Actions

Work Header

Twilight Ends When Lavender Falls

Chapter Text

 

 o------------o)O(o------------o

 

"Get this Ravendalf. There must be a reason your heart is on the left... because it's not always right.

And time, reason, or logic ain't got nothin' to do with it either."

   -Conversations with Count von Graf, unpublished memoirs

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

The 18th of November, year 2880

 

... seven hundred and seventy years have gone by

 

The smell of vanilla...

I don't think I'll ever get tired of it. Or be rid of it.

You see, it's hard to find things you can describe in just one word.

Vanilla is sweet. It smells sweet. And sweet is good.

But what I like best about vanilla is the color.

White is pure... like a billow of clouds in summer or a wintry blanket of snow. 

Sometimes the radiance pains like a shock of sunlight. 

So they say white is blinding... but for me it's the only other color. 

Everything else is black like ash. Like the smell of death

Like the sound of ghosts, or the taste of sin when I think of him.

 

Vanilla makes me think of him. It's childish and naive, I know.

But my thoughts of him are not innocent. He's so pure it hurts.

He's so gentle it makes me want to break him.

He's so helpless beneath me I feel the urge to crush him, bleed him.

And his resistance makes it all the better.

Red must be a rich color, now that frustrates me. I become careless... 

I break him and heal him just so I can break him all over again.

 

I lust for him, and it's not the same as sex.

It must be part of it, how can I not want him that way? But it's never enough...

My lust is savage and tireless. As that part of me grinds into him

My nails dig into his flesh. My fingers tear into his soul.

My fangs tattoo him with scars. He bleeds...

He cries in agony and my orgasm soars. 

His tears frighten me, but they're too beautiful to regret.

I plunge into him with every heartbeat, loving his body and his pain.

We make love until the moon's grown tired. No night is long enough. 

 

My lust is filled with wants.

I want all of him, the scent and sweat of him...

Everything that's part of him is mine.

I crave the very air he breathes, I'm jealous of the rain...

The tiniest speck of dust that touches him.

I lust for his soul. I thirst for his blood.

My mouth takes him all in, he's hot and hard, and I'm burning up. 

But my hunger for him is nothing that food or drink can fill.

My body has been starving, yet it refuses to feed...

 

I crave something deeper. I had tasted him, ravished him.

I had thrust myself into the deepest part of him and took his all.

My hunger drags me to despair. His everything is addicting. 

 

There's an abyss inside of me.

A black hole that wants to devour him over and over.

My hunger never abates. If anything, it only grows stronger.

Under the moon, I chased his shadow. We made love like alley cats.

We were shamelessly dead to the world, though my lips have traveled every inch of his skin. 

Cannons fired, tanks roared, and the war ripped hopes and dreams in nameless places.

We withstood the centuries, or at least I tried. I felt the world change.  

Memories came and went. But in every one of them he's alive... 

I still worship the sound of his feet. I still watch him as he sleeps.

I count the rise and fall of his breathing like bullets through my heart.

 

But his pride is like a dagger, his stony silence a whip  

That my desire for him quivers when he kneels at my feet.

I get lost in his eyes when he holds it in.

I watch him pray, I listen to his broken pleas.

He thinks someone out there can save him.

I'm the broken savior who damned him to this hell.

I'm the only savior he needs.

 

The truth is, the world isn't worth saving if he's not in it.

 

I know I'm mad, but I can't help myself.

I must have him. I must have him again and again.

Even when I know that it ends the same way...

My deep, despondent love shall kill him, shatter him as before.

But I can't help myself. And there's no other explanation.

Not that it matters. There's no cure, no logic, no excuse.

I'm desperately mad, and I can't even lie about this.

It's not a curse, just a bad habit. That I can't lie about me.

It's always where the trouble and danger begins.

But that's not half so bad.

 

The worst thing about life is trying to die.

It's ironic that no matter how I hate this life, I can't even die. 

I've tried killing myself countless times but nothing ever worked.

Nothing ever could work.

 

By now you must know, you're reading the diary of a madman.

 

I'm tainted with incurable madness, I'm as mad as the moon is mad.

I'm as mad as the sound of rain, the scent of snow as it falls on his hair.

His hair is silver, thank god it is. In a world of black and white, his hair... his pale, pale skin...

At least I see them as I should. His beauty is real, not imagined. 

They tell me his eyes are the color of twilight. I try to think of lavender...

But all I see are petals falling. Someday I hope to see what it's like...

When the sun paints the sky before it fades into grey.

Then again, that's all I can ever hope to know from other people's eyes.

Still it's better than utter blindness.

Though everyone must be blind one way or another

Otherwise we'd see the ugly part of ourselves.

Not that we should. Not that it hurts to deny what hurts.

At least the things no one sees hurt no one.

 

To me the world is a dead monochrome of black and white.

They must think it pitiful that I can see only this.

As if it bothers me. If anything, I can use my imagination.

I imagine his color, his scent, his taste when he and I can't be together.

 

My mind is a flood of colors of him.

Yet my world is a walking shadow without him.

  

Like that day in November, a cold night under colder stars.

The year was twenty-one eleven, the eleventh day of the month.

Seven hundred and seventy years had gone by since then.

It's not like I counted each day. Maybe I did... maybe it's the agony of waiting 

For myself to wake up. You see, it was the day that I killed him. 

And yet it feels closer than yesterday

The day we said our first goodbye to each other.

 

Crying is not manly, everyone tells me.

But I know much better than to think

That I'm the only one who has lost him. 

They must have wept their own sorrows like I did. 

Maybe I'm the only one who shows it,

The one who visits the same grave.

I despair that the cold earth embraces him more than I can.

For my kind, humans are lesser gods. They can't be loved or hated.

Maybe it's one of those golden rules. 

But another rule broken doesn't make any difference. I break them all. 

And I never asked once to be understood. 

My grief is my own.

 

I miss him now... all the time... before I sleep and when I wake up.

Don't ask what I do in between, when I miss him more than I can take.  

I'll bring him lilies tomorrow. He must be happy to know that his garden blooms with it.

 

I feel like traveling again. But I'm leaving this journal to you.

You've been reading this, I know. So we're not exactly strangers.

Just the same, there are things you must know...

The owner of this diary is I, Sorey von Ravendalf.

Though Sorey has been my name for ages,

Ravendalf belongs to the family that took me in after the war.

It's a strange name, I guess, but nothing's stranger than truth.

They are a clan of nobles, an old family of military repute.

Underground, an old legacy haunts it, a secret alliance guarded well. 

The Ravendalfs are a family of vampire slayers.

I've been the inheritor for generations, the undying knight-commander of its forsaken flock.

That story you will know soon enough... the litany of my horrible self.

 

But as all beginnings must start somewhere, let me warn you at least:

This is not a tale of beasts and magic, or some outlandish fantasy.

Even if you doubt as I suppose, I speak nothing less than the truth.

But why you? You never asked for this. You have a reason to be curious. 

Maybe it's enough that you hear me out, that someone else understands

What I did, what made me do it. My crime must be beyond hate.

Yet, the more reason I ask you to listen... as if I'm talking to a friend.

 

You must think we're demons, wicked to the very marrow of our bones.

Indeed we're dark and depraved, Hell Incarnate.

Immortalized sinners but no creature of the undead.

There's no sun so hot it can burn us to ashes.

We live and breathe, our blood is as warm as yours.

We fall ill, we feel our wounds, flesh and skin.

And the blood that runs in our veins is neither inky nor stale.

We have no need for coffins. We're not zombies.  

The dead can't undie. They can't rise with the living.

I'm not sure if the difference between us is what gives you life. 

Humans have a soul, I've no right to be jealous.

We've defiled ours long ago, when we defied the gods. 

Despite that, we are not barbaric.

We do not feed like vultures. 

We do not cannibalize our prey.

 

True, our lusts are tainted and corrupt, and they're also of the flesh.

But we only drink the blood of our chosen prey.

Your blood is a gift, a blessing...

The reason we treasure human lives far more than you think we do. 

The blood is the life, one vampire says in one of those old, old movies.

He calls himself Dracula, gods, what a fake!

 

We do not take life from life. We taste its sweetness...

Knowing the humanity we lost is written in your soul.

No one can take what cannot be given away. 

And no being of darkness may ask for more.

 

Tragic as it seems, that's just what I am. 

The real thing, a living, undying curse wrought through the ages.

A breathing monster of a man, a most inhuman man.

 

Twenty centuries of living is what killed me the most.

Because of him I can only write these words. 

His words have always been quiet, as voiceless as the grave.

But they burn inside me 'til now. Those eyes...

I love the way they move when he reads.

But this writing, this journal... it's different and unnatural.

My mouth is vulgar, just like every hidden part of me is.

My attempt at poetry shames me. But I try for the sake of something better

Than I am. I try because someone like him, so beautiful and perfect

In every single way deserves more than half-ass verses.

But even pure madness can only do so much. 

And miracles are hard, even for the most insane.

 

I loved him and killed him, does that make any sense?

It sounds like a B-movie, I know. 

It's like something written in the tabloids.

Bizarre crimes of passion. Just another suspense thriller.

But if there's anything I've been wanting to say since that day,

What I should've told him back then is that--

I loved him deeper than any hate, far more than all of me could ever love itself.

I can't let him go. Yet he doesn't belong here.

He's too damn good for this world.

 

Too good, too beautiful, beyond words and poetry.

That's why I killed him. And you must tell him this.

You must make him understand.

 

I'll tell you everything so that you'll understand what I did.

So you'll hear my truths... the truth that makes me hate myself even more.

 

Love is mad, I know... but only fools like me cannot unlove even so...

  

 o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

Like the sound of silence calling

I hear your voice and suddenly

I’m falling, lost in a dream…

 

Like the echoes of our souls are meeting

You say those words, my heart stops beating

I wonder what it means…

 

When you say you love me

The world goes still, so still inside

And when you say you love me

In that moment I know why I'm alive…

 

Somewhere between

The heavens and earth

Frozen in time...

Oh, when you say those words... 

When you say you love me

Do you know how I love you?

 

-originally by Josh Groban, When You Say You Love Me,”

performed by Grecian Urn for Inferno’s Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

Today, the 20th of May 2099, marks the third year since the war has begun...

 

Once again where I stand and breathe, a cursed hope among the living, I watch the human world become a city of death and shadows...

The world is in chaos. Rumors have it that the war must be ending pretty soon, but either the higher-ups don't really want to end it, or no one has any idea how. Because in the battlefield nothing’s changed.

The same scenarios repeat themselves like a broken record.

Soldiers march in the faltering rhythm of worn-out boots and hoarse, stentorian voices commanding them even under a lazy sunrise. They cradle their artillery and helmets like a friend missing a limb, their drooping shoulders saying more about the weight of the world and the war on their tired souls than anything.

Like any other officer, I worry about the men under my command. But it's that kind of worrying I’d rather push deep down. It's hard having to look into each and every face, to stare into those same, cold eyes that seem to suppress more hurt than anyone can imagine. It may sound wrong, but sympathy isn’t always the best companion for tragedy. There's nothing to pity about heroism even if its monuments have all been forgotten.

I've seen more deaths than any single lifetime can hold, and I've always believed that humanity can do better...

Then again, I could be wrong. Everywhere I look seems to be a holocaust of hunger and hate... a faceless war that can turn anything in its path into a weapon. It doesn't seem strange then that all these weapons of war reflect nothing more than the same onslaught, the same battered pride and hateful resignation their owners carry every day—human beings who must feel deep down that they’re better off being used as tools just the same…

Tools of war. Some say understanding adversity either lessens suffering or breeds contempt. But the truth is, none of that reasoning matters when one's bombarded with the absurd. For those who find themselves on the brink of absurdity each time they march into battle, it must be harder to be dragging one’s soul around like a broken leash… as hard as having to carry a comrade while trying to dodge cannons and gunfire. These hardened men walk with faces sunk yet swollen in grief, as if to spite the world by flaunting the wounds that fester on their exhausted conscience.

I feel their disgust and the hopelessness that reeks from it. Scarred with repressed fear, hate, and cold despair, most of these soldiers would be walking to their graves far sooner than I could suck the blood from the dying wounded.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath...

I can take the pain, even those memories that go with a comrade's insufferable anguish when he's about to die, that moment when he realizes his body's been blown and decapitated beyond healing. When I drink the blood of such men, I tell myself I’m saving something precious, a tiny spark of sanity that they needed to keep for their peace of mind before their final departure. 

But favors done for the sake of the dead are never returned. I experience a kind of undying death every single time I go through the routine of it all. Sometimes I get caught up in the fear of being the last man standing, the only one left undead in this dead, undying wasteland.

Not that it matters now...

Humanity is a city of corpses trying its damnest best to imitate life. Or what’s left of it at least. It’s been like that even before the war, but hardly anyone cares or wants to face it.

Call it the ravages of human conflict, but it still wouldn’t make much sense. I’m not sure if there’s any luck left in the world to fight such evil. And I don’t think spouting romantic nonsense like all is fair in love and war would help.

I say it’s more like all is fair in hate and war. Where a soldier stands, he doesn’t have to know any other thing than the look and smell of the enemy—or how many bullets those bastards can fire before one of them hits him.

Every soldier’s been trained to see the enemy in front of him for what he's supposed to be—a target. There’s no need to know if the one he’s about to kill has kids, or some pretty wife waiting for him back home, or a gorgeous man more than willing to warm his bed. He didn’t have to ask if he had known what it’s like to date the prom queen or the cheerleader, or the teenage sweetheart he’s always had a crush on. He didn’t have to know if that older guy lying in the ditch next to him was a physicist who had lost his job when the war had started or a Professor Emeritus with half-a-dozen books in his name.

He didn’t have to ask if the enemy he was about to shoot wanted the war to end soon enough so he could plan his kid’s first birthday, or stand next to the bride at his own wedding.

It was just bad that they had to live through this century at a time when that infection called “militarization” was going around. It spilled into the streets faster than forest fire when they dropped another one of those things over the Metropolitan five years ago. I saw it up close—close enough to know the stench of hate when it happened.

The thing ended up killing at least two million in a cloud of gas and smoke, leveling down the busiest business district in the world since those other ivory towers had fallen.

Terrorism was on the rise and so were the anguished cries for justice, seeking the purge of the world that would rid it of antichrists and despots. Peace efforts failed miserably to awaken any sense of enlightened justice, and so the world started arming itself again.

It’s strange that even this war looked familiar. It felt like Europe during the first two World Wars two hundred and fifty years ago.

But in truth, and you know this: nothing is fair about war. More like all men are equal in death. When you’re about to go six feet under the ground, you stop thinking of the things you didn’t have, of the things you’ve lost or haven’t found, or the things you’ve always dreamed of having.

You stop thinking about good things and bad things, including all those other attachments that made them so important.

Like your first kiss, your first sex, even your first sports trophy. All that stuff fade into oblivion, like some fiction-fantasy you used to wish were real, until adulthood made you realize that wishes couldn’t come true just by wishing.

I’ve seen the injured too many times to know what’s left in that empty shell before it surrenders to the final call. What’s left is a searing anguish that tears the soul, the kind of gut-wrenching, agonizing agony that screams in your blood telling your brain to let go.

To let itself die.

No pain is worth suffering for. Even hell looks like a familiar friend when that pain hits you.

It’s not cowardice or weakness that makes pain so hateful, so undignified. I think it’s called giving up. It’s a human instinct I understand, maybe, because it’s something I envy more than anything.

If giving up were enough or even possible, I wouldn’t be here…

If I could live my life the way I want it, I’d kill it.

Around me, armored tanks rolled by. There was never a day that you wouldn’t see one of those things plowing ruins and human bodies alike. Not that I’m belittling the violence of it. I guess even you can imagine what that looks like on a plain field that used to be full of wildflowers.

I heard a holler across the street just as I was walking by, following the rhythm of a slow-moving tank. The voice was gruff and thick, with an accent everybody would recognize.

“Hey Ravendalf! Got a letter! It’s from your girl!”

I stopped dead in my tracks.

“Alisha it says! Lieutenant Alisha Ladylake.”

Of course it can only be Alisha, I almost sigh. Though Ladylake isn't her real last name just as plain lieutenant downgrades her actual rank. There's practical logic behind the higher ups' not using exact information in personal correspondences such as these, though how personal it is this time might be worth looking into.

“Uh, so colonel, the captain’s got one of those again, huh? Lucky bastard!”

Even from this distance, I could tell that was the sergeant speaking. I walked up to the pair without saying anything.

Not like there was anything to confirm at all. It’s not like Alisha was ever my girl to begin with. She was an old friend whom I met at the university about six years ago. I heard she landed a military assignment right after graduation and now operates in a major facility half-a-continent away. Too bad sending emails or using any radio frequency to deliver even personal messages was a prohibition in the army, and protocol exempts no one, not even the daughter of the head of the Ministry of Defense.  

That would explain the letter, I guess.

Besides, Alisha was the only girl I knew who’s ever managed to maintain some kind of contact with me since the war started.

I’ve always liked her as a friend. Maybe you can say I was even fond of her. But that’s just about where it stops. I didn’t have any faith in friends with benefits, that kind of thing. It’s not like I have values or any moral reservations. I guess you can say I’m just a bit old-fashioned.

Because in reality I am old. Counting only the last hundred years, I’ve been around since World War I and the holocaust.

My real age though, goes much, much farther than that. You can say I’ve seen enough of the world to make me an icon in my own right. Maybe I’m older than some of the stuff you see in the museum.

Now that hurts. Looking like an eternal teenager might be a blessing but, sometimes, it makes you feel guarded. Like people actually expect you to think and act immature rather than all-knowing.

Not that I am. But I do deserve some credit for at least thinking my real age… for being old enough to not trust everything that’s written down.

You don’t get wisdom with age or with books. You get it by overthinking. It’s when you over-analyze the world that you realize there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s real wisdom for me.

And I know better than to rely on the manuals they send from the base. I prefer hands-on. Like I can fire any weapon within reach. Or decode any symbol from any language the enemy might use to radio commands to their rank and file. Aside from commanding platoons on a regular basis, I’m a communicator, a code-specialist, a front-line soldier, and a tank operator on occasions.

I'm an all-around bad guy who doesn’t give a shit about anyone. At least hours from the moment I met him that was what I thought.

I tore the letter open as soon as I had it in my hand. Colonel Ralph von Wolverne, the only other officer who’s been around here for as long as I have, stared at me, mouth wide open. Not that I should feel self-conscious or anything. But I didn’t notice the others were looking until the sergeant cleared his throat.

They must think a letter is some gift from the gods.

“Uh, look, Sorey, maybe you can do that in private?”

“What for?” I asked glumly. Mornings are tough on me. We’ve been drilling ourselves senseless since four a.m. It’s half-past six and though breakfast is nothing to look forward to, I’d appreciate one right now.

“You wanna inspire some jealousy, kid?”

“How many times do I have to tell you Alisha and I are not—”

“The more you deny it, the more it sounds shitty serious to us.”

“Sheesh…” I shake my head. “Your serious is scary.”

I try to read everything in two seconds. I know treating it more like a telegram than a love letter everybody expects it to be is a bit unfair. But to be honest, I just don’t have time for personal stuff right now, or ever. I stop my breath.

An occasional breeze would carry the stench of rotting flesh and miasma. It hung heavily around us like a wet cloak—clingy, soggy, and cold. I stop at the last two sentences.

By the way, I’d like you to meet someone at the old subway, CA-C-1400. You won’t miss him at all, believe me, and take care as always, please?

Her code was too easy. What she meant was the twentieth of the current month as C equals two and A is always zero, and the last C means “current.” The letter is a request to meet with an officer at two p.m. at the subway and bring him to base.

Tacky. If an enemy had actually intercepted this, they wouldn’t have time to figure out what’s it about by the time the mission expires. And like what I said, Alisha unexpectedly used a very simple code.

So simple you’d hardly suspect it. I guess that was the idea.

I can almost tell this person I was supposed to escort must be some VIP.

It’s when people are less guarded that you know they have tighter security measures in place. It’s even possible I’m being watched as I stand. You can’t be too sure about these things, and it’s actually the way things must work.

Partial reinforcement creates madness through needless, insistent non-thinking. Behaviorists didn’t say that. But I just have a feeling it works that way.

Put another way, all my expectations are just standard expectations. Like a new face always gives me a bad feeling because you can’t tell for how long it’s gonna stick around. “Nice to meet you” always ends in goodbye, so sometimes you just give up on making new friends. It’s scary to think that the one you’re sharing jokes with might be the one you’d have to carry out of a ditch and bury the next day. Though there’s hope that’s not gonna happen ‘cause it doesn’t happen all the time (no matter how bad you think of it), you’re forced to expect the worst every single time.

Why? Just because you need to fill in the blanks, the gaps. Better expect what happens most of the time than things that happen only sometimes.

Before you know it, your mind and body start acting like the contrary doesn’t even exist. You hold on to your pattern like it’s the only legitimate way reality works.

Patterns are cruel because you think they’re natural, and you think natural things can’t either be good or bad. It’s just the way things are. But that’s cruel on its own.

The real evil is that one thing you don’t ever want to see. It’s the truth you keep turning away from until it catches up with you and kills you.

And I guess that’s how war destroys people. It not only tears people apart limb by limb… or crushes the hopes and memories of the lives they leave behind for good.

It plays with your mind, your heart in ways that make you almost like me.

A natural demon. A madman who’s at the mercy of his ageless instinct and experience. If there’s anyone who deserves the accusation most, it’s me. I’ve built my universe around patterns of what humans are and what they can be, that I find nothing wrong in doubting even the best of them.

I don’t expect them to be different. I don’t expect them to be anything else.

Neither do I expect to be convinced that there’s any human out there worth changing my mind about, my POV if you insist.

I stashed the letter in my coat. “Looks like we’ll have a new officer by tomorrow.”

The colonel gave me a stare like I just grew two heads. “Whatcha sayin’ kid?”

“I’m picking him up from the station. No other escorts needed. Nothing was mentioned, at least.”

“You’re a one-man army that’s why. Shit, we’re the ones to worry when you leave.”

I smile wanly. Even a walking defense barrier like me gets tired like everybody else. 

“Hey, doesn’t it flatter you one bit to know how much we’re dependin’ on you?”

I glance at my watch. “The subway’s just an hour and a half from here. I can take one of the motorbikes. It’s faster.”

“You kiddin’? What if it’s an old geezer with a ten-piece luggage?”

“I’ll ask him to ditch it. I ain’t gonna carry his bags for him.” I didn't even try to sound apologetic.

The sergeant made a low whistle. I guess it was an off-hand warning that I wasn't being a good example in the presence of a subordinate.

“I'm tellin' yah, you’re too mean for your age, kiddo. Take it easy.”

There it is again. I try not to scowl. “Whatever. I’d be back before you know it. Kill as many as you can while I’m gone. I expect loads of bodies.”

The colonel huffed. “Gods, you're too mean for your own good.”

“I ain’t good. And not trying to either.”

Sergeant Kyme shook his head. "I don't know if I could call that cool or what."

Colonel Wolverne made a gruff sound that seemed like he was chuckling through a nasty cold. “Yeah, well, you just haven’t found that one person to soften you up. I’m sure there’s someone out there for every one of us… some god-sent angel who’s been born to break us in pieces.”

“I hope not.” It wasn’t like I was doubting the colonel’s words then. I just know myself far more than I wish I did.

I’m a heartless killer. I kill humans and non-humans alike.

We've been doing it for twenty centuries… since the Savior died to save this world. Our defiance and betrayal of the covenant with the Shepherd, legends say, damned us into this form of existence, forcing us to live our lives in the shadows of a merciless fate, the curse of immortality that refuses to grant us rest and reprieve.

Eternally unforgiven, we've been condemned to go on without that one thing that humans take for granted, that one thing they deny more than anything.

We're soulless, in other words.

Depraved sinners, we're granted immortality in exchange for that one thing that'll free us from the shackles of this life. Having our souls taken from us, we've forsaken our right to an afterlife that might give us a chance at another existence that's unlike anything this world could offer... an existence untainted with endless struggle... with losses and victories deprived of any meaning.

Unlike humans who have souls, there's no forgiveness waiting for a vampire at the end of this broken road, no rest or redemption that might set us free.

 

o-----)o(-----o

 

By the time I got to the subway, the shower had become a steady drizzle. The ground was caked everywhere making my boots squeak an ugly sound when I set my foot down.

I hate the rain. It makes everything even duller than it already is, like you’re standing on an empty moor, a wasteland of pure, absolute nothingness, which reminds me of Wuthering Heights.

I grimace at the memory. It makes me feel like some eternally wounded beast about to devour himself, a stone-hearted Heathcliff waiting for his Catherine… waiting for the ghost of the woman he cursed. Heathcliff had hoped his cruel joke would be enough to make her loathe him so much as to ground her soul in this world so they could never be apart.

That you can bind in hate someone who wouldn’t be bound to you by love. It’s a dangerous theory. Then again, I can't tell exactly when or how that idea started seeping in, like water breaking through the tiniest cracks.

Maybe because I'm so broken and shattered I just couldn't help leaking. Or maybe a morbid imagination is what you get by reading too much fiction... though I should know better than to accuse a hobby.

If truth can be so honest, the answer should be easy: it must come from being a killer, a slayer of undead things. A demon who kills demons.

That’s almost farcical, I know. Even the rain seems to agree.

That aside, the subway Alisha mentioned couldn’t have been any other station out here. Most trains have been bombed to ashes, and this decrepit one was no exception. I could tell from the sheer complexity of subways that the amount of fixing must have been costly and time-consuming. These things need patience and secrecy. It must have taken a feat for headquarters to carry out and supervise major repairs while hiding the fact from the enemy.

Even our base had no inkling this was operational. On the outside it looked as useless as it always had, like a pile of rubble among rows and ruins of shops and buildings with smashed-in walls.

But as soon as I got down the crumbling steps into the intersecting maze of tunnels below, I saw that one was lighted faintly, sending flickers bouncing off the shabby walls. I looked around, not expecting much. It was just… really… remotely functional. You can even say it was comfortably dim, barely enough to keep you from stumbling on your own feet.

As I stood there, occasionally checking my watch, the light behind me gave a pathetic sputter as if struggling to breathe life into these dying ruins. Though it’s likely that some of the rain had managed to seep through the cracks and found its way through the wiring.

I took a single step, and the broken tiled floor crunched under my boot. I figured these things would always need maintenance. Though I can hardly say if it’s worth the risk. One bomb can just as easily destroy years of secret, hard work.

But maybe humans just don’t know when to give up. It’s a character I don’t want to admire too much, knowing I can’t afford that kind of thinking.

The only thing I can afford to give up is the hope of dying. Even if I wanted to give up on life, life wouldn’t give up on me. It’s frustrating.

Humans think life is precious and that’s where their struggle is all about. How to live and live on. Even if dying is inevitable, they’d rather plan their future and hope for the best.

I don’t get it. What’s the use of living when it’s all the same? When breathing and feeling and sleeping are just things that go on and on, involuntary processes that almost all living things do every day? Aren’t humans even curious enough to know what’s on the other side of life?

Death fascinates me because I’ll never find out what it is. I’ll suffer and endure not out of choice or character but because the world expects it. We’re doomed and bound together by one fate that I didn’t even choose for myself.  

I end when the world ends. It’s the perfect excuse to be in a hopeless war.

Need I say that all life is hopeless? Everyone disagrees with me. The colonel thinks it’s the only reason I deserve the title of Mad Wolf in the army. My negativity is out of proportion with my age, he says.

What he meant was I sound like an old man with an ancient soul.

I take that as a compliment, though. Among vampires, I’m better known as Dark Raven. I hate titles in general ‘cause it reeks of superhero-ish things that sound superficial and naive, but there’s no helping it. Speaking of which, even our uniform makes me look like some caped crusader with this heavy mantle hanging from behind me... a sort of ceremonial robe that's even more inconvenient than it looks. I was assuming a high-ranking, commanding officer would expect nothing less on this occasion.

The train glided soundlessly in front of me. It looked smooth and light enough, not making the ground shake as much as I was expecting it would. I already guessed that this train intended to carry only one passenger. An admiral perhaps?

I’m a sufficient escort whoever he is, it’s not like anything worries me. Besides, a vampire slayer is probably the best bodyguard around.

Heck, if you can survive hosts and legions of underworld scum, you’d most likely survive anything.

I was about ready to salute. Some part of me couldn’t help expecting these arrogant bastards to be all about formality and respect.

For the first time I was wrong.

“Hello there. You must be Sorey.”

I barely heard the greeting because he was speaking as he stepped toward me. I guess I was more concerned with how I looked that I didn’t even watch for the doors of the train opening just a stride away from where I stood.

He was so lithe, so slender that the uniform looked a little too big on him. Though the heavy uniform of the military could disguise that, you could see from the belt on his waist how tiny he really was. And his height wasn’t impressive either. His head would probably be able to reach my chin if he stood on tiptoes.

But everything else… his silver hair, his thick lashes, his small, sculptured face, his eyes… those haunting eyes seemed able to look into one’s very soul, which I suddenly wished I had.

I swallowed. The moment I saw him I knew it right away.

Gods, he was beautiful... so beautiful it hurt not to look at him.

I was probably spacing out until he reached out a gloved hand. For a moment I thought he was about to give me his bag, but instead he gave me a curious look that seemed wistful... like he's secretly amused about something in private.

I stared dumbfounded before finding my manners. For a tiny second, I caught a glimpse of white skin peeking from beneath the sleeve of his coat and the top of his black glove that just about covered his wrist.

I cleared my throat as our hands touched. “That I am. Captain Sorey von Ravendalf at your service.”

His lips curled as if they were suppressing a smile. “I expected it. Alisha was nice enough to tell me lots of things about you.”

His voice. It sounded a little stern but in a soft, subdued way, like he was whispering an oath. Again, his smile looked secretive, with a hint of mockish, self-indulgent thought that makes you want to guess exactly what he’s thinking.

But really... lots of things?  “I didn’t know you and Alisha were friends.”

“At ease, captain,” he said rather quickly, eyes casting a furtive glace at me. “Your girlfriend’s affections should never be doubted. In truth, I’m devoted to her hobby of talking about you.”

I didn’t know why, but I felt flustered. “Uh, just to be clear, there’s really nothing between us.”

"Well, I hope not."

My heart skipped a beat. I wondered if I heard that or just imagined it.

He turned to face the wall as if he was trying to read off something there. “Don't get me wrong, captain. I mean, who’d even dare?”

I watched his eyes scour the faded graffiti in front of him. “Excuse me?”

He looked at me sideways. “Seriously, who’d dare come between you and Alisha? I can imagine how scary your type is. And I don’t mean Alisha. I mean you.”

I blinked at that. I don’t know exactly if, as a subordinate, I can argue with or correct that opinion. Either way I’m confused.

“I didn’t know I was making that impression.”

At this point I reached for his bag. But he anticipated my move a second sooner and whisked it behind him.

“You haven’t asked who I was. Did Alisha tell you? I had firm instructions not to let my whereabouts be known except to those who know about this operation.”

Operation? Alisha didn’t hint anything of that sort, and knowing her astute intelligence in most things, I wouldn't doubt her prudence in the matter. But neither has there been any briefing from the other officers, at least from what I was made to believe before coming here.

Somehow, that brought me back to protocol.

“I’m sorry, but Lieutenant Commander Diphda's letter didn't go into details regarding—”

“I'm glad to hear it. I’m Captain Luzrov Rulay, head of the Special Tactical Operations Unit, 9th division. We’re of equal rank so I hope we can do away with the strict formalities, Sorey.”

I don’t know about that. In the barracks, things got a little personal and casual only after the first six months of relentless hostilities from the enemy that had pounded our walls and armory to dust. We were able to secure the base after hundreds of casualties and losses that meant tanks, artillery, ammunition, and people most of all. There were days I couldn’t count the dog tags I had to keep for sending back to the families of the dead.

Survival mostly keeps you on your toes. It makes you value the people who remain standing with you, knowing it would be a miracle if you can keep it up ‘til the end. The shared tragedy and misgivings formed bonds among us that none of us were probably even aware of at the time it was happening.

I guess it’s knowing someone else is enduring the same hell, the same psychological aftermath, that you learn to develop friendships and camaraderie along the way, even in the most adverse and hostile conditions. That doesn’t sound bad at all, does it?

Nevertheless, if Captain Rulay wanted to be casual that much, I can give him that. Honestly, his size made it all the easier. He was hardly intimidating.

“So Luzrov, I guess we should be on our way?”

I reached for his bag again, but he sidestepped my gesture. I was getting frustrated.

“Mikleo.”

I frowned, not understanding it one bit.

He stopped in mid-stride. “Call me Mikleo. I let Alisha use my childhood name anyways. It makes me feel less defensive."

"I see." It should have ended there, or maybe I could have settled with something safe and neutral by asking how the weather was. After all whoever overthinks a simple conversation with a complete stranger? But for some inane reason, I just couldn't let that awkward silence dangle between us so I blurted out what was actually on my mind then.

"So does that... I mean... do you and the commander even fight?"

His eyes widened a bit, but that was only for two seconds. He grinned ever so slightly. "I don't think so. I mean, we're too old for that, right?"

When he said that it got me thinking what his real age might be. I swear he looked nothing older than eighteen. But given my own physical age, I guess I've no right to tease. 

He lifted his chin thoughtfully. "Rather, I guess you can say we have... debates?"

Before I knew it I was the one smiling. "Debates do seem more dignified and mature. But I guess that means you and Alish-I mean, the Commander, must be pretty close."

"I don't know how to deny that."

"You wouldn't," was all I could say, but I couldn't help grinning at my self-directed sarcasm. He was quick to notice and gave me an amused smile.

"Well, it puzzles me how any guy can deny such a beautiful woman who holds him in high esteem. To think Alisha's not the type to like men easily."

"I must apologize to the Commander then." I offered.

"So... you do know how much she likes you."

He was obviously teasing, though his tone remained neutral. I frowned a bit.

"I guess I should apologize for that one too?" 

"Want my advice, Captain Ravendalf?"

Even without looking I could feel his stern expression suppressing a smile.

"You should beg on your knees or roll over and make barking sounds."

"Wh-what! Does she even like dogs?"

He burst out laughing, and it was strangely contagious that I found myself joining him. He paused, and right then I felt his gaze linger for just a little more than three seconds before he cleared his throat and looked away.    

"I'm certain no man would mind making a fool of himself for Alisha. Her forgiveness is worth that and even more."

"How about you?" I didn't know exactly why I blurted that out. "I'm sure you've dealt with a lot of fools yourself."

"Not really. I never had to."

"Only because you never gave them a chance."

"Huh?" He looked sideways, and I could tell from his profile that his curiosity was piqued.

"I could imagine some desperate admirer begging for your attention, but you asked that person to do five hundred push-ups instead."

"Really? Have you ever asked any of your ex-es to do the same? Or do I just seem that cruel to you? But your point is, anyone would have given up, right?" 

"Maybe some," I answered back with a huff of confidence. "But not everyone would."

He stopped in mid-stride, which got me overthinking what I might have actually said. He looked at me over his shoulder, and for a minute I wondered if I was going to be in trouble.

"I'll make sure Alisha knows you're all right with five hundred push-ups then. Just to be fair."

I blinked at that, and he smirked at me as if to say the whole thing's unofficial and I shouldn't dare quote him on anything. For one tiny second something inside me quivered. I didn’t plan on getting stiff right here, but my cock was getting harder every minute since the conversation started.

“But seriously," he tells me, "I have a bit of a temper. So if I'm being unreasonable and stubborn, you might address me by that name just to remind me... that you do understand that I can't always be as perfect as my better side is.”

I cocked an eyebrow at that without thinking. “Oh, you mean this side?”

That was a slip. He caught the humor in my tone, the one that I was suppressing myself.

“So it’s not as obvious to you, is it?”

I looked sideways at him but didn’t dare answer that. It would sound like teasing, and that part of me is already twitching uncomfortably. I hated the idea though the feeling was something else.

My crazy state of arousal was, in fact, just... crazy. If I say it's shocking, one might think I'm selling myself as a hopeless, pure-hearted virgin, which I'm not really so sure about. Whichever the case, no one has ever been able to make my body react this way too quickly. I decided to walk ahead of him while ignoring that anxious bit of a warning inside of me that said I wasn't exactly conducting myself in a manner expected of an escort.

I hastened my steps up the surface without once looking back. The rain pelted my face as soon as we rose from the darkness.

“So it rains here too, I guess…”

I looked behind me. He was standing there like a statue, his face tilted to meet the rain. Drops of it cascaded down his cheeks, then his chin, outlining his sculptured face that seemed illuminated by the shallow light of that pale, afternoon sky above us.

I couldn’t look away. I could imagine that the dark, green shade of his uniform matched his fair skin and hair that glowed against the dark, rough texture of his coat. And his hair was even more silver in these surroundings, making him seem like an angel bathed in an unearthly mist of light.

The rain continued to trickle around us, and I just stood there, mesmerized. I couldn’t see colors, and that got me wondering how I’ve managed so far, not seeing things the way others see them.

But with this vision, it didn’t seem like my colorless world even mattered. It was enough that I could see this beauty behind a black-and-white lens, giving life to that infinite grey that stretched like forever between me and the horizon.

“Captain Sorey von Ravendalf..." His voice was suddenly thoughtful, like he was trying to recall something. "I hope you don't mind the rain too much. I didn’t want our first meeting to be... depressing.”

I looked away, trying to ignore the heat growing inside of me that makes the rain easier to ignore this time. “I don’t like the climate in general so I can’t even fault the weather.”

He seemed to be thinking about this. I took advantage of his distraction to take his bag from him. 

I noticed that his one-piece luggage was unbelievably light. For some reason I was worried that he didn’t plan on staying that long. He must have noticed the way I was frowning at the weight in my hand.

“I was in a hurry to pack. I didn’t want to give headquarters the chance to change their minds about this. Besides... we're all men. I'm sure you have stuff that I can use.”

I strongly doubt that, and I wanted to tell him this. He's nothing like a man even from my perspective. Not to mention that vampires can sense these things differently from humans.

"I'll try to help with anything I can," I ended up saying instead.   

When he turned to face me, I was able to confirm how beautiful his eyes really were. I almost wanted to ask him what color they were, though that would just be something left to my imagination.

“I hope we can be real good friends," he tells me, his smile so vague it was almost imaginary, which I hoped it wasn't. "Alisha said I could trust you with my life.”

I wanted to reach out and touch his face to know how real he was. He looked so soft and vulnerable, like someone who had just run away from home and didn’t want to be found.

It’s crazy, but for a second it felt like we were eloping, or about to run away to our honeymoon.

I stopped the thought. That's certainly light years away from where we are now.

“As the commander expects of me, I’d protect you with my life. With my all if that’s what it takes.”

"Careful there." His tone was subdued. "I might actually ask for it."

I held his gaze. "I'm ready to deliver."

He looked away quickly, but I noticed his sidelong glances just the same. “I think I understand the commander's feelings now," he began softly, as if whispering to himself. "To have someone like you... someone who trusts without question, who's loyal and devoted to a fault is just about everything a woman could ever hope for in a man...”

I couldn't tell why, but for some reason, his misunderstanding was starting to upset me. I took his hand and held onto it, unsure if I had any reason to. I just felt it was the best way I could tell him how sincere I was.

“This rain is freezing. I don’t want you to catch a cold or anything.”

“Sorey, I’m also a soldier. I'm not that weak…”

The way he said my name seemed to have awakened something inside of me. I pulled him toward me, not knowing how light he really was until he landed easily against my chest. I removed my coat and wrapped it around him. I felt him quiver when my hand went around his waist to secure the knot in front of it.

When I looked up, our faces must be both flushed. I could sense he saw something that made him step back and look away in embarrassment.

Or maybe he knew he was all shades of red by now. Even in this rain I could tell what red would look like in black and white, and his cheeks darkened that way.

“You’re shivering.” I could sense the tremor beneath the coat. He must be suppressing it, but I could tell from the way his shoulders moved that he was.

“I think I’d live through this. Your base can’t be that far.”

"That's kinda true," I conceded. But still, something worries me after seeing how frail he really was beneath that stiff self-composure he was trying to show.

I frowned in concern. “But Mikleo, look, if five minutes can make you shake this much, I don’t think you’d last an hour on a bike.”

His eyes widened, maybe because it was the first time I called him by that name.

"Sorey, I already have your coat. It's pretty warm though I feel guilty taking it."

I could only watch him from beneath dripping lashes. Then without knowing what I was doing, my hands pulled the coat tight around his neck, letting my fingers linger nervously over the unbuttoned collar of it. 

I mumbled that it was partly my fault. If I had taken the colonel’s advice…

He shook his head. “Let’s just get out of this rain, Sorey. The sooner the better.”

We exchanged gazes a little bit awkwardly, letting trickles drivel down our lips and chin. Even in the dull, frigid atmosphere of that sun-grey sky, his beauty drew my eyes and breath to it like it was a sin to look away.

Everything in that moment felt like gravity. I saw his hand reach up to pull off the scarf around his neck. Then he tilted his face up, his hand reaching out toward me. 

We almost collided when we stepped forward to meet each other halfway. I ignored the rain pelting my eyelids just so I could see his face up close. 

His scarf felt warm, but not even close to the burning heat that flared inside of me. When he finally stepped back, I knew it was all over.

It was over for me even before it started to be like this. It was just like that old movie...

He had me at hello.

I couldn't forget the feel of his eyes, his breath on me. If anything my manhood was raging now, and it was only with every bit of self-control left in me that I didn’t shred his uniform right there and then and make a mess of him.

Gods, how he would look all messed up, pupils blown, rippling with ecstasy and lust as he whimpers and moans beneath me. I want to hear him beg in that voice of his, to beg me to take him, to come inside of him and be his completely. My cock persistently throbbed at the thought of it.

Then he shivered, and I cursed myself for forgetting. “I think we might find a suitable shelter here somewhere if we look hard enough…”

“I'm sorry, captain. I’m the one who needs it more so I'm the one who should be handling this problem.”

I was watching his lips as he spoke. I wondered if he could tell how much I was shivering underneath my jacket. But not from the rain or because I've given up my coat.

“I think we're both going to need it,” I told him, daring to inch closer. For one minute I lost all reason to be shy.

He raised an eyebrow as if he didn’t expect that response. “On the other hand, I think you're perfect under any weather... like there's nothing in the world that could ever faze you.”

I swallowed hard, my eyes grazing his eyes, his lips. I’ve never felt this hungry or starved before. He met my gaze unflinchingly.

“Nothing does or ever did,” I told him, catching my breath. “Until you...”

Right at that moment, the whole world seemed to have fallen and disappeared beneath me as I reached out and took him by the collar and kissed him. I felt his hands on my chest as if to push me away, and his lips quivered against mine, in fear or disgust I couldn’t tell.

All I know is I want him, gods, how much I want to taste him, to have him come undone against my hardened cock, my groin that wants to grind itself senseless against his soft, lithe body.

I wouldn’t have known how hard and desperate that kiss was until I tasted blood. I finally let him push me away. I don’t know how this happened, but for the first time in my life, I knew I was in real danger… the kind of danger that makes you want to fall into it headlong without a care.

I knew right away that even with all those years of ruthless killing behind me, there were some things in this universe that could be even more frightening, more painfully cruel, and I wasn't as tough as I made myself believe I was.

 

  o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

Slow regrets

That live in the dark

I wrote them all down

But I know them by heart...

 

I've counted the cost

Of this loneliness

And I've paid for the crime

And one day I'll die

With you in my mind...

 

And I'm falling down

Like it's holy ground

I'm looking for you again

    I'm looking for you again...  

 

-originally by Mathhew Perryman Jones, “Looking for You Again,”

performed by Grecian Urn for Inferno’s Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

20 May 2099

 

... late afternoon, almost evening... after we met at the station

 

By the time we found a shelter it was raining harder, forming a steamy sort of mist that camouflaged the filled-up craters we virtually trudged into as we headed for the smaller buildings among ruins of skyscrapers that hid the horizon from view.

Mikleo was dripping wet, no wetter than I am. He shook the mud off his boots with self-conscious wariness as if he knew I was looking.

The shameless truth was I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off him since he stepped out of that train. And it’s not like I wasn’t expecting the slap that nearly took my head off either, right after that stolen kiss.

Back there, I was clearly in the wrong for assaulting him even if what drove me to be so daring was an intense attraction I’d never felt before. I was also aware that my motives would seem incredulous in the eyes of cold logic. It hadn’t been an hour since Mikleo—the reputable captain of the 9th division—and I met, and under the behest of no less than a common friend and superior, Lieutenant Commander Alisha Diphda.

For having betrayed that trust so quickly not to mention violating standard protocol, I probably deserved a worse punishment. Though to be honest, I wasn't even sorry that I kissed him. Though I had already apologized for my behavior, I couldn’t say I regret what I did.

For the first time in a long while, I realized I still needed… those things. I used to think that my manhood was completely dead or numb to the world. But all it took was one look, one smile, a short conversation under the rain and suddenly, I realized I had needs, urges…

I realized I have deep, desperate hungers that could only be satisfied in bed with another man.

I knew that something inside of me was very much alive and hopelessly craving for something more persuasive than momentary distractions or temporary peace. When I pressed those delicate lips against mine, I realized I still have a heart that could be excited by anything other than the chance to shoot at an enemy target… or a body that could tingle with the faintest hint of a smile... a fleeting shadow of a smile frozen silver in the rain.

I found out that there had been a frustrated yearning inside of me that ached like an open wound, and I was more than just a dispassionate, blood-sucking realist vainly searching for some enlightened insight into the meaning of his meaningless existence.

As if nature had felt betrayed by my sudden change of heart, the smokeless-grey skies above us darkened into a threatening shade of coal that promised a whole night of rain.

It was starting to get depressing. For a minute I wondered what the colonel and the others might think if I didn’t get back by nightfall. Then again, nobody wants to get caught in the night rain up a field where a platoon might be passing through. It’s hard enough to see your hand in front of your face in conditions like these, even harder to discern enemy or friend when the insipid darkness swallows everything in sight—face, uniform, even shadows themselves.

The stupid rule “shoot anything that moves in the dark” makes it even worse, as passwords become virtually useless when the one who’s about to pull the trigger on you hardly remembers the same even if you get it right.

And there’s more to it than just imagined fear. The uncanny stress that the darkness hides is real. It festers in the back of one's mind like ghostly visions… like when that same soldier asking you to identify yourself begins to suspect you’re about to throw a grenade at him, or you intend to jump into the same slit trench so you can shoot him first.

Under duress, the brain stops intellectualizing to the point that there seems to be no room for any other information in your head save your first name and how to fire that weapon in your hand. Soldiers are given codes for the gunner or the FOOs (forward observation officers) to be able to discern friendlies that might step into their line of fire.

But that never works in the middle of confusion and chaos, when every unit is just following one, unspoken rule: keep running, take cover, and shoot.

And the more abominable truth is, you never get to say sorry to the ones who die in front of you. Even if it’s your fault for shooting down your own man, you’re always told it’s not your fault, no, it could never be entirely your fault…

Because getting caught in the cross-fire just means what it does: there are boundaries that should never be crossed at all, and when you do, there’s really no one to blame but yourself. As Colonel Wolverne and the others say, the dead can demand no apologies if the living ain’t got ears for the dead.  

Back when I was in No Man’s Land, freshly varnished crosses marking the open graves of soldiers caught in such horrors were enough to inspire grief and summon churning disgust. The trek through Normandy, then Holland and Germany as a front-liner was easily, in the haphazard memoirs of any World War II veteran, the worst nightmare nobody wanted to write about or even remember.

Halfway through the carnage you see left and right, you start to have mixed feelings about killing as many as you can to end the war tomorrow. This attitude is almost normal for any soldier who’s just had his first taste of killing fatigue in the gun pits where he had experienced shooting rounds continuously for forty-eight hours with neither food nor sleep.

But there comes a point when you start thinking of yourself as a mindless machine being used in a grand conspiracy of sorts that’s no different from a video game. You start wondering where the quit button went to and whether the enemy was even real. Crowded by death every which way you turn, the dead faces of the fallen enemy slowly become a distant memory, and you find yourself unable to dig up enough hate and pride to rouse the feeling of vindication.

Instead, you start asking yourself if the waste was worth it. Fallen church steeples and spires, smashed cathedrals and bell towers might make an architect weep past consolation. But innocent blood spilled in battle—from those who barely knew what life was all about before it was taken from them—gets you thinking what normal people don’t want to ever think about at all.

Where was power when you needed it the most? The power to change things for the good, to change the world for the better? When the gods play deaf, who can the powerless turn to?

Not me. I can only take away the misery of dying, assuage the agony that kills the heart of even the most courageous. The pain that screams in their blood asking me to drink all of their hate, their suffering and heartache during those final moments makes it almost a miracle I hadn’t surrendered to the same madness long ago when I started doing it.

When I look at a human being, I can read his thoughts including all his lies and secrets... not that I want to. When I touch someone, I feel his apprehension, all the anxieties and misgivings he's been trying to push deep down.

When I drink the blood of the dying I soak up not only the disorienting agony that comes from the wounds of the flesh, but also the insurmountable fear that the human soul has to wrestle with before it’s finally freed from its pain... that burning hell of pain that transforms both body and mind into a screaming vessel of undignified hate.

Amidst the storm of shells and mortar, of bombs and gas, I try to find my way through the carnage. Like a crow guarding death’s door, I’d be there among the dying, doing my best to staunch the bleeding and the noise of anguish that tells you that your comrade’s sanity has left him even before his last breath did.

I guess you can say it’s a curse of mine to know exactly when someone’s soul is about to leave this world for whatever’s out there—that one place even I’m not allowed to see. If you start doubting whether humans have souls, you can ask me about it. I’m cursed with the vision of seeing something I myself don’t have, a vision of what I could never have.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to keep my mind about me despite the horrible ordeal of sucking the worst agonies of human life. There must be something I haven’t seen or tasted yet, something about humanity that keeps me alive and hoping for the impossible.

I could go on and on thinking about things I could never change when a slight movement rouses me. I was brusquely reminded that my mind had been wandering again.

Mikleo probably felt I was brooding on that slap I got. He strode past me a little too hurriedly but not before whispering just a little over my shoulder.

“I think I’m going to need a room for myself. I need to get out of this uniform before I freeze to death.”

Mikleo’s profile shone like a mist of light among the shadows, and suddenly, I found myself chasing it. I caught his wrist before he could move more than a step away. And this time I held onto it until he had to turn around to face me.

“Sorey, what are you even—”

I pulled him toward me and started unbuttoning him from the neck down.

“H-hey, I can do that myself—”

“I know you can, but that’s not it,” I told him firmly, not wanting to be convinced otherwise. My arousal has been throbbing senseless since we’ve entered these ruins even as I felt him shiver beneath my fingers. “Let me do it for you, captain, just for tonight…”

Mikleo stared at me as if I’ve completely lost my mind. I was waiting for him to struggle and push me away, maybe even kick at me, but even the slap I was expecting never came.

He sighed a deep one, making a sound that got my attention more than any violence he could have inflicted to protect his honor.

“Can—can you wait just a minute, captain?” His voice mimicked mine though the sarcasm was more subdued than I’ve heard it that day. “I’ve never done this… I mean… it’s not like I’m… I’m rejecting you…”

I looked up and suddenly, I couldn’t help thinking how cute that was. He was frowning in a hurt, confused way that made him look like some inexperienced teenager who couldn’t make up his mind. There were traces of stubborn innocence in his defeated gaze that made me realize he was doing his damnest best to regain some bit of self-composure under my scrutiny.

I could tell easily that the slap he had given me under the rain when I kissed him was nothing more than just an involuntary reaction rather than an absolute warning. Then again, I must be telling myself this for the reason that my body refused to be persuaded by threats.

I realized, too late, that my attraction for the captain had gone past any threshold of decency or self-control that might even try to hold it back. Awakened by the throbbing heat of pure, wild lust, my body seemed to have a mind of its own when I tilted his chin up and kissed him.

He tried to break the kiss, but this time I didn’t—couldn’t let him even try.

I pushed his arm behind him and groaned in his mouth as I wedged my knee between his legs. I could no longer hide the fact that my cock’s been swelling stiff this entire time, making it impossible for him not to see it tenting my pants from under the fringes of my jacket. As I mold my body against his, I was almost sure he could feel my hardened desire right between his legs.

As my tongue grazed his, I couldn’t help grunting my frustration against his breathless lips as my fingers searched for a place to hold him closer. It was impossible not to want him this much, to pass up the chance of making a move on him with his body exuding this kind of sweet-musk and lavender scent that was calling to my blood.

Suddenly my yearning is greedy for more… more of this scent, this closeness, more of his body pressed crushingly against mine, grinding right against my swelling heat, my hot, rigid lust…

I held him by the waist as I pushed my tongue farther inside his mouth, my knee finding the perfect position to grind against his inner thighs. It felt so good my mind was reeling from the pleasure.

I couldn’t care less if there were bombs or shrapnel flying over us, or snipers targeting us from some fallen tower among the ruins.

All I cared about was how Mikleo's awkward inexperience was turning me on. The way his mouth hesitated, the way his teeth got in the way when I tried to move my tongue past it, I felt like roughing him up even more to show him how I intend to ravish this delicious innocence of his. I couldn't help molding myself against his small, lithe body as if my desire was desperate to engrave itself into his memory.

Before I knew it my hands were cupping his back thighs, those round cheeks that filled my palms perfectly as I massaged them, hoping to awaken his arousal as much as he did mine.

I heard him suppress a moan desperately as he pushed me away when my fingers felt for his erection. I was surprised to find the moisture seeping the fabric of his uniform right there, on that point where I was massaging his cock. He gasped when I felt him throb, and his sudden impulse to try and escape me was even more revealing.

His cheeks felt warm as I pulled him by the nape and cradled his head against my shoulder to keep him still while I waited for my own breathing to calm down.

This is bad, I realized it now as his lustful scent pulled me into a trance. I knew I couldn’t live tonight without having him at least once, without marking every inch of his white, lean body. Now more than ever I wanted to thrust my rigid cock into the deepest part of him and make him scream my name... make him beg me to come.

Tonight, I must have him no matter what.

I kissed his silver hair under my chin. We were both panting like crazy... like we’ve just run a mile even though our bodies parted quickly enough before I could do worse things to him. I felt him shiver though his forehead felt so warm against the crook of my neck. I’m sure he could feel my fingers tremble just the same as they traced an invisible line along the slender arch of his nape, loving the smooth feel of his skin warming at my slightest touch.

I wanted to kiss that warmth away, to suck on that innocent, creamy-white skin peeking from the parted collar of his coat. The pure whiteness of it, the tingling scent of it provoked my instinctive urges senseless, filling me with a churning hunger that I haven’t felt for centuries since my awakening, since the time I was reborn as this monster, this soul-less vampire cursed to live through the ages.

No, despite the seduction of both sexes of my kind, I haven’t allowed myself to feel this bitter-sweet temptation, this insane craving that only we, forsaken demons, could ever be truly capable of.   

I knew right then that this was it... the urge that drove troves of vampires to madness more than ten centuries ago when I fought every single one of them. 

It could only be this… the forbidden hunger I was told to be wary of, though I was supposed to be immune to it, even if a pureblood might offer him or herself to me.

I’ve been told that it was one of those things that make me different. I suppose almost everyone thought I was the perfect warrior because unlike others, I have no natural mate. Or rather, there's no vampire out there who possesses the type of blood that resonates with mine.

You may think of resonance among vampires as almost similar to romance, just that it's a little too intense for comfort. It comes to a point that one is compelled to obey only the will of his mate, which ultimately binds him to his or her side as the chosen, the eternal partner and lifelong companion that a vampire must hold above everything and everyone else, against all odds.

And while human romance traverses the thin line between lust and love, ours think nothing of these boundaries. The irresistible attraction a vampire feels for another is like a forbidden fruit that once tasted consumes all of him. Like poison, it seeps into the very marrow of one’s being, killing one’s will and sometimes even sanity.

But there is that one strain of poison among vampires, which they say resonates with any kind of blood, whether vampire or human. It’s almost ironic that the mythical beast that possesses this kind of enchantment, the power to draw out one’s rabid lust toward it, is called an untouchable. It's an overused name you've probably heard before, and your guess is as good as mine as to the logic behind that name.

An untouchable's capacity to induce obsessive desire is one-sided

An untouchable is so-named because it is an unfeeling, indifferent creature incapable of loyalty or affection.

An untouchable chooses no one and belongs to no one. Much worse, this sort of vampire is said to be capable of killing its mate in the heat of lovemaking.

To be honest, in my twenty centuries with the living, I’ve never really seen or met one in my life. Before I’ve become part of the Ravendalf clan, I was a mercenary who’d kill my own kind for a good reason and a good price. Sometimes, the former did not even matter.

By the end of the French Revolution—perhaps the single, most important historical event to inspire our kind to formulate similar principles of equality, of law and order based on rational and moral standards—the Ravendalfs had commissioned me to help bring about the creation of a permanent system of law and order within our race.

The grand scheme was to unite everyone under a single rule of law, a power that would force the world to recognize the existence of a single vampire nation, as awkward as that sounded then.

The concept of race must be complicated, I realized. Races race against each other, as if the race to the top is all that matters. And leaving everyone else behind is all that counts. 

Killing bullshit, I knew that the personal implications of that command were hardly noble: I was to participate in a war that might settle the question as to who must lead this godawful nation they want to proclaim to the world. It was purely a political question, a matter of who's strong enough, or efficient and effective enough to rally everyone under one banner—under one, binding law and authority.

Getting there was long and hard. Lives were sacrificed, alliances were tested, trust and betrayal broke them and reforged them.

The early 1800s saw the rise of a new order.

This single power came to be known as the Throne.

To say the least I didn’t need any other motivation to kill vampires save the fact that the bastards had turned me against my will. These shadows of darkness had awakened me into something I've never dreamed of becoming. The fact that these depraved monsters could and had, in fact, wreaked havoc throughout history may invite human societies to view this protracted civil war among our kind as more than favorable to human survival.

The matter about the Throne—the dream of a single vampire nation under one law and one ruler—was just another reason to exterminate the underworld scum that I loathe. 

Like I always say, if it’s cold-blooded murder they want, I’m here to slaughter. I need no highfalutin reason or purpose to make the task more acceptable to someone who has felt from the very beginning that vampires should never have been awakened or given the chance to breathe.

As things would have it, the wars left only three families standing behind the ruling clan: the Houses of Ravencrowe, Ravenwolfe, and Ravendalf. Each was named according to its vital link to the underworld monarchy, the ruling order that was to govern the vampire nation in this hell on earth.

Irony of ironies the power struggles I had thought would bring about our eventual downfall only strengthened the very same existence I’ve been wanting to end.  

More than half a millennia had passed, and if you could call those years peaceful by the absence of war, maybe they were. But peace is never without its dis-contents. I guess peace is also tiring, nothing more than a temporary distraction. Maybe the real nature of human existence is that it can't do without war and adversity. Three hundred years must have been long enough for peace to be tolerable. It was then that I was summoned for an extraordinary undertaking.

By this time, the Throne had already firmly established itself as the one, rightful, sovereign power to rule over the vampire underworld. It was dominated by the purebloods, the first vampires ever to walk the earth, and who logically must have discovered the secrets to triggering the awakening of so many others, the first generation of which had simply and awkwardly been called firstbloods.

It was the purebloods, or rather the House of Derrilvion, which had me summoned to speak before the Council of Elysia, and for which I was forced to return from a long retirement. The Elysians are an orthodox group made up of the most powerful figures in the world—an elite circle of masters acknowledged for their gifts and abilities, their genius and influence in the realm of business and politics. They’re the herald-gods of the underworld, the unholy senate who passes judgment on how things ought to be in the world of humans and demons. Nothing gets out or gets done without their sanction and approval.

So it was from them that I learned how a fatal mutation had spread among the firstbloods, creating a dangerous breed of vampires, a preying cannibalistic breed that hunt down and feed on purebloods alone.

As the Masters of the Throne, the purebloods conceive of any threat to their existence as a threat to the existence of all vampires. There are many layers to the binding power and authority behind the Throne, which not only applies to the purebloods but to all vampires who have ever existed. For one, there is the absolute law, the Primus Codex—the unholy bible and foundation of the vampire underworld. The same is enforced by the so-called Windstalkers, the official law enforcement unit of the underworld and the ones tasked with the arrest of those charged with crimes in the Elysian courts.

I don’t know exactly how the courts decide each case, but there seems to be a lot of resemblance with current judiciary systems anywhere else. Each court is made up of a tribunal consisting of a judge addressed as Justice, and a jury that gives its verdict. Crime and punishment are defined within the bounds of the Primus Codex and the unbreakable will of the orthodoxy that operates behind the Throne itself. As an overarching principle though, only those who rightly claim jurisdiction over the accused and the subject of the crime may exercise the power to grant pardons and amnesty, or commute sentences whenever the reason and the need arise.

The matter of jurisdiction is itself an issue fraught with ugly tensions from which most political conflicts have taken root. It's a question of authority and power... who gets to say who's guilty and under which law his punishment must be determined. This sounds theoretical, but it's really practical if you think about it. I can give you one crude example: imagine a vampire committing homicide in London when he and the victim happen to be both New Yorkers. Definitely the Elysian Courts of London and New York would have to decide which of them has the proper authority to try the case.

The problem becomes a little bit more complex if you have a New Yorker vampire in London committing the same crime against humans and vampires in that city. You're up against both human and vampire courts fighting over the matter of jurisdiction over the case. Since the existence of vampires is not exactly public knowledge, the Elysian courts may have to negotiate ways of dealing with the matter at hand.   

The bigger problem, however, lies elsewhere. It's possible that these so-called authorities resist submitting to anybody else's authority when the law they seek to uphold starts working against them. I've only heard rumors of it, but it seems the Union, before it separated into territories which allied themselves either with the League or the Confederate, was the first to ever challenge and taint the sovereign power of the Throne when it pronounced one pureblood an enemy of the Union and had him executed by means unacceptable to the Elysian Council and the High Tribunal.  

The simple truth is that oppression creates the very structures of its own oppression... and that the use and abuse of power can actually shatter the foundations of even the most formidable of empires. You have Europe to thank for that too.

In our case, it started with the Windstalkers.

More specifically known back then as the so-called guardians of the underworld, the Windstalkers are a breed on their own. They're winged vampires endowed with other extraordinary strengths and abilities that set them apart from other firstbloods. Their superior strength made them ideal for the task reserved for them by the purebloods, which as you might have already guessed had to do with providing protection for the Throne, the House of Derrilvion, the Elysian Council, and the High Tribunal, all of which were made up of purebloods themselves.

Unfortunately, with the mutation spreading among the firstbloods, the Windstalkers lost the support of the very masters whom they sought to serve. Their demotion eventually led to demoralization and stagnation, which quickly eroded relations between the two. 

You can imagine the feeling of betrayal on both sides and the consequences that follow when ties of trust and loyalty are broken beyond consolation.

Exterminating the Windstalkers was far from an easy task. Most, if not all, were from the House of Ravenwolfe, by far the strongest of the three clans. Nevertheless, the two remaining houses—the Ravencrowe and Ravendalf clans—had to work together to suppress the Rebellion, the first stage of which involved the rise of the Windstalkers against the powers behind the Throne.

Sarcasm aside, I never thought fighting human bats could be so difficult. I guess the unique abilities that mark each breed of vampires are not so much imbued in the blood as more a matter of which dominant component has been awakened. Given that only the masters of the Throne and its secret societies possess the key to the true nature of this awakening, there's no true, common knowledge ever written or recorded to explain how vampires even came to exist.

Even among vampires, the mere desire to take hold of such knowledge is taboo of the highest order, a crime punishable by death.

That aside, the matter of conviction and punishment is left in the hands of the Elysian Council and the High Tribunal, which ultimately decides cases appealed to it from the Council. Similar with human laws, killing among vampires in any other case is lawless, a crime of the highest order, taken up and decided by the same courts.

Arguably, it is to this tradition of utmost secrecy regarding the awakening that vampires owe their survival through the centuries. It seems obvious that both humans and vampires—or those which have been targeting the purebloods—can never hope to annihilate a race that lives by the sheer will of the Throne. To accomplish such a feat requires conspiracy and betrayal of the most hideous kind within the Throne and the House of Derrilvion itself, which alone had the capacity to impart the secrets of our existence, the very conditions that make us both mortal and immortal.

It follows that no power can ever hope to rise against these faceless masters who have established the very foundations of the boundless vampire underworld. The absolute law of the Throne and the subservience to it of the strongest among us should be more than enough to overcome any odds that might threaten the power and position of the purebloods. As progenitors, they are treated like gods who have given rise to the first generation of vampires ever to walk the face of the earth with the rest of the human world, the firstbloods.

Even I cannot begin to suspect how and to what extent the purebloods’ power has seeped into the very fiber of our being. Our capacities are most likely borne of machinations favorable to the existence of the Throne, in the interest of perpetuating its power.

It’s clear that the ruling clan of purebloods, the House of Derrilvion to be exact, which governs the entire vampire underworld and wields influence on every powerful government and nation on the map, has already set in stone the terms and conditions of our very existence. Undeniably, they have only one guiding principle to shape all others, and that is the belief that we are a superior race borne to inherit the earth.

This explains how every single vampire owes its very existence and survival to the purebloods. To these original monsters, these progenitors, every vampire owes allegiance, service, unconditional obedience, and absolute loyalty. To them they owe the carving of the nation in history and in almost every area of human life in all the known corners of the world today.

In other words, the battles I’ve fought back then, which eventually earned me the title and reputation I now have as one of the knight-commanders of the only legitimate Guardian clan left standing after the Third Stage, were all part of a simulated war between and among the members of the House of Derrilvion and the tainted firstbloods. One must understand that the crux and center of vampire politics revolves around the one and only essence of a vampire’s source of loyalty—the clan. And clans are unique in themselves for unlike human cultures, ours are never held together by blood ties.

But that doesn’t explain exactly why vampires have hardly changed through the ages—why they continue with the seemingly obsessive-compulsive need to annihilate any vampire breed or organization out there should it dare to live outside the control and authority of the Throne.

Maybe the real reason is different from what I understand, but what I do understand is really quite simple and makes just as much sense.

Vampires only mate, they never procreate. They can’t increase their own line by giving birth so they never had to fear annihilation for reasons of self-preservation or the continuity of the race. Since vampires do not increase their numbers by reproduction but rather by awakening latent vampires spread in the existing human population, survival lies in the hands of the purebloods who control that awakening.

It's both primitive and grandiose, the way this system evokes the principle of might means right and kill or be killed. A vampire who ceases to function in accord with the law is always replaceable, and no one is an absolute asset to the race unless one has the capacity to trigger the mysterious awakening

On the other hand, something about this way of life almost sounds romantic as it writes us off as creatures whose loyalties are governed by natural law, an instinctive compulsion to preserve its kind, and not by need or any concept of commitment. Vampires need not be burdened, as humans are, by the moral compass of raising a family and ensuring survival by such means.

Bonds are based on simple loyalties, which include absolute faith and trust in the clan and in one’s chosen partner... a chosen unshackled by obligations and duties to raise a family or create a home.

So partners are lifetime choices... though choice is, as I've said, determined by the natural law of our bodies, the primal urges of our blood, and not by conscious intentions or free will. In the same vein, lifetime connotes permanence. Our unchanging capacities seem to go with our immortal natures... a consistency written in our blood that makes aberrations, irregularities, randomness, and unpredictability repulsive.   

Quite conveniently, vampires can, and are allowed to, mate rabidly with others of their kind whenever that instinct is aroused. Rape, violence, the perverted wants and needs that, to the human world, are considered crimes do not warrant condemnation among vampires.

There is nothing to condemn in what is innate and inherent, a species-specific trait restricted only by an encompassing natural law that cannot be defied. 

To make it simple, we are animals through and through. But even among animals, some partnerships subsist beyond mating and sexual urges, since their carnal lusts are seasonal rather than voluntary as in the human world. Some eagles cannot bond with any other when their chosen mates die. They only have one mate, which they pair with until old age and their eventual demise.

I guess the only difference between this behavior and that of vampires is the addition of what can be called resonance.

Vampires must resonate naturally to become a pair.

This could only mean that, no matter how powerful the lust is, the sexual attraction binding a vampire to his mate is a weaker connection, something a chosen may or is allowed to feel for others besides his mate.

On the other hand, resonance binds him to his chosen exclusively. Whoever a vampire mates with can't even measure up to, or equal the bond he has for his own chosen partner with whom that resonance is exclusively felt.

For a pair of chosens then, it's the resonance more than the lustful craving that fixes the bond permanently, surpassing all other attachments.

It's as if to say one can be bound by death and destiny, as much as by love and happiness. For vampires, death and destiny outweigh the other two. A vampire would choose his mate over anyone or anything until his final moment of annihilation. 

And annihilation, as the Throne commands, must be an act of justice that's beyond hate and malice. This makes the immortality myth even more amusing.

We are immortal among humans (if you leave out their sophisticated weapons of annihilation) but not among ourselves. When you realize how the insect world thinks about the human world, about the fact that none of their superfluous attacks could ever be enough to kill or drive away the giant human pest that’s invading and destroying their world with such insulting ease, you’d realize that the situation is really no different for vampires living among humans.

Put in another way, it’s not that vampires are truly invincible—immortal creatures who alone have evolved far enough to be able to cheat and defy death. Rather, it’s a fact that only vampires have the means to annihilate and suppress their own kind naturally. Maybe things have changed with current developments in military warfare that focused on the use of technology to annihilate entire populations. But when it comes to what's naturally possible without the help of these artificial tools, vampires should have reason to fear only their own kind. 

The irony is that the secret to our survival is as basic as it gets in the case of human societies. Vampires also depend on such things as power, loyalty, tradition, and keeping their faith in the strongest among them. After all, it has always been the duty of the strongest to guarantee, under any circumstances, the survival of its race against any threat that may subvert the rules of law and order in order to dominate absolutely.

But if after all this, you think that vampires can easily die in the hands of another, then you might ask yourself how we’ve come to survive centuries of war without suffering complete annihilation in the hands of the purebloods, who, by all means enjoy the most power among the highest ranks in the underworld. I guess you have to think about this too… why can’t I ask another vampire to kill me if I wanted to die so badly?

It’s not that death is a mystery among our kind. The awakening of a vampire into his second self—the monster he might not have ever wanted to become—determines the laws of his own existence. In our blood is written not only the limits of our way of life, but even the manner by which we can die.

And as the worst among the cursed race of shadow walkers, I’m the only one who has yet to meet the one who has the power to kill me.

In order for me to die I need someone who has an innate capacity to surpass me and kill me. And among hundreds and thousands I had fought through the centuries, I found none who held the key, the ultimate curse to fulfill my death wish.

And self-extermination or suicide is an act among vampires that is just as imbued with superstition and taboo as suicide is, in human societies. The instinct of a vampire for self-preservation is intense, perhaps even more intense than it is among humans, for we leave no legacy when we die. Should vampires decide to annihilate themselves all at once, no vampire would survive.

I guess our inability to reproduce encompasses the fears but also the power and authority of the whole empire: all it takes to eradicate our race is to ensure that there's no one left to awaken anyone into this monster that we are.

And this puts the purebloods on a higher plane than any other vampire. We need purebloods to awaken others into vampires.

Without them, we may survive, but it is a survival that depends on escaping annihilation by all means, as no new vampires would ever rise without the purebloods' mysterious gift... the curse of awakening.

From here, it's quite easy to see how loyalty among vampires is everything. Nothing binds us to each other save the simple fact that we need each other in order to live and to die. And that explains why anyone who questions the laws of the Throne are dealt without mercy, as if the mere thought of being free from the shackles of this existence is itself a crime.

Vampires have very few secrets. I guess the problem is that only a mere handful also know what they are. Even the secret to dying is fraught with superstitions that only compound the mystery and the myth...    

I couldn’t think further than that on this occasion, though. Mikleo’s eyes were avoiding mine, and it was easy to see how he was having misgivings without saying as much as a single word. 

I guess my impatient lust was not amenable to overthinking the reason for his shyness or evasiveness, whichever the real case may be. Rather than discouraging myself, I’d rather treat his silence as a normal reaction to what I’ve just impulsively done and what he must think I’m about to do.

When I’ve finally gotten my body to calm down, I had in mind the chance to try something more daring, to do what I had hoped to do after that kiss. But a light yet visible touch on my chest stopped me midway, making me aware of his intention to stay the distance between us.

I hesitated, pushing lightly against his hand to test his resolve. Keeping his eyes to the floor, Mikleo shook his head.    

“Seriously, don't you think we have better things to worry about? I’m sure it’s going to get colder and darker soon with that brewing storm outside.”

I tried to smile. I’m in heat, and my body has been aching to grind itself against him. It’s hard enough to try to speak in the middle of my aroused state without stuttering my way through every word like a complete idiot, even harder to think of anything but my pulsating manhood that’s been tingling painfully to be relieved.

As for Mikleo, he seems calm and composed enough save for the breathless rush of his words and the faint fog coming out of his mouth when he spoke.

I guess he was right as the view outside the window seemed to portend. I scoured the room with half-dazed eyes, wondering if we’re safe enough in these ruins. Apart from a few spider-web cracks on the walls, the room didn’t look as crestfallen or battered as the rest of the other buildings we’ve passed.

In fact the low ceiling and peach-colored walls, not to mention the few modest, yet ornate furniture that sparsely decorated it, gave the room a rather cozy feel to it.

That just about reminded me that the rooms and hallways on the ground floor that we’ve checked before coming up here had scraps of broken wooden furniture that we could probably use for firewood. Hopefully, I’d find enough to last us ‘til morning.

My gaze wandered to the hearth in the dead corner of the room to which Mikleo had retreated, eyes meditatively pondering something. From the looks of it, the hearth seemed intact and begging to be lit. My wayward thoughts saw Mikleo sprawled right in front of the cackling fire, his attractively slender, temptingly nude beauty sparsely covered by a stark, white blanket that indecently exposed him from his chest down to his lower hips.

In my imagination, his silver hair and his white, white body were illuminated by the romantic glow of dying embers casting faint flickers of light on every inch of him.

Every damn inch of his naked, perfect beauty, which should feel just as perfect against my lips... my tongue... my mouth.

I guess I was crazy. Gods, we’re in a room in some dark, abandoned place among ruins, and I was having illicit thoughts of Mikleo in various positions that couldn’t make me harder than I already was. Those lucid fantasies screamed inside my body, practically begging me to make a move on him. Given the chance, I knew I’d strip myself faster than lightning and grab him under those sheets with nothing in mind but to make a mess of—

“We’ll need firewood. Maybe that’s easier to get downstairs with all the wooden clutter we’ve knocked around on the way here.”

I vaguely nodded. More than the real, urgent need to scavenge for supplies, Mikleo must be in desperate want of privacy. I knew the suggestion was more an indirect request for me to look for firewood so I wouldn’t be around to watch him strip out of that wet uniform.

Suddenly I had an idea and threw myself on the four-poster bed right next to me, not worrying about sending clouds of dust flying off the shriveled duvet and the creaking mattress underneath. I wanted to test if it could hold my weight—our weight—but my actions must have been too shameless for the self-composed, straight-faced captain of the 9th division that he scooted into the farthest corner of the room between the hearth and the window—as if to tell me I was a rabid wolf he needed to get away from.

He looked so shy, so self-conscious I wanted to laugh. Mikleo was looking out the window when he spoke.

“Let’s meet here a little later after we’ve searched the other rooms. I’m sure to find something useful if I look around.”

I shook my head. “Just stay put, all right? I’ll be the one to go and look for anything useful. After all, it’s my duty to take care of you.”

“Don’t take Alisha seriously. She’s such a worry-wart when it comes to—”

“I’m not doing it for her. It’s bad enough that you’re soaked to the bone, all right? Try to keep yourself warm ‘til I get back. Besides,” I hastened to add since he was giving me that look which warned me that he’s being stubborn now and is about to argue, “I’ve been around these ruins myself. That gives me a better chance of avoiding potential risks… more than a newcomer at least.”

His eyes barely shifted from the view outside the window, but I could tell he was considering what I said seriously. I heard him sigh softly.

“I’d really prefer if you’d let me help, but you do have a point there. There’s nothing more I hate than being rescued from my own stupid blunder.”

I couldn’t help smiling despite the insinuation. “Captain Rulay, I'd never dare insult you by suggesting such an abominable thing—”

“Shut it, Captain Ravendalf. Don’t patronize me.” He sounded stern, but his eyes seemed amused as he cast a sidelong glance at me.

“You’re beautiful even when you’re upset.”

“That’s an understatement," he said matter-of-factly, in a way that hardly sounded like teasing even if he were. "I’m perfect even when I’m upset.”

I took that as a hint and strode toward him, my breath catching.

He caught my stare and tried to look away as I reached for his waist and held him there.

“Be careful, Sorey. I’d hate it even more if I have to rescue my own escort.”

My defenses melted away when he said that. I shrugged off the warning and grinned at him as I nuzzled his cheek. My cock has been twitching like crazy, but I kept my composure. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by acting like some crazed animal in heat the way I did in the rain a while ago.

The window, which luckily was completely intact, showed an angry sky streaked with occasional bursts of lightning. I knew right away that in an hour or two at the most, we’d be steeped in total darkness. I pulled out something from my breast pocket and handed it to Mikleo.

“It’s a flashlight not an engagement ring, though I wish it were.”

Mikleo caught the joke that I half-seriously intended, even if it were inappropriate at this point.

“Seriously, you’ll be needing that pretty soon. At least I’d be able to find my way back to you somehow in case you decide to go anywhere—which I hope you wouldn't.”

He turned it on and off then slipped it into his coat pocket. I gave him a confused look.

“We still have to save on power. We don’t know if we can get out of here before morning.”

I felt my heart skip a beat. Was he looking forward to being trapped here with me all night? Not that the situation hasn’t made it obvious enough. I was almost certain my mind was looking for some motivation, a reason to believe I’m not the only one who wanted this to happen.

But that aside, there were far more urgent considerations that could’ve pushed anyone to the same logical course of action. For example, the field between this and the base was flat and bare, littered with empty shells, scrap metal, and rotting carcass in shallow graves. Gun pits and slit trenches were certain to be almost everywhere, most likely spread across distances of fifty yards from each other, and though they might be a little less hard to spot on a clear day, stormy nights would certainly make the odds so much bleaker.

I almost sigh to that and wonder how I could afford to think of anything other than danger. I could almost imagine how the air outside must ripple with the stomach-wrenching stench of decay coming from the remains of animals and cattle left to rot under the sun and rain. While most of the bodies of fallen soldiers would be hauled into shallow, make-shift graves after an encounter, those that were trapped among the ruins would have been abandoned to all sorts of predators lurking in the wild, including the occasional wolf or wild dog or even large birds of prey.

It didn't seem unlikely that some bodies might even be buried a few feet right below us. For some reason I got curious about what these ruins were originally before the bombing. From outside, I recognized what apparently was a fenced garden rooftop overrun by wildflowers and a thick undergrowth of vines and brambles. Alongside it was a sign that miraculously stayed intact, just a bit rusty along the edges.

