The Path Home
"The Mage's New Apprentice"
Caled was off looking for a man who claimed to have information about Gavedon's latest whereabouts. Gam and Lio were scouting the town for supplies (i.e., anything that wasn't nailed down) and Syellen had decided to go shopping for necessities. The thieves had offered to get her whatever she wanted but she had sniffed that not all of them needed to steal for a living.
Caled and Syellen were the greatest threats to his peace of mind and temper; it was best that they were out of the way. Lio was always trying to cozy up to Hadrian so he was also a distraction. But he could be counted on to accompany Gam wherever they went. This had been the perfect opportunity to make his desire known.
"I want to learn magecraft," he blurted.
Manix leaned back in his chair and studied the young man standing before him. "Magecraft isn't something easily learned, Hadrian, and it's nothing like the sorcery your father taught. Are you certain you're up to the task?"
"Yes." Frustration flickered over Hadrian's face when the mage remained unmoving and, apparently, unmoved. "Why do you doubt me? You're the one who first made the offer and now you're hesitating! Don't you think I can do it?"
The Elder spoke carefully, gauging Hadrian's response. "I'm certain you can do it, Hadrian. But you had been clear in your refusal before when I first made the offer to train you. I was merely wondering what has happened to change your mind."
"I've been giving the matter some thought and realized I might have been hasty. Magecraft will tip the scales in my favor when next I meet with my father. I'd like the element of surprise, that's all," Hadrian stated firmly.
That wasn't quite true or, rather, it wasn't his only reason. The other had to do with a certain charismatic blond he'd met on his travels. Hadrian was certain that neither Manix nor anyone else in their little group knew the truth about his recent little--adventures. But the mage had an uncanny way of looking at you that seemed to say he knew all your secrets.
The black-eyed man seemed to accept Hadrian's explanation. "Very well. Sit down and we'll begin."
Hadrian faltered. "Now? I thought that we'd "
"Why wait? We have a quiet moment before the others return. We should take advantage of such hours of peace."
Hadrian pulled up
the other chair in the room and shifted his weight; it wasn't the most
comfortable of perches. The six travelers had taken shelter in an old
but well-kept inn. The bumpy chair matched the rest of the furnishings.
The bedding was worn, the floorboards scuffed and faded from the passage
of countless shod feet. In spite of airing and washing, the smell of
too many anonymous unwashed bodies lingered.
Not noticing his charge's sudden sadness, Manix rooted around in his satchel. He produced a handful of dried-up seeds from a small pouch. "Do you recognize these?"
Hadrian smiled. "If you want me to name different plants, Manix, I was well tutored in this. This was one of the things my father made sure I didn't fail."
"Ah. Perhaps something a little more advanced, then " Manix murmured while placing the dark pellets back in the sack.
"Will you teach me Casts?" Hadrian asked eagerly.
"Later, when you're surer in your abilities. For now, we'll deal with simple spells to--"
The door handle rattled and Hadrian started as Syellen entered. "Manix, I bought some of those fruits you like--" She stopped when she saw the young sorcerer and her eyes narrowed. "What is he doing here?" she snapped.
"Hadrian has reconsidered my offer to teach him," Manix stated mildly. "We have just commenced lessons."
"WHAT!?" Syellen shrieked, her bag dropping to the floor. Hadrian heard a squishing noise come from it but no one else paid it any heed. "Why are you teaching him? I'm your student!"
"Syellen, if you are going to speak about this, it might be best that you close the door and lower your voice. Remember, the subject has many people on edge these days." Manix nodded towards the open door and she flushed before slamming it shut.
"People hate sorcery, not magic. Thanks to him." She stalked over to them and glared at Hadrian. "What business do you have interrupting my lessons?"
Hadrian's chin tilted up in defiance. Syellen's obvious dislike had cowed him often in the past. But he was determined not to back down this time. "Manix made the offer. I've accepted. If he agrees to teach me, I don't see what right you have to complain."
"What right? I'm the one he's teaching magecraft, not you. You don't even think you need magic! It's very clear you're as arrogant as your father!" she hissed.
"Syellen, stop this." The Elder directed a reproachful glare at the startled redhead. "Hadrian has agreed to take lessons and he must learn. In the end, it's the best course for all of us. Never forget, in the final battle against Gavedon, it is Hadrian who will carry the main burden of the fight. If he is to succeed in the future, then he must use something Gavedon isn't expecting. To that end, I forbid you to interfere."
Syellen cringed, frightened by Manix's censure. He had never been angry with her before and she silently blamed Hadrian for it. But she refrained from attacking him again--at least in front of the Elder. Instead she muttered, "If you teach him, he'll be starting as a novice. Won't it interrupt my lessons?"
"I will teach you separately until he reaches your level. Do not fear that this will impede your progress, Syellen. I have a feeling Hadrian will learn quickly." He smiled at the ebony-haired youth and Hadrian flushed at his praise.
"Fine. I'll put up with him. But you'd better not hold me back," she shot at Hadrian.
Hadrian didn't answer, knowing that it would merely antagonize her into another round of insults. He sat down again and turned expectantly to Manix. "So where do I start?"
Hadrian retreated to his room. He had spent a good length of time with the Elder and felt by turns exhilarated, proud and a little vexed. He had picked up things quickly as Manix had predicted and the Elder rarely had to repeat himself. However, it was difficult to study with Syellen's withering gaze on him.
Mulling it over, he decided to view her hostility as a challenge. Learning his magic in adversity meant that he would have a better chance of maintaining control when he met with his father again. If he could keep steady nerves with Syellen's glares, muttered asides and criticisms, then he could face his power-mad sire without flinching.
He paused before his room and pressed his ear against the door. Hearing nothing, he eased it open and drew a breath of relief. Caled and the thieves hadn't returned yet. That was good; he had been afraid that he'd walk in to find the three engaged in one of their sexual bouts.
Hadrian undressed down to his light undertunic and got into bed. He looked towards the door. Still no sign or sound of the other three men and he realized that he was waiting for them. In spite of his embarrassment at being witness to their sexual shenanigans, he was lonely for their company.
