated him so much?

Unbidden, the words from Caled, his dream lover, rose up in his mind. "No matter how Life responds to you, love it all the same. Cherish it, respect it and enfold it to yourself. The moment you turn against Life, you turn against me."

This was the secret. Life was Caled and Caled was Life. Without either, his existence was pointless. The secret to loving Caled had never been about wresting the man to his bidding. He loved Caled without reservation, the good and the bad of him: his impatience, friendliness, fiery temper, viciousness, courage, unexpected tenderness, sly good humor and prowess in bed. He'd been wooed and won by all these things. This was what it meant to know and love Caled. This was what it meant to love Life.

He was on his feet again, although he didn't know how. He was weakening by the second but pushed the knowledge of it from his mind. This supernatural force was not his to control and now he knew it. It hated him but that didn't matter. He loved Life and his father sought to subjugate it. That was the difference between them. That was where the old man would fail.

Hadrian lifted his arms and allowed the Life to flow from him. He whispered to it that there was a more worthwhile target nearby, someone that actually sought its power. At first it resisted, determined to destroy the Taker of Life. But then it became attracted to the more powerful sorcerer and turned to follow the other strands of magic beckoning in the air.

Gavedon grinned maliciously beneath his hood. His son was a fool! He was giving up power and actually allowing his father to take it. He laughed as the power flowed towards him. Soon he would have so much at his beck and call no one could stop him, not even that petty mercenary he had feared so much.

The power coursed through him and he rose in the air, wafted as lightly as a feather. Gavedon laughed, a giddy sound at odds with the ferocity of his expression. Life was taking him to its bosom and there was nothing he couldn't-

There was a howling in the wind and Life squeezed him in a vise. Suddenly, he couldn't breathe nor speak as power raged through his body, thundering like a storm. His veins throbbed on his skin and his eyes bulged. He began to swell as impossible energy expanded from the inside of his frail human body.

Gavedon flailed. Caught in the grip of Life energy, his own had nowhere to go but to turn inward on itself. The mage hung for a moment longer in the tense air. Then he exploded into ash.

Hadrian looked on dully as the man he'd loved and feared so much died, his mortal remains raining down on the earth like dirty snow. Later, he would feel grief as he thought of the death of the last member of his family. Now he had weightier matters on his mind.

He turned to see Syellen and Manix staring at him, the former with real fear on her face and the latter with a probing expression. "The geas," he croaked hoarsely. "Remove it."

Manix bowed his head. "It is already done."

A beatific smile and gray eyes the color of clouds before rain beamed on him. "Thank you," Hadrian whispered. Then he collapsed to the ground as if his tendons had been cut.

__________

Caled lifted up the mug, gulping thirstily at its contents. It was a relief to drink alone, without sensing Hadrian's probing silence. Even if he did glance up whenever the door opened, he wasn't looking for the sorcerer. It was merely the practiced instincts of a trained assassin checking the potential danger he might be in from others.

He thought of his last meeting with Hadrian. The memory caused him to pause fractionally in lifting the tankard to his lips. Two days ago that cursed mage Manix had told him in no uncertain terms that it was time for him to leave. He'd flatly refused. He hadn't come all this way to destroy the ni Leyanon line just to be booted out like an unwanted cur. It would take more than one gray-haired mage to oust him.

Manix had been unimpressed by his anger. "That geas I laid on you also works as a compulsion. I can make you leave if I choose."

The mercenary had glared at him with poisonous dislike. "Sorcerers," he spat. "There's no worse race on the face of the world."

"Some might feel the same way about paid killers," Manix returned mildly. "Nevertheless, I feel your presence to Hadrian would be a distraction he doesn't need. He will face his father very soon. The battle will be an epic one, with dark and fell magicks brought to bear. The tiniest slip in Hadrian's concentration would be fatal to him-and to you as well. It is time you left us. There is nothing further you can do here."

A muscle jumped in Caled's jaw. "And the geas? What of that?"

"As promised, it shall be removed as soon as Gavedon is found. There will be no need for it. You have my word."

A glob of saliva spat upon the ground told Manix what Caled thought of his word. "That's not much comfort if Hadrian gets killed. If he fails, the world will be in danger from that beastly father of his, won't it?"

"Hadrian will not fail. There is too much at stake for him even to consider failure," Manix intoned. His eyes glittered when he spoke and Caled wondered what he meant by that.

"Mind if I say goodbye to Hades?"

Not so much as a flicker of surprise crossed Manix's face. "Of course."

Caled didn't approach Hadrian at first. He merely crossed to his horse and began saddling him. He was certain this would draw the sorcerer to him. But he was disappointed. Glancing across the small clearing where all four travelers were resting, he spotted Hadrian seated upon the ground staring sightlessly into space.

Caled clucked his tongue in irritation and walked over to him, making no attempt to disguise his footsteps. Honestly, someone needed to teach that stupid magic wielder to be more aware of his surroundings. Anybody would be able to sneak up behind him and plant a dagger neatly between the sorcerer's shoulderblades.

As usual, Caled clamped down on the impulse to do just that and settled for slapping Hadrian hard on the back. "Well, it seems as if I have to be hitting the road. Tormenting you has been fun but I've got more important things on my mind."

Hadrian glanced up and Caled frowned to see to vacancy in his eyes. More and more, it was as if Hadrian were slipping way. He no longer bothered to rise to Caled's taunts. Instead he would gaze into the distance as if focused on something only he could see and hear.

Was he thinking about magic? But no, he got a certain look on his face when he was thinking of enchantments and this wasn't it. Caled didn't know how to describe it actually. It was a combination of longing and gladness that drew him powerfully. Hadrian became hauntingly beautiful when he thought of wielding power and Caled hated being caught in his sway for he thought he understood why the sorcerer craved magic.