The sign read Inferno’s Ballad.

It didn't sound bad at all. In fact it's a name that's about to stick to me for centuries... a name imbued with so many unforgettable memories.

But at that moment, memories of a different kind pervaded me, memories of my addiction for strong, black coffee that filled my nostrils and made me heady. It’s not like I actually drink coffee… I just really love the raw, mind-rousing fragrance of freshly brewed, ground coffee. It might be weird to some, but I used to have the habit of ordering a cup of the finest coffee in town without the least intention of drinking it.

Those memories had been triggered by some uncanny instinct of mine telling me that the place Mikleo and I had found must have been a café once, or maybe an inn that also served as a diner for local patrons. That must have been the reason why on our way up the second floor, we spied a roomful of broken chairs and tables and lots of glass.

Compared to the ground floor where that was, it's easy to guess that the upper floor must have been reserved for special customers, since there seems to be a great deal of carved furniture and framed pictures all around the place aside from the thicker carpeting and the curtained, queen-size beds that dwarfed everything else.

As I tried to ignore the imposing yet tempting presence of that huge bed right in the middle of the room, I realized that Mikleo had been quietly staring at a framed picture. Seeing his eyes so focused on just that one thing as if the rest of the world had disappeared beneath his feet, I couldn't help but fall deeper.

There's something adorable in the way his features glow when he's thinking deeply like that, as if a soldier can afford to be dead to the world at any point in his waking life.

Not that I mind. A deep, aching part of me wanted to keep that vision of him alive and permanent, stored in a secret place where no one could taint it.

I smiled and pushed deep down the urge to tell Mikleo he could stay like that as much as he wanted, for as long as I’m around to keep him safe. My more practical self, though, wanted to ask why he wouldn’t use the flashlight I’ve just given him. Despite the somber shadows all around us, he seemed curious enough to want to inspect the painting with only the occasional light from the window affording me glimpses of it.

“It’s a miniature imitation of the Spoliarium, I guess.” It seemed as if he was speaking to himself.

I laughed. He turned to look at me.

“It just seems ironic to find something like that here," I explained. "It’s a picture of death and suffering in a gladiator’s arena, isn’t it?”

“Hardly anyone’s heard of it, actually, but you’re right.”

I thought I saw his eyes glimmer with a hint of admiration. Or maybe I was just hoping for it.

He sighs with a wistful look in his eyes. “I was lucky enough to see the original in a museum in Spain a few years ago when I was visiting. It was a few months before the war. I couldn’t rid myself of guilt back then for appreciating the beauty of such senseless cruelty.”

I gave it some thought. “There’s no cruelty that makes sense. At least from what I’ve seen so far.”

“You're right, I suppose,” he whispers regretfully. “But what's really interesting was that the one who painted it was probably pointing that out himself. Spain didn’t achieve as much grandeur as Rome or England when it agreed with Portugal to divide the world between them—but in any case, the original painter was a member of a political group that was fighting Spain for their country’s independence when he decided to enter this painting in one of the most prestigious art competitions in Spain and Europe at that time. As irony would have it, he took the grand prize.”

I sighed to that. Although history and the arts were fascinating subjects in themselves, I found myself admiring the speaker more than anything else. I love the way Mikleo's eyes light up his face when he talks. I love the way they shine with a sort of serene seriousness as if he's pondering some secret, sublime mystery...

Most of all, I love the smile in his eyes meeting his lips when he finds something amusing or unexpectedly funny. 

I drew a deep breath, forcing my thoughts to stick to the subject. “The competition was in Madrid, if I remember correctly. And considering the politics of the times, so it would seem that the masters did nothing but exhibit the silent truth behind their own handiwork. Not that conquest or imperialism can ever be anything but abusive. But letting such masterpiece be perceived as art rather than as a sarcastic commentary on their own place in history is much like denying the insult that was apparently being thrown to their faces.”

Mikleo’s frown looked a little pained, as if he had considered that as well but didn’t want his thoughts confirmed so directly. “I guess that’s always an option. There are those who pride themselves on winning psychological battles that do not have to be fought on equal terms. Then again, when had war and fighting truly been equal among those who always believed they would win?”

That was quite unexpected. Captain Luzrov Rulay must be the brooding, introspective type of thinker, a natural philosopher maybe, which was a rare quality on its own among us men in uniform.

He gave me another sidelong glance before turning his attention to the uninspiring view outside the window. “Leaders do that a great deal, don’t they? They exist to deny the reality they’re creating but didn’t want to fight for with their bare hands. They get others killed instead… happy slaves who throw their lives for the sake of a foolish dream they won’t even see.”

Well, that just about confirmed my initial impression. In fact, I couldn’t help falling for him even more when I realized that.

As the atmosphere was already depressing enough, I tried not to approach the subject as seriously as I would have liked. He seemed to be patiently waiting for me to speak.

“Know what? I learned not to expect too much from those who command us from above,” I told him easily, trying to be nonchalant and cool about it. “I mean, they’re god—in more ways than one. I don’t think it’s my place to question their authority unless I intend to take their place and tie all the loose ends that got everything in this world twisted like this.”

His eyes shifted back to the bleak view of the skies and the horizon outside the window. “To rid the world of that power… don’t you wonder how it feels to try it even once?”

I couldn’t pretend I didn’t hear those words leave his lips like some vague regret or wishful thinking. Back then I considered it as nothing more than a careless afterthought, nothing that I could have used to predict what was about to happen in the future...

I flopped down the bed, my arms folded at the back of my head to cushion it. I seemed to have made him uncomfortably self-conscious by lying down, which honestly only amused me even more. When he looked away quickly I chuckled soundly, making him turn my way.

“You’re really cold, aren’t you?” 

I didn't know how tense he was until he looked down and sideways to avoid meeting my gaze. I fall in love with his profile whenever he shows that angle that emphasizes the strong arch of his jaw carefully balanced by his soft cheekbones and the sophisticated curve of his chin.

“I don’t know how you define that.”

It was a denial that made me realize what my question might have meant. I couldn’t really blame him for reading the sexual innuendos there. After all, given what I had just boldly done, I was hardly what you’d call innocent either. More than that, I barely understood how his nervousness was making me excited, as if his fear was an aphrodisiac of sorts begging every part of my body to make a mess of him.

“You’ve seen a lot, haven’t you?” His question sounded sadder than he might have intended it.

“That depends on what you mean.” For some reason, I needed to point out I wasn't the only one being vague here.

“A lot of the war, the world, maybe even women and men in general?”

“I think I like the sound of the last part.”

“You like men a lot I can see that.”

“And you?” I sat up quickly, making the bed creak with an awful sound, like a banshee in heat.

He averted his face and I can see his profile again. The soft, graceful shape of those pouting lips just made me ache even more, making me admit how much every inch of me quivered to touch and kiss every inch of him.

“I’m not so sure.”

I got up, and in the next second I was cupping his face and kissing him deep and hard. I dared push my tongue inside his mouth, letting the weight of my jaw push him back until his hand went to the wall behind him to support his weight against mine. I realized I was pressing him hard when he stumbled backwards, chest heaving as his back slammed against the wall.

He tilted his face toward me, and at that moment all I knew was how beautiful his eyes were… how they seem to shine with a flutter of childish confusion like I was some beast in a fairy tale about to snatch him by the throat.

“Sorey…”

I breathed a kiss on his ear. “I love the sound of my name when you say it.”

“Sorey… I…” he moaned against my shoulder.

I lost it. I pressed myself against him to make him feel what his body and his voice had the power to do to me.

I couldn’t help grinding against him a little even when my cock was hard and hungry for more. It’s the worst torture I had to endure in my life—much worse than being trapped in a slit trench with German tanks firing a mere hundred yards away, shells and mortars wheezing right above me like a gazillion flies, as if the enemy was about to win the war right there and then.

I groaned out my frustration as my hands tried to pull off his belt.

He stopped my hand with widened eyes.

“Mikleo…” I panted, my choked whisper rumbling desperately at the back of my throat. “I’d be honest with you. I want to fuck your brains out… I want to rip your clothes off and make love to you right here... right here against this wall, anywhere… please…”

I felt him shudder. “Officer…”

“Shut it. I’m dying to get laid and make you feel good... and I’m not asking for your permission either, captain.”

"I hate insubordination."

"Me too. But not when I'm the one doing it."

He pushed me away more insistently this time. “We just met. How can you treat me like a whore?”

“I’ve never been with whores. And there’s been no other man or woman either.”

He gave me a strange look of utter disbelief. “You’re a bad liar.”

“I promise to be good after this.”

“Don’t joke with me Captain Raven—”

“Don’t dare call me that. It’s just Sorey from now on. No strict formalities, remember?”

“You’re quoting me, I see.”

“Yeah, you bet.” I told him smoothly, my mind still reeling from that kiss. I felt the sudden urge to pull him closer, but something caught my attention.

I could see he was hiding the shiver beneath his wet uniform. Without a second thought, I marched to the bed and threw back the covers. The lining underneath must be worth salvaging.

“Here, wrap yourself in this. You’re gonna pass out in this cold if you don’t get rid of that.”

I couldn’t tell if his shudder was brought about by the seeping cold or the firmness in my voice. After all, I’d never been so worried about anyone in a personal way. My concern over my men as a captain felt different from this… this nagging feeling that made my chest hurt with every intake of breath as I watched him take the blanket with a moment’s hesitation.

If I could be honest, all I wanted to do was to keep him close, to pull him toward me and never let go. I didn’t know back then if he were a vampire like myself—that suspicion hadn’t left me since I felt this urge to be with him, to mate with him in ways that betray too much those instincts that only vampires should be able to arouse in each other.

Not like it mattered, even though that sounded careless and insane. All I could think of was that I wouldn’t be able to be myself until I’ve tasted him, had ravished him in the way only my blood knew how. And for the longest time, I’ve asked myself that question… why I haven’t been carnally seduced or tempted into mating with anyone before… even in those orgies that all vampires, without exception, helplessly submit themselves to.

Even the ones already bound or mated to their chosen—vampires paired with their eternal companions—could not resist their primal lust, their wanton need for sexual gratification that defies all known limits.

As for myself, I’ve never felt that thirst, that hunger… I’ve never been persuaded by the calling of the flesh to lose my way in such morbid pleasures.

But that time was different. I wanted only him.

As if my desire called out to him, Mikleo turned to face me. “How about you? You’re just as wet as I am.”

I dared match his gaze as his lids fluttered at me innocently. “I am wet… but I’ll think of something else to keep me warm when I get back.”

He looked away, face flushed, as if reading another of my innuendos. He couldn’t meet my gaze when his mouth opened a little to say something, his breath forming a mist between us.

“On the other hand, we might just dry ourselves like this before the fire. I don’t think it’s necessary or even practical to be standing bare under the sheets when it gets colder—”

I didn’t let him finish. Before I knew what my hand was doing, I grabbed him by the collar and began stripping him with an urgency that almost scared me myself.

Mikleo tried to tear himself away, but my hand was quicker. My arm entwined itself around his waist as my primal urge slammed his defenseless body against the wall. With my other hand I started tearing at the buttons of his jacket and everything else underneath that.

He tried to push against me the third time, but his struggle was nothing against my determination to see him naked. My mind's filled with nothing but the desire to touch and feel the creamy smoothness of him with my lips, my tongue... with my entire body that’s been burning since the moment I laid eyes on him.

By the time I realized how madly aroused I was, I've scratched and bruised him with the way my nails dug into his skin as I fought his futile resistance. I wasn't ready to accept that he wasn't a vampire by the time I got him naked from the chest to the waist as I began tugging off his belt.

He tried to wrench my hands away in panic, but his efforts wavered as my mouth traveled all the way down from his lips, to his chin, his collarbone, to the nipples that stood at attention when I licked them without mercy. I pulled him by the waist as I knelt down in front of him to suck at the soft folds of his stomach, that lean yet gentle contour of flesh that made me want to grind into him until he begs for it. But of course, I had my eyes on something more tempting, something hot and flushed and rigid down there…

I pulled the rest of that darn belt with my teeth and threw it on the floor with the rest of his discarded uniform. He tried to push my face away as my fingers pried the zip of his pants.

When his manhood leapt in front of me out of the undergarments I pushed down his hips, a heavy grunt escaped me, and from there I became deaf to his pleas. I took all of him in my mouth, sucking him off right there and then as my fingers began to pump the base of his cock up and down in a frenzied rhythm.

I could hear his choked moans begging me to stop, but I couldn’t make myself stop. I slid his urgent need out of my mouth not out of exhaustion or to give him a moment’s rest, but to lick the sweet, liquid fire of his own desire responding to my stimulation. I flicked my tongue against the crown of his manhood throbbing against my lips, sensual and stimulating. Grunting my desire, I let my tongue travel from the tip down to the base of his shaft, giving it light, fluid strokes.

He trembled, and my own stiffness swelled. I was sure to drink every drop of him... every drop of sweetness that only fueled my urges.

When I heard him mumble my name like a prayer, I decided that we both wanted this. I pried him open, pumping him to the slow rhythm of my lips and my tongue sliding back and forth against his shivering cock. If Mikleo were in pain it wasn’t clear as his painful moans accompanied the slow drivel of his seed, betraying his arousal, his readiness for something more climactic. By then I was resolved to do everything to squeeze every drop and ounce of his sweet nectar even if I had to keep him here against the wall all night.

But then I realized that he couldn’t stand properly with only my hand as support, keeping him pinned between me and the wall. Streaks of lightning burst outside the window and the glass pane shook with the sound of an incoming storm. I wanted to cradle Mikleo and sweep him off to the bed when I felt his body slowly sinking into mine. Even I felt weak with desire, my body straining to do more, so much more as his breathless moans of protest fueled my burning hunger.

I pushed my face farther between his inner thighs to reach the base of his cock as my tongue sucked his slick. Mikleo shivered and cried out my name, and I braced myself for his release. Mikleo’s desperate cry ripped through me, eroding every little bit of self-control and reserve I've left as I watched his orgasm soar. His urgent desires shivered, shooting its sweet nectar into me, letting me drink as much as my thirst demanded, as much as my mouth could catch.

I only let go when I felt his knees give in, and I had to move away to catch his weight before he collapsed onto the floor, completely spent and exhausted with all that he managed to release in one breath.

We were sweating like hell even as the sound of rain and thunder rumbled outside the window next to us. I swallowed my last fill of him and licked my lips as I pulled him closer, resting his head on the crook of my neck where I knew it would always belong from hereon.

“God, oh god, you’re amazing, Mikleo…” I told him quietly, my voice nothing more than a hoarse whisper against the noise of rain as I stroked his hair fondly.

He whimpered, his chest heaving against mine. He was so messed up I wanted to take a picture of him to have something with me that could keep my hands busy when we’re not together.

I found myself smiling at that crazy, wayward thought. Mikleo felt so soft and vulnerable against me that I couldn’t think of anything else but making love to him until morning, non-stop.

Because vampires don’t have the same limitations as humans do when it came to sex. Shocking as it would seem to an outsider, vampires could and would mate for weeks with neither food nor sleep. For humans the closest kind of fatigue would be the kind you get from staying in the gun pits for days on end firing at an enemy that keeps coming on all sides.

“Sorey…” I heard him breathe on my chest, his voice muffled by it, “… you’re the worst.”

I laughed a little, tilting his chin up so I could kiss it. “Need I say how much I want you, desire you, my captain? I’ve taken what’s yours, and you let me have it. That means you’re mine from now on.”

“But that’s not what I came here to do, and you know it. If Alisha were to even know about this—”

“Everything's gonna be all right, Mikleo. I'm not letting you change my mind even if you argue like I know you would.”

“You don’t know that, do you?” he complained in a stern yet subdued way, his eyes meeting my gaze as I firmly lifted his chin to kiss him again. “I mean… there are lots of things you still don’t know about me.”

I smiled through his hair that was still moist with sweat as I trailed kisses down his chin to the slope of his neck and collarbone. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve mated with no one else ever but you. That must amount to something, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t know you were a vampire until you kissed me.”

“I didn’t know I could fall for anyone until I saw you. I fell for you first.”

“Is this a race?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Yeah it is. The one who falls first gets to quit last. But since I'm never gonna quit on you, it all ends the same. You'll always have me, Mikleo.”

“Convenient. Do vampires always think like this?”

“You don't?”

Mikleo gave a shudder. “I wished I were one when I was about five years old. There were rumors saying that my mother asked a particular pureblood to see if there’s a possibility of turning me, even though it’s already late and I seemed too old for it by then…”

“I was turned when I was four... uh, maybe four-and-a half? Never knew my real parents, though.”

“Well, it’s the ideal age to be turned, in any case.”

“So you’re a halfling, then? I don’t want to use that term, but it’s probably what other vampires would call you if they knew.”

Mikleo nodded weakly. 

“Don’t feel so bad. You’re cute as you are so it doesn’t make any difference.”

“I can’t believe we’re having this kind of conversation.”

I found myself grinning at that astute observation. “But we are anyway, Mikleo.”

“Seriously, we just met! On top of that, you’re no less than the captain of the reputable 15th division. Everybody talks about how amazing you are in any field of battle.”

“I don’t see how that could be a problem?”

A flash of lightning illuminated Mikleo’s profile, and suddenly, I couldn’t help bending down to kiss the top of his head.

“You don’t sound like the captain whom Alisha has been so proud of.”

“And what is the kind of officer she’s so proud of, pray tell?”

Mikleo’s eyes held a hint of amusement, but I could sense there was something hidden there, something sad, almost bitter-sweet, that I suppose must encompass a whole range of feelings I couldn't even begin to comprehend—yet. I think I was better able to grasp the full complexity of Mikleo’s mind only after certain things have happened… certain things I could fault myself with for not knowing any better when I should.

It was too late when I realized that ignorance—or perhaps insensitivity—comes from taking for granted what we least expect to lose… something we’ve probably been holding on for so long not knowing how precious it was until we lost it, or something we’ve lost not knowing we had let go of something irreplaceable until nothing could replace it…

I didn’t know how long Mikleo carried the burden of knowing certain things that I didn’t. I think it began at that exact moment that I asked him what Alisha must think of me… that moment when I was completely in the dark as to what he was thinking at that moment.

Mikleo smiled wanly. “As you must know, she thinks of you as the perfect knight. No one can outshine your bravery and flawless brilliance in any manner known to the human world and the underworld. You are a paragon of excellence we can only aspire to be in our vaguest dreams.”

I blinked. “Uh… am I supposed to take that as her exact words?”

Mikleo simply smiled. “You can take it any way you want. All I know is that Alisha… the commander we both know so well, and the only true friend I’ve ever had in my life, the only one who has risked and would risk everything to protect what remains of my clan has deep feelings for you, captain…” he pauses as if he has just started to think about things very deeply, and a realization, an epiphany is about to take place, something I know I would never be ready for.

"Call me by my name, Mikleo." I didn't want to beg, but there's nothing more hateful than Mikleo treating me like a stranger by reverting to formalities when it comes to this topic.

"Alisha believes in you, Sorey, but more than that, she-"

"Shut it. Just-just stop, all right?" 

Rude as it sounds, there’s nothing more that needed saying. It didn’t matter what Alisha said—it didn’t matter what she must have made Mikleo believe without knowing it herself. It didn’t matter if—    

“Even before we met I’ve always felt it from the way she puts all her hopes in you… this war, the plans that can turn things around for the good of those who've already sacrificed too much in this. She thinks of you as this world's savior, the redeemer who alone can save everyone from the secrets that’s about ready to kill more than anyone’s willing to lose. And I know without her saying it, I know that her feelings for you..."

"Mikleo... let's not dwell on that, all right?"

"Alisha harbors deep feelings of devotion for you…" Mikleo's voice sounded insistent, regretful. "I think she loves you more than she knows it...”

Jealousy, rage... I couldn't name the monster that was eating at me. I hated it, loathed it, because I didn't want to even imagine that I was hurting Mikleo because he loves Alisha that way though he seemed unable to comprehend it himself.

"You don't really get it, do you?" I narrowed my eyes at the captain. "Of all people, you're the last person I need to hear that from..." I couldn't keep my voice from not quivering as something inside me now threatened to explode. "If it were just some rumor, I would be okay with it. But not you, Mikleo. When you say it that way, it sounds like you've already given up. Or making excuses to ditch a relationship before it becomes an unnecessary burden."

I lifted his chin to me. "Am I only that? Can't I expect you to even trust me enough? Am I nothing but an unnecessary yoke for you?"

Mikleo turned away, his profile hidden in the shadows that hovered around us like restless ghosts since the storm began its assault.

“Then, how do you think should I feel about all this? Knowing from the start what Alisha thinks of you... what she might feel if her chosen turns out to be—”

I stopped him there by taking his mouth and kissing him deep and hard, as if by doing so I could erase his misgivings about us, about the fact that nothing in the world could ever make me change my mind about him...

Even if friendships must come undone, though in truth I would never want it that way. But between Mikleo and anything else that exists...

“Look, you’re shivering, and to think I promised to get a fire going before I… I mean before we… got side-tracked, I guess?” 

He gave me a wry smile before pushing me away so we could both get on our feet. “Whatever it is, just go before we both freeze to death. I’ll try to help as much as I can.”

I shook my head in concern. “No, you’re staying right here. I promise to be back soon, so just wait for me, all right?”

“I can check the rooms across from here…”

I pulled him to me and gave his waist a squeeze. Then I grabbed the sheets I pulled out from under the duvet a while ago and wrapped them around him.

“You’re not going anywhere, and that’s final. I’m the one giving orders around here when it’s about your safety.”

“You’re exaggerating, captain," he told me in that breathless way of his, frowning a little. "I’m in no danger, I assure you.”

By then I couldn't help comparing him with a forlorn kitten all wrapped up. It was tempting not to go for a second round right there and then, but I kinda felt Mikleo wasn't going to like my yanking the sheets off him just when he's all tucked in looking warm and comfy.

I called myself all sorts of ugly names just to calm down my urges. He looked at me softly and I looked back, reaching out to caress his cheek fondly.

“Mikleo, promise you’re gonna stay for me, all right?”

He sensed the strange lilt in my voice. I knew I was worried about something else by then because my lips trembled beneath the kiss that I gave him without warning.

Not a single day passes that I don't remember that kiss. I was afraid then, so afraid... so weak and helpless against the gut feeling that I was going to lose him someday... that I might have to let him go against my will...

Embarrassed, Mikleo averted his flushed face when our lips finally parted. But I could tell he was reading something into my tone, something he probably knows better than I do about me.

“I’ll stay if you say so.”

I silently nodded, convinced and somehow relieved that Mikleo recognized the urgency in my voice and my need to distance myself—not from him but from something I didn’t want to even think about because I couldn’t bear letting it come between us. 

To be bluntly honest about this, my evasiveness after that revelation was borne by the fact that I wanted an escape from a potential argument I didn’t want to lose by any means.

I knew right then that losing to Mikleo might mean losing him to something or someone out there… someone I would willingly give up for him even if it hurts him that I do… and even if he might not do the same for me…

I liked Alisha, we both did, though it seemed Mikleo’s buried feelings for her lie deeper than he could ever make himself admit. It was ironic that he believed it was the same for me, that I’m the one who harbored deep, romantic feelings for the commander. I couldn’t understand back then why he could never quite believe that I’ve completely bound myself to him since that intimate moment in those ruins.

I was the selfish one, the one who didn’t want any other feelings to get in the way even if it meant wanting Alisha to keep her distance from me… and from him…

As much as I never wanted to hurt her, I never wanted to be misunderstood. I had very few friends, and even fewer really good friends. Every single one of them is precious, and that would always include Alisha.    

Something one must understand about me is that I can be one heck of a stubborn, unyielding brute if one lets me. And when it comes to my personal life, being obstinate to the point of pain is what I’m good at. For me, personal things are just that—they’re personal. That practically means one other thing: I can’t let anything—this war, the law, the long-standing feud between the purebloods, the firstbloods, and whatever other known adversaries out there that might make up the odds—decide for me what I know is within my power and my rights to choose for myself.

Later on, you realize that making compromises doesn’t mean giving up or giving in completely. It means saving what can be saved if they’re worth saving, even if the method doesn’t agree with you or actually kills you.

I wish I had known that back then. I wish I had listened.

I wished I knew what Mikleo had been trying to say. Then again, how do you wish for something that your heart regrets more than anything? How could I wish for a future without Mikleo in it?

Maybe from the start I never really had any choice…

I've been doomed from the very beginning, right from the moment the gods had decided to seal our fates, not knowing that by the time we've stepped into those destinies we could not have chosen for ourselves, the universe has already lost that one light, that one hope and purpose that would have probably made all the difference.

 

o-----)o(-----o

 

20 May 2099

 

... Alisha's private quarters in one of the main bases within League territory

 

“Lieutenant Commander…”

“Maltran? Need I remind you every time that it's just Alisha… ”

“Commander…”

Alisha's petulant look seemed teasing enough. “C’mon, the name Alisha is simple enough to say. And I’m sure you can do it without biting your tongue by accident...”

“Well then Alisha…” Maltran finally relented, her face softening, hopelessly taken by the young commander’s kind modesty. “I have a message to relay from Admiral Diphda.”

“You mean dad? Is he overworking himself again?”

“He wants Captain Luzrov Rulay to be monitored more closely. He feels you should know that the Council is sending Lord Lunarre after him.”

Alisha raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “Lunarre? I thought he was being detained in Russia…”

“He mentioned nothing specific, but he was careful to say that necessary arrangements have been made. It seems the Throne was able to negotiate his release.”

Alisha stood up, her console blinking an alarm. It seemed she was in the middle of typing a password for a file, which now seemed nothing more than just a distraction. “I need to talk to Admiral Diphda about this! I thought we had an understanding about this operation... I mean, what would Mikle-or rather, Captain Rulay say if he finds out we’re deploying Lunarre...”

"Captain Rulay's resentment for a noble, a member of the House of Derrilvion no less, has never made you ill at ease with him, has it?"

"How can I even feel that way when he's no different from you. You're both halflings... and the fact that he detests the awakening is something I'd rather strive to understand than condemn. His loyalty... or lack of it... when it comes to matters such as Lord Lunarre and the rest of the nobles must be somehow related to the fact that Lunarre was responsible for his turning. That aside, I was expecting the Admiral to bear it in mind and consider the odds of involving Lunarre in the operation."

Maltran noticed how Alisha would involuntarily shift to addressing her father by his military title whenever she felt flustered.

“Not taking sides, the controversy reminds me that unlike purebloods and firstbloods, we halflings consider loyalty as a matter of pride rather than blood. Admittedly, it is the same, undeniable reason behind our fall from grace... or why our place and status in this so-called nation that represents the pure race is fraught with uncertainties. Of course, there are many other reasons that seem equally persuasive."

Alisha frowns. "Persuasive? You mean-"

"Being a pureblood, princess, you must know better than others how different we are from you. Halflings do not share a vampire's thirst for blood, nor do they have a vampire's full strength and abilities. Neither are we compelled to have, or to become chosens whose obsessions run just as deep as a pureblood's or firstblood's feelings of loyalty for the Throne, for the nation, and for the entire race. The absence of that instinctive impulse is what makes halflings like me and Captain Rulay a danger and an unnecessary risk. And if loyalty to the Throne is itself the lifeblood of this nation, what more is loyalty to the entire race?"

"You are loyal to me, Maltran, and you're being true to yourself is admirable on its own. I always believe that if the human race can freely choose where their loyalties should lie, it should be no more threatening if halflings can do the same."  

"And yet Lord Lunarre insists upon the Council that our existence as halflings is an instability that questions the very foundations of the nation-race... one that takes pride on its overriding instinct for self-preservation. While human races may intermingle and carry on bloodlines through parentage, vampires have no reproductive capacity to preserve their own by the same means. If we follow Lord Lunarre's logic, even I would understand how purebloods and firstbloods see us as a dangerous aberration for lacking those instinctive loyalties toward race, which alone guarantee the preservation of the entire nation. Of course, though I understand the argument, I question the real motive behind Lord Lunarre's quest to eliminate us halflings by rousing dangerous sentiments against our kind.”

Alisha exhaled deeply. “It is likely that the Throne thinks as Lunarre does, but only because it fears more than hates being uncertain. Not much is known about halflings, I'm afraid... though if I should go by what I know of you and Captain Rulay, I would think that these threats Lunarre speak of are nothing but mere distractions intended to plant seeds of dissent. Admittedly, the relationship between Lunarre and Mikleo is shrouded in the same mysteries too difficult to imagine. Mikleo hates Lunarre for turning him, that much is known. But only that can be known as well."

"I admit even I know nothing much about halflings though I be one."

"Perhaps Lunarre wishes to inspire contempt for halflings only so he might have a reason to be given reins over it."

"You mean he wants control and leadership over halflings? But what should be its benefit to him or the Throne?"

"By inspiring conflict, one also inspires resistance, was what the Admiral would say. Any adversarial confrontation, any antagonistic response to Lunarre would then be mere self-fulfilling prophecy... something that would only put halflings in a worse position. Definitely it would confirm Lunarre's worst convictions yet... that halflings can be provoked against purebloods and firstbloods... that they may even be able to override those compulsions that define our blood. After all, instinctive loyalty as a means of self-preservation means being joined by the same compulsive urges and desires that define and ensure our survival. Loyalty to race, nation, and the Throne is one sacred idealism purebloods will defend at any cost."

"And so it follows that, should halflings try to provoke a conflict no matter how insignificant, that idealism shall be put into question."

"I'm afraid so, Maltran. And the House of Derrilvion will never allow it. All purebloods would rise to crush any rebellion or resistance even at its conception." 

"And firstbloods would follow their masters. Their support alone is sufficient to render us defenseless."

"It makes me wish we're all the same, ruled and bound by one blood, even if difference is no cause for condemnation. The absence of rivalry and threats to our survival would, doubtless, increase our chances of peaceful coexistence. And peace is always better, isn't it?"  

"Peace that refuses change is a little different."

Alisha smiles. "I want change... but not all changes are good. Some can be just as frightening. I think my confusion only makes me all the weaker."

"If the confusion concerns those two gentleman you find equally endearing, I'd be more than happy to consider the political aspect as a minor setback." 

"I only think of Mikleo and Sorey as being so similar. They both hated the awakening so much, wishing it never happened...”

“As a halfling myself, I take no sides. Knowing what your father did and continue to do to safeguard the welfare of halflings such as myself, I could never express my gratitude enough as I'm certain all of us would have been exterminated a long time ago without his protection. The esteemed Admiral has stood against Lord Lunarre and the entire House of Derrilvion to defend our honor, our rights and liberties, even as a pureblood himself. We're lucky that you're the same and would never abandon our cause.”

“Pureblood, am I?" Alisha laughs sadly. "I only wish to deny it when I think of my friends.”  

“Captain Rulay does seem fond of you, Alisha, despite the fact that he's a halfling who resents a high-ranking pureblood such as Lord Lunarre. Of course, it would be foolish to overgeneralize, but it's possible for a halfling to resent vampires regardless of breed or standing… much like an extreme human sympathizer. Since I do not think humans are any better or wiser, I do not understand the sympathy. That said, he’s a halfling I might never come to understand.”

“No matter what he is, he’ll always be my friend. Just like Sorey.”

“Oh? I thought you and Captain Ravendalf are more.” Maltran spoke with a straight face, as if she was just reciting a fact.

“Well, it’s never like that. I mean… we’ve always been busy.”

“I thought you were about to propose to him. On your graduation.”

“Maltran! That—that’s sheesh, that was just my naïve self imagining he had feelings for me back then!”

“Not once have I suspected it to be your imagination, Alisha. I assume he's led you on without you even realizing it."

"Go easy on him, I'm sure he means well. Sorey never gave any hints, well, he's kind to everyone, and he's just so honest and open and accepting that it's easy to misunderstand... because it's convenient." 

"If I were you I would open my heart to him and ask him what he intends to do with it.”

Alisha looked down thoughtfully. “I remember the Admiral saying once, '... the strongest of faiths can be the most misleading.'  That aside, you’ve always been bold and honest. As for me, I only wish to be brave.”

“I’ve always flattered myself enough in imagining my judgment to be objective. But I know it’s more taxing to be brave, and being a commander in the eyes of both the Throne and the League at such a young age must make it an even heavier obligation. And yet, here you are, so brave in many ways… except when it comes to matters of the heart.”

Alisha averted her face. “I guess you’re right. I used to think time would make it easier…”

“Easier to be honest or to let go? I must admit, Captain Sorey von Ravendalf is a desirable man, an exceptional breed, if I can be so frank. In fact, I can think of no one who matches you better in every way. My only reproach is that he should know this far more than anyone… that you intend to devote yourself to him for all eternity."

Clear, topaz-green eyes suddenly looked distant, regretful. “I don’t think I’m his chosen… I mean… the way it's supposed to work from what little I know of it, he should have made a move a long time ago if—no, what I’m trying to say is—”

“You’ve been waiting for him to confirm feelings that you know already exist. After all, there's no such thing as unrequited love among vampires who feel such intense yearning for their fated mates.”

“I’m not quite sure if my feelings are that strong to begin with. It may be some sort of infatuation... I really don't know what to think of it, Maltran,” Alisha whispered, letting out a frustrated groan. “I don’t know how it’s possible for me to be the only one who feels this way…”

"Perhaps there are purebloods such as yourself who are an exception?"

"In what way?"

"In the same way there are celibate humans or those who can feel as deep a compulsion as others without acting upon them, it's fairly possible that intense feelings can be felt between mates or chosens without the accompanying urge to copulate. Sex is not the only expression of desire there is, though I can imagine how instinct propels it more than others. The word platonic seems to describe the absence of romance in what might actually be a sexually repressed attraction for another."

"But things like that are impossible to confirm. I mean, I've never met anyone who might admit such an exception.”

"Because they fear being called an aberrant. Yet, being different isn't a disorder to be shunned or condemned."

"I wish I were, but I don't feel that I'm different." 

Maltran cocked an eyebrow at that. “Then you must be truly in love to want the normal rules to apply. After all, it would be so much easier if that were the case. Like all other pairs, your feelings would be mutual and constant... instantly consummated even. Normally a vampire would sense the presence of his mate and have little control over his impulses the first time he does, as well as each and every time the cycle occurs. The fated pair shall then begin to yearn only for each other and no one else. The yearning isn't just carnal, I suppose, as I've heard of bonded vampires mating under the blood moon or simply with unpaired vampires who might be attracted to another in heat."

"Maltran..." Alisha exclaimed, looking away with a blush, "how can you know so much about it?"

"Excuse me, princess, but these things are general facts that's part of the education of our kind. If you want some instruction..."

"Uh, thanks, but I'm in no hurry to learn..."

"Well, from what I've heard, the captain has neither yearned for, nor chosen anyone yet, has he? That should at least be comforting.”

“Sorey's companionship is something I'd always yearn for, I wouldn't deny that... even if he decides to choose someone else.”

“What if he does someday? Dare you the possibility of becoming an unpaired pureblood for life because of it?" 

“I really don’t know, Maltran. But I'm praying to all the gods out there that I don’t do anything I’d regret if it comes to the point that I see him with someone else...”

Maltran lets out a defeated sigh. “Shouldn’t Captain Ravendalf at least be warned of this? I already fear that nothing good can come from this unnecessary secrecy. It is as if the worst possibilities are just waiting for the right chance to happen.”

“You know something I don’t?”

Maltran shook her head. “Nothing that even amazes. I did hear from the Admiral that Captain Ravendalf’s under close observation as well… something that needs Lord Lunarre’s confirmation.”

“However is Lunarre related in all this?"

"There are countless vexing rumors circulating about him, as if he's more legendary and mythical than real. One of them is that Lunarre was once a Knight-Herald of Ravenwolfe... or had, at least, wanted to be one... or would have been one 'til now if not for the rebellion that justified the execution of the entire clan."

"I still can't see a connection. The only reason I've sent Mikleo to be with Sorey is that I know Sorey would trust anyone I trust. Besides, I believe there's no one who has as much common ground with Sorey than him, as I feel Sorey harbors ill-feelings for purebloods and firstblood because of his own awakening. As for Mikleo, his lack of affinity for Lunarre may have to do with the same... and the fact that he's suffered so much since then... much like Sorey..."

"And so you felt Captain Rulay wouldn’t mind protecting someone who feels the same anguish, the same rage and contempt... though that person is no halfling but a firstblood who serves the Throne?”

Alisha's eyes brimmed. "Yes. It's rather complicated, I know. Sorey and Mikleo hating our kind regardless of breed, purebloods hating firstbloods for sowing the first seeds of rebellion against them, not to mention the Tainted Ones..."

"You mean the ones who hunted and fed on purebloods, don't you? I wonder how true it is that Captain Ravendalf had initially distinguished himself in the Wescraven Purging by the slaughter of no fewer than twelve thousand firstbloods single-handedly."

Though she personally deplores violence, Alisha could not help but feel a swelling pride within her. "His skills are legendary."  

"In addition to that, we have most purebloods and firstbloods hating halflings for the plain and simple fact that they don't fit in anywhere."

"It's something father has been pressuring the Council of Elysia to act on. Enacting laws against discrimination and prejudice will send a clear message that hostilities against halflings are not to be tolerated. Mikleo was quite agreeable to it, and I have to admit it was he who inspired me to convince the Admiral to act on it with urgency." 

“That aside, I think the better reason Captain Rulay is so willing to lend you a hand is that he holds you in such high regard... that he would go through hell's fire and more if it means making you happy.”

“Mikleo’s a friend, and friends support each other, that's all it is.”

“I just feel it’s a bit underhanded on the part of the Resistance to be using halflings this time around," Maltran added, sensing Alisha's evasiveness. "But if I may speak my mind on this matter, I think Captain Rulay’s influence will never be enough to convince his family to clear Lord Heldalf and the entire Ravendalf clan of any suspicions regarding their involvement in the Resistance. And no one can blame him if he finds little reason to try and save an entire clan from a certain doom that he cannot save his own family from."

Alisha shakes her head. "But we can't have two houses falling apart like this."  

"But isn't it that Captain Rulay cannot afford to support his own clan, the House of Ravencrowe, so openly without arousing even worse suspicion from the Throne?"

"It does seem that way. And the Ravencrowes are not in a position to argue or negotiate their way out of this conflict either. Unless they agree to completely withdraw their forces and surrender their highest leaders to the Elysian Council or the High Tribunal, they would suffer the same terrible consequences that crushed the Ravenwolfe clan completely."

Maltran sighs audibly. "Much worse, involving the halflings in this conspiracy to overthrow the Throne—or the House of Derrilvion—will only put all of us in grave danger of being suspected as sympathizers to their hopeless cause.”  

Alisha nodded, her face serious. “I know what you mean. I don’t intend to put Mikleo in harm’s way either… but I can’t trust anybody else to convince Sorey to warn Lord Heldalf about what the Throne intends to do if the House of Ravendalf fails to surrender the current leader of the Ravencrowe Resistance to the Elysian Council in ten days.”

“I heard he’s been alienated from his father for a very long time.”

“Lord Heldalf has been the godhead of the Ravendalf House for as long as anyone can remember. He and Sorey were never related by blood… I mean, I shouldn’t even speak of this, but… it seems Sorey never knew his parents and he’s been passed from family to family. Some say he's even served as a mercenary for the Black Sparrows, the secret alliance that supported the Wescravens when they led the Windstalkers against the Throne and the House of Derrilvion."

"Doesn't that make Captain Ravendalf sort of a traitor then... by killing the master he's served?" 

"A lot of things have happened before he became an ally of the Throne and the League. It's believed Lord Heldalf was able to persuade him to support the Throne against the Wescravens and the Windstalkers back then. The clan literally adopted Sorey by Lord Heldalf's declaration that he intends to pass on his title to him and him alone. Although it's the consensus between and among the Throne, the House, and the Council that decides the matter and confers the title of Knight-Herald to a godhead, someone who's had as much influence as Lord Heldalf in our history cannot be disregarded where his opinion seems to matter most.”

“And since then, the captain has adopted the name of the clan and with it, the recognition of Knight-Herald, though he's not yet taken the oath?”

“I just hate the Ravendalf House getting dragged into this along with Sorey. He’s done so much for the Throne, for everyone in this war. He’s been fighting battles for the human world in the name of the alliance between the Throne and the League of Nations that declared this war against the Union. Now they’re dragging him into a conflict that may force him to take a stand against his own clan for the sake of the House of Derrilvion. It’s not fair that he should be punished for something he had no hand in…”

“Captain Rulay is hardly in a better position. I heard his biological mother had once been appointed godhead of the Ravencrowe clan. Not only that, Lady Muse was as an honorary member of the Elysian Council. It didn't seem surprising then that the favored would-be godhead of Ravencrowe is no less than Captain Rulay’s half-sibling, the renowned lady commander of the Enforcers who's also a halfling like myself and her brother…”

Alisha felt a patter of goosebumps prick her forearm at the reminder. “Next to the noble Lady Muse her reputation exceeds all others. You speak of no less than Lady Velvet Crowe of the House of Ravencrowe. The House of Derrilvion alleges she's one of the leaders of the Resistance. Sadly, with enough evidence to persuade the majority of the Council and that of the Tribunal, Lord Heldalf would have difficulty defending himself lest he revoke any relations with Lady Velvet and the Ravencrowes.”

"Calling it the Ravencrowe Resistance is prejudice on its own, as if the Throne wants to convince everyone that all suspicions confirm one thing: that halflings are staging this rebellion or at least part of the major conspiracy. Add to that the fact that they expect the Ravencrowes to impugn themselves by coming forward and incriminating themselves. Either that or Captain Ravendalf must take action against his own clan by pressuring no less than its godhead to break off relations with his allies in the Ravencrowe House by forcing its hand to surrender the suspects."

"That is the most accurate way to put it, I admit."

"The proof that it lacks is going to be the proof that Lord Heldalf must provide. And no less than two captains must cooperate to save the rest of their clans from any more humiliation and defeat. As for you, my Lady Alisha, what is your stake in all this?”

“I stand where I must to protect everyone I love and hold dear. And that means you, Sorey, and Mikleo…”

“You’re risking far too much in this, including no less than your father’s trust, in order to protect the one you love the most. I just hope he knows what you’re doing for him.”

Alisha looks away. “Whatever happens, all I want for now is to keep Sorey safe. For as long as we breathe together under the same sky I know I’d be all right.”

“If Captain Rulay hears of it, he might think twice about the aid he’s offered you.”

Alisha looks away, trying to hide the way her cheeks flushed at the thought. “I trust him, Maltran. I know he'll do what’s best for everyone. Of us three, he’s the one most capable of miracles…”

“Miracles? You believe in such myths too?”

“Cringe if you must, but Maltran, all I can say is this: Captain Rulay exudes that kind of confidence, that kind of subtle power that makes me a little afraid of him. I still believe I’d probably never meet someone as extraordinary as him if things have been different. Perhaps… if I had met him before I did Sorey, I would have fallen in love with him as much.”

"Fall in love? Why, isn't that so bold of you to say, though it's admirable enough..."

Alisha shakes her head. "A slip of the tongue, I guess, but a truth too late to deny. I don't even want to think about it more than I have to."

“But if I may say so, one captain is enough for a woman’s heart. Make it two and you’re courting disaster.”  

Alisha laughs behind her hand. “I wish that’s all I really needed to worry about.”

“Aye,” Maltran answers, her heart already full of quiet misgivings as if in the air between them is written an ominous sign that be will never deciphered completely. “I wish that too, Alisha, for everybody’s sake. Or else, the heavens shall fall and it might be too late for anything, even love, to save us all…”

“Well, if the gods could see things as romantically as you do, wouldn’t the world be a happier place then?”

“But if the world were a happier place we might not even be needed.”

Alisha found herself wondering about that. But before she could say anything, the computer alert came into view, a flickering hologram screen that showed a stern, gaunt-faced man whose eyes mirror years, even centuries of tired, ageless wisdom.

Lights sparked back into life, but they were dimmer, emphasizing the effervescent glare of the computer hologram screen against the subtle shadows falling around it.

As the screen switched into the proper frequency channel, the vague, unstable image became more distinct, showing Admiral Diphda’s face harshly outlined in the iridescent light.

The head of the nation's Minister of Defense, as it is known only to the highest among the leaders of the League of Nations and the Union, came into full view.

Alisha bristled. 

“This is a call to all ground forces to regroup under Operation Overlord. I repeat, all ground forces are to regroup under Operation Overlord. Full deployment in 2200 hours. All Pendrago carriers are expected to have reached Base 09-001 to give a full account of the first strike. Ground unit forces are to prepare for the Second Phase, Code Pendrago. Over.”

Alisha was still dazed by the time Maltran laid a hand on her shoulder when she collapsed on the chair next to her console. “I think there’s nothing much we can do now, my lady.”

Alisha shook her head, her face almost as pale as those strands of light blonde hair that draped over her cheeks. “It can’t be Maltran… this can’t be happening…”

“What’s wrong, Alisha?”

“That base. Sorey is… and Mikleo...”

That alone should not be surprising. We’re in the middle of war.”

“It's simple enough if they only wish to send reinforcements. But this operation... I know it’s something else.”

“Alisha…”

Maltran was surprised when she knelt in front of the commander to give her a better look. Alisha looked angry, confused, but more hurt than anything when she caught the peculiar shimmer of those clear, topaz-green eyes staring into empty space.

“Maltran, they’re going to deploy an assault unit right where Sorey is! And since it's the Pendrago that has taken the initiative, it could only mean one thing…”

“Vampires…” Maltran finished for the Lieutenant Commander without the slightest hesitation. “Purebloods, firstbloods, and halflings together!”

“More than that, they’re going to use Lunarre to command the Enforcers. How could they have convinced the Throne to do this?”

"Until the Ravencrowe House is cleared of its involvement, or is punished for its alleged crime, whichever comes first. I'm certain Lady Velvet has been set aside temporarily for the same reason. And things could get even more difficult should Lord Heldalf resist... or should Captain Ravendalf refuse to cooperate or be persuaded by Captain Rulay, as you're hoping he would."

"But an attack? If this is supposed to be directed against the Union, then the timing is auspicious."

“I guess it’s not what the Admiral, your father, could have ever chosen on his own. We all know what the House of Derrilvion seeks to achieve from all these, for the purebloods are an unforgiving lot. From the very beginning they’ve been ruthlessly fighting this kind of war against any resistance whether that be human or ours. You and the Admiral are the only exceptions to the general rule, Alisha. You're the only ones in the clan who believe in saving the nobility from its own arrogance... its insane resentment of anything or anyone that desires even the slightest change that can result in a shift in power.”

“That’s where they’re about to be wrong.” Alisha stood up, then started unbuttoning her jacket.

Maltran watched her keenly as she changed from her white uniform blazer and skirt to a tight-fitting pair of coal-black jeans and a long, black coat that covered the entire length of her perfectly svelte figure, from the neck down to her knees.

“Whatever are you planning on doing now?”

“I’m going to warn Sorey myself. In person.”

“Alisha, need I tell you how risky that is?”

“But there’s nothing else that can be done, is there? Except one thing maybe…”

Maltran gave her an uncertain look. “Something tells me I’m not going to like what I’m about to hear…”

“Please, you have to try and contact Rose…”

“No… Alisha that’s suicide. Rose is not an option.”    

“But, she is! She’s the only one who knows how to get me out of this base!”

“She’s gonna get you out and into trouble soon enough.”

“It's not my fault I've got dangerous friends,” Alisha spoke in one breath. “The greater the danger, the greater the need to protect what we do not wish to lose. Surely this logic is acceptable...”

“Alisha…”

“We don’t have much time..." Alisha knew begging is neither wise nor dignified, but one resorted to if any other strategy fails. "My friends need me more than the Throne does... at least, right now."

“I understand," Maltran sighed with just the tiniest hint of resignation, though her voice sounded firm and unrelenting. "It’s not like you’re going to let me stop you anyhow. You’re as hopelessly stubborn as a child, not like I can blame you entirely. I must be an influence that led to this..."

Maltran sighs audibly as Alisha meets her gaze with a fond smile. "I'd be all right, I promise..."

"I guess I've really spoiled you as a child...”

“Thanks, Maltran!”

“Princess Alisha, that’s not exactly a compliment!”

"You really should stop calling me that, not when what I've truly felt for you from the beginning is a bond that goes beyond royalty. You are the mother, the sister, the friend that would always be a part of who I am, nothing less..."

"And you shall, and always will be, Alisha, the only pureblood I intend to serve with all my heart. You've won me over completely with your grace and wisdom, even when you were but a child. To this day, I believe you alone possess all that is necessary to embrace this nation and unite it again... to rule and save us all from ourselves." 

"Too much and too little can be dangerous. I need to earn your respect, not win it. But I shall try if you believe me, Maltran. I will do my best."

"Your best for Sorey is enough."

"What I can do for him is a start. Though knowing the odds, I doubt if it will ever be enough..." 

“Do not despair, I’ll get you any help you need. Just be all right, Alisha. Promise me that much at least.”

“I’ll be fine. I know I will…”

“Don’t be careless…” Maltran gave her a hug. “I can only pray to gods who may still listen to prayers. I know all my thoughts shall always be for your safety…”

“Thank you.”

Maltran looked away. “I wonder how long this must go on before we can all settle down and be happy. Just once I want to see it happen... starting with you.”

Alisha could not for the life of her understand why, when Maltran spoke those words quietly, as if whispering to herself, something blurred her vision. She found herself sinking onto the taller woman's shoulders, onto her chest, with a sudden impulse that things could never be all right ever again.

And Maltran just stood there and held her. She held her as if she was the daughter she never had and never will have, and quietly prayed for a miracle, hoping that the gods, this time, might listen.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

  

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

It's supposed to hurt, it's a broken heart

But to moving on, is the hardest part

It comes in waves, the letting go

But the memory fades, everybody knows

Everybody knows...

 

What if I’m trying, but then I close my eyes

And then I’m right back, lost in that last goodbye?

And what if time doesn’t do what it's supposed to do?

What if I never get over you?

 

What if I never get over, what if I never get closure?

What if I never get back all the wasted words I told you? 

What if it never gets better?

What if this lasts forever, and ever, and ever?

 

What if I gave you everything I got?

What if your love was my one and only shot?

What if I end up with nothing to compare it to?

What if I never get over you?

 

-originally by Lady Antebellum, “What If I Never Get Over You?”

performed by Broken Strings for Inferno’s Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

20 May 2099

 

... well past twilight, a few hours after we've stumbled into the ruins

   

I gathered enough firewood that looked like it would last us two days. We needed to get back in the morning, but my mind must have resisted the idea. Mikleo gave me a look of disbelief.

“That looks like a lot, don’t you think?”

I ignored him as I walked to the fireplace. In less than five minutes I got a small fire going. The cackling sound of wood was comforting, and I let out a sigh as I stepped back from my accomplishment.

Mikleo was huddled in a corner like a cat about to be pounced. Maybe it was my fault. I was hungry, starving, and we both knew it hardly had anything to do with food…

I unbuttoned my coat and stripped myself of everything. For a second I caught my silver-haired captain looking, and my body throbbed with a sense of superiority.

Shadows swayed around us as gusts of wind rattled whittled shelves and broken furniture around us. I wanted to smile, but instead I found myself letting out a deep exhale.

Under the waning flames that made his skin glow a feverish white, he looked perfect.

I didn’t want to ruin the mood.

Mikleo seemed too embarrassed to let me know he was curious. He looked away, his gaze resting on the wall as if that could be more interesting.

Maybe I could have pretended to be just as shy—and believe me I was, a little bit at least. But I haven’t felt like this in the longest while—hell, I haven’t felt like this at all until today. If I’m all hot and bothered with him just standing in the same room with me, it shouldn’t be surprising. I haven’t known what it’s like to feel this kind of attraction for anything… anyone… so my body was crazy sensitive, tense.

Right then, I didn’t think there was any way I could’ve held myself back even if I called myself all kinds of dirty names in any language out there. I knew at least twenty-seven… but even the worst name-calling wasn’t helping me calm down.

“Sorey… if you think I'm letting you…”

“I’ll be gentle, Mikleo...” I told him, a careless whisper and a careless lie. Vampire lust is rabid, I’ve seen it too many times to be convinced otherwise. I’m no different, I realized that now. It was just a matter of waiting for my blood-mate… my chosen if one prefers the more romantic word for it. No one else can arouse the deep, insatiable lust of a vampire, putting him in heat that would last for weeks, even months.

Despite my reassurance, Mikleo looked uncertain and anxious. I couldn’t blame him though. If I were in heat as I think I am, there's nothing in the world that can stop me from taking him right here, right now.

I yanked the blanket off him, but his hands were quick enough to cover that part of him that stood at attention. It was a bad move. The gesture only churned my blood, pumping enough heat in my loins to make me want to attack him. 

I parted his thighs with my hip and wrenched his hands away. There’s no way I can let him hide any part of him when I’m like this. The heat that I never thought my body can ever be capable of is grinding inside of me. Any resistance is just unnecessary delay.

His mouth opened to gasp for air, and I took the chance to slip my tongue in. I’ve been wanting to taste him raw like this, to memorize every detail of him so I'll never forget. It’s as if my mind knows how cruel life can be to allow second chances. If this were to be my first and last, I would relish his all... I would carve my feelings into his body to remind him he was mine and I was his.

Thinking back on this, it must've been the moment when I started believing how the the world can change a million times, and I can live with it. I would trade everything to stay in this feeling forever...

To have a permanent memory to outlast a million lifetimes.

“Breathe… I—I need to breathe…” his muffled voice reached me, hushed and breathless. I knew he wasn’t teasing, but my body reacted no differently.

I lowered my mouth, trailing kisses down his neck. “Lie down with me then…”

Mikleo pushed me away with one closed fist on my chest. “Enough… I can’t—anymore…”

I’ve hardly done anything that was enough. I slid my hands up and down the contour of his slim body, lingering on the curve of his hip. The sensual, silky touch of him was pounding in my brain, heating me up even more. My blood wanted him, and his refusal was just making my cock swell at full mast.

“You’re hot… and burning… and you smell so good,” I told him as I slid my hand down his crotch and grasped his manhood between my fingers. I’ve been grinding my hips against him so it was normal for him to be so aroused. His feverish body was shivering, reacting to my kisses, my slightest touch. I could tell that his body was more honest than his words could ever be.

“S-stop… Sorey… th-that’s enough…”

He was panting, chasing his breath, and he wanted me to stop? I would be crazy if I did. His moans told me that he was just as starved and needy as I was. I knew by the way he threw his head back and clenched my arm as I sucked his skin into a bruise that he was achingly wanting but also unwilling to let me see this secret part of him. His denial had nothing to do with whether he wanted this to happen or not.

My fingers felt slippery as his desire came close to reaching its peak. I rubbed the wetness and let it glide over my fingertips as my other hand parted his thighs more widely to give me enough room for movement.

Mikleo’s cock throbbed against my thigh impatiently, frustrated beyond words when I released it. I knew he was about to come, and making him wait a little bit more was torturing me just as much, but I wanted us both to last longer.

I slipped one finger inside his hole, feeling the muscle ripple with a vibrating tingle. He was tight and nervous and so inexperienced I would have come and finished right there and then... that is, if I wasn’t concentrating on what I needed to do first.

He moaned and panted heavily against the crook of my neck as I lowered myself a little to reach more deeply within him.

“Sorey… that’s…”

“Trust me, my captain,” I tried to tease a little. “I know what I’m doing…”

I knew our previous exertions should have given him a clearer idea of what to expect, but his tightness told me he was too nervous to ever be ready for what was about to happen.  

“Sorey… I'm- I don't think-”

“Don't even try to think about it. Besides... you're being so shy just stirs me up even more.”

“But—“

“Ease up a little… I’m trying to slow down…”

I realized I was simply prolonging the foreplay because I had no intention of giving Mikleo up even if he begged. I circled the rim of his hole, playing with the pliant folds before thrusting the full length of my finger into it with a sudden jab. He hissed sharply as I poked around his depths, trying to ignore the sharp ripple clenching at me hungrily. I imagined what it would feel around my cock, and I grunted in frustration.

I knew I wasn't going to last any longer in my state.

I slid a second finger into him, and Mikleo writhed against me, his eyes regarding me beneath half-closed lids.

“No more, please…”

“Nice and slow…” I breathed against his ear. “I’ll make you come whenever I want…”

"Don't... I can't-"

"You will," I insisted, knowing his denial was making me lose my control even faster. "Here," I stroked his tip as my fingers penetrated him with rapid thrusts. "It's hotter than ever, isn't it?"

“N-no… stop… please… oh god… Sorey!”

He came before I could slide a third finger inside of him, his desire dripping thickly down my abdomen as his manhood throbbed and twitched against mine. He looked so meek, like a prey being toyed with before the kill. I didn’t want to force myself onto him, but saying that sounded too much like I was convincing no one but myself. Some part of me wanted to believe that I hadn’t completely lost it… that I hadn’t gone entirely mad.

But one look at his feverish face, his parted lips… the sound of his breathless panting… the scent of his sweat and desire coating our naked skin… 

Nothing less than godly reserve kept me from giving in to my orgasm when he climaxed, making his denial all the more provocative. Having seen him so aroused, having heard his lewd moans contradict his resisting body tested my composure.

Thinking that it was I who put him in that state was more than I could take, and my cock twitched and throbbed dangerously as if to remind me that I’m not in any condition to endure this any longer.

I lifted him up and carried him in my arms wordlessly though he tried to kick his way out of it. I laid him down on the duvet I spread on the floor across the fireplace. He grabbed at a blanket, but I yanked it easily out of reach.

I pushed his thighs up and wrapped them around my waist. He might have been too weak to resist as my weight made certain that he was anchored beneath me.

I was stiff, so stiff it was painful. I held myself and tried to endure by swirling my cock against the wetness now trailing his thighs and that part of him I’ve been aiming for. I knew I needed to be wet enough to make it less hurting for him. His opening was too small even for two fingers so there’s little doubt he’d have more share of pain than pleasure in what I’m about to do.

I trailed my tongue against the pink nubs rising up and down with his ragged breathing. A lover wants nothing more than to make his partner feel good. I want him to feel as if I’m the only one who can give him this kind of insatiable, unforgettable pleasure. I want him to know only my body, my kiss, my insane hunger.

I want him to be mine alone and nobody else’s. And the moment our bodies touched, I knew it.

Sin has the touch of silk, a beauty beyond imagining.

Even for a vampire, Mikleo was unusually warm, so warm my blood surged within me and I was helpless. I had to kiss every inch of him, taste every forbidden part of him to know that this was no dream.

Even though I wanted to get right to the point, I knew he wasn’t ready for it. He was panting heavily as if he was out of breath, and it made me worry when his gasps became deeper as if he was running out of air.

I looked up and saw his face tilted away. There’s no way I'd make love to someone showing such a pained face. I wanted Mikleo to feel good… and I knew even then that there are more important things than just keeping myself satisfied. Normally, vampires are vicious when it comes to mating with their chosen pair, but I've learned to tame myself in time.

Saying that, however, didn't mean my self-control was always effective.

Might as well consider our first night to be an exception and my restraint, practically non-existent. I looked at my stiffness and prayed it would settle down even for two seconds. It ignored me as I turned my attention back to Mikleo.

“Need a drink? Are you okay?”

Mikleo cracked an eye open. “I—I’m fine… I mean… if you’d slow down a bit…”

“I was actually holding myself back.”

“Gods, you must have done this a million times, that’s wh—”

“You’re wrong,” I cut him off, upset that he should presume that my actions were more out of habit than any genuine feeling. Vampires can be heartless, but I would like to think that I’m better.

Hell, I know I am. My body may be driven by instinct in moments like this, but my mind wanted him more than my body ever could. If any god out there tried to get in the way, I fucking would have ripped him to pieces.

I slid next to him, easing my weight off his body. I realized how tiny and slender he was beneath me, but being aware of it was just too arousing that I had to find a distraction to keep me calm.

I leaned over him and pushed my ear against his chest.

“What are you doing?”

“Listening to your heartbeat?”

Mikleo frowned suspiciously. “Really Sorey… you think I’m so taken by you that I’m literally having a heart attack?”

“Just making sure,” I told him teasingly, and his beautiful eyes fluttered like butterfly wings. “There’s no way I’m making love to a corpse, though I doubt if you could be less beautiful even if you were.”

“Right. Assuming you love me to death.”

I found myself laughing a little. “That’s a sappy joke right there, Mikleo.” Then I caught his hand and kissed the throbbing vein on his wrist.

For some reason I find that part of him so sensually appealing. “But you’re not wrong either,” I told him.

He eased into my embrace quite comfortably. I took the chance to trail kisses down the side of his face and the soft contour of his nape that was just begging to be bitten.

“Sorey…”

That moan sounded off a warning in my groin. I knew I should be gentle as I said I will be, but I’m too stiff to mind what I said. I dipped my head between his legs and began sucking him off. I want his taste to stay with me… I want my hunger to crave this part of him that no one else can ever have.

Mikleo did not protest. Spread-eagled like that, he moaned against my thrusting tongue as I tried to make him wet enough, moist enough for what was to come next.

His deeper groans finally convinced me he was ready. I reached up to him and parted the strands of silver hair on his forehead, wondering how something so smooth and beautiful and perfect could exist like this in a world that didn’t make any sense.

Love and beauty, like madness, didn’t make much sense... all the more reason for them to be persuasive, more convincing than any argument, I suppose. I could hardly contemplate any reason deeper than that as I bent down to kiss his forehead. My fingers began playing with the rim of his hole that tightened around me.

I gasped as I felt his muscle tingle as if a current was running through it. I pushed two fingers in and out, in and out going faster and faster as I trailed kisses along the sides of his face.

I felt him twitch then clamp so hard and tight around my fingers that I almost came. I grunted in disbelief.

“Relax, Mikleo. We’re not even halfway through yet…”

“But I… I already feel so…” His muffled breath brushed against my ear, and the feather-like feel of that was enough to drive me mad. I added one more finger and gave him a full deep thrust, and his body arched and tightened around me with shocking intensity.

By the time I withdrew them, his entrance was pulsing and throbbing violently. He gasped out my name as his cock stiffened like a rod, poking at my abdomen.

So this was his weakness. With my other hand, I began massaging his rigid swell vigorously. He moaned my name, his body flushed feverishly. His smooth skin was rubbing against mine, making my mouth hunger for every inch of him.

I licked, I sucked, I bruised him with kisses until I couldn’t hold myself back anymore. I swear to all the gods out there that I wanted this, only this… and if I should die tonight with only this, I'd have no regrets.

I held myself on top of him between his parted thighs as my cock throbbed between my fingers. It was hard and painful to endure the swelling but harder still to convince myself that his pain will be more tolerable than mine. Mikleo’s hole felt so good and tight around my fingers, but my size was hardly anything to compare.

He stared at my swelling desire as I lined myself in position. He looked so worried and uncertain I wanted to kiss him all over again.

“You’re a beast…”

My cock twitched when he said that. I grunted. “Can’t do anything about that now, can we?”

“Make yourself smaller…”

I bent down and kissed his lips. “Don’t say stupid things.” My voice must be trembling so much that his lids fluttered in surprise. I was at my limit.

Mikleo tilted his face, lips parted sensuously.

Oh god…

It was too much to handle all at once. I couldn’t wait for myself to calm down if he’s going to be like this. Without even thinking, my lips moved.

“Sorry, Mikleo…”

He screamed in pain as I pushed myself so deep, so very deep within him. The tingling, pulsating, tightening resistance against my hard shaft only fueled my burning hunger.

I felt an unquenchable thirst within me as I ramped up my pace, tunneling inside of him in and out faster and quicker than our heartbeats. My grunts were loud, louder than the crack and whip of thunder outside as the storm raged and wept with harrowing despair.

But that night I was more desperate than a world gone mad. I ignored Mikleo’s voice that begged and pleaded for me to stop. If I could stop this, I wouldn’t even have dared to begin. Not denying it, my heat was raw and untamed the first time it took over me.

Viciously craving for release, I hoisted Mikleo up by the hips, flinging his thighs and legs up around my elbows. The position looked dangerously painful but my need was desperate, brutal beyond reason.

I lifted Mikleo up until his lower half was huddled against my body, grinding against mine. I was on my knees before I knew it, bending down on his lower half as my hand groped his thighs. I sank myself further down, groaning and grunting in pure, absolute bliss.

I reveled in the friction that rubbed against my length and swallowed it whole. I thrust into him harder, aching for the mad quivering flesh wrapped around me, squeezing against my throbbing desire.

I grunted Mikleo’s name harshly as the pleasure reached my gut. This was it... a rush of pure, burning heat was rising within me like a giant wave and I was too helpless to stop.

With a cry of rapture, I exploded. Everything seemed white, so white, a brilliant fleck of snow and sunlight floating around me...

It felt like my hips would never move again, my entire body went stiff with exhaustion minutes after my release. It took more than a few minutes for my heartbeat to finally calm down as I waited for my swelling heat to subside.

The most regretful thing I’ve ever felt in my life was pulling out. I want us to be joined like this, mine inside his, melting with him.

I reached down to cup Mikleo’s cheek, my mind still soaring in high heavens. “Gods, that was beyond anything I’ve ever…”

My hand froze. He was cold, so cold. I tapped him with my finger, holding his jaw between my fingertips. “Mikleo… hey... are you-”

I shook him gently, then a little harder, but I couldn’t rouse him even a tiny bit. His eyes remained closed and his breathing so shallow I could hardly tell if it was even there.

I grabbed the blanket within reach and bundled him up, rubbing his hands against my cheek as I massaged his foot with my other hand to keep his blood in circulation.

I shivered in panic for the first time in centuries, it seemed. "M-Mikleo, dammit, c'mon... captain, wake up!"

I didn't believe in any god, but I found myself praying for the first time. Whoever you are out there, please don't do this... please wake him up!

I’ve been calling to him a hundred times it seemed, but he barely even moved. There was a faint pulse in his wrist as I desperately listened for any sign of life.

You see, humans think immortals can't ever die, but in truth, it's an illusion where vampires are concerned.

Centuries of strife and civil war are proof enough that we've been fated to kill each other, no less different from what humanity has been doing to itself. 

So when Mikleo's lips darkened to a shade of blue, my heart almost stopped. It was something I’ve rarely seen among our kind, and though I have an inkling as to what the reason was, I was unsure whether I'd be doing the right thing.

Both firstbloods and halflings after all, loathed blood-drinking among other things. Though other carnal cravings seemed tolerable and natural, the idea of drinking up human blood makes us feel lower than savage beasts prowling in the uncivilized wild, completely at the mercy of our primitive instincts.

Blood remains as a necessary nourishment for any vampire, but it's not something all vampires have an appetite for.

Then again, after making love to Mikleo like a beast, I had no mind to dwell on the self-loathing. Inexperience made me so prejudiced about my own kind that I’m surprised I had survived this long.

I grabbed at the clothes I’ve thrown aside and pulled out a knife from the side pocket of my coat. I walked back to a bundled Mikleo and lifted his head a little, cradling it on my lap.

In the light of the flickering flames, his pale beauty was flawless. Every time I look at him, I’m reminded of the perfection of small miracles…

My lips parted to kiss him, and though I knew I had to break the kiss soon enough before I get too distracted, I slipped my tongue in, hoping I could relish it longer, that he would open his eyes and tell me everything’s all right…

I slit my wrist and tilted it toward his partially open mouth. I watched my own blood trickle down those cold lips, his tongue…

I lifted his head a little to make sure it would go down his throat. He had to swallow, to drink even a little…

He coughed. I prayed to all the gods out there, nameless they may be, that I’ll take better care of him. But the moment his gaze ended in mine, the promise faded into a faint, distant memory.

I bent over to kiss him, wanting him all over again.

He pushed me away, covering his mouth with one hand. His eyes smoldered, and if I could see his lips, I was almost certain he was pouting.

Though the greater part of me wanted to kiss his lips, his mouth with a passion, my sense of relief settled for a tender one on his forehead.

“You really scared the hell out of me, Mikleo."

He glared at me like a petulant child. "Sex with you is even more scary."

I would've given him a smug smile for that, but somehow I was too worried for teasing. "Hey, c'mon, seriously..." I lifted his chin up so he couldn't avoid looking at me. "Feeling any better?”

He tilted his face away before answering my question. I was also right about him pouting. I just had to mention it because it was just... too damn cute to ignore.

“Your blood tastes awful.”

I didn’t know why I found that funny when I was just about ready to have a heart attack a minute ago. I didn't think I've ever laughed the same way I did that time.

“Let me suck it back then,” I offered, bending down to try and kiss him again. “Through your mouth.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he huffed, pushing my face away. “Your insubordination this time is not excused.”

“Oh, really?” I was just so happy to know he was breathing normally again that I couldn’t take anything he said seriously even if he tried to look angry.

“You can detain me anytime you want. Just you and me in a cage is fine.”

Mikleo's eyes seemed incredulous. "I'll throw away the key then. How's that?"

"Oh?" I stroked him through the blanket, feeling for the tip of his erection. "I'll take my sweet time then and just enjoy it, Mikleo."

He slapped my hand away. I could see that he was easily flustered, but if Mikleo had any real weapon, it was that pouting stare of his, that infuriated look that could make me feel defeated without a fight.

“No thanks, I think I’m fine the way I am!” I was smiling through that childish conceit of his when his expression flickered with concern. “Uh, Sorey... aren’t you cold standing around naked like that?”

I looked down at my body and caught him staring when I turned my attention back at him. As usual, like a shy, embarrassed teenager, he looked away, avoiding my eyes, pretending he wasn't even interested.

The next second, I realized I couldn’t keep my promise. My cock had been awakened by those stealthy glances, and now it was throbbing for attention.

I lifted his leg out of the blanket, almost yanking the covers off him. His look of surprise aroused me even more.

"You're not gonna sleep in anything when you're with me," I told him, untangling the sheets until he was bare and exposed in front of me.

The creamy white glow of his skin always gave me a hard-on that secretly embarrassed me too many times. If only he knew how troublesome that was... 

I trailed kisses on the feverish skin that warmed even more against my mouth. Every bead of sweat on him exuded an intoxicating sweetness, like lavender and vanilla and a spray of summer rain. 

Needless to say, chosen pairs are normally sensitive only to the peculiar scents of their partners. Their first heat sets in the moment they mate with their chosens and knot inside of them. The heat cycles gradually develop from there, following a biorhythm that's unique to, but compatible with, the rhythms and moods of the pair.

Only the blood moon cycle becomes an exception as it affects all vampires, making them lust indiscriminately regardless of sex.

You can tell that bisexuality is never an issue among us. The way one’s blood responds to his or her chosen is a mystery in itself, and when it happens the last thing you wonder about is your partner’s sex. All your feelings gravitate toward him, and the compatibility, sexual or otherwise, is just one of those things that go with it.

Besides, if the bond is purely sexual to begin with, no chosen pair can ever last for so long. All heats are temporary after all, going on for weeks or two months every year at the most for most pairs. In between those periods, it's typical for a couple to display the same attachment and attraction for each other with normal inhibitions taking over. As is generally known, the intensity and duration of heats are unique and different for each pair.

How unique it is must have its limits, though. And to be perfectly honest, in all those centuries I've been with my kind, I haven't seen chosens in heat for the first time becoming as sexually aggressive and wanton for each other as Mikleo and I.

I guess there will always be exceptions like us. 

Right now, Mikleo seemed distracted, letting me stroke him, kiss him without protest. It's hard to tell whether he wanted me to stop or if I needed to put in more effort.

“Sorey…" his voice catches, and it alarms me, scattering my thoughts. "You’re still bleeding…”

I stared at my wrist indifferently. So he's really concerned about that... I smiled in a daze, catching what must've been faint sparks of color in his eyes.

Bending over him, I pried his mouth open by pushing my tongue inside.

“Drink me, Mikleo. Make me feel how much you want me too...”    

He looked at me through half-dazed eyes, and for a moment his meekness, his submissive shyness was all the world to me. “You’re terrible at this, Sorey…”

“I know…” I admitted, touching his lips with my index finger as I watch my blood stain his lips. “Just as you’re a terrible liar.”

“I might end up sucking you dry…” he tells me. I can see his tongue licking my blood with suppressed eagerness and for a second, it made me wonder how long he had endured his own instinctive craving. 

Before I could give it any further thought, I felt him deepen his bite. I felt my wound swell immaculately against his lips, his mouth sucking it with relish. 

It was erotic, more sensual than anything I’ve ever felt. My gut was churning, my groin heating up so much more than it ever did when I first came. I couldn’t keep my voice from trembling as I caressed his cheek, urging him on.

It must have been the sensation of being drained to your very core. I felt my body awaken, heat up like I was burning. The raging heat was too erotic, sensual, shutting my senses to anything else.

It felt as if I was hanging on the edge of despair, and I'd die if I denied myself this pleasure.

His bites got deeper as I drove myself into him again and again, madly and faster than our heartbeats...

I couldn't count how long or how many times I exploded inside of him, but every burst felt exhilarating. Even as I felt myself overflow, I knew I wasn't finished, I was still hard and hungry and unsatisfied.

I hoisted Mikleo up, higher than I ever did and pushed him down my desire waiting for him. It buried itself rabidly, spewing all its liquid fire into his deep, waiting cavern.

Dear god…

Mikleo threw his head back in a deep moan as we both shivered through our release. He was squeezing against me so tightly I could feel every vein and muscle of mine convulse when we both came. It was too much I couldn’t bear the pleasure…

I felt my knot swell massively inside of him and groaned out his name... I knew by then I was his completely... irrevocably.

A knot can either be good or bad. Knotting makes a bond more secure by making a partner’s scent more pronounced to his partner to the point that all his emotions become scented, alerting his mate to any sign of disturbance. Every state of being has a scent that helps deepen a mate's understanding of what the other is going through, or whether there’s any threat that the other should be wary of.

The bad thing about it is that knotting heightens heats to the point that it attracts the lust of unpaired vampires. 

During their heats, vampires become insanely possessive. Even outside these episodes, the obsessive jealousy mated pairs harbor against potential rivals exceeds human intensity so it's not hard to imagine how terribly magnified it is during mating. Even if vampires can be sexually permissive, bonded or not, the jealous compulsion is always there to discourage it as much as possible.

For now, I could only revel in Mikleo’s immense thirst for me, which, to be honest, felt strangely flattering. I could tell he hasn’t been feeding for months, the reason why he was so weak and light when I carried him a while back. Maybe I needed to be more gentle as well was what I thought...

I tried to, in all honesty, but every time I make that promise, my resolve crumbles easily the moment Mikleo gives me that look. His gaze is like a window to all things beautiful that even my color-blindness can’t help but be lured into it.

It didn’t matter if the world looked black and white. It was beautiful just the same if I could see it through his eyes.

We sank onto the floor, my body on top of him, my wrist still caught between his eager lips. My cock was pulsating like crazy inside of him, so much that it seemed even a roaring tank next to me wouldn't be enough to make me budge.

I felt Mikleo stir slightly in my arms, his lips finally letting go of my wrist. His teeth had left deep marks on my skin, leaving the slit a little bit swollen as well. Not that I mind.

“Sorey…” he whispered, and my immediate impulse was to kiss his mouth and lick any blood that stained his lips. I haven't tasted my own blood in a long while. He smiled softly, cocking an eye open. “Let me sleep a little, would you? I think I haven't felt this sleepy... and it feels so good...”

“Yeah, of course," I whispered against his hair, drinking in his scent. "Besides, you’ll need your strength for later.”

Both his eyelids fluttered open this time. He really looked sleepy as he sighed slightly against my chest. “Really Sorey. Such a beast you are.”

“I know, captain,” I teased again, through the haze that was slowly overtaking both of us. “So stop saying stuff like that unless you’re planning on stirring me up after everything we did.”

“It was a lot…” He yawned a little, and I found myself smiling in his hair where I buried my face. His scent is so delicious.

“You can rest for a little bit, I guess. I mean... I’m trying hard not to be that greedy for your sake,” I teased, though I was serious about not ending it there. I want him so bad that, even if I’ve lost a little blood, my body feels like a taut string. 

He exhaled against me. His breath was hot and it was making me really restless again. To think I haven’t pulled out of him yet.

“Sorey, tell your cock I’ve had enough for one night. I feel like I’m about to split in half.”

I know I should worry, but I found myself laughing off his warning. He must have felt my arousal just now and was just reacting to it. 

I pushed some strands of hair off his cheek. “I’ll put you back together again and again if that happens.”

Mikleo pouted, but his hand was caressing my chest, running shivers up against my spine. “You feel so warm,” he tells me.

“Two hours is all you’re gonna get for teasing me like that.”

He rolled onto his side, pushing against me. I slid out of him slowly, my hardened urges throbbing in rude protest. I was getting hard again, and Mikleo must have really felt it this time.

“Selfish ogre,” Mikleo muttered a little breathlessly.

I nibbled his earlobes playfully, smiling through it. “I’m greedy, but I love you like hell.”

“Come again?”

I snuggled against his shoulder. “I thought you needed sleep? Not that I mind coming again... you only need to ask.”

“That’s not what I—” He craned his neck and reached up to caress my cheek, eyes fluttering as he gazed at me sleepily. It seemed he could see beyond everything, right through my soul if I had one.

It was a tender expression I would never forget, the reason I could endure all future hells from thereon.

“If you let me sleep a little, I’m all yours,” he told me, his voice soft, lilting. “I’ll make you come, Sorey, as much as you want… as much as you want and more…”

We kissed.

I knew right then that I could be happy just to be with him like this. War and peace didn’t matter for as long as I have Mikleo’s warmth and this kindling fire to keep away our shadows…

I love him. I love him so deeply it hurts... it hurts to the point that I couldn't bear it sometimes...

I realized that if I can have this one, small miracle, this one undeserved grace, then maybe I can learn to accept this curse that made me what I am. Even darkness and all its evils is a small price to pay for this one night that I know I will never forget...

If only any god out there would understand.

  

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

Maybe I didn't treat you

Quite as good as I should have

Maybe I didn't love you

Quite as often as I could have

Little things I should have said and done

I just never took the time...

 

But you were always on my mind

You were always on my mind...

 

Maybe I didn't hold you 

All those lonely, lonely times

And I guess I never told you

I'm so happy that you're mine

If I made you feel second best

I'm sorry I was blind...

 

But you were always on my mind...

You are always on my mind...

 

-version by Michael Buble, "Always on My Mind,"

performed by Broken Strings, for Inferno's Ballad 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

21 May 2879

 

... after seven hundred and seventy-nine years

 

I realized my pillow was wet when I woke up.

I wonder if there'll ever be a single night or day that I can stop thinking about you...

Spring carries with it the scent of rainflowers. My window's been filled with them since that day...

They tell me they come in many colors.

Mikleo...

Your scent has so many colors, each one as light as rain...

Sometimes I miss you so much I can't bear it.

If I try to find you on the other side, will you be found?

I've been searching, and not for a single moment did I ever stop.

I'm always looking... and it seems I'd be looking forever...

 

o------------o)O(o------------o 

 

 

21 May 2099

 

... our first time waking up in the ruins  

 

That day I woke up to sunshine. Lots of sun, the warmest I've ever felt.

It's warm, but Mikleo's warmer, sleeping next to me.

I've never felt so happy...