There was also the matter of the countless assassins and bounty hunters still searching for him throughout Jeynesa. Caled might not care for him any longer but he was, to all extents and purposes, Hadrian's guardian and protector. Being on his own like this made the sorcerer just a little uneasy.
Hadrian was very much aware of his helplessness within their little group. Manix was training Syellen to be a competent mage and the girl was more than up to the challenge. Gam and Lio always could be counted on to replenish their supplies. Hadrian found it hard to imagine that more skilled thieves existed anywhere. And Caled
An unwilling smile parted his lips as he recalled Caled's prowess in battle. The mercenary was strong, skilled and self-sufficient, able to make his way across all parts of Jeynesa with little or no trouble. If he didn't have the others slowing him down, he would have found Hadrian's father on his own long ago.
Of course, it was more than mere professionalism that fueled the swordsman. Since the destruction of his town, Caled loathed Hadrian and his father with a blinding passion. It was this hatred that had earned him the title of Gavedon's Bane. Caled had sworn to destroy the ni Leyanon line and, if anyone could do it, it was he.
He had tried to kill Hadrian once already and failed, thanks to a Shielding Cast. The mercenary might disdain magic but it had already proven a formidable defense against him. Even a trained killer was no match for a mighty sorcerer like Gavedon. That was the reason, supposedly, that they needed Hadrian. It was certainly the explanation he had given to Manix about his decision to learn magecraft.
But the Elder had been wise to doubt him. There was definitely an ulterior motivation behind his sudden resolve
Anifiel. He closed his eyes as he remembered the blonde player's hands on his skin, his kisses, his expert touches and the lust-filled, ardent words whispered in that small cabin behind the stage. Even now he could see the emerald green eyes fixed on him, feel the sexual tension crackling through the air. He wanted Anifiel and, somehow, this emotion recalled him to life as nothing else had done in the many months after Rhiad.
Anifiel was waiting wasn't he? There were probably hundreds of eager devotees who would be all too happy to fill his bed whenever the man wanted it. Hadrian found it difficult to believe that such a handsome man would hold on to celibacy in the feeble hope that he would come after him. After all, their time together had been very short.
No matter. Anifiel had extended the invitation. Hadrian would seek the man out and deal with the consequences when he found him. He was tired of being lonely and detested by the world.
However, if he was ever going to contribute anything when they finally reunited, he couldn't fail at the magecraft. Wouldn't it be spectacular if he could impress the blonde player with his magical dexterity when they next met? Even if he couldn't fill the role of actor, as Anifiel had envisioned, at least he could provide miracles to rival anything on stage. He would be able to raise controlled storm winds, conjure up orbs of light like miniature suns and moons and create dazzling illusions.
Warmth bloomed within him as he imagined the pride and delight in his lover's eyes. That sensual smile would light up Anifiel's face. Brawny arms would be extended towards him, ready to sweep him into a passionate embrace as warm as sunlight. They would tear at each other's clothes until both were naked as newborn babes. Pliant lips would suck and nibble at his flesh while the skillful hands swept over his body.
The fantasy made him squirm and a hand drifted down over his stomach. Gavedon had taught his son that pleasuring himself was wrong, dirty for some reason. Being with Caled had torn down many of his inhibitions in this area. But self-confidence in sex was something Hadrian still lacked and he hesitated about relieving the ache that was flaring at his crotch.
The door flew open and he jerked his hand back. Caled stood there, an unreadable expression on his face. "Get your lazy ass out of bed, Hades. We're leaving."
Hadrian sat up, letting the blanket fall unheeded to his waist. "What is it?"
"While you've been sitting around, I've been having a little chat with that friend of mine in town. Your father and some of his followers are headed towards Heartsore Tunnel."
The sorcerer turned white. "Heartsore?" He flung aside the covers and began re-dressing with shaking hands.
Caled's breath caught. Except for the undertunic, the sorcerer was naked. The luscious body that he had once caressed--was it so long ago?--was exposed for a tantalizingly brief instant. The milky white flesh, lean legs and squeezable, round buttocks stirred memories of passion-filled days and nights in Rhiad. The urge to fling Hadrian back on the bed and fuck him brutally was almost overwhelming.
Swallowing, he averted his eyes. In a voice harsher than usual he asked, "What's wrong, Hades? Scared of meeting up with dear old da again?"
"I am if he's going where I think he is." Finally Hadrian was dressed and he faced Caled. In spite of what he'd just said, the fright had been replaced with grim determination.
"And where's that?" Caled stepped back and walked with Hadrian towards Manix and Syellen's room.
Manix wasn't insensible to his fears. But he refused to rush Hadrian through his lessons. Fortunately, the sorcerer was a swift study. Little by little Syellen's nasty comments faded away to be replaced by worried looks. She attacked her own studies with increased intensity and was unwilling to stop when the Elder called a halt to their lessons.
When they camped out on the road between Red Hills and Chelis, Manix took the opportunity to draw her aside. "Syellen, you need to stop this."
Her lips tightened. "Stop what? I don't want to halt my studies, Master. I'm perfectly able to keep up with Hadrian even if I don't happen to be a sorcerer," she muttered snidely.
"That's not what I mean, Syellen, and you know it," he chided. "You've been feeling threatened by Hadrian ever since I began teaching him magecraft."
"Nooo," she drawled. "I've been feeling threatened by Hadrian ever since we found him on that barren rock that was once Shard's Point. He had something to do with that destruction just as he did Rhiad and you know it. That's reason enough for me to be nervous around him, don't you think?"
Manix sighed. "Again, Syellen, you're being deliberately obtuse. You have been rather spoiled by your parents "
She shot him a look of outrage. "Me? What about Hadrian? He's a pampered princess who spent most of his time locked on one tiny island!"
"Hadrian has been sheltered, not spoiled. There is a difference, Syellen. But we are talking about you. You are your parents's only child and, thus, have been allowed more liberties than most girls. You're also used to being the sole focus of my attentions. Now Hadrian is taking up lessons, too, and you fear you will be shut out."