Deep inside Hadrian was a lust for power; Caled was convinced of that just as he was convinced all sorcerers and mages shared that same greed. If Hadrian ever turned the full measure of his power against Caled, the mercenary wouldn't survive it. So it was stupid to love Hadrian for that beauty when he knew what lay behind it.

But Hadrian never sent so much as a flicker of light his way. He had fought against Caled physically, pushing him away, elbowing him in the ribs or running from him when things got too intense. But never once did he use magic to defend himself. In spite of Caled's physical brutality towards him, Hadrian never responded in kind. Caled hadn't thought to wonder about that-until now.

Now the blank, unseeing look had disappeared. Instead Hadrian was gazing at him with a hunger Caled also recognized. Soft gray eyes bent their gaze on his lips and Caled was swept with the desire to kiss him, to plunder that soft yielding mouth until Hadrian moaned and begged to be taken.

He ruthlessly pushed the feeling aside and leapt to his feet. "It's too bad I won't be here to see your father kill you. But I'll be back to finish him off if you fumble in your task, you can bet. In the meantime, you'll simply have to settle for Syellen for company." He smiled viciously. "Too bad she thinks you're worse than horseshit. Guess you'll be stuck with that grating voice. I don't envy you."

He turned to go only to be halted by the sorcerer's hand resting on his elbow. "Caled, wait."

The blonde mercenary slitted his eyes at him. "Get your hand off me, Hades."

Hadrian obeyed although the menace in Caled's voice didn't cow him. "Caled, I know you hate me. But I wanted you to know I don't hate you. I can't and I'll take all your advice with me into battle-even if you don't remember it."

Caled's expression was one of disbelief and irritation. "Even if I don't remember-what are you babbling about now? Has your mind been addled? I hope not. There's too much at stake here for you to be wandering in your wits. If you've become crazy, then I'm staying. I don't care what Manix says."

"Manix? You're leaving because of him?"

"He seems to think I'll be a distraction to you." Caled swept Hadrian's body with a suggestive leer tugging at his lips. "I wonder why? It's been ages since you and I have had that kind of fun. Frankly, I'd rather fuck a weasel than have you touch me again." That wasn't true. Every night Caled yearned to take Hadrian in his arms and ravish him, feeling that alabaster skin next to his own and bury his hot cock in that willing body. He wanted to hear Hadrian give those soft cries of love and respond in kind.

But he'd kept himself from him by sheer force of will, contenting himself with harsh words and unexpected blows. He'd used the cover of every punch as an excuse to touch Hadrian, to feel his skin even as he hurt inside to see ugly bruises mar that face or watch the man limp from some injury Caled had given him.

"Perhaps that wasn't the distraction he feared," Hadrian murmured. Hadrian didn't blush as he usually did at Caled's sexual innuendoes and that was almost as disturbing as his continuing abstraction. It was as if he'd convinced himself that Caled's attentions didn't matter and that irked the mercenary no end. Hadrian was truly pulling away from him and he sought to re-capture the sorcerer's wandering attentions.

"Did you have anything of importance to say to me? Because there's a pub down the road and one of my favorite barmaids just waiting to give me some of her personal attention," the mercenary drawled.

That clear-eyed gaze rested on him again. "Nothing. Only this." He lunged towards Caled and gripped his neck with his arms. Before Caled could react, Hadrian was kissing him.

The kiss was searing, the sorcerer's lips sucking at his own as if to draw the very breath from his body. The small frame was pressed against his from lean chest to supple thighs and Caled could feel the heart of his former lover beating frantically against his own. There was desperation, longing, love and farewell in that kiss and for a moment Caled allowed himself to indulge in it. Burly arms wound around that smaller body, molding the sorcerer tightly to his heart.

The next moment he recalled himself and shoved Hadrian hard, watching with a cruel smile as the man went sprawling to land on his backside. "Well, that was something to remember you by. Not as good as the barmaid but still one of your better efforts."

Hadrian didn't move only gazed at him from the ground. Caled spun on his heel and marched to his horse. He swung on to the animal's back and slapped the reins on its neck. The animal broke into a brisk canter and he rode away, willing himself not to look back.

That had been two days ago and he'd managed to put some distance between himself and his former lover. In spite of his own determination to forget Hadrian, thoughts of the sorcerer had haunted him ever since.

He recalled his first sight of the young man: his dark hair spinning over his shoulders, his gray eyes wide with shock when Caled had first kissed him. Hadrian's surprising delicacy and innocence, the silken feel of Hadrian's flesh, the satiny tendrils of ebony hair knotting in Caled's fist, the laughing, rosy face staring up at him in the hayloft where Caled and he had tasted pleasure in each other's bodies-a thousand memories crowded in on him whenever his attention wandered. Even when he'd plowed the barmaid, images of the sorcerer would flash into his mind, branded behind his eyelids whenever he closed them.

Caled slapped the tankard down on the table. This was insane. Hadrian would be dead soon, if not by his father's hand then by Caled's own. The blonde killer for hire needed to purge himself of these thoughts if he was to kill Hadrian without faltering.

The pain struck out of nowhere, knocking him from his stool and doubling him up in agony. "Shard's teeth!" he gasped, grinding his teeth against the sensation. It tore harder inside of him as if he'd swallowed strips of metal with his beer.

What was happening to him? Dimly he was aware that other drinkers nearby were shifting away from him. There were some cries of alarm and mutters about him being mage-struck. Mages had a way of killing people from a distance. At least that's what many rumors told: another reason they were feared in many quarters of Juxtan.

Caled gripped his money and his knife. He wouldn't put it past someone to rob him while he was apparently helpless and he wanted to be ready. But no one came near him and, after a moment, the pain ceased as suddenly as it had begun. All that was left was a vague dull ache in his chest.