And I've never felt so afraid... like what'll happen if I lose this sunshine?

What if I lose this fragrance, this scent that wafts and fills me, burns me more than I can take?  

It seems like I'll never be able to breathe again...

 

"Sorey? It's... oh god..."

"Morning." I turned his hand over, the one cradled on my chest, and kissed the throbbing vein on his wrist.

Since I can only see black and white, I know how pale he is. I know all shades of white, and he's always a shade whiter than the rest.

"You all right?" he asked, still squinting painfully at the shock of sunlight coming through the only window in the room. 

"Never felt better. How about you, captain?"

He starts when he hears me revert to that formality. It's only normal, and it's quite obvious I'm just teasing.

He cocks an eye open at me, trying his damnest best to look as if he's completely awake.

He suddenly pouts. "Stand down, officer."

Stand down? I lift an eyebrow at that, only to be met by a flustered, downward look. 

Mikleo has obviously found the most probable reason that woke both of us up. Not denying the evidence one bit, I pressed my hardening urges down at his lower hip. I caught his lips in mine as I swooped down his mouth for a deep kiss. Even with the sheets between us, I was already grunting by the time I let him pull back.

Even then, my arousal hadn't stopped pushing against his thighs, desperately imagining the sheets melting away. I felt his hand push mine away when I tried to remove the only obstacle between our bodies.

"Later, I'm hungry..." he complained, and I couldn't help but chuckle.

I bent down to lick the bruise on his collarbone. "Me too. Just waiting for you to wake up so I can have you."

"No please... enough, I still have-"

I felt his half-hard cock through the sheets and slipped my hand beneath it. He gasped when my hand wrapped around his shaft, and his hand went to my neck to brace himself as I began stroking his arousal. 

When he pushed his forehead against my shoulder to hide his flushed face, I caught how strong his scent was.

It's not like I haven't noticed it before, just yesterday, when I kissed him for the first time.

I breathed him in, pushing my face against his hair. Oh god...

Lavender... and a breath of fog... soft sunlight and spring flowers wet with dew...

A sudden shroud of mist... and beneath that, my little rainflower...

My Mikleo...

He was all those scents and none, just like the first time our eyes met... that singular moment I pulled him to me and forgot the rest of the world.

I inhaled him deeply, letting his fragrance wash over me and paint my rock-hard desire with violent shades of greed.

My self-restraint only lasted for a few more seconds. I know I couldn't stay like this. 

I rolled him on his back and lay on top of him, spreading his legs beneath me. His eyelids fluttered in protest, but I ignored them, pushing aside the tangle of sheets around our hips.

He threw his head back as I pushed three fingers into him at once.

"Sorey-I... it's... "

I pushed my tongue into his mouth to muffle his resistance. He sounded breathless, as if he was sobbing. Even so, I couldn't force myself to stop. 

I felt my own cum coat my nails thickly as I realized how many times I unloaded myself inside of him last night.

He seemed too embarrassed to remember it as he watched me slip those same fingers into my mouth to taste. He must have felt how much he was leaking as I poked his hole further, teasing the sensitive folds that quivered to my touch.

All of it was my doing, all this rich mess dribbling out of his tiny, deep hole. It was hardly his fault. Hardly... 

I spoke those words that made him catch his breath with shame. "You said I could come as many times as I want. You said you'd let me..."

He sank his face against my neck, my shoulder, and my cock shivered painfully. "Sorey, I-"

"I'll cash in on your promise."   

He squirms in my arms as I sit up, cock held in one hand. I began stroking myself with the same cum that continued to spill from his entrance. 

I was wet and ready, and his scent was all around me. I couldn't have restrained myself even if he were to tie me up or chain me. If anything, the mere thought was far more exciting than I was ready to admit.

"Mikleo... I'll plunge my hard cock inside of you... I'll ground all of me inside you, fill you up... and you know I won't stop until I come..."

Again, and again, and again...

His languid eyes flickered once, and though he said nothing, I trust that he understood what I meant.

Mikleo looked spent, purple bruises scattered on his pale, pale smoothness. Still, he's beautiful. Breathtaking. 

I watch him spread his legs weakly, showing more marks... dark circles against all that creamy white. Shameless evidence of my hunger.

Even the tiniest imperfections perfect him. Visible flaws only make his stunning beauty stand out even more... not that I have time to silently watch and admire him like this.

In my groin I could feel my knot unraveling too quickly, making me curse under my breath.

The moment I nudged his entrance, I felt a deep ache run through me, a yearning that made me want to feed savagely. I realized I bit so deeply into his shoulder when his body shivered violently against mine, followed by a muffled sob. After that, I hardly remembered anything else. I was thrusting so deeply I hardly heard his moans. Definitely mine were louder... though my groans, my grunts of pleasure could not exceed the rush of ecstasy my body felt inside and out.

My desire was swelling massively inside of him, and even when he tried to push me in between painful sobs, I couldn't pull out of him yet.

I was knotting for the third time, the fourth, the fifth? I couldn't count the times we did it last night. Knots last for minutes, depending on the passion and the stamina of the mate. Since this was the first time I've mated with anyone, the first few knots were crazy intense and frequent. They've hardly calmed minutes after their rushing peak when the next one sets in.

The episodes of lust and intense, pounding arousal are just too powerful to control or resist.

I know how tired Mikleo was. But as the alpha in the pair, the one who takes the lead and dominates, I can only slow down and sympathize despite my impatient heat. As for Mikleo, he has little choice but to read the mood and follow my rhythm. Of course seeing how fragile he is, I strain to control myself even for a bit.

Ugh, ngh... oh... sh-fuck!     

My seed shot right through him, and his arms went up around my neck to have something to hold. I can imagine his pain... his hole is swollen and bruised, torn and stretched to its limit. But knowing it only makes my body want to push the knot more deeply into him.

I cried out his name toward the end of the knot, in between moans of unchaste pleasure. I was chasing my breath like I ran three miles and never stopped.

I never understood the emotion, this relentless drive that's almost desperate. It's too intense for words. No matter how often we do it, the feeling is the same. The intensity never abates, so is the lust, the longing, the desperate hunger to be joined together...

It seemed like my heart and mind had already left, soaring to the skies as my body tried desperately to catch up.

Barely ten minutes have passed. Mikleo was dozing on and off in my arms as I stroked him.

All it took was a soft, timid moan against my neck, and my cock hardened like a rod in seconds.

I licked his earlobes. "Do you want it harder? Do you want me deeper inside you? I can give you more... I can give you everything..."

Barely waiting for an answer, I lifted Mikleo's hips off the rudely stained sheets, which to my discomfort felt clammy and soaked.

I put both arms behind him and lifted all of him from the sheets we spread on the tiled floor.

"S-Sorey, put me down!"

Ignoring that, I carried him over to the bed, which creaked like a banshee the moment I set him down.

He pushed himself up, straining to grab hold of the bedpost, and my mind started having ideas.

I pushed him face down on the cushions, ignoring the dust and the mildew around us. He craned his neck to catch me stroking my cock with his cum. 

I palmed his hips and parted the cheeks of his ass to let myself in. The view was amazing as I watched myself sinking into him slowly.

Mikleo's knees gave out, but I caught him by the hip and raised him up. By then I've thrust my swollen desire completely, my lower hip bumping against his ass cheeks.

My knot was starting again. I waited for the wave to build inside slowly, expanding, swelling like a volcano about to spew its lava. 

It was tight, and he was clenching me so hard I cried out as I started moving in and out. 

He's so good I blanked out. I've just knotted minutes ago, but every time I enter him, it's all the same.

I closed my eyes and realized, dammit Mikleo, I don't think I can live without this yearning...

I need to be inside you just to breathe.  

I plunged, I sank, I tunneled into him mercilessly, shaking the very foundations of the ruins it seems. Drinking in the sight of his white, slender body, that smooth back, that tiny waist that gave me leverage as I thrust back and forth, I marveled at my cock sliding in and out of his swollen hole.

Every thrust reddened his entrance, stretching the quivering rim to its painful limits.

"Uh, it hurts... un-ugh S-Sor-Sorey..."

"All right... oh god..."

I slowed down out of guilt, letting my cock linger halfway through a thrust. The motion made Mikleo shiver, his hole clamping on me as he threw his head back with a stuttering cry.

I didn't want him to come yet. I lowered myself to suck a painful-looking bruise that stood starkly against his porcelain skin, just between his waist and hip. I felt him quiver as if he was really close. 

"Mikleo, are you-"

He was whimpering as if in pain, but his words were laced with lust. 

"Harder... please... make a mess of me..."

When he sobs like that, I lose control. My reflex takes over, and my thrusts become maddeningly deep, fast... insanely fast.

"Oh god, yes... I'm com-c-coming, uh... ngh... Sorey!"

He surged forward and I held him by the hip, afraid he might break in two as he arched forward, pressing against me.

His explosion sputtered across the sheets, followed by the convulsing rhythm of his heartbeat, which I could hear beneath his short, quick breaths.

I couldn't wait for him to finish as my impatient cock began to throb inside of him. I pushed it ever so deeply now, deeper than I thought I should have.

My knot swelled violently. I was tired but my lust wasn't, taking over my tired inhibitions and self-restraint. I began thrusting faster than I just did, ramming him from behind with no other thought than to fuck him hard and lose myself in the pleasure.

In and out, in and out. I watch myself disappear to the hilt with every merciless thrust. I was pounding into him, lewdly forcing all the cum already inside of him to sputter out of his hole and drip along his inner thighs.

My cock made lewd, spewing noises as cuss words dribbled from my mouth, lashing out of me without shame.

"Your hot... cunt's... tight... fuck, oh fuck, squeeze me harder, god, harder, harder, Mikleo-god-fuck, god!"

I felt my knot swell and lock itself tight inside his bruised entrance, making me press harder as I emptied my thick mess into him. I hardly noticed that he had stopped moving at some point. I held him by the hip to keep him from slipping off as I unloaded my seed, all my thick, hungry mess into him.   

As my normal senses drifted back into my head, I noticed how heavy Mikleo felt beneath me.

While he seems almost weightless when his body strains above me to chase his orgasm, now he feels a lot heavier as I hold on to him, waiting for my knot to subside. 

I watch him sink his face into a pillow with the faintest of moans. "Mikleo?" 

I strained to see his face, careful not to lean on him too much. Even from behind, he looked several shades paler, so much more than minutes ago when he first woke up.

I touched his face, and his eyelids fluttered slowly. Since I couldn't turn him to me without pulling out, I palmed his chest for any sign of heartbeat.

I sensed right away how cold his skin had become.

Though I felt a beat, it was too weak, giving me that same palpable scare that was to linger on the back of my mind for years to come.

But only one thing came to me then... always that one saving grace that told me how he needed me first.

I bit hard on the thin, red line on my wrist... the one from the wound I made last night that has already begun to heal.

I watch the blood congeal, then ooze and finally trickle, one slow drop after another.

The smell of blood seemed to have roused Mikleo as he began to stir weakly. I pushed my wrist into his mouth, coaxing him to drink.

His eyes fluttered open, then shuttled closed as his mouth began to move.

In the next second, he bared his teeth and bit deeply into the gaping flesh. It was so sudden I gasped in surprise. My knot which was still inside him bloated and swelled painfully, but it was a different kind of pain.

It felt delicious... like a hot, burning hunger, a deep yearning pounding inside your soul.

He drank, he sucked, he licked my wound dry. My orgasm that moment reached unreachable heights. My knot shivered and exploded inside of him again and again as he ravished my dripping flesh with tantalizing flicks of his tongue.

Calming down felt like diving from the clouds. Finally, we let ourselves sink into each other's arms, spent and wasted, chasing our breaths. 

I reached up to pull the curtain around the bed as Mikleo lay his head on my shoulder. I guess we needed a moment's sleep, a darkness only to ourselves.

I also needed a shield from the sun slowly flooding the room. I knew the radiant heat was calling us away... toward a flag, a duty, an office on the other side of this world we've made ours. 

I drank the soft fragrance of his hair on my chest as I listened to his heartbeat. Sometime after, I felt my lids grow heavy.

We slept in the cold shadows in some corner of that broken room, surrounded by dust and ruins. A bell seems to toll in a faraway distance... far, far away.

It was perfect. 

That day in those ruins, behind slinking shadows and crumbling walls, I knew I found what I was looking for.

Someone I would never find ever again...

 

I always dream of planes flying in an overcast sky.

You were in the pilot's cockpit. You turned your head to look at me, and the red scarf I gave you fluttered like wings.

I can imagine its color against your skin. Even if I can't see it as I should, I know it complements you. You're beautiful as you are...

You flashed a teasing smile at me, and my heart soared through the clouds.

 

We flew over the ocean... I almost wished we flew farther away and never came back...

Do you suppose heaven is a place on the other side of this sky?

 

I think I'd start missing you again. Even when you're sitting just in front of me, or beside me, I  miss you.

I feel lonely when you look away... like your eyes are always searching the distance...

Looking for a missing star...

Have I ever been enough? Have you ever really needed me?

Across a blanket of white that seems to span an eternity, I'm also searching...

My rainflower...

 

Whatever you do, do not deny me. Do not deny my need to be with you...

If the day comes that I can no longer breathe the scent of you, I might as well stop breathing at all. 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

20 May 2100

10:46 a.m.

 

... a year from the day we first met 

 

Together with a handful of officers from the other divisions, Mikleo and I boarded a train at sunrise, heading southwest. We were supposed to arrive at our destination by nighttime, considering the weather and the condition of the railway system, which luckily, seemed more than barely functional and equipped for emergencies.

The trip would've been nearly impossible of course, if Operation Overlord had not taken care of the mines in the area. The wide, barren expanse stretching between our base and the military conference we're headed to had been a territory fraught with conflict. The League of Nations had, for years, been unable to mediate between warring factions that have been fighting over this piece of territory ever since it's been ceded by the Throne to the League.

This virtual wasteland... or what appears to be mostly wasteland, had been bought by the Throne through secret negotiations with the Confederate, a rival alliance that was almost as old as the League or even older. One of the major conflicts between the two alliances arose when the Throne ceded the territory to the League even as the Confederate proposed to take it back by repurchase.

The name No Man's Land literally means it belongs to neither the League nor the Confederate. But there's more.

Named Camlann after its acquisition by the Throne, it is believed to be a land no man, beast, or creature may tread without invoking the mercy and protection of the Empyreans. It's a superstition handed down through vampire lore that vampires, being soulless, steal the human souls of those who die with them in battle, in the hope of being reborn in order to avenge their own deaths. To avoid rebirth that transforms them into daemons or vengeful monsters, the Empyreans sought the purification of the land by cursing any one who might once more disturb the earth-pulse beneath it with tools of destruction and chaos.

For vampires then, No Man's Land is more than just a territory made barren by centuries of conflict. It's a sacred cleansing ground, a ground of purification that continues to gather and cleanse the malevolence left behind by those that have suffered and perished, in the hope of ending the cycle of rebirth and revenge that sows evil and dissent in the world.

In other words, it's a land that all men and vampires are forbidden to soil again. As the superstition and taboo suggest, anyone who'd dare violate the will of the Empyreans by disturbing this wasteland that's being purified of malevolence shall be dealt with justice from the highest heavens.

Having played a major part in that malevolence, vampires fear this tale more than the human world does.

Historically, Camlann was the same land that belonged to the Ravenwolfe clan and the graveyard where they lie to rest. The purging took place here centuries ago... in Wescraven, a vast moor overlooking a once-verdant hillside. As the legend slowly faded into myth, then into nothing more than taboo riddled with many bad memories, the Throne was more than happy to get rid of this wasteland by giving it to the League, which, by the way, has always been interested in anything the Confederate wants.

Even before this land was named Camlann, wars have been fought here... human battles sacrificing countless human lives. The history of the Confederate was just as violent as any other history I've read on the rise of nation-states and empires, of races fighting for the right to inherit the land of their predecessors. The Throne never hesitated to empty its coffers to bribe corrupt nobles and politicians when it wants something. But it seems that wars and conflicts that put a nation's dignity at stake can provoke the heroic even in the most depraved. Perhaps the Confederate has just realized that selling a historic monument to an outsider like the Throne is one thing, but losing it to an enemy, a sworn rival such as the League, is another.

Taking No Man's Land back is more a symbolic act of heroism on their part, to say the least. To the Confederate, winning it back from the League meant reviving the dignity it had lost so many times before... to the war, to its enemies, to its own petty follies.     

The fact that the Throne had played a part in arousing this sense of honor, this fallen sense of history by doing something so foolish as to turn over a historical monument to the Confederate's oldest rivals clearly meant that it wanted desperately for the war to escalate. And since there's absolutely nothing to prove or deny this theory, there's absolutely nothing to discourage anyone who might want to believe it.

But having lived for so long, I'd rather believe in the mysteries of the unknown... that even if the Throne had chosen to act otherwise, conflicts would always rise to bring up old sins and bitter antagonisms, as if fate itself had already decided that war was inevitable.

Maybe it's too conceited to think that wars are decided by men and external causes. Maybe they're gods' whims... a reminder that no matter how high the glory, humanity and its aberrations are meant to fall. High hopes and towering achievements can be dashed down so easily if they as much as attempt to rise to the heavens and insult the gods.

That said, since the war began between the member-nations of the League and the Confederate, No Man's Land became soiled and tainted once more... turning yet again into a bloody battlefield tirelessly abused for miles on end.     

But as we older vampires only know too well, this accursed land would always be a poignant reminder of the strength and cruelty of a nation and the downfall of even the most powerful clan that dared rise up against it. For me, this would always be a sad tale of cities and empires, of relationships gone bad, of trust broken and alliances forsaken. It's a chronicle of power, shame, and betrayal within a family... of how the Throne's fiercest, most loyal protectors, the House of Ravenwolfe, led the most violent revolts against the purebloods under the most fearsome leadership even history would fear to repeat.

The Windstalkers were no less than the Throne's finest guardians commanding its largest flock... a clan that exceeds all others. Needless to say, the power and reputation of a clan depend largely on its size and the strength of its leaders. It wasn't surprising that most firstbloods sought and chose this clan as their sanctuary and protector...

Only to be lain here, in the same grave that was their home and refuge, bound together and cast aside by the same fate. The purebloods may deny it, but to every other vampire, the history of Ravenwolfe... the history of this entire wasteland... is the history of an entire nation that revolves around the life and death of clans.   

You see, unlike the House of Derrilvion which rules behind the Throne, a clan is more than just an elite family made up of a handful of high-ranking purebloods and titulary nobles.

Clans are made up of either firstbloods or halflings who serve and remain loyal to the clan for protection, guidance, and of course, survival. At the barest minimum, they consist of tens of thousands.

All vampires belong to a clan, to say the least. A foundling, or a newly-awakened vampire, cannot walk the earth without a clan protecting it. Awakening, or being turned, means becoming part of a Guardian clan by choice. Most of the time, clans seek the increase of their flock, as this has several advantages, such as more economic support from the purebloods, and of course, more hands to assist the godhead in performing its duties and obligations to the Throne and the nation. 

A clan is, to some extent, like an individual state with its own population and territory. If the governing head or godhead is made to carry an old, traditional title such as Knight-Herald, it is, I guess, to remind him that regardless of the power and influence he carries, he's no more than a servant of the Throne with duties and responsibilities to the House of Derrilvion, The Elysian Council and, in fact, to the entire nation. This also means that the power is nothing but a special favor that can be stripped away by whim or discretion as what happened to the House of Ravenwolfe when the entire clan revolted.

You can say that from the beginning, clans have been fraught with tension as they manage the affairs of the nation and carry all its burden, political and otherwise.

While the purebloods behind it simply sit in the lap of luxury, enjoying the fruit of others' labors.

That sounds like condemnation, I know. But right now, I don't feel so generous. I've got a bone to pick with everyone, the clans, the nobles, especially with the House of Derrilvion, the royalty that founded our very civilization and to whose reins all power must yield. And it's all Mikleo's fault.     

Mikleo and I have been having arguments about the proposal to let him take over the succession of Ravencrowe. I've tried in vain to get Velvet to convince him to stay away, not knowing that Mikleo can be particularly stubborn when it comes to his own sibling, a family matter I couldn't have known. In other words, my strategy backfired. Heading the Enforcers, Velvet knows more than anyone the burden of taking up the responsibilities of an entire clan. Assuming full control over those duties that had once been taken up by the disbanded Ravenwolfe clan is just a part of it.

My part in the Wescraven Purging is largely the trigger that brought about the near-extinction of the Windstalkers, a situation that got us where we are right now. As could be expected, the loss of one Guardian clan meant leaving all the burden of looking after the welfare of every single pureblood in the hands of the two remaining Guardian houses, the Ravencrowe and Ravendalf clans.

I should have succeeded as Knight-Herald of the House of Ravendalf, but I renounced it in the last minute. The reputable Lord Georg Heldalf wasn't happy about it, as could be expected. Giving me the title of Knight-Herald too early was conceivably part of a strategy to let others know of my irreversible succession. Lord Heldalf had been trying to persuade me to take his place since I've decided to join the clan after the incident at Wescraven. But peace being what it is, the coming of the Elizabethan era saw no urgent reason for me to take up the responsibility and the obligation. 

Meanwhile, nations started flourishing, spreading its power through colonies and empires. The Throne did the same.

I traveled the world, learning from ruins and reading from archives. While they languished in dust and gold, I sat back and watched from the shadows.

The world changed, with alliances and loyalties shifting where power and progress seem to thrive. And vampires, having no reason to love or hate the world that neither praised nor rejected them, lurked where human ignorance protected them the most...

In the darkness of myth and taboo, in superstition, and absolutely much, much, later... in pulp fiction and horror movies. 

Then again, we're content to remain a tale at its worst and finest... a story of hidden shadows and dark secrets... a malevolence at peace with its own evils. 

I guess the human world is no different.  

Even if human peace has its charming moments, the world can't seem to stand a beauty that's alive and unchanging so destruction must make it tragic. When the world wars overturned the most grandiose achievements of mankind, the Throne took it as an opportunity to be relevant. I saw myself participating in another holocaust, this time as the captain of Special Operations, 15th division, a military unit formed by the alliance between the League and the Throne.

It's a division assigned to the most conflict-ridden territories that lie at the rim of the League of Nations and the non-legionnaires who have managed to absorb dissenters that belonged to the defunct Ravenwolfe clan, which consisted of some surviving Windstalkers. The truth is, the wars between the Confederate and the League have always involved the Throne as much as any single major conflict in human history did. 

I've seen wholesale slaughter spanning more lifetimes than any human can imagine. Though finding myself at the center of things was never my original intention, the Throne has always managed to be persuasive. The worst I've killed single-handedly was twelve thousand in a span of days, though I've heard exaggerations to make the act more heroic, or monstrous, or both. Back then, the Ravenwolfe House was the biggest among the Guardian clans as it was the first clan of firstbloods to rise to power when the vampire nation has just started building itself, until it came to occupy almost every place in the map. Its spread all over the world could not have been possible without the help of this Guardian clan.

Eventually treaties forced this spread to be confined to territories within the control of the member nations of the League. Of course, no one knows exactly to what extent these treaties are persuasive when submitting to them absolutely meant making concessions and waiving rights and powers that seem an insult to the Throne which wordlessly considers itself the superior race.    

Likewise, extinction is not something the human world can threaten us with. Calling its seat of power the Throne makes you realize that vampires prefer their reality, their universe to be set apart from the human world, as if by labeling their politics differently, they might put a touch of nobility on a conceited tradition.

And most, if not all, political conceits have their roots in the survival of a race in the midst of adversity. Unlike any human civilization though, with the sole exception of the Holocaust of World War II (which took annihilation to a level so close to ours), our survival depends on any one of three known methods of annihilation or execution, as vampires prefer to call it. That said, holy water, garlic, sunlight, crucifixes, driving sharpened stakes through our hearts, even beheading never figured in any of those methods.

As for suicide, such is riddled with so much superstition and taboo among vampires that it's never even pondered. The logic is that, even among wild animals, self-annihilation is rare, almost non-existent, done out of fear of an unknown predator, hence an act of absolute cowardice. I guess it's the strongest reason vampires abhor the taking of one's own life. It's as if in denying their instinct for it, they might deny the existence of the same kind of primal fear, the undignified weakness called cowardice.

Defying this general rule is condoned only in the most humiliating way. Anyone who goes against the natural law is regarded as an aberrant... an abominable aberration who would always be an outsider, thwarted and rejected by any clan, even his own.

Another method that's been similarly eliminated is death by the Throne's official executioners, the Windstalkers. But I've already said enough about its power and influence that had been eroded through centuries of internal conflict with the Throne. I doubt if any pureblood would consider entitling any other clan to the same power and position after that terrifying lesson. Needless to say, the ones I fought at Wescraven were all ruthless slayers like myself. But this kind of killing lies beyond what the Throne considers to be legitimate methods of execution.  

The first of these methods is by the hand of the head of the clan. It all begins with the godhead's innate connection with every single member of his clan, which is forged by choice. As soon as a foundling reaches the age of fifteen, he acquires the right to choose the clan to which he shall be bound for life. There are a few who get chosen by clans, in which case all that's left is to ratify that by accepting the offer or by giving one's absolute, unqualified consent to be a member. The innate connection between clan and foundling is finally sealed by going through the rites of acceptance and allegiance officiated by the clan godhead. From that moment, the connection becomes an unbreakable bond of wills, of obedience and subservience between master and servant that normally remains throughout a vampire's lifetime.

Since the godhead's powers are given to him by the Throne, including the power to form this bond, the connection is temporarily severed when the godhead's title passes to another, but is re-established once a successor takes his place. The Throne merely forges the same relationship with every succeeding godhead, passing onto him the powers and abilities relinquished by the old leadership.

As for the triggering of this connection between godhead and clan member, it seems to be no different from the awakening. Though the abilities behind it are a mystery known only to the Throne, the process is similar to infusing a vampire's mind with a peculiar poison that has the efficacy of hypnosis. Anyone subjected to it becomes vulnerable to the will of the godhead, including his will to let you live or die.

I guess every mind is a vessel of hidden fears. When you're commanded to die, you're given a taste of your darkest shadows... fears so strong and depraved they kill even the will to survive.

I guess it's accurate to say that death by command involves no physical brutality. Nor is it suicide that allows you to voluntarily die by your own hands. It's the worst kind of death that uses your own weakness, your own vulnerability.

That is why those who have the power to command death are more aptly called executioners. Every death must be sanctioned by reasonable justice and carried out by executioners according to certain rites. Even physical acts of killing are never resorted to unless a war calls for it. And any vampire who takes matters in his own hands is not only lawless but the lowest of the low, a worthless aberration.

This might sound strange but a vampire who intends to commit murder against his own kind is supposed to be non-existent, as the desire alone would trigger something so brutal in the mind as to repress the intention.

We are activated by internal switches, psychological maneuverings that lie in the nature of our awakening and, ultimately, in the nature of the powers of the Throne and the purebloods who designed us this way.

Something about it, though, must be hardly magical. Even among humans, there are those who can never lay hands on another, even if given free choice without consequences. Quite the reverse, there are those who could and would kill for various reasons, justified or not. 

This invariably emphasizes the fact that every clan member is mere property, to be disposed in the manner chosen by its godhead. As every execution must be just, it is likewise the godhead that warrants the form of justice it chooses to serve. The Throne steps in only if questions arise as to a godhead's conduct in relation to the entire clan, or if the controversy threatens the peace and order of the nation that it needs to be elevated to the courts.

What seems clear from the Throne's perspective is that we are a nation of vampires that have no killers, only executioners. I guess it's also in our nature to suffer a most untypical death, a reprieve that's impossible to conceive from a human perspective.  

The second method of annihilation is by the hand of the Weaver.

Weavers are purebloods who know the mystery of awakening latent vampires. Like godheads who can command their clan members to die by sheer will, a Weaver wields the same power over the foundling he's awakened. Though the ability doesn't give them free discretion to kill, the mere existence of such an ability helps keep their children or foundlings in line.

That said, my Weaver was convicted and sentenced to death centuries ago by no less than the Elysian Council. Because of it, I've been considered fortunate as it meant I have no higher power to fear or bow down to... at least since my Weaver's execution.

But if I'd be honest, that's far from the truth since my fears have never been about me...

I fear for someone else, and, of course, that's none other than Mikleo. Of all things, his Weaver is Lunarre... a despicable member of the house of nobles, the House of Derrilvion, no less... someone notoriously called the Deranged even among purebloods... an extreme loyalist and fundamentalist as politicians might call him, but in simpler words, he's truly no more than an armchair terrorist... a sadistic, halfling antagonist with an insatiable contempt for Mikleo's kind. It goes without saying that he's the only vampire I despise beyond any disgust I've ever felt since the day I found out about this secret... which brings me to the last method... the final, inevitable resort when everything else fails.

Myself. I guess I'm the only other alternative, the third option or the exception to every rule that restricts everyone else.

You see, unlike others I need no power to command death. There's nothing to keep me from killing anyone, human or vampire if I choose to.

Unlike others I have instincts neither controlled nor propelled by any natural law that applies to the entire race. While others would be stopped in the middle of the act of murder or slaughter by some lethal, subconscious impulse that prevents the crime from being executed, I have nothing, no impulse or internal switch, to keep me from dealing the final blow. 

I slay by the sword, or with any other weapon you might wish, with my very own hands if I will it, or if I choose to bend to someone else's.

I was supposed to be a weapon of war, not an executioner. But in truth, there's a very thin line separating the two, just as there's hardly any difference between genius and madness... 

And like any other mystery, no one can explain why I have this ability... an executioner's ability that needs no assistance from the Throne or any pureblood. Unlike Weavers and godheads whose abilities are awakened, suppressed, relinquished or withdrawn as deemed by the ruling nobility, I have no limits. Godheads, Knight-Heralds, whichever they are called, can only wield this power over all members of their clan, excluding all others. Weavers are even more restricted as they can only exercise the same powers and abilities with respect to the foundlings they've awakened. 

As such, I'm the aberration everyone fears as much as hates. I guess the contempt is enough to make me the perfect weapon... a lord of calamity by any other name.

I hardly doubt that most purebloods feel the same. I feel their presence ripple with palpable fear around me despite the fact that they imagine I live only to protect them, their Throne, and their accursed power. But to be hated and feared as a weapon was never something I considered life-changing, really... not until I made Mikleo my chosen.

If I can be the shield between him and the Throne, I can live with any curse... even this aberration.

I love him more than anything there is to love in the world... more than anything I've ever truly loved. Without him nothing matters... and for that alone, I'll make this aberration the very sword that protects life... his life and the lives of those he holds dear even if it means driving back our gods and demons to the deepest netherworlds.  

Speaking of which, since we boarded this train, not once has Mikleo even looked at me. 

Here's someone who holds my heart, my life in his hands. It's a power to die for, I imagine conceitedly. And yet the only one at the end of my gaze always, my chosen, has been ignoring me this whole time... 

Not that I can blame him. I guess I should've held myself back the last time we argued about the same thing. I guess I just can't let go of the idea that once he takes over as godhead of the House of Ravencrowe, things will be different. Being a godhead of a firstblood clan is one thing. It's hell enough.

But Ravencrowe is a clan of halflings... and halflings are the secret abomination of the most prejudiced in the nation. 

And that's where my selfish love comes in.

I don't want Mikleo in a place where all ire shall be upon him. I don't think my heart can take all the worrying.

It's enough to turn me into a walking malevolence. My obsession to keep him safe won't ever let me sheath my sword again. 

But my worst fear doesn't end there. Knowing Mikleo, he would give his best to be the highest ideal the nation has always needed. And that's where I can't reach him... those places not out there but here... places in the mind and the heart that he can keep secret from me. 

I can tell from his eyes that he's begun to think of faraway things again... places where he needs to go alone... places where I can't be with him.

It's the reason I hate seeing him embroiled in politics. Let Velvet handle all the complications, for all I care. Besides, a female godhead is a refreshing idea, also a position she deserves more than anyone. Velvet's strength and resilience are difficult to match, something I've confirmed many times that any vampire who doubts her by reason of her sex should just try to best her in any battle to see what I mean.

More than that, we both know the odds. Accepting the position once held by the defunct Ravenwolfe clan, the Ravencrowe godhead would be at risk of exposing every halfling to the same potential dangers that beset the House of Ravenwolfe.

I can't imagine a repeat of Wescraven, the horrific purging of an entire clan....

I can't imagine the horrors of being commanded to deal with the Enforcers the same way I dealt with the Windstalkers...

I can't risk seeing Mikleo die in my own hands or anybody else's. The very thought of it drives me mad.

When that happens, crushing the Throne will never be enough. Even if the entire nation begged for forgiveness, I would not accept amends.

The excesses of the Throne are infinite, and Velvet and I know this too well. We both agree she's better suited to take on the pressure of satisfying an impossibly selfish lot of spoiled nobles. More than that, we both want what's best for Mikleo. Sadly, he sees our efforts to protect him as a confirmation of his weakness.

Mikleo's not weak, and Velvet knows this as much as I do. If anything, his idealism is his greatest strength, but that's where the danger lies.

The Throne can use that idealism to push him over the edge. In politics, there are those who will arouse your sense of justice, manipulate you with flattery, and make you out to be the hero everyone's been hoping for. They'd flaunt your accomplishments to the enemy to incite the most violent jealousies then dash you down with every single one of your mistakes.

If only I can make him understand...

Mikleo believes his idealism should reach those places where it's most needed... in an arena where he has the power to realize those ideals. But he doesn't know the purebloods like I do.

He doesn't know the corruption that reeks behind the beauty of the Throne...

Across from where I sat, Mikleo seemed listless, taking in the view outside the window with a silence that only fuels my longing. It's ironic that here we are in a room all by ourselves, and yet we seem to be worlds away from each other. 

I can hear the footfalls of the guards making regular rounds. The engine makes a lot of noise, and as trains go, the movement along the rails always includes an occasional disturbance that throws you off... like a bad joke. 

Needless to say, it's a really old-fashioned train, a steam-driven one. After the nuclear holocaust of three years ago that drove civilizations once more to the brink of war and other nameless disasters, technology started its backward trek to the past.

I'm suddenly reminded of another war hundreds of years ago. There was Europe... remnants of fallen castles and cathedrals... ghosts playing among the wildflowers of Normandy...

And even back then, it has always been trains.   

I notice Mikleo's eyes fluttering with a slight panic as the drone of flying planes above us becomes apparent despite the noise of the engine beneath us.

I watch him pale and suppress his panic. I exhale slowly, already worrying about him.

"Mikleo, you really don't hate planes, do you?" 

Another reason I asked has to do with a particular, insistent dream I've been having for several nights now. It's that vision of him looking back at me from the pilot's cockpit. I strain to see his face, but a scarf flutters between us. Like feathers torn from a wing, it hides everything save his smile...

Surprisingly, the entire scene is just that... the two of us in one of those old-fashioned, war-beaten kamikazes soaring over the ocean. I imagine our plane looking like a tiny dragonfly riding the wind, not flying but floating it seems, above a seamless blue that seems to stretch forever...

Thoughts of that dream suddenly dissipate as Mikleo throws me a furtive glance. His eyes begin to smile more than his lips as he makes a huffing sound after giving my question some thought.

"I don't think I can afford that kind of fear, Sorey. But, just between us, I prefer trains any day."

I smile back. "It's not impossible to take you flying then?"

Mikleo winces. "You know I hate heights."

"For someone small and cute, that's just fine. Gives me a reason to hold your hand the entire time."

Mikleo exhales with a scowl. "Can't believe you really said that."

I chuckle, yearning for him all over again. "Sorry, just dying to get your attention."

"Well, you just did."

I whistled, and it seemed like he was about to laugh. I took advantage of the moment.

"Can I sit next to you?"

His gaze shifts to the door beyond which you'll hear occasional footfalls. As I've mentioned, there are guards making rounds every now and then, or every fifteen minutes to be exact. Well, of course, the reason is that some high-security personnel and important men-in-uniform are traveling with us. I suddenly wish it's the only reason Mikleo seems more stiff and formal than usual... something that makes him even more interesting to watch.

"You can," he tells me, but then his eyebrows curve into a slight frown. "Though the question is, can you keep your hands to yourself?"

I slipped next to Mikleo and without warning, lifted his chin to kiss those lips that have been tempting me for hours. We haven't had the chance to kiss all morning, and it was making me a bit moody.

"S-Sorey!" he hissed, his irritation more subdued than usual.

"What? You should've asked that first before giving me permission."

He looked visibly annoyed, but I could live with that as my lips brushed his earlobes, and I intertwined our fingers on my chest to keep him from pushing me away. When I finally caught his mouth, I pressed against him more urgently, one hand cupping his face, another holding him by the nape.

By the time I let him break the kiss, we were both breathless.

"Gods, Sorey, what's got into you? What if someone peeped through that door? It's not like we can let them-"

"See us? Wouldn't it be charming if everyone found out?"

"This again..." Mikleo huffed, crossing his arms across his chest. "I thought we already agreed..."

"Yeah, we did... but I didn't have to be happy about it." I pushed my hands behind my head and sank lazily on the couch.

His stare, though still annoyed, was enough to make me feel warm and loved.

It didn't take long for his gaze to flit back to the scenery outside the window. It makes me jealous just watching him look at something else for minutes as if there are far more important things out there that require such focus, such seamless concentration.

I timed the footfalls. The moment they passed outside our door, I grabbed Mikleo by the waist, pulling him into my arms.

"S-Sore-"

"Happy anniversary, love..."

I kissed him hard, making him feel my jealous need for his undivided attention. I pushed my hand between his legs, giving his cock a squeeze.

He threw his head back, a moan escaping him. In the next second, I was down on my knees, my mouth buried in the folds of his unzipped pants.

I was sucking him off as his fingers dug into my collar, scratching my neck and shoulder and clawing my hair as he let his cum explode in my mouth.

His desire petered out in seconds, and only because he's unusually nervous when I do these things. I don't know why but the idea of getting caught in the middle of an intimate act is enough to make him unbelievably angry.

Right now, that seems fairly obvious... my face between his legs, his head thrown back... both of us chasing our breaths...

And a nearby clock ticking away as if to remind us that fifteen minutes is all we have...  

Shock and disbelief were written all over him as I wiped the corner of my lips. He looked away, but I could catch his eyes misting as I kissed his wrist and apologized.

You can say we're acting like irresponsible teenagers... maybe even worse.

Though the next few moments passed without incident, Mikleo didn't speak to me for the rest of the day.

And for the first time, I realized how his unreadable silence could give me more heartache than breaking the worst taboo... by boarding this train in No Man's Land.  

 

o-----)O(-----o

 

"They say learning to love requires mastery of the art of letting go.

But I haven't seen 'art' that can make any pain beautiful."

-Conversations with Alisha Diphda, from the unpublished A Queen's Journal: Centuries After the Throne

 

o-----)o(-----o

 

 

21 May 2099

4:20 p.m.

 

... that day we headed back from the ruins... also Mikleo's first day on the base

 

"Hey there, Captain Ravendalf."

I turned to see a tall, lanky fellow with a comely face and piercing blue eyes walk up to us. By now, with centuries of practice, I can tell colors even when I don't see them as I should. Besides, I know everyone's eye color... shades that are too familiar like the color of blood and bruises... the colors of pain and death. 

As usual, Sergeant von Reiber was all smiles when our eyes met. Instead of shaking hands, we nodded at each other in greeting. He was the first to spot us as soon as Mikleo and I arrived at the base.

Mikleo stepped up next to me from behind, and almost at once, I noticed the sergeant giving him long glances. 

I guess my jealousy would've been provoked if the sergeant's awkward uneasiness wasn't too comical for words.

"Uh-oh, w-welcome back," he stammered, scratching the back of his head. "Everyone's been expecting you since, uh, yesterday. W-we thought you and captain-uh..."

"Rulay," Mikleo supplied quickly.

"R-right, s-sorry about that," the young sergeant apologized, looking even more flustered as he tried to hold Mikleo's gaze. "We-err, uh, imagined all kinds of things that might have happened along the way-"

"Then again, you being you, we knew you'd manage somehow," Colonel Ralph von Wolverne interposed from afar, walking up to us as he did. He seemed to be giving the sergeant time to compose himself as we exchanged salutes. "We're glad you made it back all right."  

Mikleo shook hands with the colonel. "I appreciate your worrying, but something really did happen. The bike was in a terrible shape after we've triggered a mine. Captain Ravendalf had to salvage what we found along the way for parts. Fortunately we survived with only minor scratches."

"And the rain last night was pretty bad," I added, doing my best not to get distracted by the sergeant's stealthy glances that Mikleo ignored pretty much.

In any case, the fact that Mikleo was able to recite those details without conferring with me gave me mixed feelings of anxiety and relief. To his credit, his innocence was such a stark contrast it couldn't have made the lie more credible. In fact, the colonel didn't bother to fish for details, even when we did our best to look prepared.

Just as he was about to leave, the colonel slammed a notebook to my chest. I couldn't help frowning.

"The computer's not working as usual. But I need a report just the same. Love your handwriting by the way," he smirked, pushing the notebook a little bit harder onto me. I had little choice but to hold onto it as the colonel turned to leave.

I caught Mikleo covering his mouth.

"What?"

He struggled to keep a straight face. "Good luck, soldier."

"Oh, by the way, captain," the colonel hollered as he stood at the doorway of the supplies warehouse from which he had emerged before speaking. "We got word that a certain Lieutenant Commander Dipda is dropping by for a visit. She's arriving tonight... so... I dunno... since there isn't much to do, maybe you guys can see what you can do to help around."

Though Alisha's scheduled arrival had been unexpected, I couldn't let it bother me. "By around, what do you have in mind, colonel?"

He shrugged. "Not sure, but you can ask the boys. They're in the kitchen. Ready to peel some potatoes?"

I saw Mikleo give me a strained look. "I thought we'd have a briefing..."

The colonel scratched his head a little embarrassingly. "Uh, sorry captain-uh..."

"Rulay."

"Oh, right. We're a bit informal here, you see. Dinner won't be ready until seven, so until then, just help yourselves in the kitchen if you're hungry. In the meantime, everyone's busy with preparations for the commander and her entourage, you might say... I mean, it's a chore but... we gotta be gracious even if times are hard."

"I bet we should..." I groaned back, not certain as to how to explain such things to Mikleo. As if things like these can be explained. 

I guess when you have a base of operations that rarely gets enough attention from headquarters unless the armory's been bombed or more than half of the men under our command have been reduced to casualties, you begin to treat every non-life-threatening irregularity as a minor diversion to thank the gods for.

"Oh, and one more thing. Since we're not done yet trying to clean up and fix the place, the shower rooms are unavailable. Until then you can use the spring to take a bath... if you really need it at the moment..."

I frowned, not hesitating to show my disapproval. "Look, I know we don't have the best showers around here, but asking Captain Rulay to do it outdoors the way we do is-I mean... we rarely go that far unless we've had no encounters for weeks."

"Hey, Ravendalf, whatever happened to chivalry?"

I caught Mikleo's dangerous huff that seems to say, What the fuck, you think I'm a girl?

The colonel kept talking, not even mindful of our obvious discomfort. "Besides, real men don't need hours to do that sort of thing. Might as well look out for the kid while he's at it."

"K-kid?" Mikleo was flustered.

"As for his own room, think you can share yours for tonight? We're reserving the remaining quarters for our guests."

The colonel disappeared by then and left us to ourselves. Mikleo stared back, speechless.

His shock, discomfort, and apprehension were enough to make him look years younger, almost making me laugh. He gave me a look of absolute incredulity, and it was enough for my hopeless yearning to want to kiss him all over again... not that I can, though, without attracting unwanted attention.

"Uh, wanna see my room?" I offered.

Mikleo looked visibly shaken. "Maybe later. Or not until I've showered."

I took his hand quickly and drew a circle on his palm. He flinched and looked around nervously.

"Stop it, you maniac."

I grinned, leaning a little to whisper over his shoulder. "Just make sure you're ready by bedtime. I won't be as lenient."

Mikleo huffed. "Confident aren't we? I've slept in better camps before... even the best don't have sound-proof walls."

"Why, captain, whatever do we need them for?" I asked glibly. "Unless you're having dirty thoughts..."

"M-me?" Mikleo crossed his arms over his chest. "I'll make you pay for saying that, Captain Ravendalf."

It's my turn to flinch when he turned on his heels, completely unmindful of my apologies as I chased after him.

Somehow, I've managed to keep all wayward thoughts of intimacy away until hours later. By then, it's become clear that Mikleo wanted secrecy and restraint even when I've already made him my chosen.

And even when it's going to be torture for an alpha like myself to ignore the heats.     

      

o-----)O(-----o

 

Alisha Diphda's journal

21 May 2099

 

... on the way to one of the League's bases on the war front

 

"So I guess we needed a diversion, huh?"

"Shut up, Rose."

"Uh, c'mon, Alisha. When have I ever been a disappointment? If I didn't let us get caught-"

"You didn't let us, Rose. We just got caught, thanks to you."

"You really thought we could slip past the Admiral's sensor without detection?"

"You were able to do it once."

"Yeah, true, and what happened? We were picked up by a dorky dude in a green uniform and returned to base. Not to mention that dorky dude becoming what? Your crush of a lifetime."

Alisha seemed flustered, looking away. "He's got a name, you know." 

"Yeah, well, I don't wanna know. It breaks my heart just thinking about him."  

Maltran, who has been listening to the conversation, could hardly keep herself from interrupting. It seems obvious Alisha can't win this argument on her own, but Rose is a special case. Maltran has never seen the Princess so unguarded, so un-princess-like. Only Rose can bring out this side of Alisha as if they're halves of a whole that though broken will always strive to find its missing piece.

Kindred souls... it's rare to see such immense, intense compatibility among vampires. The closest thing to it is too intimate for comparison... the one reserved for someone's chosen. And where it concerns Alisha, Maltran wants to believe that the secret is hers to keep.

"Uh, Alisha just asking since we've got nothing better to do until this stupid cargo plane lands... gods, what a way to treat royalty, huh?" Rose lifts a leg and rests it on Alisha's lap, making Maltran furious enough to want to kick it away. "What is it with chosens? I mean, I'm already twenty-one, and I haven't found mine, have you?"

Alisha tries to keep a straight face. "N-no."

"How about that guy in uniform I saw you talking to? He's a beauty... though I don't think you're a good match. He's too beautiful to be a man... and I mean beautiful, not just pretty... you know, the kind of face that mesmerizes. If it were me, I'd feel so jealous of his looks I wouldn't know whether to love him or kill him."

"You speak of Captain Rulay. I believe he's just a friend..." Maltran supplied, sensing Alisha's discomfort.

"Oh, really?"

"It's true..." Alisha says softly.

"How about that other guy, the one you liked since you were seven? He's very good-looking... wonder how many thousands of years old he is..."

"Well, every single one we met is at least hundreds of years old..." Alisha smiles nervously.

Rose nods with a scowl. "Yeah, being twenty-one makes us both babies, don't you think? Can't see myself bound to the oldest bachelor in the universe, can you Maltran?"

"Captain Ravendalf is one of the oldest bachelors around. But he looks no older than either of you."

"Oh, I've only heard of him but haven't met him in person," Rose quips.

"I believe you had," Maltran says, looking at Alisha briefly before closing her eyes. In the next minute, she was dozing off.   

"Well, let's hope we never find our fated pair..."

Alisha frowns in mild curiosity. "Why is that?"

Rose throws Alisha a small notebook, though upon closer inspection, it turns out to be a private journal.

Alisha flashes Rose a quizzical look. "And this is?"

"Someone's secret. I snitched it from the archives last night."

"No, you didn't."

"Hey, I was bored. Besides, it's all about sex, and mating, and finding one's chosen. Interesting, isn't it?"

Alisha sighed. "You wouldn't do something like this for a flimsy reason. I know you too well for that."

Rose huffed. "All right, fine, I was visiting, then I saw someone pull it out of a dresser that's not even hers because both of us were guests? Anyway, I'm not telling whose room it was and who those itchy hands belonged to..."

"Then you just took what she-I mean... isn't that-"

"Bad? Heck, I haven't done anything so evil for weeks now, makes me feel like I'm not myself lately. So I had to think of something. Still, that guy's practically too notorious to beat overnight and not by the likes of me. I'm such an amateur."

"I think I know more than you're willing to say, though." Alisha frowns, torn between plucking the broken lock to inspect the pages within, or to return the stolen goods to Rose. 

If Maltran were not around to overhear, Alisha would have voiced that the journal belonged to a certain Madame Rouvulet, an eccentric woman known for her collection of antiques and old memorabilia. For a pureblood noble, she's been accused of petty theft more than several times. Her knack of stealthily taking other people's private possessions with the flimsy excuse that it was a subconscious impulse or an honest mistake, and she'd be willing to pay if one insisted anyway has been regarded by those who knew her as a harmless quirk more shameless than dangerous... a bad habit and a minor inconvenience that can be condoned by looking  the other way.     

"If you're not reading it, I'll tell you what it says. It says that purebloods like us can only mate with other purebloods. And since there are very few purebloods around since forever, it also says there's the possibility of our generation ending up in some harem... since pureblood males can have as many chosens as they want. Unfair isn't it?"

"Well..." Alisha clears her throat. "It's not like they can force us into harems if we don't want that. In this day and age, I'm sure that sort of practice is frowned upon, even by humans. I don't think anyone, even the Throne, would tolerate such a barbaric tradition..."

"You think so? Unfortunately, purebloods can only transfer the ability for awakening by mating with another pureblood. We all know not all purebloods have the gift of awakening. But only purebloods can receive the gift. So mating with one who has awakening abilities would be the wisest alternative. The more Weavers we have, the more likely some of us might awaken a pureblood foundling out there."

"Do you think you... have the gift, Rose?"

"I'm not counting on it. There must be a sign, though it's sort of a big secret nobody wants to talk about. Like parenting. Purebloods are obliged to adopt pureblood foundlings or those who bear the same mark as we do right after awakening."

Alisha touches the scar on her chest, the one just a little above her left breast. "The mark of our birthright... the mark of a pureblood awakened..."

"Right. But I heard there hasn't been a pureblood foundling since two decades now. We're like the last generation so far... and that means you and me, Alisha... well, plus a handful somewhere out there we don't even know."

"But what if..." Alisha hesitates, looking a little flustered. "What if a pureblood chooses a firstblood as his chosen... it's possible, isn't it?"

"You want me to ask around? Seriously?"

"No, I mean.. I thought there must be something about that here..."

"I don't know. All that little book says is horrid stuff... like what happens when purebloods lose their mate."

"So what happens then?"

"Insanity."

Alisha's eyes widen.

Rose looks up as if to recall significant details. "I suppose it happens when the bond weakens or a mate repudiates it. The causes are a mystery, but there are cases... a number of them spanning centuries... that remain heavily guarded. The insanity is supposed to have no known cure."

Maltran seemed to have overheard as she cocked an eye open at Rose. Flying makes her sleepy but not quite to keep her from waking at the slightest disturbance.

"The worst agony is a gift compared to living a life of perpetual madness. If only for that, I'm thankful that halflings such as myself have no chosens to bind them."

"I wouldn't count on it, Maltran," Rose quipped, crossing her arms behind her head as she stretched lazily, cushioned on Alisha's lap. "As most general rules have exceptions, even the most normal circumstances can produce aberrations."

"But I do agree about madness being the most cruel sort of punishment, don't you?"

"I guess you have a point there, Alisha. But whoever owns that journal must have a strong sense of irony."

"Meaning?" Maltran asks, curiosity obviously piqued.

"It says, if anything, the truly insane are the ones who must be truly immortal."

Maltran winces. "The logic is questionable."

"I'm not so sure..." Rose drawls, but with the slightest shiver. "But I guess it also makes sense. After all... someone who has already lost his mind has no mind any executioner can command to die..."

 

o-----)O(-----o          

 

... on the same day, early evening or a bit after 

 

"You should have waited for me..."

Mikleo suddenly drew back as my voice disrupted the subdued silence of the spring. Even as I approached, I couldn't help admiring the scene before me... his profile emerging from the water underneath him, his slender throat arching forward as he turned to look at me.

His hair, wet from splashing, glistened silver under the moonlight, following the heart-shaped contour of his face.

I began stripping myself in a frenzy. Mikleo watched me with widened eyes.

"Sorey, what do you think you're--good lord!"

I made a loud splash as I dived headlong into the pool, rising right in front of him. He shook off droplets of water that stung his eyes as I inevitably splashed some onto him.

"Can you, like, stop playing around already--hey!" He rubbed his eyes like a child as more water hit his face, and I started laughing.

It was a convenient strategy. He was so open to attack with his eyes closed like that and his hands trying to shield himself. 

"Missed me?" I kissed him tenderly, though tender was hardly on my mind when I decided to follow him in secret.

"I thought I lost you. Okay, that wasn't meant to be romantic. I really wanted to lose you..."

I pushed him toward the side of the pool, where a rock enclosure would make it easier for me to barricade him. "Try losing me now..."

I caught his thighs underneath the water and wrapped them around my hips. Mikleo had the most incredulous look in his eyes.

"I wonder what it feels like to do you right here..."

The captain of the 9th division gave me a sour look. "I don't think you're just curious."

"Want me inside you right now?"

"Sorey, it's only been hours since we did that."

"Just one is long enough. I love you."

Mikleo stared at me in disbelief. "I somehow doubt the intention behind those three words."

I held him by the hand. "You're my chosen... I'm sure you've felt it after everything we did. I couldn't have knotted with you if I was just playing around..."

"You're playing around now." Mikleo looked away, his face a deep red as I could tell by the slightest changes in his complexion. 

"Am I the only one? You're hard down there... must be imagining what kinds of things I plan on doing to you next."

Without waiting for him to resist me again, I started stroking him.

The water around us shook and lapped our chests violently, most of it splashing him thoroughly. 

"Hey-stop-Sorey... gods... it..."

"M-Mikleo?" I could only stare, dumbstruck.

He was laughing, the silvery sound of his laughter filling my senses in a way that I could never hope to forget even if I tried. It was the first time I've heard him laugh like that, and the first time I've felt he had won me over completely and forever.

He looked at me, eyes misting. "It-it really tickles... uh... Sorey?"

Wordlessly, I let my body move on its own and press him harder. I entered him like that, his legs around my hips, my hands on his waist, his face cradled between my neck and shoulder.

My entire body pulsated with want and longing.  

Oh god, I missed you...

I didn't even bother to look around to see if anyone was coming when I know I should have. I just wanted to be inside him that moment, to confirm with my body that he was mine, all mine... even this laughter, this breath... all these sounds spreading from his lips, all of them mine...

It's not just the heat or this persistent mating ritual that lasts for days, weeks, even months. Time seems to move differently when we're together like this.

When he threw his head back, his white, white throat glistened so gracefully. I leaned forward to catch it...

I knotted before long, rocking my hips against him as I groaned out my pleasure. He sagged against me when he released moments earlier, his face pushed against my neck and shoulder as he quietly waited for me to finish. 

He was shivering from the cold by the time my knot calmed down. I pulled out of him slowly, groaning at the tightness that made my cock quiver again, as if to tell me how insatiable I've become.

Mikleo seemed content to lean on me, barely breathing with all the exertion I put him through.

"Sorry, that took longer than expected," I tell him, my breath catching as I kiss him on the lips.

He blinked at me, his index finger reaching up to feel something on his throat.

"It hurts a little here..."

I lifted his chin and saw a bruise already beginning to turn into a dark circle against his pale, white skin. I felt embarrassed.

He must have guessed by the look on my face. "It's that bad, huh?"

I scratched my cheek. "Y-no... yeah, uh, pretty much." I kissed the top of his head, then his forehead, thinking how vulnerable he makes me feel even with his smallest injuries. "Sorry, I'll lend you a scarf when we get back."

Mikleo exhaled loudly. "Can you be a little gentle next time, then?        

I kissed him on the shoulder. "You know I'd love to. But whenever you bring it up, my body starts acting like you mean the opposite."

"So should I say, do it harder, Sorey?" 

My thighs tingled as I felt my cock twitch. I almost cursed under my breath.

"Uh... on second thought, that's a bit more dangerous. But I'm not discouraging it..."

I wrapped my arms around him, urging him to lie against me with my shoulder as his pillow. He stopped shivering and snuggled closer. 

"You're really warm..."

"Glad it's working," I told him, chuckling to myself.

"Do you... think we should head back?"

I gazed up at the moon, at the shadows dancing in the canopy of trees above us and the soothing softness of a starlit sky beyond that...

I breathed in Mikleo's hair. "Not really. Do you?"

He was quiet for a while. "Can you sing for me?"

I stepped back a little to look at him in disbelief. "Is that a lover's wish, or are you... just looking for a weakness?"

"What if it's both?"

"How about giving me an order, Captain?" I teased.

"I don't think it's the same..."

The softness in his eyes that rarely showed itself for more than a few seconds was enough to get me started. I began humming wordlessly.

"Sorey... don't you think you're missing something?"

"Isn't my voice enough?" I kissed him softly, laughing through it. "If you want more, it'll cost you."

"W-well if you put it that way... how do I pay you then?"

"You think I'd let you?" I stared at him for a long time. "But if it's a favor you owe me, I'm not gonna let you off the hook easily... just saying, Mikleo."

"Fine, do what you want," he retorted icily as I bent down to kiss him.

"Later. We're rooming together, aren't we?" I asked, catching his wrist next.

"You're not serious!"

"But I am, Mikleo. I'm not teasing when I say I'll have you for hours non-stop. I'll grind into you like there's no tomorrow, and I won't pull out 'til morning." 

He must've felt my arousal beginning to stir just by those words alone. He suddenly looked shy and embarrassed, like a teenager all over again, making my body even more restless as I began to imagine all sorts of things we could do in bed...

"Only if I like your singing. Otherwise, you'd be rolling a mat on the floor."

"Make me." I reached for him again, my hands palming his silky, smooth skin. "I can get everyone drunk so we won't be needing sound-proof walls..."

"You're atrocious, Sorey! I don't think any wall is enough to keep your voice-"

"Hey, I'm just a bit louder than you!"

"No, you're not!"

His embarrassed voice was not meant to tease, but I'm helpless to it just the same. I touch his lips with the tip of a finger. "I love you, and that's not a secret that'd be easy for me to keep. Nothing about you is easy to hide, Mikleo..."

"You're so good with words."

"Only when I'm telling the truth."

"You're song must be just as impressive then," he tells me haughtily, and I knew right away he's teasing me now.

"Oh, you'll like it," I told him quietly, pushing some strands off his face. "It's an old song that I've... always liked myself."

He laughs at that. "You really sound old, Sorey."

"And you're such a baby. That's why it really suits you."

Mikleo seemed embarrassed, pushing his face down my chest. "You better sound good if you want me... that much later..."

"I do, Mikleo... want you," I told him, lifting his chin to me. "So I will..." By then, I started humming...

 

You give your hand to me, and then you say, 'hello'

And I can hardly speak, my heart is beating so

And anyone can tell, you think you know me well

Well, you don't know me...

 

No, you don't know the one who dreams of you at night

And longs to kiss your lips, and longs to hold you tight

Oh, I'm just a friend, that's all I've ever been

'Cause you don't know me...

 

For I never knew the art of making love

Though my heart aches with love for you

Afraid and shy I let my chance go by

A chance that you might love me too...

 

You give your hand to me, and then you say 'goodbye'

I watch you walk away, I'm not the lucky guy...

Oh, you'll never know, the one who loves you so

You don't know me...

 

You'll never know, the one who loves you so

Well, you don't know me...

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

I can see, see you there

Hanging weightless in the air

Wind and sunlight in your hair

I can see you...

I can see you there...

 

Broken glass, a bleeding wrist

A second chance, for a simple kiss

I waited for you at the edge

Could you take such a risk?

 

Who is to say

Who is to know the truth?

When no one is left

And nothing they said

Can save you?

 

Who is to say, who is to blame

And who will you give yourself to? 

When nobody wants

More than I want you

When nobody wants you like I do?

 

-originally by Black Lab, "Weightless" (Unplugged),

performed by No Light for Inferno's Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

10 November 2879

4:15 a.m.

 

... tomorrow's another anniversary... of being on my own since that day

 

I guess seven hundred and sixty-eight years doesn't seem all that long... not when all you can do is think about that moment.

Then again, I'm too old to be fooling myself.

Lying to myself all these years might have helped, but god knows I'm a bad liar... even to myself.

In truth, waiting feels like an eternity every single second of those years. It's an emptiness that feels more dead than dying.

Guess tonight is no different. I've always hoped getting drunk could keep me from waking. But it never does. 

It only gives me nightmares.  

Worse, it's the nightmare that wakes me up and keeps me awake. 

I guess what makes nights like these so hateful is the fact that even in my dreams I can't save him.

Then again, how do you save someone who wouldn't be saved?

How do you hold on to someone who's already taken every little piece of you that mattered? 

The litany of my horrible self never gets tired. It just keeps coming back... in dreams... in endless memories of him that whisper like dead echoes in the dark, keeping alive those words you'd give anything and everything to hear when you wake up. 

That's how I know I'm cursed.

This curse of life kills me from within every single day, but it won't let me die.

 

Why can't I just die and be with him?

 

I'm beginning to understand what Mikleo must have felt then... the anguish of wanting something no one can ever give you.

I knew I was cruel... too cruel to give him his one, final wish. It was a wish I would deny him again and again even if I have to go through hell for it.

 

I'm sorry, love...

I'm sorry that I can't ever let you rest in peace.

I'm sorry for wanting you this way even if it only hurts us both.

It's cruel, I know... far more cruel than any hate I've ever known.

But I can't lie to you, I won't lie to you.

Even if you hate me, if it means we can be together like this-

I won't let heaven or hell take you. So go ahead, do your worst.

Haunt me, curse me, hate me if it'll make you stay just a little bit longer.

Whatever you do, just promise me one thing:

Please, Mikleo... don't ever let me wake up...

   

You're right, I'm a demon through and through, praying for a miracle he knows no god can ever give.

After all, gods and demons alike, we're all cursed to live forever.

We're nothing but lost souls looking for a place to die... to be forgiven, and to be free.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

22 May 2100

6:25 p.m.

 

... the Cathedral, about two days by train through No Man's Land

 

"Vampire hierarchies are here for a reason. Those who disagree do not understand what this nation stands for.

We are a nation of vampires. No, we are an empire greater than the greatest there is, ever was, and ever will be.

Our future is one of infinite possibilities.

Where there is loss, we have permanence.

Where there is love and hate, we have loyalty.

Where there is death, we have eternity... the rule of constants to guide us.

Immortal we are, unchanged we shall be. None can be greater, stronger, and more beautiful.

We are the envy of every race, the end to which all civilization in time must surrender.

Therefore, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our laws, our traditions

For those are the only things we need to live on..."

 

Absurd as it sounds, being stuck on a train for two days can't be worse than listening to Lunarre punctuate that argument.

That aside, I've always suspected that twisted minds have a charm that convinces way too easily. Even if what he did was just state the obvious, anything spoken with rhyme and a bit of reason would sound brilliant if the audience already agrees.

Since I can't be too deliberate, I let my gaze slip back to Mikleo while shoving my anxiety deep down. Secrecy is a pain since you can't be too careful while trying to make things look unintentional, inadvertent. I have to watch myself with every gaze, every glance that always wanders back to him no matter how I try not to. To everyone around me, even to Velvet maybe, my chosen seems unmoved, unfazed by that speech.

But I know Mikleo well enough to sense the mystery hidden beneath his indifference. No matter how benign on the surface, his thoughts always run deep, like an epiphany that throws you off not because it was unexpected, but because it was there all along, like a secret you could never have guessed.

The problem is, Lunarre wouldn't have been called the Deranged even among purebloods if he could easily be fooled. Expect an ambitious bastard like him to manipulate any situation in his favor. And it's easy to tell from his smile how much he enjoys and loathes the way it all falls into place so easily as if he was expecting some resistance.

Lunarre probably knew that beneath Mikleo's calm exterior was a brewing idealism aching to be defended... an idealism every, single halfling thought could come true one day... if only no pureblood would get in the way. Sadly, that only makes it even more tempting for Lunarre to intercept it.

In the sinister depths of that soulless abyss he harbors within, some part of Lunarre must be aching for opposition, a conflict capable of immortalizing him in everyone's memory as the Deranged who changed the course of this nation's history. Knowing him, I'm sure he's looking for a rival worthy of his ridicule, an idealist like Mikleo who will never bow down to his threats... an enemy who will never concede or surrender even if Lunarre commands all the odds against him.

And it's not even Lunarre's reputation for absurdity that makes this frightening. It's the fact that the pureblood is one, brilliant madman... a genius who can persuade every single member of his kind to listen to his reasoning with or without logic to back it up. Right now, the Throne seems perfectly convinced... as is everyone else applauding his words. I doubt if anyone even understands the weight of his presumptuous conceits.  

Then again, if you think about it, maybe the beauty of madness is that it will never be understood.

Lunarre gestures to the audience, and a strange kind of calm seems to settle around us like an ancient curse.

 

"Which, ladies and gentle vampires, leads me to my next proposition...

We must be wary of those we should entrust the protection of this race to.

And it is exactly this that prompts me to repeat the wisdom of our ageless existence...

Purebloods for purebloods.

Firstbloods for firstbloods.

Halflings for themselves. 

This is the code we have lived by for centuries. I see no reason to break it.

The House of Ravencrowe is a clan of halflings. Let it be guided by halflings.

I see no reason why more should be given when more is not always better.

Let the House of Ravendalf take the burden of Ravenwolfe.

I am most certain their dissenters have learned their lesson. There is no reason for further insult.

Lord Georg Heldalf has, after all, been cleared of the accusations against him. Surely, his innocence is enough.

In one who has been wrongly blamed, we must put our trust. Only then will we rise above our mistakes.

Let him be our rock of support.

Let him be the protector of the Throne.

As for the godhead of Ravencrowe, let him manage the affairs of the clan.

Power is for the pure and the strong, one written in flesh and blood. And I do not lie when I say that  this nation will stand

For as long as we remain true to our blood, our calling... the blood of a vampire whole, not halved."

 

Lunarre's conclusion was met with deafening applause. The ground shook beneath me, followed by a surge of revulsion, a certain fear... 

I realized he could not have worded the insult with more subtle malice. I've expected him to speak against halflings, but I didn't expect it to be this callous. The notion of impure vampires could not have escaped the attention of every halfling in the congregation who, I imagine, must have bristled at the wanton gesture of flaunting their shame.

A whole vampire is a metaphor for a united nation under the purebloods, which Lunarre throws in contrast with halved ones... halflings who he deems have no place in the politics of the nation.

Power shared is power halved, and what is halved is impure and weak. This is the crux of Lunarre's speech, and speaking as a pureblood with self-righteous arrogance as to his entitlements and privileges, well... he couldn't have feigned sympathy without sounding like a hypocritical bigot.

As expected, Velvet clenched her fist, obviously fired up, eyes ablaze. But that was far from my concern.

Mikleo had approached the Throne without permission. And Lunarre, taken by surprise, raised his hand palm open at Mikleo.

I know that gesture. It's how purebloods might summon their ultimate power... the power to command death.

Lunarre is Mikleo's Weaver. I don't have to know more than that to fly to Mikleo's side... but a hand stopped me in time.

Velvet's voice felt like cold water dousing embers from a dying flame. I felt their unspoken power in my mind in a heartbeat. No, Sorey... this is not the time... 

But I... if not now, it might be too late-

Lunarre won't dare lay a hand on him, not when all the clan can see it. Ravencrowe will not stand down if he touches a single hair of him. It will be more than just a bloodbath...

Velvet...

Besides he's told me not to interfere...

Though that explanation was hardly un-Mikleo, it summoned a twisting ache inside of me that seemed like I'm about to have every vein inside of me pulled out, wrenched from my chest, my lungs.

I took a deep breath. I don't know what he's thinking. He's shut me out completely...

My thoughts must have been so forceful that even Velvet's iron-grip composure was disturbed by the slightest twitch on the corner of her lips.

In any case, Velvet was showing not the tiniest flicker of emotion as she looked on, always the objective observer that she was. It was something to admire in itself... something I'd remember many years later.

I don't care about any noble in tights even if it's Lunarre. Mikleo is my only family now since Laphi has left us. I'm not one to speak of threats, but no one touches him with harm in mind... not when I still breathe.

I tried not to look too fondly at Mikleo, knowing I promised him to be discreet. Needless to say it was enough to make me pull my breath.

Still, I wish he'd throw me a line. He's too near the Throne and that's enough to make me nervous.

Where Lunarre stood, something seemed to have stopped his gesture midway. Alisha was suddenly standing between Lunarre and Mikleo, her face showing worry lines I haven't seen until then. You could say her concern was palpable enough to be frightening... like a death fist hidden in a velvet glove.

For me it's rare enough to find Alisha wearing anything on her face but a smile. This, I guess, must be one of those that started it. Her expression was bleak, no less cold than the mist of twilight already seeping through the cracks of these gothic walls around us. Speaking of which...

The cold, intimidating mystery of cathedrals has a dark beauty to it that is as ominous as any pureblood, or any gathering of vampires for that matter. 

Just like the damned, this church, this lonely relic of a past that has long lost its glory by no fault of its own, now only reeks of ruin and curses. I've been to older places with horrific histories enough to haunt the imagination, but this one has a dark mystique unique to it. For one, the catacombs beneath must mean we're practically standing on the tombs of ancient spirits... holy grounds to pilgrims who had worshiped here in secret and died here in vain.

It made me wonder how repulsed those souls might be if they realize what godless bastards are desecrating them at the moment.

The Throne must be fond of shaming every human religion. I guess too much vanity warps us that way.   

Scepter raised, Alisha shone like a holy knight, making regal seem petty next to her steely determination. When she spoke, everyone was silenced as if the walls themselves chose not to repeat any other sound save her words... save that clear, rich voice that had the power to shape an unspoken threat into a command.

"This ends here. I shall not have anyone raising a hand in the presence of the Throne."

Lips crack into a hard smile. Lunarre bows superfluously, imitating the respect he couldn't afford.

"My apologies, your Grace. I have forgotten that you came in the Admiral's place."

"Her presence is vital to this congregation, Lunarre," one of the triumvirate has spoken, with toneless words accompanied by the raising of a similar scepter that was the Throne's gesture of command for others to listen. Everything spoken through the scepter is considered law and will not be persuaded by any disagreement. It's one of those ancient rituals that makes the Throne one of the last remnants of nobility that refuses to die.

Just like everything about vampires.   

"I accede, your Grace. The Crown Princess who shall reign in the next hundred years must have the respect she deserves."

I could sense the venomous sarcasm there, not that any pureblood save Alisha is free from the same conceits. But she turns to the audience instead without sparing Lunarre another second as if she hasn't heard him speak at all. 

"Everyone, we shall confer with the Council as to the outcome of this debate. We shall announce our decision in an hour. Until such time, we welcome your presence within these walls. Stay if you must or return at your will." 

I watch Mikleo disappear through the curtained door of the council chamber with Alisha and the other members of the Throne. If you're wondering, the governing head of this nation is made up of three heads or crowns, a triumvirate that revolves around the families of the House of Derrilvion. Each family takes turns in appointing an heir-successor to the Throne who would rule for a hundred years. Every one hundred years, though, only one head retires and the two remain, as the term of each governing crown doesn't end at the same time as the others. As far as wisdom goes, the staggered replacement of rulers is supposed to keep the Throne in balance with tradition and the times.

So I guess you won't budge an inch until his return?

I almost forgot about Velvet's presence, but I couldn't help confirming her assumption easily. I'm too worried to let anything else bother me.

You're hopelessly in love him with him, aren't you?

I let Velvet's question sink in before answering it with just the mildest embarrassment. Do you think I'd go this far for anyone else?

Indeed, your presence gives him confidence to stand where he is right now. He's never been so stubborn.

So... are you trying to say it's good or bad?

That depends. He needs this kind of courage to face the Throne and all its hypocrisies. Otherwise, he'd be crushed here and now. Lunarre being his Weaver already puts him at a severe disadvantage.

I know. I can't breathe properly until all this is over. I want him safe...

He better be safe with you... in bed and otherwise. We siblings, after all, share almost everything...  and there have been occasions when he's not cloaking properly...

My face heated up when I realized what she meant. Cloaking is a method of shielding your thoughts from people with whom you may share a natural, mental link forged through biological and symbiotic relations such as those between chosens and the people they're most closely connected to, emotionally. My ability to communicate with Velvet mentally is a result of my connection with Mikleo, for example. If anyone chooses, he can temporarily turn off that mental link by cloaking or shielding himself so that any unannounced use or connection to that link is severed.

For obvious reasons then, it's fairly normal of chosens to use cloaking to avoid sending private thoughts, feelings, and sensations to those they have a mental link to. Needless to say you cloak your thoughts during your most private, intimate moments... secret moments you can't afford to share with anyone else. 

In other words, if Mikleo wasn't cloaking as he should, Velvet would have... well... I'm not sure if Velvet is trying to humor me or give me an indirect warning. My thoughts stuttered just imagining what thoughts and sensations she had accidentally picked up from Mikleo while we were.. uh... busy.

You seem shocked. Have you no idea how you make him feel that he got careless about cloaking?

W-what!

For him to overlook even the most basic things... you must have been an exceptional maniac. To think you hardly look the part...

Oh god! My entire being must have flinched at Velvet's remark. Just like Mikleo, her blunt honesty can be just as intense as her secretive nature. 

Worry not. My brother only complains about things closest to his heart. And the only person he's ever complained about is you.

There was nothing I could say to that with all the racing my heart was doing at the moment. But to Velvet's credit, I felt my mind ease up, at least enough to let me breathe without choking on the swelling panic rising up in me. I guess it's near-impossible to suppress ill-feelings and exercise better judgment when you're vaguely aware that any moment you might lose something... or someone more precious than anything you've ever had.

You know how important Mikleo is to me. No one can compare.

That's hardly surprising, though your honesty is. Perhaps I've lost the heart to be sentimental... or to speak of feelings I've buried too deep I could hardly face them even if they stare me in the face. But know this, Ravendalf... I've already lost one sibling, I will not lose another. Then again, if I should speak my heart for the last time, my better side tells me our dear one needs more love than protection at the moment. It's something only you can give in a way no one else can. So please... no matter how it seems, trust my brother on this. You can leave the rest to me.

I drew a deep breath. Leaving Mikleo's safety to someone else is easier said than done. My world, my being... all of it revolves around him, the only truth and anchor that has ever kept my feet on the ground.

I've never told him this, but Mikleo has always been the one, singular thought and existence that's ever held me together. Until now...

You know, that's the most difficult thing anyone has ever asked of me. I'm never good at leaving Mikleo alone...

He's never alone, he has us. We both want him safe, but we both know he needs to learn how to deal with danger in situations like this. Or he might get himself in trouble when we least expect it. Immortals may live forever, but even they can't do the impossible. Maybe that's the difference between us and the gods above.

You believe in gods? Do you think they're really up there just waiting for a chance to defeat the evil within us all?

Maybe. But, really, does it even matter if they really exist? Belief has nothing to do with fact or proof. We believe only because we want to... because we need to. For our own sanity.

That's... comforting. 

Velvet's eyes crinkled slightly. I think I said that for my own sake. It's easy to lose faith in things you have high expectations of. So I make sure not to expect too much.

I'd do well to learn from that attitude. Thanks, I guess.

You want to do everything for him, and I understand that. But I don't think Mikleo expects you to push yourself to do the impossible. Certainly not for his sake...

I can be greedy like that, I know. Sometimes I need to hear it from someone else to believe it.

It's not a criticism. But you can take it that way if you need to.

No, it isn't, but it does let the realization sink in a bit faster. Thanks for saying just what I needed to hear. Though I prefer a mental punch myself.

Mikleo is good at that too. I raised your chosen after all... though my parenting skills are less than satisfactory.

I couldn't help chuckling at the thought. The uncanny combination of a snotty, child-like, pouting Mikleo and a stern, yet doting older sister walking around in slippers and an apron is just overflowing with domestic charm I almost laughed.

You're amused I can tell. Care to share it? 

Uh, its nothing really, my bad. But speaking of Mikleo, in more ways than one he can be unforgivingly honest. For some reason, just talking about him makes me feel better already.

Though trust is hardly easy for someone like me, I found those words slipping out of me naturally, pushing through that mental link between me and Velvet. Maybe because this was all for Mikleo's sake that for the first time I've truly felt genuinely grateful.  

Hey, I don't expect the head of such a proud clan to be less arrogant than he's supposed to. You don't have to be careful with me, I have my rough edges too.

Nah, I already renounced the title. So I'm just a common employee now... no entitlements or privileges, though the conceit comes naturally and won't likely rub off in the next few centuries.  

A war veteran is no commoner. I swear the League would've fallen apart if you weren't fighting on their side. The Throne fears you, but you can't have power too much in your favor without courting an even greater chaos so you choose this path. It must take more than superhuman will to suppress the selfish compulsion to acquire all your heart's desires when there's practically no one to stand in your way. Maybe that's one reason I respect you.

Maybe I've already found all I've ever wanted. The rest doesn't matter anymore... the world never did.

I wish you two the best. I hope the day won't come when you have to choose between him and the world. When that happens, I don't think either one could win. 

I found myself sighing and taking an even deeper breath. If that had been a warning, Velvet might have been right. Rather than Mikleo, I'm the one who really needs to calm down. After all, if I get triggered and make a wrong move on the Throne, a civil war can rise up from these holy grounds... a desecration that will never be forgiven.  

And the last thing I want is bloodshed on the same ground where Mikleo stands. All I want right now is to whisk him far away from here and never come back...

I want him in a place where there's no power that could ever come close enough to hurt him.

If only promises can be fulfilled by the best intentions...

Sorey?

I bristled as his voice rippled within me. Hey. Nice to hear your voice in a long while...

Sorry, I didn't mean to shut you out...

I know, love.

L-look... I'm just not good at cloaking, but still...

Yeah, you must miss me so bad you had to take chances. I love you.

Sh-sheesh... stop it, will you! I already just said my cloaking isn't...

Well, Mikleo, I guess that means I'm cloaking for both of us starting today.

Huh? What got you saying that?

Uh... never mind.

Mikleo was silent for a few seconds. Did Velvet say anything? She did, didn't she?

I chuckled.

Dammit, Sorey! I leave you for one minute, and you go ahead and flirt with my sister of all people!

I caught my breath. F-flirt? Hey, seriously, we were just talking, like we just happen to pick up each other's thoughts naturally because of you. I mean... you two must have a really deep bond that having you is like having two people in my head...

Oh god, I never realized it's that bad. I should've expected it at least... guess I was thoughtless...

No one's mad. If anything, I can't wait for us to be alone...

Sorey...

I've been in heat for weeks, and you haven't let me touch you even once.

How about that kiss... and more... on the way here. You forgot?

My mind reeled as vivid memories of what we did on the train came to me in a rush.   

You know I have in mind something more... like being on top of you on a real bed? 

You're a tough guy, Sorey. I'm sure you can hold it in.

Stop that, you know how it is! I want you every second, and it's driving me crazy. As soon as this is over, I swear I won't let you hold me back...

But I'm not sure if I'd even be coming home with you.