"That's not it!"
Black eyes bored into her. "Then what is it?"
Syellen bit her lip. "Nothing, I guess. I-I suppose I'm just worried that " her voice trailed off, her face pinkening.
The truth was she was jealous of Hadrian. He was a withdrawn, twitchy thing, nervous around strangers and possessing hardly any social graces. He was pretty, she supposed, in a sallow, washed-out sort of way. Yet, somehow that skinny boy drew people to him. It was baffling; frankly, she didn't see why anyone would find him appealing.
He was a menace, too, with his malicious sorcery. He didn't deserve any consideration or kindness. But everything was about Hadrian, Hadrian, Hadrian. Sometimes even Manix would speak of nothing else and she feared that the Elder might be drawn into his snare. Did he feel only concern over that troublesome sorcerer--or was it something else?
Manix's voice broke in on her uneasy speculations. "Do you fear that I will neglect you? You are my apprentice, Syellen. You will one day take your place in the Council of Elders. Hadrian has no such aspiration. He merely wishes to garner enough magical ability to face his father. You will always have a place apart from his."
She smiled in relief. This was exactly what she wanted to hear. But Manix wasn't willing to release her so easily. "Syellen, your antagonism with Hadrian is wearying, to me as well as the others. As I've stated before, Caled has a reason to hate him although his feelings are more complicated than he will admit. But your hostility is unwarranted."
When she opened her mouth, he held up a hand in warning. "And don't tell me that it's simply because he's a sorcerer or destroyed a town. There's more at work here and I demand to know what it is."
Her relief disappeared, replaced by stomach-churning anxiety. Wasn't it enough that she had to deal with Hadrian? Did she have to lay out her feelings, too? Maybe she didn't understand seduction like those barmaids and whores Gam, Lio and Caled were always bedding. But she was certain the surest way to a man's heart was not to let him know you were intent on being his wife.
She bent her head and sighed. "You're right. I guess that I'm je--envious that someone else is getting the attention I feel I deserve. I'm upset that my training in the Council hall was interrupted for him and that I've spent so much time chasing a criminal when I should be with my fellow students. That's all, really."
She didn't breathe as she waited for Manix's answer. Would he be fooled? His next words dispelled her worries. "Very well, Syellen. If you will accept my word that I won't neglect you for Hadrian, I expect you to treat him better in future. Do we have an agreement?"
She nodded reluctantly. If playing nice with the Scourge of Rhiad was what it took to get back in Manix's good graces, she would make the sacrifice.
Caled eased away from the tree where he'd been hiding. He had heard enough. This was what Hadrian had been doing when he'd been closeted away with Manix and Syellen? Learning magecraft to fight his shit of a father?
Well, if that was all, he wasn't going to let it concern him. Whatever Manix might believe, his emotions about Hadrian weren't complicated. What he felt was hatred, pure and simple. So why should he give a rap what foolishness he was getting up to now?
But he was shocked that the sorcerer could keep this from him. Then again, Hadrian seemed to be hiding many things these days.
The sorcerer had been more reserved than usual since leaving Spring Willow. Somehow that meaningless entertainment had upset the timid youth. Had it really been about him? Why else had he been so shaken?
Whatever shock that play had induced in Hadrian, it was gone now. True, he was still withdrawn. But his moods didn't seem to hold the despair Caled had known from him previously. Often he would see Hadrian staring dreamily into the distance, a little smile playing about his lips.
Perhaps the learning of magecraft was giving him a kind of confidence he had never had before. But Caled was certain something else lay at the root of his former lover's changed attitude. He was almost afraid to find out what.
He met up with Gam and Lio. The two were busy gathering firewood and chatting animatedly to themselves. "Either of you seen Hades?"
Lio frowned. "I thought he was with you."
"Yah, so did I," Gam added. "You two have another fight?"
Caled shook his head, irritated. "No. The little idiot's probably just wandered off again. I'd better look for him."
Lio said eagerly, "I'll go with you. Two pairs of eyes and all that."
Gam's lips thinned though he spoke mildly enough. "He's the much better tracker, Lio. Hadrian can't have gone far. I'm sure Caled can find him on his own."
"That's right. He's probably back at the camp, anyway." Before Lio could protest, Caled strolled off, trying to ignore the concern that seized him. What if Hadrian was hurt or lost in the woods? Well, he didn't care except that it would be another delay they didn't need. He would find that foolish boy and put a flea in his ear about these stupid wanderings of his.
"I should have gone with him. What if Hadrian's in trouble?" Lio worried, watching the mercenary's retreating figure.
Gam peered at him through one hazel eye. "You're not fooling anybody, Lio. You can't come between them. Quit trying."
The green-eyed thief shrugged in irritation. "I'm just trying to keep them from hurting each other. Caled's always digging at Hadrian. That can't be a good thing. Hadrian has to turn his attentions to stopping his father. Isn't it better that he shouldn't be distracted?"
Gam snorted. "Right. You're mooning over Hadrian for the good of us all. Keep telling yourself that."
Lio glared at him and went back to picking up branches without a word. So what if he cared for Hadrian? Just because Caled got to the sorcerer first didn't mean that he couldn't have other lovers. It was a shame for such a beauty to be alone in the world.
Caled knew what lay behind the thief's offer. Sometimes Lio's fawning on Hadrian got on his nerves. Good thing Gam was there to keep him occupied. Caled tried not to think why that should be such a relief.
The mercenary put Lio's rivalry out of his mind. He had picked up the sorcerer's trail. Hadrian's woodcraft skills had improved considerably since traveling in Caled's company. He had made an effort to step with care, avoiding twigs and branches that might break and give him away to unwanted presences. But Caled was too expert a tracker to be thrown off so easily.
He came to a small clearing and stopped short. Hadrian was sitting on the ground. He had discarded his cloak and wound his hair back from his face so that it fell in a straight braid down his back. It was a new look for him and Caled had the nagging feeling he'd seen it on someone else fairly recently. He wore an open, unguarded expression Caled hadn't seen in months. It gave Hadrian's face a sweetness that made him yearn to run his fingers over the cheek and soft lips.