Caled shook his head to rid himself of the aftermath and looked up to see the barmaid staring down at him. "Get up!" she hissed. "You're frightening the other customers! What the devil has gotten into you?"

"You're all heart, you are. It's probably just something in your beer."

She hmmmphed at that and spun around, calling out brightly that some people just didn't know how to handle their liquor. He slapped down money for the drink on the table and retired for the evening.

Changing his mind about staying in the pub room, Caled decided it might be best not to sleep in an enclosed space. When he undressed that night, he was continuing a debate in his head that had raged ever since that phantom pain had struck him down. It had something to do with Hadrian. It was magical in nature and that meant the sorcerer had to be involved. Was it the result of the geas? Had Hadrian been wounded or killed and the pain a signal that Caled would be next? But he was still alive and that meant Hadrian was alive. Didn't it?

Should he go back to where he'd left the others and investigate? Was Gavedon even now coming to finish off Caled? He didn't know and the uncertainty was frustrating. He would leave as soon as it was daybreak.

When he opened his eyes, he was no longer in the loft. Caled sat upright and then jumped to his feet. He stood in a meadow filled with shining green grass that reached up to his knees. An errant breeze blew against his cheek and he drew in a breath filled with the tang of growing things. It was broad daylight and he squinted against the sun beaming down from overhead.

He was in Juxtan still, that much he could tell. But the world around him had changed subtly with the colors brighter and scents sharper than he could ever remember them.

"Caledon!" Caled stiffened and spun around to see Hadrian running towards him. The sorcerer's chest was bare, the whiteness of his skin in stark contrast to the black breeches and boots he still wore and the verdant green all around him. He had a lush garland of flowers wreathed around his brow and held another in his hands. The flowers he wore should have made him appear womanish and idiotic. But the joy gleaming in his eyes and the unconscious grace with which he wore them made them seem perfectly natural. He carried the blooms in his hair as easily as a king bore his crown.

He bounded up to Caled and placed the other ring of flowers over the blonde hair. "There you are. I've been waiting to see you. Where have you been? I expected you here before now."

Caled pulled the offending wreath from his head and threw it into the surrounding grasses. "Where have I been? Where am I now? What is this place? Have you magicked me in some way, Hades?"

Hadrian pulled back, his brow creasing in confusion. "Magicked you? I asked you what was happening the first time I came here and you told me simply to accept it." He reached out and caressed Caled's cheek. "Are you having second thoughts? It's too late for that now," he murmured slyly.

Caled stepped away from him and then his eyes widened. He stared at the sorcerer. "Hadrian. Your hands-they're bare."

Hadrian glanced down at his fingers and then up at Caled again. "Yes. They always are here. Isn't it wonderful? I never can get quite used to it." He bent and plucked a blade of grass, lifting it to his nostrils and inhaling deeply of its scent.

"But-I thought you couldn't touch things of nature. Life hates you. Remember?" Caled growled out. So familiar was he with seeing Hadrian's gloved hands since he caught up to the sorcerer after Rhiad's destruction that it seemed completely wrong to see his bare limbs now.

"Life doesn't hate me here. You know that, Caledon. That's why I love coming here. That and you." The voice lowered and became suggestive. Hadrian edged closer to him and ran one uncovered hand up Caled's near arm to brush his fingertips across his neck. Since when was the shy Hadrian so bold, so daring? What was this world and what had it done to the sorcerer to change him?

Caled shivered, both from the pressure of those bare fingers and the naked want in Hadrian's gray eyes. He'd seen those eyes in every change of Hadrian's moods-blazing and sleet-gray in anger, cloudy in grief or blank with the bleakness of stones. Now they were darkened almost to charcoal, the smoldering passion in them threatening to ignite his own senses.

Again, the mercenary pulled away from that caress. He hardened his heart, something he'd done so often it was practically a reflex. Even the temporary mourning that followed whenever he denied himself Hadrian's touch was swiftly stifled. "I'm asking you again. What is happening? Is this some mage-induced hallucination? Take care. Even if this is a nightmare, I can kill you here just as easily as the waking world. It wouldn't be the first time I've killed you in my dreams."

Yes, he'd dreamed of killing Hadrian-and woken shaking with terror and drenched in sweat after. The thought of his lover dead at his hands or lifeless in his arms created a wound in him that he wouldn't have admitted to even under torture. He wondered how he'd had the strength to run off and leave Hadrian to his fate at the hands of Gavedon.

The sorcerer stood staring at him again, bewilderment drawing across his features. "Caledon…"

"Caled. It's Caled now, as you know full well, Hades." Caled put as much disgust into that nickname as he could and was gratified to see the other man flinch.

"I-I don't understand. Why are you like this? You never speak to me this way here."

"Oh, so this is your dream I'm caught in? Sorry to have disturbed it for you. Wait. I'm not." Caled fixed his face in a taunting sneer as he glanced around the luxuriant meadow. "I see it now. This is some pleasant fantasy you've induced for yourself. A world where nature doesn't shrink from your touch and where your lover is tender, kind and gentle with you. Is that it?"

Without warning, one hand shot out and punched Hadrian full in the face. Caught unaware, the dark-haired man's head snapped back and he fell to the ground. Before he could recover, the mercenary had thrown himself over him.

Hard fists closed over the sorcerer's flailing hands and pinned him to the ground. He shifted so one hand enclosed both slender wrists and the other reached down into Hadrian's breeches. He found the length of pliant flesh he'd been seeking and jerked at it harshly. In spite of his indelicate touch, it hardened and soon began to swell in his hands.

He bent his head and sneered into the straining face beneath him, seeing the gray eyes fill with tears of confusion and distress. "This is how it's become between us, Hades. You've been deluding yourself if you've expected anything different."

"Oh gods," Hadrian whispered. "You lied to me. All those other dreams-they were all deceptions."