What? Mikleo-

You're aware that Alisha will be sitting as the new regent in a few more days. It's the perfect time to iron things out between the houses...

Look, I know you want to handle things on your own, and I'm almost fine with that but-

Almost?

You made Velvet promise not to interfere. Well, I'm not Velvet. You can't expect me to do the same. 

So that's what you two have been talking about this whole time?

We know you're capable of everything that's needed to be done. But this is the Throne you're dealing with... 

I hate being redundant, Sorey, but worrying won't get anyone anywhere-

Yeah, like you expect me to sit back, relax, and ignore you. But I just... letting you deal with the danger alone is tough for me. I can't think straight when you're that way.

I've always been like this. That's why we always argue about this.

Well... I plead guilty. But you're still not off the hook.

Which hook?  

Say no, Mikleo. 

When this is a critical moment for Alisha to decide in favor of halflings? Sorey-

I'm sure Lunarre thinks the same. That speech is rousing every pureblood to turn down any attempt to give Ravencrowe what it wants...

It's not like we want it just for the sake of wanting it. We need influence... to protect ourselves more than anything.

You already know where I stand in all this. The closer you are, or the House of Ravencrowe to the Throne, the greater the liability.

We'll never know that until we try, do we?   

Mikleo, the clans will survive without us, believe me. Besides, the Enforcers have come to accept Velvet's leadership, and she seems to be doing well. She's done as much for the clan, enough to earn Heldalf's respect, and that's proof enough.   

Don't you think that's too much of a burden on one person?

She's a vampire... like you and me. Hell, I'd admit she might even be tougher than me.

She hasn't lived as long as you. You've been around for centuries...

C'mon, my age has never bothered you before!

I wish our parents were around to tell us what to do. Velvet has been taking care of me for the longest time. I can't leave her all the responsibility. 

That's not exactly what I mean. I know you love her enough.

So you're saying?

She understands the pressure and knows she can handle it. You just have to trust her the same way we trust you. And I suppose she already knows that... uh... newlyweds can use some time alone...

Who's the newlywed here, may I ask?

Marry me.

S-Sorey!

Not gonna stop asking 'til you say yes. 

Know what? You're absolutely horrible at changing the subject!

You're the one changing the subject now.

We already agreed to keep it quiet. With everyone's eyes on you, I'd just be a liability. There's little we can do to change that.

As if I'd let that happen, love... 

Sorey, it's something I need to think through... but not right now. I was hoping you'd help me out here...

Which part?

How is Ravendalf's godhead involved in all this? And what's Velvet not telling me on her end?  

I can't regret enough how my clan seemed to have complicated things for everyone. You've probably heard enough about Heldalf and his connections to the previous godheads of Ravencrowe...

You mean the rumors that he and my mother... before she remarried...

That and well... it's beyond that, to be honest. Whatever support Heldalf's given Muse, Michael, and the faction he's raised to oppose some members of the House of Derrilvion, I'm sure it's given from the heart. And if friendship is a crime, then maybe that's his only weakness. In any case, I've nothing to say about who he chooses to be with, but for what it's worth, he practically dotes on Velvet like his own blood. He's never had a daughter, and this son... I mean me... has been too much of a disappointment to even count as one. Ever since he's adopted me, I've brought nothing to the clan but scandal and shame. Until now, I couldn't believe they'd fake a conspiracy involving Heldalf and the entire clan just to keep me from leaving the League.

How much does the human world know about us... about our existence in the shadows. I've often wondered about that.

The higher chain of command knows... but subordinate officers and the common rank-and-file don't need to. Not like they can be bothered with anything they've got nothing to do with. Besides, we can always wipe their memories clean if we have to.

So... I was right about that time.

Mikleo... I did it to protect you. I can't have those guys lusting after you because they knew you and I... did things back there.

Remind me never to let you get into an open pool with me ever again.

Actually... I don't mind being watched while we're doing it. As long as it's me watching you in the mirror...

Sorey! Say that again and I-

How much longer are you gonna make me wait? It's getting harder every minute without you... in that way.            

Good lord... the things you say... 

I'm serious. Say no to Alisha... at least for now. I can always reclaim Ravendalf if I have to... if that's the only way they'd let me take over the Enforcers. It'll leave Velvet free to handle Ravencrowe as the Guardian clan that it's supposed to be, if the Throne lets it. I'm sure she'd be agreeable to those terms. Besides, you and Velvet are of the same mind as to letting the clan take that position next to the Throne.

But that'll drag you into this too, and I can't allow that-

I'm dragging myself into this... Hell, I'd do anything to have an excuse to be with you.

What made you think I'm all right with you carrying all that responsibility either? You already have the League on your shoulders...

Mikleo, haven't I said it enough? I can do anything with you... of course you can take that in other ways too.

Really, you're teasing me way too much! 

Maybe I am, but seriously... say no, or I'll march right there and tell Alisha myself.

Sorey, I thought you and Velvet just had an understanding! What happened to that?

I'm not asking you to give everything up. I'm just asking you to minimize your involvement. Put some distance if you need to. And I insist that you need to, for now...

Even if I agree with the logic, I'm not sure logic's enough to stop Lunarre...

Don't even deal with him.

Is that even possible? You already know my secret, don't you? Lunarre's my Weaver...

I'll go and figure something out. Just-just get out of there, Mikleo. The longer you stay, the more I become afraid for you.

Sorey...

As much as I hate admitting it, I've never been so scared, all right? I can hardly breathe when I can't see you...

Hey, I'm fine, I'm safe enough...

No, you're not. It's not that I doubt your strength or anything like that... 

I know, I was wrong to make you feel I'm pushing you away because of it. It's just that... Alisha could use our help too. It's one of the reasons I'd feel better if I can do this.

I'm not saying we're not helping or we can't. But I hate the idea of you anywhere near Lunarre. I'd crash through that door and get you if you insist on staying longer.

Sorey, it's not like Alisha would let anything happen-

I trust her, believe me I do... more than anyone. But trust isn't always enough...

But if you get involved right now it would only-

Expose us? You're my chosen. I don't mind letting everyone know about that.

We've been through this so many times. Don't tell me we're arguing on it again... are we?

I don't want to either... I'm just... frustrated I guess. In any case, you aren't drawing attention, are you? We both know how heats can be around unpaired vampires...

Understood, but I haven't noticed anything uncanny so far. How about you?

Aside from taking suppressants, I guess abstinence masks the symptoms. That might explain why we haven't really been attracting attention in the first place.

That makes abstinence pretty useful, huh, Sorey?

Hey, don't you even dare go in that direction, Mikleo!

I... look... you know how I... sort of miss you too, don't you?

I just realized how Mikleo's shyness might never rub off no matter how intimate we get. He's always embarrassed about things like these... not that I should be complaining. There's something sweet and endearing about it that warms me to the bone even just imagining it. But to be honest...

It gets more frustrating when you say it like that, love. 

I'm supposed to head back. Talk to you later?

Just... whatever you do, don't cut me off completely. It's more than I can handle.

I'm sorry, I'll try not to. Thanks, Sorey.

Thank me later in bed.

Shut up. I really need to focus right now so stop with the jokes already.

Seriously, half an hour is all I can stand. I'll come and sweep you off your feet by then, like it or not.

Hey, no fair, I need more time!

I need you more, doesn't that count? Like I said, I can stand you wanting to do things on your own. But I can't stand you being this close to danger. 

Fine, I'll do my best. You're being unreasonable and enjoying it, I bet.

Mikleo... I want you so bad it's a miracle I can stay away this much.

Sorey, I'll make it up to you soon, all right?  

Is that a promise? Just saying, love, there's no way I'd let you out of bed after this.

How romantic... but if I may interrupt, your cloaking skills need some work, brother-in-law.

The thought pattern, though familiar, was enough to chill us to the bone. Apparently, Velvet managed to pick up our frequency even though my cloaking skills were far from bad.

On hindsight, it was the first time I realized how frustration could make me so blind and vulnerable to the point I couldn't even sense I was leaking. 

Of course, I could just imagine how even more vulnerable Mikleo must be feeling right then. I could almost hear him counting to keep his composure. His voice was thick with sarcasm, and I'm sure he wasn't even trying to hide it from Velvet.

Do you really have to say that now?

Velvet welcomed the complaint in the same dead monotone so characteristic of her. I was expecting you to be more wary of the implications, dear brother. After all, your lover is leaking pheromones so much my mental line is suffocating. I'm practically cloaking for all three of us.

All right, that's clearly my fault...

It was all I could say, realizing only then that my anxiety and obsessive worrying had me so fixated on Mikleo that I practically abandoned all defense.

Regardless, Velvet's warning was just a precursor. No one, not even the Throne, was ready for the lesson that was about to rewrite history that night. Moments after, I felt like a captive audience to a theatrical tragedy I didn't ask to see... a witness to a wish-fulfillment that abandoned all expectations of a happy ending.

When the curtain rose, I was forced to watch Lunarre stagger to the center and throw himself forward, clutching his throat, clawing his mouth, looking as if he was desperately trying to pull out poisoned air with bare fingers. Stumbling and shaking, he panted as he moved, mumbling incoherently as his eyes glared madly at the faded murals of ghostly saints around us before, finally, he let out a shrill cry that could have roused even the dead.

In the next moment he was crawling away, shrinking, curling in on himself, then covering his ears as he started shrieking random words in dead languages like a bad drunk. To me, it sounded like he was cursing the Devil himself... or being scourged by demons only he could see.   

It was hardly surprising that everyone, even the regal and dignified Throne, became speechless with horror and disgust.

More mad than madness could ever be, Lunarre the Deranged cowered in the shadows, whimpering in between sobs, mocked by the purebloods who watched him in stony silence, not that mockery could ever be silent.

I didn't know what to think. Never has the dignity of a holy monument been so disgraced by the sight of a writhing, fuming vampire screeching at what seemed like a visage of his own delusions, of his own immortal end pulling at the chains of a soul that wasn't there. 

He had that look of abandon in those final seconds, more like a wretched, reproachful acceptance of defeat that was both tired and ashamed. I couldn't stand the sight of it without wondering for a moment if it was sad or miserable to watch.

Mouth foaming, eyes dilating into dead hollows, Lunarre looked as if he was fumbling for something, anything that was almost within reach, before dropping cold-dead on the semblance of an altar. Like a dead swan, his right hand lay draped on the foot of a crumbled stone crucifix that used to be an attractive relic, a symbol of bygone days and forgotten religions.

I must have been frozen for a minute before the noise finally got to me... the shrieks and frenzied panic that drowned all sense and rationality on this side of the universe. 

In that moment, I let my feet follow my heartbeat. Ignoring the confusion and the chaos, I reached for Mikleo without thinking and needing to think.

I knew right then that someone has just cast an unspeakable evil... a power darker than anything ever known and feared more than fear itself.

Someone must have given Lunarre the command to die.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

Loving you forever can't be wrong

Even though you're not here

I won't move on... 

 

And there's no remedy

For memory

Your face is like a melody

It won't leave my head

Your soul is haunting me

And telling me 

That everything is fine

But I wish I was dead...

 

Every time I close my eyes

It's like a dark paradise

No one compares to you

I'm scared that you

Won't be waiting

On the other side...

 

There's no relief

I see you in my sleep

And everybody's rushing me

But I can feel you touching me

There's no release

I feel you in my dreams

Telling me I'm fine...

 

-originally by Lana del Rey, "Dark Paradise,"

performed by Caravan of Time for Inferno's Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

11 November 2879

 

... a letter from a friend, Lord-- von Graf 

 

Sorey,

 

Today is a fine morning for an early visit, isn't it?

You've done the same for as long as I remember, yet I never tire of wondering... 

Maybe it's cruel of me to doubt you, knowing it's not a bad habit that moves you.

It's just that one thing you can't change.

Even if I won't be standing next to you this time, I could see it so clearly... over there in the mist and fog.

You'd be wearing the same black colors, with your heart on your sleeve.

Your hair would be a little disheveled, your tie crooked, a sign you dressed in haste as usual.

Whether it's the wine or the alcohol, you would've stayed in bed longer if the excuse was more important.

 

Standing three feet away, you'd be ever so quiet.

You'd be staring at his epitaph for hours as if striving to rewrite those etched words.

You loved him... and love only him. I've known it so, but accepting it gets harder through the years.

Graves never change. So does your heart. Whenever you cry you try to hide it, but I've always known. 

I don't know if it upsets you as much, but this time, you can be yourself without worries.

Have I ever worried you? Your heart is always in a faraway place... too far for reaching, not that I never tried.

I've always tried, Sorey. I guess I tried too much, expected too much, only to end up hurting myself for giving up trying.

 

In the end I'm left with nothing but questions...

Why can't I say I'm the better man for you, though I want the world to hear it?

Why can't I say I'm the one you need, the one who'll save you... though I've stood by you long enough to prove it?

 

In the end there's only one thing I could never do...

I might have given up on my feelings, but I'll never give up on you. I'll never give up on what we had.

I offered myself, my everything, wanting to be needed... wanting to be loved.

And you tried to return them, you desperately tried.

And I desperately wanted and wished it was more than you trying your best.

I wanted it to be real. But real is just an illusion of an expecting heart.

I didn't consider your feelings.

All these years, these centuries you must have been in hellish pain.

 

I'm sorry I couldn't heal you. I tried, Sorey...

But there are wounds only you can mend, scars only your soul can bear.

I had thought I could bear them for you... I had thought I could bleed for you.

But your darkness is the loneliness of wanting to be alone. 

He's all the shards to your pain. He's the broken glass that cut you over and over...

The wound that festers in your soul. He weighs you down was what I thought.

Not knowing the weight of your love was heavier. It was a weight no gravity could bear...

So all you wanted was to fall into it, buried in all this pain. I tried to lift it...

But nothing I ever did could lift you the way he does.

 

He took all your tears and laughter. His memories, to you, were more than flesh and blood.

He's your dark Eden, all the good and bad you love and hate.

Only for you to love both and everything... as if they're all the same.

He's the heart and soul that made you a man. He's the heart and soul that killed you after...

 

Yet you love him more for it...

Like I loved you more for it.

I loved you with everything I had...

To make up for everything you lost when you had him.

But this can't go on.

I can't go on... without making you suffer more than I do. 

 

The snow has started falling. You always say it's beautiful when it does,

Knowing it's not really the sky that takes your breath away...

But the silvery sound of laughter, the shimmer of white against dried-up tears.

 

You always say lavender is the most beautiful color... if only you could see it.

 

I know he's always on your mind.

Even when he's left you, it's you who wouldn't say goodbye.

Even if there's a world out there that's alive... beautiful... and breathtaking... 

A world filled with warmth just waiting for you to wake up.  

 

I will always be waiting, hoping, even if we both know forever is never-ending.

I hope someday you'd realize there's a summer even in the coldest of places... a home to every restless heart.

 

Nothing's lost when you look hard enough to find it.

And I'm not in a place beyond reaching... unless you won't let me in.

   

Always,

Your devoted friend and servant

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

22 May 2099

 

... our first night together at the base, also the day I found out about Operation Overlord

 

"I'm sorry we didn't get to talk much last night..." I told Alisha as I pulled up a chair for her, handing her a fresh mug of coffee. "And uh, sorry that we're a little run-down here. The supplies aren't much either."

As if trying to decipher my thoughts, her gaze followed me as I seated myself across from her. She seemed awkwardly shy as she surveyed the room with widened eyes.

"You must be so used to this... I was hoping there's more we could provide."

By 'we' she must be referring to the military. I nodded.

"Doesn't matter much when the place gets bombed, though. I'd worry more about the safety than the amenities... but that aside, I guess you're right. A cozy place is always more welcome."

"It's warm enough." 

I watch her fingers grip the curves of her mug. She sure looks more tense than usual.

"Uh, aren't you up a little too early though? Not that I blame you... like I said, we don't have the normal comforts-"

"It's fine, I guess I'm just a little anxious."

I cocked an eyebrow at that. "Don't hesitate to say if there's anything I can do-"

"To be honest, it's really nice to see you again, Sorey. I can't say enough how glad I am you're all right."

"Thanks, Alisha... I'm always glad to see you too."

Though I appreciate her thoughtfulness, I admit I get a little apprehensive when Alisha sounds concerned. She's a genuinely nice person, and I know her worries are sincere. But right now...

It's only 3 a.m., and we're at the mess hall, just the two of us. Everyone's still in bed...

Including Mikleo.

"You and Captain Rulay... have talked a bit, I presume?"

At the mention of his name, my heart raced, not that I'm always self-conscious this way when I'm with her. The real reason is a bit more embarrassing.

Just now, I've left a warm bed with a beautiful angel sleeping there so peacefully, tenderly after I've held him all night.

That makes me feel a little guilty. Right now, the room must be filled with the scent of our pheromones. I was worried we'd be too self-conscious of the thin walls to be comfortable enough to be... uh... well, intimate. But in truth, the ruins where we spent our first night together left much to be desired that this is the first time we've actually felt decent.

All right, I could correct that. There's nothing decent about a room with two vampires in heat craving for sex like it's the end of the world. I lost count of my knots as every part of his body became a mystery to be explored... conquered... and ravished. I didn't hold back, not that I never tried. I'm not making excuses, but yeah.. maybe I am. In the end, I excuse myself with the thought that nothing would've worked even if I called myself dirty names in all the languages I could think of.

Gods, I'm hopeless. I'm almost glad I left him sleeping.   

When I think about it, the last thing a vampire needs a room for is for sleeping. This nocturnal routine is a meaningless habit for creatures of the night such as ourselves, though it helps if one's deprived of the more effective nourishment: raw blood of any kind, human being always the safest preference. I guess feeding on blood has always been a taboo because it's so primeval... a replenishment any wild carnivore out there would take. Though it's one of those hungers that define us, deprivation is something that hardly kills us.

When you ask what defines us the most, three things come to mind, primary or essential attributes as they're called: 

     Vampires have an irresistible, instinctive thirst for raw blood.

     We are superhuman (or gifted in any one or more of the five senses).

     We almost live forever.

Other things may follow, but these three are the bases of all variations that, to their fullest extent, define our existence. For example, a pureblood is a vampire that has all three attributes. Take out the first one, and you have a firstblood. Take out the first one and either one of two remaining, and you have a halfling.

Take out all three, and what's left is the obvious: an un-turned, a human.

In other things, vampires share the following secondary attributes.

     They die by command of death.

     They bond permanently with chosens or fated pairs.

     They are instinctively loyal to the clan.

By this standard, an aberrant is any one of three types of vampires based on the primary attributes possessed, but who may lack one or more of the secondary traits above. You can almost say a vampire's rank or status in the social hierarchy isn't determined by sheer quantity of attributes. It's a matter of which attribute counts as a defining feature. That's why a halfling might have all three secondary traits and still be a halfling by lacking some primary traits.

I guess an aberrant halfling should logically exist, but it's something that's never given much thought, as a lack in the essence already diminishes the importance of anything else that's possessed. But for everything else, our habits and urges are no different. Obsessions and cravings die hard in the vampire world as much as they do in others, even when it's just a question of taste.

But thinking about that room on the second floor... my bed... and having Mikleo there...

My thoughts warmed at the feeling. It makes you think that somewhere in this universe there's a quiet, secret solitude that's yours alone... a garden of miracles, a place of warmth that makes you feel you've found everything that's been missing...

There's more to it, of course. It's funny how Mikleo complained I was a mess and kicked the sheets onto the floor along with me. Everything was clammy and soaked with all that we did it was a feat Mikleo could even try getting some sleep.

Being the abuser, I knew I've forfeited my right to complain. I just overused my lover privileges and got what I deserve.      

I took an early shower, thank god the showers were working by then, and slipped into a fresh uniform. Since we're the only vampires around the base, I wasn't worried about my heat pheromones affecting anyone...

During the first few heats, vampire lust is intense... but it's hardly at its full intensity. The peak happens after weeks then calms down after the first cycle. The cycles of the first year, normally taking place every three months or so are, by anyone's standards, the craziest. They're more erratic, easily triggered, and somewhat unpredictable... not that I'd know from experience. Since it's no taboo for vampires to have desperate sexual urges, what happens during such episodes is fairly common knowledge.

I guess that's how I'm pretty knowledgeable despite the fact that Mikleo and I had only started being this way for... uh, two nights?    

In truth, I'd still be in bed if I hadn't caught Alisha pacing restlessly in the hallway on my way back from the showers. It was hard not to see how uneasy she felt when she saw me standing there in nothing but a towel with the same curious look on my face. So I decided to get properly dressed before heading back to the mess hall where I asked to meet her so we could talk. 

Mikleo groaned when I kissed him on the cheek and said I'd be back in a while. Admittedly, I feel a little guilty for giving him a very rough night. I guess Alisha's company was all the excuse I needed to leave Mikleo alone so he could get some uninterrupted sleep.

"If you think about it, it's only been two days since we met... when you sent that letter asking me to pick him up..."

Alisha gave me one of her self-conscious smiles. "Do I really seem that anxious? 'Cause I won't deny it, Sorey..."

I scratched my cheek. "No worries, I mean... he seems okay... so far."

Of course, that was a horrible understatement. If she could only see Mikleo now...    

For some reason, I felt a desperate urge to change the subject. I should at least try to make her feel more at ease with me.

"So, uh... how's the Admiral?"

"He's doing fine... perfect..."

"I see. Nice to hear that."

Alisha looked down at her hands. She was gripping her mug so tightly I was afraid she might break it.

"Uh... aside from this operation, nothing quite as urgent came up, or... uh... were there other developments?"

Her eyes flitted from her coffee to my face for a few seconds. But the moment our eyes met, she looked down at her hands again.

"No... nothing I've heard of, at least."

I breathed a sigh of relief. "That-that's good..."

Great god, we're not getting anywhere. I coughed slightly.

Alisha stood up all of a sudden. "Uh, if you need to head back-" 

I shook my head, wanting to reassure her with a smile as she seated herself again, this time, with a sigh of relief. She really seemed a little too self-conscious for some reason.

"This might sound weird but... I was just thinking how Operation Overlord sounded somewhat familiar, given that a similar strategy had been used in World War II. Of course, it's always possible the League is using old strategies, not that we're expecting anything new from this war."

"I know what you mean," she tells me, sounding a little more like herself, or at least, more like the Alisha I've known. "I've been told this one's a security measure... to provide more and better reinforcements to toughen up the bases around here. I guess that's to be expected after reports reached us that one of the League's main headquarters has been attacked."

I would've been surprised if I hadn't seen tanks explode a few feet away or armories going down with my men in them. I've little sympathy for human conflict, but the same rule doesn't have to apply to comrades-in-arms. They're above prejudice for reasons that terrifying experiences in the battlefield can only justify.

I guess the absurdity of being in the same war zone effectively removes all other barriers that seem logical outside of it.    

This time, Alisha's gaze felt more confident. "Though reports say it's nothing more than a security breach, we suspect casualties... enough for an emergency conference to be called at such short notice. Protocol and security won't reveal much to confirm what really happened but... given the size of this operation, I'm thinking it must be more than just urgent."

I could only grin at the implications. "The military can't do away with secrets, it's the way it works... and basically everything else these days."

"I'm sorry..." 

"Hey, it's basically the stuff that makes us what we are... I mean, it's hard to imagine otherwise."

She laughed a little. "Guess you can say that."

Secrecy reminds me that I'm not even sure how far Alisha may be knowledgeable about the politics of the Throne, the League or even that of the Union, as the Throne calls the Confederate to this day. Mikleo may have spoken about owing Alisha a heavy a debt, that she had been a friend who had given his clan protection... but he never spoke of her as a vampire, and even clan is just a term for family that we vampires use by force of habit.

Besides, having vampire-sympathizers in the government, even the military, is nothing extraordinary as the reverse also happens. I've even met people in high places who didn't seem aware that their circle of intimate friends included members of our race. Given the secretive nature of vampires, of course, it's nothing less than common sense to hold back personal information when associating with humans, even those we'd consider family.

When unexpected things happen though, there's always a swifter, fool-proof way of dealing with them. In fact, erasing memories through eye contact is fairly easy. Mind-reading is a general ability, like a third eye all vampires have that works with human targets. It's a poor comparison, but mind-reading is like slipping through another's consciousness like it's a wall of liquid glass. At least, that's how I imagine the process. In others, the human mind feels like a waterfall, or the flat surface of a lake. It's easily pierced by the slightest vibration, by the gentlest undercurrent when it's calm and composed.

Among and between vampires though, mental resonance works a little differently. Chosens and their family are mentally linked like a steel chain, but the bond can be broken completely and deliberately by means of cloaking.

I guess everybody understands that even vampires need privacy, though how private one can be depends on the fair amount of concentration you can spare on cloaking while engaged in something uh... very delicate.    

With Alisha, I never tried mind-reading since there hardly seemed any reason for it. Or maybe there's something in the way she expresses herself so openly even as a member of the military that makes it easy for anyone to let his guard down where she's concerned.

To be honest, the level of discomfort Alisha's been showing would have tempted any other vampire to slip through that glass wall to unlock her virtual pandora's box. However, considering that mind-reading is a tactical defense meant to anticipate potential attacks, I might be just overreacting. In my case, Alisha seemed on the verge of revealing something more intriguing than threatening against which I'd have little reason to defend myself. Though in truth, it made me wonder if any doubts I've relinquished in her favor could've kept me out of trouble in the long run.     

"Sorey, there's something I've been meaning to say, and... it's not very easy... I mean... we've been... friends..."

"Yeah?" Her awkward smile somewhat made me more nervous than I remember ever having been. I swallowed.

Sitting perfectly straight, lips frozen into a nervous smile, Alisha looked pretty damn serious. I tried not to read into it too much, though my senses must be sending a warning. 

"I- about me... and you- I mean... I already know... about you..."

I felt my eyebrow twitch as her eyes bore through mine. If this is about me and Mikleo... if she's noticed that I hadn't be able to do much but linger around him or stick close to him every chance I got...

"Sorey, I'm-"

Her hands folded around my own, and before I knew it, she had me in a tight grip, like we were hanging from the edge of a cliff, and she was afraid I'd let go.

My hand, wrapped around my mug, felt cold despite her warmth and that of the coffee. "Alisha... what's this about-"

"I'm a pureblood..."

I was speechless. I've never felt or suspected that she was one of us, but the absence of shock must mean some part of me sort of expected this.

"I was supposed to come here unannounced to tell you about it and what I think about this operation, it's just that-"

"W-wait-" I felt the whole world tipping over the moment she revealed she was a vampire. I was willing to let the details rest, but I didn't think I was ready for more. "You thought of coming here on your own? What could be so urgent-"

"I'm worried about this operation. Lunarre's heading it... and he's using the Enforcers as backup..."

"Alisha... slow down a bit. What about Lunarre?"

Her saying his name offhandedly was surprising enough, but I guess my worries were somewhere else. Lunarre's one of the highest nobles who's been at the center of things since the House of Derrilvion came to power as the only pureblood nobility worthy of succession to the Throne. His reputation for being a Deranged may have adversely affected his chances of getting a position as one of the crowns of the ruling triumvirate, but that didn't mean he was ever treated as a lesser figure in vampire politics.

He may have been secretly scorned as mad and neurotic, even among nobles, but Lunarre has always been persuasive as far as I've known him. I guess any eccentric genius with his gifts would be controversial enough to be formidable, even if rumors about that prophetic ability of his had never been anything but... rumors.    

In any case, my expression must have come across as confused, giving Alisha enough reason to hesitate.

"Sorey, what I'm trying to say is... I was summoned by the Council on my way here. I think I've just been chosen for the Throne..."

"That's... good." It felt like I was gaping at Alisha when I said that. Might as well consider it the second understatement of the day.

"Sorey?"

"You're... a vampire, a pureblood no less... and very soon the first queen in our history to sit in the Throne," I summed it up with a chuckle. "I'm hardly surprised, Alisha."

She eyed me with an ironic grimace, the first I've seen her do. "I wish you wouldn't say that!"

"Yeah, well... it was my fault for being clueless, my bad." I could only smile through the wonder and amazement as she struggled to smile back while doing her best not to look too guilty about her secret. "Just the same, I wish you all the best, I mean... seriously, I know you deserve it more than anybody else I know in many lifetimes."

This time, I didn't hesitate to bring up my history. She probably knew that much anyway. 

"Captain Rulay... didn't mention anything about it, did he? I mean... we've been friends for years, and he's always known about my position..."

"Did he know it's a secret I had no idea of in the first place?"

It felt strange asking this question. It's like I'm fishing for any detail remotely connected with Mikleo... and her.

Or rather, it makes me sound like some petty, jealous lover wondering if his partner talks about him when he's with someone else. Though ashamed to admit it, I can't help being like this.    

"I think I said... I preferred telling you myself."

I was a bit surprised. "Uh, that sounds like one then."

She let go of my hand as soon as she realized she had me in a tight grip. My fingers felt a little numb by then, but the feeling of relief more than made up for it. I guess I was expecting something terrible even catastrophic, but her news was more like a pleasant surprise, if anything.   

"Sorry if I kept so much from you. I didn't want you treating me any differently."

"I could call you Queen Alisha once in a while. I'm sure I'd get used to it."

She smiled a more genuine smile this time. "Shut up."

It was the first time she tried to tease. I couldn't help grinning at the awkward way it all started. But then, I thought about the Deranged.

"So why would a high-minded pureblood like Lunarre bother with an operation involving the League? The war's advancing far enough without us taking sides... I mean... how much human waste does the Throne need to see to be entertained?"

"He's... well... he's Captain Rulay's Weaver."

That was absolutely unexpected. I felt my mind shatter in a million pieces when I heard it. 

"Lunarre's always been interested in getting Captain Rulay to succeed Lady Velvet as Knight-Herald of the House of Ravencrowe. The Council is planning on retiring her as godhead so she could take over the command of the Enforcers."

"You mean he's creating a vacancy, a hole in the ranks for the captain to fill in?"

"It's fairly convenient," Alisha exhales. "It lets him have direct control over the clan using the captain as a conduit."

My stomach churned in disgust. "Of all people, why him? That bastard's going to get Mikleo in danger-"

I caught Alisha's uncanny expression. I thought I went too far in disrespecting purebloods even if it's just Lunarre when I realized that slip of the tongue...

I called Mikleo by his cherished name... a name Alisha knew firsthand.

She looked away with a bit of a smile that almost seemed nostalgic. "You know... that name brings to mind... really fond memories..."

Admittedly, I was caught off-guard, and it was hardly surprising as I've never been this flustered before. "Uh... must be. He actually gave me that impression. And I teased him about it."

She laughed, and I felt self-conscious enough to try and match it. "He's not very outspoken when we first met. He's more... distant... and keeps to himself."

"How did you... exactly meet?" Though I tried to rein in my curiosity, I guess my tongue was quicker.

"At Lady Muse's funeral. No less than Lady Muse was his biological mother... and all things considered, I guess everyone knows her history."

I was speechless. Mikleo and I never had time to dwell on each other's histories, not even to ask about personal details in the middle of an intimacy. It would've been awkward if not downright rude in any case, so my ignorance could almost be excused.

But seriously, I only have the heat to blame. I blank out in the middle of sex... or in any part of it, to be honest, that asking about such things would have been the last on my mind.    

"I remember the Admiral putting him on his lap and introducing us. I thought he was younger, he was sort of tiny and very cute..."

I guess it was my turn to struggle to suppress my thoughts. I was more afraid of dwelling on that tempting image of Mikleo and giving myself away so I tried to focus on other things.

"I've never heard of a human who's been on the receiving end of vampire hospitality and respect as was true of Lady Muse."

"It's admirable in itself, no doubt," Alisha agrees. "Not only was she the first human to marry into our nobility, but she's also the first female to be knighted as godhead of any clan, and the first to be an honorary member of the Elysian Council before her demise."

"I thought she and Lord Heldalf..." I cut myself there, knowing those personal details are incidental and not mine to consider at all. "I guess what I'm trying to say is, her marriage into the House of Derrilvion just took everyone by surprise."

"Lord Wolfstadt has been one of the Admiral's closest friends for years," Alisha quips, as if to avoid the sensitive topic as well. "And from what I understand, what he did... marrying a human and giving her the same rank as a noble... has never been done before. It's quite inconceivable by any standard. Add to that the fact that Lord Wolfstadt also happens to be the first and only pureblood to have adopted a halfling."

"And that's Velvet of the House of Ravencrowe," I added. "She's definitely much younger than I am, but I've seen enough to know she can have any position a firstblood or pureblood aspires to. Though it makes me wonder how Lunarre might figure in all that. If he's... uh, the captain's Weaver, it's possible he knew that much about his family... and it's not like Lady Muse's human history isn't an excellent mystery in itself. I mean, there's enough material to suggest she's descended from some old nobility that's become insignificant in the rest of the world save ours... an old Russian-Catholic imperial family was what I've heard... of the same time and place as the Throne's beginnings..."

Alisha nods. "And Lunarre has the same roots was what I heard..."

"Makes it logical that he's Mikleo-I mean the captain's Weaver, doesn't it? Now that I know he's the one, I feel terrible, to be honest."

Undeniably, that's about the third understatement of the day. It's ironic I haven't said anything too unpleasant that might reveal how disgusted I felt. 

"True. It makes Lunarre's actions seem more suspicious, but from how he was years ago, he seemed fond enough of Mikle- I mean, the captain, to visit once in a while when he came to live with us..."

That made me bristle. Fond is not a word a lover might easily ignore when it involves an outsider. I frowned at the nasty feeling that came with it.

Alisha gave me a curious look. "Sorey... are you all right?"

I had to give myself a mental punch. "Madness aside, Lunarre's always been a hard act to follow."        

"Really seems that way. Like I said, prior to this operation, he's been trying to influence the House to pick Mikleo- or the captain- as a candidate for the godhead title. And..."

Alisha's gaze looked so serious it caught my attention. I found myself blinking back. "Uh... you're saying?"

"Sorey... can we- I mean, is it all right if we agree on calling him Mikleo?"

I almost burst out laughing. "What gives?"

"I guess I've become so used to it it's awkward using formalities when it comes to him. Same with you... I guess?"

I have to suppress another chuckle. "Anything's fine."

"Thanks. But... uh, as I was about to say... there's no other way but for Mikleo to accept the appointment if the Elysian Council decides to take up Lunarre's proposal. As we both already know, giving Lady Velvet command of the Enforcers would mean vacating the leadership of the clan and allowing the Throne to confer the title to whoever's recommended by both the House and the Council."

"And Mikleo's the only logical choice because they're siblings..." I found myself almost asking, though the answer's hardly surprising. 

"Oath-siblings rather than siblings by blood. Mikleo's actually a bit closer to my age, so I've seen how Lady Velvet doted on him when we were children. It seemed like they were blood-siblings anyhow... at least that's what everyone used to say back then."

I took a sip of coffee. "By itself, it's admirable enough the Enforcers were agreeable to working under a halfling superior who's female no less. I mean, it's something that didn't and would never happen back in the old days. Even as a firstblood, I'd admit there's enough prejudice and discrimination going around in our ranks to discourage the idea of electing a female superior in any possible military operation out there."

"Even as a pureblood, I'm not one to deny it either. That's why the Admiral wants equality more than anything... and because of that, he somewhat agrees with Lunarre-"

"Which puts the entire halfling clan within Lunarre's reach," I told her quickly, realizing somewhat a bit too late that I just interrupted Alisha in mid-speech.

"True, but it's a foreseeable consequence that's hardly avoidable, Sorey. It's hardly debatable that Lady Velvet's twenty years of experience as Ravencrowe's Knight-Herald qualifies her for a more critical position that's always been entrusted to a firstblood or a pureblood even if it involves the defense of a clan that's halfling down to its last member."

I'm more than aware that Velvet's held that position ever since Lady Muse relinquished it when she chose to preside as an honorary member of the Council. Still, it's hard not to give in to doubts where Lunarre's directly involved.

I drew a deep breath. "So now, everything's changed because someone with rumored prophetic abilities is being persuasive?"

"I'm not supportive of him, but it stands to reason how his first proposal makes better sense than some of our unchanging traditions."   

"Fundamentally, the principle stands to reason," I agreed. "But given what Lunarre's known for, I don't think it's a good idea. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, we know how persuasive a Weaver can be to his own foundling. It doesn't need saying that death by command is the easiest form of intimidation within anyone's reach if he has that power. But the risk is compounded when it's used on a godhead who's capable of wielding the same power on each member of the clan. Manipulating an entire clan through its godhead is nothing new, but when it comes at the price of death, the risk and the danger are just... too steep."

"I get what you're thinking." Alisha pulls in her breath. "Lunarre's got a nasty penchant for using that power too often and too quickly... more often than any other pureblood. There are enough records to show how many he's already executed."

"He's been confined and exiled countless times by the Council," I added. "I've only just recently heard of his release... and by the way it sounds it's no rumor at all."

"Sorey, I honestly believe this operation was the deciding factor behind it. I mean... the timing is just too... awry to be interpreted in any other way. But there's also evidence that the clans' involvement was just as critical."

I raised an eyebrow at that. "What do you mean?"

"Ravencrowe was given an ultimatum that has just been complied with as we speak. I'm not sure if you want to hear the rest-"

"This is the first time I've heard of it." My heart was in knots when I said that. I guess I get ticked off easily whenever I hear that word. An ultimatum is not an ordinary demand, in any case. It's a rigid deadline with legal or rather, punitive, consequences.

"The Throne sought Lord Heldalf's cooperation in surrendering the suspected leaders of an alleged resistance. And every single one of them are members of the House of Ravencrowe."

I shook my head. "Heldaf's relationship with Ravencrowe in the past is the only explanation I know. Michael's his closest friend, and we both know how he's related to Lady Muse who's related to Velvet by marriage to Lord Wolfstadt who adopted her. Velvet's also the head of Ravencrowe no less... then there's the fact that Heldalf's quite fond of her as a father might be, which, no doubt, exacerbates everything..."   

"I admit, in seeking Lord Heldalf's assistance, the Throne might have intended to implicate him in the same crime."

I nodded. "Forcing him to meddle in the affairs of Ravencrowe would give them evidence that he's involved or at least knowledgeable of what's going on within its ranks. Even if he denies it, delivering the suspects to the jurisdiction of the courts is going to turn him into a co-conspirator in the eyes of the Council. Worse, it'll strain relations between the two clans by making it seem as if the other was more guilty."

Trust and betrayal. It makes me wonder for how long the Throne intends to run this nation like its own personal playground. 

Alisha gave me a helpless smile that seemed on the verge of panic. "I'm afraid I don't know exactly what's going on anymore, Sorey. What I do understand is that, if the Guardian clans continue to be involved in these kinds of controversy, the aftermath would be..."

I understand the concern, but I know better than to think that the Throne would simply stand by and let that happen. The clans have proven themselves to be the backbone of this nation, allowing it to run like a well-oiled machine through the fruit of its labors. The nobility would be foolhardy to risk its own security and resources by setting the clans aside or throwing them to the dogs.   

I exhaled. "Alisha, I know you're worried, but right now, I think the more important question is, why Heldalf of all people?"

"I'm sure your guess is as good as mine."

There's only one reason I could think of. "This is still about the League, isn't it? So I would never turn my back on it in this war?"

"If the League loses this war against the Union or the Confederate, we'd lose every territory and privilege we've gained through concessions and treaty agreements with the League. It's more than enough to force the Throne, the House, and the Council to resort to such strategies."

"What happens to Heldalf if this matter's not resolved?"

"I'm sure he's already thought this over. Rather than surrender any suspects, Lord Heldalf decided to turn himself in..."

"Alisha, that's-"  

She shook her head. "It's all taken care of. I've just received word that Lord Heldalf has officially sought pardon from the Throne. Since it's a duty and a privilege for the new successor to grant it as warranted by the Throne's tradition, I assure you, that pardon shall be granted by me..."

My mind was reeling. The fiasco's just getting started and already, it's way beyond Heldalf's involvement or that of the Ravendalf and Ravencrowe clans.

"This operation has never been an independent undertaking by the League, has it?"     

I caught Alisha's tentative gaze without knowing exactly what to expect. 

"You're right. Last night, I was informed that Lunarre's request has been received by the Council. I've yet to know the details, but he's had a sudden change of heart."

It's ironic in the case of one who's heartless to begin with, was all I could think of. "In what way?" 

Alisha takes a deep breath. "In his letter to the House of Derrilvion and the Council, he expressed his irrevocable wish to withdraw his original proposal."

"You're saying he's no longer interested in having Mikleo-"

"... be appointed as the next godhead of the House of Ravencrowe. In exchange, he's willing to meet with the League as the Throne's representative... and handle this operation directly."

I shook my head upon hearing it.  

"You mean lead the Enforcers to war? Use them against the Confederate? Don't you think it's way too convenient for the Throne to be agreeable to this? It's like pitting an expendable army to the lions so they can put everybody else on safer grounds."    

"It's a subject the Throne has never been too comfortable with," Alisha confides a little breathlessly. "It's clear how the League has always been a thorn to everyone in this nation, so much so even the nobles prefer to keep their distance. But the harsher truth is, we can't let go of the alliance without completely taking matters into our own hands. Of course we can survive without the League, but political compromises also have their advantages. What I understand is, the defense and preservation of territory has always been the highest priority of any nation... and the only excuse for involving itself in any conflict of such proportion. After all, a nation is nothing without land... a country and a home to call its own. And all for that, I think it matters not whether human lives as well as ours are at stake here."

I understood everything she said, but what was harder was finding the right words to agree or disagree.

"So everything in this operation is connected with Lunarre in that way?"

Alisha gives me a furtive glance. "It's clear he's convinced the Council to consider Lady Velvet's return to Ravencrowe so he... or that leader he's chosen... may take command of the Enforcers..."

There was something in what she said that fueled my misgivings. By now, Lunarre's madness hardly surprises... but for him to be so confident of his power and position to make such demands, the mystery was sinister enough to be scary. 

I shoved down those anxieties with a deep groan. "So... who's the unlucky bastard this time?"

"I'm afraid that's what I've been sent here for..."

I caught her elusive gaze, and a lump seemed to have lodged itself in my throat. "You don't mean... no way Alisha..."

"It's you, Sorey. As a future member of the Throne, my first assignment was to appoint you as the new commander of the Enforcers..."

 

  o-----)o(-----o

     

11 November 2100

3:00 a.m.

 

... barely six months after the Cathedral incident... and my first day out of detention 

 

"What's the matter? Can't sleep?"

His nape was a smooth curve against the falling moonlight, his hand curled on the unbuttoned half of the shirt I lent him. The soft fabric cascaded down one shoulder, exposing a bit of skin that was pale except for a reddish swelling that was already turning into a bruise.

I bent down without thinking, putting my mouth on that vulnerable part of him. 

Mikleo flinched. I wasn't sure what it was so I assumed it was the bruise.

"Was I that rough?"

Mikleo made a slight sound. "I don't remember you otherwise."

"You're too honest," I whispered, trying not to feel guilty about it. "Six months was hell without your touch."

"It's the exact reason I couldn't show myself even once."

"You should have. I would have broken walls, torn ceilings, and killed everyone standing between you and me right there and then."

"Right. And this wouldn't have happened."

When Mikleo said that, he let his hand reach down to touch me hesitantly, tentatively, like a child curious about a new toy. My senses bristled, and I have a mind to push him down and ravish him, ride him, lose myself inside of him.

There's no reason to hide my true nature from him or anyone. He's my chosen, my mate, my one and only. I could never be this way with anyone else...

And there won't be anyone else. Because no one else comes close.        

"Come back to bed?" I breathed heavily against his skin as I tugged him at the waist. His waist was small, almost tiny, reminding me of how easily I held him there hours ago. 

"In a minute?" His voice sounded almost pleading but remote, distant, like he was already in another place and time.

"I'm freezing. The bed's cold without you."

"Same as your feet, you know."

I wanted to turn him around but decided against it. I don't want to see him worrying about anything other than my arms around him, pressing him closer, feeling his warmth through the thin clothes that only made his nudity beneath a tempting thing to imagine. Following an easy impulse, I started kissing the back of his neck.

"Sorey-"

"Don't say no, Mikleo. I can't stand it."

I molded our bodies together, wanting him to feel that part of me that longed for him, wanted him, can't bear being away from him. I haven't had him for six months since the Elysian Council had ordered my detention. The investigation into Lunarre's death had only been suspended when the League ordered my return to the service with a reappointment and a promotion. I wouldn't know or even cared to know if it was a genuine move. The League has suffered losses in many places, but my absence in the war zone could hardly be faulted for that. Even if it's flattering to imagine I was that important, I'd rather think that someone must be pulling some strings in my favor. 

The Throne could only care less about human conflict. It wouldn't be swayed by mere political pressure or any human threat unless it was protecting an advantage worth the compromise.

"How long will you be staying this time?"

I wasn't expecting that question. Mikleo had been recalled immediately after Alisha's formal succession to the Throne so I doubt that his thoughts would even stray far from those internal issues he's have to face as Alisha's personal adviser.

I lifted the shirt high enough to put my hands on the bare skin of his hips and thighs. He was smooth, so smooth my urges began hardening that way again. "Long enough to do this and more?"

To my surprise, he gave a slight moan. "You torture me too much."

I stroked him down there, excited by the arousal I was provoking. "I can miss a few nights of sleep."

He leaned his head against my shoulder, letting me reach down to kiss his lips. I felt his eyes flutter open.

"You don't have to at my expense."

I turned him around completely, tugging the shirt off his shoulders down his bare legs. Watching him bathed in moonlight, creamy-white skin glistening along gentle curves that outlined a breathtakingly lean and fragile frame, I shuddered in between breaths. He made a move to cover himself with the curtains, but I caught his wrist, stopping him so I could feast my eyes on his white, perfect body.

"You're beautiful... more beautiful than I imagine you when I miss you."

Mikleo glared back with a slight huff. "Your imagination must need some practice then."

I untied the knot around my waist. "I prefer the real thing."

Mikleo pressed himself in between the folds of the curtain instinctively as I slipped out of my robe bare naked. His glance fell on my lower hip, and I found myself heating up. My arousal shamelessly enjoyed that brief attention, swelling rigidly even when he tried to look away. 

He looked flustered as I caught his chin between fingertips to turn his face toward me.

"Not here, Sorey- someone might-"

"Walk in? I know this house like the back of my hand. There's no other entrance save one door, and I already locked that."

"I forgot you lived here."

I pressed myself into the curtain, not bothering to hide how my cock had been throbbing shamelessly, hungry for attention, longing to be inside him again. "Coming back here with you is the best part, love."

"Your castle needs a princess."

"Shush," I scolded mildly. "I have someone better already."

I tore away the curtains and Mikleo stood there, as bashful and awkwardly self-conscious as he's always been. But that's less easy to notice in this light...

Standing there, he's more mesmerizing than anything I've ever laid my eyes on, a soft, supple glowing sheen... a pale, silver whiteness naked beneath a blanket of midnight stars.

I quietly reminded myself to breathe... to be gentle... and to be tender this time even if it kills me...

Mikleo arched his head to look at the grounds below. Outside the long windows was a breathtaking view of the gardens faintly lighted more as a measure of security. It's not hard to imagine curious visitors finding themselves lost halfway through the immensity of it.

"This place is too big... and magical... like a fairy tale..."

I pressed Mikleo's back against me, resting my chin on his head. "I guess? But you should know who's even more magical for real..."

I've just started trailing kisses on his shoulder when I felt him laugh.

"Nothing about you has ever changed, Sorey. Your lines are still as cringeworthy as ever."

I laughed into his hair. "At least I never lie. Not to you."      

Following his gaze, I can say that this mansion Mikleo so admires used to be an ancestral home of the Heldalfs. That changed right after the Cathedral incident when the Throne sequestered it to put pressure on the House of Ravendalf. To say the least, Lunarre's sudden and mysterious death fueled rumors of conspiracy involving Heldalf's old friend, Michael Rulay, and some remaining dissenters from the Ravenwolfe clan... rumors which have been temporarily resolved by Heldalf's surrender and pardon, only to be revived by that incident. 

As seems obvious, the sequestration placed this property in the hands of the Throne to be disposed as it pleased. I suspect it was nothing short of our friendship with Alisha, that I was allowed to return to it while my detention is being debated.

By some strange coincidence, Mikleo had been given temporary rights to use a private office and a bedroom on the west wing of this mansion. I'm not even sure whether Alisha had any inkling of sorts as to what Mikleo and I share, so I was surprised when I found Mikleo welcoming me at the door when I arrived. He had that sad, wistful expression on him that spoke whole volumes. It was enough to make me forgive him for ignoring me for half a year, or since that night at the Cathedral.

As the Throne was in the middle of resolving the issue with Ravendalf's possible involvement in Lunarre's death, I was expected to stay put within the Throne's easy reach. I couldn't be certain if that expectation was the only reason Alisha found the arrangement convenient on my end. In any case, it had been Mikleo who was at Alisha's side all that time I was away, so I couldn't help but be a little apprehensive as to what went on during my absence.

But Mikleo's kiss vanquished all my doubts when he let me guide him to my room, my bed, my arms... without any hesitation this time.

When he let me hold him all night and ease all my fears, all my longing inside of him, I felt complete. I wouldn't have bothered waking in the middle of our first night after that unbearable separation if I didn't find his side of the bed empty.

Cold sheets are much colder when he's not with me. The sound of his breathing keeps me calm, and the sound of his heart reminds me...

What having a soul must feel like...

"Sorey... what's going to happen now? You think the League's enough for the Throne to reconsider?"

"My release?" I asked, kissing the tips of those timid fingers that sought my face as he spoke. "You haven't asked Alisha?"

Mikleo looked a little flustered even in the dim lights. "I wouldn't have been able to hide my feelings one bit if I did."

My cock twitched at those unexpected words. Mikleo's never been this explicit about his feelings, and seeing him for the first time in a long while, hearing him like this, was enough to make me lose all nerve to be shy.

I pressed my hardened urges against his nudity, groaning my desire against his ear as my lips fondled them. "Bend a little, love... I want you..."

He was submissive, docile as he obeyed, pressing himself against the glass. My eyes smoldered seeing him so soft, so pliant like this, bathed in a shimmering light...

Oh god... I was inside him before I knew it, my cock swelling at the tightness that welcomed me as soon as I slid my full length in his deep cavern and began thrusting. He arched his back and clung to the curtains as I groped his waist, his thighs, pressing our bodies against the glass, moving against the fabric that billowed around our feet like a silhouette of clouds.

When he shivered, I turned him around just before he released. I languished at the coating of heat that slowly dribbled against my hips, my thighs as I pressed Mikleo to me, waiting for his climax to settle and his breathing to calm down. I looked at him, his languid eyes, his feverish features glistening with so much desire.

I couldn't wait any longer. I thrust into him hard, so hard my moan came out hoarsely, like a cry of desperation.

He wrapped his arms around my neck and to my surprise, unsheathed himself. I opened my eyes to find him slipping down... slipping way down there between my legs.

I felt his tongue wrap around my cock and my body quivered, my heart electrified beyond any pleasure I've ever known.

It was insane... unimaginable...

"Mikleo... oh fuck, Mikleo..."

His tongue was hot and careless, pressing itself on my length with a desperation that was so inexperienced it was tantalizing. It was the thing that aroused me more... the way this part of him clung to me with an urgency that seems to say more than words ever could.

True, Mikleo has never said those three words I'd impulsively whisper to him in and out of bed...

But here's more than enough... more than any dying part of me could ever wish for as his fingers daintily clasped my thigh, my knee and licked me senseless.

Too much, Mikleo... god, oh god... how could I even be worthy of this?

His tongue lingered where my cock was most sensitive, probing the folds with frustratingly slow, then rapid flicks of his tongue. I was coming, and I couldn't help it.

I felt my hardness aching into a swelling knot. Mustering what little self-control was left in me, I pulled out of his mouth.

The regret mixed with the pleasure was too much, too powerful to resist, but something more powerful than all the lust and heat I've ever felt urged me to suppress it.

His questioning eyes only added to the fury of my cock. But I stilled myself. In this light, he looked like the perfect angel... too holy, too pure and innocent to be blackened no matter how much my lust tried to taint him.

I'm no god he should kneel to. I'm no master who deserves that kind of worship.

I can't take him here like this and still call myself a man worthy of his everything. Of course, I already knew by then I love him too much...

I knelt down on impulse, pressing his whitened knuckles against my lips.

"Don't go any further, love. I might end up knotting in that pretty mouth," I teased slightly, but I was serious.

He looked away, and I could imagine the heat on his face. "I-I admit I wasn't thinking... but if you want to try it-"

"No, I wouldn't." Had I said 'I don't want to,' it would've been a complete lie because my cock was twitching, aching to be thrust into his mouth again. But it was something I learned to ignore and have to ignore, even in desperate moments like these.

Mikleo was quiet, speechless, and wondering. I pushed him down my chest and breathed into his hair.

"Besides, I've deflowered you so many times I'd feel guilty letting you do anything more for my sake..."

"Sorey," he whispered hoarsely, pulling away to look me full in the face. "I never knew I'd feel this way with anyone. You were my first in everything and will always be my first no matter what happens tomorrow. But right now... right this moment and every time you want me, I want you back. I want you too, Sorey... You can even say I... I'm just as starved and thirsty as you..."

I felt violent waves rippling through my loins, heating my lust when he said that. But the deeper feeling in my chest was throbbing with a crazy intensity... a hurting, pounding desperation I've never felt before. It was too overwhelming that it took me a minute to find the right words.

"You know, Mikleo..." I couldn't help looking into his eyes deeply, the same way I was struck to the core by this penetrating feeling... this chaste feeling of want that arouses more than any heat I've ever felt with him. "I love you... and love you... and love you that I can't let you do more without marrying you first." 

He looked really flustered as I kissed him on the cheek, then his lips... feather-like kisses that barely brushed away the growing heat of our bodies. But I kept on, ignoring his somewhat awkward bewilderment and my own awakened cock.

"Really Sorey, don't tell me that still bothers you after all this time?"

"Not so much as it thrills me, love," I told him, my voice catching. "You deserve more than being treated like a secret lover, meeting me in the shadows like this..."

He looked a little awkward, but I swear his eyes have started to mist. "You have such strange notions, you know. Must be the beauty of being so old..."

I laughed, softly pressing my cheek against his hands. "I've lived so long trying to find someone like you that marrying you is like fulfilling a promise to myself..."

He tilted his head curiously, and I found it impossible not to kiss him one more time. "I promised to be good... good enough to be worthy of keeping you by my side forever. So please, Mikleo... will you marry me?"

I felt my eyes close to kiss him tenderly on the lips when he finally said yes, when our bodies trembled with ecstasy in the next heartbeat, joined by that chaste kiss that felt more binding and permanent, a promise sworn to last farther than anything, even if the world itself grew tired and restless and gave itself up.

Until then I'll never give him up... not knowing that I never would or could, even if the world had ended right there... under moon and shadows and the glow of all those stars. 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o 

 

       

      

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

I can hear the sound 

Of your barely beating heart

Pieces on the ground

From the world that fell apart...

 

Just hold on

It won't be long...

 

I will find you

Here inside the dark

I will break through

No matter where you are

I will find you...

 

Like the wind that cries

I can feel you in the night

A distant lullaby underneath

The shattered skies...

  

I'll be the light that leads you home

When there's nowhere left to go

I'll be the voice you've always known

When you're lost and all alone...

 

I won't let you go...

 

-originally by Ruelle, "Find You,"

performed by Silhouette Tides for Inferno's Ballad 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

11 November 2211

 

... toward the end of the Hundred Years' War, within Derrilvion grounds

 

"Sorey... don't do this. Our enmity ends here."

Her voice was the same, firm and strong even through the harrowing coldness of snow, wind, and ice that bit into our skin, numbing our deadened souls.

I looked up for a moment, trying to catch that pure white, falling. But there was nothing there to take my breath away.

There was nothing but a sheet of grey, the perfect color of a dead sky.

It was the color of dead dreams carved under dead stars. It was a color that sparked nothing but memories of that day.

Quietly, I gazed at the last, living symbol of the Throne standing there, alone, in the bitter haze of fog and ice.

I pulled my breath and bit down the urge to be impatient.

"It doesn't end, Alisha... not here or in any part of the world where you can run to. It will never end for as long as I'm alive."

She shook her head. "But what you're asking for is impossible, Sorey. It's something I can't... something that's never within me to give..."

I tried to laugh, but my voice was trembling so much it sounded strange, like a voice I've never heard before. "No, it's something you won't give."

"My mind hasn't changed all these years. So please, if you still think of me as a friend-"

That word. I took a step forward, but she stood her ground, shivering in her cloak of shadows. I pulled my sword and felt a chill gripping me back.

Vaguely, I realized not even all the blood of those I've slain on my way here could match the cold of a seething ice storm.

Or the cold of hate that's waited for a hundred years like this.

"I can't be your friend, not when I killed everyone who stood in my way to protect you."

"I've done the same, Sorey. I'll do anything to keep the one thing I cannot lose."  

"Then let me ask you as a friend, Alisha. Give me the command."

Her eyes widened, but she didn't even flinch from where she was standing.

"I won't... I'm sorry... no matter how many times you ask it of me-"

"Then how many of yours do you want to see dead?" I gritted my teeth, shouting, screaming through the wind that wanted to bury us in a wasteland of ice. I held my sword up to flaunt the morbid evidence that was making her look away. "Haven't I killed enough? Do you really want me to bury the Throne where you stand?"

She looked frightened, lips quivering, but I couldn't let that distract me. I brandished my sword in one hand, throwing my shield aside.

I've no need to protect myself when the perfect chance to die is right here, standing proud in front of me.

But Alisha simply stared back speechless, measuring the distance between us with a broken smile.

"I can't believe it's come to this..." She was smiling bitterly through tears, watching me with a leveled gaze. "Do you really wish to end everything this way?" 

Though it was hard to bear her anguish, I couldn't let these feelings shake me off. Here is someone who alone possesses the power to command death by a mere wish. It didn't have to be human or vampire, beast or man. Any creature would fall by the mere breath of that unholy command from her lips... 

Nothing and no one on the face of the earth comes closer to being both god and demon than Alisha. With that forsaken power feared by everyone, she stands above everyone... above the Throne, and yes... even above me. 

She could rise higher than any existence ever known. And I've no doubt that if she survived this, she was the better choice. She deserved to live more than I do.

Even from the start, life was never something I wanted for itself.

I didn't come here to be forgiven. I didn't come here to be saved.

I'm here to embrace my punishment.

I'm here to keep my promise.

I'm here to die. 

And she's my only hope... the secret I've been searching for all these ten decades of soulless wandering through the void.

Here is the curse that will set me free. And no one, not even the Devil, could take this chance away from me. 

"I don't want us to be enemies, Sorey..."

It made me angry to see her trying to be brave, trying to be noble in such a coward, cowardly world filled with fakes and hypocrites who wanted to build an empire they couldn't even die for.

The purebloods are nothing but mad conquerors who'd throw the world into chaos so they could inherit it after the fall.

I howled through the deafening wind roaring above us. "I just buried everything that's precious to you... your family, your followers, even your lover..."

I thought of Rose lying a few hundred feet away, bleeding on the snow. "There's no one left worth saving except yourself."

She didn't flinch as I stood just a few feet away. One more step, and my sword would've easily cut through the armor on her throat if I wished.

"Then bury me with the rest, Sorey! It's better than what you're asking for..."

"Even Rose is dead-"

"Then let her sleep..." she seethed, but her face had never looked so agonized, so torn in all those years that I've known her. "It's better than waking to a world that's barely breathing... where everything we've worked so hard to build is now nothing... but fire and ash..."

"This?" I looked around us. "You regret all this?" I wanted to taunt her, ridicule her with scornful words, but my mind could only think of him... how he looked that day.

I steeled my breath. "It's been nothing but an empire of corpses from the day we were born... nothing but the dead imitating the life it didn't deserve. Only you can give this hero-less tragedy a fitting end, Alisha. Only you can rewrite this dumb play written in devil's blood."

I looked up at the dead sky, seeing nothing but a dead span of white. It was far from the quiet silver I used to know... and always ached for.

"This world we've built was never meant to be from the start," I heard myself say. Somewhere, I knew that hollow voice was mine. "No one chose this life... except the monsters who awakened us into this thing that can't be undone!"

"You're drunk. You're not yourself, Sorey!"

"Funny, I'd rather think I am myself when I'm not myself." Though I was trying to hurt her, it was my chest that was being wrung, like my heart has been twisted over and over in an iron grip. I looked at her spitefully, trying to feel more hate than regret in the fire burning in my throat. "Besides, who are you to say which part of me is me?"

"I don't know you anymore, Sorey..." she whimpers in soundless tears, stepping forward until the breastplate of her armor met the tip of my sword. "... but I know what Mikleo would say if he could see you like this..."

I pushed her down the snow with one strike. She staggered backward heavily, chest panting, heaving.

"Don't say his name here!"

"Sorey... is this what you want him to see? If he were here, do you think he'd want to see you like this?"

"He's not here, he won't be coming any soon... and he's not coming even if I call out to him! Even if I beg him, Alisha!" 

I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders, a burden I could never carry even if I tried. I fell to my knees, staring at my hands.

I've never seen so much blood.

I've never heard so many cries of anguish, of pain that reaches down to your gut, trying to claw out what little pity was left there...

I've never felt so close to dying... the only good thing that's left in this world.

I've gone this far. There's no turning back now... not to this existence that held no hope for me.

"Command me, Alisha."

"Sorey..."

"Only you can do it!" I felt my body numb to the bone. But what has been frozen a hundred years ago could never be numbed by even this kind of storm.

Not even by the coldest of ice.

I looked up to meet her gaze. She was kneeling in front of me like I'm a child that needed comforting. 

"Do it, Alisha... even if only to save the things I haven't broken yet..."

Her eyes shimmered. She moved closer, one arm reaching up to me. "I won't command you to die, Sorey... I won't ever want you to die..."

Again, those words. They stabbed me like a dagger that buries itself so deeply, bleeding you to death without killing you.

"Alisha, how much hurt can you stand? What more should I do to make you hate me enough?"

"I can't hate you. For as long as I live, I won't..."

I looked down at the snow. So white, so pale...

 

Sorey? Hey-- sheesh... stop-stop-I can't-hey! I said I quit!

What's that? I can't hear you!

Sheesh, stop acting like this is supposed to be fun!

But playing in the snow is fun, Mikleo!

No, you're just saying that 'cause you're such a kid!

C'mon, love... can't win a single snowball fight? How lame!

Oh yeah? You're gonna regret saying that!

Oh really? If you can't even get one hit, I'm coming for you tonight!

Let's see who's coming! Hey, no fair, stop running away! Sorey!  

 

So cold... as cold as that smile, that laughter I'll never see or hear again...

"Sorey?"

Another voice called out to me, pulling me back to this lifeless void. I felt the numb creeping into my bones again, gripping the fringes of my soul... the soul I wished he had taken with him.

Wherever you are... please... please wait for me...

I felt a shadow falling on me. It was the shadow of death that had no mercy because it wouldn't take me...

"Sorey..."

I looked at her face and felt someone's tears streaming down, wetting my cheeks when I looked up.

I took her hand, that flesh and blood that reached out to this enemy, this merciless killer.

Though a bit warm, I know this hand better than to hope. This trembling hand was the same that wouldn't turn the key to open those gates that would set me free. 

Alisha held onto me tighter like she once did. It was so long ago I hardly remember until now...

"We're both the same, Sorey."

"I kill things I can't save. But you can save the ones you kill. How can it be the same?"

"I wish that were true. But no one can save anyone who wouldn't save himself. In the end it's just us against ourselves..."

I closed my eyes. "I was wrong to ask as a friend, so I'm asking you as a sinner. Please, Alisha... give me the punishment I deserve. Let me die and be with him..."

She steeled her gaze. "What if there's no hell that we haven't already seen? What if this is the only place for us and then it's... nothing..."

I don't know why I felt like smiling. It only made her cry bitterly on my face.

"Then nothing ever matters anymore..."

"Sorey, stop this!"

I shook my head. "I can't bear this pain while I'm alive. Only death can release me now..."

Because he's no longer here...

I closed my eyes and felt the darkness embrace me like an old friend.

Mikleo... where are you?

They say vampires have no souls.

But I won't believe that until I've seen all hells to make sure. If you're somewhere out there... I promise to find you... 

Somewhere in the darkest of shadows, or the deepest pits of the abyss, I know there's a place I can follow him to.

After all, he's my chosen. He's my fate. He's the one I swore to live for... and die for.

No matter how many times we break it, no matter how many times I get betrayed, I would follow him anywhere, to any place...

Except here. Except to this one place he's already left behind.

Even the snow reminds me... that there's so much death here, so much pain I can't bear to remember. 

When will this pain ever end? Every time I try to kill myself, that hideous impulse takes over. My mind and body shut down, and I find myself unconscious but alive.

We're nothing but puppets, slaves controlled by internal switches and forced to do the bidding of higher demons. We're nothing but monsters created and hated by some nameless, cruel god...

In both life and death, a vampire can never be free. That's the curse of being us... the same reason no one should want to live forever.

All I ever wished for is to be free... to go and find him. To be with him, to stand by him. It didn't matter if only hell or limbo would take us.

I want nothing more than to leave all of these behind. All this blood, all these stains, all these memories that burn like fire and ice...

They're all my sins scattered on the falling snow.

"Alisha..." 

"Sorey, there's nothing left for me to do. I can save no one... I never did and never had..."

She held my face then pushed my head onto her lap, sobbing like a child as I listened to the soundless fall of snow around us.

"I'm sorry, I'm not the god you've come here to find... not the god to grant any wishes..."

My vision blurred when I heard those bitter, anguished words. I hadn't realized I've been crying since then...

Since I've lost Mikleo, I've lost myself and everything I've ever believed in.

I've lost all reason to hope.

I've lost all reason to love.

I've lost all reason to want to stay where Mikleo is already gone.

There's just one thing that remains that I will never lose...

Even if I can turn back the hands of time and know all this is destined to happen again and again, I would do the same.

I would choose him...

I'd choose to die and follow him.

And there's nothing that could change that. Not even if Mikleo hated me and betrayed me all over again.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

01 January 2101

5:00 a.m.

 

... my release after a 6-week-long detention within League territory

 

"Someone here to see you. Tall, blonde, blue eyes, he looks decent. Should I let him in?"

The description almost made me wince. No matter how many times they're reminded, people seem to forget I'm color-blind. 

Before I could answer, a wide, broad-shouldered gentleman in a crisp, military uniform was standing there in his full height. He let himself in, roughly elbowing the ward aside.

Before an argument could ensue, I cleared my throat. "It's all right. My apologies for the bother."

The ward left us without another word. 

"Sorey von Ravendalf, I presume?"

For a moment his eyes regarded me with a suppressed, somewhat cocky air of superiority before settling into the same, discomforting wariness that's almost typical of a subordinate military officer.

Likewise, his salute came a little late, not that I'm particular about formalities. I've been a detention prisoner in the past few months under two different jurisdictions. Based on that, I wouldn't expect to be treated any differently whichever law or flag is involved, meaning to say all presumptions about respectability or status should just fly out the window.

This stranger seemed to be waiting for me to say something, his eyes sizing me up. I leveled a blank gaze at him.

"To whom do I owe this visit, by the way?"

His stare was incredulous. He seemed unprepared or maybe he was just way too cautious to be spontaneous.

"Uh, pardon my rudeness. Sir von Graf at your service, though they call me Wolfe anywhere else. I was sent here by the grace of Her Majesty."

When I saw the ring on his finger, I realized he wasn't referring to the Queen of England. I would've laughed at my own sarcasm right there if this situation were laughable to begin with.

But to be honest, I've been too worried about other things to find any reason to smile. 

"What did you get sent for? My execution? Does Alisha even know?"

He seemed to have gotten even more flustered when he heard me speak the queen's name so casually, at least that must be the reason. In any case, his intermittent gazes and slowness to react made me think of him as callow and impressionable despite his manly size and stature that, in anyone else's eyes, would've been ideal in any war front.   

"Uh... someone's sent you a book, sir."

I don't think I heard that right. "A book? Seriously, what would I need-"

He pushed onto my chest a leather-bound volume that looked a little familiar. I read the title.

"The Canterbury Tales?" This isn't making any sense.

"Lines 1162 onward should be interesting, her Majesty says. She thinks you might miss it enough. The Knight's Tale was one of her favorites too. I believe it chronicles the enmity between two comrades, a certain Arcite and his friend Palamon, whose rivalry all began when they fell in love with the same woman-"

"Wait, hold on, I've read it, so there's no need to lecture me on it. What I don't get is..."

His eyebrow twitched, then he started making flourishes with his right hand. I raised an eyebrow at the vision of this comely fool who seemed desperate to be funny.

"Uh, to win the hand of the paragon of beauty they both desire, they've been asked to raise a hundred men each to fight against the other... and I believe it was the lady's brother, a certain duke, who thought of it, was it not?"

I gave him a long, hard stare. I'm almost certain the warden was too drunk to care as to who he's letting into my cell... to think that it's New Year's morning, and everyone seemed late getting up.

"His name, if you recall, must be Duke Rulay, though I could be wrong-"

My mind froze. I had the impulse to grab him by the collar of his trench coat but decided against it.

This must have all been planned, was what I thought. But in truth, I could only hazard a guess as to how this guy might deliver the rest of his hidden message when he looked a little too uncomfortable to be sane or even decent about it.

I looked away and grinned, hoping that was clue enough that I understood.   

"Mister von Graf, you certainly aren't mistaken there," I answered as calmly as I could. "You got that name right." 

He beamed a wide, friendly smile, which you might not expect from someone who looks better gunning down the enemy from the trenches or blasting armories from a tank. This blonde officer who looked too big a simpleton to be anything but reliable must be acting the part of one. And he seemed pretty good at it too, at least he was, for the most part, convincing.

"Yes, I'm most certain it was he who captured cities, rescuing the weak and anyone else who came to him for succor. Praises of his noble repute and accomplishments, as well as those of his enforcers, had in fact been sung throughout the land. I believe the setting was pretty much interesting as well... it was more or less in and around the eighteen hundreds, was it not? Again, I could be wrong..."

"Eighteen hundred it is, though I thought it was closer to fourteen hundred," I told him, just to make his lie believable.

"Ah yes, and these stories have supposedly been told by a band of travelers to each other. It's quite the mystery there were only twenty-four when thirty-one was expected. Chaucer didn't finish his work was the presumption..."

"Unfinished, huh? That might have been the case. So... is there anything more to this book you're not telling me? It's been a long time since I've read it."

"I believe that's all. But page twenty-eight should be interesting."

"I see. Is that really all?"

"Oh god, of course, how did I forget?" 

He scratched his head and laughed like a fool who's blatantly missed the most important reason he came. It was a perfect act of callous inexperience and lack of familiarity.

It may have been the perfect disguise.  

"Your release has been scheduled in an hour, Sir Ravendalf. I believe you know where to proceed from there."

"I should. Your news is most welcome, I'm grateful."

"To say the least, I miss the old stories... of taverns and travelers, of pilgrims on a spiritual journey. You'll find such taverns close by but by some other name. I take my leave, sir."

I nodded as he turned and left. I put the book on the side of the bed, loosely flipping the pages. When I came to page twenty-eight, a string with a familiar loop fell out, seeming as if it had been used as nothing more than a bookmark.

I picked it up and put it in my breast pocket. I know better than to think Mikleo had carelessly left it there. And this man who had acted as messenger for him or Alisha must know more than he's willing to say to have slipped in something that was apparently benign... so benign in fact that the warden couldn't have helped but overlook it.

In the same way the book was allowed to enter the cell with him. Of course, having relayed the secret from the point of view of the tale within, the book was nothing more than a prop. Yet without it, I would've easily shaken him off instead of enduring his babble. Likewise, my reaction alone would have made the conversation even more suspicious to anyone who'd been monitoring us in secret.

Thinking it this way, I realized how that guy must have spent more hours watching the head warden turn over every little evidence he might have on his hands that would give away coordinates, any information that's remotely suspicious. To his credit, hiding the secret in the medium than the message was almost brilliant.   

As sure as the sun had fully risen by half past six even in that bleak, winter morning, Wolfe von Graf was waiting at the first liquor store that was about a mile from the station where I was released. I had one of the station's aides deliver me up to that point, which he gladly did, as there seems to be some reward waiting for anyone who might report anything noteworthy about my immediate whereabouts.

Waiting for the hound to leave before entering the said store, I turned to the lone figure sitting by the counter, the same one who mentioned taverns and pilgrims awhile back.

Raising his glass to me, the man had a cocky smile on his face, the absolute worst simpleton having receded into a distant memory. I knew by then it was just a bad act he was forced to put up for my benefit.

I slid into a chair next to his and looked around a bit.

"Unbutton your coat, at least. I know it's freezing outside, but here's warm enough. You haven't noticed, have you?"

I wanted to tell him I've no time for it. Because my mind kept wandering somewhere else.

"Buy you a drink?"

I nodded, though drinking was the last on my mind. 

"Sorry I didn't- or couldn't- call you captain back there. I wouldn't want anyone to think I was being too respectful and loyal to be neutral, at least, in your case. I mean, that place must be crawling with bugs, both literally and otherwise."

Of course, it's only normal to be suspicious. Relations between the Throne and the League have never been smooth, not since the war has begun.

"I'm glad you caught on to what I was saying before I could make a complete jackass of myself. I imagined you'd start screaming for the guards, saying a madman's making fun of you."

It wouldn't help if I said I was on the verge of doing that exactly. In any case, I noticed how his tone had gotten miles too cocky in just a few seconds. I glanced at my watch, but my mind was on the piece of string in my pocket.

"So... how is Captain Rulay doing? I presume he's been given an assignment you were going to tell me about."

"You never mince words, do you?" He looked away. "Frankly, we haven't heard from the captain. It's the reason why I'm here."

I ignored the glass of wine the bartender slid in front of me and turned to face him. I must've been glaring at him so bad to make him fix his tie. 

"Before you get toxic, all communications have been dead for weeks... or have been effectively cut off. No one in the operation had any contact from anyone in the front lines to say much as to what must have happened. And ceasefire protocol requires us to respect the League's request to suspend deployment of any reinforcements even if it's only to investigate any confrontation between their forces and those of the Confederate. I smell collusion, but until those two agree to withdraw this ceasefire, our hands are tied."

The must-have-happened part made something rise to my throat. Whether it was fear, anger, anxiety, I knew there wasn't much time to lose.

"But the lines of defense have been secured, at least?" 

I knew I was fishing for clues. Any positive development might, at least, give some hope that someone was still out there taking charge of the operation.

I watch him swirl the wine in his glass restlessly or playfully. Honestly, it was hard to tell which.

"Don't ask if I'm drinking it," he told me, noticing my gaze. "I don't drive when I drink."

I thought it should be the other way around. I watched his eyes flit swiftly from his glass to the guy that was lingering at the back of the store.

This guy's precaution, at least, looked serious enough to be trusted.

I heard him sigh, waiting for the shadow to keep his distance. Even his cocky smile disappeared, suppressing an apparent impatience we both felt.

"So how about you, are you a heavy drinker?" he asked.

"Me?"

"Yeah, does it look like there's somebody else around here that I should be talking to?"

When he said that out loud, I noticed or rather felt, that same shadow back there retreat as if he had sensed the innuendo as well.

"Fuck, that was quick," he whispered under his breath.

He turned to me, his expression glazed.    

"Nothing's certain. I guess you can say we can't be certain of anything about him as we speak. None of his troops ever reported back, not a single transmission."

This time, I didn't hesitate to pull him by the collar of his trench coat though he was obviously the taller guy.

"You're telling me your officers are out there risking their lives, and you don't have a cock to say what's going on?"

You can say I dropped all inhibition to keep a low profile with that.       

"You shall release me captain, upon the orders of this count whose trench coat thou hast unjustly attacked with thy prejudiced hands."

P-prejudiced? I pulled my breath and let him go, sensing the shadow behind the store retreat farther away. He must have thought we're already drunk, or at least this guy with me is. In this day and age, spouting royal titles and archaisms in public must be so ridiculous anyone would rather think you're a bad drunk than a military agent.  

"Thou art rough, captain, or perhaps a mere ruffian at heart," he said, seething literary. Just as before, his bad acting skills have put us back on track.

"Really, I can't believe Alisha sent me someone like you."

"I beg your pardon, I was simply trying to humor you."

"Do I seem funny to you?"

"Captain Rulay said you have a sense of humor that gets ugly when someone hits a vulnerable spot. So I ought to be careful with my words."

Would that explain your poor imitation of literary then, was what I should have said but decided to let it go. Something else was nagging at me.

"To what extent are you familiar with the captain?"

"F-familiar?" he stuttered with a hint of mischief. "With all due respect, I am a count, both in fact and name."

I remember now. Graf is an old German name that literally means that. I threw him a questioning look. "So you're saying?" 

"Well, upon the righteous honor of such an esteemed position, I swear, from the bottom of my heart, that I am an admirer of fair damsels. And yet, when I look at Captain Rulay, I can't help having such doubts as I haven't felt as a man. Have you ever felt the same, sir?"

"We're leaving the subject. You haven't said anything useful 'til now."

"Captain," he drawled, sounding drunk though he wasn't, "... your release was on the condition that no rescues will be attempted further by the Throne. The last has been aborted two weeks ago. We haven't heard anything since then."

"And Captain Rulay was on a rescue mission?"

He threw me a blank stare that made my heart lurch at the awful implication.

"I don't know if the intel was a fail or if someone's been giving you false reports... but the captain had been fighting in the front lines since the League had you reined in. Until now, we're waiting for confirmation of his arrest or capture with the rest of the survivors if that were the case."

I suspected something was amiss when the League had me arrested barely days right after the Throne approved my release six weeks ago.

It must have something to do with this ceasefire that's being negotiated with the Confederate back then. Maybe the holidays had something to do with it too... a poor excuse that would never make sense to any of us. But what was almost certain was that the League took advantage of having me back so they could use me as a bargaining chip to get the Confederate to agree to anything. 

And I'm sure the Throne knew about it. It just didn't have the balls to disagree with the wishes of the House and the Council who had been negotiating with the League directly.  

I tried to calm myself down as I stared at my glass. "Survivors? You mean-"

"Prisoners of war. Though given what the Confederate is capable of, it might be too late to call them that."

I turned livid. I had to watch von Graf's glances become even more evasive with each passing second.

"The station where the prisoners had been detained was razed to the ground. They're confirmed casualties as we speak. Since we had little information as to the identities of the men taken at such time, we cannot say if Captain Rulay was-"

"He's not," I told him, as I made my way out of the store without waiting for him to catch up.

Outside was a military jeep that was easy to spot a few feet away. Assuming it was a transport assigned to that guy, I slid onto the driver's seat and grabbed the key that was left there.

"Captain, you should at least let me drive!" he yelled, sliding onto the passenger seat. 

I ignored that and turned on the ignition. The engine roared.

Twenty-four, thirty-one... eighteen hundred minus fourteen-hundred... a hundred men each... These numbers couldn't have been anything but codes for military coordinates. Since we've been trained to decipher these things in the front lines, I should know where to go and exactly how long it would take to get there.  