A small bag was slung over one shoulder and Caled recognized it as belonging to Manix. Hadrian was looking critically at various plants growing in the ground before tucking them into separate small drawstring pouches. When he was finished with a small patch, he moved in small curve before starting again.
Caled had made no sound but Hadrian looked up nonetheless. He wore a look of anticipation and then all joy disappeared from his eyes. Clearly he'd been expecting someone else.
It couldn't be Gam or Syellen and Caled was certain Lio had made no headway in his attempts to seduce Hadrian. Perhaps his lessons with Manix had caused Hadrian to grow overly fond of the mage. Caled would almost prefer that notion to his own growing suspicions.
Nevertheless, he spoke gruffly to the man crouched on the ground. "Hades, are you insane? I've told you over and over about wandering off by yourself and here you are picking weeds like you're playing in someone's garden. It would serve you right if some assassin came along and lopped your head off."
"Really? Because the only assassin I know who could do that is you. And you're no threat."
Blue eyes narrowed and Caled answered in a deceptively soft voice, "Only because of that damned geas. If it hadn't been for that, you'd have been dead months ago."
"I know." Hadrian stood as though tired of the conversation.
Caled crossed his arms and glared at him. "Make no mistake, Hades. When Manix breaks this geas, your life is mine."
Something flashed in the dull gaze. It wasn't fear or anger. It was more like longing as though Hadrian took his statement another way than he intended. The emotion flickered and was gone. Blankness settled on his face again.
"It doesn't matter. What's important is stopping my father. You'll have to put aside your vengeance until then."
"Until then." The sorcerer turned and began striding back to camp. Caled realized he had the perfect chance to question Hadrian about his recent activities and fell into step beside him. "So I hear from Manix and Syellen that you're studying magecraft."
Hadrian stiffened but didn't stop walking. "Since I told them not to tell you, you must have been eavesdropping on them."
"You think you know me so well?" Caled sneered.
"Are you telling me I'm wrong?"
Well, of course he was right. But Caled wasn't about to admit it. "Why are you studying magecraft, anyway? Aren't you supposed to be the most powerful sorcerer in the land, second only to your sick fuck of a father?"
Memories of the unholy battle on Shard Point swam into his mind and Hadrian's shoulders hunched. "Magecraft will help. My sorcery--my father gave me no real tutoring with that and what little I know of it isn't compatible with Manix and Syellen's abilities. Magecraft is and it has the advantage of being something he won't expect. When we next meet, my father will find himself facing three mages."
Caled sensed there was more behind this explanation than Hadrian was revealing. But he couldn't pinpoint it. Anyway, the future conflict with Gavedon was more important. "You really think you'll be that advanced? And what about Syellen? She's still just an apprentice."
"An excellent apprentice with more training than myself. But I shouldn't hold her back too long. Manix says I'm a quick study." The gentle voice beamed with self-satisfaction and Caled caught a fleeting smile. It shocked him, more than it should have. The last time he'd seen the sad young man smile was in Spring Willow and then the circumstances had been rather suspect.
"Didn't you get such teachings from your father, too? Along with lessons in mass murder?" The question was vicious but for once his heart wasn't in it.
Again, Hadrian ignored the needling reference to his past behavior. "When my father taught, you either learned quickly or suffered his displeasure," he muttered.
Caled shot a glance at him. Those words hinted at something dark and ugly, something Hadrian hadn't ever mentioned. Come to think of it, since when did the closemouthed sorcerer speak of anything in his past? He wanted to ask Hadrian about this, prod him for information while he was in a talkative mood.
But all too soon they were at the campsite. The thieves and magic wielders were waiting and Hadrian smiled at the mage, abruptly charged with expectation. He was happy to see the Elder and Caled felt a twinge of envy. At that instant, he would have given anything to have Hadrian smile like that at him. When was the last time he had brought such a joyful light to those quicksilver eyes?
There it was again, that tremor of unwanted yearning. He stepped away from the trio and busied himself with readying the fire. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Hadrian showed Manix the leaves and roots he'd gathered. Caled saw the two heads, one silver-haired and one black, bend together as the Elder nodded with approval.
To his astonishment, Syellen also drew closer. Evidently, she'd taken Manix's words to heart and was trying to endure Hadrian's presence. Hadrian smiled at her and she tentatively returned it.
Caled felt himself, for the first time, excluded from the others. Lio and Gam were still his bed partners. Yet their casual tumbles didn't match what the two thieves had with each other or what he himself had known with Hadrian.
The dynamics of their little band had shifted and he didn't like it. But what could he do about it? The sorcerer did need to learn magecraft and that meant being in Manix's company. Caled only hoped Hadrian picked up what he needed to know soon.
The mercenary wanted this whole business with Gavedon resolved and it couldn't be too quick for his liking. He didn't think he could stomach the way things stood within their group for much longer.
"Dreams and Phantoms"
He closed his eyes, praying that the blonde player would visit him again in his dreams
"Hadrian, you are such a disappointment to me."
Hadrian cowered. "Father, please "
"This was an important sculpture and you willfully broke it!" Gavedon glared down at him, glittering eyes lancing into him like the blade of a sword.
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to!"
Gavedon kicked aside fragments of stone. The statue had been a representation of the Shard he'd taken from Fieran's Peak. The real Shard was carefully hidden, its location known to him alone. But the statue had been an important focal point for his worshippers. And now it was gone, demolished by Hadrian.
Hadrian kneeled down and began picking up pieces with shaking fingers. "I-It's not so bad, is it? I can repair it "
"And let it stand with all the cracks in it? No, Hadrian, it won't do." He reached down and grabbed the adolescent by the shoulder. Fingers bit into Hadrian as Gavedon shook him like a rag doll. "March."