Other dreams? Hadrian had been having night visions about him? Was that what was responsible for that odd, dreamy distance the sorcerer had been displaying while awake? And what did he and Caled do in those dreams? Caled pushed his curiosity aside and continued to make verbal jabs at the prone magician. "You were always too trusting, Hadrian. The pitfalls of a sheltered life." Caled bent his head, nipping hard at the Hadrian's exposed nipples, sinking his teeth into the sensitive flesh.

Hadrian didn't respond to him. "Then the sacrifice was all for nothing. My life, my death…all meaningless."

Caled lifted his head. Hadrian's face was turned from him, the blankness he'd noticed in the man's waking hours stamped on his face like a brand. He was no longer twisting underneath the mercenary and his erection had faded. It was as if life had been stripped away in an instant and Caled hated it. He wanted a fight from Hadrian, not limp, empty submission. He grabbed at the man's chin and forced the other to meet his gaze. "Death? What are you talking about? I warn you, Hades, I'm not to be tricked in this way."

"They talk when they think I can't hear."

"They? Who are they?"

"Manix and Syellen. I thought they would abandon me after the battle. But they're taking my body somewhere. I don't know where. There's no village, no town that would consent to have the Scourge of Rhiad buried in it and Shard's Point Isle is nothing but ash. Maybe they'll bury me on the island and leave it as a symbol of a wretched, wasted life. Or maybe they'll just hang my carcass from a tree to be gawked at by the masses. I don't know." The sorcerer's voice was indifferent as if the disposal of his body were of no more concern to him than the tossing of a dead rat.

Caled's confusion was replaced by a mounting sense of dread. "Dead? You're not dead. I would have kn-" He stopped, recalling the pain that had sliced into him. Was that what he had felt? Had the geas bound them so tightly that he could sense the sorcerer's death throes?

"No, I'm not dead. Not yet. But Manix and Syellen say it won't be long. My body is weak. I breathe poorly, when I breathe at all. When I wake I eat little and I can't keep anything down when I do. My conscious moments are few and far between. I'm slipping from the waking world. I'd thought I'd find my new home in this one."

Those gray eyes turned towards him again. "But I did deceive myself. You were telling me the truth when you said I wouldn't get you as a reward. I'm dying and there's nothing left. Life has killed me and there's no Life waiting for me anywhere else. There's nothing left except a death-dealer like yourself waiting to punish me and kill me as you've threatened so often in the waking world."

His head fell back and he laughed until the waiting tears flowed down his cheeks. Caled twisted his fingers in the raven mane and thumped Hadrian's head on the ground until the laughter was choked off with a gulping sob.

"Hades, listen to me. You will not die so easily. I won't let you."

"But I thought this was what you wanted? You wanted me dead."

"I wanted to kill you myself," Caled growled. He didn't believe this, not now.

"And you have your wish," was the calm reply.

"Me? What did I have to do with this? I didn't even get to see the battle!"

Hadrian gazed at him blankly. "Don't you remember? You told me to embrace Life because to reject it meant rejecting you. It wasn't until I was fighting my father that I understood. I needed to take Life to me not control it or tame it. I had to love Life. Thus I thought of loving you and all that it meant. You are Life to me, Caled. Without you, there is no Life for me. So when Life reached in and killed me, it was as if you were doing it. I couldn't fight Life's decree. And, since I love you, I can't fight your wish."

He let his head fall back again, exposing his throat. "If you want to finish what you've started, then go ahead. My life is yours."

An errant breeze blew over them and it stirred the black hair of the man prone beneath him. The colorless throat, as delicate and slender as a woman's, lay bare in the sun and beckoned him to fasten his fingers about it and squeeze. He did so, his fingers tightening reflexively around the fair column. His other hand joined it, clenching harder, and he saw Hadrian's eyes fly open. For a moment there were panic in that look and tenseness in the body under him. Then both ebbed away and Hadrian lay unresisting within his hands.

The sorcerer meant to let him have his way. Caled could kill him now and he would make no struggle against him. All at once the mercenary was sickened by it. He removed his hands and yanked Hadrian up by his hair. The other hand smacked at his face, back and forth, until the lips were bloody and bruises rose on that pale countenance.

"You bastard! You think it's this easy? That I'll kill you just to put you out of your misery? Think again, Hades! I told you once that you'd know true torture from me and this is the moment."

He dragged Hades up, still maintaining a death grip on that hair. He kneed the man in the crotch and heard the breath surge out of him. Caled spent the next few minutes pummeling that body with every ounce of strength he could bring to bear. Yet, still he refrained from a killing blow.

Finally, Hadrian lay at his feet. His pants had been ripped and torn during the vicious attack and there were black-and-blue marks everywhere on him. He raised his head to speak through swollen lips. "I'll tell you the truth now though it hardly matters. My father tricked me into destroying those mercenaries and the fire raged out of control, destroying Rhiad." He drew in a sobbing breath. "It was never my wish to kill anyone…least of all you."

Caled clenched his fists and cold menace entered his voice. "Are you saying you're guiltless? Because I know better. Lie and I'll continue what I started."

"I'm guilty of magic but not of wanting to kill you. How could I wish that?"

Hadrian rolled with painful slowness to his knees. His head was bent down so the black hair swept the earth and Caled had to strain to make out the mumbled words. "I love you. I will always love you. Nothing you do can change that. You see, I remember that lesson, too. It doesn't matter if you hate me. It doesn't matter if you crave my death. I love you with everything I am. So I accept Life's judgment-and yours."

He lifted his head and Caled saw new resolution gleaming in those slate-gray eyes. "Let death come then. Caled wills it so." His right hand came into view and there was a dagger gleaming in it. One of Caled's daggers.

"No!" Caled lunged for him even as the blade slashed downwards and found its place in Hadrian's heart.