"You think you can get us there without getting us killed first?"

Neither of us had spoken for an hour. I'm sure he's complaining about my driving more than anything...

I stepped on the accelerator.

"Hey, calm down, for crying out loud! I swear this mission's over if we don't get there alive!"

"Are you always trying to be funny?" I asked.

"Thanks, I would've been a comedian and got all the ladies I deserved if the Throne wasn't bent on turning everyone into agents. How about you? Are you the same with the captain?"

On impulse, I slowed down and looked at him for a second through the head mirror. "What do you mean?"

"I don't know. He seems always listless. Like a fish out of water or a mermaid, more like it."

I stopped the jeep and grabbed him by the collar. "If you plan on making fun of your officers..."

"You know that red string? Oh, I guess you know the string but not the color..."

My hand froze, and he took the chance to pull away, watching me with an intensity I never suspected he had in him.

"You know, the captain was wearing it around his ring finger the day he gave me that book. I was thankful for it, I got to see him take off his glove for the first time in front of me. He must be so distracted... got careless enough to let me know how he's been hiding it. So I was pretending to be casual about it when I asked him to leave it to me as a token of friendship... well, not that he would if I said it like that."

"You're spouting irrelevance."

"Yeah, pretty much irrelevant, huh? That's why he seemed shocked... just as much as you, I think, when you turned to that page."

I made a gloating sound. "You're thinking I'd recognize it?"

"Well, didn't you?" was his curt, snide retort.

I couldn't say anything to that without giving more away.  

"Before he left for the mission, I already knew... or we all knew things wouldn't go well, but someone's got to go... someone expendable, like a halfling who can be respectable in the eyes of his own kind. So I guess my gut feeling was right. You ought'a thank me for that, at least."

I looked away, my hands going back to the wheel, which I couldn't have gripped harder than that moment. There's no use stopping a minute longer...

Except that someone had pulled out the key.

"Let me drive this time. You have a lot to think about... other than the captain."

I shook my head. "If I'm not driving I'll sooner go mad."

He looked at me with an expression that a sworn nemesis would give in the line of fire. "You know, I understand everything now. No wonder the captain wouldn't even look at me when we're talking. He couldn't even look at me when I pushed him down and almost raped him..."

My mind went blank, and before I knew it I was pushing him down the passenger seat, my hand on his throat.

He caught my hand and pushed me back instead. "Seriously, you're a guy who doesn't know what he's got 'til he loses it. I think he deserves more than just some good-looking, distinguished boyfriend with a hero complex worrying about him when he's not around to see it."

"I can't believe he's told you anything."

"He didn't have to. I've been his loyal fan since the day I laid eyes on him. Heck, he's probably the reason I couldn't take any girl seriously."

I looked at him hard, wanting to see signs that he was treating everything as a joke.

"I've been in love with the kid far longer than anyone. I ain't gonna give him to some reckless soldier who thinks he's got everything figured out just because he was lucky enough to get some attention."

I steeled my breath. So this is the real Wolfe von Graf. His name suits him... he's really a wolf in sheep's clothing through and through.

"Oh, and don't let the fact that I'm Count von Graf to the House and anywhere else get to you. Even as a pureblood, titles don't mean a thing to me. This royalty shit is as shitty as it comes, and I'm not the sort who looks down or up on anyone for his looks... or his status. I love being literary when I'm with the captain, but my heart and soul are a vulgar piece of shit like you're hearing now."

He threw me back the key. "Go ahead, I wanna see him just as bad as you... and in case you're wondering, this mission is off the record. We die here, and that's it. We don't even get a funeral. Fine with you, I guess?" 

I exhaled to that as I turned on the ignition. Strangely, there was nothing I could say to him even if I have my doubts about everything he's revealed. One thing I've noticed is that he never calls Mikleo by the name Alisha and I easily use. It might be that, just like his other lies, he respects him more than he's willing to say. He's a walking trap I might have just walked into myself, and I let it happen because right now it was heart over mind. I just can't think straight when it comes to Mikleo...

But one thing I can think straight about is this guy. He may have just declared we're rivals, but that sits fine with me. For as long as we're here on common ground... to save someone we couldn't risk losing for the world.             

Without a doubt, if anything were to happen or has happened to Mikleo before then, I swear everyone, even the Throne, would have to answer for it.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o   

  

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

This is life, every second here gripping tighter

Empty praise to all the things I fear inside

But I know that you will rise up from these ashes

Tomorrow will be the light that guides me...

 

Under my skin, under these scars

Take me again, tear me apart

'Cause I wanna see everything you are

'Til all that's left is not myself...

 

Take away everything

Burn away all of me

As I break, I believe

You will come to rescue...

 

-originally by Trading Yesterday, "Under My Skin,"

performed by Ash & Rain for Inferno's Ballad 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

07 January 2101

 

... a first time for everything

 

Six days have passed since my release, when von Graf and I headed out on a mission to find Mikleo.

We've checked every military installation along the way, stopping wherever there seemed to be signs of military activity that might help our investigation. We couldn't do it in the open, of course, as it would be fairly easy to get us arrested for violation of military ceasefire protocol.

I could still remember von Graf wearing a sick look on his face when his boot met something soft, blackened to almost ash, on the rubble of a pavement across a building with smashed walls.

"Oh god, fuck... for crying out loud, what the hell happened here?"

The most difficult hurdle was trying to get through check points, but we've managed somehow by taking alternate routes and switching coordinates. Centuries of survival in the war front, of fighting nameless enemies from every flag, has numbed me to such dangers. It's actually a wanton excuse to be careless, but right now, the reason for my carelessness must be something else.

Oh, I guess you know the string but not the color...

My hand feels warm inside the glove, but what's warmer is having that ring around my finger. It's strange but comforting, like a part of him is with me, leading me to where he is... 

From a few meters away, I could see von Graf yawning, arms outstretched. Being tall, he's not easy to hide even in all this snow. He's like a sore thumb that sticks out naturally in a good and bad way.

I knitted my brows and waved at him.

"Yeah?"

"You're not worried about snipers, are you?" I asked. This blond guy has deteriorated into a simpleton in a few days, and he's not even acting that part anymore. 

"Where?" He shot curious glances over the wreckage around us. "Found one?"   

I wanted to hit him just once. "You really have no military experience? Even basic training? In summer camp?"

He laughed. "I'm a count not a colonel. We're born to rule over scum, not be the scum ourselves."

I was thinking that was a joke. It must be, or I'd shoot his mouth off, pureblood or not.

"Look, I've enough reasons to hate myself as it is. I talk shit, but I'll follow your lead until we find the captain, all right?" 

Without answering, I continued my search. To be honest, von Graf's complacency, whether he was faking it or not, only reminded me of how it used to be for vampires... 

Humans always assume, hey, you're a vampire, you're immortal, you can survive anything.

I wish that were true. But just like any human out there, vampires have vulnerabilities that make them absolute cowards.

It's like backstabbing my own race. But believe me, I've known them far better than anyone. I've known and seen their worst secrets and disguises. So I know what I'm saying when I say this: most vampires have no backbone.

They're immortal against the forces of nature, but never against the forces of man, whom they scorn to be weaker than they are.

We die by command of death, but it's not the only thing that could ever kill us. The realization came a little too late... when human progress led to more technology being used in the field of military warfare. In the ancient days, vampires were superior by any measure of natural strength. We used to be invincible, but those were bygone days.

Even immortal beings die if you tie them down the tracks of a speeding train or shoot them with a machine gun. The purebloods couldn't believe the weak human race they used to loathe as an inferior sub-class could now beat them with a bullet. Or several bullets. Or a missile.  

So to live as long as we should given our immunity to age and human disease, we have to stay away from mortal danger... and hope the day never comes that we're given the command to die by either Weavers or godheads.

In the end, humans may have shorter lifespans, but they're braver and tougher because they can live with the fear of death and dying. While we'd rather hide in the shadows and wait for the rest of the human world to kill itself off in a war or some catastrophe, there are those in the human world who would rather be... heroic. They'd rather find a good reason to die for others, even when there are a million better reasons to live for their own good.

Not that vampires are exceptional cowards for absolutely no practical reason. I mean, think about it: if you knew you never have to get old and die, but, sadly, unnatural things could kill you, what would you do to keep death away?

You'd do what every pureblood would do. You'd put someone else in the front lines.

You'd never get out there to fight and get killed.

You'd stay away from the human world with its sick weapons of murder and mass destruction.

You'd wish the human world to die and leave the world behind for the taking.

That's what the House of Derrilvion has always wanted. To these bigots, the Throne is nothing more than a symbol of power, a royal puppet willing to be controlled from the shadows by hidden strings. It was created to scorn dead kingdoms and monarchies by resurrecting a tradition that seemed dignified until you find out what monsters were hiding beneath the mask.

The Throne exists as a brilliant example of how vampires, forced to live in the shadows of their cowardice and contempt, may spite the rest of the world that's never accepted them. Yes, vampires are feared, but everyone hates fear. Fear is an invisible cord around the neck, a dangling sword on your bed, a shadow that refuses to leave you alone. 

But vampires can't help being feared. So they learned how to use it to survive. They realized fear can be a protective shield against fear itself. You can induce fear on an enemy to keep him from attacking, to keep him from knowing how much you fear him even more than he fears you.

That's how frogs fight off snakes. They puff up their stomachs, forcing the predator to think they're bigger than they really are. Size is what counts in the predatory world, the bigger you are, the worse you might be.

Maybe humans, vampires, and frogs have a lot in common. In the end, you realize that size is sometimes nothing more than a visual trick... a cheat strategy.

Speaking of which, the vampire is the frog, in case you're wondering.

"Hey, you all right over there?" This loud guy with me who never stops talking hollered, disturbing the frigid silence that echoes even the slightest sound. 

Just then, I wanted to puff up my stomach to show him who's the bigger boss around here, but I let it go. "Yeah? Found anything?"

"Bodies? Dead rotting corpses? The stench's awful, gods, what are we looking for anyway?"

I picked up a half-burnt jacket and turned out its pockets. A wristwatch with a black rubber strap fell out.

"What d'you have there?"

"He wasn't wearing one," I told von Graf, pointing to the owner lying just a few feet away. "But I knew he must have one somewhere."

He gave the corpse a sidelong glance. "You're expecting that guy to say thank you, you found it for me?"

I shook my head. "Maybe we'd have to thank him later if we find this useful." 

"Well, sorry to break it to you, but the dead are as deaf as fu-"

I gave him a withering glare that made him stop and look away.

I turned the watch over in my hand, wondering if it had some sophisticated transmitter, a recording device or a memory chip. I wanted to satisfy my curiosity a little bit more, hoping against hope that we'd stumble on a clue that might give us Mikleo's location. But since it was getting dark, I had to scold myself and turn my attention to the other bodies and remains lying around us. I know we needed to hurry before it gets completely dark. I'm suspecting we might be found out soon enough.   

I hadn't realized von Graf had noticed my distraction. "So captain, d'you suppose time even matters to the dead?"

I grimaced. "He kept his watch in his pocket while in the middle of an assault. Why do you think he'd do that?"

"Lem'me see... he, uh, wanna keep it scratch-free? Maybe it's a gift from his girlfriend? I'd appreciate a ring more, you know."

He wriggled his brows at me, and I felt disgusted. His innuendos about that looped string from Mikleo seemed tireless.

"It could've been a warning," I told him, answering my own question, "... or a discreet attempt to send an SOS. Whatever went wrong that left so much carnage here must have a twisted explanation worth looking into."

"Or an excuse, more like it. Most seemed to have just been caught in the crossfire, like they didn't even know what hit them before it did."

"Maybe. Though the size of the damage tells me it couldn't have been that simple either."

"So..." he drawled in that way again, "... care to enlighten me, professor, as to your version of what happened?"

I met that silent stare and sighed. "We'd better find a camp. It's gonna be dark soon, and we don't want to end up lying on a ditch like this by tomorrow."

"Yeah, great plan, as if we have a choice, huh?"

I shivered. "You do. Like you can shut up and let me think."

"Hey, I can do some thinking too."

"Yeah? When you're asleep? Or dead drunk?"

"How about both? Mind telling me more about you and the other captain?"

"I'd be far away when you need me," I told him and walked briskly toward a staircase leading to a subway. I thought we might find the grounds beneath to be safer than up here where it would be easier to spot us.

Except that I couldn't even get close enough. I backed away as the sickening miasma hit my face. Von Graf reeled from the stench, coughing. 

"Oh, man, what the hell did they bury in there?"

I realized with disgust that this stench, this rancid, putrid smell of rotting flesh isn't ordinary. In my centuries of fighting alongside human soldiers in the front lines, I've gotten a better feel of the differences between the smell of human flesh and vampire.

Down that subway tunnel must be... rotting bodies... that's not human by any standard. I ran down the broken rock and rubble where the stairs used to be, stopping my breath with the jacket I've taken off to cover the lower half of my face.

"Hey, what the hell's gotten into you!"

I couldn't wait for von Graf to catch up. But I was somewhat grateful when he held up a flashlight so we didn't have to stumble on our own feet.

My eyes widened in absolute horror and disgust. These bodies are halflings... each one of them.

And they're all just... dead.

Von Graf had other things in mind when he ran forward, breathing through the jacket he was using to muffle the stench. "Captain Rulay! Anyone! Is anyone there?"

I caught his arm. "Someone might hear-"

"Isn't that the idea? He could be here... anywhere!"

I snatched him by the throat. "What made you think that? Do you know something you're not telling me?"

"Take it easy, it's been almost a week. Don't you think I've a right to worry as much as you?"

"I don't want to find him in a place like this," I told him under my breath, releasing my grip. "But let's get a move on."

"Corpses make you sick, is that it?"

I scoured the bodies, holding my own flashlight over them. "They've been like this... for at least three days."

"Then there's a chance there might be-"

I shook my head, trying to breathe through my jacket. "Your forget- human bodies decay after death. But halflings... they can't die until their bodies have decayed like this. Their consciousness doesn't let go even when their bodies have been dead for weeks."

I heard von Graf make a slight sound with his boot. "So a halfling's quite a different story, huh?"

"The memory of pain keeps them alive far longer than the flesh. It's cruel beyond anything..."

I was awfully reminded of how Lunarre had initially wanted to create a halfling army to fight for the League in behalf of the Throne. The reason? Halflings make perfect soldiers. Not only are they expendable, they're built to last long, far longer than any body of flesh and blood. They can endure a hundred times more pain than any human, even one with extraordinary strength and resilience.

"You sound like giving up."

I ignored the accusation and walked into the deeper part of the subway.

"What the- I thought you just said-"

"If a survivor wants to let the enemy think he's dead, where'd it be safest to hide?"

Von Graf didn't bother to reply as he followed me into the tunnel, carefully avoiding bodies lying on the ground.

It was then that something caught onto my leg, and as I looked down in surprise, von Graf came running toward me. 

"Hey, what's wrong?"

I tugged at the arm clinging to my boot, pulling the man up by his jacket with my other hand. But I've barely taken a good look at him when I decided to lay him down again.

Von Graf held his breath. "He's-"

"He's still breathing... but barely." I could've said alive, but the state he was in would make that a cruel irony he didn't deserve.

Von Graf looked down with disbelief. Both the man's legs have been blasted from the knees down. His left arm was missing, and he had a deep gash on the cheek that had maggots spilling out of the charred flesh.

Surprisingly, von Graf ignored all that and bent down to catch the man's head as I knelt down beside him to get a closer look.

"Is there anything you'd wanna let us know?"

It was probably the first time I've heard this guy speak meekly. It was hard to tell if it was pity or kindness. Neither makes sense to most vampires.

I peered into the man's face and made a sign with my hand. Soldiers are taught these things in case the injury is so severe the victim can't even speak or hear what's being said. Shell-shock is scary enough for humans and vampires alike. Victims can be so impaired that they lose all sense of being human. Even vampires can sink into madness faster than stepping on quicksand. Of course, vampires can't be any more monstrous than they already are, but humans are something else.

Halflings are the ultimate exception. No one ever comes close to the suffering they can endure at the expense of their sanity.

I leaned in closer, ignoring the stench. The man formed words that were barely audible with his lips. His breathing was sparse, which meant he's just minutes away from the final call.

"P-pain... can't... bear..."

He's been in pain for weeks, or days at least. A halfling doesn't die so easily, unlike purebloods or firstbloods who turn as quickly to ash as if they've been ignited or torched. The decay happens so swiftly that the evidence left in minutes is nothing more than bare bones. Evidence of vampire existence is almost eluded by this expedient process of decay that applies only to these two classes of vampires.

For halflings it's the reverse. The process is the most painful I know. Even when by the same means, the average human would've already died, halflings live on, waiting for decay to reach its limit before they succumb.

The pain doesn't leave until then. The pain stays, lingers, like Death laughing at the irony of an immortal who couldn't look him in the face long enough to insult his powerlessness.

Death and vampires play awful games. You can almost say it's a wicked game of physical and mental endurance that turns death into a horrible masterpiece, a revenge story pitting the human spirit against the demon within.

"Pain... take... it... pain... can't... any... more..."

Von Graf had to cover his face as the horrible stench of decay calcified around us.

"Can you leave us alone for a minute?"

He stared at us dumbfounded before realizing my intention. He started shaking his head.

"No, captain, don't even think about it."

"On the other hand, I don't even have to think about it."

He remembers something and pulls it out of his breast pocket. It was a cigarette. He offers me one, but I shook my head.

He lights it and blows a puff of smoke into the air. "The rumors must be true then... about what you actually do out there for your men."

"I don't need your judgment."

He snickers ruefully. "For a guy who claims he hates humans and most vampires, you're a bundle of contradictions. Even taking that into account, though, I don't think you can do anything more for that guy-"

"Just step back, all right?"

Even if von Graf's insinuations hit the mark, I couldn't let go of what I planned on doing. This dying man's a halfling, a vampire, in flesh and blood. If I've done the same for human comrades, then surely-

"Don't tell me- look, if you're really that hungry I could give you a drink myself."

When he started rolling up his sleeves, my stomach churned. I shoved down the disgust.

"I'm a firstblood, I don't crave that for food unlike your kind." 

"Not my fault for being what I am. Besides, anything's better than feeding on a corpse."

"It's not feeding, it's giving relief."

"That kind of blood is poison. It might kill-"

"I don't die easily," I hissed, wondering when his objections have started to piss me like hell. "Not gonna die until I see- look, no time to explain. I know what I'm doing."

"He's too far gone anyway. Wouldn't make any difference-"

Without knowing how, my fist almost connected. He stopped it in mid-air. 

"You don't get the pain, do you?" I told him as I wrenched my hand from his grip. "You're nothing but a pureblood who's got it easy. You don't feel anything, not even half of what the rest of the world goes through."

"Wanna play hero?" he asks, pushing me back. "Go ahead. Is this how you seduced him? Captain Rulay's always been a lover of masochists."

Ignoring that sarcasm, I turned to the dying, feeling for that vein around his neck as I bared my fangs. Hearing his strangled breathing, his choked pleas begging to be relieved made me even more vividly aware of the bitter agony he must be going through. 

He's too far gone for anything, but the relief... is the relief of having your precious memories with you when you leave.

Nothing kills a lifetime of treasured memories more than pain.

Anyone who's ever been in that kind of misery knows the horror of not being able to feel, think, do, or remember anything but the pain screaming inside your gut. It's more hideous than any trauma or loss you might blame on the world or your enemies. It's nothing and everything like hell on earth. 

The misery of pain is just too unbearable for words.

I hate it. No matter how you've lived your life, evil or otherwise, you're entitled to your joys and sorrows... to the memories you want to take with you when you leave this world.

They're the only things this life can give you back in your final departure, that final call to the unknown that has no tomorrows or yesterdays.

Only this moment, that final breath... this last goodbye.

I closed my eyes trying to bear the agony and the hell that was coursing through me as I sucked this man's blood. You can call it purification, but this is just another reason or excuse for a firstblood such as myself to feed on blood.

True, blood-drinking still remains to be the hallmark of a vampire, but firstbloods and halflings need it only for necessary nourishment. Other than that, we don't crave it. We don't find human prey desirable or something to be hunted every time we feel the urge to feed.

Only purebloods feel that way because they don't have hungers but cravings. They can't live without blood because it's the only thing that satisfies.

For firstbloods, alternative ways of satisfying the hunger always exist. And similar with humans, our appetite isn't always there even if there's a need to feed. I guess you can say our physical urges lie somewhere else.  

I stopped my breath for a few seconds as my fangs cut more deeply into his veins. This is it, the final truth that will end it. By releasing him from this absolute horror, there's a chance of escaping the shackles of the flesh before Death snatches him away.

I felt him shake as his life force was being sucked from him, draining away the remains of his existence. His blood was dark and rancid, spilling from morbid flesh that was already rotting to the core. I let it dribble from my lips, down my chin as I hold my breath.

I already swore to do this. It's the least I could do for having killed so many... an entire clan no less.

Twelve thousand lives taken in a few nights on a dark moor under a dark sky. I was a sinner that didn't deserve forgiveness or a sweet, carefree life anyone would wish for.

But for Mikleo...

I sighed. Can't someone like me try to deserve a little happiness, a little love? Yeah, maybe I'm greedy... maybe I'm nothing more than a self-centered, self-righteous prick with condemnation issues, but still...

I love him. And I'd do anything, move heaven and earth to be given the chance to know what it's like to try to live for someone else.

Von Graf may have been right. In the end, there's nothing heroic about this. I might have been just one, stupid vampire thinking he could use this man to redeem himself. This act of contrition is nothing but false charity, a chance to bribe the gods to grant me my fondest wish. 

I was on the verge of choking when a hand dragged me away from behind, making me almost gag.

I was down on my knees, coughing. And von Graf was staring me in the face, looking almost... concerned.

"No reason to overdo it. He's already gone, that's enough."

Doubting his words, I dragged myself forward to see for myself. The man's face was breathlessly calm, composed, as if caught in the middle of sleep. I felt relieved, pushing my back against a wall so I could catch my breath for a minute. I would have reached out to take von Graf's offer of a scarf to wipe the blood off my mouth and chin when I felt my stomach churn.

Gods--what the--ugh-

I started throwing up. I started vomiting like my brain, heart, and liver had switched places, and my throat was filled with gasoline, and my veins were on fire.

I felt a scream escape my lungs. I'm burning up... burning up...

I could imagine von Graf being in a panic though I could hardly see him as I clawed my way through dirt and gravel to empty my stomach.

"Oh shit, what's wrong now? Is there anything I can-"

I shook my head, rolling onto the dirt, holding my stomach. Blood just came spilling everywhere, thick, dark blood that had the stench of corpses.

It was enough to turn my gut inside out as I kept coughing more of that gut-churning poison.  

I've made the same mistake before, when I sucked off the blood of a soldier who I thought had just passed out. Turned out he was already dead by the time I started drinking, which rendered me paralyzed for days.

I had thought back then that the blood of a dead human was the most horrible-tasting blood there ever was. But the blood of a dying halfling in the advanced stages of decay is something else, now I know...

The morbid flavor of decay is too unthinkable for words even the memory hurts. Von Graf suspected it as much, but I didn't listen. I was stubborn, not knowing that all my miseries were about to be written from this page, from this moment of callous conceit...  

Some part of me must have known, so what made me risk it? Was it the unbearable guilt over my past crimes? Did I really think killing twelve thousand men can be blotted out by acts of heroism and sacrifice done in favor of the dying?

Vaguely I remembered slipping a knot of thread around that timid finger so white against my own... followed by a chaste kiss... a tender smile... then a promise to spend with him and only him all the days of eternity.

I closed my eyes and saw Mikleo. He kept saying he's fine... I'll be fine... It will be all right, Sorey, I promise... You don't have to worry about me anymore...

I'll see you someday... it will come... if you wait... 'cause I'll be waiting...

I stared at his retreating figure, wondering why he seemed so happy to be running farther and farther away. I tried to reach out and take his hand...  

I told him how much I wanted to feel him, to wrap him in my arms and make love to him again and again...

But then I was too mesmerized to take another step. His eyes... for the first time they looked different. They had such a beautiful color...

I had a moment to wonder what color that was. They said his eyes were a shade of lavender...

So this must be it, this must be your color, I guess? Your eyes are beautiful, Mikleo...

I've always known how beautiful they were even if it's the first time I've seen them.

He smiled at me from across a distance filled with rainflowers. 

I smiled back, running to him, catching him by the wrist. He looked back at me and, with a slight push, pulled away, laughing. But somehow, even that slight sensation of feeling his skin was enough. I felt happy for the first time in a long while, I've never been so amazed... 

But then the darkness took hold of me, and before I knew it I was falling down... down... down... so deep.

Then, finally, I was at peace.

   

o-----)O(-----o     

  

01 February 2101

 

... after that poisoned sleep 

 

Days, years, even centuries make no difference when you lose all sense of time.

Lying there with nothing but darkness and feverish dreams of waking in the same dream, it felt like I've been sleeping for a hundred years...

I knew I was awake when I felt my head spin as I struggled to sit up. There were hospital beds on each side of me, but they were all empty and tidy as if no one had been sleeping there at all.

Vaguely, I started looking for Mikleo as if I've always known he was close by, as if I was certain he's somewhere within reach and would be easy enough to find if I look hard enough.  

But the truth is, I could hardly even move or breathe. Literally, I dragged myself out of bed, trying to keep myself from throwing up. Even with nothing but thoughts of Mikleo, my head spun and my vision blurred with pinpoints of white and black that looked as if I was in a dark tunnel spiraling into some lighted entrance in the distance.

I staggered into an empty corridor, keeping to the walls as I pulled my weight with every step. It was pretty dark even if the room seemed warm enough. I could hardly sense any presence, but my hearing seemed to pick up vibrations, sounds, voices.

I noticed rats scurrying toward a lighted hallway as I dragged my feet and hoped I wouldn't have to throw up. A door was almost within reach, but my feet weren't moving properly, and I couldn't get too close.

The walls vibrated with a pounding sound. There were familiar scents everywhere, and the sound of vibrant voices, deep husky ones tinged with the vague stirrings of desperation. 

"Fuck... fuck... oh god, you're heaven.. you make my cock feel so good..."

"Von... stop... please, that's enough!"

"Fuck, I'm not yet through. I want to ram it inside of you, the way he did every time you-" 

A movement of furniture, of pushing and pulling. "I said I'm not in the mood for games!"

"Don't get up, dammit! I'm still hard-"

"I'm done for today, it's more than enough, I don't need anymore..."

"Oh yeah? You're still hungry, I could tell. You're also in heat. Hell, I can do something about it if you want me to-"

"I can't do this- how many times do I have to tell you-"

This time, the sound of metal screeching was louder, as if something was being dragged or pushed across the tiled floor.

"Dammit! You think I can hold out for long when you've been drinking my blood this long? I've wanted you first... even before you met him I've wanted you... Just once, let me fuck you here... I can't stand it anymore!"

"No, you're not yourself, Von!"

"Just once, he ain't waking anytime soon..."

"Von- let go-"

"Take it off- that's it- oh god- oh god, you taste so good- but I want more. I'm putting it in-"

"No, I said stop-"

I threw my weight against the door, crashing into the room. The lights were dazzlingly brilliant, but I could hardly see anything but mere silhouettes...

"Sorey!"

I'd know that voice anywhere.

I squinted at the sound of that voice, that scent, that was pulling me toward it like gravity.

But a rough hand dragged me and pushed me down a bed. It smells of sour, old linen and salty sweat. 

"Captain, why don't you settle down for a bit?" the voice asked gruffly, putting a pillow under my head. I struggled to get up, but an arm tried to pin me down.

"Sorey... Sorey... listen. You have to stay put..."

I felt a smaller hand push me down this time, followed by a touch that reminded me of something soft and timid brushing against my cheek, my lips... my awakened manhood in those ruins...

It reminded me of kisses under moonlit shadows and starlight, of fervent caresses both teasing and tantalizing... rising and falling with my hardened urges...

Then I heard another man's voice, caught the scent of sweat and pheromones tainting what was mine and mine alone.

My stomach gurgled with a rage so deep I couldn't think of anything else. Dragging all my weight with me, I lunged at the obvious target of my fury.

"Dammit, captain, think you can take me on with the way you are now?" 

The voice sounded like it came from that hulking man lingering around Mikleo. I'd recognize that brute and his thick, arrogant swagger anywhere.

Angry, jealous, with all my protective instincts aroused, I lunged at him again.       

"Sorey, please..." An arm grabbed me by the waist, pulling me back. In my weakened state, I let myself be dragged back and pushed down the bed. 

More than that, this voice sounded gentle, hurt, concerned, and pleading. It was enough to make me consider it. I felt a vague pull that wanted me to listen to that voice and make myself stop.

"Sorey, please... you have to lie down. Your condition is barely stable... it's been a month..."

I looked at the man standing behind Mikleo. His height and build was all I could see instead of his face, and something like a halo hanging over Mikleo's shimmer of white and silver. The golden light was too bright it hurt my eyes, forcing me to squint at it several times.

"The doctor said you might never wake up. Not that I'd mind..."

"Watch it." Mikleo sounded angry. But not with me.

"Oh, yeah? He had no idea what we went through to save him, and to think we came here to save you."

"I don't need saving, not right now. Let's just be grateful a doctor was around to help."

"Yeah, and what did you give him in exchange? It bothers me because I hate the way he looks at you-"

"Count von Graf, please, can you let me handle this? I'll call you when I need you."

"And don't... come... back." In my weakened, confused state, I couldn't believe I actually mouthed something childish.

"Fine, I'll take orders from you because I trust you. But not from him. Just holler if you need me, all right?"

I saw him touch Mikleo by the shoulder briefly as he turned to leave. I gritted my teeth. He stopped by the door to return the glare.

"Don't try anything dirty, Ravendalf. You're unwell. That poison could kill, and you almost died. Maybe we can catalogue that as one of those things that can actually kill vampires. Not like anyone else out there will be stupid enough to do what you did."

"Von, I believe that's enough."

"If you can hear me, Ravendalf, and if you've got any common sense, don't lay a finger on the captain. To be even more specific, don't try anything intimate. We don't want you infecting someone with a kiss."

"Von-"

"Look, I'm warning him for your sake. I know the feeling of excitement that happens just being around you, I'm pretty much in heat myself."

"Don't bring it up."

"Fine, all I'm saying is, I can't let you two be together, not until he's completely clear. You know what that doctor said."

"I don't need to be reminded, all right?" Mikleo had a syringe with him, which he pulled out of a glass cabinet. I watched him empty an entire vial of liquid into it.

I sensed the loud guy with the conceited smirk lingering in the doorway. He was watching Mikleo with eyes that seemed too fond for comfort.

He made a loud exhale. "Captain, I'd really feel better if you'd let me stick around. I can watch over him for you."

I faintly saw Mikleo shake his head. "I'll be fine, I can look after him while you go get what you- what you really need. You haven't had it for weeks."

"All I need is you, dammit. You know that already."

"You're just being a stubborn pureblood like always." 

"Whatever. But like I said, I trust you 'cause I know you'd do the right thing. It's him I don't trust."

Mikleo seemed to ignore him, rolling up the sleeve of my bedclothes. "We'll call for you when we need you. Until then..."

"Just saying, I'd be close enough to hear screams and moans. Don't give me a reason to come running."

I heard the door shut as Mikleo leaned closer, laying a hand on my forehead.

The lavender I remember from my dream wasn't there... only the immense silvery white shimmer that I've missed. But that's just fine, 'cause having him close enough to breathe in his scent, to see his face, is more than enough. 

I reached up to touch his eyes, his lips, his throat... it's been so long it hurts not to feel him next to me.

Mikleo held my hand in both of his, touching his face, his cheek with it.

"I wouldn't know what I would've done if you didn't wake up, Sorey..."

I pulled his face toward my lips. He shook his head gently, kissing my fingertips instead.

"I'm sorry, we can't... I mean, not yet... doctor's orders... you have to get better first..."

"But that guy... did something... to you-"

"No, never. He's a good man... even for a pureblood."

"You... like him... that much?"

"We owe him, Sorey, for saving both of us."

I shook my head at that. I knew that man wanted Mikleo badly, I saw it in his eyes...

Mikleo grabbed a towel and started wiping the sweat off my forehead. The drug seemed to have that effect. I was starting to feel warm, the prickly heat making me sweat, making my bedclothes stick to my skin.

"I don't know how he can endure so much, but he's been taking care of you and me when I was completely useless and making things harder for him... because of my heat."

"You called him... Von-"

"We've known each other for a long time. Alisha's father, the Admiral, was a really close friend of Lord Wolfstadt, whom my mother married when I was four years old. By that time, my father's been dead for just about as long so I wasn't even hostile to the idea. When she herself passed away and Lord Wolfstadt became... withdrawn and distanced himself from everyone, I moved in with Alisha's family. It was there that I met Count Wolfe von Graf. Because his name reminds me of Lord Wolfstadt, I couldn't call him Wolfe back then. And since he hasn't succeeded to the title at that time, calling him Count von Graf would be... too formal and inappropriate. Von was the only choice I had."

"He told... me he likes... you-"

"That womanizer? He's an outrageous flirt, a tease, and he makes out with anyone who'd give him second glances. I saw everything when I was young."

"It... doesn't mean... he never... looked at you... that way."

Mikleo exhaled. "Sorey, right now I'm more worried about your recovery to think about anything else."  

"But if I'm... like this... he might... do things... to you-"

"It's my fault. I've been drinking his blood... to heal myself. He knew it'll worsen the effect of my heat on him. But it's not like we have any choice."

"How- did- we get... here?"

"One of my men picked up a weak frequency from a transmitter. That's how you were found in that subway."

I thought of the watch I've found that day. It must have a homing device, a sensor which, when heat-activated, sends weak pulses to a transmitter that's sensitive to its specific frequency.    

"He led von Graf to the shelter I was sharing with a few other survivors. Most of them were seriously injured, and we didn't have enough hands to help... and I knew reinforcements wouldn't be coming either. When my men found you, they were scouting for supplies and hoping to find survivors and friendlies who might help. It was all we could do at the moment while this ceasefire's in place."

"Von Graf... told me... communi... cations were... down."

"That's hardly accurate. My men didn't trust the League to send transmissions, and I couldn't blame them. I've tried getting through, but they've ignored every call for help. Even if Alisha wasn't conspiring with the Throne, I knew she must be getting a different version of what's happening in the front lines to know what the House and the Council were really up to. Despite the ceasefire in place, the shelter was attacked just moments after you came in. We managed to escape with the help of a certain doctor... who gave us the location of this abandoned camp."

"How... about... the others?"

"They fell back to defend the shelter and protect the remaining survivors. I would've stayed with my men if that bastard didn't knock me out cold and brought me here. After bringing you here and making sure we're safe, I asked von Graf to see what might have happened. But since the day he returned from the shelter, he wouldn't give me any details."

Without needing words, we both knew the reason for it. Not that any explanation would matter now.

I smiled despite everything we've been through. Mikleo was a good commander. He cared about his men. He wouldn't abandon anyone if there was even the slightest chance of survival.

"You were... really... some-thing... out there... commander." I felt so proud my chest hurt.

He shook his head. "If it were you, none of this- Sorey, I couldn't save as many as you-"

"Not- true. I killed... more than... I've ever... saved."

"It's all in the past."

"That guy... he's not... doing things... to hurt you?"

"Since that day, it's been just the three of us. Von Graf tried to help as much as he could. The doctor said it was a miracle he hadn't lost his self-control..."

Mikleo laid his hand on my cheek. It felt warm and reassuring in ways that felt better than the effects of any medicine.

"You've nothing to worry about." Mikleo's voice was warm, tender, reassuring. "Von already knew even before I told him."

"He... never... tried to-"

"I can't hold that against him," Mikleo whispered regretfully as I followed his gaze toward the peeled paint and wallpaper around us. "We have no suppressants here... and as an unpaired pureblood, he's hardly to blame. The effect of our pheromones on him only gets worse whenever I feed. Even when my heat drives him mad, he resists the best way he can. He's holding up... he's doing his best..."

"But why... are you... crying?" I asked gently, the fear wrenching my heart within. Even if I tried to control it, my voice kept stuttering in my head.

My mind felt like a new-born lamb trembling in the bitter cold.

Mikleo laid his head on my shoulder. "You were in such pain. I would have given everything to save you, Sorey. It hardly mattered what it was-"

"Don't ever... put yourself... in danger... because... of me..."

"Even if the poison wasn't enough to kill you, it could've made you mad. What if you lost your mind or didn't wake up? I was desperate, Sorey! Every single night I felt afraid that you won't be coming back!"

I caught Mikleo by the wrist, kissing the vein that was throbbing there. "I won't... die yet... 'cause I... love you... Mikleo... always..."

"I know. And I love you more, Sorey. I swear I love you more..."

"Don't... leave... me..."

Mikleo touched my face gently, his other hand squeezing mine, lips covering my chest with feather-light kisses as he carefully and slowly unbuttoned my bedclothes to keep me cool and to wipe the sweat off me. 

Finally, he climbed onto the bed, resting his head on my chest as he tried to cuddle beside me. 

"You... still... want to... keep your... promise?"

Mikleo gave me a questioning look. It made me smile to see him curious as his eyes shifted to the thread on the finger I held out to him.

"Sorey, are you asking-"

"I did... and you said... you will... marry me..."

When I said those words, he started crying so much. But he was smiling even when the tears kept flowing, even when I touched his cheek and tried to kiss both his hands.

He laid his head on my shoulder, more to hide his face. "Strange, I hardly remember it now."

I kissed his hair. "You're... being mean..."

"Of course, I'll marry you, Sorey. You're just testing me, right? But see, I didn't forget... and I won't let you forget either, okay?"

"How... can I... when I have... your... ring?"

Mikleo gave me a look of longing, then snuggled closer, pressing his body to mine. I felt my manhood awaken, imagining itself inside of him all over again. 

The scent of him, the feel of him this close... it was enough to make me catch my breath.

As if sensing my need, his hand went to my cock. His strokes were slow and gentle, yet tense... almost shy and ashamed. Moaning my pleasure, I pressed my cock against his thigh, pressing kisses against his throat as I slipped my hand between his legs.

I felt my heart skip beats as he clutched my chest. "Sorey... I promise we'll do more when you get better, all right?"

I nodded slowly, doing my best to ignore the heat that has furiously awakened my manhood. I let my mind focus on the scent of him, the fragrance of lavender, and how it looked in that dream where I've seen the real color of his eyes for the first time.

"Stay... Mikleo..." I told him, feeling my lids grow heavy, my voice falter. I could barely open my eyes as I kissed his hair. "Never leave... without... me ever... again..."

"I'll be here, Sorey. I'll be here until you wake up. I won't leave you ever again either..." 

Those words. With those words of promise, I let sleep take over me, loving the feel of his hand on my face, on my chest... the feel of him so close like I could never lose him ever again.

Maybe a day had passed when I felt rough hands pull me violently out of that deep, painless slumber.

Von Graf looked as if he had missed several nights of sleep. His hair was matted and dirty, and he seemed to be nursing a broken jaw.

It made me sit up with a start, ignoring the dizzying spin that was starting in my head again.

"They've taken him, dammit... they've taken the captain, those bastards!" He slammed his fist on the side of my bed, his cries becoming howls of fury and anguished desperation.

I pulled myself out of bed, ignoring the stinging pain in my joints that was trying to push me down. I looked around me... and the first thing I saw was the blood on the bed next to mine.

My senses told me the blood was Mikleo's, but there was also the stench of human sweat... and something more that made my blood run cold.

Von Graf had a bandage wrapped around his bleeding knee. He must be healing more slowly than usual. Most likely, he's been starving and was deprived of his normal nourishment for days, even weeks, if he looked this miserable.

I didn't want to think how Mikleo and I might have been the reason he suffered such neglect. Even the toughest pureblood can hardly survive for days without their normal food supply, which is nothing less than human blood.

"What happened?" At least my voice wasn't stuttering. But for some reason, I couldn't tear my eyes off the bed.

Somehow I already knew the poison was doing things to my mind. I could feel it screaming in my blood, telling me things I couldn't bear to listen to... 

Von Graf must have read my thoughts. "Dammit, those filthy bastards took him there!"

His voice was thick with reproach, self-loathing, and hate. But my body had already become paralyzed as I realized what he was trying to say- or was about to say. 

"While you were out, they took him like a dog and fucked him right under your nose, and dammit neither of us could do anything about it!"

My mind froze. I knew the medicine Mikleo had given me had painkillers that were supposed to calm me down. But to sink me so deeply in dreams while those things were happening...

"They probably thought you were dead... but they shot me, knocked me down, and tied me right here so I could watch them do it!"

Von Graf's body spasmed, his groans becoming a madman's growl as he flung himself against walls, against the beds between us and started tearing everything he could get his hands on. 

Sinking on his knees, he howled like a beast trying to wake every demon from the depths of the underworld. "I'll kill every single one of them, I swear to god... I'll kill them all, every single fucking bastard who lay a hand on him!"

I left the room, dragging my feet into the snow that half buried a military jeep parked under a crestfallen tree. I didn't know how or when Von Graf had decided to follow me into the dark, ignoring the barren cold of ice and snow that bit into our flesh as soon as we stepped outside the shelter.

"You have the key?" I was trying to be calm, but every part of me was cold with hurt, rage, fury, and anguish at the thought...

His thoughts. Something burned inside of me, awakening thoughts and feelings, hazy images of what had happened that Mikleo had been unable to cloak.

By then I knew that nothing else might explain it but the poison. It did something that strengthened my ability to resonate... to the point that I could still feel his pain, his suffering even when hours have already passed. 

I closed my eyes and tried to breathe. I couldn't imagine Mikleo being dragged into this freezing snow, into some lonely darkness out there to be tirelessly abused, ravished, and tortured like an animal they owned...

Just imagining someone else's hands on him...

I have to breathe. I have to keep my sanity. I have to push down this pain... 

But deep inside my gut, I wanted to cry. I wanted to fill the void inside me with curses that could summon demons, but I have to think...

Mikleo... I have to think through this horrible pain even if it kills me.

I heard heavy footfalls coming in closer, stopping right in front of me.

"I'll drive. Just tell me what the plan is." 

Seeing me on my feet must have sobered up this pureblood long enough to realize I wasn't about to wait a second longer.

"You have weapons in the back?" The last time we drove this vehicle, I knew he had enough high-powered arms and ammunition to take out a military installation. I was hoping nothing about that has changed.

"I still do."

That's all I needed to hear. "Let me drive, I can sense where they are. You still have that watch?"

He understood quickly what I meant. It was the one we found in one of those places we had been scavenging for clues before this happened.

"Yeah? Not sure why I kept it."

"Whatever you do, don't lose it."  

I slipped into the driver's seat, feeling my knees jump into action. Somehow the fury was helping me focus on getting my body to move.

"So what's the plan, captain?"

Von Graf was still seething, but he seemed calm enough to sound more like a soldier than the spoiled brat that I thought he was. I would've left him behind otherwise.

I've never felt this feeling in centuries. I've never felt the madness of wanting nothing but to rid the world of an abomination.

I was reminded of the twelve thousand now lying in their graves in Wescraven moor... somewhere in that frozen desert called No Man's Land.

But this time, I felt relief, not the guilt of refreshing my sins.

"Captain-"  

"Killing sounds good enough," I whispered under my breath. Von Graf gave me one look and said nothing because nothing more needed saying.

The heater was on, and the ice storm we're driving through must be degrees below zero. But I was too numb to feel anything... 

All I could feel was the string around my finger, and the thought that I could kill every single human that night without a single regret.

    

o------------o)O(o------------o   

    

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

We were floating for days

We were flying the way

That doves do

And I loved you...

We were sailing the sky

Watch the clouds passing by

Like a dreamland...

Where should we land?

 

Yeah, we were invincible, that's what they said

So indivisible wherever we went

Higher and higher yeah, I guess we had it all

Light up the sky and then

We thought that we'd never fall...

 

You were my Hindenburg lover

We were flying away

 Then we took a wrong turn

And it was all up in flames

And now I'm staring at the wreckage

Trying to make it okay, oh yeah...

 

And I guess I got burned from the scars on my heart

And I'd be lying if I say I didn't know from the start

That there was something in between us

That would tear us apart, oh yeah...

  

-originally by Anson Seabra, "Hindenburg Lover,"

performed by Silhouette Tides for Inferno's Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

11 November 2865

 

... the first few months into the opening of Inferno's Ballad 

 

"Hey there, hotshot, I hate to admit you never looked so good. Been a while, huh?"

I turned around, swiveling my chair. A man in a grey tuxedo and striped tie slipped onto a stool next to mine and called on the bartender to order a whiskey.

Needless to say it was the same, thick, gruff voice that's always been cocky and carefree that got my attention.

"So... this is where you've been hiding. I can't say much, but you did a lot to this place. Looks cool enough."

He was talking about this bar. I've just recently opened it, flushing down all my savings... well at least half of it... to acquire this property and have the construction needed to transform the place into a decent business and residential building. Buying the property was a bit difficult. There had been complications that involved red tape and things like that. I was happy the negotiations pushed through, not that I would've given up if it didn't. This place holds for me more than just memories...

It's a place of broken dreams and promises but still, one that's truly closest to my heart... the only place in the world I could call home, even if a sad one.

"Inferno's Ballad... pretty name. Sounds depressing though. Must have some tragic history behind it you wanna tell me about."

"Von Graf... you didn't come here to annoy me, did you?" I had a mind to ask.

"Me? Get over yourself, Ravendalf, I came here to enjoy the booze and the women. Uh, tell me, this ain't a gay bar, is it?"

I threw my jacket over my shoulder and prepared to leave. The bartender gave a familiar salute, which I casually waved off. I don't care about formalities, never did as far as I could remember.

Except that time. I felt my chest heaving with a familiar ache.

It's been seven centuries and a couple of years. But everything felt like yesterday...

And this hulking guy next to me was just another painful reminder... of the things I've lost and broken in that timeless past that kept pulling me back.

Back to this place... back to these ruins-of-long-ago that I've turned into a sanctuary I could hold on to.

"Hey, drinking alone ain't my style. Keep me company, I'm an important customer, for crying out loud!"

"I'm not in the mood for jokes."

"Came to see him too, didn't you? Back there?"

I've always seen how von Graf would throw people off by shifting gears in the middle of a conversation, throwing insults, and firing blunt, personal questions out of the blue. He's often used the same strategy on me. Sadly, I never learned how to prepare myself for it.

"It's uncanny you'd make this much effort to be there."

"Yeah well, 'cause you're not someone who can take care of himself, much less someone like the captain. That's why I wanna stick close... close enough to look after you both. Don't get me wrong, I'm only talking about the property."     

He's referring to the Ravendalf lands I've acquired by inheritance. Retaining only the title to an acre of it, I sold the rest, including the mansion, to be able to buy Inferno's Ballad and fix it.

Later, I was told how von Graf bought the house from the buyer I sold it to at an inordinate amount, no less. He also had some improvements done on the property and volunteered to keep my part regularly maintained.

It's not that he cared about what I did. We both know why the place is special in many ways.

On that acre I own, a certain grave sits under a maple tree. Though I couldn't bear living there or dropping in except on rare occasions, I do look after the gardens and tend to a variety of flowering plants and shrubs, mostly rainflowers and lilies...

"Know what? I even booked an early flight, hoping I'd catch you lingering around the old castle... just appreciating the scenery, if anything. Too bad I didn't see you. I feel kinda lonely standing there just him and me... without you sniveling and crying your heart out as usual."

I exhaled. "I was there-"

"Yeah, my secretary told me about it. You spent the night in that grove in this freezing cold, then left at dawn. They said they offered you the hospitality of the mansion, but you kindly declined. I imagine you standing there looking like a lost puppy, sniffing the flowers and talking to yourself all night. You could've dropped me a line... I would've enjoyed camping with you on his grave. Besides..."

He looked at me with a serious face, his grin quivering a little.    

"No matter where I am, I never forget to call my staff to see to it that the caretakers are tending to your garden. After all, we don't want the captain to get lonely..."

He's never as lonely as I am. I'm the one he left behind... was what I felt like saying. But the guilty side of me knew a bit of gratitude was in order.

"Thanks for coming to see him."

"Yeah, like I'd forget the anniversary. Can't believe it's been seven hundred years... sheesh... that makes you ancient history, I bet!"

Von Graf's actually a young vampire next to me. He's not yet a thousand years old to begin with.

"Gods, what have I been doing with my life lately? You've never even attended any of my weddings, have you? Well, each one ended in divorce so... yeah, guess I wasn't meant to be chosen."         

"Count von Graf, as much as I'd love to-"

"Call me Wolfe. How long has it been? Five years?"

"Five years ago you were still von Graf to me. Nothing's changed."

"My point, exactly. Things gotta change some time, somehow, captain. Besides, you ain't gonna bite your tongue over it if you try. Even for just today."

I gave him a long, hard stare, but he merely shrugged it off. It felt awkward watching him stare at his drink through the glass.

"I miss him just as much as you. There ain't anyone like him. Even if you spend a million years traveling the world, fucking every beauty who comes within your radar, the feeling doesn't go away... and the satisfaction? Shit, it doesn't come anywhere close. He's just a thorn that pricks your side every time you wanna fly away and forget. You understand the tragedy, right?"

I pulled back the stool next to his and threw my jacket on the counter. "There's nothing I could offer you but drinks and some of my random monologues."

"I can do without women for one night. Unless you wanna be fuck buddies?"

I exhaled with a groan. "Your bad jokes are getting worse. No wonder you don't have any friends."

"Says the longest bachelor in the history of mankind. You ain't even trying hard enough to meet people... or vampires."

"I'm fine without a relationship. Traveling takes my mind off things... I'd rather not think about."

"The more you hate thinking about it, the more you think about it. Can't fool your mind... it always gets what it wants. The heart just follows."     

"That sounds like a lecture right there. You ever get tired of talking?"

"You ever get tired of overthinking? I suppose you don't. That's why I'm here. Talk to me, Ravendalf. I can be a good shoulder to cry on, if you need one too."

"I'm done with crying."

"Fucking liar. By the way, you mind if I just call you Sorey? Ravendalf sounds so... old."

"Whatever's fine," I told him, ordering a scotch. "So what really brings you here?"

He smiles cockily, then swirls the liquor in his glass as he raises it to me. "A business proposal, my man."

"Not interested."

He takes a sip, looking down as if in reverie. "Think about it, at least. Better than just molding away in grief. Seven hundred is long enough..."

"I stopped counting."

"C'mon, I need some help. There's a guy you need to meet... I mean, I love for him to see you. He says some interesting stuff... things you wouldn't miss for the world."

I can't believe this man came here to sell me something. I downed my scotch and grabbed my jacket.

"Hey, I came all the way from across the continent... I crossed oceans to see you even if it's the hardest thing to do, and all you wanna do is walk out on me again?"

"I never asked you for any favors. I'm sorry, but I really have to go."

"Well, for as long as I could tag along..."

"Wolfe, look-" I turned around, my patience wearing thin. "You're the last person I wanna see, and it's not even because I hate you-"

"Oh yeah? Then what's your problem? 'Cause you're not the only one who's trying to move on here, buddy. If you think his dying on you turned your universe upside down-"

"I'm sorry, but I'm not hearing this-"

I felt a grip take hold of my arm. I shook it off. "Don't touch me-"

"Easy for you to say! Whenever I think of the captain, whenever I think of how much I've wanted him..."

"Enough, Wolfe! I don't want to hear you talk about him-"

"How I've wanted him and never had him... how much I've given up so you two could be together. But that's not it, you know what bothers me more?"

I gave him a cold stare. "I wouldn't care to know, Count von Graf-"

"What bothers me is realizing that's it's you I regret more than anything, Sorey! I can't stop thinking about him because he leads me back to you..."  

I started walking away, not wanting to hear any of that. I have a room on the third floor, and I locked myself there until the next day, ignoring one blond officer pounding his fists on the door for hours before letting me have some peace.    

I looked up the walls, the ceiling. I've done my best not to fix this room any more than it needed fixing. In fact, the spiderweb cracks on the walls are still there, intact. I traced them with a fingertip, remembering that morning when I woke up for the first time next to him sleeping in my arms, his hair spilling on my chest... 

Even the bed has the same mattress. I've only allowed the duvet and the linen sheets to be changed regularly.

I took a deep breath. I could still catch his scent as if he's never left...

 

Morning...

Oh god, Sorey... stand down!

Stand down?

 

Mikleo... I watched the sunrise throw flecks of light across the glass pane of the only window in the room.

I don't know how long I can do this, love. I miss you too much... and I want you so bad...

The bed creaked beneath me as if to remind me of that day even more vividly.

I'm done with crying, was what I said. But maybe not today...

I closed my eyes and remembered everything all over again...

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

02 February 2101

 

... the following day after Mikleo was taken

 

"Shit, captain, they're using an old-type radio to send messages. We might need a code-breaker for this one. I guess old technology has its advantages... for the enemy."

"Not to me, it doesn't." I snatched the headphones before von Graf could complain. "This isn't new. I've heard it before... you have a notebook?"

I started scribbling notes. I've studied linguistics just for this, since getting a degree in almost any area that's remotely related to military operations is just about the closest thing to fun that anyone can get when he's raised to be a weapon for the Throne.

Speaking of which, exotic languages are normally salvaged for words, symbols, or any sign that the enemy might miss. You can even say structural linguistics was borne out of the need to decode languages so systematically that even soldiers would have a way of cutting them up to parts to see recurring patterns that could fit into predictable chunks of context. I guess war would never be what it is without its own syntax of violence and dog-eat-dog tactics. It's a virtual war of words and worlds out there.

And this one was definitely not an exception. I slammed the notebook on von Graf's chest. He gave me a look of absolute confusion as he wordlessly flipped it open.

This was one of those rare moments that I've never heard him complain even once.

"Are you sure about this?"

"You're supposed to read it backwards," I told him.

"We're gonna infiltrate Confederate territory. Nice touch."

I could see a tool shed on the west side of the barbed fence about fifty meters from where von Graf and I had been hiding. I could sense they've been keeping him there.

"It's not just a shed, is it? It would be too cramped to move in there."

Too cramped to move... I couldn't let my imagination run away with me when things could get critical any moment. I exhaled, wanting to focus on Mikleo's safety. Anything is fine for as long as I can get him out of there alive.

Anything. Just... just be all right, please, Mikleo... if you could hear me right now... 

Handing back the binoculars to von Graf, all I could do was nod back. The rest of me was too busy telling itself to calm down I could hardly say or do anything more.

"It's easy to tell they've got a basement down there."

"Look, that watch I asked you to hold onto, it's got a transmitter that's picked up only by friendlies," I told him without thinking, ignoring everything else that was going on. "If ever you get the chance to get him out before I do, I want you to think of the fastest way out of here."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"You'll need it to call for help. That watch was the reason some of the captain's men were able to reach us. I'm sure there are survivors out there still looking for him."

"How about you?"

"He's your priority from hereon. I never ask for any favors, but just this once, I want you to promise that one thing-"

"I'm afraid I can't."

I looked at him hard. "Don't joke with me-"

"Hell, you think I would? I'll make sure you're with us 'til the end, captain. Besides, vampires can't do suicide so stop spouting nonsense."

"Some rules don't work on me."

"You really can't get over yourself, can you? You may be special, but you're not always the exception, idiot. By the way, that's a term of endearment for assholes such as myself so get used to it."  

I shook my head, barely suppressing the urge to scold him for insubordination. Since last night we've been enduring this snowstorm to secure a place close enough to get a better view of the enemy perimeter and intercept their coded transmissions.

I heard von Graf curse under his breath as he edged a little closer toward the ledge. Just a little more and we'd be practically falling off the jutting rock. Maybe we have the snow to thank for as the near-blizzard made it easy for us to stay hidden.

"Guess you're right, there really must be a basement below that shed. I mean, how else could eight guys just file out of there like that? They seem to be dead drunk and enjoying themselves too."

I snatched the binoculars back. True enough, one was kicking a bottle of whiskey across the ice. They were so drunk they were skidding off the cleared path outside the shed, pushing and pulling at each other's jackets. 

Suddenly, I had the urge to jump off the rock and shoot some moving targets. I didn't realize von Graf had been calling out to me.

"Easy, I know what you're thinking, and I'm thinking it too. If it's not risking the captain's life, I couldn't wait for it to get dark."

Livid, I gritted my teeth. "We don't have to."

"What if their supply trucks arrive while we're at it? We can't be too sure..."

"We're moving before that happens."

"What? Wouldn't it be better to just attack in the dark?"

I would be lying if I said the same thought never occurred to me. But knowing that this installation was expecting three trucks of military supplies meant only this: it's not just a training camp or a checkpoint but a major Confederate facility. Given the fact that the ceasefire must still be in effect, Mikleo must have been taken for reasons hardly even related to the League...

Once I was able to confirm from the transmitted codes that the ceasefire was still in place, I knew right away that there couldn't have been any possibility of those men letting their own higher-ups, or senior officers, know about their dirty handiwork. If they're keeping Mikleo, it's for something personal, filthy and perverted... a benefit that doesn't involve the politics of violating protocol.

I gripped my holster and slipped down the ledge, signaling for von Graf to follow.

Protocol or not, I don't intend to leave anyone in this camp alive by morning.

"I'll take the jeep to these coordinates. You stay close and wait for my signal. Find a shelter in the trees... anywhere... where you can hide 'til I arrive."

Von Graf looked confused. "Arrive? Hell, your orders barely have specifics. How is that-"

"I'm going to intercept that truck and crash it. It should have enough ammo to blow everything up."

"How about the rest of the deliveries, you forgot about that? They're expecting two more."

We didn't have time to argue so I cut the explanation down to its bare essentials. "I catch the first one, drive it, pretend the truck went out of control and crash it through the perimeter fence. I get out, give them a few minutes to secure the supplies while you use the time to sneak into the shed while they're distracted. Setting off a bomb inside the truck should be easy enough. We have twenty minutes to find him and get him out."

"Wait, hold on. You're catching that truck by yourself?"

"I need you here to keep an eye on that shed."

Von Graf didn't seem to be listening. "Hell, you think it's that easy to get rid of the guards manning that truck?"

"In this weather, they'd be slow and careless."

"But I thought you said there should be two more trucks-"  

"-carrying nothing but food provisions and non-combative supplies. They're no threat." I was getting impatient. 

Von Graf looked incredulous. "How many languages do you actually know? I could barely make out anything from that jumble."

"Learning takes time. And I've had too much."

"You're really going for the overkill, huh?"

"I don't want an army tracking us after we get him out of there. These mountains are tricky. Besides..." I clenched my hand into a fist. "I'd hate it if we can't even get Mikleo to safety worrying about covering our tracks and dodging bullets."

He stared at me wordlessly for a few seconds. "Strange, I think it's the first time I've heard you say his name like that..."

"Look, whatever it is-"

"Yeah, must be love, so don't even bother. I have to hand it to you, though, you're enduring well. I wouldn't know what to do if it were me. True, I'm crazy about him-"

"This isn't the time for that."

"But I'm always in love that I can't tell the difference between falling and just being in it, get what I mean?"

"Mikleo and I-" 

"Easy, I already know. He didn't even have to say anything. I'm not that dense... even if I wanted him and came onto him many times trying to get laid while you were out, he never gave me a chance. His heat told me it was you he wanted badly, 'cept I didn't mind being a replacement... 'cause the last thing I want is to see him suffer like that."

It felt awkward saying anything to that, not that I could. Last time we had the chance to talk, Mikleo explained everything I needed to know. And the fact that he was defending von Graf against my accusations should more than imply that they must be at least friends. Given the circumstances, it's not unlikely that we really owe von Graf more than I'm willing to acknowledge. Not only did he take care of me when I was careless enough to get myself poisoned... but he must have also taken care of Mikleo the only way he knew how.

Even if it meant forming an unrequited bond...

That said, he still took the risk. And he's taking another risk even as we're standing in this blizzard contemplating the odds.

"If we can safely get him out of there, I swear I'd give you two some time alone," he told me in one breath, avoiding my eyes as he pretended to survey the forest clearing up ahead. "Don't even think I'm doing it for you. Those bastards have done enough damage for one night... not like we can do anything about it now. But hell, I'd give my right arm to save him from those bastards. Just saying, I'd feel less hateful imagining him with you than with them or anybody else. I want him to get what his heart wants... and it's not me. I mean, I'm pretty sure by now who the captain needs more than anyone when this is all over..."

I pulled out some keys from my pocket. 

"Just give me two hours. Once I get in, we'd blow everything down to the last man... so fast they wouldn't have time to guess what hit them."

He grinned. "Yeah, that's a soldier's promise I bet I could rely on."

I nodded.          

o-----)o(-----o  

    

14 February 2101

 

... nearly two weeks after the rescue

   

"Hey easy... where's Ravendalf?"

When I heard my name, I ran into the barn that we've managed to use as temporary shelter from the cold. The weather seemed less harsh when we woke up this morning so without waiting for Mikleo to get up, I've decided to get out and do some hunting.

Mikleo needed nourishment. Even though halflings share the same, impulsive abomination for blood, just like firstbloods they can be compelled to feed for no other reason than nourishment. However, after the rescue two weeks ago, Mikleo had refused all and any offer to drink blood. 

I can't tell if he'd be more willing to drink if I let him take my own blood while we were... being intimate. He's done it before, and the feeling of euphoria it gives me is just about enough to make me almost shamelessly encourage him each time. But since his recovery we haven't really mated... I mean... it would be odd if I'd be forcing myself on Mikleo knowing how badly injured and stressed out he was, mentally and physically, by what he'd just been through. As much as my heat, my jealousy, my obsessive hunger wanted to take him every night, I couldn't bring myself to do it. 

That didn't mean I wanted him less after that happened. On the contrary, heats can only get worse when you can't let it out.

Jealousy is the worst because it provokes it even more. Protectiveness, hurt, anger... all those combine to make it beyond tolerable.

When I saw Mikleo's body that same night von Graf and I rescued him from that Confederate facility, I blanked out. He's been brutalized so much it was a miracle he hadn't lost his mind.

Moved by the same anger and self-loathing, I let von Graf scream his guts out somewhere far away. During the first few nights, we'd both be in a panic watching out for Mikleo slipping out into the cold darkness, stark naked, blank-eyed, and unaware. It was the reason he knew how much injured Mikleo was, the reason he shared my contempt and disgust for the enemy since that day.   

"I'm here," I answered, throwing down the deer I've just butchered on the makeshift table we're using as a kitchen. "I've already gutted it, then spread the innards near the traps. Wolf meat may not be that good, but if we're desperate enough we can do with one."

"Good idea. You don't seem particular about the fact that I love wolves for an entirely personal reason. I mean I'm a Wolfe myself, get it?"

I ignored the joke. Von Graf's sense of humor may be rarely unkind, but it's still fucking annoying when it disrupts a serious mood. He's a simple man with a practical side to him that anyone might even find charming if he's not trying to get everyone's attention like most of the time.

I knew Mikleo was curiously throwing glances my way, but I did my best to avoid looking in his direction. I mean, right now, I really have it bad. In truth, one reason I've been getting up way too early than usual was to give myself a cold shower in the snow. But still, every time I look at my chosen... even if it's just for two seconds... my arousal gets so hard I find myself catching my breath.

I could hardly remember feeling this much, unable to even breathe properly whenever Mikleo's around me.

Worse, I hate for anyone to notice my body's reaction to the stimulation. Definitely not this hulking, teasing bastard who wouldn't leave my shame alone.

Von Graf made a coughing sound. "Can I speak with you for a minute?"

I hadn't realized he had been trying to get my attention until I caught his stare. I knew from the look on his face that he noticed my absent-mindedness.

I followed von Graf out the door, aware that Mikleo was following us with his eyes.

"What's wrong with you, I wanna know."

I raised an eyebrow at the unexpected hostility. Von Graf was miles different in mood and tone the moment we're out of Mikleo's earshot.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, please, don't fuck with me! The way you and the captain dance around your heats, what? You wanna torture me? Or him?"

"I don't-"

"You're supposed to fuck him with your cock, not with your eyes! Or did you suddenly become shy because you haven't done it in a while? Because if there's some other nasty reason for it-"

My patience had been wearing thin since day one. "Leave us alone, it's none of your business."

"I just hope you're not having rape issues now. Hell, he's been through a lot, the last thing you wanna make him feel is unclean and worthless!"

I grew livid, barely suppressing the urge to punch his face despite the cuts and bruises on it. It's easy to tell he hasn't been healing properly from the battle wounds left by the explosions I've triggered two weeks ago. Then again, it was obvious he was too distracted with worry over Mikleo to leave the barn and find any human prey to satisfy his blood craving.

I guess neither of us was willing to entrust Mikleo's safety to the other long enough to deal with his own injuries.

I could feel my voice shaking. "It never occurred to me to think of Mikleo that way."

"You better not. 'Cause I ain't giving you a warning next time, captain. I may respect you for everything you've done, but you're never beyond my reproach."

"I assure you, I can do all the worrying for him. He's my issue, he's none of yours... and will never be." 

"What the fuck is that about? If I wasn't around-"

"That's not what I meant. Look... I know you're concerned, but this is out of your hands. I can't say enough how much I want him- I mean- dammit, it's not easy, nothing's ever been easy between me and him. And this conversation is just... making me feel even more... inadequate."  

He grunted. "I know it doesn't help to hear this, but I'm gonna say it anyway. I wish it were me. I wish I could hold him in my arms and just let him know it's all right, nothing's changed. I'd kill any bastard who touches him again... hell, I'd even kill anyone who looks at him dirty like I do. But just saying, I know it's not my place to say that. I just wished he'd given me a chance... a chance you're throwing away like this."

"I'm not throwing any chances-"

"Really? So it's not you... it's just your rotten way of showing you care that's the problem?" 

I exhaled, suppressing the hurt his words were stirring within me. "You... really care about him deeply enough to pick a fight like this."

"Hell, would I go this far for anyone else?"

I bristled at those familiar words I've spoken once myself. "You have nothing to worry about."

"Oh yeah? Think a worry wart like me can tear you two down? I mean, yeah, back then I used to do it like a bad habit... split lovebirds apart and enjoy the attention of being the mistake they'd never forget. But with you and the captain, I'd rather be the shipper watching in the sidelines. Not that you should rest on your laurels and put your guard down with me. To be brutally frank, I have to convince myself every day to stay out of trouble... because I hate hurting the captain anymore than he's been hurting already. I don't wanna do anything selfish that might ruin you two."

"Mikleo thinks of you as a good friend."

"Bastard!" he growls, fist clenched. "After pouring out my heart to you, you stab me like that?"

For some reason, I couldn't help grinning. "Friendships last forever too."

"You're really fucking with me, aren't you? It hurts bad when the one you like says that. But when it's the boyfriend you wanna flush down the toilet, you go for the kill."  

I nodded, still grinning. "So, are we done here?"

"I plan on taking a look around town this evening. I guess that means I won't be home 'til morning after."

I frowned. It didn't seem clear why he needed to tell me this.

"So if you're not done yet with that much time, you can give me a sign. Hang a tie, a scarf, any sign outside the barn door or the gate or something. At least I'd know you're busy. I hate walking in on you in the middle of your fun."

Oh, I see. I can't believe he's actually negotiating this.

"That's as generous as I can get. C'mon, say something."

I sighed. "It's really unnecessary."

"Yeah, let's see about that. I hate to see you killing yourself with self-restraint that's not convincing your cock any more than it is mine. Besides, if I don't get out of your way, I might do something stupid. Make him happy, all right?"   

"It's awkward making me promise something that isn't even about you."

"You owe me some favors from hereon. And I'm gonna collect when you least expect me to."

With that, we both slipped into the barn quietly, feeling Mikleo's gaze lighten up as we desperately tried not to embarrass ourselves just having him in the same room with us.

Hours later, von Graf called my attention as he sat outside the barn having a cigarette.  

"I'd be back by morning. That's basically eight hours. You think that's enough time for you to... you know-"

"Just get out of here," I told him under my breath. "I don't have to be pressured into doing anything Mikleo isn't ready for."

"That's up to you, hotshot. He won't ever be ready if you're always having second thoughts. When I used to have girlfriends-"

"I don't need a lesson right now- not from you."

"Hey, you're lucky I ain't charging you for it! I bet the captain's your first, and one and only, hah! That would be the best laugh I've had in decades!"

I gave him a livid stare. 

"You mean-"

"See you later, and careful on your way out," I told him, heading back to the barn.

He chuckles, loud enough for me to hear. "Oh damn, can I change my mind? I haven't seen how two desperate virgins do it."

"Go fuck yourself and die."

He was laughing like a dirty maniac, but I couldn't let it get to me.

In truth, without von Graf to keep me from embarrassing myself, I was afraid, for the very first time, of being alone with Mikleo. I knew heats have the power to make anyone desperate for physical intimacy, but the longing I've been feeling around him since that day I almost lost him had been building up, aching like an avalanche that only needed the slightest nudge to become an unstoppable force of nature.

I knew I was going to lose every bit of restraint and self-control I've stored up ever since we've been together, and in the most critical moments that Mikleo needed a lover who's tender and sensitive, caring and patient, and above all, careful of his hurts.

 

Oh god...

Mikleo bit hard into my neck, licking every drop of blood that trickled down my shoulder blades. The euphoria alone was beyond intoxicating. Just as I feared, every bit of self-control I've honed while keeping my distance from him for two weeks flew out the window in three minutes.

In the same way his mouth wanted to suck me dry after being deprived for so long, I licked every part of him with relish, kneading his white, white body for more as I enclosed his arousal with my hunger and emptied him into my mouth.

He moaned my name... for the first time in weeks when he was mute and numb to our desperate attempts to talk, haunting me with fears quite unlike anything I've ever known. Even von Graf became afraid of Mikleo losing himself to the point of not ever speaking to anyone ever again. It was harrowing for us to endure his silence, his lack of awareness of his surroundings... to see him muted with despair and self-pity as he struggled with inner demons we thought we killed in the freezing storm that day.

In truth, the only reason I had for keeping my distance all these two weeks was the fact that in my desperate hunger I might hurt him. In my obsessive fear of not doing the right thing, of being unable to protect him, I knew I might lose all sense of control.

I knew that in my jealous rage over what I allowed to happen to Mikleo that day, there's the fear inside me that he's fantasizing someone else's body, someone else's mouth giving him the same sensations, which I thought only I had the power to provoke. 

I knew I should be worried about his injuries, about the trauma of being violated by those nameless bastards. But no matter how I try to overcome them, my selfish insecurities always take over. Behind my need to be kind was my relentless need to be reassured, to be given a sign that I mattered more than anything... more than any pleasure or pain that ever came close.  

"Sorey... not there- yet?"

I smiled through his rushing orgasm, the reason he would ask about my own. He always wanted us to come together, ever so mindful of my own need, my own excitement.

And for that I've always yearned to love him tenderly, in a slow, gentle way that would make him feel vulnerable in my arms. But after everything that has happened, I couldn't be satisfied with seeing him so vulnerable. For the first time I wanted him to feel desperately craved and hungered for... desired and loved without inhibitions.

I wanted to carve into him the memory of our bodies, in the peak of those wanton pleasures.

More than ever, I wanted to ravish him with the violence that would banish all those hands and lips that desecrated his purity.  

It sounds so wrong to feel this way for anyone. But all wrongs have a way of numbing themselves when every part of you feels so damn good it hurts to think about it.

"Mikleo, I'm coming- can I- I want to put it in-"

Without a second thought, he thrust my shaft into his secret cavern, shivering as I swelled inside of him in seconds. Grabbing him by the hip, I sank myself to the very hilt, spreading him apart so I could enter without hindrance. He hissed as I lifted his leg over one shoulder and began thrusting like there's no tomorrow. I reveled in the tightening feeling of him pressing against my furious cock... and the sound of his desperate voice moaning my name only made me bury myself ever so deeply, furiously inside of him.

As I pushed in and out of him deeper, faster, I felt the shock waves of pleasure heating my blood, pooling into a massive knot that made me harder... 

Finally, when he dug his nails onto my chest and clamped my cock harder than I was ready for, I burst violently, my knot swelling and exploding in seconds. It was quick, relentless, and tireless. The sudden climax, the massive wave of pleasure was so intense it only left us wanting and unsatisfied.

It took only a minute, and I was ramming my cock inside of him again as I hoisted him up to my waist, pressing him against the wall.

He clung to my shoulder, his head arching as I kissed the slender column of his white, white neck.

"So beautiful, Mikleo..."

I kept thrusting to my heart's content, loving the feel of his tiny waist that made it easy for me to move him up and down against my rigid cock. As his hands gripped my shoulder blades more urgently, I hissed out my pleasure, catching my breath as my orgasm reached a shocking peak.

I cried out harshly, letting go of any self-restraint, any reserve I've built up in the past few days to keep away while he's recovering.

It was my third knot barely five minutes after the last one. But my body was hardly through.

I pulled out of him with a pang of regret and carried him onto our makeshift bed.

Doing it on the floor, on the animal skins we've been using as body warmers for the past week was just a spontaneous decision when I entered the barn and found him fresh from a warm bath made possible by a tub we've moved into the barn and kept near the fireplace von Graf and I built ourselves. Presuming we were alone and abandoned, at last, by the teasing maniac who promised to give me eight hours of privacy, my arousal became embarrassingly honest with a mere glance.

Barely after stepping out of the bath, Mikleo was stripped naked as I kicked off boots, pants, and any fabric that might get in the way.    

Having realized I just ravished him on the floor out of desperate urgency that had little regard for personal comfort, I carried him up the steps to the loft. I wanted something more satisfying, something that would give me more leverage, which only a real bed could provide.

Mikleo groaned as I thrust my hardened urges inside of him again the moment his body touched the mattress. Knuckles white as he gripped the sheets, he begged to turn around so his behind was facing me.    

I pushed my cock inside of him as the bed became a mess of hay and tattered linen.

"Sorey... make... the hurt... go... away..."

I turned him around to face me, afraid to see him hurting amidst tears. "I'm stopping... oh god... what did I do... Mikleo..."

"No- don't stop-"

I pulled out of him and cradled his body, kissing his tears away. "I'm sorry... I didn't know what came over me..."

"Why- why did you stop?"

His widened eyes only made my lustful cock quiver with impatience, but I suppressed it with a smile. "I want to cuddle for now. Is that all right?"

He looked at me in quiet disbelief, pushing his thigh against the evidence of my hunger. He shook his head. "After this..."

To my intense shock and amazement, he lowered himself and began moving his tongue around my urges, taking me in his mouth without any sign of hesitation.

When he felt my swelling, he pulled out on impulse. Without wasting one more minute, I rolled him onto his back down the mattress and started thrusting and tunneling into his deep cavern. His cries became as intense as mine as I spread his legs into the air, farther than I ever did, and brought my weight down on him. I watched as my furious cock buried itself so deeply into him, knotting into a swelling mast.  

I hissed in hopeless abandon as we both came, as we arched against each other's bodies, rising and riding the massive waves of pleasure that swept us away and beyond what we thought and imagined was possible.

Hours later, Mikleo was happily spent, fingers tracing lines on my chest as I desperately tried to catch my breath. The knots were unstoppable and tireless... making me worry through every orgasm if Mikleo was in pain. His moans were just as desperately needy and impatient as mine, also just as stubborn and unforgiving. Even when I begged him to rest, he coaxed me to continue, weeping through every release as his body shivered, overcome with a sense of relief.

I knew then that his need for reassurance was no different from mine. The ordeal forced upon us in the past few weeks gave us the chance to confront our insecurities with neither inhibitions nor pretensions. We both wanted to be given back the confidence that nothing changed between us... that no one could come between us or keep us apart no matter how wounded or hurt we might have been in the aftermath.

The cuddling finally happened much, much later, hours later when exhaustion finally pushed us to the brink of sleep. If not for an insistent reminder in the back of my mind, I wouldn't have the urge to get up and leave Mikleo's warmth even for a second.

"You're going out in all this cold?"

I pushed Mikleo back into the warm bundle of fur skins we made into our bed after the mattress had become completely useless.

"I'd be back in a minute, love. Just leaving something for your friend."

His eyebrow shot up as if to ask what it was about, but I was too lazy to explain and too eager to get back into bed. 

I smiled sleepily into the kiss as I nuzzled Mikleo's neck, scarf in hand. "I have to tie this outside the door before someone gets the shock of his life."

The rest of the week passed blissfully except for one tiny flaw.

I hadn't realized until the week was over how even wolves could get pissed when forced to stay out for eight straight days. In the days that followed, von Graf made every deliberate effort not to give us a chance to be alone, even if Mikleo's heat kept him restless and mindful of staying no closer than a few feet.

"Eight hours was clearly what I said, dammit, how could you have taken that for eight fucking days?"

Mikleo held a knife and a potato he was peeling as he looked on, listening to us argue. I shrugged it off, not bothering to explain.

The rest of the week passed uneventfully, with von Graf not caring to say anything nice my way even when Mikleo could hear him perfectly. 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o            

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

I can only give you love

That lasts forever

And a promise to be near

Each time you call

And the only heart I own

For you and you alone

That's all, that's all...

 

I can only give you

Country walks in springtime

And a hand to hold

When leaves begin to fall

And a love whose burning light

Will warm the winter night

That's all, that's all...

 

If you're wondering what

I'm asking in return, dear

You'll be glad to know

That my demands are small

Say it's me that you'll adore

For now and evermore

That's all, that's all...

 

-version by Michael Buble, "That's All,"

performed by Broken Strings for Inferno's Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

25 March 2101

 

... a little more than a month has passed since Mikleo's rescue and recovery

 

"How much firewood do we need for now? Seems like we've been cutting down an entire forest just to store these in the shed. And it's not even that cold anymore."

I looked up at the sky. A lazy sunrise blanketed by mist and fog would be a welcome and refreshing scenery if not for von Graf's ranting so early in the day.

"Besides, that curry we had last night? It was too spicy for my taste. To think things are already a little too hot in here."

"I'll season it the way you want next time, all right?" To be honest, my mind was somewhere else while I was cooking. Not like it was anyone's fault either. Mikleo just happens to be very distracting in the kitchen lately...

"Talk about spicing things up, I mean, yeah... bet you two sneak out each time you wanna do it, not like I'd mind lodging somewhere else when I see your scarf hanging there like a white flag."

"I'm sorry," was all I could say. I've been liberally stretching von Graf's tolerance for bad timing by tying that scarf on the door three days in a row every single week since that time (I don't think he ever forgave me for putting him out for eight straight days before that). All things considered, I'm sure his patience is wearing thin.

"And seriously, I don't even get the thirst! Like, you give each other lovesick gazes all day, you strip each other naked the moment I'm good as drunk... and I swear you make out in that hot tub like newlyweds who can't get enough on their honeymoon. Heck, is this why we even need this plenty of firewood?"

Mikleo must have heard the robust question. He peeked at us through the door. "Do you think you can tone that down a bit?"

Von Graf huffed. "Yes' ma'am!"

"Are you aching for an argument, Von?"

It was the first time Mikleo used that name in front of me as he showed himself in full view, wearing an apron and a pair of oversized mittens.

The appeal was enough to quiet us down. It was enough to make us look like desperate, sex-starved wrestlers ogling a cute little housewife, maybe, from the way Mikleo scrutinized us with a somewhat condescending look. 