The older man strode down the cavernous hallway and the boy nearly stumbled as he was dragged along by that tenacious grip. Gavedon turned down the hallway into a narrow enclosure. There was only one room in this section of the castle and Hadrian struggled to escape when he realized where Gavedon meant to take him. "No, father, please!" he wailed. "I'm sorry!"
"Save your screams for your discipline, Hadrian," his father gritted out. He shoved Hadrian through the open door and let it slam behind him.
Hadrian fell to his knees, trembling violently in every limb. If he looked up, he knew what he would see. His father was striding towards the nearest wall. Upon it hung various whips, switches and paddles. They all hurt in different ways and Gavedon was a master at using them to the fullest effect.
"This one, I think." Gavedon brought down a thin, springy pole. He snapped it idly through the air. A sharp, swishing sound accompanied the movement, causing Hadrian to flinch. "Take off your robe and shirt and bend over the table."
That was a tiny relief. Sometimes his father would make him kneel naked on the floor. The chill of the stone floor would seep into his knees and later he would have to deal with the pain from his wounds and the bitter ache in his joints.
He bent forward and grabbed the edges of the desk so tightly his knuckles turned white. Hadrian wasn't sure which was worse, the pain or the anticipation of it. The question flew out of his mind with the first blow.
He bit his lip. Even yearning for his father's approval, stubbornness refused to let him cry out. But the repeated sting of the lash tore away his resolve. At the 11th blow, he began to scream.
Suddenly the blows ceased. Hadrian sagged against the table. The breath came out of him in great gulping sobs, tears pouring from his eyes until he couldn't see. The agony was so great he didn't immediately question why it had ceased.
Gavedon usually didn't stop until he'd given at least twenty lashes. By Hadrian's count he'd fallen short of that. What had happened to stay the hand of the mighty Gavedon?
He risked a peek over his shoulder. His father no longer stood there. Instead, Anifiel was in Gavedon's place. He smiled tenderly at Hadrian and dropped the pole in his hand. "Hadrian. Did you miss me?"
"Anifiel?" Heedless of his torn and bleeding skin, Hadrian threw himself into the player's arms. "ANIFIEL! I can't believe it! You're really here!"
Powerful arms held him, careful of his wounded back. "Of course I'm here. Where else would I be, beloved?" he murmured, his voice gentle and low.
Hadrian raised his head, smiling through glistening sheet of tears on his cheeks. "I'm so happy to see you, Anifiel. I've missed you so much! You won't leave me, will you?"
A fierce kiss silenced him. When Anifiel drew back, the words rang out like a proclamation. "How could I stay away from you, Hades?"
The lithe body froze. Then Hadrian slowly pulled away from him. "W-what did you just call me?" he asked in a tense whisper.
"Hades." The eyes became fixed and unmoving. A hawk's gaze could not have been more predatory.
"No," Hadrian moaned. "No, don't do this!"
"Hades." The golden hair shrank in length and coarsened to straw yellow and green eyes became ice blue.
"Don't leave me like this! Stay with me, Anifiel! Please!" he cried as fresh tears sprung to his eyes. He stretched out his hand, longing and yet afraid to touch the warping figure.
A hand was shaking him and Hadrian opened his eyes. Pink streaks were lining the sky. The light of a new day was faint but clear enough for him to see the stern face looming above him.
Caled released Hadrian from his grip. "Snap out of it, Hades," he sniped. "Are you going to sleep the day away?"
It was dawn. Another dreary day had begun and Hadrian stifled a sob and wiped away the tears he could feel on his face. Although he had been rewarded with Anifiel in his dreams, it had taken an ugly turn at the end. Even a happy vision was followed by the inevitable depression when he realized they were only dreams. Avoiding Caled's curious stare, he rose and began shaking out his cloak.
The mercenary watched him closely. Hadrian mumbling and weeping in his sleep was nothing unusual. In spite of his professed hatred, sometimes Caled had wanted to reach out and comfort the frail youth whenever he cried during those dark hours. But this time he'd heard no mention of Hadrian's father.
Who the fuck was Anifiel? A memory surfaced and his jaw clenched. That was the name of that player in Spring Willow, wasn't he? He had heard the women in the audience cry in appreciation when he'd walked on to the stage. Why would Hadrian be moaning that man's name in his sleep?
In Spring Willow, the sorcerer had vanished for a whole night and shown up in the morning unrepentant and curiously carefree. He claimed to have bought tokens to a show when he had always shown himself indifferent about casual amusements. Someone had known about his life well enough to take the people familiar to him and set them bold as life upon the platform for all to see.
Was Anifiel that someone? How could a simple strolling performer have known so much about Hadrian's life unless the enchanter had told him? And why would Hadrian tell such a man?
Caled automatically checked his weapons and saddled his horse while his mind worked furiously at the mystery. He thought of Hadrian's mysterious disappearance after the play, how no one had been able to find him, how he had abruptly reappeared with the flimsiest of explanations.
"I wanted to ask him if he thought the love between Gianti and Berenice had ever really existed. He said he didn't know. He was only an actor." Hadrian hadn't elaborated and Caled had let the subject drop.
Had Anifiel been the actor Hadrian had spoken to? What if more had gone on between them than Hadrian had told? The sorcerer hadn't been gone that long. For a sexual fling, it would have been a frustratingly short time for Caled. But for many people a catch of snatch or a lick at a prick didn't take too long at all.
It would explain Hadrian's newfound confidence. Like a solid draft of beer, sex gave sparkle to your eyes and put a spring in your step. But Hadrian wasn't the sort to seek out a quick tumble. He was too retiring for that sort of thing.
The questions, suspicions, accusations and denials chased themselves around in his mind, bringing no clear answer, and they irritated Caled no end. He gripped the saddle and then vaulted onto his horse's back. "Well, hurry up, people! Gavedon isn't going to kill himself. Move it!"
Gam frowned at his back. "What the fuck? What crawled up his ass and died?"
Lio yawned and then grinned. "Maybe it didn't die." Gam let out a guffaw at Syellen's shocked look.