The sorcerer gave a queer, choking gasp and then fell backwards to the ground. Sightless eyes gazed at the sky and Caled knelt beside him. To his shock, he saw the black hair turn pale until it was the color of shining silver. The eyes sank into the skull, the lips peeled back from the teeth and the bones jutted out as the flesh shrank against vanishing muscle. In mere moments, Hadrian was a skeletal cadaver.

As Caled reached out shaking fingers to touch him, the wind rushed across the body and it blew away in a puff of dust.

"HADRIAN!" Caled bolted upright from his resting place in the loft. The barn was unlit and disorienting in its darkness and he could hear the uneasy stirring of animals. For a moment, he couldn't remember where he was.

He fell back on the heap of straw, scrubbing fiercely at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "It was a dream, that's all," he muttered. "Just a foolish nightmare. I'm not a stupid boy to be terrified by nonsense." Yet something whispered inside him that this wasn't nonsense or mere mage-induced magic. When he dreamed of killing Hadrian, there was always a cold satisfaction in those fantasies as if the sorcerer were only another anonymous target. The misery only followed when he awoke. This had been starkly different, full of rage and love and colored by despair.

Caled looked outside. It was still some hours to dawn. He couldn't travel like this, blindly in the dark. That was asking for trouble. But the hours were flying by and he knew Hadrian's life was flying with them.

He tried going back to bed but sleep proved as elusive as gold. He couldn't rest now. With nothing better to do, he pulled on his clothes and waited impatiently for dawn.

__________

Syellen gave a hostile look to the small crowd following them. Since the battle against Gavedon, no one would leave them be. News of the fight and rumors about its outcome had flown far and wide although she had thought there were no witnesses to the actual confrontation itself. Most people with any sense had fled when they realized two powerful sorcerers were engaged in a struggle to the death. No one had wanted to stay to be flamed by a stray bolt.

But now it was as if everybody knew that Gavedon was dead. When they asked about the limp, apparently lifeless form in the wagon they'd managed to procure, both the redheaded girl and the silver-maned mage told them Hadrian was dead as well.

Yes, that was news indeed. The filthy Scourge of Rhiad was dead and many came to see and rejoice. Most went back to their homes when it became clear the two magic casters weren't stopping. But some paced along for many yards just to question and look at the still body.

Some had wanted to touch him just to be certain he was well and truly dead. Others wanted to take a piece of clothing or lock of hair as proof to their friends and family of the magician's demise. But Manix sternly forbade it. He'd claimed that dark magic still clung to the dead sorcerer and might blast any non-magical person foolish enough to get too near. So far the lie had worked to fend off all but the most greedy and curious.

Syellen edged closer to Manix. "How much farther should we travel with him? I say we should just find an inn and hole up with him there until-well, you know. Then we can bury him in some anonymous spot in the woods."

"I think it's best that Hadrian be buried on Shard's Point Isle."

Syellen shuddered. The last thing she wanted was to set foot on that blasted island again. "That wasteland? Nothing lives there. No one goes there. Everything's dead."

"And that's why that cursed isle is the most suitable place for his remains. It was once his home and no one will disturb his body there out of superstitious dread." His return look seemed to burn through Syellen. "I know of your true feelings about Hadrian. Believe me, they are misplaced. The people of Juxtan have honest reason enough to hate him. You do not. He has atoned and paid for his error with his life. Let him be buried where his body can rest undisturbed, Syellen."

She shrugged uncomfortably. "Truly, it doesn't matter to me where he's finally buried. I just wish we could get rid of our loyal followers. As long as we have Hadrian in tow, they continue to trail after us." She cast another irritated glance over her shoulder at the tagalongs.

Manix smiled mysteriously. "Perhaps they can be dispensed with."

While she stared at him in curiosity, he reined the horses to a standstill and stood in his seat. The accompanying crowd stopped and stared while he waved his arm in a commanding gesture and muttered some words under his breath. Suddenly the wind picked up and blew hard through the surrounding trees. The breeze grew stronger and Manix glared at the gawkers and pointed his finger at them. Shouting in alarm, they turned and scattered like leaves. Manix smiled in satisfaction and resumed his seat.

"What was that? I didn't know you could command the winds," Syellen exclaimed.

"I can't," he replied. "I merely noted the clouds and scented the wind. Then I made some impressive gestures and said a few nonsense words. That's usually enough to impress the masses."

Syellen gaped at him. "I had no idea you were so devious."

"I have my moments." He lifted his head and sniffed. "We should hurry into shelter. There's a storm approaching from the north."

__________

Caled spurred his horse heedlessly through the countryside. He had no idea where he was going at this point. He only knew something was pulling him onwards. The only thing he could think to do was follow his path backwards until he encountered the wandering trio of magic wielders.

When he came close to the place where he'd left the others, he reined in his horse. There were a few people milling about, pointing to the ground and talking in hushed whispers. He sniffed, wrinkling his nose. A foul stench hung in the air, holding the all-too-familiar smell of charred flesh. Images of Rhiad rose before him and he could feel his stomach roiling. Biting back the urge to vomit, he snapped at the nearest bystander. "What's happened here?"

The woman, eager to gossip with someone who hadn't heard the news, blurted out, "Haven't you heard? The terrible Gavedon ni Leyanon is dead."

A middle-aged man, the smell of him betraying a fish seller by trade, added, "Some say it was in contest against another sorcerer."

"His own son, that dark-haired mage…what was his name?" the woman finished with puckered lips as she tried to recall.

"Hadrian," Caled said as indifferently as he could. "Was he killed, too?" he asked and braced himself for the answer.

"Yes," the man stated.

"No," the woman said. They stopped and glared at each other and began arguing.

"He was dragged out of here by those three others with him," the man pointed out. "Limp as a landed fish, he was. Think I don't know dead when I see it?"