Even von Graf took seconds to recover. I've never seen this particular pureblood looking so awkwardly stunned.

"Hell, sorry. I've been having nasty nightmares, is all. But look-"

He flexes an arm at Mikleo, showing nothing but an overly-built frame of huge, hard, well-toned muscles that were shamelessly screaming army every angle you look.

"Whaddaya think, captain? Beats the hell out of this wimp, huh?"

Of course, I should be the wimp he was referring to. Standing next to each other in our bare, naked torsos since we've thrown our shirts aside after an hour of cutting firewood, we look like dirty, sweating renegades in those action-packed B-movies popularized by Rambo. All we needed is body paint as camouflage, and we'd look like veterans out to win the war in some unchartered jungle-island out there.   

Mikleo rolls up his eyes. "Easy, Von, that's enough. We all know how you get all the ladies that way."

"See?" Von Graf snickers at me like a school kid who just got praised by his teacher. "You ought to be grateful I'm around. I make you look better."

I shook my head at that swaggering masculine conceit von Graf's got tons of. I could see Mikleo shaking his head at us through the door.

"Look, breakfast isn't much, but it's getting cold, and you're both starting to look like serial killers. Put down those tools, come in, and wash your hands, all right?"

Von Graf wiggled his eyebrows at Mikleo. It was ludicrous, but I just couldn't help watching them anyway.

"Captain, how about you wash my hands and I wash your back later, if you want?"

By now we're all used to von Graf's callous, flirty side, but that tease was really out of bounds. I was seconds into scolding the bastard, but Mikleo was quicker to retort.

"Thanks for the offer... but only if you could figure out how to get into the tub with me without breaking it."   

With that sly remark, Mikleo retreats back into the barn, leaving us panting, literally. But before that, I was almost certain Mikleo bit his lip, trying to stop himself from laughing.

Von Graf snickers at me, not bothering to hide his manly pride.

"Hell, did you hear that? Bet it was a giggle, I'm sure of it. Bet you've never been able to make him do that, huh?"

I have to admit it's the shallow jokes that really get me more than anything. I turned back to the firewood, trying to suppress my annoyance. "So? Want a scoreboard to prove it?"

"Oh yeah, you're on. If I can make the captain laugh like that one more time, I get to go out with him. I mean... on a real date."

I shrugged. "That's not up to you to decide, is it? You have to ask him about it."

I wasn't giving it any serious thought when I said that, confident that Mikleo would never agree to it.

"Really now? Are you sure it's okay to ask him out?"

I couldn't answer the question as I brought my ax down on more firewood. 

Later, over breakfast, Mikleo asked if it was all right to go out and buy some personal supplies we might need. Von Graf gave me a low chuckle.

"What seems to be on your mind?" Mikleo sounded curious.

"Ravendalf here says I could ask you out, I mean, he wouldn't mind if we actually spend some time together, you know... just us two. Alone. Anywhere."

"Oh really?" For some reason, Mikleo wouldn't even look at me.

I turned around to confront the blond bastard about it. "I never said anything about letting you date-"

"Wait- you mean, you were actually considering letting me go out on a date with the captain?"

The liar! He was the one who started it-

"A date it is, Von," Mikleo suddenly intervenes, to my absolute confusion. "Besides," Mikleo snickers at me with a wan smile I was almost afraid to watch. "If Sorey doesn't mind at all, might as well enjoy ourselves. It should be refreshing since we haven't really had any chance to bond lately, and you know... I could always use a friend with a real sense of humor."

I struggled to say something to clear up the obvious misunderstanding, but with von Graf laughing so hard I couldn't get a word in without sounding any more childish than he was.          

Later that day, I caught von Graf having a cigarette at the lawn. The moment they got back from their short errand, Mikleo slipped into the hot tub I had waiting for him- he'd normally prefer to have a soak for at least an hour- while I proceeded to heat the remains of last night's dinner.

Ashamed of being tempted by Mikleo's scent wafting into the makeshift kitchen (as I've fallen into the habit of making out with him between dinner and his regular bath time too many times), I started wondering where the bastard might be.

He was sitting on the steps of the front porch as usual, cigarette smoke rising from his lips as he made a deep exhale. Maybe it was just the effect of the evening sky, but von Graf looked pretty listless and un-himself.

"Hey, so how did it go?"

I knew better than to ask. It sounded like I didn't trust either of them, but I suppose he was expecting me to be curious anyway.

"Do you believe in fate, captain?"

The question took me by surprise. In the time we've spent talking and arguing, von Graf has never been the type to blow your mind with mind-boggling questions about the unknown.

Above us, the sky seemed littered with faint stars that made me realize it was just a little past twilight. It's not like I could rely on colors to decide that, of course. Being color-blind, I've learned how to judge weather patterns and the time of day by memorizing every shade of grey that stands for some other color to a normal person.

"Why do you ask?"

Von Graf smiles with a low chuckle. "C'mon, captain, just answer the stupid, goddamn question. Do you believe in fate... or destiny... or any of that holy crap?"

"I guess I do... not that I want to."

"Nice try." Von Graf sounded sarcastic enough.

"What are you getting at this time?" 

"Nothing serious. So if anyone were to ask you to do something for him because it's something you gotta do, because it's meant to happen, you're gonna say, hell, I hate it, but yeah, I'm gonna do it anyway."

I exhaled to that. "Not exactly. I'd rather ask him if there's another way out of it, and if there was, I'd ask him if it wouldn't be better to leave things the way they were and wait."

"You mean, you'd ask that person if he knew the other side of what's fated to happen, and if he knew, you'd say, oh well, let's wait and see what'll happen instead of doing something about it like you're supposed to?"

"Yeah?"

He laughs heartily, making a sound that's a little strange to me because it's rare.

"You know, captain, you really overthink everything, don't you?" 

"Then how will you go about it, if it were you?"

"Me? Easy," he exhales, wistfully blowing circlets of smoke. "I'll have to know first what's in it for me."

I've always known von Graf to be a pragmatic, self-centered ass, but that didn't mean he wasn't clever... in the same way his kindness may be a little less straightforward, but that didn't mean it was less virtuous either.

"So fate, or whatever it is that's bound to happen, must have some sort of benefit for you?" His answer got me curious.

"If I care about the person I'm doing it for, yeah, hell, he can have my right arm, it's all his, take it. I'll do anything to keep him safe, give everything my best shot even if it means I might lose him in the long run. That still counts as my benefit, doesn't it?"

I look up at the stars, wondering if fate could be written somewhere out there just waiting to be deciphered, waiting to be found.

I wonder if there were choices to begin with. Saying we're defined by the choices we make is like following some Harry Potter children's fantasy we'd all wanna believe in. But are we truly free? If we knew what destiny has written for all of us, can we turn our backs on it and wait for the other side of fate to take its natural course?

Maybe von Graf was right in finding my answer a bit... inadequate. I mean, what is the other side of fate to begin with? Is there even such a thing as a possibility of existence outside of fate? Wouldn't that be destiny in itself going around in circles? 

I try not to overthink it as I watch von Graf blow cigarette smoke into the creeping mist around us with an absent-minded gaze. "If you think about it, the benefit is something only you can decide for yourself," I told him eventually. "The thing is, what does that got to do with destiny?"

Von Graf looks me in the face as if searching for an answer that's written there somewhere. "Well, if you knew you're gonna end up killing that one thing that matters to you the most, wouldn't it be all about destiny, captain?"

 

o-----)O(-----o

 

03 April 2101

 

... about a week later

 

"And where are you two going, if I may ask?"

I heard Mikleo's voice inquiring from the kitchen. He was supposed to be in charge of lunch, and though a lot seemed wanting in Mikleo's cooking... not to mention von Graf getting a week-long cold-shoulder treatment when he made the mistake of complaining about it within earshot... I would never miss Mikleo's cooking for the world. 

That's why I asked von Graf to take off early with me so we can be both back by lunchtime. I'd actually feel better not leaving Mikleo alone for more than an hour so I was a bit in a hurry to get the errand done right away.

"I believe the captain needs something personal..." von Graf hollers from below as I look down to find him racing to the door ahead of me.

Though I was the one who's supposed to be worried about hurrying back soon, I found myself tripping on my way down. You see, for our own privacy, Mikleo and I moved our makeshift bed to the barn loft, leaving von Graf the entire space below for himself. It was fairly convenient in more ways than one as it also keeps the wolf from maniacally attacking us when he's drunk in the evenings.

As for being intimate during nights when I can afford to be with Mikleo (von Graf and I take turns keeping guard for ambush or sneak attacks around the property), there isn't much to do but romantically pet and cuddle. Obviously, going all out during our heats is out of the question as we've begun to be mindful of von Graf's prickly moods whenever we put him out to get some alone moment. 

If you ask me, I would tie that scarf outside the barn door permanently if not for Mikleo figuring out what it meant and scolding me for being so indiscreet. I got away with the routine by letting him think von Graf deliberately made himself unavailable for days because he needed to get his normal supply of nourishment. Without the craving, human food and sleep can replace the physical need for human blood as nourishment for both halflings and firstbloods. But a pureblood wouldn't last long without the bare essentials, which is human blood, plain and simple.

For purebloods, the craving subsists no matter what alternative is used to satisfy the hunger. In any case, Mikleo thought I was insensitive for keeping the real reason a secret whenever von Graf would disappear for days so we could be alone.   

"P-personal?" Mikleo hedged.

Von Graf chuckled. "Those kinds of stuff a man needs to heighten the sexual experience. I don't know about you, but he doesn't look like he's got enough stamina to last. Yeah, I'm sure Ravendalf would need a bigger supply of those."    

Mikleo gave us a livid stare and didn't speak to us until we're ready to leave.

"You're always sour with Mikleo lately. And back there, you were teasing him like a bully," I observed dryly, watching him purse his lips as Mikleo wordlessly ignored us when we headed out.

"Do you mind, captain? I have a lot on my mind right now. Speaking of which, whaddaya need my help for?"

I wanted to tell him earlier, but given his being a blabbermouth he might spoil the surprise. "Uh, it was Mikleo's birthday... two weeks ago."

Von Graf clenched his fist at me. "It's late telling me that! How could you-"

"I wanted to celebrate it, believe me, but he was adamant on being quiet about it. He didn't want to be a bother was what he kept saying. I think he knew you'd make a big deal of it. What surprises me is that, it sounds like this is the first time you're hearing this."

"The captain and I were never too friendly with each other, all right?" he explains, sounding every bit self-conscious. "I admired him from a distance. Yeah, laugh your head off if you want. It's not like I've got no romantic bone in my body. The only time I really touched him- I mean, you should understand the frustration of being ignored until you can't take it anymore- I was angry more with myself than with him."

A part of me knew I couldn't take those things against him... but some part of me still does. "We don't have to talk about it."

"Always the escapist, aren't you?" he snarls a bit ironically. "Hate me if you want, but I wanted him bad, and god I still do. I guess I've never been honest with him or with myself all this time... never tried overthinking stuff I should've figured out when it mattered. Well, now that I've met the reason that got in the way, I was happy I wasn't an over-thinker! I ain't ruining the captain's happiness now..."

I didn't know what to say. Too many times, this loudmouth has silenced me with words that seemed far more honest and wiser than I could ever be at my best.

"Cat got your tongue? What do you need my help for anyway?"

I led him to an antique shop I've spied one time when I was doing my rounds hunting prey and checking for signs of military presence.

"Uh... actually, there's a beauty I'd like you to see."

Von Graf raised an eyebrow at that. "You cheating on the captain, now?"

I laughed. "Not even once or ever."

An elderly lady met us inside the store. I smiled. 

"Hell, don't tell me you're itching for older women..." he whispered under his breath.

I shook my head. "We'd like to see the ring, please. I brought someone who might help me decide."

Von Graf made a low chuckle. "I see. Didn't know we're getting married, Ravendalf. You should have proposed to me first." 

The lady looked him up and down and extended a hand. I couldn't believe she was congratulating him even when the joke was obvious enough.

The ring was set on a velvet case among other antique pieces. Even when it looked slightly unpolished and a bit old-fashioned, the stunning brilliance of the stone stood out, making the others look cheap. Von Graf made a low whistle as the dazzling spark caught his eye. I needn't even point it out for him to figure out which one I was interested in buying.

"Well, sweetheart, if that's your pick, let's take it. I love the rock."

"Are you sure?" I hesitated, though my heart was bursting at the seams.

"It's a beauty, all right. Must be the perfect size of your pocket and your desire for me."

The lady smiled. "A diamond of this kind is too rare for words. It's an heirloom... well, it's supposed to be that. But with the way things are, I ain't gonna be seeing weddings or any reason to hand it down to any relative worth considering..."

Von Graf looked sympathetic. "And what does the husband say to that, ma'am?"

"He's lost all reason to care. Almost lost to gambling every valuable we have left. Been drinking and throwing away things since our sons were taken by this godawful war."

"I'm sorry..." was all I could say. The Confederate has been staunchly defending itself against the League after the Union broke up into separate territories. The conflict has been raging for years... which the nuclear attack four years ago only escalated further.

The ruin and despair in this countryside we've been hiding in for months was but a simple testament to the deprivation the world has sunk itself into.

Von Graf lifted the ring from its perch to inspect it under the light. "I've a good eye for diamonds. Gave nothing less to my ex-es."  

Again, a pang of envy hit me. I wish I could see this ring in all its beauty and radiance as he could. "What color is it exactly?"

Von Graf's smile disappeared as if for two seconds he thought of something nostalgic. "Between blue and purple. I'd say it's even lavender... like his eyes."

"I had a feeling it might seem that way." I brought out my watch and gave it to the lady so she could scan it in the machine for the payment. But von Graf grabbed my arm.

"You sure about this? I mean... how much is she charging you for it?"

I seriously doubt if the price was even important. "Half of what I have? A few thousand?" 

"A little too much." He approached the lady with the brightest smile I've only seen him use on Mikleo. "Sorry, but if it's all right, can we pay for it in cash and service? I give a good massage, you know... and I'm useful around if you need some muscle to fix things up or anything."

"What are you doing?" I could only wonder as he shoved my watch back to me and handed the lady a fold of bills.

"I got eight thousand there and a bit more," he told her without the slightest hesitation, completely ignoring my protest. "Seriously, the ring is stunningly beautiful, but around these places it would hardly fetch more than five thousand, I mean, let's face it the countryside isn't the best place to find good customers. So I seriously suggest you take the cash. And any service you're interested in may follow, if it ain't gonna cause any trouble. Besides, credit will get you your money in a few days, even weeks with the war and all that. Taking cash is wiser any day."

The lady considered it, counted the bills, and stashed them in the counter. She gave us a smile and waved us off right after handing us the ring in a tiny, red velvet box.

"How am I supposed to pay you back? I don't have that much with me right now..."

"Hell, you think we'd need that kind of money here? I can wait... for as long as you stay alive long enough to pay me when I come to collect. I mean, I ain't gonna need a lot of cash either, I'm fine with everything. I just hate anyone doing you highway robbery 'cause you look like a dorky guy with good intentions who'd pay a nice, old lady anything she asked for. Likewise... maybe I want you to owe me just a little bit more than necessary..."

That same evening, Mikleo asked if I had seen von Graf anywhere. I just got back from the traps with fresh meat in tow and Mikleo had just finished heating dinner.

Tacked carelessly on the porch steps was a note written on a piece of brown stationery. I picked it up, recognizing my name scribbled lazily on the folded paper and the handwriting that made it even more conspicuous.

 

Sorey,

 

Surprised, hotshot?

I won't be seeing you guys in a while. Guess I realized it's time to do some soul-searching, with the way things are.

It's got nothing to do with you or the captain, so don't overthink it. Get over yourself, you're not my issue, not by a long shot.

I admit I got caught up in the romance... but I know better than to enjoy being your third wheel.

Give my regards to the captain. You know how I feel. Nothing about him or you could ever change that. 

Take care of him. I'd come after you if anything happens. You owe me, get it?

 

Bye for now. I'll see you guys when I'm ready. And don't bother with the scarf.

I've seen enough to shock me out of my senses. Hah, gotcha!

 

-- von Graf  

 

 o-----)o(-----o   

     

5 April 2101

 

... two days after I got the ring

 

"Sorey... this is a church. What are we doing here?"

It was awkward standing here in our formal uniform, which felt like we haven't worn it in ages. Mikleo was stunning as usual, looking prim and perfect as I remembered him the first time we met. His perfect profile, the air of calm and profound seriousness surrounding him always has a way of making me strangely sad, strangely anxious and just a little bit desperate. It leaves me with a sense of nostalgia and frustration that makes little sense no matter how palpable it seems. 

It feels like I'm missing something, wanting something I can't reach even if it's right in front of me, alive and breathing.

With Mikleo, I become aware of things and feelings I haven't known or felt before.

Vaguely I begin to wonder if that's the reason I feel... afraid and insecure. Even when we're together, it seems we're already apart. What follows him is a vibrating stillness, a suffocating mystery, that seems to say that this moment is all we have... and that I should do better than to let it pass without making him feel that it matters more than anything and everything...

More than the yesterdays we had, the tomorrows we've been planning, and anything in between that's shared in moments like these.

When I'm with him, I'm always afraid, always wondering and unsatisfied. It's a hopeless feeling of wanting more of what you already have.

It's insane that I keep wanting him even if I always take his everything. It's insane that I tirelessly crave for him even when our bodies are touching, or when I'm inside him, merging with him.  

Maybe it's the sense of loss that rises from my own insecurities. Some part of me never gets satisfied even when he's given himself to me over and over.

Some part of me is still afraid of losing him. No matter how close, I'm always afraid he'd slip away any moment... like in that dream.

I never knew if I had caught up with him. The dream ends with him running farther and farther away... until I could see nothing but falling lavender against an endless white light. 

Spring is moving toward summer. Every path we took was littered with petals. Just like my dream.

We stopped by a lake that gleamed and sparkled with a pristine beauty magnified by blooming trees all around it. 

"It's beautiful here, Sorey..."

I caught him by the waist, ignoring his protest as he looked around to see if anyone could see us. I shushed him with a kiss. Followed by another, and another...

He pulled away, but not before letting me stroke him until he was panting, chasing his breath against my shoulder.

"You should wait 'til we get home," he tells me under his breath.

I laugh. The sound of home never felt so good.

"I agree this scenery's perfect. It's a fine day for something wonderful."

He looks confused as he returns my gaze. "Something wonderful?"

"You," I tell him without thinking and needing to think. "You're the most amazing thing in all this beauty."   

I couldn't take my eyes off him after that. He's beautiful and perfect... like no other dream that's ever been possible.

And I love him. I'll always love him...

Finally, in front of those ruins, of an altar made even more beautiful by the infinite beauty of a sky in springtime, I had the courage to ask...   

"Mikleo... will you marry me?" I brought out the ring, opening the box so he could see.

He was speechless. I was too... because he started crying while struggling to suppress the tears.

He let me kiss him when I slipped the ring onto his finger. It was the perfect fit. As for my ring, well, I've been keeping the looped string I've given him in the mansion before we parted ways last year, which found its way back to me, thanks to von Graf. I've never stopped wearing it since that day I almost lost Mikleo, and I don't plan on losing it ever.

Originally, that string was to help me figure out the size of the ring I intended to purchase for our engagement. Now that I finally got him one, I adjusted the string to fit my own ring finger. Somehow I've become superstitious, believing it might have the effect of a charm. I guess what I truly wanted was something to trust in, a sign to tell me that no matter what, we'd find our way to each other even in the toughest adversity or danger.

As he returns my gaze with a smile that takes my breath away, I realize one other thing.

Right now, what matters is he's wearing something I've always wanted to give him... a ring that symbolizes a perfect dream, a perfect match for his eyes.

At the back of my mind, I'm reminded of that one person I should be grateful to more than anything. It makes me smile to think how von Graf might react when he finds out I just transferred some money into his account (which he was never too discreet about). No matter what he says, I can't live with the fact that I owe him something meant to be special just between Mikleo and myself.

Besides, the cost never really mattered. Mikleo's tears were priceless... this smile... the kiss that followed.

It was worth it. I've been planning this since his birthday, but somehow I didn't know how to go about it until I finally got the perfect ring, and von Graf finally left us alone. I would've been grateful if someone were to witness this special occasion, but knowing von Graf's lingering feelings for Mikleo, I suppose it would be inconsiderate to expect him to rejoice and be completely selfless for our sake.

Let's just say I know the feeling of regret too much to ignore his...

It was a regret I've seen in his eyes a little too often whenever I'd catch him looking at Mikleo from a distance when Mikleo was unaware. It would be downright selfish of me to take that against von Graf, but there were days I couldn't help it.

I had to remind myself that there were a lot of things I needed to thank him for... things significant enough to overcome those feelings of jealousy that a mate harbors against a rival. Still, in my unguarded moments, I find those uncertainties sneaking in on me whenever I'd catch him and Mikleo doing even the most trivial of things... like laughing over a joke or just having a quiet chat over coffee.

When von Graf left us to ourselves, I started thinking that maybe, it was the same for him. I'm sure he could sense my insecurities as much as I did his frustrations.

As for this simple, private ceremony ever being possible, I spent the entire day yesterday convincing Mikleo that there was some personal business I promised an elderly couple who wanted to take a photograph with us in our uniform... a small favor for giving me supplies Mikleo needed in the kitchen.

He was suspicious, but later relented when I told him about the couple reminiscing about their two sons who died in the war. It wasn't a complete lie, of course. I did meet such a couple in one of my errands, had a brief chat with them, and promised I'd drop by with Mikleo some time when they told me how pleasant it would be to meet men in uniform around our age.

The half-lie was that I never told Mikleo that I'd be bringing him to a church after the chat with the old folks.     

For vampires, marriage is a simple ceremony of exchanging vows in front of your chosen altar. We can abide by any religion of our choosing, not that religion has ever been anything but a formality to a race that takes the clan and the Throne as superior to anything that's holy or sacred in the human world.

And so needless of any explanation, that same night was the first time we held each other as a couple, as fated mates.       

We made love through dawn... and many dawns that followed. I was beyond guilt... because he's my chosen in the eyes of god... if there was such a thing. For demons, the pursuit of some blessing from the gods is like striking a balance between the odds. We're absolutely fine if hell should take us, which makes immortality a compromise or a compensation, some lesser evil compared with absolute and irreversible damnation.

When chosens choose to marry, they swear to each other that neither here, nor there, or in heaven can anyone separate them. Their bond becomes indivisible and indestructible like the tides against the moon. And to vampires, the meaning of an eternal bond is simple: the perfect union of body and soul, a harmony between love and lust that cannot be seduced or tempted, that cannot be surpassed.

The union betweeen vampires is more than a contract of the flesh. Believing we have no soul within us, the mate becomes the soul, the indivisible other that cannot be taken away without diminishing its counterpart. In all things, a union of the flesh is nothing different from mutual ownership. It's possession, domination, and absolute surrender. But when the mate or fated pair becomes a chosen's marriage partner, that ownership becomes a bond that transcends all things.

It becomes a bond so deep the separation between chosens becomes a subtraction of the essence of the other that's impossible to endure.

Heats take on a deeper significance as well and become more than just an expression of sexual desire and mutual dependence. Of course I couldn't ask for more than to have Mikleo as mine to take and to ravish without inhibitions, without needless guilt or secrecy. But more than that, I could give myself to him as much as take from him, and be responsible for its consequences...

Finally, I may partake of his blood. I may drink him in, empty him and give myself in return. In sharing ourselves equally, the union becomes complete and absolute.   

That night, on our first moon as a fated couple, Mikleo finally let me taste his blood. And just as before, he drank mine to his fill.

Our lusts were without restraint. With only the two of us, finally, under the moonlight with no flag or country to worry about, we made love like we never did or could before... when we're still shackled with guilt, secrecy, and embarrassment.

Mikleo surfaced from our lovemaking panting with desire, his body filled with scratches and bite marks. He's never been bitten, never been taken like this, and as a vampire whose blood has been drunk by his chosen for the first time, the euphoric desire that follows is unimaginable.

I've felt it too when we first made love in the ruins.

Seeing him like this... so willing... so giving... in ways he's never shown me before only pushed me to the brink of insane pleasure.

I couldn't break the knot. He shivered as I bit into him hard... I've never tasted blood half so sweet, so intoxicating. If it wouldn't be too much I wouldn't have stopped. 

He spread my legs and I let him sink his mouth and ravish me. I let him drink as much as he wanted to make up for all that I've taken.

Sorey...

When he breathes my name in moments like these, I'm filled with lust and craving, and suddenly a mad desire soars in my limbs, making me want even more... and more...

I love you... I breathed in spasms over and over as the stirrings of a knot told me that this pleasure wouldn't be complete if I couldn't be inside of him again. 

I pulled him up to me to give him more because I've taken too much, and I wanted to give myself back. While he's on top of me, I gripped him hard, amazed at the sight of this pure whiteness taking my arousal in. Every plunge took my breath away. I stroked him and begged him to come as I thrust my hips up against his soft, willing body harder... harder and without mercy...

He released, quivering as he clawed my chest while chasing his breath.

I pushed him back onto the bed, knowing I couldn't be satisfied just being inside of him. I must dominate... I must let him feel this insane desire, this insatiable lust that's been killing me with hunger and thirst now that it's been awakened by his blood...

His body rose and fell with mine as I held him by the waist and plunged into him so deep. I cried out my shame... it was impossible to be silent when all that pleasure is tightening around my urges, when his limbs are clinging to me in a shiver, when his orgasm and mine are rising to our limbs, pulsing in waves and electrifying our bodies with a force so powerful it makes me want to weep.

I wanted to feel some absolute reassurance that I'm never going to lose him ever again... not to any man, to this stupid war, or to Death if it dared come between us.

My heart throbbed with his and his, with mine. Our heartbeats were just as loud as the sound of breaths plunging and surfacing from the deep, as the sound of two solitudes meeting in some faraway dream that I wished could keep me from waking up.

  

o------------o)O(o------------o   

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

I walked across an empty land

I knew the pathway like the back of my hand

I felt the earth beneath my feet

Sat by the river, and it made me complete...

 

I came across a fallen tree

I felt the branches of it looking at me

Is this the place we used to love?

Is this the place that I've been dreaming of?

 

And if you have a minute, why don't we go?

Talk about it, somewhere only we know

This could be the end of everything

So why don't we go?

Somewhere only we know?

Somewhere only we know...

 

-originally by Keane, "Somewhere Only We Know,"

performed by Ash & Rain for Inferno's Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

20/21 May 2101

 

... the second year since our first meeting

 

"I didn't think the ceasefire will be lifted so soon," I told Mikleo in the kitchen as he started chopping some carrots.

"Soon? Hasn't it been months?"

I knew he was right, of course. It's just that being with him has made me lose all sense of time and perspective. Months felt like hours to me when we're together like this.

"Sorey..."

He must have felt my fingers grazing his nape, my body coming to press gently against him from behind. I smiled in his hair.

He made a soft, wistful sound. "Stop, sheesh, you're distracting me..."

"Really?"

He elbowed me. "Such a devil, you are!" 

Chuckling to myself, I lifted his apron with nothing but mischief in mind. He looked so good, smelled so fresh right after his bath that I was tempted beyond reason to touch him in places too shameful to name.

He jumped away and hit me with a ladle. But I caught him by the wrist, and pushed him against the table until his back was on top of it, and I was leaning over him, bearing down on his lithe frame, holding his gaze for a minute.

"Sorey, I have lunch to worry about," he complained, trying to sound angry as I pressed the fury between my legs against his thighs.

I kissed his hair, then his throat, smiling through it. "You smell so good."

He pushed against my grip, but I've got his wrist firmly pinned down. "My cooking smells good too."

"I'm not hungry for food," I told him glibly. He gave my dirty look a frown.

"Stand down, officer. It's hard, I know, but we have to have some manners."

I smiled and pushed his apron up, way up over his waist. I started stroking him gently down there, teasingly, pulling away any fabric that got in the way of my hands when his resistance finally subsided.

As he lay quietly, I drew back and unsheathed myself, unable to wait a second longer. I tossed our clothes in a heap as my manhood swelled at the sight of him so open and vulnerable like that.

With a deep kiss that included lips and tongues, I entered him and moaned deep and hard. Mikleo wrapped his legs around my hips as I thrust into him with all the energy I've recovered from drinking.

The table creaked beneath us against my weight on top of him. Mikleo lifted his head and arched his back to reach me. I kissed his throat and sucked him hard, ravishing the fresh bite marks that stood out against his white skin, to remind me of the diligent attention I gave it all night.

We've been drinking each other's blood since that day. And we haven't stopped mating since then... everywhere, each time the heat became too unbearable to contain.

Unfortunately, that happens to me every twenty minutes. Mikleo's patience must be godly to tolerate this much abuse since we've taken our vows weeks ago.

When he climaxed, it was just the beginning of our endless play. I carried him to the loft, all plans about lunch and the rest of the day fading fast into a distant haze.

"Sorey... those carrots will go bad..." Mikleo had a few seconds to protest as I lay him down, my shameless urge twitching at the amazing view of his creamy white skin marked by familiar bites. He was strangely and irresistibly beautiful, flawless and perfect even with all those scars my fangs and nails had given him.

"I'll give you all the carrots you want. Just don't say no today..." I told him, sounding like an adult coaxing a child.

He pouted as I pressed my hard, impatient need against him, grinding into him while groaning out my wild, wanton pleasure. I started nibbling the bruises around his nipples, around the buds that stood erect the moment my tongue found them irresistibly wanting. I lifted his waist to grind him harder against my arousal, now swelling with a delicious ache and practically dying to be inside him. He reached up and wrapped his arms around my neck, matching my rhythm perfectly as I groaned and grunted his name and "I want more" tirelessly.

I bent down and licked the bites swelling on his skin. Unable to stop myself, I bit into his skin a new one, making him gasp. The sound of his muffled breathing pushed me over to the edge, and I came violently, surprising us both as I haven't even knotted yet.

My release gave me seconds to relax as I chased my breath.        

"How about I make you plant a whole field of them?" Mikleo asked in a whisper, fingers caressing my cheek despite the sweat that made me feel a little sticky.

I looked down at his arousal that was still half-hard. Mine was as hard as a rock despite the fact that I was the one who has just climaxed.

"The only field I'd plant is down there. You can have all the seed I can manage..."

He cringed visibly. "Sorey, can you rephrase that a bit? I was referring to the carrots. I swear my ears just bled."

I laughed and rolled on top of him again. "I know. But I hate carrots. I want only you."

"Boy, compared to carrots anything must be more delectable."

I apologized for my insensitivity. "How about, you're the only food that makes me even more hungry?"

Mikleo struggled to get up, but I pulled him back, already aroused by his annoyance. When he protested, I silenced his mouth with kisses and stroked him 'til he came. I tasted and swallowed every drop of him, biting down the urge to knot before he came several more times. I was tireless, relentless... and I didn't give him the chance to leave the bed when my knots started.      

Call it crazy and inconsiderate, but I didn't let him go until breakfast the next day... and this time, Mikleo didn't let me anywhere near the kitchen.

With nothing better to do, I decided to finish some repairs in the lawn and the tool shed.

"Whoa, planning a major construction, are we? I prefer blowing things up if you ask."

The familiar voice made my body react so quickly I hit my head against the low ceiling. The shed was beyond maintenance, with sunlight spilling through the wide gaps and cracks on the walls. Rusty tools lay everywhere, in complete disarray. I've just started moving things out of the way when von Graf appeared out of nowhere it seemed.

He had a big, wide, doofus smile on his face. It looked genuine enough that I managed a chuckle to return his greeting.

"How about you? Where have you been hiding yourself lately?" I asked.

"Talk about that later. For now, would you mind if I invite myself over?"

"You've always been welcome. Except when you see that scarf..."

"Yeah, I was thinking you'd be hanging that thing outside every single day unless doing it every minute makes it pointless."

I coughed. He obviously knew so denying it would only sound incredulous.

"Does Mikleo already know you're back? He'd love to see you. You didn't get to say goodbye when you left."

He looked down at his boots, one hand scratching the back of his head. "Not like we're lovers or anything. He always knows what's on my mind, I'm sure he knew why I left."

Aside from the gesture, there's a strange tone to what he said that made me a bit uncomfortable for some reason. I tried to ignore it, it's not like von Graf did or said anything suspicious. Still, I couldn't help but sense some hidden message in there that I wasn't reading properly.

"Are you all right?" I asked without thinking.

"Are you sure you don't mind? I mean... I'd feel better if we could have some time together the three of us..."

I frowned at that. "It's not like you've been gone for years. Besides, Mikleo doesn't mind having you. But if you insist... breakfast must be close to ready anyway. Let's go."

He followed me out of the shed and into the barn like an obedient subordinate. The familiar smell of cigarettes lingered around him, and strangely enough, it was the only thing that convinced me I was speaking to the same person just minutes ago.  

When Mikleo saw him, his attention was somewhere else. 

"Wash your hands, Von. We're having breakfast in a minute." It was as if von Graf never left.

Smiling like a lovesick teenager, he gave Mikleo that same, wistful glance as soon as Mikleo's back was turned. Again, I felt something stirring within me, impulsive feelings of jealousy and anxiety that made me want to be protective around Mikleo. I watched von Graf disappear behind the barn to clean himself up.

Mikleo must have sensed my stare. "Sorey... it's all right."

My protective instincts never lie, but seeing Mikleo smile like that was enough to banish my fears even for a moment. "Yeah, just being paranoid, love."

He shook his head and patted my shoulder. "And I thought I was convincing last night."

I kissed him back. "I need more than that to be convinced."

He tweaked my ear. "You're so full of yourself, but I still love you."

It was an unexpected gesture of endearment. I grabbed him by the waist and pulled him into an embrace.

"I love you too... every day and always." His gaze was breathtaking, and I felt gravity pulling me again, deeper and deeper into this warmth...

Sensing approaching footsteps, Mikleo pulled away, running to put an extra plate on the table. I smiled, wondering what I've been doing all these centuries to miss something like this.

Somehow, everything feels perfect. If I had any wishes, it would be this perfect lifetime going on endless repeat forever.  

Minutes after breakfast, von Graf and I started talking like old times.

"What's the news so far?" I asked. "We thought the ceasefire's been lifted just hours after midnight."

He shrugged the seriousness of the mood away, luxuriantly sipping his second cup of coffee with his feet up on one of the chairs. "Oh, yeah? Don't know that much, but I did see some soldiers miles from here. Not like you need to worry. They're miles away... and busy with reconstruction. I mean, we did make a mess, hah, those were fucking good times..."

I caught the reference. The major facility we've blown up months ago had been abandoned since that day. The ceasefire may have been an excuse to let things stand, but now that it's been lifted, we should expect things one normally expects in a war. That sounds so wrong, but in recent decades, nothing has ever been normal since the war's started. All normalcy has receded into a distant memory so much so that what counts as normal is just the usual violence, apathy, deprivation, and demoralization that's been going around for ages. 

I looked around me. Von Graf putting away the dishes, Mikleo taking out the sheets and dirty laundry to be washed... no matter how bleak and uninspiring war is, everything here pretty much defines what's normal for me.

"Will you be busy with anything else?" Von Graf suddenly asked, a little bit too self-consciously. The awkward silences between our gazes were making me uncomfortable again, but I pushed down the uncanny feeling. I didn't want to be too paranoid.

"Not really. There's only the shed to worry about, and it's not even urgent."

"Wanna take a walk? We'll be back in a few minutes"

Now that is pretty much uncanny. I raised an eyebrow. If he asked if he could have some time with Mikleo alone, I wouldn't be surprised, though I'd probably feel bad and find an excuse to turn down the request. But this is different...

"Are you all right? You almost don't sound like yourself..."

"Hey, captain, Ravendalf and I are gonna take a walk. Won't be gone for long... we don't want you to be lonely."

Mikleo stood in his full height, stretching his body as he took off the apron he'd been wearing since breakfast. "Buy me some carrots?"

"I'll haul a whole sack for you. Anything else?"

Mikleo stopped to think. I couldn't take my eyes off him as his body seemed more lithe than usual, and the shirt I lent him fell around his curves loosely as if to tempt the imagination. "Well, I'd appreciate it if you can make it back by lunch. And please... I want us to have a great time so no arguments or bullying from hereon. That includes any comments on my cooking."

"Hey, we love your cooking!"

Mikleo eyed von Graf shrewdly. "You better. You can try liking it as much as you love Sorey already."

"Oh yeah?" von Graf was all smiles, chuckling to himself.

I shook my head. "I'll pass. Love is a big word. We hardly even like each other."

"Oh wow, the denial sounds suspicious," he drawled, leaning over my shoulder. "I should've known you have a thing for me."

I flashed him a deathly glare, which must be beyond misunderstanding, but Mikleo was quicker.

"Sorey, no fights, all right?"   

Von Graf made a slight coughing sound. "Heard that, Ravendalf? You better go easy on me or you're gonna upset the captain."

I shook my head as we headed out the door. I would've kissed Mikleo as I normally did before leaving on an errand, but von Graf being there to see it made it awkward.

My gaze must have lingered longer than usual that Mikleo had to give me one of his rare smiles... that smile which takes your breath away.

"Be safe, more than anything. You two are more important than carrots."

I laughed at the sly remark, and for some reason, all the anxiety I've been feeling just faded into oblivion. Von Graf pushed me out the door with a huff.

"Hey, lovebirds, it's not like you're never gonna see each other again."

Though those words had an ominous ring to them, I ignored the feeling, letting von Graf take the lead as we headed out the gate.    

We haven't been walking for twenty minutes when he lighted a cigarette.

"Here, have one," he offered.

Though I used to have that habit several hundreds of years ago, I haven't smoked in a long while so I'm not about to start now. I thanked him but declined.

He looked up at the sky, taking a deep, deep breath.

"So how are you and the captain? Everything all right?"

"Never been better."

"Good."

I stopped in mid-step, unable to ignore the aura of secrecy that seemed to pervade him from the moment he stood there in the shed. "Is there something urgent you want to discuss with me that you don't want Mikleo to know?"

I hate the feeling that we're evading something critical, and that something is a secret I couldn't even share with Mikleo. I hate having secrets with other people, especially the kind that might impact Mikleo's well-being.

"Got that right." He stopped, then seeing a narrow pathway leading to a lonely tree across an empty field, he gestured for me to follow.

"I hope whatever it is isn't gonna take longer than usual. I hate leaving Mikleo by himself."

"I hate leaving him to you, but I did. Bear with me. This is something you might find unbelievable, but you have to hear it."

My protective instincts surged within me like a landmine someone just tripped on. I had von Graf's collar in my grip, his face barely inches from mine.

"If the Throne's conspiring behind our backs to get us killed-"

"Hell, I wish it were that simple... though that couldn't have been closer to the truth. Good thing you have me to watch your back-"

I turned livid. "Hard to believe Alisha knew nothing of this-"

"The Queen's not even aware of what's really going on. Can't say it's her fault." Von Graf pulled away from my grip. "But outside the Throne, things are about to heat up. Michael Rulay... he knew something like this was gonna happen. He told me-"

"How did you know him?"

"The Resurgents... believe it or not, I've been with them from the beginning. The Throne treats them like rebels and terrorists, but more than anyone, Michael knew about Lunarre's plans, how the Throne is throwing dice but making sure only the evens come out every time. They wanna make sure everything happens as it should so that we end up with only one possible future... one fate that agrees with their vision of a world run by purebloods and no other."

"Hold on. If you're with Michael and the rebels, that means-"

"Yeah, I'm a traitor to the League, the House, and the Throne. That includes pretty much everyone we're working for. Knowing you're no conformist yourself, does that really bother you?"

"The Resurgents are no different from the Tainted Ones... and the Windstalkers," I told him warily, backing a step. "They're terrorists who didn't believe in anything save the need to eliminate the Throne and its empire. Hating the House or the Throne doesn't make me a sympathizer or a supporter of the other side. Politics rots both ways, so what made you think I'd even listen to anarchists?"

"Anarchists, you say? You think there's some law and order around these parts worth respecting?"

"Ambition is the same whichever side it is. I'm sure the Resurgents want the same thing as the Throne but with their own pack leading the way."

"Funny, except for Queen Alisha, I thought you hated the purebloods and everything they stood for. You should be on my side... our side... which practically means the side that neither belongs to, or worships any other side."

"You came to the wrong place. I can't believe you're using me and Mikleo-"

"For someone who's lived through centuries, you sound like some naive, little kid who's heard of this for the first time. Royalists like me were born to rule the world... that's what we've been taught since day one. It's easy to buy the ideology if it agrees with you, if it makes life pretty convenient and even happy. But that ain't for me, no sir."

I can't believe I'm listening to the same carefree pureblood I've been living with for months. "So what made you hate all that?"

"Not hating it, Ravendalf. Just bored as fuck with it. Vampires have an entire eternity to rule the world. What's so exciting about that? To vampires like us, the world is nothing but a giant playground. You can squish all the cockroaches that bother you, but where's the fun in it when nothing you do makes any difference?"

"So you decided to join the Resurgents to keep yourself busy?"

"Hey, a life of squishing cockroaches can't be good, right? I want to know if there's a life out there where the king can live like a servant and not hate himself for it... where life ain't pretty and easy and even beats the hell out of you... but it gives you a good reason to fight to keep what's yours and to protect those things you don't wanna lose even if you lose everything else."

For a minute I sensed something different about him... something strangely sad, poignant, like he was speaking of a future he somehow knew but wouldn't live to see.

"Does Mikleo even know what you were up to from the start?"    

"No, he knows nothing, or rather, he's not allowed to know anything. But I'm given the choice- whether I should let him or you pull the trigger."

I gave him a scowl. "I can't believe a pureblood like you can even consider betraying the Throne. Your calling is to be absolutely loyal at all costs."

"Calling? What am I, a priest? I'm no monk or shepherd who's supposed to sacrifice himself for world peace or any of that holy crap. I'm a pureblood who simply wants to co-exist with every living scum on this planet whether that goes by the name of humanity or whatever. Is that so wrong?"

"In other words, you wanna recruit me, is that it? Is this why you came back? If you and Michael are even planning to use Mikleo as a pawn in your games-" 

"Don't make it harder than it is, Ravendalf. Choices aren't always black and white. It's not that easy. In the end, my choice may not even be enough to make any difference. Even so, Michael couldn't have known things that were about to happen if he didn't have the gift of prophecy. Michael was telling the truth when he predicted that I'd fall in love with the reason that will change everything. He said it was a love that's bound to be unfulfilled... that it's just another path to the one truth I'd dedicate myself to, against country, race, and all the odds that fate could throw my way. And since we're already on the topic, I'm sure you've already guessed who that reason was... The first time I laid my eyes on him, I couldn't believe it... without knowing who he was, how he's related to Michael, I knew right at that moment... I knew Michael couldn't have been lying."

I knew he was talking about how Michael had predicted his feelings for Mikleo... and how Mikleo had become so important to him regardless of the obstacles, that, even when he desperately tried to resist those feelings, knowing his affections may end up unrequited, he couldn't.

In other words, Mikleo was the ultimate reason that persuaded him that Michael could see into the future. If von Graf hadn't been certain of his feelings, he wouldn't accept something logically unbelievable like fate and prophecy. He must have realized there was no way he could change those feelings he harbored for Mikleo even if he denied any truth that led him to them. 

For one minute, I wondered if von Graf wanted to confirm all of it by enduring the situation that binds all three of us, even if he knew how the truth might ruthlessly scar him. It was a painful test of emotional resilience and fortitude, and no doubt it was a test that made him the kind of person he was now. Acknowledging this, some part of me couldn't help feeling envious, leading me to wonder if I could ever deserve such a rival.

Standing right before me, von Graf was enduring the pain of my existence and bravely putting up with all the hurt on his own. It was enough to make me doubt if I deserve Mikleo so much more than he does.     

I shook my head in disbelief, not ready to be convinced even though an inner voice kept telling me I've already lost the battle.

"So you simply believed every other lie Michael said? Just because he was right about that one thing? Have you ever thought about the power of suggestion-"

"Don't take me for a fool. He's predicted everything else, even those things I hated. He predicted even you."

I sighed. "Michael's a strategist. He's the only human besides Muse who's knowledgeable about almost every significant thing remotely connected to the Throne and our history as vampires. It's not even surprising. I've heard they descended from the first royal family who learned of our existence. Some say they even used their own influence to help the first purebloods rise to power and gain some measure of political independence in the ancient days."

"Then how do you explain every single thing Michael's told me about what happened here?"

"What do you mean?"

"Everything he said which I tried to disprove... which I tried to defy with all my being... just kept happening. It was more than I could take. Even if I never wanted to be convinced, the truth stares me in the face and laughs at the irony of my wanting to prove that everything is a lie. That red string around the captain's finger... he knew the captain would have one, and he knew what it meant... who gave it to him."

"There's a possibility he's just an adept mind-reader."

"You can't read the future off someone who has no idea what it is in the first place. Besides, Michael said he's not allowed to talk about events and circumstances that depend on our decisions and personal motivations because that would be tempting fate to take alternate routes that only lead to the same thing... with more terrible consequences. But he told me things that seem impossible to guess because they're random facts that can be true at any moment."

"Random facts?"

"Yeah, like stuff you can't just logically guess from circumstances or events that normally follow each other."

"Like what?"

"That ring you took me to that store to see. Michael told me about it."

I felt my heart skip a beat, but the certainty of Michael and von Graf being right was just too frightening that I shook my head.

"He may be monitoring us in ways that we're not even aware-"

"He told me about it before I met you. He told me that the sign of the beginning of the end was a stone to mark the beginning of a new life for someone and his chosen... that it's a life that would end all my hopes and dreams, my desire of attaining that one thing I've wanted for myself. I knew right away how serious you were about sealing your relationship as chosens when you asked me about the color of that stone."

I remember it clearly now... the look of nostalgia on his face when he lifted the ring into the light and answered my question.

"I'd be honest, the moment you asked about it, I wanted to lie. I would've done everything to delay the inevitable even if I couldn't prevent it. But when I saw you looking so hopeful, and I started imagining how the captain might actually be happier than he's ever been when you give him that ring, all my resolve just melted away. I knew I lost... I knew there was nothing I could do to get in the way of his happiness."

I couldn't say anything for one minute. Von Graf made a loud exhale, lighting his second cigarette. "Are you sure you don't want one?"

I shook my head at the offer. "What else is there that I should know about? If Mikleo is going to be in any danger-" 

"There's a proper time for everything, and there are things we're not allowed to know unless they're part of the Reckoning... a part of the trigger that will set things rolling toward that fate. Your ring, I guess, is one of them. I bet you didn't waste any time proposing to him and marrying him. Knowing you, you'd do both in one breath."

There was nothing there to deny so I just nodded. He looked incredulous for a few seconds, then laid a heavy hand on my shoulder. 

"I should have congratulated you both when I had the chance. Guess I was still hoping against hope..."

"You talk like you're leaving us for good." 

"What? You wanna let me babysit him? You know how temptation works, don't you? I can't be responsible for what I might do... just letting you know so you don't feel sorry about it later."

I grinned, though the fear still made me nervous. "So what happens now?"  

"All I can tell you is that if we allow the royals, the House of Derrilvion, the real power behind the Throne to manipulate the outcome of this war for their own selfish advantage, we'll see an end where the purebloods rule over a dark, bitter world as the only race. The only humanity left would be nothing but cattle to quench its thirst."

It's common knowledge how purebloods can't live without human blood, unlike firstbloods and halflings who need it but don't crave it with the same appetite as purebloods have for it. Human blood heals us, makes us regenerate faster, but it doesn't drive us to feed and prey indiscriminately on humans.

Von Graf continues, blowing circlets of smoke into the cold air. "As you probably know more than I do, purebloods have ambition like no other. It's their instinct to be loyal to their own kind, tolerating firstbloods and halflings as slaves and guardians who'd put their lives in mortal danger for the masters who know their every weakness. While the purebloods hide and cower in fear because they love their immortality too much, you and the rest get to do all the dirty work. Strange that I'm backstabbing my own kind now."

"I've been around longer than you, and it's been disappointing that nothing's changed about this nation or the royals that run it," I told him, even if it made everything seem just as hopeless and pointless as it already is. "Greed is something we're born with, and the rest of the world isn't immune to it either. Even if the Throne needs to be stopped, will that even be enough? It's not like Mikleo and I can change anything that's been here for ages."     

Von Graf looked as if he was about to bite my neck off. "Is that really you? And I thought I'm the realist here."

"Imagining we're bigger than what we're truly are is one thing... but acting as if the world deserves to be saved by some self-righteous impulse is just delusional."   

"Oh yeah? I was actually hoping that somewhere beneath that cold, dispassionate exterior of yours is a fucking, annoying idealist who's not afraid to be right about everything he believes in."

Somehow, the feeling that I may be right about my fears only gave me chills.

I steeled my breath. "No one can be right about everything. I don't want to be, even if I could."

"Even if you say that, one thing's for sure," von Graf tells me with a penetrating stare. "We can't just stand back and do nothing about what's going on. If we work together there's hope we can bring down the Throne to save all of us. I'm pretty sure firstbloods and halflings are willing to co-exist with the rest of the world, but the House would have none of that. They know they can't build an empire with their own blood and tears so they plan on raising the largest halfling army who can serve them like killing machines."

Though it sounds frighteningly possible, I wanted to deny it. "That's just... surreal."

"This entire reality we live in feels unreal, starting with Lunarre himself. He's the Throne's ace, their dark horse, their secret weapon. No doubt he's been their Seer for ages, their eye into the future. He's virtually written down every detail, every clue, every event in the dice. All the Throne needed to do was to make sure they roll it nice and steady so they'd always end up with the evens, never the odds."

"And how do the Resurgents plan to counteract that?"

"Michael Rulay has a Seer's Eye that's even more powerful than Lunarre's... powerful enough to even foresee Lunarre's death."

"But Lunarre's dead."

"He must have felt his life was in danger but didn't know when or how it's going to end. Michael telling him all that was just a confirmation that he knew more than Lunarre did."

"Which was?"

"Michael knew how to save him without letting the Throne know about it. You see, Michael already knew about the conspiracy within the House to end Lunarre's life."

I frown at that, thinking it strange that Lunarre hadn't foreseen his own death.

"I get what you're thinking... but if there's anything a Seer can't predict, it's the death of someone connected to him, and that includes himself. It's the same reason Lunarre wasn't able to do anything about that someone he regretted most of his life, at least that's what I've heard."

Indeed there were rumors that the Deranged had finally reached the limits of his sanity after losing someone important and irreplaceable. There were rumors that he was one of Muse's secret admirers... one among many who found her to be an exceptional creature worthy to be an honorary member of the much-envied nobility of the empire.

"That's how Michael was able to convince Lunarre to work with him- or us- to bring down the Throne, though there must be other reasons we'd never know. The only catch is that we can't accomplish anything without the help of an aberrant who has the power to roll the dice any way he wants and play with fate."

Somehow, the mere mention of that forsaken existence, the word aberrant... made something in me shiver, like the stirrings of something dark and inevitable that can't be avoided even if foreseen. The feeling of fear and absolute certainty that came with it was no different from the sensation of falling into a dark, empty tunnel that never ends.

It's a feeling that fills me with disgust. I know this anxiety, this sense of hopeless desperation that announces the advent of a calamity.

But that's not all. What's more frightening than inevitability is the familiar sense of loss that fills one with a deep, despondent dread. It's the horrible feeling of losing something rare and precious the moment you begin to fall... 

It was enough to make me turn my back on von Graf. "So I was right, you've come to the wrong place. I'm sorry, I can't help you even if you beg for it."

"You can't or you won't?" Von Graf's glare was steely, like that of a starved wolf watching another stalking its prey.  

"I don't care about taking personal risks, but if it's going to endanger others-"

"The captain will be in danger whether you choose to do this or not. When I chose to tell you all this, we've already sealed his fate. All that's left is to see this destiny to its end... to find out if it were even worth fighting for."

I exhaled, shaking my head. "Don't you think I have every right to know that beforehand?"

"You said you believed in things like the other side of fate, and if it were possible, you'd rather wait for it to take its natural course-"

"I'd like to know then if this other fate even exists... and if it does, which side are we fighting for."

"Think about it. The other side will never have a chance to be what it is until you defeat the side that already exists. Let's just say that until that happens there's only one fate. And that fate is what Lunarre has given the Throne the power to conceive. The dice has been rolling on their side since the day Lunarre has prophesied it."

For some reason, just imagining the odds filled me with a heated rage I've been trying to suppress for years, decades, even centuries. Haven't I done enough? When is it all going to end and leave us in peace?

"Lunarre has lived far longer than either you and I, and definitely much longer than Michael, gifted he may be. What gave you the idea that he hasn't foreseen even this? How do we know if we're making the right move... if our choices will ever be enough to counter all those centuries that he's given the Throne and the House the advantage of knowing the future?" 

Von Graf looked up at the sky as if to reminisce, except that his eyes looked determined yet regretful, as if he's trying to force himself not to give in to an urge he fears more than anything.

"You remember that question you asked last time we talked about fate? You asked whether a personal benefit had anything to do with destiny. I believe I answered your question clearly..."

My mind reeled with the memory of those words: if you knew you're gonna end up killing the one thing that matters to you the most, wouldn't it be all about destiny?

I froze in between breaths. "Whatever happens, I'll never lay a hand on Mikleo! There's nothing in the world I wouldn't do to save him... even if I have to save him from myself!"

Von Graf gave me a look of absolute amazement. "My god, I've made you say it. I've done my part. You've set the dice rolling as we stand. Everything from hereon is now up to you..."

On top of a half-broken tree branch, a raven flaps its wings, shaking off budding leaves before breaking its perch in two and flying away.

Ignoring the broken silence that made it distracting, I hurry back up the path we've taken, with no other thought than to never let Mikleo out of my sight ever again. 

 

o-----)O(-----o

 

7 June 2101

 

... two weeks since von Graf's last visit

  

"Sorey... don't you think you're overdoing this a bit?"

Mikleo stared at the boards I've used to reinforce the walls and the door of the barn that was almost tearing at the hinges. I've also put locks on the windows and made sure that each and every door has triple locks that can't be forcibly broken from the outside.

He stared at the drill I was putting away, and the clutter of screws, nails and other boards that I'm saving for tomorrow's repairs. 

"You... love carpentry now?"

I couldn't look at Mikleo without losing my focus so I pretended to be busy putting away everything in the tool box. "I guess? Is dinner ready?"

When he shifted his gaze to the dinnerware, I took the chance to watch his figure against the play of light and shadow in the room. "It's nothing amazing. Just curry and some leftover meat from yesterday... and a little salad. If you like some wine to go with it..."

I shook my head. I don't want any alcohol that might get me to relax too much. "I'm good without it. Uh, is it all right if I take a bath first? I'm all sweaty and sticky..."

He laughed. "The bath water's fine, I think it's still warm."

"You want to... go in with me?" I've been restless lately, and the suggestive offer just slipped out. Mikleo gave me a knowing look.

"If you wash my back, I wouldn't mind at all." His voice shook a little, but it was the elusive glance that made my cock twitch with anticipation.

Instead, I pulled up a chair for him. "On second thought, maybe we should have dinner first. I mean, I'm not sure if... I'd want dinner after washing your-uh... back and all..."

"I get the picture," Mikleo looked flustered, seating himself across from me on the table. The tension was more than enough to make me self-conscious until after we've put away the dishes.

Mikleo started with his apron, but I pulled him to me and untied the knot myself. I only had my boxers on, but it wasn't helpful at all in hiding the urge that was tenting the fabric as if to announce my excited state.

Mikleo looked flustered, doing his best to avoid looking down there, which only heightened the arousal I've been suppressing for days.

White and bare to the skin, I couldn't stop myself from reaching out to stroke him down there. I pulled down my boxers and pressed my furious cock against his thigh, wondering how I've managed to keep myself from touching him since von Graf's visit, which made me so paranoid I started keeping guard outside the barn like a restless dog watching out for wolves.

I pushed my tongue inside Mikleo's mouth, tasting him as I pressed his body against the wall next to the tub. He arched his back and his throat became a visible column of white. I sucked and licked the old bruises there, lifting his leg up so I could enter him.

Mikleo shivered as I plunged into him hard and deep, my hunger surfacing so quickly that I couldn't wait to thrust into him faster and deeper.

Some part of me was afraid. Some part of me was suddenly so afraid this isn't going to last forever... that I might have only this moment and I'd lose him. I'd lose him to some unknown force of destiny out there that neither of us could control. The fear was terrible as it took hold of me and made me desperate... far more desperate than I thought was ever possible.

"Sorey!"

I bit into Mikleo hard, my fangs plunging into the softness of his skin between the neck and shoulder. He gasped loudly, hissing as my cock tunneled into him, following the rhythm of my lips and teeth sucking and sinking deeper into his flesh.

Mikleo... I don't ever want to lose you... was what my mind kept repeating like a broken record, ignoring his labored breathing.

"Sorey... stop!"

But my mouth wouldn't let him go. I'm afraid, so afraid of losing him that I can't even begin to imagine what it might feel like if I ever lose him now.

"Sorey... it hurts!"

I pushed him down, on the animal skins and furs on the floor that we used once as a bed. I lifted his leg scissor-like and without waiting a second longer plunged my cock deep and hard into him, crying out my shameless lust as I started to swell inside his tightening cavern. I bit hard, harder, searching old bite marks that have almost healed and plunging my fangs in them. 

I was thrusting into him so fast, chasing my breath into each thrust. My knot was swelling like a massive tide, stretching him further than i thought was ever possible. He cried out, scratching my chest, burying his nails and bleeding my skin, but I was relentless. I pulled him up by the waist, my fangs still buried in his flesh. Blood dripped on his white, smooth skin, and the sight of it drove me further into insane excitement.

Bending over his white, perfect body I let my knot swell to its fullest inside of him, letting it stretch him, fill him before exploding with a fury that had me collapsing next to him for the first time in utter exhaustion and intense satisfaction.

I was too overwhelmed to say anything as I tried to catch my breath. It was exhilarating... an experience of orgasm so violent and intense I never imagined such a thing could be reached

Mikleo convulsed. He started coughing, his entire body breaking into a sweat.

I turned to him in a panic, slicing the throbbing vein on my wrist with my own teeth so I could give him a drink of my blood. I knew I've drained Mikleo and emptied him to the point of critical danger.

He sucked me hard, and I let him. I watched with fear and fascination as my own blood started to quench the life-threatening want and thirst that I induced in him. I felt responsible, of course, as I knew I was careless. Maybe it was the poison that never left my body completely... the poison that seemed to linger... pervade my consciousness whenever my protective fear for Mikleo's life is aroused.

Before my body has ever known the effects of drinking a dying halfling's blood, I could suppress my heat for weeks. Even before, I've been able to withstand my obsessive desire to mate when discretion demanded it. I could hold myself back even during the peak of my lust, during the act of intimacy itself if Mikleo were to ask it of me. 

In the months after our first meeting, I was able to abstain from any intimacy out of respect for Mikleo's desire for secrecy. Even after prolonged periods of abstinence, there was no need to be afraid of being this violent, greedy, and insatiable. The appetite and obsession are things I thought I've learned to control with discipline and rigid practice even in the height of my compulsion to mate.

But the poison changed me, not drastically but in ways that made me act differently around Mikleo. Whenever my anxieties are aroused, the poison triggers and heightens my lust with or without the heats. I become obsessive and hungry to the point of insanity... to the point I become unaware of my body's impulses and cravings.

I become mad with the need to feed and to knot, unaware that I'm pushing Mikleo to the limits of his tolerance for pain.

To think that halflings are the most tolerant to physical stress compared with either humans or other vampires.

But my body ends up pushing him to the extremes of such limits, taking everything it wants without mercy or restraint in exchange for pleasures so absolute and complete they frighten and overwhelm even myself.

Wrapping him in the same furs that we nested in, I carried him to our real bed on the loft. I laid him gently, kissing his face softly, meekly, tenderly. He's been crying, and my heart couldn't help but melt with love and remorse, affection and anguish all trying to drown the guilt away.

I pressed his forehead against mine, willing my urges to disappear even for just one minute. I wrapped Mikleo in my arms, reassuring him.

I never thought a day would come that I would want him so hard and wish I didn't want him this bad.   

In truth, I couldn't loathe myself enough. I couldn't hate or blame myself enough. But I would be lying if I denied that a secret part of me has also been awakened. I've never felt more alive since that discovery, since that experience of union that pushed all boundaries of lust and inhibition to the edge.

I knew by then that some part of me would always crave for him this way.

As I watch Mikleo sleep peacefully in my arms, counting his every heartbeat, I've come to realize something sad, almost regretful...

I realized I've been tainted. It was a taint borne out of fear of losing him again... of losing him the way I thought I might lose him since that day von Graf returned and I felt, for the very first time, the soundless stirrings of that dark, despondent demon... that selfish, cruel god called fate.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o       

       

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

The world was on fire

And no one could save me but you

It's strange what desire

Will make foolish people do

I'd never dreamed that I'd meet

Somebody like you

And I'd never dreamed that I'd lose

Somebody like you...

 

No, I don't wanna fall in love

No, I don't wanna fall in love

With you...

 

What a wicked game to play

To make me feel this way

What a wicked thing to do

To let me dream of you

What a wicked thing to say

You never felt this way

What a wicked thing to do

To make me dream of you...

 

 -cover by Ursine Vulpine ft. Annaca (Chris Isaak, original), "Wicked Game,"

performed by Caravan of Shadows for Inferno's Ballad  

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

23 July 1551

 

... my first seventeen years in this world 

 

"This is the final command of the Elysian Council. The Tainted Ones are sentenced with immediate execution wherever they may be found."

Those words. I never thought they had the power to overwrite my calling... my desire to have nothing to do with the Throne, the House of Derrilvion, and the purebloods who intended to wreak havoc within the clans.

Lunarre was outside my cell, his pipe the only thing visible apart from his white fangs... fangs he would bare whenever his excitement was aroused.

Only death arouses him. The vision of a wasteland of massacre and tragedy never fails to make him hiss with insane pleasure as he tries to be convincing.

"You alone can do it. Or do you intend to rot in this cell of yours? Perhaps we can move you to a dungeon... with more rats."

"As if I care," I told him without even looking up. I was lucky to have several books with me, one of which was a plagiarized version of the Canterbury Tales. There were those kinds of things too.

"Maybe we can try to make things even more uncomfortable... starting with your meals, like depriving you of blood..." 

"Blood? I never liked it, never had any craving for anything half as disgusting. I'm not like you."

I felt his temper rise. If I could do a small thing like that, I'd happily call it an achievement. Insulting purebloods isn't something any lesser vampire can do every day.

And this was no less than Lunarre of the House of Derrilvion, a candidate for the Throne. Except that I heard he's called the Deranged. Most likely, I'm just a little bit more messed up than him, in a good way.

"Have you tasted the blood of rodents? I am most certain you will come begging once I forbid anything else to pass through these bars."  

"Know what? I do not mind a room with rats for as long as they leave my books alone. So much better than rooming with vampires..."    

"Your Weaver has been captured. What do you intend to have us do with him... or for him?"

"Interesting, I must say." I turned a page loudly. "But I have no quarrel with him, and I intend not to start one now."

"I can do things no other pureblood can. I can convince the Council to look for a reason to have him executed. That is one shackle removed that any vampire would find... liberating."

I know what Lunarre was trying to say. Without a Weaver, I'd be more or less free from the danger of being given the command of death. 

You see, in a vampire's lifetime, only two authorities have the power to give such command... words with the secret power to kill you where you stand. One is the Weaver, and the other is the godhead who carries the more formal title of Knight-Herald and leads the clan as a father-figure and military commander, the supreme authority who alone may command the death of any of his clan members by the sheer power of the Will and the Word.

If my Weaver were to be executed then, I would have one worry out of the way. Actually, that would end all my worries, since unlike other vampires I have no clan, hence, I've no godhead to fear like other vampires.  

Of course, if I were to be absolutely honest, I repudiated the clans. In the vampire world, everyone knows that as soon as an awakened foundling turns fifteen, he or she must choose a clan, a family to which allegiance is given for life. There are three houses to choose from: the Ravendalf, Ravenwolfe, and Ravencrowe Houses. Before reaching that age, foundlings are turned over to Babel.

The name might seem familiar as vampires learned the same histories, myths, and religions as the rest of the human world. If the real Babel might have been a colossal ziggurat, an attempt to build a giant stairway to heaven (that supposedly angered the gods who thought of making its builders speak different languages that caused misunderstandings leading to the abandonment of the project), this particular tower is a virtual social ladder mirroring the hierarchical system that underlies the foundation of all vampire existence.

Up that ladder is the House of Derrilvion, home to the nobility made up of only purebloods and no other.      

That said, most foundlings regard Babel as an academy, a temporary shelter or home. But to me, it's just a dull, shabby place run by deranged purebloods like Lunarre who have a fetish for sadomasochistic games of torture and discipline. Once in a while those so-called knight-heralds come for a visit to recruit the older foundlings into their clans. Most firstbloods find the idea of choosing a clan fascinating, like becoming a member of a fraternity or some other secret society with its own wicked rules and taboos.

Halflings are the only exception. Even before the age of fifteen, they're turned over to the heads and leaders of Ravencrowe. Of course they still have to take up residence in Babel like everybody else, but for practical reasons they're housed in quarters separate from the rest. They're later sworn to be members of Ravencrowe not out of choice but out of duty.

On the extreme end are pureblood foundlings, the ones awakened with the mark of the Derrilvions, who, by virtue of that mark become extra special. They never have to take up residence in Babel and never mix with the others. They are adopted singly or in pairs by purebloods who take them in or adopt them as a human parent might adopt a human child. Other foundlings are owned by clans, which are like orphanages or miniature versions of Babel with its own territory and residence, and its own resources. They're normally well-provided to supply the needs of each member.     

One peculiar case is that of Ravencrowe since it's the only clan that accepts halflings. Even though firstbloods may choose Ravencrowe as their clan, no one ever does, owing to the prejudice widespread even among vampires, that a halfling is weak and impure, neither human nor vampire but a hybrid lacking the more powerful gifts with which other vampires are endowed.

In my case, I ran away from Babel at twelve. Hating the idea of being forced to choose a clan, a family that's hardly real, I slipped out of that godawful fortress like a renegade with no care for the consequences or the aftermath.

Ever since that time, I've been dodging vampires, evading their shadows as they come at me like thieves in the night. Not that anyone can blame me, or I'd let anyone make me feel bad about it.

There were foundlings who did the same... naming themselves the Black Sparrows. In truth, its members hardly use real-sounding names, like their leaders were supposed to be a human called Brad, and a vampire called Dezel. I haven't really met them in person, or if I did, I'm certain they wouldn't admit their position. We're all runaways, malcontents, living in the shadows of an underworld of shadows.

It wasn't easy to be what we are, given the consequences of being a vampire with no protector, no clan to keep you out of trouble in a world dominated exclusively by humans. Not only that... even if we have no government or nation yet to call our own, each vampire clan has its own guardians whose duty is to make sure each vampire stays within the bounds of the law as enforced by the House of Derrilvion and the Elysian Council, which are all run by purebloods.

That said, any defiance is a serious crime that easily turns one into an outlaw. But these days, the purebloods seem busy with bigger problems... rumors about a Guardian clan resisting the power and authority of the purebloods, and sporadic uprisings all linked to the rise of some secret resistance forming within the ranks of firstbloods whose supposed task, ironically, was to protect the pureblood nobility at all costs.

I never understood the resistance, but I took advantage of the confusion it created. After all, I hated every pureblood on my own.

I hated the awakening. I hated vampires. I hated the clans and the reason they exist.  

I wanted to be human. I was a human. I didn't choose to become what I've become.

I'm not a rebel or a terrorist. I just want to be free. No one ever asked me if I wanted to be a vampire.

Lunarre would counter that with, did anyone ever ask a human to be what he or she is?

Still it's not the same. We're all born into humanity. No one is born to become a vampire. We're turned into these monsters at the age of three or four (at four-and-a-half years or more for halflings, but beyond six years the turning results in death, insanity, or some other aberration).

As you may have predicted by now, all my troubles started from there. After five years of running away, I was finally caught and taken to this cell, which they proudly call the Hall of Asgard. I've been a prisoner since then.          

Two more weeks passed after Lunarre's first visit. On that day, a tall, stalwart, slightly-bearded man in black robes approached my cell, holding the keys to it, or so I presumed. He looked rather middle-aged, like a human in his late forties, and I noticed right away that he wore on his left hand a ring with a large, brilliant stone, similar to the ones I'd seen on purebloods when I was still in Babel. Aside from that, he had a rather elegant, gilded armor beneath his black robe, bearing the crest of a knight-herald of one of the three houses.

The crest wasn't even that spectacular to begin with, but it wasn't as bad as that of the others either. It shows an image of a black lion carrying a single rose in its mouth.

Not wanting to seem too curious, I didn't bother to set aside my reading, throwing mere furtive glances in that direction, though it seemed interesting that another presence lurked in the shadows, donned in a similar robe and armor.

"As of today, your release has been granted by the Council. You shall be escorted to my residence as my personal squire for the time being, or until the House and the Throne have come up with a final decision as to the appropriate punishment or relief for someone such as yourself."

The word squire may sound dignified, but to me, it's nothing but a word for slavery and involuntary servitude. I wasn't impressed.

"And who do you think you are?" I dared ask even when it seemed obvious what he was. He was using a conceitedly formal tone with me, which I abhorred most of all because it sounded like a haughty pureblood talking through his nose.

It was then that the other shadow moved into the light, showing his face. He seemed younger by at least ten years, and side by side, I noticed a peculiar resemblance between them... as if they're father and son. That intrigue, however, is fruitless as everyone knows that vampires are barren. They have no capacity to produce heirs or children with either vampire or human. 

"Mind your manners, lad. How old might you be to speak as if-" A hand raised in front of him stopped him in mid-speech. 

"I am Heldalf of the House of Ravendalf. And this," the older knight gestured to the man behind him who seemed much too eager to condemn my rudeness, "... is Sergei Strelka, a squire of mine."

Pretending to ignore that, I yawn. "Seventeen I am, if you want to know my real age. Unlike both of you who seem too old for mischief, I have no time for annoyance," was what I said, flipping a page.

I heard the slightest screech of armor and chuckled. It seemed his squire and loyal bodyguard was having difficulty putting up with that too, even as Heldalf calmly regarded me like a rare specimen.  

"Taking that into account, how do you wish to be addressed, young man?"

Just as before, it was Heldalf who asked. I heard the hinges of my cell creak as he turned the key, finally. 

Finally looking up from my book, I snorted. "Just call me Sorey. It is my human name after all, and I will never change it for the world."

 

... 8 months later

 

"You do not seem to be very fond of purebloods."

I gave Sergei a withering glance. "How about you? You like them? But you are a firstblood too, are you not?"

"Stay your thoughts. To speak of loyalty in such terms is uncanny and dangerous." 

A woman dressed in the style of most hostesses in taverns and wayward inns came leering at him, her suggestive cleavage obviously showing for display. She seemed to know him well, her elbows nudging his arm on the table where we've just ordered drinks.

When their eyes met, Sergei looked down like an abashed gentleman that he usually was, but the woman simply laughed it off, fingertips grazing his collar.

"Nice to have you again. So who do we have here? He seems like a fine, young man. Your brother perhaps?"

He grins at her but scowls at me. "He might be if I had one. Though I favor one with more manners and with less foul a humor as this one."

"Such is what a proper man would say, not that manners are less admirable. But some women do choose rough and rude on occasions, most especially when the looks go with them."

She gives me a sly smile as I grab a mug of ale for show.

"Certain you can handle your liquor?"

"A drink has never got me into trouble," I told her, downing it in one breath.

I started coughing like I'm about to throw up the whole thing.

Sergei was laughing his guts out. "Is this the first time for you?"

"I think that depends on what you mean by first time," the woman teased, going over to my side quickly, one hand patting my back, the other sliding down my thigh.

"A cherry are you?" she asked, her smile wide and teasing. In her nearness, I could smell her cologne that seemed to provoke and tease just as much.

"A cherry? Like the fruit, you mean?" I asked nonchalantly.

Sergei looked away, clearing his throat. "Uh, I would advise that you care not about the meaning since it is a little too-"

"By chance, it pertains to a virgin. Or a young man who is yet untouched, or has no experience deflowering a woman."

"Women have to be deflowered?" I asked curiously. "Do vampires see gardening and losing their virginity as the same?"

Sergei had a fit of coughing this time, while the woman who explained those things seemed to be having the time of her life over my joke, which wasn't intended to be one anyway.

"So if I may ask, what do you think of intimacy, m'lord, young and inexperienced as you seem to be?"

I matched her inquisitive gaze without flinching. "It must be closer to farming. You sow seeds and grow things. Uh, though that last part is only for humans."

I would've added, we're all human until some monster did this to us. But I guess that would ruin the mood.

Besides, it wasn't clear to me to what extent this woman knew about vampires. All Sergei bothered to explain on our way here was that there are safe places for both humans and vampires to intermingle. He did say it would be best to avoid asking and giving needless information for our own protection and that of the people working there.

Thinking about it, I wasn't filtering things on my end very well, but judging from the strange calm Sergei was showing, there didn't seem to be any reason to be alarmed.    

She bursts into another of her coquettish giggles, covering her mouth with one hand. "Your mind seems to know more than your body. I have yet to meet another like yourself who can say those things with such an innocent face. With a little more experience, I think you will make many a lady wear their hearts on their sleeves around you."

Sergei looked apprehensive. "If only such honesty goes with wisdom, it pleases to consider your praise a compliment."

I frowned. "You criticize too much. Like a senile grandfather..."

"Watch your manners, young man!"

"Sorry, but I only have eyes for reading."

"My, oh my... what rivalry do we have here?"

Sergei coughed. "My apologies, I do not mean to argue. Perhaps my experience as a mentor is wanting. In truth, I am filled with self-reproach when I see how my influence weighs so little on this reluctant pupil."

I downed another mug of ale, this time, suppressing an urge to vomit. "If anything, you have only Heldalf to blame. You should have refused when he shoved me into your care."

"That is Lord Heldalf to us both."

I exhaled. "Likewise, I blame no one for the choices I make. Even if I regret some, what good is it to have regrets? Regrets are never enough to build kingdoms or empires, but hate, envy, and sometimes good will can carve civilizations from dust."

"And which of those, do you think, is the best means?" she asked.

"Common to all is the need to outdo each other. Good intentions lack ambition, while hate is a double-edged sword... it creates as much as destroys. But with envy, you strive to do more than what seems possible to surpass your rivals. So envy always wins."

Sergei winces. "Really, Sorey, your notions sound as old as the moldy books you read."

"My mistake then. I keep forgetting what Heldalf said, wisdom and truth grow not from books," I lectured somewhat. The ale must be getting to my brain.

"But youth should not be spent on such ill feelings and uncertainties," the woman tells me, her eyes piercing. "Your future is still unsettled, bursting with nameless possibilities. There is no better time to have as many experiences as you can, or to make as many mistakes as you can, than when your heart is young and free. Only age knows the meaning of regret."          

When she said that, I felt her slip a tentative hand around my thigh, eyes suddenly intent on what she was touching.

"Yours is huge and very healthy. And to think it is not even hard yet."

I flinched a little, wondering where she got the idea that I wanted to be touched there. Sergei looked flustered.

She turned to him all of a sudden as if she had guessed his thoughts. "Would you mind if I were to give him his first time? I am willing to make an exception and charge no payment. To see this innocent face humbled by desire is more than enough compensation..."

Sergei looked skeptical as he turned to me, though he seemed polite enough to hide it. "You are of age. That being so, every decision you make from hereon shall be your responsibility. Even as one tasked with your instruction, I have no right to impose. It is beyond me to approve of anything against your will."

"Approve only what I want, then," I answered quickly.

He frowns. "Approval is for reason not desire."

"Sounds like getting yours will take a million years."

"Everything takes time," Sergei counters.

"It's time that takes everything!"

"You're both wrong. Women only take what they deserve. But that includes everything... and they shall inherit the earth too."

Sergei coughs a little. "I apologize for making you wait. And also... for being unruly and tedious."

She flicks a look at him that seems suggestive enough. "I do not mind waiting, my lord... so long as that person realizes forever is a bit too long for waiting."

He looks at the walls as if they've suddenly become interesting. "Whoever he is, I am certain he does... one way or another."

I shake my head at both of them. "This is not about me, is it? Just get a room, you two, if you feel that way about it!" 

Call it rude, but I hate that Sergei's embarrassing both of us by acting like a gentleman in a tavern where lewd things are expected. Getting him to be honest is as painful as pulling teeth.

"Then are you saying you have interest in me?"  

I cleared my throat and stood up with a polite bow. "Just show me the way if it pleases you, woman."

"Woman?" she laughs, ruffling my hair while standing on tiptoes. "You really could use some manners, lad."  

In a matter of minutes she was leading the way to the second floor where the rooms seemed to be. The inn being in the state that it was, the stairs had wooden boards that creaked as we passed. There were a line of rooms about half a dozen on each side, but they all seemed occupied as muffled voices and other sounds came leaking through the walls.

She pulled out a key from her breast, and for a second I was amazed that something like it could be hidden in such an unsuspecting  place.

"My private quarters. I do not wish for us to be disturbed, you see. I want to give you a good time for as long as you want... or as much as yours and mine can endure."

Again, as she spoke, her hand started caressing me between my thighs, making me flinch at the sudden way she did it, with neither warning nor permission. I surmised that in these places, the men who pay for such services must be so depraved that these hostesses freely and wantonly assume that even sexual harassment is pleasurable and desired.

I must say I was her first loss and disappointment. She told me after half an hour of her best efforts that should I return as a customer, my drinks would be on the house on the condition that I keep the mockery of my unsatisfactory first experience... or rather her failed attempt to take away my virginity... a guarded secret.

With a suppressed sigh and a wistful look, she watched me sink my uncooperative manhood back into my breeches.

"How regretful..." she whispers, with a look of longing that was making me feel strangely ashamed. "I am almost certain that your dagger shall be stout and glorious in the cavern of its choosing... enough to make any woman quiver with desire. But then, I feel it takes more than just attraction to make your manhood rise to the occasion. Still, it is amusing to imagine how Sergei might or might not surpass it in sheer abundance."

I gave her a quizzical look. "Surpass? What for?" 

She laughs. "Let me warn you not to tease him about it. He's a bright, young man, and I shall always be fond of him."          

"Are you- a vampire?" I asked.

She gave me a wan smile. "I admit it is a secret I share only with the men I bed. But since Sergei trusts you enough to bring you here, I am inclined to make an exception. You see," she hesitates a little, suppressing a deep exhale, "I am a pureblood who will never serve the Throne... the only one perhaps who refuses to be caged in its gilded walls. If I be permitted to speak, I wish nothing more than the curse of hell to fall upon that abomination! I would rather die than live among their kind, to be a puppet who forsakes her will and dignity to serve those who value only their own precious existence."

"So whose side do you wish to fight for?" I asked.