Caled ignored them. He spurred his mount to get near Hadrian. But he saw the younger man edge his horse closer and closer to Manix's until Hadrian was almost sitting in his lap. Their heads bent together in conversation too quiet for him to hear. The two of them looked so cozy and somehow unapproachable.
Resentment gnawed at Caled, an emotion he immediately sought to stifle. He wasn't, couldn't be, jealous for that hinted at its dark companion--love. And he didn't love Hadrian. He couldn't love Hadrian.
So what did it matter to him if the cursed sorcerer had found comfort elsewhere? They hadn't been lovers for a long time. Hadrian was free to do what he liked. Hell, he could fuck Lio if he wanted to.
Then why did the thought of him with another sting so much?
"Anifiel." He had murmured another man's name in his sleep and upon awakening. Caled's hands tightened on the reins again as he glared at the two men conferring up front. Manix was the more immediate threat. But this player was someone he couldn't fight.
How could you defeat a memory?
"The Sorcerer Went over the Mountain"
"What stench?" The wind shifted and Lio gagged. "Oh, fuck. What is that?"
Manix sniffed the air. "It is rather foul and familiar." He sniffed again and he reined his horse in.
"What's wrong, Manix?" Hadrian asked softly. By now the rank odor had reached him as well and he pulled in closer to the Elder. There was another smell in the air, one of burnt wood and--meat? The smell of roasted game wasn't quite as strong as the other odors but it was discernible nevertheless.
Caled eyed the bushes by the side of the road. "Stay alert, everyone. We're being watched."
The concealing foliage began to thrash. The next moment the lurking figure staggered into the road. "Water!" it croaked. "For the love of the gods water!"
The stranger tottered and pitched facedown on to the road. Hadrian urged his horse forward only to be jerked to a halt as Caled grabbed his rein. When he glanced at the mercenary, Caled spoke quietly without taking his gaze from the prostrate figure. "Steady, Hades. Don't just go charging in until we know what's happening."
The person--the rasping voice, voluminous dirty robe and hood over its features made it impossible to determine the sex--rose shakily to its knees. "Please help me." Shadowed eyes peered from underneath the ragged hood, skittering over the group like rats running over spilled grain. When they fastened on Hadrian, the person froze. "H-Hadrian? I-Is that you?"
"Who's asking?" Hadrian replied, clearly startled to be addressed by name.
"Don't you know me? I suppose I am much changed." The figure began to laugh, a croaking sound that raised the hackles on Caled's neck. The croaking changed to racking coughs and the person doubled up, head bent towards the ground. A gurgling sound reached them and gobs of blood began to splash into the road.
The whole company drew back. When the retching finally stopped, the person reached up a spotted, shaking hand and dropped the hood.
"Shit!" Gam swore. Bile rose in Hadrian's throat; behind him he could hear a liquid sound as someone vomited into the road.
The stench was so much worse with the hood down, rank and foul like the bloated, decomposing body of a cow. Black and red swollen bubbles of skin covered the stranger's hands. Angry red blotches ran over chin and cheeks. The nose had been eaten away and one eye was shut by the boil covering the eyelid. Suppurating sores trailed up and down the rope-thin arms like an army of red ants, eating the flesh alive.
What hair remained hung in thin strands from the speckled, puckered scalp. The frame was emaciated as if no food had been eaten in days. Flecks of dried and fresh blood clung to the lips, heightening the grotesqueness of the features.
"Plague," Manix stated grimly. "No one go near." It was an unfeeling statement and Hadrian would have protested it save for the obvious hopelessness of this person's plight. A bony hand was extended towards them. With distant horror, Hadrian saw that the fingernails were gone.
"Well, as I live and almost breathe. It is you. Your father said you'd try finding him. But I didn't believe it. I never thought you'd have the nerve to face us again." One light brown eye rolled balefully at the youth.
Hadrian felt a cold dread coiling up inside him. "Listen, you need help "
A scornful hiss greeted that statement, exposing shrunken gums that made the teeth look like fangs. "I'm beyond help, thanks to you, you little shit."
"Whoever you are, you're obviously suffering from delusions, typical at this stage of the disease," Manix stated. "Your illness--"
"--Is his fault!" the figure shrieked. "We became sick after you chased us from Shard's Point, you devil!"
"What's he talking about, Hadrian?" Lio whispered.
Hadrian's accuser evidently heard. "Oh, he didn't tell you? Keeping secrets again, Hadrian?" with a cackle of malicious glee.
There was a roaring in Hadrian's ears. The urge for self-preservation surged within, demanding that he call forth his powers and stop this person before his final shame was revealed before the assembled company. But he could only listen helplessly as the bony figure stripped away the last of his defenses.
There was a nasty, broken smile. "Where are my manners? My name is Morbel, one of Gavedon's elite guards."
"Why would Gavedon need guards?" Caled demanded. "I thought he was an all-powerful sorcerer."
"Please. I don't have much time left so no interruptions." He scratched at his scalp and Hadrian's stomach rolled over when a long strip of flesh peeled away under his fleshless fingers.
Morbel flicked it away absently. "I saw Hadrian when he returned from Rhiad. Mad he was but sane enough to start attacking us. He flung fire and bolts of energy, like nothing I'd ever seen, at his innocent father."
"My father? Innocent?!" Hadrian cried, incredulous.
"I was there, Hadrian. Remember? You came back spouting some nonsense about your father's guilt when it was you who destroyed a city. Then you launched an unprovoked attack against him and all the other members! Whoever survived--and you didn't leave many--had to flee for their lives from the wreckage you made of our home. And look what happened to us!"
"I knew it," Syellen whispered from behind him. But there was horror in her voice rather than triumph. Hadrian neither turned nor answered.
Manix interjected, his voice calm as always. "This is pointless. Whatever issue you have with Hadrian is finished. Where is Gavedon?"
Morbel glared at the mage, his bloody lip curling in a sneer. "You're one of those pestiferous Council Elders, aren't you? Figures you wouldn't give a crap about us. We were probably a threat that was better eliminated, eh?"