"Three? There were only two and the way I heard it, they helped to cart him off because he was injured in the fight. Injured, not dead," the woman emphasized.

Others nearby began jumping in, each with their own version of the events recently transpired. Some mentioned that Gavedon's Bane (Caled's grim title after the destruction of Rhiad) had been present. Others claimed he'd never been nowhere near the battle.

Finally the mercenary's patience was at an end. He blew sharply between two fingers to silence the bickering crowd. "I take it only one thing is certain. Gavedon is dead?"

The people glanced at each other and many nodded. A few merely pointed at the ground and they parted to let his horse through.

There were charred spots on the ground and every instinct screamed at him to flee before he was engulfed in flames. The acrid burning stench he'd noted was stronger here and, along with the blackened patches of earth, he could see scatterings of whitish ash. "What is that?" he asked, pointing at the residue.

There were various looks of confusion exchanged. "No one quite knows. But Gavedon's dead. That we know for sure. He hasn't been seen since he tangled with that other sorcerer and his followers are fleeing throughout the countryside, trying to escape the same fate, no doubt."

Another man, part of a group of rough and ready types, soldiers for hire by the looks of them, added, "We were going to the town the next way over and celebrate. Want to join us?"

"I've already been," Caled muttered. He straightened and directed his mount out from among the crowd. Thanks to all the various people milling about the site, any signs of Syellen and Manix had been completely obliterated.

He sat back on the horse, trying to think where they would go next. If Hadrian were merely injured, they might have taken him to other mages to be healed. He wasn't dead yet; Caled refused to believe that. But Hadrian had said his life was slipping away. If the dream figure was to be believed, then Syellen and Manix had given up hope as well. So where would they take him?

Shard's Point Isle. Caled wasn't certain how he knew this. But it made sense. Then they would be headed for the port to find a boat. He wheeled his horse and galloped off in that direction. Perhaps he could find the trio before the worst happened.

__________

The son of Gavedon was laid on his own dark cloak. His ashen skin and now silver hair were in vivid relief to the inky color, making him look like snow on ebony wood. He remained unmoving, his eyelids shut and his lips barely parted.

"He breathes?" Syellen asked as Manix rested an ear on Hadrian's chest.

Manix lifted his head. "Only just. His heart beats but very slowly."

Syellen sighed wearily as she stirred the soup in the pot hanging over the fire. "I wish it were over." Catching Manix's look, she hastily amended, "I'm not wishing for his death from spiteful reasons. It just seems wrong for any man to linger so. The Life should have taken him quickly not prolonged his suffering."

"We don't know that he is suffering, Syellen," he chided. "He is peaceful and has no signs of hurt on him that I can find other than a few fading bruises."

"Oh, no?" she said in sharp tones. "What about last night? He was weeping in his sleep."

"Yes. He was also crying out for Caledon. So I believe his suffering is mainly in his mind not his body."

"All the more reason for him to die quickly. Injuries of the body may heal. Wounds in the mind don't, do they?"
"I had no idea you were such a cold-hearted bitch," came the steely voice.

Syellen let out a small shriek of surprise and scrambled up from the ground. Manix as cool as ever didn't bother turning his head. "Ah, Caled. I was wondering when you'd find us."

"You didn't make it hard. With the trail you left behind, a blind beggar could have found you. A few days away from me and you become as careless as children." Caled stepped from behind a tree and strode over to the prone figure of the downed sorcerer.

"Well, we needed you to protect us from those who would kill the sorcerer. That's hardly a concern now," Syellen snapped, shame at being frightened replaced by anger at his scornful criticism.

"There's a considerable bounty on his head dead or alive, you stupid cow," he shot back.

"Enough." Manix was known for his even temper. But now his voice cracked through the still air and the others stared at him as he rested one hand lightly on Hadrian's forehead. "I believe even though he seems dead to the world, Hadrian may have some awareness of what is happening around him. Let us not disturb his final moments with childish bickering, shall we?"

"He started it," Syellen muttered sullenly. She was aware that wasn't the most mature attitude to take. But Caled had always annoyed her and she made no attempt to hide it.

Caled didn't bother to answer her. All his attention was bent on the silent figure carefully stretched on the forest floor. "How long has he been like this?"

Manix walked to the other side of the fire. "He collapsed after the fray with his father. He awoke less than an hour later and complained of thirst. Since then he has drifted in and out of consciousness. But the moments of his waking get shorter and shorter." When Syellen didn't add anything, he continued. "Last night we heard him sobbing in his sleep. He seemed to be arguing with someone."

"Could you make out words?" Caled asked as casually as he could manage. He prided himself on speaking without a tremor. But Manix bent one of his searching looks on him nonetheless.

"Nothing coherent. All we could understand was your name. Then he let out a harsh cry. Since then his sleep has taken on a kind of stupor. His hair became as you see it and there is little movement in his chest. I believe-he has given up the fight."

"We've tried to wake him," Syellen added in an effort to defend herself against his earlier charge of cold-heartedness. "When gentle means like shaking and speaking to him didn't work, we scrubbed his body with rushes and bathed his hands with hot and cold water. We applied hot stones to the soles of his feet and astringent to his skin. We burnt twigs of pungent herbs and waved them under his nose. Nothing will rouse him." She noticed a flash of pain across Caled's face and decided to needle him. "What do you care anyway? You've made no secret you wanted him dead."

"Not like this," Caled muttered.

She shrugged. "Death is death. How does it matter how it comes?"

"Syellen." The word was gently spoken but a thread of ire lay under it.

Syellen flushed. She practically worshipped Manix and felt ashamed of having angered him. She bit her lip and then mumbled contritely, "I'm sorry, Caled. W-we don't think there's anything more to be done than to keep him comfortable."