"It is too soon to say... but as all fighting goes, there is no easy way to decide which side is right or wrong. We choose our own battles and win or lose them as fortunes dictate. But whatever the outcome, the better part is we learn from our mistakes and move on."

"Maybe?" I gave her a wry smile. "But not taking sides is still taking sides."

"Then, have you considered the same question yourself? It may be a vampire's luxury to suppose he has all the time in the world to think about it... but in truth, no one has all the time in the world to live it. There is no telling how much or how long the world can endure, waiting for the fulfillment of our dreams."

Minutes later I asked Sergei about what she said. He merely shrugged.

"She was known as Forton in her former life as a pureblood. Now she takes on different names... but to me she would always be the same."

"I see." I noticed how Sergei had suddenly become listless. "Are you by any chance in love with her?"

"What is that all about?" Sergei scratched his head, sounding more guilty than he looked. "Let me remind you that you are quite two centuries too young to be asking that question! Unless it is you who find her beauty irresistible enough to fill your thoughts with-"

"I can assure you, she adores you even if you deny it. She was even comparing-"

I stopped myself in time. Now Sergei looked anxious, if not nervous all of a sudden. "Mind telling me what is there to compare?"

"A secret between me and her, which I promised not to speak of, especially with you." Upon seeing Sergei's crestfallen expression, I added a snicker and a resounding chuckle just to annoy him a little more.

"Well, whatever it is, you must vow never to disclose these conversations with anybody else then. If you care about her life even in the slightest, we shall not speak of these things. She must have seen something in you to rely on your promise."

"Stop making it seem like we are both ancient history. That is just you, Sergei, if you must know."

Sergei sighs loudly. "I believe we should all agree that vampires are ageless creatures. You flaunt your youth too much."   

"Then tell me what the Throne stands for, and why she hates it so much."

Sergei stops in mid-stride. "You must have misunderstood her meaning. More than that, I advise you not to speak of such matters lightly."

"Understood," I conceded. "But not explaining things only makes me even more curious. I think Forton might have a better way of enlightening me on the subject."  

Sergei shakes his head. "Really, Sorey, the games you play! Then listen... the Throne is nothing more than the ruling power the House of Derrilvion intends to put in place if things work out. Right now, the House is ruled by one man, a former shepherd by the name of Artorius. Forton used to be his cardinal, his most trusted adviser and counsel. Before the House of Derrilvion came to be, the most gifted of the purebloods is often singled out to lead, and this leader is called the shepherd. That name is archaic these days, rarely used by purebloods to denote authority. In place of shepherds we now speak of kings, queens, and emperors. In place of cardinals we have knight-heralds and godheads. There used to be one clan, one house to unite all vampires whether they be pureblood, firstblood or halfling. Now we have three houses, three clans struggling to serve these new masters for special favors as well as for their own survival."

"And Cardinal Forton used to be in that position when there was just one clan for everyone? Why did she leave?"

"From what I recall, you are not one inclined to stay put either."

"I have my reasons..." was all I could say. "And you know how Babel is full of haughty purebloods manning everyone like slaves. How is it fun to live in such a stuffy place?" 

"Fun? With such passion for books and ancient knowledge, I do not see you as a young man with ordinary tastes. That aside, a little reorganization might help improve Babel, but to say you are treated as slaves... well..." Sergei seemed to ponder it seriously. "Is that all?"

Try as I might, I could hardly put into words what I truly felt... that I hated all vampires and everything about me that turned into this... 

Instead, I exhaled loudly, making him look my way with a concerned frown. It felt like a change of topic might work.

"Well, before you start asking me more, there is one other thing I want to ask about. I mean, you and Forton must share a lot of secrets and good times together, right?"

He scratched his cheek, looking away as we proceeded up the steps leading to the courtyard of the Ravendalf House. I would admit, conversing with Sergei makes any distance shorter than it really is. Before realizing it, we were already back at the mansion, back into these cold, bleak, moss-laden walls that had the same daunting, yet stoic beauty as a haunted castle.

Though in truth the only castle I have in mind are the Towers of Asgard right in the heart of Pendrago, a name and location familiar only to vampires.

I cleared my throat. "I really want to know why Forton left."

"Maybe her reason is just as personal as yours. Perhaps Forton found living as a pureblood among purebloods wanting in many ways. Or perhaps she wanted to be free to make her own choices."

"Disagreements with the people she cared about seemed more likely, if she was able to put up with it for a long time before leaving. People only abandon what gives them unbearable anguish."

Sergei looks away. "I cannot say or deny if it is. Matters of the heart are too complicated to be truly understood."

"By any chance, does it concern Artorius?"

Sergei made a loud exhale as if I said something he already knew but which gave him a prickly, nasty feeling he couldn't suppress.

"We may never know. People change, our friends change in ways we hope they would not or had not. But you see, it is all part of caring... part of trying to understand others and ourselves... part of accepting and coping with the little disappointments of life. Perhaps she regretted Artorius's decision... that he allowed himself to be persuaded to be the power behind the future Throne, if that is what the House is planning to make of him. Maybe it was not her wish to see things change the way the Throne wanted them to change for the sake of the nation they envision as our common goal. Sadly, the truth is farther than we suppose it is, and our ideas, though convincing, do not always reflect the truth we seek to find. There are things about the House, the Throne, and its politics not even I am allowed to know."

"But if the Throne were to ask you to serve it, would you say yes?"

Sergei was surprised at the question. He pounded my head with a fist in mock anger. "It is at least three centuries too early to ask that!"

"If Forton were to ask you to go over her side, will you choose her over the Throne then?"

"With much seriousness, I advise that you think before you speak. Speech is silver, silence gold."

"One last question... do vampires ever fall in love?"

Sergei gave me a strange look that hovered between sad, anxious, and hopeful. "That is something only we can decide for ourselves. Each vampire has a fated mate out there they say, but what you choose to believe is really entirely up to you. In the end, no one knows your heart better than you. It may be a question of chance, honesty, and the will to entrust yourself and your future to another. If you have the determination and the resolve to do that, then perhaps you are ready to love and be loved."

I was too young to know the significance of those words back then. I hadn't realized until centuries later that the truth behind them could have been meant as a warning.

                     

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

23 July 2101

 

... an unexpected visit 

 

"Sorey, could I bother you with something?"

I woke up with a start, finding delicate fingers making a circle on my chest. I pulled Mikleo to me, nuzzling his cheek, kissing his hair. He smelled so good.

"You want breakfast?"

He snorted. "No, but I think you do. Really, whenever you ask if I'm hungry, it always means you are."

I laughed. "So what is it, love?"

"Tomorrow's your birthday, isn't it?"

"And?" I tried to sound casual though in truth, it felt wonderful to be able to spend it with Mikleo for the first time without needless secrecy.

"I want to have a picnic. The weather's been really good lately. And we've been staying indoors for weeks."

"Staying indoors has its own fun," I told him, groaning into the kiss as I tried to stroke him. He slapped my hand away. 

"Remind me about it. You still haven't said anything about Von... why he didn't even bother to have dinner just when I thought he came back for good."

"It's kinda personal. Just imagine he's eloping with a beautiful woman, and he needs some time alone."

Mikleo frowned. "You don't know him at all, Sorey. He doesn't need to do something like that to get any woman he wants. He's incorrigible."

"Are you making me jealous?" I teased. "You seem impressed with how attractive he is to the opposite sex."

"I know someone who's attractive to any sex without even trying."

I rolled on top of Mikleo, pressing my heat against him as I let urgent fingers explore his lower hip. "Yeah... and did he tell you he doesn't care which sex it is for as long as it's you?" By now, my mouth was all over his throat, flicking light, wet kisses on that slender column.

Without answering, Mikleo lifted my chin to put my mouth on his. I was surprised to feel his tongue inside me in seconds, his kiss suddenly deep and serious. It was a rare moment in which he initiated such a kiss. I was so overwhelmed all thoughts of breakfast became a haze.

Mikleo pulled away just as I started grinding against him. "Sorey, w-wait-"

I froze, my body impulsively drawing back. Mikleo noticed my reaction.

"It's- it's fine... I was just-"

"Did I-"

Mikleo shook his head, not waiting for me to finish. "That was different. I know you won't."

Mikleo knew I've been more tense and worried lately about being too aggressive in bed. Memories of what I did more than a month ago, when I let my fears and insecurities get the better of me, were more than enough to make me regret my actions. The last thing I'd ever want is to hurt Mikleo that way or in any way at all.

Mikleo touched my cheek tenderly, eyes lingering on my chest. My cock raged at the way his eyes and fingers tentatively moved over my bare skin, over muscles that tensed under his feather-light caress.

"So... uh, want to continue?" I asked when I couldn't put up with the foreplay anymore. I want it bad. 

His fingers stopped in the middle of its climb toward my collarbone, and I found myself pulling my breath. He was teasing, and I hate it because my body's oversensitive when it comes to his touch, and god, it's painful to hold it in down there when I'm this hard.

He gave me a pouting stare.

I grinned. "Don't do that if you want to stop me in the middle of the action." 

He tried to pull away. "Right. You just seem to be forgetting something important..."

"Like what? I don't think I'm forgetting this," I groaned, pulling him back into the tangle of blankets by the waist. His body felt so smooth against mine that I couldn't help if my cock kept twitching as a warning.

Laughing, I let him fall on top of me, chest heaving. Mikleo looked flustered when he realized how convenient his position was, straddling my manhood right between his inner thighs which were spread out to me invitingly. I grunted my arousal, telling him in quick breaths how good he felt.

He pushed me away, climbing down and hitting my chest with his knee.

"Ooof, M-Mikleo!" That was a little painful to be honest.

"Let me get off you, you- you stallion!"

He must have realized how eager my manhood was to have him this way, though judging by his body's reaction, it seemed like he wanted it as much even when his mouth said otherwise.

"H-hey, Mikleo!" I stuttered.   

Mikleo looked honestly upset. "We need breakfast, I mean, seriously!"

Holding him firmly by the hip, I started caressing his inner thighs, watching his need perk up at the attention it was getting. I felt hot and hungry as my body started to tingle, and my tongue began its wayward journey to all his private places.

"Sorey, just... let me make... you breakfast... you need it more..."

"Nah, I can have breakfast right here if you let me."

With an embarrassed huff, Mikleo pushed himself up and tried to stand, but with the mess of sheets and furs tangling around his legs, he fell backwards with a yelp.

I grabbed him in time, wrapping my arms around him, feeling his heartbeat race as he looked back with widened eyes.

"Easy, love... it's all right, I got you. You almost gave me a scare."

Mikleo eased himself into my embrace, suddenly pliant and submissive.

"I was thinking you must be hungry," he told me in a low whisper, avoiding my eyes. "I just wanted to take care of you too."

I kissed his hair, tightening my embrace. I was really scared when he fell.

"Mikleo, you know how I love anything you cook. I don't mind if you let me once in a while, though."

"But everything you do seems better. I'm starting to feel useless."

"Everything? Like what?" I kissed his nape, loving the softness of him against me.

"Well, that curry last night definitely tastes better than mine." 

Of all things, Mikleo is still thinking about that. Though I may have more experience in the kitchen, there's nothing in the world that can stop me from devouring his home-cooked meals. The fact that Mikleo enjoyed making them was enough to make my heart melt.   

Acting on that impulse, I dove under the sheets, pulling the blanket over our heads "Well then, I'm taking it from here!"

"S-Sorey!"

I pressed desperate kisses and moans against every bruise I could find, determined to muffle his resistance. By then, not even an earthquake could've pulled my attention away from the temptation of his body yielding to my defiant urges.

I wasn't able to drag myself into the kitchen until hours later.     

"Mikleo? Where are you off to?"

This time I was the one wearing the apron, pouring freshly chopped vegetables into the venison. I was actually feeling a bit hungry after our recent exertions.

He threw me a smile. "I'm hanging the laundry out to dry. It's nice and sunny out there today."

I frowned. "Could you let me do that for you in a minute? I'm almost done here."

He wound an arm around his waist, which was so typical of him when we're about to have an argument.

"Sorey, the yard isn't more than a few feet from here. I'm sure you'd hear me scream if a grenade explodes or something."

I frowned. "Don't joke like that."

"You're such a worry wart."

"I said I'll do it. You'll have plenty of time to see the sun when I take you out on a picnic."

"Sorey, you- you're not that much serious about it, are you?"

Mikleo sounded like a child stuttering with suppressed excitement. I couldn't help but feel my heart throb a little faster.

"It's just a picnic, c'mon... we can do outdoors stuff like that once in a while." Deep inside, I was glad he came up with the idea. It's been a while since I've seen Mikleo being genuinely carefree, unguarded. "Maybe we can even throw in some outdoor swimming. That lake we passed on one of our walks seemed nice enough."  

Mikleo was all smiles, eyes crinkling with mischief. "All right, then. I just hope you'll behave yourself and not be as daring as last time..." He put down his bundle of bed sheets and stretched. "That actually smells good, Sorey. Let me just- wait, do you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"A cat? Let me check..."

"Hey, w-wait, Mikleo!"

I turned off the fire and followed after him, calling his name though I knew that would be ignored. He was gone for only a few seconds, not even close to half a minute, but I was determined not to let him out of my sight. 

"Mikleo?" 

I stopped, my blood running cold. The yard was crawling with snakes, and Mikleo was standing in the middle of it, a white cat pressed against his chest. Staring in horror, I noticed how some slithered their way around his ankles, bellies rising as if to strike.

I didn't have to think twice before running. But Mikleo turned to me, throwing something my way as he screamed my name.

I caught the cat in my arms. "What the- Mikleo!"

He leapt out of their line of attack, but not before grabbing those crawling at his feet and hurling them away.

He was breathing hard even if it didn't look like he was in danger. I ran to his side, not losing a single minute.

He collapsed just as I held him by the shoulder. "Mikleo!"

His lids looked heavy as he squinted against the light. "S-Sorey? Y-you all right?"

Without answering, I carried him into the barn to lay him down on the fur carpet. I had no time to carry him to the bed on the loft as I was eager to check him for injuries.

His chest was heaving, his nails and fingers colored like dark bruises that indicated he was having difficulty breathing. I searched for bites, cuts, or any sign of injury and found a nasty one on his right heel. The punctures were deep, enough to convince me he had been bitten hard. 

I leaned forward, dipping my mouth. "Mikleo, hold on..."

"No, don't- don't suck it... the poison... is dangerous... for you too..."

"I don't care!"

"Listen! Talk... to Velvet... I can't... right now..."

I tried to focus, closing my eyes. Our mental link should be fine... but-

Since I drank that contaminated blood, even my resonance had been affected. Though it heightened my awareness of Mikleo through the bond I have with him, especially when my jealous insecurities, my fears and anxieties are aroused, it seemed to have dulled the rest. Only a yawning emptiness met my frantic call for help.

I shook my head. "Nothing's coming through..."

Mikleo closed his eyes, sweat trickling down his face as he desperately struggled to keep his focus. I could hear his strangled breathing coming in deep, awful gasps.

It was more than enough to make me panic. I bent down to try and suck the blood from his wound, but just as before, he dodged my efforts.

"No- there must be... Von... please try... to reach him..."

Though I suspected it would be just as futile, I closed my eyes and called out to him. Von Graf, come quick, Mikleo needs you!

I've barely screamed those words inside my head when someone burst through the door.

"Hey, you inviting burglars or what? The gate's wide open, I thought something was-"

The moment his eyes found Mikleo lying down, von Graf lost no time pushing me out of the way. "What the hell happened here?" 

He caught Mikleo's hand in his, pressing it against his chest. He forced Mikleo's lids open, checking his pupils with a penlight he carried in his pocket. He turned to me with a panicked scowl.

"How long has it been?"

"About five minutes?"

"What got him? He's delirious-"

"Snakes. They're still in the yard," I answered quickly.

He ran to the back, throwing the door open. "Shit. Rattlesnakes, cobras?"

I shook my head, unable to catch what he was saying. "They're venomous if Mikleo's like this."

"You didn't do anything to provoke them, did you?"

"I... look, I really don't know," I told him, holding MIkleo's cold hand in mine.

Von Graf ran back to Mikleo's side, feeling his temperature, his pulse. Again, he took Mikleo's hand and pressed it firmly against his chest. In any other circumstances I wouldn't have let him be this intimate. But the look in his eyes told me he was angry, concerned, and desperate.

"Forton. It couldn't have been anybody else's dirty work!"

The name brought back very old memories, but I couldn't be too sure. "If you know something you're not telling-"

"Knowing isn't enough," he cut me off. "For now, we better find an antidote and fast. We can't even let him suck our blood to help him heal. It'll spread the poison and we'd get infected. It won't do him good if we can't help him. I'm going to run to the neighbors... see if anyone here knows how to treat snake venom."

Von Graf had barely left Mikleo's side when a shadow crossed the light falling from the window, making us look up. Squinting, I could sense the shape and height of it from where I was crouched next to Mikleo.

Before I could react to the danger though, von Graf pushed me back by the shoulder and stood up, grunting curses as he bared his fangs.

The tall figure in deep black whom I never expected to see after such a long time simply stood there, her ashen face smeared with a morbid color I only know too well. 

I may not be able to see other shades besides white, black and grey, but I didn't have to be told when I smell blood. A pureblood's blood...

"Forton, damn you!" Von Graf snarled, rushing forward. "Why go this far? Who gave you orders to come here?"

She drew back hissing, black scales bristling and rippling on her exposed throat and bosom. "I don't remember being your underling!"

"Just answer my question, dammit!"

"Let's just say I got tired of waiting. Five centuries is, after all, a very long time..."

I looked at von Graf. "She's behind this?"   

He kept looking at Forton, ignoring me. "Of all people, not him... I already said you can't ever mess with him!"

"He's never my target," she told him, breaking free from the grip that latched onto her like talons, catching her beneath her robe, by the collar of that military uniform, which looked strangely familiar.

I only needed a second to recall where I had last seen it. Babel?

Surprisingly, with one push from her, von Graf was shoved aside with such tremendous strength he actually flew against the wall, crashing.

Ignoring his coughing and the sound of smashed wooden boards, she continued to approach me.

"I can't say I'm happy to see you," she hissed again, eyes dilated and steely like the points of a poisoned dagger. "But things could've been worse if that happened to you," she said, looking down at Mikleo with an ironic smile. "Strange, but meeting you here... finally... feels almost like a nightmare come true. I can almost say five hundred and fifty years doesn't feel that long anymore, does it?"

"Forton..." I breathed, shocked at how much she's changed.

"I was right the first time I saw you. You've grown into such a fine young man Sergei would've been proud of. Do you even remember?"

I became livid. Sergei's end was something I've been desperately trying to forget all these centuries.

"He was tainted, but I guess you knew about it better than anyone," she went on, circling me, weapons poised. "Because the minute you decided to become a puppet for the Throne, you raised your sword against your own family and killed him!"

I bared my fangs, leaping through the distance between us to grab my sword hanging sheathed on the wall right behind her. 

"If you want me, you'll get me. But not before you do something about Mikleo. If anything happens to him-"

"Empty threats! You think I'd be afraid of you, boy?"

"I didn't kill Sergei because I wanted to. I made a promise..."

"Sergei had been driven to madness by Lunarre and the Throne! They tainted him so the Windstalkers could hunt him down. But instead of choosing his side, you had to listen to Artorius- you had to kill him with your own hands-"

"Avenging Sergei was one of the reasons I killed an entire clan. The Throne had almost nothing to do with it, even if they wanted the same thing. Can't say I never regretted what I did... even if back then Sergei was the best reason I could think of!"

"You say such horrible things to justify your crimes! Sergei would never want revenge! You only wanted to serve the Throne... so you thought of using Sergei as a scapegoat to be the hero the Throne always wanted!" 

Even when she tried to roil up enough rage and fury within me to make me more vulnerable, to force me to fight, my thoughts were on Mikleo. Still, I vaguely remembered something Sergei told me about Forton.  

"So, did it make you happy to kill Artorius yourself?"

Every account on his reign as the head of the House of Derrilvion and the interim authority behind the Throne speculates that Artorius had been betrayed and slain by no less than the heads of Ravenwolfe themselves. It was supposed to be the final catalyst that led to divisions and revolts within and among the Windstalkers who, as members of the clan of Ravenwolfe, had sworn to protect the House of Derrilvion and the future Throne.

It was a fall orchestrated by lies, betrayal, and deceit... a wicked game of secrets which Sergei refused to play a hand in.  

"If I did, he must have deserved it! He was beside himself with madness... he's become a deranged no worse than Lunarre!"

"In his life, Sergei asked me to do only one of two things... that if anything were to happen to him, if he's to be executed, he'd rather that I be the one-"

"To finish him off? Sergei was innocent!"

"The same reason he refused to die by command of death. It would've taken his dignity away-"

"He never lost it!" Forton shrieked.

"True. Because if there's anything he hated more than the Throne and all its deceptions... it's being told to die like a criminal..."

"You lie, you fucking bastard!" she screeches at me, fangs and claws bared. "You're full of lies, just like the Throne you serve so blindly!"

Lost in her violent rage, she swung her scythe fluidly like it weighed nothing despite its size, tearing through the very air between us. I dodged the first blow with the side of my blade, parrying the tentacles that also came at me from beneath her mantle.

It was clear she had every intention to kill me, but I didn't want to hurt her... not before she could do something about Mikleo.

I went for her throat gagging her from behind as her attacks became more confused and careless. Seething with venomous rage, she tried to kick her way out of my grasp, biting my arm and hissing when she realized von Graf and I had her cornered. 

"It's true that Sergei had been tainted, but the Windstalkers was never the reason alone! The Throne might have gone too far in trying to eliminate Ravenwolfe by causing infighting between the Windstalkers and the Tainted Ones who sought protection from sympathizers among them. But even Sergei knew the Throne was after something or someone else... and even Artorius was just an excuse-"    

"Your lame excuse for being alive is that the Throne needs a demon like you! You hardly cared that Sergei's dead! He's dead, and no one, immortal or otherwise, can ever bring him back!"

I bristled at the sound of those words. They sounded like some prophecy that could never be denied even if you could change the world.

I released her somewhat reluctantly, panting against the exhaustion of keeping her in a grip in the midst of her frenzied resistance. I would have kept it up if she wasn't going to die of suffocation, which I couldn't risk despite her being the enemy. Rather than force the antidote out of her, I struggled to get my bearings and tried to think of a way to convince her to do Mikleo a favor.

"Oh no, you don't!" Von Graf warned, catching Forton before she could lunge at me again. "You're really becoming a pain in the ass, you know that?"

"Kill me if it makes you happy," I told her, wiping away blood that's trickling from the side of my mouth when I felt it. I was past any concern for my injuries that it was more out of habit that I did.

"It thrills me beyond imagining," she spats, licking her lips. 

I exhaled. "I hope it does. But just like you said... no one can bring back the dead. No matter how many innocent lives get taken to pay for our crimes, the past stays the same, written in permanent blood, unwilling to forgive or forget. We had our mistakes, Forton... let's settle them here but only between us. Mikleo is neither Sergei nor Artorius. I won't let our mistakes be repeated here..."

She stared at me through hateful eyes, but she seemed to have regained enough sense to stop attacking, at least, at the moment.

"Are you willing to take chances then?" she asked, throwing glances at Mikleo. "The poison in my body is the antidote. But it's too powerful for a halfling. The way he is, it's easy to tell... he's already dying. It may be too late even if I want to save him..."

Von Graf came lunging at her. "Damn you! You never really listen! Even when Michael has given his orders-"

"The Resurgents are divided now that Michael has become a traitor! Letting that deranged enter our fold-"

"You're blinded by revenge! You can't win against the Throne by sheer fury and this blind love you've been harboring god knows since when! Nothing can change the fact that all the ones you ever cared about are dead! If you have no one left to live for, don't you think it's time you start living for yourself?"

Those words were like a dagger. She reels from the agony of hearing them, but she recovers quickly with a pained smile and an ironic grimace.

"This isn't about you, if I recall, Count von Graf. That boy is someone else's chosen. You don't even have a right to make him your burden or your pain."

"Oh yeah? Well, what if that venom isn't half as lethal as you say it is? I bet you just want Ravendalf to owe you some favors..."

"The poison induces temporary blindness. If you want it to be permanent, call me back in an hour. Then again, if he ends up dying, blindness wouldn't even matter."

I turned to Mikleo. His pupils were dilated, and a film of mucus had begun to cover them, oozing out of the corner of his eyes. His spasms had begun to intensify, making him clutch the front of his shirt to catch his breath.

"How is he?"

I shook my head at von Graf. "He's not even part of any of this," I told Forton. "If you know how it feels to lose someone precious, you should be the last to want to see it happen again. I regret Sergei... I regret Artorius... just as I regret every single member of Ravenwolfe whom I killed with my bare hands. So if there's anyone here who deserves to die to pay for those crimes, it should be me."

Mikleo shakes his head, apparently listening to what I said. "It's fine... this way... I just... want to see... you more..."   

Von Graf was all fangs and claws, snarling like a wounded beast before a predator. "He dies, you die next. Your lovers in hell might not even be happy to see you!"

Ignoring that, Forton turns to me, glaring viciously like a serpent suffocating its prey before the kill.

"In exchange for your services, Sorey von Ravendalf, I shall spare your chosen's life. But know this... my antidote shall break your bond forever and irrevocably. It shall sever any link, even the slightest resonance that binds you two in flesh and otherwise. It shall kill even some of his memories. Even so, my blood can only put the poison to sleep for three months. He would need my blood from time to time to control it, and it will make him hunger for a pureblood. Given the risks, are you still willing to let him live?"

"Hell, what kind of bargain is that?" Von Graf had a menacing look in his eyes, but his voice was more bitter than angry.

Something in me already felt it... the stirrings of hell that was about to swallow me whole. But my conceited pride won't let me admit what I'm losing.

"Is that all?" Somehow I can't even look at Forton, afraid to hear the truth for once. 

"Together with his memories, he shall lose all attachments as your chosen. He shall be unbound forever, a heartless untouchable... whose venom bewitches, seduces, and stirs everyone's lust toward it, but who shall give nothing in return. His heart and mind will never be owned again."

"Just like you?" Von Graf seethed.

"Yes, if I have to agree to at least one thing from you."

It was a heavy penalty, much like a cross that gets heavier with each step. But one look at Mikleo, and I didn't have to think about it. All doom and hopelessness weigh nothing against the love I have for him. Having him breathe is more than enough...

I can live with anything else.

"Save him."

Helpless to whatever fate had decided that moment, those two words sounded like the end of a long, passing dream that I could only catch glimpses of, from the other side of an endless nightmare. 

     

o------------O)O(o------------o         

 

                     

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

Wandering child of the earth

Do you know just how much you're worth?

You have walked this path since your birth

You were destined for more...

 

There are those who'll tell you you're wrong

They will try to silence your song

But right here is where you belong

So don't search anymore...

 

You are the dawn of a new day that's waking

A masterpiece still in the making

The blue in an ocean of grey...

 

You are where you need to be

Poised to inspire and to succeed

You'll look back and you'll realize one day...

 

Though the world may try to define you

It can't take the light that's inside you

So don't you dare try to hide

Let your fears fade away...

 

-originally by Adriana Figueroa, "Wanderer's Lullaby,"

performed by Silhouette Tides for Inferno's Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

8 November 2211

 

... retaliation, the last few battles fought toward the end of the Hundred Years' War 

 

"Velvet, I came as soon as I could."

"We're too late. They've taken him."

By him I already knew who she meant. It couldn't have been anyone else.

I watch Velvet mount her steed. It seems unusually restless and agitated, apparently protesting the discomfort of an additional burden. Surviving battle wounds, it could hardly be faulted for its shortcomings. Most horses experience shock and trauma in the heat of the conflict, caught between charging at an enemy and running away.

While Velvet's warhorse seemed calmer, more robust and sturdy than others right after a battle, I noticed its right leg bleeding from a gash. Velvet follows my gaze but says nothing as my mount reaches for the apple in her hand.

She gives her own horse the same, patting its mane. The silence was almost awkward and unnerving. It's easy to guess that we're troubled about the same thing.  

"I still have a thousand men with me, but most of them are injured," she tells me in the same dead monotone that spoke whole volumes. "My herald says that the army carrying Lord Heldalf as hostage is heading southwest, at least fifteen miles from here. It will be a long ride on horseback, and the ones I can spare are barely standing as we speak."

I looked at the horizon where a lazy sunrise has begun to blanket the sky with a pale, morning glow announcing good weather. But the grounds on which it showered such hopeful tidings were nothing close to hopeful.

Everywhere I looked was carcass. Horses half-dead or half-alive filled the stillness with shrill cries of pain. Blood-stained armor littered the ground together with the fallen whose skulls have been brutally split open, their bodies hacked and often missing limbs. The carnage was enough evidence of the violence that has just unfolded here, across a plain that used to smell of green grass and wildflowers.

Velvet, donned in the same black robes as I was, did not in the least look remorseful as she surveyed the field with me, our mounts deftly avoiding the carcass and the carnage. 

I was feeling impatient. "I prefer to go after them. I have two thousand men with me. If you can lend me even a few hundred, I'm sure I can manage."

"All right. My best horses are with Boris. Show him this ring, and he'll know right away that you have my permission. He's at the camp right now with our medics tending to our injured comrades."

Before I turned to leave, Velvet made a strange sound that got me looking at her from over my shoulder.

"It's nothing," she says, looking a little timid. "I've been practicing how to whistle... Lord Heldalf tried to teach me, but I never learned it. Wished I tried harder."

I knew what she meant by those words. More for encouragement than anything, I tried to smile for her sake, though the air has become rancid with the smell of corpses.

"I'll tell him you're looking forward to letting him hear it."

"Aye," she said in a low voice, her gaze distant and almost wistful. 

That was the last time I've seen Velvet as I turned my mount toward camp, hoping in some dark corner of my mind that I have been one of those lying on that field, facing his last sunrise.

The battlefield was waiting for me when my troops arrived at the scene. The demarcation line was the first thing that caught my attention because amidst the swaying banners and flags of the League and the House of Derrilvion was a long spear that formed a tall shadow against the spiteful sun shining down on our armor.

I saw something bobbing up and down as the spear was paraded on the front lines of the enemy. I ordered my herald to get a better view of it as I commanded the rest of my men to stand in position.

He came back in ten minutes, looking breathless and pale. "My lord, it's Lord Heldalf von Ravendalf."

"What do you mean?"

"On that spear was the head of Lord Heldalf. He was beheaded half an hour before our arrival. His eyes had been gouged and cross-marks were placed on his cheeks to mark his crimes."   

"Crimes?" I raised an eyebrow to that.

"Betrayal of the Throne and the League. A white banner atop his head bears the words written in scarlet, guivel kurash valmeki ishrel makiah."

I steeled my breath. Those words, written in the ancient tongue, meant, a hundred deaths for traitors aren't enough.  

In other words, to the League and the Throne, Heldalf had been nothing but a criminal whose punishment goes beyond the reach of any law. As the ancient tongue implies, traitors deserve a hundred deaths, meaning, there's no punishment ignoble or cruel enough that can equal the crime of betraying one's race, country, or people.

And beheading is the worst kind of execution there is. Even for humans, the most abominable form of disrespect and ignominy is to cut off the seat of the soul. Among vampires, beheading after death entails an act of severing the union between mind and body. And separating the sublime from the carnal, the two basic elements integrated into a vampire's immortal existence, is akin to destroying the final remains of that existence, as if in doing so, one has been irrevocably denied any right to life and an afterlife entirely.

It was as if Heldalf had never existed here or in any world out there. It was like shutting the doors of eternity to his face forever, even in the afterlife he might have tried to deserve.    

Just thinking about it makes me bleed with hate. I don't think there's any word anywhere, even in the ancient tongue, to describe the fury that engulfed me.

But for now, the overwhelming feeling is that of grief. Like a wave it brought back memories of other things that made those same feelings even more poignant, unbearable. It carried with it a mixture of hopelessness... remorse... disappointment... and beyond that, the deep, gnawing feeling of emptiness that comes from being left behind because there was nothing one could do.          

I could've said a prayer if I believed in any god out there. But the better part of me insisted that I shouldn't waste my breath on false hopes, even if it seemed more reassuring to imagine his soul wandering here, in these places, wishing for our victory.

In truth, my mind has always been full of prayers. I closed my eyes, feeling the wind and the clouds rushing by overhead.

Mikleo... if I go this far to die will you lead the way?

Without wasting another minute, I unsheathed my sword and spurred my mount to run along the first line of soldiers on the front lines. With a raised sword, I gave my men the signal to begin, starting with those words we soldiers know so well. 

"This is war! This is our calling! We fear not death! We rise to victory with no false hopes or prayers. Let hell take us, but we will not surrender! Let those who shed their blood to give us this chance to fight be proud to walk with us... in the shadows of death, or in the light of victory!" 

With that rallying call, I gave my men the final salute and pulled down my visor. 

It has been agreed in a covenant between the League and the Confederate that all battles from hereon should be fought in No Man's Land. Vampires may join either side but no weapons save bows and arrows, swords, lances, maces, and shield and armor may be used. Further, no guns, bullets, tanks, or other weapons of mass destruction shall be allowed by either side.

The same covenant, however, applies only to this territory. This is No Man's Land where, strangely, an endless moor that seemed perpetually barren whatever the season becomes resplendent with spring flowers once every century. Its many peculiarities became a source of myth and legend, one of which is the curse supposedly wrought by the much-feared Empyreans. As such, no one may dare pollute these grounds or desecrate them with weapons without invoking supernatural protection from those curses.

I guess the fact that the land is riddled with taboos feared by both humans and vampires makes it a strategic battleground where bitter antagonisms may be resolved without resorting to cruel, horrific tools of destruction that have already wiped out populations and entire cities in the last hundred years. It may seem ironic to try and dignify war by resorting to stratagems designed to minimize cruelty when, by its very nature, war is unkind and ignoble.

Yet, protected by curses so fearsome they compel respect, No Man's Land continues to be an exception. It's the only neutral ground left in the world where such extraordinary rules and restrictions may be imposed.

And so it's been decided that here, on this very day, in this barren wasteland, this tainted graveyard of men and vampires, the final war shall be fought... the war to resolve all wars, all bitter enmity left in the world that's been dying and wasting away for centuries.

I slash my way through, making a path for Death and my men charging into another bloodbath. 

A dying world coughing up the last of its pride cannot afford the slaughter of innocents. And so the only way the Throne, the League, and the Confederate may escape the guilt of wholesale slaughter and violence is to employ traditional battlefield methods and tactics which may not be as massive as chemical warfare or nuclear bombing, but just as ruthlessly infantile and deceptive.

Then again, maybe it's easier to be noble in death than in life.    

But even if I wished to die here, I will not suffer defeat. Two thousand five hundred men against eight thousand... the odds are against us. But I don't believe in the power of numbers, or the power of faith.

I believe in nothing I can't do myself.

If the gods choose to stand back and watch from the shadows to laugh at this farce, this spectacle of humans and vampires struggling against cosmic forces that see them as no different from insects, then so be it.

Even from the beginning, I've never had faith in gods and demons. Those who cower from death cannot earn the respect of those who welcome it.

Call it conceit, but I refuse to believe in anything beyond my own power to change.

Maybe I've lost far too much to even believe in anything I can't keep. More than that...

I close my eyes for a second, and the scent of lavender fills me...

You're the only one that binds me here and holds me down. But they've taken you from me...

It won't be long, love. I'll follow soon... I'll find you somehow...

Donned in black- all of us- like angels of death from an ancient plague, we charged forward, taunting prayers and curses to intervene.

Brave men fall, but so do cowards. This is the logic that makes every battlefield an arena of good versus evil, where virtue wins over vice if only because death hardly cares and evil brings no outcome better or worse than death or survival. Real cowards, of course, would rather hide in the shadows of their immortality to watch others struggle or perish in the fray.

I guess, if there's anything more evil than taking lives in a battle of strength and numbers, it's the evil of standing in the shadows to relish it. An onlooker, a master-puppeteer who gets to enjoy the victories they never risked their lives to deserve, is an abomination that has no equal. 

At the end of the day, we were able to retrieve Heldalf's body. I myself placed him in a casket sealed with myrrh and incense. I placed his head on top of his shoulders, making sure that the marks have been covered with salve even if only to hide the scourge of shame carved into it.

Heldalf has been like a father to me. Without a doubt, even this undignified act on his corpse had been meant as an insult. It was meant to provoke me, Velvet, and the halflings to think twice about our meager victories.

But right now, I have no room for such thoughts. 

Vampires have no souls they say... the more reason we value the dead and shower it with respect. It was my last parting gift to Heldalf, a father, a friend, a leader and a warrior through and through. 

Leaving it with lighted candles and a few offerings, I was surprised to find one of my heralds eagerly waiting outside the tent, looking unsettled.

"Any news?"

"Our messenger has returned from Lady Crowe's camp to report to you as instructed."

"And? Where is he?"

"My lord, he's under treatment in one of our shelters. It seems that he and the others have been ambushed on their way back."

"Then maybe I should see him when he's able."

"My lord, he requested that I convey the following at the soonest possible time... Lady Crowe's camp had been razed by the enemy hours after we left in pursuit of the army that had taken Lord Heldalf. It appears that the League and the Throne had split their combined forces in two in order to eliminate her and ensure that she would not send reinforcements our way. The body count we did on the battlefield after the enemy had withdrawn supports this theory. We expected eight thousand troops in yesterday's battle, but we counted a mere three thousand, and as you instructed we did not pursue the injured survivors. That is all, my lord."  

I wanted a change of clothes since I haven't taken a bath nor replaced my armor since yesterday. But the news made me forget those distractions. I hurried to another tent where Boris was waiting, looking a little anxious.

"Velvet's army... your comrades... have been ambushed right after we left."

Forgetting all formalities, Boris stormed out of the tent upon hearing it, looking for his mount. I wanted to stop him, but I didn't know how.

"Would you know where to look for her? She may have been taken as hostage." It was my best effort to be civil, though I already knew there was nothing I could say worth listening to. The possibility of Velvet being captured alive was slim. After what we've seen yesterday, the way Heldalf had been rudely executed and his corpse ignobly treated as punishment and warning, there's little hope that Velvet will be spared.

That aside, Boris was Sergei's older brother. I've felt his hate even when we never talk unnecessarily. 

Boris turned to me with a scowl. "You're a curse. Everywhere you go death follows you. Even though she knew we have our differences, Lady Velvet instructed me never to leave your side. I still blame you for Sergei. Now this happened. With her in peril, I've no reason to remain under your command."

Even if those words were meant to be scathing, my own thoughts were somewhere else. The thought that Velvet had also left this world...

I have to calm myself down even if, like Boris, I feel a rush of anger within me urging me to leave everything behind to find her. More than a friend and a comrade, Velvet was someone I could call family. In every way, she made me feel accepted, calling me her brother-in-law even before she heard about our vows.

Now that he's gone, the same thread of pain binds us. She's the only family I have left in this world to protect even if the blood that runs through her is different from his.  

"What are your plans?"

He scowls at the question. "Better than waiting, I'm going to look for my lady. I'm sure to find some clues... if not, I'd rather die trying."

"If you died only trying everything would be in vain."

Boris became livid. "You know damn well that if it weren't for you, she might have been spared-"

"I do. But blaming myself isn't going to undo what's been done. Whether you decide to leave or to stay, what's bound to happen will happen."

"So you expect me to do nothing?"

"I expect you to stay here, Boris." 

"W-what! What authority do you have to command me-"

"It's not a command. The only way to find out what really happened is to come straight to the master that controls the puppets sent to get rid of her. I think I've better chances of doing that than you."

Boris shook his head. "That's suicide. You may have scored a victory yesterday, but your men are weary and wasted. They won't stand a chance against the armies of the Throne and the League."

"I meant to come alone. I have a score to settle anyway... and my reason is deeper than yours or anyone's."

"How dare you assume-"

"I realized that riding north for three miles would take me straight to Asgard. If they had to split their armies to ambush Velvet while giving us a distraction, then that only means one thing..."

Boris understood. "They're reserving their main force for something more important. They're being overly cautious in preparation for something even bigger."

"Asgard is the stronghold of the House and the Throne, an impenetrable fortress protecting the highest-ranking purebloods. If it's desperate enough to eliminate anything that may stand in its way, then it must be protecting something really important... such as the Key."

Boris pulled his breath. "I thought those were nothing but rumors..."

I shook my head. "The Key is the one creature with the power to destroy anything or anyone it chooses. Even among purebloods, it has no rival or equal. By sheer will or desire it may command death. I'm sure everything that's been happening is connected to the presence of that godly force somewhere within these parts... all the more reason for them to use Velvet and Heldalf to draw my attention away from it."

Of course there's more to be said about the Keys, but it's something I'd rather keep to myself for now.

"Yet, even if you know this..." Boris hesitates, "you're going to fight such a formidable opponent without a second thought."

I let my gaze wander, only to catch faint glimpses of the sun sinking into the wide yet barren horizon. "I've a score to settle with the Queen. And I don't intend to take anyone with me to the grave so I'm going alone."

"The Queen of the Throne is the Key? If that is true, aren't you underestimating Asgard?"

I frowned at Boris. "What good does it do to be afraid?"

"When it's foolish enough not to? Fear can save lives. Unless throwing yours away has become a hobby. But then I heard you are special yourself... the only firstblood to walk the face of the earth who makes every pureblood tremble in fear. You have the power to overrule any rule that applies to the rest of us. You are the ultimate aberrant feared by all vampires..."

"I'm nothing against the Queen."

Boris beat his chest with his right fist... a gesture of unswerving loyalty and allegiance. "Then do not fight alone. Let me fight by your side."

"If only for the honor of the fallen and the welfare of the survivors, I'd ask you to stay here. It would do no good to let your comrades be demoralized by news of what happened. If anyone were to ask, I'm on an errand. There's no need to wait for my return either. If I'm not back in a week, then I'm as good as dead. By then I leave you to decide everyone's fate."

"You never think twice about what you want, do you?"

"I don't have to think twice about giving you such a responsibility. As for my life, it's mine alone to squander. In truth, my personal reasons weigh heavier than this war."

Even if the world were to shed tears with me, it would never be enough. I lost too much... too soon...

"So it must be true, what I've heard Lady Velvet say about you. You may have your shortcomings as a leader, but your passion and stubborn resolve are likewise your strongest virtues."

Despite the chill and the stench of death around us, we exchanged salutes. It needs no saying that Boris is Velvet's most trusted squire. And for warriors who tread the same ground and walk the same fate, all men and women are equal in the battlefield for they share one goal, one glory, and one grave should they fall...

I mounted my steed, rubbing its flanks as Boris looked on. "To be brutally honest, I've always been a failure when it comes to saving others. But when you said wherever I walk death follows me, I realized... if there's anything I hate just as much, it's Velvet racing against me to hell and winning. That's all the reassurance I can give you."

"Fair enough," Boris tells me, as I bolt out of camp with only one thing in mind.

Alisha... we finally meet again. And this time, there's no running away...

The ground on which you stand shall be my last battlefield. Lay me down to rest...

I won't ask for more.          

 

o-----)o(-----o   

 

15 November 2211

 

... four days after the battle fought on Derrilvion grounds

 

"So what do you intend to do now?"

"I don't know."

Rose gave me a livid stare. "You almost killed me. And that's the only thing you can say?"

"I never intended to leave anyone alive."

"Are you bragging? Or are you saying I was a mistake?" 

I exhaled. "Like I said, I'm beyond remorse now. If you want my head, it's all yours. Figure out a way to kill me because neither Alisha nor the League would have it."

"Sorey..."

I knew it was Alisha's voice. She slipped into the tent as meekly and quietly as her armor would let her then sat on the side of the bed where Rose lay. Nodding my way, her gaze shifts to Rose as she bends down to give her a tender kiss on the cheek.

Their relationship was secret to most but not to me. I would've been more explicit about sharing their happiness if the circumstances had been better.

"I hope you two weren't arguing just now, were you?" 

Rose, despite the bandages on her arm and leg, was almost ready to jump out of bed. "Hell, I almost died, and you're worried about me being hard on him?"

"He left you bleeding but alive. Besides, you went all out on him. Fortunately, the injuries he gave you weren't that deep."

"Sorey von Ravendalf is an expert on massacre. He's killed an entire clan, and yeah... you used to like him regardless. He marched in here with a sword saying he wants to settle a score with you. What do you want me to say? Ask if he has an invitation?"

"Everything he did was to force me to act on his behalf. Not once did I feel that his threats were serious."

Rose gave her a heated stare. "You don't even care if he hurt you?"

"I'd like to think I know him far better than that." 

"Alisha, are you making me jealous?"

Alisha's smile looked tired, but it had the same warmth that was easy to get used to back when things were different, and I was still on their side. 

"You're beyond reproach, sheiyah'reva. Bear with me for a moment, I have things to say to you both."

Rose looked flustered. "Are you sure you wanna call me that?"

I understand her surprise. Sheiyah'reva is a term of endearment in the ancient tongue, which means my one and only, or my irreplaceable person. Although the romantic signification is explicit enough and has an easy equivalent in any language, the subtext is different. A sheiyah'reva can't be used to denote the same relationship between mates or even chosens, or between wife and husband, in accordance with rites and traditions formalized or at least acknowledged in many societies.

In other words, it's meant for people who share a bond that exists outside any relationship that's definable in any terms. It refers to that bond that surpasses common social boundaries and expectations. It's the only word I know that's flexible enough to admit taboos or value orientations that may be frowned upon in other contexts where the standard norms apply.

Alisha nuzzled her cheek. "I just called you that. Are you tempting me to say it again?"

Rose looked away. "Well, since you asked, you can start calling me that from now on... especially when I'm sure he can hear it."

I shook my head. "Please don't go out of your way on my account."

Rose huffed. "I hope you never change your mind. 'Cause I won't go easy on you next time."

"I won't. And I wouldn't mind either if you have any plans on ambushing me. I'd even thank you for it."

"I'll remember you said that."

"Sorey... I know you have your... own life now, a life beyond the reach of the Throne or the League. But, even if only for the sake of our common ideals, if you can help us make peace... I'd be forever grateful to you. I'm certain only you can ask the clans to reconsider..."

I'd be lying if I hadn't thought she'd be asking this of me. In truth, I understand her concern, but... "Alisha, the clans are beyond talking right now. Heldalf has just been executed. He's been the godhead of Ravendalf for centuries, and he's the only godhead who's ever been sympathetic with Ravencrowe. Velvet's leadership has always been Heldalf's pride when he was still alive. It only gives the clans better reasons to rally behind her against all odds. Even I can't be as persuasive."

"Can't be as doesn't always mean less. Ravendalf should bow down to your authority, now that you've come out of the shadows challenging the Throne and crushing no less than two-thirds of the House of Derrilvion. Your only remaining rivals are us and the Elysian Council. Even the High Tribunal has already conceded."

I stared at Rose. "It surprises me how you can say that with a straight face."

"I'm a practical, level-headed pureblood. I know defeat when I smell it. I know what love can do to change the world. And you have too much love, more love than any single heart can handle... so your overkill tendencies are not even shocking. If there's anything Alisha and I wish for right now, it's to get the chance to spend more time with each other before your allies decide to kill us all."

Unable to deny the hidden truth in those words, I could only sigh. "I can't do much, but I promise safety for the two of you for as long as you keep your distance from the House and the Council. With the way things are, should the purebloods even attempt to revive the Throne, it would be impossible to intervene. I can't say how much Velvet's loyalists are willing to stake to eliminate every single pureblood on the face of the earth, but all I can say is that her thirst for war had been unquenchable since that time she lost-"

I had to stop. All these years... even if a century has passed since then, I can't say his name. There's too much pain that hangs in the mere sound of his name.

"It's all right, Sorey." I felt Alisha's hand on my shoulder. "No matter how far we bury our feelings for him, it binds us and breaks us in ways we can't even bear to remember... and I have things I did to him... things I should be sorry for. I've been selfish..."

"You? How's that possible?" Rose quipped.

Alisha looked even more crestfallen. "I've erased some of Mikleo- I mean, those memories that were the very reason I sent him to meet Sorey."

"So you were the link that got them together?"

"Unthinkingly, I sent him to convince Sorey to persuade Lord Heldalf to negotiate with the surrender of the resistance leaders from Ravencrowe. I had thought it would be in his interest to help since he and Lady Velvet were with the Ravencrowes, whereas Sorey's with the Ravendalf clan."

Rose looked confused. "Not doubting you or anything but... erasing those memories were supposed to achieve what, exactly?"

It's been a long time, but I wasn't ready to hear the rest of it. "Rose, I don't think we have to-"

"Sorey, it's been weighing heavily on me... because I haven't been completely honest with you... that even from the start, I've been planning on solidifying relations between the House and the clans by making you two meet. All I wanted was for the clans to unite as allies of the Throne, to secure the peace of the empire by the friendship and bonds between and among us. I've always known that the relationship between the Throne and the clans has always been the source of conflict that led to unnecessary enmity between the purebloods, the firstbloods, and the halflings. All I wanted was to put an end to all of that."

Rose patted her hand, giving it a squeeze. "You did nothing wrong."

"Not to the empire. But I was never completely honest... to Sorey, most of all. Back then, I've already sensed something between them... but I couldn't understand what it was, and I became afraid to know more... and I thought the mission was achieving its purpose but with a consequence I wasn't quite ready for... something I didn't foresee. And that made me do things to keep that consequence from happening. I guess you can call it rivalry?" Alisha smiled bitterly at Rose, looking apologetic. "For some time, I harbored feelings I'm ashamed to admit... feelings like I could accomplish things on my own so that Sorey and I could work together more... for the peace I imagined could be achieved for the good of all."

"You have nothing to be ashamed of," Rose reassures her, patting her hand. "Those things brought us together too. It was a long, long journey, but the destination was worth the wait..."

Alisha tried to smile. "Sorey, it's something I've been meaning to ask for the longest time... can you ever forgive me?"

"Alisha," Rose began in a low whisper. "I think it's gonna take some time for him to do that. I love you, but I have to be honest. He's hurt more than any of us... and I would hurt as much if the same thing happened to me."            

"No, it... it's really-" Something lodged in my throat that made it suddenly impossible to speak. I couldn't explain it, but my face felt hot, and my vision blurred, and my chest ached as if inside it my heart was being wrung and twisted.

For some reason, I caught myself thinking about those moments again... just holding Mikleo's hand that one last time and hearing him say those words... those words that came a little too late...

 

Sorey, I've always known it wasn't meant to be.

I hope someday you'll find it in your heart to forgive me...

Because I love you too much to forgive myself...

 

Death is lighter than all the feathers of sorrow... all the shadows of grief.

Don't die for me, Sorey. It's too easy...

Live for me. Live for a reason...

A reason that will never die on you like I did...

 

I held him in death in ways I hadn't been able to hold him in life. My feelings for him were so strong they frightened me... too deep they drowned me.

But the only part I regret is that I couldn't save him. The only thing I hated is that I let him regret me.

I didn't care if it was never meant to be. Love needs no excuse or reason, it is what it is.

I loved him and I will always love him. In life or in death, nothing has changed.

Nothing can ever change between us. Even if the world falls apart, I will never forget.

Just as I will never forgive myself for being alive without him...

 

o-----)O(-----o 

 

... back to that day in July 2101... that unexpected visit 

 

"Forton, you're going to tell me who gave you the order or you'd be picking your fangs off the floor with your foot... 'cause that's the only thing you'll have left when I'm done with you!"

A hiss that sounded every bit as venomous as the rest of her rippled in the shadows. "Even traitors have their word of honor. Your threats are wasted on me!" 

"Know what? Last time I checked, you're with the Resurgents. Where's your word of honor if you even know what that means?"

I have Mikleo in my arms, and at the moment that's all that matters. If there's anything I can be thankful for after all the chaos that's happened, it's the fact that Mikleo's labored breathing has become less agonized after Forton gave him her blood to counteract the venom of her snakes. As for the politics between the Throne and the Resurgents, I couldn't begin to imagine how deep the enmity has become, or where all these conspiracies might take us.

Looking at Mikleo, I was certain none of that would matter even if I knew. All I want is to get Mikleo as far away as I can. We can live in a place untouched by all these conceits and conflicts.

We don't need the nation or the clans to survive. I'd make sure I'm all he'll ever need...

I heard Forton make a gurgling sound. Von Graf's fangs were bared and his nails, protruding from the skin like hidden claws, were buried piercingly around Forton's neck. One glimpse, and I've noticed that von Graf's arms were bleeding with bites and cuts from his struggle with the poison lady and her slithering snakes that sprang like tentacles from beneath her cloak.

Vaguely, I recall that poison lady is an old alias Forton carried from long ago... after she declared herself an enemy of the Throne.   

To von Graf's credit, he had practically killed every single one of Forton's snakes, something I couldn't imagine doing single-handedly. Even back then, I hadn't known Forton to be this powerful. 

He must have noticed my gaze. "Don't worry about me. I'm immune to all poisons. That's just one of my rare gifts as a pureblood."

"Your betrayal has more poison than any blood!" 

Von Graf would have none of Forton's careless taunts. "Say that again, snake-woman, and you'd lose both your arms right now!"

"I'll spare your life for now," I told her as I stood up with Mikleo in my arms. I intended to lay him down on our bed on the loft where he'd be more comfortable, but I just needed to be clear on one thing before I do that. "Know that we're letting you go on one condition..."

"Who's letting this bitch go? Did you even ask for my vote?"

"Mikleo's life depends on her. That's enough reason for me."

He relaxed his grip a little. "Don't feel too comfy, Medusa! We're not done talking yet."

"This fair Medusa has yet to meet her Perseus! And you're not him, I'm sure."  

"Forton, if what you say is true, Mikleo shall need your blood in the future," I tell her, counting Mikleo's heartbeat against my chest. "I expect you to give him what he needs when the time comes. In exchange, I won't break my word. I'll do your bidding."

"Hey, Ravendalf, are you sure about that? This fucking traitor might as well-"

"You're with the Resurgents too, aren't you?" I ask von Graf, though of course, I already know the answer. "You say Forton is a traitor. But all three of us have betrayed someone somewhere along the way... so there's no need for needless condemnation. The only one I'd never betray is Mikleo, and anyone who does shall see hell worse than a pit of snakes."

"I just wanna know what made this bitch turn against us. She made Michael believe she's a loyal comrade and a true friend. You should've stayed that way, lady."

"You don't understand the workings of the heart, do you?" She flicked her tongue and licked her lips suggestively, making von Graf scowl in disgust. "Lunarre is not someone I'll ever consider as an ally even if he should swear allegiance to Michael and vow to use his gifts for our common cause. We're all purebloods, you, me, and Lunarre. But that deranged is different from us. He's done things... horrible things that would make any murderer seem like a clown next to his macabre."

Von Graf twisted Forton's wrist, making her hiss in suppressed pain. "Lunarre is with the Resurgents now, and to me that's all that counts. Even if I never doubted our cause, I doubt if we could beat the Throne and the House with him on their side. So even if I abhor that lunatic like the fungus under my boot, I'd rather bite my tongue and wait for actual results. As for you, you need to cool your head. You've lost your touch when you started accusing someone of crimes committed centuries ago. Get a move on if you wanna do things right in this life."

"Know what? This is the exact reason I hate royalty scum like you! You're thinking like a narcissist who'd rather imagine he's got everything figured out! You don't know how the mind of a madman works, do you? If you've never been mad, there's nothing you know that you can use against that bastard to win in his mind games!"

Von Graf pinned both her arms behind her this time, keeping her from kicking him to break away from his grip. "That's bullshit. I have my own mind games, sheesh, don't we all play one or two?"

Forton gave me a knowing look. "Your mind games are the worst. You put your loyalties where it's most convenient, even going so far as to betray those who'd waste their affections on you-"   

"Forton, I hated Lunarre just as much as you. But in that distant past, I killed Sergei not because Lunarre ordered me to. Like I already said, it was no other than Sergei who asked me to do it."

Forton was in a sudden fit of rage. "Say it as many times as you wish, but your fucking lies convince no one! Why would Sergei want to die-"

"He didn't, but he'd do it for someone he thought was worth it."

"How conceited! Are you saying he adored you so much he'd give his life away if you asked?"

"He had been ordered to find you and kill you. He'd rather that I kill him before his secrets with you are exposed. He loved you that much whether you knew or you didn't... and because he did, he couldn't watch you suffer. He couldn't imagine what the House might do if your disguise was uncovered."

"You expect anyone to take your word for it?"

"Sheiyah'reva... was what you were to him, and what he called you last time you spoke to each other, wasn't it?" The word is part of a lost cultural heritage, part of the ancient lexicon preserved in the annals of our history but absent anywhere else, much like Latin was once used among scholars in ancient times before it fell into disuse and became a dead language.

Even so, it's a word never used in public among vampires, almost like a forbidden curse or taboo. Saying so didn't mean it was. After all, only tradition makes unnecessary rules and distinctions.

Forton blanched, lips trembling. "Y-you lie... you must have read his mind!"

"Then ask me why Sergei didn't expose Lunarre when he had the chance... or why he never asked for Heldalf's support-"

"Shut up! You know nothing-"

"He never trusted anyone to know about you... least of all purebloods. If he was careless enough to let me read that off his mind, then anybody else would've been able to do the same. Anyone would've known what went on between you... and you wouldn't be standing here right now, alive and breathing. Sergei guarded your secret well... even back then when I first met you in that tavern, I already knew he saw you differently, and when I asked him about you, I could tell he had feelings you were probably unaware of. He loved you and kept you like a treasured secret. You were untouchable in his mind, in his heart... and he'd rather die in my hands than let someone take that secret away from him."   

"One more word and your tongue-"

"Say what, woman?" Von Graf pressed her between him and the wall, twisting her by the wrists. "You still think he's lying about all this?"

I shook my head at von Graf. "Release her for now. If she breaks our pact, I'll see to it she regrets more than she bargained for."

"So you really think you can kill me?" Forton bantered.

"You know that I can. You've always known, Forton... but you wanted to test me. You wanted to know what I might do if I was the one infected by you."

"The prophecies say that one of the Keys shall rule absolutely... and you are a Key, aren't you? If you had become an untouchable like Artorius, I'd have had the pleasure of finding out if you'd make the same mistakes he did-"

"Then you'd kill him too?" Von Graf interrupted. "Is that how short-minded you really are?"

"Artorius was corrupted by the Throne..."

"Hell, let the man take responsibility for his actions. He must have believed in the cause he's asked to defend, and that brought him down. It was his choice, and it was bad. That's all there is to it."

I winced at the implications, but more out of my gnawing concern for Mikleo who lay limp and pale in my arms. "If I have a choice, I'd rather not be anything anyone can use. That goes for both the Throne and the Resurgents."

As I gaze at Mikleo, I realize... there's only one fate I really believe in. And I'm willing to follow it to the ends of the world if it's my only chance to be with him...     

"The rumors have always been true then. You're the second Key, the one who breaks all rules... the one who's bound to no one's law or power. You may kill as you wish, do as you wish, and you need no command of death to be able to raise your sword and kill as you choose. You're an immortal above all... and yet not a pureblood. You're one of three Keys who the prophecies say shall make all races tremble in fear if they as much as tread your shadow."

"So who's the first and the third Keys? Sounds cool to stand above the rest even if you get a cliche for a title."

Forton gives von Graf a sardonic glance. "The first is one who can command the death of anything and anyone that breathes... while the third... is the least powerful on his own. His role is to set all other Keys in motion in order to fulfill one of two fates... to leave the world in ruins or to make it rise again. For that, he's earned the accursed title of Hell or Heaven's Way. He can move mountains, sway the most powerful and the most hardhearted, even break the hearts of kings, emperors, and dictators... but whatever he does, his will is never his own."

Von Graf throws a furtive glance at Mikleo, then looks away. "I don't wanna hear the rest of it."

Forton sneers. "Your beloved Key is no more than a tool of guile who lives only to pit the best and the worst in his wicked games. He exists to divide all harmonies, to render unequal what was equal, to break the balance of the scale. He's a seducer of twisted fortunes and fated choices... a freak of cosmic proportions born to ruin or save us all."

"You talk too much."

"Von Graf, that's enough. Let her go."

"You wanna let her go after listening to all her crap-talk? C'mon, I can't believe you'd be so gullible."

Forton gives me a lurid look of seething contempt and malice. "Oh, I'm sure he's felt it... the stirrings of destiny from within the womb of despair, summoning into our midst that one abomination you wished you've never met. But it's too late to regret it now, isn't it? When the fate you fear now lies in your hands, and there's no other choice but to embrace it or to kill it. You made your choice... though it was selfish of you to think of your pain than his."

Von Graf gritted his teeth. "You almost killed someone, and you had the nerve to make someone else feel responsible? Don't make your victim the evil one here! You're saying things needlessly just to hurt someone who's hurt you. Or is this your way of acting jealous because you killed your ex-lover only to realize that some kid killed his replacement? Did you regret Artorius that much?"

"Artorius was a pain to everyone. Killing him wasn't a choice, it was necessity... so there are no regrets to speak of. In comparison, Sergei had no rank or status so high as to command such importance. Neither was he a man without flaws, he had many. But he was a man beyond reproach in things that mattered to me, at least."

"Interesting. So how do you find the kid now after five centuries of holding on to that grudge?"

Forton snickers. "You call him a kid when he's far older and wiser than you. Sorey used to be a friend. If I had regrets, it's him."   

"Hell, you have a strange way of showing you care. Talk about digging up old graves and licking old wounds to meet an old friend."

"Well, I'm sure your friend knows by now the kind of pain that comes from not making the right choices," Forton hisses. "It's just a matter of time..."  

I watch Mikleo's eyes flutter. Without waiting to hear more of Forton's riddles, I carried Mikleo to the bed on the loft, laying him down to rest.

I could feel Forton's stare burning a hole through me as if to find a secret buried within me, in the heart of a soul I was almost glad I didn't have.

Because if Mikleo were to be the abomination born to decide the fate of the world, I'd choose the immortal life I used to hate... if only to see him through to the very end, to the very end of the world Mikleo had been destined to rewrite.

If the world should end with him, I would tear heaven and hell to be there for him 'til the end.  

 

o------------o)O(o------------o 

   

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

Stardust in you and in me

Fuse us into unity

Primeval, we're a couple born from the universe

Farewell, the void is calling

Don't fear for futures and dreams

They're fleeting, retreating

It's okay, I promise...

 

Tell me, just tell me to stay

I'll turn, I won't look away

I'll stay here, I'll never go

But you don't feel the same

Farewell, farewell and godspeed

Lightyears between you and me

I'm fading, your beauty conquers the darkness...

 

Whenever stars go down and galaxies ignite

I'll think of you each time they wash me in their light

And fall in love with you again, I will find you

A thousand armies won't stop me, I'll break through

I'll soar the endless skies for only one sight of your starlight...

 

-originally by Starset, "Starlight,"

performed by Ash & Rain for Inferno's Ballad 

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

8 August 2109

 

... eight years after Forton, or that day in July 2101

 

The desert has its own sad mystique.

Watching a sunset that seemed as dead to me as the rest of the world, I waited for dusk to cover these sands with a subtler shade of light...

Truer here than in any other place, the time of day, the seasons of the year, the pattern of windswept dunes carved across distances of golden sand define the cycles of everyday life rigidly obeyed in these parts. Here, the coming of dusk is like a curfew that signals retreat behind the walls of a certain desert fortress standing in the middle of a vast rock formation dotted with scattered ruins.

Knowing how this remote sign of life is just one among others out here that neither belong to the League, the Confederate, or the Throne, I took my chances finding a shelter among the caves and enclosures that I thought offered enough protection from the cruelty of sweeping sandstorms. Still, it would be the height of carelessness to say that my heart rests easy where I lay perched among the shadows, spanning a breathtaking view of ruins and sand dunes.

Far from it, I've been told that this sanctuary is forbidden to outsiders... that it's a secret hiding place for aberrants and misfits, for vampires unfit to co-exist with both humans and their own kind.

That would include the so-called untouchables, the only prejudice and taboo among vampires that's a closely-guarded secret.

As a general rule, an untouchable is an aberrant, perhaps the most extraordinary of them all. What makes them unique is their exceptional capacity to attract and dominate easily without so much as any conscious effort. It's the same reason they're feared and hated, enough to make others shun their mere presence.

Superstitions and taboos paint a more terrifying tale. It is said that among aberrants, only an untouchable has the power to bend the Will and the Word of even gods and demons. They have the capacity to beguile, seduce, and bewitch even the strongest and the wisest among purebloods.

Given a little power, they can conquer the will of anything that breathes.       

And Mikleo has become one of them after being poisoned by Forton's snakes. I should have known back then, centuries ago, why Forton left the purebloods... why she hated Artorius for letting himself be used by their own kind to be the backbone of the Throne, which wouldn't have succeeded without his own sacrifices, his ambitious drive to create an empire greater than anything there ever was or ever could be.

But not all dreams are carved from wishes. Dark secrets have always haunted the history of the Throne.

What no one dared speak of was the fact that Artorius used his influence over Forton to partake of her poison. How he did it is something I'd rather not dwell on. But because of that poison, he's become the first dictator to rise to power and rule the nation. Using his powers as an untouchable who could bend everyone's will, he became the sword and the shield that defended the purebloods and made them the sovereign autocrats and tyrants that they turned into eventually.

No doubt Forton harbored so much hate for me, seeing me as no more than the Throne's tool of power... an instrument that allowed itself to be used by the likes of Artorius and his followers.

Maybe I'm guilty of it. Maybe it's too late to make amends. But the only guilt and remorse I feel right now is that those centuries of hate and misunderstanding between us led to this.

Mikleo was the price of all that I've taken from Forton, all her loss and misery, which I've unthinkingly allowed to happen. Saying I wasn't the proximate or primal cause is no excuse. I never went out of my way to explain myself to anyone... I never cared enough to bother with the feelings I've trampled upon in my meaningless journey through this hellish life.

Back then I didn't care who I killed... or why. I just hated my existence too much to care about the joys and sorrows of others.

And the victim of circumstances triggered by centuries-old enmity between Forton, myself, and the Throne was none other than Mikleo. He was the link in the chain I should have broken centuries ago when I had the chance.

For one whole year, I endured Mikleo's pain as he grew restless for Forton's blood. It made me wish I could take it all... the suffering, the tireless craving for only her blood, the unbearable thirst that kills.

Every three months became a struggle to keep Mikleo away from death's door. While the antidote promised nothing but temporary relief and a lifetime of dependence, it tied me to Forton's side as a tool against the Throne.    

But seven years since Forton's last visit, I've lost sight of Mikleo. The poison took more than his memories...

It took him away, and I've lost him since then.          

Right now, my chest hurts with worry more than anything. Years of hiding, bribing, threatening and intimidating those who owe me favors in the past have finally led me to where he is. It wasn't easy, nothing's ever been easy since he ran away to this place... away from me... to a shamed, deserted, forsaken place to hide among shadows.

Forton's poison had infected Mikleo to the point that he needed to feed on her blood every three months in order to survive. Her blood was the only antidote, and like a drug, he became dependent on it for sustenance. The after-effect was that Mikleo's memories dwindled away slowly, eventually severing any ties between us as each other's chosen.

For certain, my feelings for him hadn't changed even after that. Even when he has repudiated me several times, I stayed by his side and tried to be a constant reminder of the life we both had before this happened.

But every day became a struggle that simply delayed defeat. Mikleo's memories slowly wasting away made me realize that here was a whole new world of pain I've never known existed... a kind of pain that hurts even just imagining it. He woke up one day with distant eyes and with a question I prayed I'd never hear...

Who are you?

I reeled from the pain of being seen as nothing more than a stranger. Even if Forton had warned me of it, understanding felt worlds different from acceptance.

Mikleo had been my world, my everything, the entirety of what it meant to be chosen. Watching that world fall apart little by little until nothing remained, not even the broken ruins of that past we shared together in those months hiding away in some lonely countryside, tore me at the seams.

I felt so hurt, so agonized that I didn't know where to put myself. In my anguish, I fell into desperation, into the habit of forcing myself on him to try and awaken some sense of want and ownership that bound us together in flesh and spirit.

Only to make me realize how lonely it feels when the pleasure is one-sided. I took him in, I ravished him and knotted in him as if nothing has changed between us.

Only to feel more painfully that everything has changed. He cried in my arms, trying to break free, and in my self-serving lust and self-denial I convinced myself that all of it would pass... that one day Mikleo would realize, as in the beginning, that he was mine and I was his... and there's no way anything could break us apart.

But he was already broken... far too broken to even understand the point of being with me.

And that killed me more than anything. I used to long for death... but the death that keeps you alive every day in order to break you again and again... that kind of death is worse than dying every time you breathe.

It's the feel of nothingness staring you in the face to remind you of things you've lost... of things that have been taken from you... of things you can never have back even if they seem close enough... near enough to be within reach. 

In the end, it's the pain that wouldn't let me live or die. I couldn't change the way I feel even when we're both changing with every single memory lost and fading, with every single moment that Mikleo started slipping farther and farther away from me...

It's been months since I started waiting for a chance to glimpse his face here, in this place where I've been told an old well among the Ruins of Galahad exists... a well to quench the thirst of vampires whose punishment is that they're forbidden to satiate either hunger or thirst with blood, whether that be the blood of humans, of beasts, or of vampires like themselves. Depriving a prisoner-exile of such sustenance, of course, has only one, singular purpose... to induce a form of weakness that prevents escape from this open-world dungeon, this empty desert wasteland filled with nothing but miles of scattered ruins and hot sand.

Without their supply of blood, vampires would be too weak to survive, or to fight their way out of this barren confinement surrounded by invisible walls to cage them in.

The only reprieve in this forsaken desert that's too hot and cold and has the power to effectively drain anyone of his natural strength is a well among crumbling ruins, visited every three days by water bearers traveling together in dark, sinister cloaks, as if it's part of some ancient ritual or some secret rite of passage. I've heard only luck preserves this ritual... as the ones tasked to fetch water from the ancient well should always be ready against attacks by desert bandits and marauders.

I've been watching and waiting for Mikleo to appear among them, hoping by some slight chance he's one of those shadows and silhouettes traveling all the way here to fetch some sacred water from a mythical well.

In my heart I wished only for him to be safe. It sounds hypocritical, I know, but knowing I've been cruel enough only stirs my longing for him. Surely Mikleo didn't deserve any more of it, any more than I wished to be forgiven for.

The sound of bells alarmed me from where I was perched, hidden among the rubble of cave ruins. I've been here for months waiting for this chance...

Dark hooded cloaks stealthily appeared from behind the walls of crumbled rock and monolith. The silhouettes moved in a straight line solemnly following an invisible path under the faint flickers of dusk and moonlight.

One arm rose from beneath a cloak to signal a pause. The line of twelve figures stopped, then with another signal started their trek toward the well again, barely making a sound in the sand.

I could barely catch a glimpse of any face from where I lay crouched on the dirt. I wished they would throw off their cloaks so I could see beneath those hoods that hid everything save their chins.

This time, however, the last in the line of twelve paused even as the rest continued down the well. Even with their silhouettes being barely distinct in this dimming light, my heart skipped a beat as I noticed something peculiar...

This figure had the same slender curves that graced the soft fall of fabric around him... had the same sloping shoulders that reminded me of his body, which I knew like the back of my hand or my own heartbeat.

But then the sounds of heavy hoofs pressing on the sand alarmed me of another presence.

The lone figure now standing apart from the line of shadows fetching water from the well threw off his hood. Though slender and very feminine, his shoulders and hips have a firmness that made me realize it could only be a man. I would've been sure it was Mikleo if not for the scarf thrown over his head covering his hair and half of his face which was well cloaked in shadows.

The leader of the pack dismounted, walking up to him in confident strides, followed by a band of at least twenty-five stalwart men dressed in the same shabby clothing, scarves thrown about their necks and faces. They looked like nomads used to the hard and weary life of living among these scattered sands spanned by empty stretches of windswept dunes.

Reaching up without warning, the leader pulled the other's scarf away, letting it fall gracefully.  

Silver hair, a heart-shaped face that had a rare beauty that could draw the eyes of anyone near or far...

My heart stopped.

Mikleo!

The leader leaned ever so closely toward him with a hunger I recognized only too well... then took him in his arms and kissed him full in the mouth.

I felt my blood congeal.

Mikleo pushed him away, giving him a resounding slap on the cheek. One of the men behind him unsheathed his sword in one swift motion, and I stood up to fly to Mikleo's side.

But the leader ended the threat even more swiftly than I could by hitting Mikleo's would-be attacker on the face, forcing the man on his knees.

"Touch him not, he's mine, and no one lays a hand on him save myself."

Mikleo looked defiant, eyes shimmering with cold rage. The leader reached for his face, but Mikleo drew back.

"The price of perfection is high, but it's nothing I cannot afford," he hisses, faintly touching Mikleo's chin. "Let me remind you that I offer protection only in exchange for your services. I will collect soon enough... as our contract dictates."

Mikleo shook his head, backing a step. "There have been no attacks to make me feel that we owe you anything yet. If you touch me again, I'll break the agreement."

"You think I'd let you?" The man reached for Mikleo's waist, and I felt repulsed enough to want to kill him with my bare hands. Twenty-five bodyguards wouldn't be enough to protect the bastard should I decide to use force.

The only thing that's keeping me from following that impulse was the fact that the men had surrounded the water bearers, their hands on the sheaths of their swords.

Mikleo still looked defiant. 

"Kilev darezhiki... mi leva dareveshki karesh..."

Mikleo is using a rare dialectal variety known only in these parts. I felt flustered translating it in my mind, as that statement was ripe with sexual innuendos. For some reason, Mikleo was telling him, I know you want me... but you won't have me this way...

The leader edged closer. "I know every sheikh has his eyes on you. You think it matters? Kireya melekim ara shikemirev leva kelishad... Kirev fuzh karesh."

I clenched my fist. Roughly translated, he's saying, I'm a dog who leaves no scraps behind. This way I always win.

In essence he's telling Mikleo that it wouldn't matter if he gives himself to anyone else, even desert chieftains offering him protection. He always takes what's his, and Mikleo has no way of escaping that.

"Sakresh darezhiki leave them alone... unless you want me here and now... in front of your men..."

Mikleo's cloak dropped with one pull of a knot. His body beneath coaxed the imagination as curves became conspicuous beneath the thin veil-like fabric barely covering him from shoulder to ankle. 

Startled and shocked, even the men surrounding the water bearers became apparently restless, some hesitantly approaching Mikleo, panting.

The leader snarled, barking at his men. "Anyone who touches him shall die here if you dare!"

They backed away with a start, hands trembling on their sheaths, as if some were pondering taking their chances even if they had to fight for it.    

The leader pulled out his sword brandishing it in the air. His men, interpreting it as a sign of rage and inevitable danger, completely withdrew, keeping their distance from Mikleo. 

"Shrewd, aren't we?" he barks at Mikleo, sheathing his sword and mounting with a signal for his men to do the same. "You may have won this time... but next time you may not be so lucky. Sheikh Jurev of the Twelve Tribes has heard of you, and he might send for you soon, no doubt. He's the worst dog of us all... you will not desire to know how he treats any man or woman he beds. Hide yourself well if I were you."

Mikleo remained still. "If I didn't know you, I would think you're being kind, Ilyev-Zarev."

"I earned that kiss then, but more I shall take when I return. Do not dare disappoint me."

"You still follow tradition."

"Unlike others, my tribe respects amorous relations between men. But we cannot take without consent... or a fair exchange. I'm certain you won't give in out of your own free will, but I can demand the same as payment. You will need protection from Jurev... and that is service that will cost you dearly."

"You've never considered charity, have you?"

He laughs, sounding amused. "No, because I find the payment a million times more interesting. It thrills me to be noble once in a while, but my want for you makes me as depraved as any man who sets his eyes on you. I will have you even if I have to fight Jurev and all his Twelve Tribes for it."

Even with the dusk starting to cool both wind and sand, I felt hot and restless watching the seething desire in the man's eyes ravish Mikleo's beauty. I hated it, but I understood the longing that fuels it.

I waited, hoping for a chance to be alone with Mikleo. It would be best to know the situation he's in before drawing my sword and calling attention to myself unnecessarily. After all, the last thing I want is for the Throne or any of its allies to find out I'm here... that I've finally found this secret prison of theirs. 

I watched as the leader and his band left, sand rising to the sound of heavy hooves leaving faint traces of their presence. Mikleo picked up his cloak and tied the knot around his neck. Just when I thought he was about to follow the other water bearers, he turned in my direction, a dagger in his grip.

Before I could properly reveal myself, he was leaning over me, one hand in front of my mask, the other beneath my chin, his dagger glinting dangerously close where I could see it barely threading my neck.

"You've been watching us. A spy for Jurev are you?"

I didn't want to hurt him so I drew back, using my weight to outbalance him. I spun out of the line of his dagger, catching him from behind by the waist.

It's been seven years since I last held him. I missed his scent, his touch... this nearness that's almost tender...

"It's Sorey," I told him, pushing my mask down. Unable to contain myself any longer, I pressed my mouth against his, putting all my hunger, all my hurt and pain in that desperate kiss.

I wanted to drink all of him... to tell him without words that I've always been his just as he'll always be mine... no matter how many years estranged us.

His muffled breathing and the sharp sting on my cheek that followed told me that my advances had been rejected. But instead of frustration, I felt a strange kind of relief.

This was exactly how it was when we first met... the stolen kiss... the slap that nearly took my head off. 

Against my better judgment, I found myself laughing and crying.

"Have you gone mad? You followed me all the way here?"

I sighed wearily. "You're still cute when you're angry."

He frowned dejectedly, putting a fist on his hip. "Whatever makes you happy is beyond all reason." 

To be honest, I expected just as much, even worse. Ever since Mikleo had lost some of his memories as an after-effect of Forton's poison and its antidote, he remembers very little of me. Or maybe it's more accurate to say he only remembers me as someone obsessed enough to force himself onto him several times.

What he doesn't remember is the reason behind my feelings...

He's forgotten our marriage. He's forgotten that he's my chosen and I was his. 

I steeled my resolve, biting down the pain and the hurt that reminded me of that missing happiness that could never be retrieved again. Then again, I've chosen his life over everything else. I love him too much to regret anything, even this.

I promised myself that for as long as Mikleo's alive, I'll endure. I'll live through this disappointment with no expectations.

It's enough that I know he's mine. My memories should be enough for the both of us.

It will be enough... because you're here now... and that's all that matters.     

"I was worried." Ironically, it was all I could say even if a million thoughts were screaming in my head.

"Come with me. It'll worry me just as much to leave you here. Or have you been here all this time just waiting to see me?"

I didn't have to answer that question because I knew he could guess what I was about to say. He gestured to the rest of the water bearers, all of them women.

"This is Sorey, he's coming with us. I will answer to anything he does. He's trustworthy, or I'll kill him myself if he does anything unnecessary."

One woman leans over to Mikleo, pushing him down by the shoulder to whisper something in his ear. He looked flustered as the woman turned to me with a smile, brushing my cheek and pushing my scarf down to get a better look at me.

Mikleo gave me a dry, scornful glare. "Don't feel smug. They're just wondering if you have any preferences."  

"Preferences?" I fell in beside Mikleo as we headed out of the ruins and into the wide expanse of dunes and more scattered ruins.