"I have no ill intent towards any of you. If anyone else is in the preliminary stages of illness, I will bring my skills to bear to ease your sufferings."
"You're a bit late, Elder. One of the girls drank water from a tainted stream. She didn't realize until it was too late that there was a body floating in it, dead from plague. She panicked and ran back, infecting the rest of us. While we still had numbers and strength, we buried the bodies. Then we simply burned them. Now I'm the only one left standing." The man's face twisted as if he would have laughed again. "So to speak."
Hadrian whispered, his throat dry. "And--my father?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" He broke off with another retching cough.
"Where is he?" Caled demanded.
It took longer for the fit to cease this time. Then Morbel spoke again, his voice much weaker. "I've heard of you. Gavedon's Bane right?"
"That's right." Caled urged his mount closer, his voice flattening with menace. "So you know I'm not to be trifled with."
"What I know is I'm on the point of death. So you're really no threat." He spat, a long deliberate stream of bloody sputum that spattered on the road. Caled hurriedly drew his horse back as the man let out a jeering rattle of laughter.
Manix glanced at the other travelers. "If this is truly a plague--"
"And not a trick to turn us back," Caled said, eying the decrepit guard with distaste.
"Then we can't approach too closely. But we must make certain one way or the other," the mage finished.
They diverted their horses around the fallen man. Morbel's lip lifted to expose a fanged grin. "What no goodbyes?" He leered up at Syellen. "Come on darling. Give .me a kiss."
Hadrian turned in time to see Morbel lunge towards the girl's horse. Syellen let out a scream of terror and revulsion as the man came within handspan of her ankle. The sorcerer's face set in determined lines. He extended his arm back towards the kneeling figure. "Fire."
"Hadrian, no!" Manix cried.
He was too late. Flames streaked from Hadrian's hand towards the kneeling man. Death by conflagration was excruciating and not necessarily quick. The agony was prolonged if the victim struggled.
But Morbel never moved as the fire wrapped him like a lover's embrace. Without a sound, his body crumpled to the road. Just before the distorted features were obscured by fire, Hadrian thought he saw weary gratitude in the former guard's face.
Manix's black eyes snapped in anger. "Hadrian, you shouldn't have done that. The outburst of magical energy will have alerted--"
"Be quiet." The flat words were met with stunned silence. Gray eyes scraped over the distraught girl. "Are you all right, Syellen?" When her head bobbed mutely, Hadrian urged his horse up the path. He didn't look back to see if they followed.
Syellen looked as shaken as Caled felt. For once, Caled found himself sympathizing with her. This was so much worse than any of them had bargained for. The other travelers shifted uneasily in their saddles and rode from the smoldering corpse. The smell of burned flesh was so much stronger now
Caled spurred his horse to overtake the black-clad figure. What he saw behind the hood made him frown. The eyes were blank with no more emotion than glass. It was the same look Hadrian had worn when he set fire to Rhiad. An empty, inhuman figure of death had taken away everything Caled had loved. Completely different from the loving Hadrian he had known, he could only call him by another name--Hades.
Caled reached out towards him, wanting to stroke that colorless cheek, to rouse the youth back to life by his own touch. Instead, he shook Hadrian roughly. "Hades, was that true? What he said about Shard's Point?"
"Yes." There was nothing else: no apology, no explanation, no plea for understanding. It was Rhiad all over again. Hadrian had never explained why he'd incinerated the mercenary's home, only admitted that he was responsible for the deed. Fury bubbled up in Caled again.
"Well, I can't say that I'm surprised. What a shame you didn't torch Shard's Point and your father first. Then maybe Rhiad would still be standing."
No answer. It was as though that one-word admission of guilt had taken all of Hades' strength. Caled shook him again. "You know what? I don't give a shit about your past, Hades. So snap out of it. There's still Gavedon to deal with. We can't go blundering about blindly like sheep. Remember, this may be nothing more than a trick on his part."
Hadrian jerked his head backed towards the still body behind them. "And that? Morbel's appearance, his remaining still while ? Was that also a trick?"
Caled shrugged, releasing Hadrian's arm. "I don't know and I don't care. But, considering how many people flocked to that forsaken isle, I wouldn't be surprised if your father had the habit of attracting martyrs." His eyes slid coldly to Hadrian. "Or creating them."
Hadrian made no reply. He looked back at Manix as though he had a question. But after his disobedient behavior just now, it was unlikely the Elder would want to talk to him.
The swordsman urged his horse ahead so he could scout the road. Hadrian's little stunt had put them all on edge, reminding them of the dangerous sorcerer in their midst. With this aura of fear and distrust, they were in no mood to confront his father. He only hoped that Morbel hadn't been lying and Gavedon and all his deluded followers were sick or dead.
Cloaks were drawn over their faces as the sickening smell of scorched meat and disease grew stronger. Along the side of the road, they saw small mounds scattered haphazardly among the trees--evidence of recent graves.
Then they saw the first body. The corpse was little more than burnt tissue, the remains of its clothing stuck here and there on the skeletal frame. Scavenging animals had made considerable inroads into the flesh; there was no telling who the person had been. Hadrian shook his head mutely and they steered the horses past it.
The path grew narrower. Caled glanced around uneasily. With the foliage getting thicker, crowding them on either side, it would be all too easy for them to be ambushed. Then again, they might have to pursue Gavedon through the unlit mountain interior. Caled frowned, hoping it wouldn't come to that.
There were more bodies now, piled haphazardly in heaps and only partially burnt by flame. These cremations had been clumsily set; it was a wonder the surrounding woods hadn't been set on fire. But the smell was still as acrid and the air hung thick and oily with the stench.
Hadrian began to shiver as the familiar guilt clawed at him. Perhaps his father's followers were unwise in their devotion to the One. That didn't make them culpable for Rhiad. That was his doing and his alone. But he had attacked them, forcing them to flee the island. Awful, virulent death had dropped on them because he had driven them from shelter.
Manix placed a hand on Hadrian's shoulder, his voice muffled by his cape. "Hadrian, what's the matter? I know it's a grim sight. But you mustn't let it overwhelm you."