"Then why is he lying here on the ground instead of in the wagon?" Caled asked, barely in control of his temper.
"I thought the heat from the fire would be good for him. He's very cold. It's as if the heat of Life is leaving his body," Manix said.

Caled crouched next to Hadrian and pressed his hand to the sorcerer's brow. It took all his will not to cry out from the shock. More than a mere chill lay upon Hadrian's skin. He was as cold as the snows that lay on Fieran's Peak. He hadn't thought any being's flesh could be so icy and still live. But he pressed his other hand to Hadrian's chest and felt the faint tremor of the heart.

Was it true what the gray-haired mage had said-that Hadrian might be aware of the world around him? The words from his dream seemed to bear it out. So it had been more than a nightmare then; Hadrian's life was failing and he'd come to Caled in his sleep to tell him so. Then it was possible the ashen figure on the ground might know Caled had returned to him.

"Hadrian? Can you hear me? It's Caled. I've come back to you," he whispered. He stretched out alongside the motionless body. His own breath washed over the alabaster skin, now paler than he'd ever seen it. Blue veins stood out in stark relief to all the surrounding pallor. Hadrian had always been fair in color. But now his skin was translucent as if no flesh lay between it and the shining soul inside waiting impatiently to be set free.

The frosted hair was startling, an unwelcome change from the raven tresses he'd seen only days before. What had Manix told him once? That when he had died, his hair turned silver because of it?

The closed eyelids looked sunken in the flickering light from the fire, the cheeks fallen in like those of a famine victim or one wasted from fever. All the signs of encroaching death were here. With a shudder, Caled recalled the whited skeleton of his nightmare and felt his heart throb faster with fear. Without thinking what he was doing, he cupped the back of Hadrian's head and tilted it towards his own. He slid his lips over the aqua-tinged mouth and kissed his former lover.

Syellen gaped at the spectacle in front of her. "What are you-?" Manix held out a hand, silencing her. He didn't speak only gestured for her to sit still and watch.

The cold lips remained slack. The breath didn't quicken nor did the skin warm under Caled's pulling lips. But when he drew back from the unresponsive mouth, he was unsurprised to see the eyelids had lifted a little. The eyes were a muddy gray, the color of weatherbeaten stones. But they were definitely fixed on him. "Hadrian?"

"Cal…ed?" The sound hardly seemed to issue from a human throat. It was more like a whisper of the wind in the trees. But it was music to his ears nonetheless and Caled grinned in giddy relief at hearing it.

"Well, well, Hades. The mage and his silly apprentice have been bandying about stories of your nearing death. And here you are looking as lively as I've ever seen you." He lifted his hand to the withered cheek only to see the other flinch away and a look of terror start into the dull eyes.

He knew what had prompted that look and Caled was swept with a white-hot sense of shame. "No, Hadrian. Don't shrink from me. I won't hurt you. I swear it." He lifted one of the sorcerer's gloved hands and pressed a soft kiss on the palm.

"Tru…ly you? No…dream?" The gray eyes, huge in the sunken face, gazed at him with renewed love and wonder.

"No dream. I'm as real as you are," Caled replied gently. "Now, if that girl has made something we can actually eat, maybe we can get you to take a little food."

"Noo." The eyelids drooped shut again and Caled spoke quickly to forestall another deathlike trance.

"Don't do that! You've been spending too much time sleeping since before you got to meet your dear old father again, you great slug-a-bed. It's about time you came back into the waking world." The remembrance of hearing these words from that other Hadrian rang in his head. He'd mistreated Hadrian in that dream place when he might have shown kindness. If part of the young man's dying stemmed from that, then he was to blame.

But Caled was here now and he would save Hadrian if he could. He eased him upright as tenderly as possible, appalled at the ease with which he manipulated him. The body in his arms had no more heaviness to it than a newborn infant. Hadrian had always been on the slight side but he'd never been so-insubstantial to the touch. It was as if he'd lost weight as well as color and warmth. How could such a drastic change have occurred in only a few days?

The blonde mercenary gestured impatiently for Syellen to bring a bowl of soup. Carefully balancing the bowl on his lap, he blew on a spoonful to cool it and then tried bringing it to the sorcerer's lips. The liquid pooled in the slack mouth and ran down the corners of his lips and over his chin.

Caled clucked his tongue in mock remonstrance. "Look at you. You're too old to be drooling like a mere babe. Let's try this again."

"Try rubbing his throat. It might encourage him to swallow," Manix urged softly.

So Syellen rubbed at his neck while Caled spoon-fed Hadrian like a child. Between the two of them, they got Hadrian to swallow perhaps five or six spoonfuls of the liquid before he averted his head. "No…more. Please," he whispered.

His skin was no less pale or any warmer than before. But the worrisome blue shadows around his eyes had faded a little and the sorcerer's voice was a trifle stronger.

"Well, maybe that's enough for now. When you're rested and you've regained your strength, I'll take you to one of the villages." Caled didn't notice the grim, knowing looks the other two exchanged. Manix gestured silently to

Syellen to stand up and follow him back to the wagon. Neither of the two men noticed them go.

"We'll find a place to settle down. Now that your hair has…changed, maybe that will be enough to disguise you. There are rumors that you've died; we'll let people think it. We can even tell them you're Manix's long-lost grandson," he joked. "Hell, they'll believe anything at this point."

"Yes…Cal…ed."

"I'll teach you to fight. You need to find a way to defend yourself without spells and enchantment. In fact, it's best if you stay away from magic altogether at least for a while."

"Yes…Cal…ed."

"And you must get more sun. It's not right for anyone to be so pale. With food and lots of care, I'm sure there'll be a healthy glow on that pasty skin of yours before you know it." Caled didn't mean that, of course. He loved Hadrian's natural pallor, how it contrasted with his own sun burnt skin. It seemed a visible sign of the emotional contrast that lay between them.