"It's not that, Manix. All these poor people " He shook his head. "This is all my fault."
Manix sighed at Hadrian's needless assumption of guilt. "Hadrian, you were nowhere near when these people were stricken. Why blame yourself for this?"
"Because it's true. These people caught a plague because I destroyed Shard's Point Isle. I pulled Life from everything that lived there to attack my father. I killed members of the Order, too, as many who came against me while my father stood there, watching as I burned them alive."
He shuddered. "I shouldn't have done it. They weren't guilty. Not like I was."
The Elder squeezed Hadrian's shoulder tighter although the youth didn't respond to his touch. "You say they came against you, Hadrian? Then you merely defended yourself. I can't believe that you killed them out of conscious spite."
Glittering silver eyes bored into the Elder. "Are you being willfully deaf?" he hissed. "You heard him, Manix. They didn't attack me. I assaulted them! At that moment, I hated my father. I hated everything he stood for and all that he'd created. I wanted to destroy his home, his magic, the Order of the White Shard, his followers--in short, everything that meant anything to him. Because of that, those who lived fled and came here and caught the plague."
The mage saw his face crumple like worn, wrinkled paper. "I'm a murderer three times over. And I have no excuse."
Manix couldn't think of a single thing to say in way of comfort or assurance. The Elder had guessed that Hadrian was connected to the fell destruction of Shard's Point. Until meeting Morbel, however, Manix hadn't known that he was directly responsible.
He recalled his first sight of Shard's Point--the white ash everywhere, the almost total lack of living beings, the eerie silence that made his own heartbeat seem achingly loud and the ash-covered, unmoving figure that had been the sorcerer. The only thing that kept him from succumbing to that horror was the urgency of the Council's charge: retrieve Hadrian and use him to track down his father.
Now the youth was admitting that hadn't been the worst of his crimes. Hadrian hadn't murdered merely the strangers of Rhiad. He had turned upon people who were the closest things he had to friends. No wonder he was distraught almost to the point of hysterics.
But there was a difference, wasn't there? While the people of Rhiad had been innocent victims, the Order of the White Shard was following the warped teachings of a megalomaniac. Regrouping with Gavedon and being molded in his image--there was no telling what damage they might have done to Jeynesa. Perhaps it was best that they were all dead, by accident if not Hadrian's hand.
Callous thoughts, but Manix didn't flinch from them. He glanced over to Hadrian, noting the youth had regained his self-possession if not his serenity. His face was taut and disagreeably ashen. But he looked in no immediate danger of losing control.
It surprised Hadrian to find yet more bodies; he hadn't known Gavedon had managed to rescue so many of his followers. These had not been burnt. Evidently this was where the survivors had given up any attempt at decent disposal and tried to flee from the pestilence that had them in its grip.
The corpses lay in the twisted postures of their final death throes. All were afflicted with the telltale discolored pustules and open sores where ragged nails had dug into the skin. Flies swam over the bodies in black rivers and rose into the air before settling again on some new place to feast. Maggots plied their way through the skin, dropping from empty sockets and from between gaping lipless maws.
So far the one he was searching for had not been among the victims. Where could his father be? Had his strength of will to survive been so great that he might have actually made it through the mountain?
They were near the opening of the tunnel when Caled saw it. "Manix. Someone's there," he stated, pointing.
Manix drew up beside him, seeing at last what the mercenary had spotted. An unshod foot, the skin filthy with dirt-caked chipped toenails, protruded just outside of the entrance. Lying just within the tunnel itself was a shadowed figure. But the gloom of the shaft concealed any defining characteristics of the body.
Manix raised his hand and began to utter the words of a light Cast when Hadrian stopped him. "No. Let me," he intoned hollowly.
"Hadrian, are you ?"
"I'm sure, Manix. I can do this. I must." As if he'd been practicing all his life, the words of the Cast rolled effortlessly from his lips. A ball of white light flared into existence, hovering at Hadrian's shoulder. At his whispered command, it swept forward into the tunnel and brought the illumination of daylight with it.
A twisted figure draped in the characteristic colorless robes of the Order was stretched on the tunnel floor. The white of the cloth was sadly less than pristine now; the dust and dirt of the road had taken its toll. But clearly exposed were the now-familiar darkened and scarlet puckers of raised skin dotting the man's face and hands. The black hair lay in grimy tangles about the face and dim silver eyes stared unseeingly up at the ceiling.
On Gavedon's face was nothing of fear only a rictus of astonished rage that his dreams should have ended in this pitiable way. Powerful as he had been, his sorcery could not protect him against ordinary sickness.
"Father," Hadrian whispered. He wanted to feel something: triumph at this monster's death; relief that it was over without effort on his part; sadness that his only family was gone; pity for the man whose dreams had been so magnificent and so terrible. But at this moment he was empty.
Lio peered around him to stare at the still figure. "Is that him? Gavedon? Huh, he really did look like you, Hadrian. No offense," he added hastily.
"Let me see," Gam insisted. The thieves had never seen Gavedon, only heard from Caled that he and Hadrian had looked much alike. It was uncomfortable to see that same face in such circumstances. But he had to assure himself the man was truly dead.
Caled stared at the lifeless body. He had come so far to witness this man's death. Now that it was a solid fact, he was curiously unmoved. He wondered what Hadrian felt. The stillness was broken by Hadrian's dead voice. "Manix. It's--may I, now?"
The silver-haired head bowed. "It is safe now, Hadrian. You heard what that guard said. I can imagine that Gavedon held out much longer than any of the others. There will be no more bodies after this one. You may destroy it as you see fit."
Hadrian wordlessly waved the others back. The white light winked out--to be replaced by a searing burst of flame that roared down the tunnel for several feet. Even from a distance the others could feel the heat like an open furnace.
When Hadrian allowed the fire to die down, he stared at the spot where his father had lain. There was nothing left of the corpse but a blackened outline on the floor and powdery residue. He turned away without a word and the group followed him just as quietly.