Hadrian's head sagged against his. "Yes…Cal…ed."

The blond's temper flared at that acquiescent tone. "Dammit, Hades, don't talk in that feeble way! Don't just fall in with everything I say as if it doesn't-"

"Matter? That's because…it doesn't. Let this moment…last…forever. I don't…wish…the future. I am…content. I am…happy." Hadrian's voice was very calm. But that serenity was horrible to Caled. He'd seen dying men with that same look of tranquility on their faces and aged women with the same quiet acceptance in their voices when they met their end.

Peaceful deaths weren't something that he encountered often in his life, given what he did for a living. But he'd seen it enough to know what it looked like and it was here in Hadrian's voice, in the fragile body that didn't stir within the circle of his arms and in the unrelenting chill that wouldn't leave his skin in spite of the roaring fire only a few feet away.

"Hades, listen to me. I know my actions towards you have been harsh and unforgiving. I hated you but not enough. I-I love you and I couldn't stand feeling that way. I wondered what was wrong with me that I should love someone who had committed the atrocities you had, who had destroyed an entire city. But I do love you and I'm not letting you give up!" he hissed.

"And…I love…you…with all…that I am," was the feeble reply.

The memory of those words struck Caled to the heart. "Then fight this. Don't just die! Please!" Tears gathered in Caled's eyes and he blinked them away furiously. He pressed kiss after kiss on Hadrian's icy brow. Hadrian's flesh was growing colder against his and he could feel the other man shivering. Caled wrapped Hadrian tightly in his cloak to stave off the approaching demise he could sense searching for the man in his embrace.

That voice, delicate as a caress, rose to draw his attention again. "Cal…ed. Do me…a great favor."

"Yes? What is it, Hades? Tell me what you want. Anything. I'll do it."

"Take off…my…gloves."

"Your gloves? But why?" Even as he spoke, Caled glanced at the offending cloth covering his lover's hands. It had been an absurd relief to see them in their customary places. At least that hadn't changed. But now Hadrian wanted them removed and he balked at the request.

"You said…anything. Please…no…ques…tions. Too…tired." Hadrian panted a little as if the effort of speaking was becoming too great.

Caled bit his lip. Removing the gloves meant Hadrian wanted to touch something live, something of nature. But that was too dangerous, given his current weakness, and he said so.

"That…doesn't…mat…ter…now. Please…Caled. Grant me…last request."

"Not a last request. There'll be many more, foolish sorcerer." Privately, Caled vowed to spend the rest of his life fulfilling Hadrian's every waking desire. Nevertheless, he reached for the gloves and pulled them off gingerly. He managed not to touch the skin inside and watched as they began to twitch weakly.

Hadrian's breath hitched and he clenched his teeth in a show of visible strain as he lifted one shaking hand from his lap. Finally, he simply let it drop on to the earth beside him and he drew in a sigh of delight.

"Ca…led. Look." His fingers clutched at the soil. "It doesn't…burn. I can…touch it. I can touch LIFE."

"You can? You can!" Caled reached out to cup the other man's hand and watched the dirt crumble through both their fingers. "But…how? What does it mean?"

The joyous wonder in those huge gray eyes warmed Caled like the sun. "I've been…forgiven. I held close…to Life and it's come back…to me. Just as…you…have." Hadrian wound his arms around Caled, bony fingers sliding through the blonde hair. He clutched him with surprising strength and pulled the mercenary's lips down to meet his.

Hadrian was leaving dirt in his hair and on his skin but Caled couldn't bring himself to care. Hadrian's tongue came out to stroke his lips and Caled moaned into his mouth. There was the old ardor in their embrace, the same yearning they once knew in vanished Rhiad. The kiss grew ever more passionate until Caled felt Hadrian tremble with something more than want. He sensed his lover's dire need to draw in air and pulled back minutely.

Eyes the color of silver gleamed at him. "So warm now. Want to feel your skin against me," Hadrian gasped. A shaking hand pushed its way inside his tunic and Caled shivered as those fingers slid across his skin. Hadrian's touch was warmer as if the fire of their passion had brought heat back to his body. Caled craved to feel that flesh molded to his own with an ache so fierce he thought he would collapse from the weight of it. Yet he forced aside his own frustrated desire and contented himself with merely kissing those white lips once more.

Hadrian wasn't strong enough for what they both burned for, not yet, but he would be soon. Already strength and warmth had returned to him. Hadrian would recover. He would be well again. They would go away together and forget the ugliness of the recent past.

The sorcerer's head fell away from his and he sighed into the air, "Love…Life…you…Caled." Then he ceased to breathe.

Manix and Syellen heard a terrible cry rend the air and the red-haired girl scrambled from the wagon with the mage moving more slowly after her. They found Caled bent over Hadrian's motionless form. The mercenary's hands were pushing at his chest, pounding to rouse a heart that no longer beat.

__________

The storm that Manix had sensed broke later that afternoon. Syellen stood shivering in the rain as Manix said a few words. They had found a large rock formation and Manix had managed, with her help, to create a large hollow in it, one that lay at its base. Caled had fitted Hadrian's body gently into it, making sure the sorcerer's body rested on the ground.

Syellen had wondered why he wouldn't wait for a proper coffin to be built. But Caled had told her how Hadrian had been able to experience the joy of touching Life just before his passage. He wouldn't keep it from him now and he placed clods of earth in the sorcerer's bare hands before commanding Manix to close the stone over Hadrian's remains.

They didn't speak to the mercenary after that. Neither the ageless spell caster nor his apprentice could think of a single thing to say that wouldn't sound trivial or painful beyond belief. The rain lashed them all and Syellen glanced once at Caled's set, empty face before looking away and leaping into the wagon.

The water poured down the mercenary's face as he turned his horse from them. No one looking at him would have noticed if there were tears.

 

The End