"They haven't mated with the opposite sex for years. They're wondering if rolling a dice to decide which one can have you first is all right with you."

Despite the mixed feelings of want, worry, and excitement pushing through me at having seen Mikleo for the first time in a long while, I found myself speechless and embarrassed.

"Don't think much of it. It's just that I never qualified as the opposite sex, and as an untouchable, I prefer not to be touched unnecessarily. I already have a lot on my mind to even bother."

I exhaled in absolute relief. He looked surprised. "You wanted to say something?"

I shook my head. "I'm just glad."

"Don't think I've forgotten how you treated me before..."

Of all things to remember, Mikleo only had memories of my one-sided lust for him. It was enough to frustrate me, not that I planned on forcing myself on him again.

If anything, I've decided to win him over... to do everything all over again. And this time, it will be slow. And I'll try to be patient.

He looked up at the sky, gauging the time of day it seemed, and his silver hair caught flickers of the dying light of dusk and starlight.

I took a deep breath, realizing how, with him so close, so beautiful and ethereal as before, it would be an impossible feat to ignore my feelings and start all over again. 

He took my hand, and I was too surprised to speak. He smiled, and my heart skipped beats.

"A sandstorm seems to be coming this way. Hold on tight if you don't want me to lose you."

I should know better than to imagine he meant it that way, but the gesture warmed my heart more than anything ever could in those seven years that I've been alone searching for him. 

Looking at his small hand clasped in mine, I wanted to forget everything... the war, the Resurgents, the rebels and the resistance that's depending on the outcome of every decision I make.

For one moment, I wish I could will everything to go back to what it was before, with his hand in mine and the promise that we'd stay like this forever...

 

o-----)O(-----o

 

24 August 2109

 

... or about two weeks after

 

"Here, let me take your cloak. You've been working so hard. Makes me wonder if you came here for voluntary servitude."

Mikleo grabbed my mantle, and I was just too willing to let him have it so he could hang it with the rest. Meanwhile, the women who have volunteered to be my guide, instructing me on basic everyday things I should know to get things done, hurried away to give Mikleo and myself time to be alone. 

It wasn't like things were back to the way they were between us. But to avoid unnecessary entanglements brought about by the fact that most of the vampires in this wasteland were female, I made up excuses that in the evenings Mikleo and I have formal business to discuss. Since I was regarded mostly as an outsider, a secret envoy rather than as a prisoner forced into this confinement, they acceded to my wishes with only vague hints of disappointment and occasional reservations.

Once in a while, Mikleo would offer that I spend the night with any of the females asking for my company. I always decline without a second thought.

This time, I noticed Mikleo eyeing me critically as I threw my shirt aside to change. 

"You seem to be losing weight. You probably need some blood by now... sustenance here is lacking in many ways, especially when it comes to that."

He didn't have to explain, but I felt happy that he sounded concerned. "It's nothing, I'm perfectly fine."

"You always say unnecessary things," he remarked, untying his cloak and stepping out of it, completely naked.

I pulled my breath. He's always breathtaking to behold. No matter how many times I've seen his stark nudity before and in this bare room shared between us, I get bothered and aroused in ways that's not always easy to hide.

There's a bath waiting on the other side of the wall. Even if deserts normally have scant water supply, this place has water flowing along a small rock enclosure that helps regulate the temperature within these cave walls. The water seems strangely fragrant as well, making me wonder if the minerals flowing with them from these rocks make it so.

"You wouldn't mind if we go together?" It was the first time he asked.

I nodded, quickly soaking myself ahead of him. My urges were getting harder every second, so that by the time I plunged into the water, my excitement has swelled to shameful proportions.

I was only too glad to be able to hide it.

I was hard and in heat, and for some reason, the suppressants weren't working. Though the explanation might be somewhere else.

Because right now, Mikleo just stepped into the bath, dangling a leg into it as he sat on the rim. The stone bath was round and had a convex-shaped floor that dipped toward the center. It was big and wide enough to allow six people in.

I tried to look away but couldn't, throwing glances at his smooth, white body slowly entering the water. My cock was in a fury.  

Mikleo must have noticed my apprehension. "Don't tell me it's that time of the month?"

I looked down, unable to deny the raging swell that's been twitching between my legs. "Uh, it's not a problem I can't handle. Don't worry about it."

Even though that's an obvious lie, I didn't want Mikleo to feel awkward or embarrassed enough to avoid me. I'd do anything to be allowed to stay near him, even if I have to fight this urge with every ounce of self-control left in me.

"It's kind of strange, isn't it?"

He sounded curious and meditative that I found myself raising an eyebrow. "What is?"

"Your thirst? You've been working all day hauling supplies and doing heavy labor for all the women here. You must have too much stamina for that to be looking so energetic."

When he spoke of such provocative things without the slightest inhibition I'd normally expect from the Mikleo I knew, I felt a wild, irrepressible heat in my loins climb dangerously up my neck to my face. I became suddenly aware that Mikleo had been shamelessly staring at that part of me, the part he could see through the crystal-clear water.

To be honest, his awkward shyness around me when we're both naked used to stir me up like an inexperienced teenager. But this kind of boldness... this intimidating curiosity he's apparently showing was doing unimaginable wonders to my body... adding to the fury and the frustration that's making my manhood yearn harder and harder to be with him.

"Do you want me all that much?"

My heart stopped. How could he even ask that question when the hard evidence is staring back at him in shameless attention?

When he glided toward me, I felt the urge to reach out and pull him close, closer to the heat that never left me in peace whenever he's around me. But I knew that impatience might just ruin the trust we've built up between us, and I'd have none of that. I'd do everything to be allowed to stay this close to him even if I have to control the hunger that's driving me mad.

Besides, in all those years I've spent looking for him, I've already promised myself that I'd never let my lust hurt or frighten him that way again.

But this is different. I never expected the situation with him to be this different, making my body react in ways I couldn't have anticipated.

I swallowed hard and counted to twenty... no make that a hundred.

"Sometimes, I wonder... I mean... I don't usually do, but it makes me curious now that you're here."

I raised an eyebrow to that. I know I should lower my expectations to avoid unnecessary disappointments, but my stubborn nature kept hoping for the impossible.

I'm always looking forward to the day he'd remember everything the way it was.

"Uh... curious about what?" I asked vaguely, feeling my heart stutter. 

"I keep wondering how you remember me from back then... when you said I was-"

"You still are," I said firmly, hardening my gaze. "You're my chosen, the one I married and promised to be with forever."

"I can't imagine how we ever got along..."

His response surprised me. Those months that he had been feeding on Forton's blood, he would brush off any attempt on my part to discuss this point. It seemed he hated the very idea of us being bound to each other as chosens. The more I tried to convince Mikleo by word and deed that he meant that much to me, the more he felt alienated, rejecting any attempt of mine to be intimate. But now...

I found my heart racing with expectations I know I shouldn't welcome prematurely. I know that by having them, I'm hurtling myself down the edge of a cliff, with only myself to blame for the needless pain.    

I found myself taking a deep breath. "You can ask me anything, it's just that ... I find it curious that you even want to talk about it..."

"Because I'm curious as to which part you like most about me?"

I suppressed the tiniest hint of a smile that almost betrayed my amusement. True, I've no reason to be happy over such a simple question, but this situation makes me realize something I've never even considered in the slightest.

Chosens never go through the courtship stage. We jump into the intimacy right away, with no other thought than to seal our bonds permanently and absolutely the moment we mate.

This wasn't exactly what I was expecting but... having this conversation was like going through the motions of love in a slow, painstaking way that almost feels like courtship.

I'm not complaining, though. If anything, it makes me appreciate what we have at the moment even if it's not exactly what I wished for.

"I guess I love everything about you?"

Mikleo seemed miffed. "You sound so unsure."

My heart skipped beats for reasons unknown even to me. "Can I ask you the same question?"

"But I hardly know you."

"Well... you have plenty of time to get to know me now."

He seemed to be giving it a lot of thought. "I should be grateful for all the help. You work really hard. You are good at what you do."

"Uh, Mikleo... don't you think all of that just means the same thing?"

He frowned dejectedly. "Ungrateful, aren't we? So what do you think I should like about you?"

Now that's a strange thing to ask. I couldn't suppress my smile anymore. "Don't you like what you see?"

He turned away, lifting his chin and looking miffed. "You have a weird sense of humor, captain."

I laughed at his annoyance. "Just call me Sorey. You've been doing the same since I arrived... so I'm sure we're both used to it by now."

He seemed even more embarrassed. "I like the way you see yourself. Your confidence must surpass the haughty pride of the Twelve Tribes."

I scratched my cheek at that. Seriously, I think I overshot my expectations. "Uh, all right, sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."

"Not upset. You're our guest, but sometimes you make me feel so... ordinary that I forget my manners."

"You're never ordinary," I told him while wishing my body would calm down. "You're always perfect... and there's hardly any part of you I don't think that way."

"That- that's really embarrassing to hear!"

"It's the only answer I can give you even if you hate it. What brought it up though?"  

Mikleo looked away this time, feigning interest on the shabby walls. "I just can't believe you haven't noticed how... how every woman here wants you. But for some mysterious reason, you just kept turning them down. You should understand... we don't have suppressants here. The water from that well helps a lot to make the heats tolerable. It can even suppress some of that bloody thirst that makes us what we are. But still, it's a poor substitute for the real thing- I mean-"

"So you want me to choose a mate?"

"Well... taking turns is better. That way, everyone's satisfied."

I looked away, embarrassed but more than a little frustrated that he was more concerned about that.

"I've told you several times... I'm not interested."

"That's not acceptable."

"I don't need anyone's approval for it. It's my bod- I mean, it's my life after all." I felt flustered at the conceit that almost slipped right out of me because I was more upset than flattered for some reason.

"It's just sex. Why do you make such a fuss about it? Your manhood seems always ready and hungry for attention anyway, or are you playing hard to get?"

"I guess I'm not as hard as someone is... to get, I mean."  

Mikleo darted knowing glances at my thigh, enough to harden me even more. "I hope you know what you're missing. 'Cause it would be pretty conceited of me to think I'm the reason- "

I grabbed his wrist, pushing him back to the rim of the stone bath. His eyes widened in surprise, and for a second, I felt the tantalizing allure of his creamy smoothness, and my cock swelled with an unbearable ache.

"You're my only reason," I cut him off, maybe more harshly than I intended. Knowing he seems more concerned about others' satisfaction gets me frustrated in ways I'm not quite ready for. "So please, Mikleo... if you plan on going on with this, I'm sorry, but I can't do it, even for you. I'm sure you know what I feel by now. Don't tease me too much."

With that, I willed my hand to let him go. I steeled my breath, desperately trying to muster every bit of self-control left in me.

I never knew it would be this painful. Letting him go... forcing myself to put some distance between us... all of it was more painful than I thought I was ready for.

Still, the twitching hardness beneath me was relentless, hurting to bury itself inside of him even when I tried to look away.

"Sorey..."

My heart skipped beats, but the arousal was too much to bear. "You know I want you, but that doesn't mean I'm ready to be played with, Mikleo. Even if I like the way you say my name, please don't say it in a way that makes me hope against hope that you want me too. I'm sure you don't intend for me to misunderstand..."  

"There's nothing to misunderstand." Mikleo drew away, gliding back to the opposite side of the bath. "But aren't you curious to know what an untouchable such as myself is doing in this place? Aren't you going to ask if, in those seven years since I left you, I've been with someone else? Bedded someone else?"

My chest hurt just imagining it, but he wouldn't understand that, would he? I shook my head. 

"You're you, and you'll always be you. Nothing can change that... nothing that matters enough to make me change the way I feel about you."

"I guess you love the memory of me more than who I really am."

"Not true! Don't try to second-guess my mind 'cause I'm the only one who really knows-"

"What do you know? If I'm no longer the Mikleo you've chosen a long time ago, your feelings should change... it should've changed when I left."

"Mikleo, you know that's never gonna happen-"

"You're just being stubborn. People change, but you prefer to cling to your unchanging memories so your heart is being deceived. It doesn't know the difference between the real me and the memory of me. As it is, you're just substituting the illusion for the reality that you can't accept because it hurts too much."

"Pain hurts a lot, that's what it does. But it's the only way I know my feelings haven't changed."

"You can change anything if you try hard enough."

"But I don't want to."

"Well, you have to. No pain is worth living or dying for."

I admit, those words are hard to counter because I remember saying them myself. But...

"I'm not saying I want the pain, nor did I ever ask for it. Like everyone else, I regret things... I get disappointed, I blame myself for things that can't be solved no matter what I feel about them. Even now, I'm a mess keeping myself from wanting you even when I can't help wanting you anyway. I know I can't have you just by wishing you'll want me back. But even when I know you don't want me anymore, I still feel the way I do."

"Sorey..." Mikleo shook his head with widened eyes. "That-that sounds so wrong."

"None of it is... 'cause you're not the one that's hurting me. If I'm hurting, it's my fault for being who I am... which I can't change as much as I can't change you."

This time he looked away, refusing to meet my gaze. "You're doing both of us a favor if you just forget everything like I already did. Leave everything behind... forge new paths by welcoming things you haven't considered before. Sometimes the choices we want to make are not the ones that we really need. Old habits die hard, but it's impossible to see new alternatives if we cling to our old ways needlessly to avoid getting hurt. Besides..."

He throws me a glance that seems to want to linger a second longer. "Eternity is too long to be spent in misery and heartache."

"I'd rather think eternity is long enough to hope for the impossible," I tell him, unable to keep my gaze away from him for too long. "And some mistakes are unavoidable... even if we regret them."

"Unfulfilled expectations only lead to resentment, disappointment, and guilt," Mikleo counters, gliding slender fingers along creamy white skin as a rich lather starts to build up, filling the room with a rare scent that only fuels my longing. "Are they even worth it? Even false hopes can bring down the most savage at heart."

I watch with fascination, fighting down the urge to reach out and pull him close. I shifted my gaze to the flickering candles instead, wondering how Mikleo had been able to endure seven years in the loneliness of these sloping walls.   

"That may be true but... just having you in the same room with me, talking to you right now, seeing you in this light and shadow and knowing you're doing better than I feared... all of that is worth any disappointment I've ever had in my life. I'd rather have false hopes than absolutely nothing, not even this moment with you."

"But this moment isn't going to last forever."

"It doesn't have to."

"Then coming all this way is pointless. You're just wasting your time-" 

"It's mine to waste."

"There's nothing to gain from dwelling on the past." 

This time, I glided to the opposite side where Mikleo was and caught him by the wrist.

"I'll remember everything for both of us. And that memory will stay with me for as long as I live. Just like this..."

I kissed him hard and deep, unable to hold onto my wounded pride, my self-control that refused to be tamed by his apathy, by his harsh indifference to my feelings. I thought my heart could take it all in... his whimsical doubts, his alienating distance and callous insensitivity. But I was wrong.

It only spurred my feelings, intensifying the urge, the desire, the heartache, the want and the lust that's been raging inside of me, making me careless and angry...

Unexpectedly, Mikleo kissed me back, giving in to the pressure of my kiss until he was forced to lie back against the sides of the bath, half-submerged into the water. 

With a groan of want and longing, I pressed my body on top of him and entered, thrusting the fury of my cock inside of him as I lovingly stroked his awakened urges, languishing in the warmth that welcomed my caress.    

"I miss you... god I missed you..." I groaned in between kisses as I ground myself deeper and harder inside of him, feeling the sudden desire surge within me with every heartbeat.

Mikleo arched his back as I plunged into him, sinking myself with grunts of shameless abandon.

I called out his name as he moaned his pleasure on the crook of my neck. I was about to come... 

I felt him wrap his arms around my neck. "Wait. Carry me to bed?"

I needn't be told twice. I lifted him from the water without another thought and lay him on the animal skins spread out on the rough, sandy floor.

The moment his back touched the carpet, I laid on top of him, spreading him apart as I pulled his hips up and entered him again.

He hissed, clutching the fabric underneath us. For a second, I thought I caught a look of desperate longing in his eyes that I swore I've seen before. It was enough to make me cry out his name as a pounding desire, a familiar ache began to swallow me whole.    

I knotted in seconds, breathless and shivering in despair. The memory of all those months we had together filled me with a craving I never had before... that experience of euphoria making up for all the deprivation, the longing, the painful yearning and thirst I've felt for him since the time he's become my chosen.

When he cried out my name and released himself, my orgasm soared. I chased my breath and panted his name as I pushed myself to the hilt, sinking my shaft as deeply as I could. My knots came unraveling fast, pouring my hot, liquid fire into him, swelling in ecstasy and greed. 

I want more, so much more. I can't have enough...

He tried to sit up, but I pushed him down, turning him on his back. He was forced to grab the back of a chair as I parted his legs and entered him from behind.

Our passionate exertions caused several candelabra to come falling off the shelves. Mikleo panted beneath me, the sweat and fragrant moisture of his porcelain skin making it glow softly, smoothly, under the faint, waning candlelight.  

I felt the rolling wave of desire throb beneath me with a warning that I was about to come. But a knock on the door made me pause in the middle of a thrust.

"Is everything all right? We heard a noise, m'lord."

The women here regard Mikleo with cordial respect, owing to the fact that he's given them protection as the only male in the flock.

"It's- oh god... it's fine... nothing... to worry about..."

I chuckled at the sound of his voice struggling to suppress his yearning. I pulled out of him only to push him on his back so I could ravish the erect buds calling out to me for attention.

"You're... ugh... such a devil!" he hissed in a moaning whisper. I sucked him hard while my hand continued to stroke him furiously down there. He closed his eyes in rapture, clutching my arm as he shivered.

"M'lord?" I whispered in his ear teasingly.

"S-stop- you idiot-"

Footsteps outside the door made me slow down, but I didn't stop kissing him all the way down his stomach.

"F-fuck, Sorey... I'm about to-"

"M'lord? Is that you?" This time, a younger voice seemed to be calling out to him from the other side of the door.

"We... don't want to... be disturbed! Good night!" I half groaned, half-grunted, suppressing a moan in between. Mikleo elbowed me hard.  

"Ce-certainly m'lords!" was the last we heard before the sound of a hasty retreat.

"You're... so mean!" Mikleo burst at me, chasing his breath as he watched me stroking him up and down.  

"So I was... love..." was all I could say as Mikleo tightened around my cock, making me almost come if I wasn't aware that his own need was urgent, quivering hot and hard in my hand.

I pulled out of him, ignoring the pang of frustration that yearned to stay inside of him longer.

"Come..." I coaxed in his ear, licking his earlobes before sliding farther down, down until my mouth covered his arousal.

"No, don't- I haven't recovered-"

I knew what he meant. Forton's poison was still in his blood, and he was afraid to let me drink it through his seed. Seeing he was close, I felt a maddening impulse to give his length a few more flicks of my tongue before pulling away. With a burst of exhilaration, his body trembled, then his seed shot up against my chest, warm and white and thick.

The scent was so achingly familiar it made me lose any control and patience I've saved up in the last seven years. Without a moment's warning, I sank the full swell of my aching desire inside of him, shivering as I was met with an intense tightness squeezing my raging cock. I stayed like that for an hour or more, waiting for my knot to finish as it filled him up, languishing in his heat as he slept peacefully in my arms.

I woke up in the cold glow of an early sunrise, throwing faint sparks of light through an open slit below the ceiling.

My natural impulse was to reach out for Mikleo, but his side was empty. It was enough to make me stand up in a rush of confusion, my mind roused by panic and a million fears I couldn't begin to name.

On a leather-bound tome sitting on his desk was a small note with my name scribbled on it.

 

Sorey,

 

I'm going to see Jurev.

Don't make any effort to follow me. Jurev and I already agreed that I would go to him alone.

Please stay and protect everyone here.

Should any outsider find out I left, they won't think twice about taking advantage of the situation.

Abuse and pillage aren't enough to describe the possibilities. You know those horrors just as much. 

I don't wish for anyone to get hurt. They're all my sisters... we looked after each other for years like a real family.

If anything happens to them, I won't forgive you.

 

- Mikleo    

       

 o------------o)O(o-------------o  

          

         

                  

Chapter Text

 

o-----------o)O(o------------o

 

I'm standing on the edge of returning

Or just running away...

I am letting myself look the other way

And the hardest part in all of this is

I don't think I know my way back home

Is it worth the journey?

Or do I let my heart settle here?

 

I should've known, I should've known

I didn't have a chance...

 

How cold have I become?

I didn't want to lose you by what I've done

Caught in the grey...

It burns for a moment but...

But then it numbs you

Takes you and leaves you just

Caught in the grey...

 

You tell me...

"In your deepest pain

In your weakest hour 

In your darkest night

You are lovely..."

 

-originally by Icon for Hire, "The Grey,"

performed by Blue Moon & Ocean for Inferno's Ballad

 

o-----------o)O(o------------o

 

 

25 August 2109

 

My first impulse was to follow Mikleo to whichever hell he might have gone, if not for that last sentence that gave me a rather cold warning.

He was shrewd, that I would admit. It seemed as if he could read my mind pretty much even though we've lost our resonance since that day Forton's poison infected him.

If resonance was, indeed, the cause and the reason for the soul-bond between chosens, well, that bond was lost, broken, emptied. Although the accident of drinking a dying halfling's contaminated blood made my resonance with Mikleo stronger, the kind of poison that flowed in Mikleo's veins as an untouchable severed his one, strongest link with me.

Still, even if that link no longer existed, one thing remained permanent, like an unbreakable knot. That day I married him, I married him for life. For me, the real meaning of life includes everything... every single day after forever, after all eternities have run out.

I turned to the letter he left me, thinking of an excuse to defy it. But something was pulling my gaze toward the confusion of notes and reading materials luxuriantly occupying the entire top of his desk. With one glance, I was reminded of him sitting on this same corner wordlessly, passing the hours reading and sometimes writing.

Those moments allow me to see an old and new side to him. Every side to him is worth feasting my eyes on, like memorizing a passage by heart.

As one might expect, his personal things included mostly rows and piles of books... big, heavy-looking tomes that smelled of old leather and parchment paper. Browsing their faded titles and gilded pages, I couldn't help but smile.  

Even if his memories of me dwindled away, I was glad that there was enough of his old self that remained.

Again, I remembered that day in those ruins. We were staring at a painting, and Mikleo was in earnest describing what he thought of it.

Looking at these books, I can see how he's quite the old-fashioned scholar that I've always regarded him back then. I've always been passionate about reading myself, but I guess after centuries of fighting real battles instead of reading about them, my idealism became tainted with useless prejudice. Calling it practical or unavoidable was no excuse.

Though working in the military meant guarding secrets religiously, I stopped having them on my own. Knowing how hypocrisy makes them all the more convenient, I became more... transparent. 

Maybe it's the reason I could never be too honest about what I felt for Mikleo, what we did, how I loved him and craved for him. Losing all inhibition, I also lost my shame. I stopped caring, or rather, I stopped being afraid of being judged for who I am.

Maybe because I never intended to be admired, worshiped, or even remembered. I never cared if others thought of me as obsessive or delusional because I'd rather live a life replete with sins, regrets, and mistakes than live one without Mikleo...

Saying this makes me realize that hating Forton back then simply blinded me to the reality of her own suffering. We had our differences... I have sins she couldn't forgive just as I have things I couldn't forgive her for. But some feelings are beyond love and hate, beyond forgiveness and punishment. 

That day, her words reminded me of sympathies forgotten and neglected through the years... broken friendships that could've been saved. That day we were speaking to each other more as friends than enemies. Time can tear people apart, true, but time can also numb old scars... the way it did between me and Forton that day...

 

Sorey, by now, you should know the pain of not making the right choices.

Take a few drops of my blood, and I'll show you how it is.

What it's like to be free, to forget, and to start all over...  

 

Like what you did with the ones you cared about?

 

Care? I know not care.

Sergei and Artorius will never be forgiven... never forgotten.

To live with their sins is my penance. It's not that I feel nothing.

But calling it love is not enough. Maybe it's not enough to call it sacrifice either.

I'm just a fool... trapped in the past, chained in the hells of my choosing.

We shall burn together, bound together. The world might have forsaken us...

But there's a place for demons, even for ones such as ourselves.

Whether it's hell or another darkness, what matters is there, we can be together...

A final resting place of our own choosing that none can take away.

 

Forton gave me that choice... the choice to be free. If I take her blood, I can dull the feelings, remove the stain of the past that chains me to Mikleo as his chosen.

But choosing that is like not being myself. 

We all understand ourselves differently from the way others see us. No one has any obligation to put up with our existence, or to live with the idea of us being the way we are. Naturally, others would only see what they wish to see, nothing more.

But this is me. I have only one self to call my own. Love it or hate it, this is what I am. And it's the same with Mikleo.

In those years that we've been together, I never dared to think I know him well enough to define him. But if my feelings are enough to describe him, he's the quiet reassurance that sits on the back of my mind, a peaceful reminder that life is worth living. If someone were to wonder why on the back, well, it's only that Mikleo's never the intrusive one. He never tried to be in the spotlight, to be at the center of my universe.

Even the way he is now, he's like air, almost always invisible but everywhere, keeping me breathing, keeping me alive.

If anyone thought I did all the hard work loving him, far from it, I had my faults. Never once did I ask Mikleo if my life made his own worth living.

He became my one and only reason for being, though it didn't have to be that way.

If you ask me, it's never enough that he's always on my mind. But for Mikleo that was enough. He rarely says what he wants, but his feelings have always been transparent, easy to read. Yet he never takes advantage of my weakness, even when I've made it clear that my most vulnerable spot would always be him... just as much as he's my strength, my being, he's also my fragile secret.

Mikleo's the one creature in this universe who has the power to do with me as he wills.

Even so, he's the logic, the reason that's content to stay in the shadows even when he's held everything in place. He's like the sky in springtime, watching lives unfold quietly, gently, like flowers casting off their petals slowly before dying away... in order to make way for another life, another beginning, another cycle...

I'd like to think that's how Mikleo would have wanted his life to be written, even if he writes about others so well...

Slipped between and among the whittled volumes of history and literature, I noticed a slim notebook in leather with a string hanging from the middle of it. The handwriting was telling enough on the gilded cover.

I opened his diary and started to read what I know was never intended for my eyes... 

I know I can change my mind about this, it's a bad idea to begin with. But even a bad choice is a choice one can live with if he wants it... or if he wants it bad enough to suppress the guilt and the fear of having done something irreversible.

Cursing myself for doing the unthinkable, I turned to the first few pages with trembling fingers.

It's not a question that I love Mikleo enough to hate myself for doing this. But beyond right and wrong, seven years is long and hard.

During those years, I've done nothing but wait while dodging every fear and misgiving. Every step I took to find him felt like a race against time and memory. 

Every single day that passed was like a curse reminding me of that day he woke up not knowing who I was, or who he was to me. Every passing day was like an expiration date diminishing the chances of him wanting to return to the life that only one of us could remember. 

Just like that, all those empty years that I hungered to be with him came crashing in this moment.

If you're looking for a sublime reason to justify my doing this, I've no excuse to offer.

Vampires don't measure time the way humans do. We can treat decades like mere months or weeks compared to the drag of centuries and eons.

But like how it is for anyone who's ever been in love, it's easy to be impatient when each moment feels so long, and there's nothing you can do but wait. 

Right now, I'm just an obsessed husband dying to know what he missed in all those years his chosen had been away... when his chosen decided to walk out of his life and into this place... this place that's even more lonely and empty than a graveyard sitting on a barren moor.

Reading someone else's diary is like a journey to such a place, full of haunting secrets and forbidden hopes... full of sleeping demons you can never hope to kill until you write them and name them, each one and all...

    

Mikleo Luzrov Rulay

August 2102

 

I've been told there's a place I could hide from him. Though I couldn't feel the emotion of regretting my actions, I knew somehow that it was wrong to even consider leaving Sorey like this.

Or maybe there are other reasons I haven't figured out. Right now, my mind feels like a maze that's easy to get lost in... especially when it comes to him.

I wonder if he even knows how I'm mesmerized by those deep, green eyes when he hides his sadness... when he tells me I'm all he's ever had.

I don't know what to feel. But even when I feel nothing, this feeling of emptiness, this feeling of self-hate over not feeling anything is telling me something important...

I must have loved Sorey that much... I must have loved him so bad that, even if my mind can't remember anything, my heart and body feel such unease, like the fear of knowing you did wrong even if no one blamed you for it.

It feels wrong to leave him without saying anything. It feels wrong to not be able to look him in the eye one last time to say thank you for everything...

Thank you for enduring this much for me. I could only wish you well in the years to come.

I wish you a happy life, Sorey... more than I could ever give you... even at my best. 

I want you to have the life you really and truly deserved for suffering this much for me.

Sorry... thank you... and goodbye.

Despite all that, I wonder if I'd ever have the strength to actually say them, with those emerald eyes baring all his feelings, all the naked truth that makes me want to look away... so I won't have to be selfish and keep running back into his arms.

 

July 2103 

 

I know life in the desert was never meant to be sweet and carefree. But saying I didn't have higher expectations would be a lie.

The first year was challenging, but compared to the war raging outside these forsaken boundaries, I couldn't imagine life being more stagnant.

The sheikhs are the root of the problem. Owing no one any respect or justification for their lawless law and order, they're either ruthless savages or overgrown brats and bullies. They take what they want with no remorse, with not even the slightest intention to replace what's been taken, or to deserve their benefit.

They can get away with anything their minds can conceive since no one dares to raise questions of justice or equality around these places.

Call it self-righteous condemnation, but this much I can say: The only thing that's equal here is the equal share of inequalities that keep everyone down.

The injustices and sacrifices everyone else is forced to endure guarantee that no one can rise to any level of power.

Having no one to challenge these demons, the imbalance of power tips the scale. 

And so demons rise to surpass the gods, with no one to stop them or save them from themselves.

 

December 2103

 

Everywhere I go, I'm haunted with the uselessness of my existence.

I realize that no matter how much you want to change the world, it won't. Knowing what's right doesn't mean everyone will agree, or see things the way you do.

The more you believe in something, the more they'd rise up to crush that belief. I guess it's in our nature to want to see others make the same mistakes so we can stop blaming ourselves for them.

For some, angels are worse than demons. Demons are easier to love because they never arouse insecurities. They're everything that's worse than we are. Being worse, they inspire no jealousies, and by that reason alone they escape condemnation. 

But angels are unreachable moralities. They remind us of our flaws. They raise the standard every time it's within reach... to remind us how we can't ever be good enough. 

Yet, some part of us admire the angels we envy. Only by imagining ourselves to be innately good do we manage to rise above our petty selves. Somehow, at the end of the line, we know we're destined for greater things.   

Sadly, that's not how it is here in this desert prison. Here, we have ignoble dictators flaunting themselves like kings, ruling a wasteland devoid of any resource save false pride and hope.

Sometimes I wonder if scarcity affects minds and hearts that way. 

Then again, most oppressors have never felt the deprivation they force on their subjects. Even if they did, they've forgotten what it felt to be trapped in a life hardly anyone deserved.  

Besides, compassion requires stepping into someone else's shoes... having the wisdom to imagine what others feel at the opposite end.  

Deprivation only leads to depravity because there are those who take advantage of it.

Ironically, if there's anything that comes in unlimited supply here, it's corruption in all its forms.

Every business must serve that end somehow. No wonder every pleasure that sells also reeks of perversion and obscenity beyond imagining.

I guess even kings need these cravings of the flesh to be able to endure... to be able to rule this kingdom of empty sand.

Yet whenever my eyes stray to that golden haze that seems to stretch onto forever, all I can imagine is an endless green... a green so beautiful they look like shining drops of emerald, just like his eyes. 

To me they're jewels more precious than any treasure here... the only memories left of him I could never lose.      

 

May 2104

 

My Sorey... I wanted to say it, to own it, even if it feels like a childhood memory from so long ago... a sandcastle eroded wave after wave until all that's left is the same blank white that you can write on and build on, all over again.

All over again sounds too hopeful. It's like faith in the assumption that there are such things as second chances... that a different beginning always leads to a happier ending.

But doubting it doesn't mean I hate it. If it's possible, maybe I can take that chance with him...

When I look at the dunes swept by the winds in this vast empty place, I think of him... and how much I want to run into him somehow.

I know I'm just aching for an accident, a chance that I might see his face again, those same emerald eyes that never looked so sad and happy at the same time...

True, I don't remember anything I did with him, except those things he did to me out of desperation, more my fault without knowing it back then.

But saying I don't remember... doesn't it seem strange I can't forget him either?

Every day is a struggle not to see his face in my mind. He's like a name branded on me, that wherever I go, I feel like I'm no longer free.

I have a home, I have someone I belong to, his eyes seem to say. I don't know the reason that makes me feel this way, though I can't help but feel it's him just the same...

I can't help but imagine him as vividly as that last kiss, when Forton told me how my poisoned kiss could lull anyone to a deep sleep if I wanted.

No matter where I went or what I did, even these sands couldn't let me forget him for too long.

 

January 2105

 

Sometimes I get hard when I remember him during these unguarded moments... when I've nothing better to do, and my mind wanders off like a naive child looking for something or anything to play with.

I'm glad no one's ever been around to see it happen.

I've heard of love at first sight. But if we really were each other's chosens back then, this feeling must be strange.

After all, it's like falling in love with the same man twice. I'm not superstitious, but once in a while it feels refreshing to believe in things that have no explanation.

In this quiet desert, hardly anything happens that doesn't have a logical explanation, even if I don't agree with the logic.

Tribes go to war for survival, but whatever else they can steal from others is justifiable so long as it's replaceable and not a loss to the entire tribe.

Wanton pleasures are attained that way. I've seen women stolen by bride-snatchers... sold then abused like cattle, treated like meat that can be ravished then thrown aside after the appetite has been satiated.

In this hot desert that's been considered as any man's home if you cared for independence from any government or society, women are treated like objects. They exist for mere procreation and pleasure, and often for all other domestic uses that insult the very meaning of dignity.

Losing them amounts to nothing more than losing property you can replace with something better.

It's the reason I've built up this so-called harem... so I can protect as many as I can even when I'm hardly the man willing to satisfy anyone's lust.

There's only one thing that arouses me. And that one thing is far away... never here in this empty stretch of barren wasteland.

In my mind, I could still feel his green eyes on me, the way he moved inside me moaning my name...

 

September 2106

 

The sheikhs who claim to own these tireless ruins and the scattered sands between them are nothing but thirsty savages in sheep's clothing.

I have to remember to use the title Ilyev when referring to each of them. It's not like there's anything respectable about their gold and treasure, which I assume could buy them what their wisdom, respectability, and false morality couldn't afford.

It's troublesome to have at least one of them every other day. Their visits are tireless. It started with the sheikh from the tribe of Leizhev, then from the tribe of Hazreth, the tribe of Bethel, and so on...

All twelve sheikhs from the Twelve Tribes would take turns offering something, anything to lure me into their beds. And each gift seemed more tempting than the next.

I know there's no way I can keep saying no. But I'm more anxious about my sisters, the women with whom I've been sharing these shelters since I arrived here. 

They're my family now. And family means I couldn't care less what those bastards might do to me if I keep turning them down.

I worry more about what might happen to this quiet life we've built together for years. I don't want anybody else to suffer for my sake.

I don't want to see Sorey's eyes reflected in any one of them. One giver is enough. I don't want to owe anyone that much, only to end up hurting that person as much.  

 

February 2107

 

They say a villain is no more than a broken hero.

I think not. A hero is one that cannot be broken without making him rise again. A hero is one who has fallen farther than anyone, has been crushed harder than anyone, has lost more than anyone... but he endures. 

Even if he can't be true to all, at least he's true to himself.

On the other hand, a villain may break again and again, but he never feels any pain. Because every other person's pain is his personal joy.

He crushes only what makes him happy. He breaks only what he cannot replace. He tears down walls of resistance because he hates his own vulnerabilities. 

A hero shines with or without the shadows cast by his bright light. But a villain is a shadow that cannot live without the light.

A villain only knows what happiness is after he's taken it away. He only feels he's alive when he stares death in the face. But only heroes can give him true death... the death of realizing his existence is a sham... and he's never really lived to begin with.

A true hero only kills the villain within... the sham, the fake that never really existed, while a villain who rises above himself amidst the hate, the pain, and the loss is a true hero waiting at the end of a breaking dawn.

In the end, all villains have a hero deep within them just waiting for a chance to be born.        

 

May 2107

 

Maybe the fact I'm an untouchable makes them hesitate to take me by force.

I guess it's true how this wasteland reeks of superstitions and taboos. Maybe some myth out there is actually protecting me from being taken advantage of like a common whore.

I know I shouldn't care about my body conceitedly. But just thinking about it... sharing a bed with someone else... having your tender secrets touched and tasted in places that feel sacred only when it's him doing it...

I don't want to keep thinking I belong to him. Sorey's far from here...

By now, he must be traveling distant places, fighting godawful wars only he could brave.

I admire him too much, though I remember so little about him. Yet something in the way his eyes span feelings, emotions too deep for words, makes me breathless.

I don't think any other man can look that way without making someone fall for him. By the heavy weight of his burdens, anyone can tell Sorey must have gone through so much... too much to be able to carry all those years with him.

There's bravery, strength, and too much kindness in the way his gazes linger in one place, as if aching to find something he keeps missing... something that always seems to slip away and escape before he could catch it.

He should love someone who deserves him... someone who can hold the weight of that stare and look into the same horizon and see the same stars.

Someone who dreams the same dream and shares the same vision as his true equal.

I don't know if such a person can be found or exists, but my heart wishes him well... even if I know how much he must hate me now for running away.

I guess I'm the last thing on his mind, the last he'd ever want to see again.

 

January 2108

 

I've always suspected that the money I've been receiving from a certain anonymous source belongs to that organization. Whoever's behind it must know where I am, where I'm hiding, but for some reason, this arrangement, this secrecy keeps them satisfied.

I collect the money through a secret account Forton asked me to keep.

The last time we talked, she said the poison in my body must have undergone changes... so much so when I tried living without her blood, I only felt minimal withdrawal symptoms, nothing nearly bad enough to kill me.

It's the reason I'm still alive. I couldn't believe that despite all that she did, she seemed genuine in wanting to protect my secret.

This water she's told me about is the reason why I'm here. I couldn't help thinking she sacrificed her life to lead me to this place.

It's no paradise, but it's no hell I can't survive. With the help of others, I've started to think of this desert and its ruins as my second home.

The first one is a place that seems closed to me forever, a place I could only return to in my dreams.     

It's been years since I've heard from Forton. Her life always hangs between danger and death, and her heart is never far from either one. 

In these places, rumors travel faster than sandstorms. I've heard of battles involving the so-called Resurgents which she seems to support. She mentions Sorey more often than I feel comfortable about... and I can't help feeling a little jealous, but not too much. 

I want to think that I owe her my life despite what Sorey might have felt when he explained to me what she did. Maybe what she did was unforgivable... cutting me off the life I might have even called happy once.

But regrets do nothing but sow hate and anger uselessly. I've so much to regret... but there's so much more I can do than waste my tears on could-have-beens.

All these years, I've been trying to find my answer. Sometimes, it feels I'm getting closer.

I guess I've been trying to carve an existence for others... to accomplish things I wouldn't have been able to if my life were different.

Maybe that's what you call meaning of existence. I almost wonder if Sorey would agree...

I hope my answer is enough to make me brave enough to face him so when the day comes, when our paths cross again, I can tell him about it. 

 

May 2108

 

I don't know what exactly keeps me awake at night, but I've been having dreams... and these dreams seem to recur every time I'm having my heats.

I never told Forton about it. How can I, when she assumes with so much certainty that untouchables are incapable of them?

In those dreams, I always see myself in a barely-furnished room with spider-web cracks on the shabby walls. A large bed would be in the middle of it, right across a lighted fireplace... and Sorey would be waiting for me there... naked and temptingly inviting, as he smiles and pulls me to him...

Sometimes the image fades, and next, we're walking along an old path with fields on either side. It feels and smells like spring everywhere.

I see the ruins of a church, and he happily teases me to race him there. We enter it together, marveling at the light and shadow of its crestfallen walls.

He laughs, we kiss... he undresses me slowly as we sink to the floor. Then finally he lays on top of me... and things happen.

I can't sleep... 

 

April 2109

 

We've started with the heavier chores for the long drought that's looming ahead.

In the desert, water isn't scarce. There's an unlimited supply of it, if you take the trouble to find it. 

Even so, droughts are to be taken seriously. We need to make sure the animals have enough supply to last for months.

Needless to say, we've come up with a plan that might require taking more frequent trips to Galahad's ruins. Of course, taking into consideration the danger around those places, I can't help but worry. Still, it's an unavoidable risk that we can only share equally among ourselves.

Although Galahad's well miraculously remains well-supplied the entire year, I'm sure the drought would affect it just as much. Its waters have their peculiar healing effects for vampires around these places so they're a resource we can't do without for months. In fact, I've already secured more pottery to store those in, with my sisters teaching me how to mold clay into vessels in case we run out of storage.

Right now, there's nothing much left to do but to inventory the rest of our supplies. Thank god Natalie is helping me with that.

The real problem, to be honest, is more personal than I'd like it to be...

No matter how tired I get, nothing I ever did or could possibly do was enough to take my mind off him.

I want to forget the kisses, the slow moving rhythm of his body as it melts inside of me...

There's nothing I could do to forget the feeling of being loved so much... so much that you start feeling that love consuming you.

After being away from him for this long, I realized what it means to love someone for what he is.

No memory's worth more than the person himself standing right in front of you... smiling and telling you how much you mean to him.

My regrets make me want to remember as much as forget what that felt like. Because knowing what I did, how much I've hurt him, I know I've no right to feel this way.

 

May 2109

 

Those dreams keep returning, more powerful than ever.

This time there's more. A train somewhere, taking us far, with me looking out the window...

Sorey sits beside me then pulls my hand, smiling that way as always.

He kisses me lightly, then I kiss him back, and just as the kiss starts to get too deep, he becomes a little more daring...

He kneels down and ravishes me like that, making me finish in his mouth.

I can't sleep... dear god, I hate these dreams!

  

June 2109

 

I could tell the sheikhs are beginning to feel uneasy with me.

Barely months after learning the culture and getting settled with my meager resources, I was asked to attend a council meeting with the leaders of the Twelve Tribes.

I never thought I'd be attending a virtual marriage interview back then. To escape being pressured into a decision I'd regret, I told them I needed six years to mourn my family's death... that I needed that much time to mourn the death of a beloved.

They don't even know that vampires have clans rather than families... that we're not biologically equipped to produce children or grow a family the way humans do. 

That said, my excuse became a myth they had no choice but to believe. In these places, vampires are treated like rare, exotic pieces of alien treasure. We're like a legendary archaeological find worth an entire treasure trove.

Surprisingly, they agreed that six years is not a hard bargain. So long as I remain open to occasional courtship visits, not that they entirely believed I wouldn't try to renege on my promise...

I guess those visits were intended to reassure them I'd never disappear unannounced.

When that lapsed, I told them I'd need an entire year to decide and prepare myself. That's when some of them started resorting to underhanded threats, thinking I could be pressured to choose based on fear if not on the size of their wealth. 

That final deadline is barely two months from now. Much worse, rumors have it that Jurev, who has finally succeeded as overlord to the Twelve Tribes after the recent demise of his father, is planning to repeal laws that forbid relations between men.

Sadly, it's hardly the result of enlightened, liberal thinking. 

His lust for sex and other wanton pleasures has no equal in these places. I just hope his secret interest in men is just a rumor, not a leisure he wants to pursue at the expense of anyone that catches his eye.   

Though it's troublesome to worry, it's even more troublesome to wait and let it happen.

Even if it's wiser to want to forget him... so much time is being wasted trying and failing.

I know there's nothing more cruel than taking unnecessary risks... being selfish... wanting things I don't deserve. Giving him up in mind and body is the only way I can choose freely and be able to do what's best for everyone, instead of losing myself in these thoughts.

Still, in my weaker moments, I keep wishing there's a chance to see Sorey one last time. After all, I've never been able to say thank you and goodbye...

Though I know it's the last thing I'd be able to say when our eyes meet... when he touches me with those lips and whispers my name...      

 

August 2109

 

I'm not sure if anyone's ever told me that wishes can't come true by mere wishing.

Seeing him sleeping on the carpet right next to me, I would say this in secret...

Some wishes do come true because there's something more powerful than wishes.

It's a heart that believes even in the impossible... a heart that can bear all anguish, adversity, and hope against hope.

I waited and dreamed. I denied my feelings each time they rose, only to have them rise higher than any surge of emotion I've ever felt.

I know it's wrong. It feels wrong to be happy in the midst of a crisis, when the peace we've worked so hard to preserve is now being threatened.  

But lies and illusions can't be good when what's real is staring back at you, asking you to reconsider. I just can't help feeling the way I do... 

Maybe that day will come when I'll remember everything all over again...

When that moment comes, I hope I'm ready for it... I hope he's right here waiting by my side to see it.

How selfish of me asking him to wait when I was the one who left him without saying goodbye! 

 

o-----)o(-----o

 

"Uh, is it all right to interrupt, or will you be busy, my lord?"

The voice made me look up. I was so engrossed with reading some of Mikleo's books that I didn't notice the time.

"Like I always say, you can drop the honorifics, Natalie. Is there anything I can do for you?" I asked.

In truth, I've given myself a few hours to wait for Mikleo's return, using some of it to take my mind off the restless worrying by taking up an old hobby I hadn't had the luxury of enjoying in years. I wouldn't deny that a certain relief also comes from being able to touch the same things Mikleo did, as if in doing so, I might grasp even a fragment of those lost years that separated us... days, months, and years that frighteningly made us strangers to each other in many ways.

All things considered, the better reason was that if I hadn't kept myself preoccupied this way, I would've followed my chosen to where Jurev was, even if it meant going against his wishes.

"My lord?"

I sigh. Guess it's too soon to expect them to feel so relaxed and unguarded in my presence as to do away with the formalities. Vampires have them in abundance.  

"You can come in, of course."

Natalie entered the room with slow, careful steps. "We're just a bit worried, you see. There's a man we haven't seen around these places before, and he's outside... tall, blonde, with piercing blue eyes. He's not causing trouble, but he insists he knows you're here."

I wondered if she sensed that the man she just described was a vampire like the rest of us. Not only that. This one is a pureblood for certain.

"I'll see for myself who it is-"

I heard a loud scuffle outside, of furniture being moved, and shrill voices in a panic. I know my sensitivity to dangers has been almost completely dulled and rendered nonexistent by that accident years ago. But this kind of threat being so close to where I am and slipping past my radar makes me hate myself a little too much.

The fact that this is the worst time to be careless also makes me a little bit more apprehensive. Something in the back of my mind kept telling me I shouldn't have been too carefree in trusting Natalie's calm and composed expression. She seems to have the strangest way of showing concern even in the midst of a potential crisis.  

Running to the door with Natalie behind me, I was shocked to find a hand pulling me by the front of my tunic and the most annoying grimace there ever was.

"So how are things, hotshot? Happy to see me?"

"Von-"

"Hell, for once, can you call me Wolfe? It feels like centuries..."

I couldn't help frowning. "Seven years is hardly that."

"Oh, yeah, so why don't you stop being an idiot and show me some friendly respect? How are you and the captain doing?"

I winced at the question. Even here, it seems old habits die hard. "Fine but... can you take your damn hand off me first?"

He did just that and gave me a rueful chuckle. "Heard from Forton, our good 'ole poison lady. Too bad that was months before she left this world. Besides, that woman always talks in riddles. Took me this long to figure out where you and the captain went. Not like you were any luckier than I was. Heard you slipped in here just two weeks earlier than I did."

I don't think this conversation has any room for me. As usual, von Graf is quite the garrulous pureblood that he's always been. Nothing's changed except...

I look back at the room I share with Mikleo. Yeah, pretty much nothing too regrettable has changed, I hope. I can't believe I almost smiled when I realized it.

I turned to see von Graf's eyes lingering on the sparse furniture in the room. He must have noticed the fur beds rolled up separately in the corner, but he didn't say anything. 

"Have you had breakfast?" I asked.

"You still cook?"

"I can... but everyone here does it better."

"Where's the captain?" When Wolfe asked that, he suddenly became self-conscious, fixing his collar and raking his fingers through his matted hair. 

"You just missed him. He went out to meet with someone called Jurev."

Before Wolfe could grab me by the front of my tunic again as his eyes bore through me like cold steel, I showed him the letter.

"He's more worried about these shelters. He said it's likely Jurev would send his people this way to make sure we don't interrupt their meeting... or bandits can take advantage of the situation and put his family here in danger."

"So you just planned on waiting for him? You know what kind of bastard this Jurev is?"

I don't want to say what I've overheard from Mikleo's conversation with that other sheikh two weeks ago. It will only make me restless and careless enough to take action against my better judgment.

"I don't think Mikleo's unaware of the danger. Besides, if he's not back in the next hour, I'm heading out. I just don't want to interfere in his plans needlessly 'cause I'm sure he's got one that he's carefully considered even when I'm not part of it. He's been living here for seven years... I trust he knows what he's doing better than I do."

Von Graf was quiet for a while, looking down as he listened. "I see, so you've actually learned to trust him more. Is he... that much different from before?"

"In what way?"

I heard a sarcastic snort. "In every way... except in what you two do when you're alone in this room! Hell, you think I care about that?"

I'd no idea if von Graf noticed it, but I felt the same intense heat on my face when I was reminded of what Mikleo and I actually did last night. I cleared my throat. "He's... more independent now... and he takes action without even asking for assistance or my opinion either. Like, I know he's always been that way, but now he's more into taking care of others that he overlooks himself a lot... and makes me feel I'm just in the way if I'm not doing manly labor."

Von Graf tried to suppress his laughter, but it ended up sounding more annoying... like a sobbing cheetah's whine. "Really, Ravendalf... manly what?"

"He loves ordering me around... to haul stuff for him. I used to do that without being asked, but now... I feel like he's making fun of me... or doing things to keep me distracted enough not to-"

"Not to think of holding him close every chance you get. I'm sure it's the only other manly stuff you could think of when you're around him. Heck, I guess that's what it means for him to be an untouchable. Or were you so distracted you completely forgot that part?"

I couldn't say anything for once.

"Seriously, just him being all right sounds good enough. He's been that way in my eyes ever since so I see no reason to complain. But if you haven't noticed the same things before, you're the one being an idiot. Worse, you're acting like a hopeless, lovesick bastard who's too sappy-blinded by love that he can't keep himself out of the picture and appreciate the view at the same time."

Harsh... but von Graf might have a point. Saying that chosens have an unconditional connection that remains even if vampires can be drawn to others by sheer attraction or desire is like saying that no other reason binds vampires together. Heats dull resistance to sexual lusts and carnal pleasures, making it more likely that chosens depend on that link more than others, without bothering to develop those other links.

Maybe I haven't really seen Mikleo in a way he deserves to be appreciated... not nearly enough to admire all the complexities. True I love his idealism, his intelligence, his self-sacrificing nature, his kindness and tenderness. I love everything he is, even if my everything is a little blind-sided. 

But even if my vision can't be perfect, one thing's for certain. I want to be with him forever... enough time to find out what I've been missing.

For some reason, I found myself imagining what those missing years must have been like for Mikleo. Thriving in a barren, savage place in the middle of all these empty sands with no easy help for miles and miles, he must have felt lonely at some point. I know soldiers can feel that way more than anyone, though the expression and the sign are always suppressed. I could only think fondly of how strong Mikleo must have made himself to be in order to endure and brave it all.

I would've dwelt on my admiration a bit longer when a loud, rumbling noise shook the very foundations of the cave floor, violently throwing Wolfe and I aside.

"Shit, don't tell me they're using tanks here?"

Ignoring that, I grabbed my sword still sheathed on the wall behind us. 

Wolfe gave me a long, hard look. "Seriously, you think that'll work?"

"Instead of asking, I'd rather try and find out."

He shook his head. "Guess this is one hell of a destiny we have here. I mean, it never crossed my mind I'd be saying this to you of all people, but-"

"Wolfe, I don't think we have time for that right now."     

As we stood outside the shelters in bated breath, we spotted three tanks moving among the dunes, their tops reflecting the dizzying glare of an early sun beating down on us like the devil.  

I heard an awful chuckle and caught the familiar smell of cigarettes. Wolfe pulled his gun out of its holster and took a deep drag of his cigarette, and for a moment I was suddenly reminded of a particular countryside... a barn with a busy kitchen, a lawn of wildflowers, and one rickety tool shed where Mikleo and I would hide from Wolfe to do... things...

Unholy things that would've embarrassed both of us if von Graf knew.

Those lost years... if only I could have them back. 

"Like what I was about to say, it feels great to be back in action. What feels greater is that I get to kill some too..."

Back... if we could turn back time and do things all over again, it would be one childish dream come true. Even as a child, I have my own wishes, though it's too late to be talking about that now. The only thing I wish for now is-

"Heroes go to war to win. They die to make legends. Legends turn into myths. And the myths live on to inspire the world to fulfill those dreams they died for."  

I sigh and wince at the same time. "Really, Wolfe, you picked a perfect moment to make a speech."

"How about, we get dirty, we get blood on our hands, so the world stays clean. That's the mission."

"Sounds cool... like a movie."

"Pretty much. Or a fighter fights what's in front of him not because he hates it, but because he loves what's behind him."

"Enough, Wolfe. If heroics can make heroes, there won't be enough villains left in the world to kill. And where would we be?"

"At a bar, drinking and having a good time with the captain? Shit, I missed him. Don't let that get to you, you've always known my feelings can't change. Just like yours."

Pulling my breath, I watch the dunes spiral and scatter into virtual sandstorms as if to clear the path for those tanks heading toward us. The rumbling beneath our feet felt like it was coming from the center of the earth, shaking and pounding everything in its path as if to say we've just awakened sleeping demons from the deep, dark bellies of this desert, and now they're stirring, crying... and waiting to swallow us whole.

I grip my sword with both hands. Here under this ferocious heat, one can only think too much and sweat too much, wondering when the world has become so foolish as to carry on like this...   

With only these weapons, I know we're no match for tanks, but I found myself nodding to Wolfe. "If they think we're just gonna stand here and let them mow us down, they've got a lot to learn about vampires."

"And what is that exactly, captain?" he asks, throwing his cigarette aside as he cocked his gun at the target coming in.

"We don't kill. We slaughter. And they got no time to cry about it either."

"It ain't every day that you feel proud of what you are. Must be feelin' good about yourself lately..."

Von Graf's right. All my life I hated what I was, the killing instincts that made me what I am.

A monster. 

Strangely, I never thought a day would come that I'd feel proud admitting it to myself.

I'm a vampire... always have been, and always will be. Nothing can change that.

As the sands all around us became a tumult of golden dust, I'm reminded of the curse that binds Mikleo here... and I swear to find a miracle to set him free no matter the odds... even if accepting who I am is the only way.     

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

Let's go out in flames

So everyone knows who we are

'Cause these city walls

Never knew that we'd make it this far

We've become echoes

But echoes they fade away

So let's dance like two shadows

Burning out a glory day...

 

Devils on your shoulder

Strangers in your head

As if you don't remember

As if you can forget

It's only been a moment

It's only been a lifetime

But tonight you're a stranger

Some silhouette...

 

Just hold me...

Just hold me...

Just hold me...

 

-originally by Aquilo, "Silhouette,"

performed by Ash & Rain for Inferno's Ballad

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

26 August 2108

 

... the day after Mikleo had left the shelters to see Jurev

 

"Dance for me."

Mikleo gritted his teeth. "Make me."

Jurev pulled, forcing Mikleo to stagger forward, arms reaching up above his head with a sudden motion. The posture looked graceful, exposing lines and curves that earned him breathless moans of admiration and lurid stares as Jurev gave another signal for his guards to manipulate the chains connected to Mikleo's wrists.

"Cocky, are we? You're forgetting you're a hostage within these walls.  Or do you wish me to strip you here to make it more entertaining?"

Mikleo threw him a fiery glare, which, unavoidably, made him look even more ravishingly tantalizing, drawing lewd stares from everyone. "You'll regret this, I swear."

"You'll regret this more if you don't do as I say." 

I stopped von Graf from leaving the shadows and silhouettes keeping us hidden. I should understand more than anyone what it feels to watch someone important to you being played with, but I've learned to endure the fury. Something similar has happened before, back when von Graf and I were in that countryside, and Mikleo had been taken by Confederate soldiers. We were forced to infiltrate a facility and blow it up, managing to escape with Mikleo. 

This time, we've managed to infiltrate Jurev's camp in one of his tanks. It wasn't easy stealing one and disguising ourselves as two of his men, but the garments and scarves typically worn around here were commonplace enough not to invite suspicion. Knowing the language also meant being able to report back to Jurev's base false information that the shelters his tanks were supposed to pulverize had been effectively blown up.

Since von Graf and I could only operate a single tank ourselves, we had to come up with an explanation as to what happened to the other two. We thought of citing them as casualties... which was not an absolute lie... with the women helping us disguise the corpses as reinforcements sent by the other tribes to help repel Jurev's attacks. 

Jurev was only too glad to have us return to camp where he seemed ready and eager to celebrate his early victories. Though entering the base in a tank was no problem, entering the guest hall was a different matter. Jurev lives in a virtual palace replete with luxuries typical of an opulent sheikh's excessive lifestyle. The corridors and hallways were an elaborate maze guarded in every corner, set apart from towers of interconnected chambers by a vast courtyard. I wasn't surprised that he could afford elephants, flamingos, tigers, and ostriches in his spacious menagerie, which we passed while scouring the grounds for hidden passageways we could use to let ourselves in.  

Even with a cursory glance, it's easy to guess that this Jurev has a penchant for exotic collections in gilded cages, perversely combining a voyeur's weakness for tantalizing spectacles and a tyrant's obsession with discipline and torture.

Von Graf clenched his fist in disgust as Jurev continued to pull at Mikleo's chains much like how a master might treat his pet on a leash. I've been ignoring the fact that von Graf kept swearing under his breath since we arrived. Not that I can blame him. I'm sure he's imagining the same things that have been running through my mind the moment we stepped into the inner confines of this palace-fortress.

Jurev's obsessions are hardly a mystery when you realize that everything around him reeks with evidence of excessive cruelty and perverted pleasures. On a narrow platform at the center of the guest hall, Mikleo stood in nothing but the thinnest of veils with a chain attached to his wrists and neck. The end of it was connected to a throne set on a stage to which the platform leads.

Seated on each side of that platform were Jurev's guests, eating and drinking to their heart's content as some reached out to satisfy their lusts by touching Mikleo's naked ankles.

"I'm not leaving without cutting off those goddamn fingers. Remind me to include tongues and that bastard's cock," von Graf was saying as one guest reached out and tried to lick Mikleo's exposed feet.

Jurev bellowed, tugging at Mikleo's neck chain. Mikleo stumbled forward, dropping on one knee, exposing the full length of a thigh. My heart gave a lurch. I had to swallow down the urge to give in to my rage as I strained to listen.

"Name your price, if you're interested! One night I'll give, but only after I've had my fill. Do as you please, if you can afford it."

One man raised his glass, running his fingers down Mikleo's leg. "Two hundred thousand gald for each night. Let anyone match that!"

"Three hundred thousand!"

"Four hundred thousand!"   

Jurev tugged at Mikleo's wrist chains, forcing him to resist being dragged toward the throne. The air smelled of wine and pot, and that was hardly surprising. Illegal drugs get into these places easily through smugglers who profit from the likes of Jurev. It's easy to imagine how the most depraved and corrupt can do business in these places without government-meddling and legal sanctions.

"If you intend to use him for more than a night, you have to double your offer for each night in addition! After all, I can't have my pet wasted on anyone... who can't afford him like I do!"

"Five hundred thousand then! And I'll double that if his services satisfy!"

The man who said that was gleaming in gold and jewels. He seemed tall and rather young from the way he stood and handled himself. He seemed serious, rather than merely drunk and drugged.

Jurev pulled at Mikle's chain. "You doubt his beauty? This one fights like a tiger... and that makes him all the more delectable. Do you want me to show you?"     

Von Graf swore, and I cursed, barely suppressing the impulse of shooting off that ugly mouth literally. I have a pretty good view of Jurev from where we were hiding, and if I wanted, I could put a bullet in his head.

But even von Graf knew that would be a bad idea for as long as Mikleo remained attached to Jurev's body and his throne. If a shootout ensues, Mikleo could get easily caught in the crossfire. Vampires may be immortal on their own, but not against a rain of bullets fired by humans who aren't controlled in any way by innate restrictions as vampires are.

On the other hand, if a vampire wishes to jump into the crossfire to get himself killed, he wouldn't get that far. Suicide is unthinkable for vampires. The moment you contemplate it, your consciousness shuts you down, and from then on, it controls you, making sure that your body avoids any immediate danger that might threaten your existence.

The awakening is like a default system that forces a vampire's body to do everything possible to preserve itself. We cannot die by our own hands even if we conspire with others to get ourselves killed as that would only force us to move without our conscious will for self-preservation.

Conscious or not, we've been designed to avoid danger at all costs.

The only exceptions are death by command and the Council's permission. Guardians can be released from the internal command not to kill vampires if they're under the instructions of the Throne or the Council. This includes fighting in a war against humans and vampires or eliminating terrorists and threats to the security of the nation.         

In this situation, neither applies. If Jurev happens to be a vampire... and von Graf and I hope he isn't... there's no way another vampire might finish him off right here, right now. In other words, the only vampires who can kill Jurev are his Weaver, his godhead, or an executioner acting on orders of the Council. Otherwise that vampire wouldn't be able to indiscriminately use force as the internal order not to kill would take over his conscious drive to commit murder.

These restrictions apply to every vampire whether pureblood, firstblood, or halfling. The only mystery is that I've never been bound by them at any time since I've become a vampire. Forton believes that the only reason was that I was one of three Keys. As the myth goes, it's in the nature of a Key to violate and bend the laws of nature that define vampire existence.

As a former cardinal, Forton might have had access to the Primus Codex so she knew all about these secrets... secrets the progenitors wanted to keep for themselves and all for a good reason.

As it is, the progenitors are the first purebloods endowed with the powers and secrets of the awakening. Logically, they would never want the world to understand or unravel the mystery behind them, believing it might threaten their very existence or foil their plans of becoming the only existence the world will ever need.    

As a Key I can eliminate this bastard Jurev where he stands. I've never considered it seriously, but the only advantage a Key seems to have that makes him capable of things beyond the power of other vampires is that he's endowed with a human gift that's so commonplace it's almost laughable... the gift of free will.

I imagine that the average vampire, purebloods included, may be no different from gods and demons. They may have powers that can change the course of destiny, even rewrite the universe and all its stars if it were possible, but they're never free to use that power for their own pleasures.

Gods, demons, and vampires are never free to such abilities on or against each other. Only humans are, and by some stroke of luck the so-called Keys... aberrants who, for some mysterious reason, share a little of everyone's gift that turns them them into an existence neither forgiven nor accepted anywhere, whichever path they tread. 

"Hey, so what's the big plan?"

"Meaning?"

"Don't tell me we're gonna wait some more 'til that fucking bastard's about ready to eat him."

Of course, I share von Graf's worries, but considering the odds... "He's too damn close to the target. Vampire or not, I can shoot Jurev or whoever I want from here. But if the retaliation's gonna put Mikleo in greater danger-"

Just then, Mikleo staggered and fell off the platform, falling into the arms of a stranger.

It was the same one who had just bid five hundred thousand gald to have him for one night, promising to double it if he's satisfied.

My fingers curled around the trigger as I stood frozen, watching Mikleo struggle in those arms which held him close. Then with the slightest movement I couldn't have missed from any distance, I saw his hands dip into Mikleo's clothing with nothing in mind but to-

Mikleo's face registered shock, then as if in a trance, his eyes closed as the lowlife dipped his hands farther and deeper into the folds of the fabric. Even from where von Graf and I stood, it was easy to see how the thin, silky, almost transparent veil emphasized Mikleo's delicate body, tempting the lewdest of fantasies around those gentle curves that left nothing to the imagination.

Even if I try to suppress my own desire, I couldn't deny the irresistible temptation of exploring Mikleo's secrets beneath that veil-

"You dare dirty the goods when your offer remains unaccepted?" Jurev protests, pulling at Mikleo's chains so roughly that Mikleo gags. He climbs back onto the platform as the guest looks on with an expression glazed with a mixture of lust and concern.

"I double it then to a million!" he exclaims, causing an uproar in the room. "Some goods must be tasted first before they are bought. But he seems to be as you say... a rare jewel worth any man's treasure."

A guest stood up, swaying a little as he raised a goblet of wine in the air, showing off an arm gleaming with gold and jewels. "Two million gald! Let me kiss his feet, and I might double it too!" 

The taller, younger man chuckled. "If I can have him right now, I'll pay five million! Let me hear you match that!"

Jurev seems to give this some thought. "You think I'm a fool? He's mine! You may have him after but not before I satiate myself-"

"Five million gald is a lot of money, Jurev. That's my final offer. Besides..."

He looks at Mikleo with such lust I feel every part of me quiver with raging jealousy. "I doubt if you haven't tasted him at least once. Given your appetite, can you resist such temptation? All I ask is one night. If I want more, I'll give you anything... anything you want so long as I can afford it."

"Anything?" Jurev grated. "There's nothing I don't already have that you can offer-"

"I can give you tanks... weapons, ammunition, the latest arsenal such as you've never seen before. You can feast your eyes on my collection, everything you need to expand your territory," the man bragged, snickering with a cocky scowl. "I'm sure it's more than enough to make your thirst wait a little longer."

Jurev makes a sick, snickering sound. "What's mine is mine, my thirst always comes first-"

"Don't be a fool! You're a terrorist and a conqueror who wants to rule where no one else would dare. Your hunger for power exceeds everything else."

"I have all the power I need."

"Really? What cowardice makes you say that?"

"Watch your tongue-" Jurev pounds a fist on his armrest. 

The younger man snorts with a scowling grimace. "Now, now... this is not the time to lose our cool. Everyone has dark secrets, Jurev. I'm sure that greed of yours put you exactly where you are right now."

"You fucking accuse me-"

"Believe me, if I wanted to be your enemy, not even all the hidden gold in this desert would be enough to keep my mouth shut."

Jurev's face contorts, then he throws Mikleo's chains down along with the key. He stands up, looking old and heavily disfigured as cheeks of fat shook beneath his tunic. Jurev looked every bit a worn-out man who had lived a long, lazy, easy, and carefree life of extravagant waste and wanton habits. He huffed as he turned to leave.

"Put your money where your mouth is. I'd kill you if you touch him a minute sooner than I get my payment. Only then will you be shown to your room. As a further warning, you're not leaving this place until you're done. And I don't want him damaged either."

"Every woman knows I'm a gentleman in bed. I can't say the same of you, if the rumors are true..."

"You love women, so why show this much interest in my prize?"

"I've never met a man who can make my blood boil with lust. I want to know how he does it."

Jurev snickers. "You may regret the moment you find your answer... 'cause you might never again have a woman in your bed."

Ignoring the taunt, the winning bidder picks up the key on the floor and approaches Mikleo. "You're too expensive to disappoint. But I have ways to make you gentle... just as I have ways to extract the most intense pleasures from my mate."

"Great, now we have to decide which maniac to kill first," von Graf hisses, as we endured the sight of Mikleo being unlocked from the rude chain around his neck by a complete stranger who was willing to throw as much as five million gald to spend one night with him.

The man proceeds to unlock another chain tying Mikleo to the throne, but a guard stops him when he lingers on the chains around Mikleo's wrists.

Like handcuffs, the remaining locks on his wrists and ankles were supposed to keep him from running away or effectively handling a weapon should he take advantage of anything within reach. The man nods as if understanding the reason for the precaution. He holds Mikleo by the waist for a moment, pausing in front of the crowd as if to draw more jealous stares.

"I shall make you mine soon so don't even think of trying to escape. I can't wait to be alone with you."

Hearing this, the guard moves to bind Mikleo's eyes, pulling him by the chains toward a maze of corridors and passageways as the man is led to another corridor. He looks back at Mikleo with concern and desire that seem too genuine and sincere for a random stranger, but I have to ignore that as I try to catch the location where Mikleo is being taken.

"What do we do next?"    

The answer to von Graf's question can't be hard. "We follow them to his chamber... and get Mikleo before anything happens."

A look of relief comes over him. "Sounds good. You follow the captain while I go catch bigger fish. I can smell that shark miles away."

I shake my head. "Look, if he's a vampire, you won't be able to do anything. You're no aberrant who can kill indiscriminately like I can-"

"You think I came here unprepared? Forton's poison has to work. It's one of those things that make her an aberrant, after all. If the rumors were true, she could break the taboo of killing vampires by infusing her weapons with poison. In a way she's just like you... limited only by means not intentions. I mean you still have the advantage, but she comes in second."

That makes sense. It's the reason she used snakes that day eight years ago. It wasn't ordinary snake venom that got Mikleo... but the peculiar poison that made Forton a fatal killer... a lethal weapon on her own.   

"You mean to say you're going to poison Jurev?"

"Why not? Human or vampire, Forton's poison indiscriminately kills. I could've learned how she did it with snakes, but then, I hate anything that slithers. Poisoned bullets seem more convenient."

I knew it shouldn't be that simple. My hunch was that Forton can use poison to indiscriminately kill because her means of killing requires a vessel, an instrument that carries out her will indirectly. In other words, the intention is mentally channeled to a vessel that can be commanded to carry it out for the host. It is the vessel that kills, rather than the host, thereby subverting the law not to kill, which all vampires must unconditionally obey.

As an aberrant, Forton's power is to use vessels or living instruments to carry out her intentions and wishes. Most likely, she can use other creatures apart from snakes... but given the fact that poisons are easier to carry than murder weapons, which require training the vessel to use them, Forton's strategy is almost flawless.   

I was getting worried of not being able to follow traces of Mikleo's scent so I simply nodded to von Graf's plan. I seriously hoped my doubts were nothing more than the effects of overthinking his plan.

"Whatever works for you," I told him finally. "If you think you can handle it..."

"Hey, show a little confidence, will you? Then again, shouldn't you be more worried about your chosen?"

I frowned at that. "Every single second I breathe I worry about him. I just hate for things to get out of hand. Any mistake might put Mikleo's life in greater danger."

"Relax, hotshot, I was just kidding. I'd never fall for you anyway... not in a million years."    

I exhaled. "How thoughtful of you to say. We'll meet at the aqueduct we passed. If neither of us can make it by daybreak..."

"Yeah, ready my funeral. But I won't be a liability, I promise. Then again, in case you and the captain want to take your sweet time, I'd still be waiting. Those ruins we've passed a mile from here seem safe enough. I'm sure the weapons I deposited there somewhere would be of use in case of an emergency."

"You came prepared. It's almost as if you knew this was going to happen."

"What if I did? Fate doesn't care how much you try to second-guess it. It always finds a way to outsmart all of us."

Seen that way, destiny seemed more like a curse than anything romantic. I pursed my lips.

"Look, whatever you're planning, just know that I neither trust you or doubt you enough to relax my guard."

"Fair enough." With that, von Graf and I parted ways with our separate targets in mind.  

The room reserved for Mikleo was bordered by intersecting corridors heavily guarded every step of the way. I noticed a side door leading to a narrow ledge that seemed more like a ventilation shaft than a window. I slipped through it, not bothering to look down as the opening gave way to a wall crevasse that allowed me to slip my foot in one at a time.

It was like rock climbing without any rope or safety equipment. To make it worse, only the tops of trees reaching the wall I was scaling could hide me from view. If any guard were to look up and spot me, he could easily shoot me down. I'm sure to drop a few hundred feet on cold, hard concrete.

I tried to focus, closing my eyes as I took a deep breath. Sunsets here seem to be earlier than in most places I know. I could've waited for it to get darker, but then, I'm more afraid of being too late.

I caught Mikleo's lavender scent in the direction of a balcony that seemed to have been opened to let in a generous view of the night sky. Given this height, I'm sure it was a bedroom meant to impress guests without risking security, as no one in his right mind would scale walls from this height and expect to live after a single misstep.

I swung into the balcony and hid myself between the wooden panel and the curtain. I'm sure a guard might look into the room before the guest is let in. 

The bed was still empty though Mikleo's scent was coming in strong. He must be in the adjoining bath.

I soundlessly crept toward the the tiny crack in the doorway, hunched low and breathless as I pondered my next move should I see Mikleo in danger.

Only to find a rude chain around my neck, Mikleo himself gagging me from behind.

My face was covered in scarves, but I managed to twist a little from the deadly strain that was suffocating me... long enough to mouth the same words when he first found me two weeks ago.

"It-it's Sorey-"

He stops, relaxing his grip. He pulls away and turns me to him, eyes wide with amazement.

"What are you doing here-"

I kissed him hard, pressing myself against his softness... against the feel of his slightly moist skin. Unable to control my want and longing, I breathed into his hair, "I was so worried... god, I was worried-"

Mikleo pushed me away when he realized I was holding him too close, the warmth of our bodies seeping through the thin fabric that barely covered him.

He shook his head. "Not now, we have to get out of here fast-"

I looked behind him as if something there was trying to catch my attention.

The side of the stone bath was overflowing with a morbid color that smelled familiar. Blood...

I looked at Mikleo. He frowned, following my gaze.

"Jurev tried to have his way, thinking he could bypass that promise he made with my contact..."

I felt overwhelmed. Jurev was obviously dead, floating in a sea of blood, and Mikleo was speaking of a contact who must have helped him.

"How did you-"

"I have this," he raised his hands to show the heavy chains that chaffed his skin the way handcuffs would. "I did it the way I almost did it with you."

It was a dangerous move, trying to get that close to wrap those chains around the target's neck. The fact that Jurev wasn't particularly well-built wasn't the problem. The man was a huge blob of fat and muscle. He was burly, heavy, and massive. With Mikleo's lithe, slender frame, he would need more than the element of surprise and sheer physical strength to overpower Jurev-

The realization sank in, and I found myself pulling my breath again.

"Mikleo-"

He looked away as if he already knew what I was about to say. "It's not important. If letting him have a bit of fun is the only way I can suffocate him to death, I won't mind whatever he does-"

I pulled Mikleo and wrapped my arms around his waist. He feels thin and frail in my arms, so vulnerable and alone and yet...

He trembled slightly, and for a minute I felt his honesty sinking into my chest. He needed me... he needed me without saying it. Knowing how it might hurt his pride to admit his fears, his body shivered in my embrace, unable to suppress the anxiety that was clearly there, just waiting to be acknowledged.

I lifted his chin to me, wanting to kiss him, but barely letting our lips touch when I put my forehead against his. I have to keep reminding myself to be patient where Mikleo is concerned. No matter how his nearness drives me out of my senses, I have to keep my distance.

Unfortunately, every instinctive move I make closes that distance to the point it's s almost non-existent. I take a deep breath and sigh.

I just want us to go back to how we were before Forton and my ugly past caught up with us. I just want to be able to hold him in my arms again and tell him how much it hurts to not be with him even for one minute. 

"Sorey... I'm all right now. I guess I just got carried away..."

"You've been through so much. I shouldn't have let you leave all by yourself to begin with."

"There's nothing you can do to stop me, you know that."

"Yeah, I do. Because you've always been that way..."

Mikleo shakes his head. "I hope you'd stop hoping against hope that I could switch back to my old self anytime soon just because you kept wishing for it. I don't want to disappoint you."

"Did I say I was? Nothing you do can make me change what I feel... I already told you that."

"Sorey-"

"I'm not asking much. I'm not asking you to leave everything behind for my sake. But please... stop trying to push me away."

Mikleo looks down, arm going around his waist. It reminded me of those little gestures announcing in a more subtle way that he was about to disagree and argue it out.

"I never wanted that. But it was the right thing to do... it was the only way I knew how-"

"You don't have to put yourself in danger to prove a point. Whatever it is you want me to understand-"

"That's the problem right there. You always assume everything makes sense the way you see it. But what if I don't see it the way you do?"

I frowned at that. "How can I see it the way you do if you simply assume I won't?"

"Sorey, you don't have to know everything to understand what's going on!"

"And I don't know anything at all when it comes to you!"

I regretted it the moment those words escaped me. It was clear I wasn't being perfectly honest with Mikleo... I wasn't being honest about stealing his secrets and acting on the feelings I know he has for me. 

"What do you mean? It's not like I'm deliberately hiding anything from you!"                  

I shook my head. After reading his diary, there's no way I can let Mikleo's denials convince me that he's being honest about me at this moment. Even if I couldn't say anything to reveal what I know, I just can't let this moment pass without challenging his resolve.

"Mikleo, I didn't mean to accuse you. I'd just like to know who exactly you had arrangements with... and how you ended up killing Jurev by taking all the risk on your own."

"I don't think I have all the information you need."

"You mentioned something about a contact... someone who helped you plan this dangerous mission." 

He gave me a hard stare. "Sorey, look... even if it seems you're always ready to help, I don't remember owing you an explanation."

That got me, and for some reason, I felt an irresistible urge to argue. "Mikleo, as your husband, I insist on my right to know everything that concerns your safety!"

He looked surprised, his gaze flitting somewhere else as I tried to hold it. "My life is mine to live, Sorey, ever since our bond was broken. When I left, I was giving you the chance to be free..."

"Mikleo-"

"Sorey, it's unfair that you should feel obliged to look after me. We have our own lives now so there's no reason for you to act like I owe you anything, or that you owe me all this concern that you're deliberately burdening yourself with! When I left I was hoping you'd let me forget you just as I'm willing to let you forget me-"

I grabbed his arm, turning his face to me. "Look... Mikleo, you might have lost your memories, but I never lost mine, not for one minute! And you haven't lost me either... so please..."

I lifted Mikleo's chin to me, not wanting to give him the slightest chance of ignoring what I was about to say.

"You can be anything with me, just don't be this way. I can't stand it when you're doing all that you can to push me away..."

He put a hand on my shoulder, not so much to push me away as to lean on me for understanding. "Sorey, it's not that simple..."

Even if the moment seemed right for both of us to be completely honest, I wasn't ready to tell him that I already know he still has feelings for me... that there's a chance we can be together again when he's ready to admit those feelings and be completely honest with himself.

Then again, even if Mikleo still feels some connection with me, I can't just force him to feel for me the way I do for him. More than the need for honesty, I know I need to be patient. I can't force my memories on him just so I can justify my desire to be with him.    

If he needs more time to figure out what he really feels for me, I should give him that. If he wants to take things slow, I should follow his lead, one step at a time.

Rather than force him to remember, I'll make him fall in love with me all over again...

"You're always complicated, but I love you. You know that, don't you?"

"Sorey-"

The door burst open and before we knew it, the tall man whom I recognized as Mikleo's bidder was standing there, a gun cocked at me and ready to fire.

Before I could move, Mikleo was in front of me, arms outstretched. "He's a friend- don't shoot."

I felt my body grow numb. A friend?

The man gave me a grim stare, more curious and wary than relieved.

"I was worried something happened to you. Jurev wasn't in his room..."

"He's dead," Mikleo said simply. "He's back there..."

The man slipped past us to check the bath where Jurev lay, soaked to the collarbone, his arms lifelessly draped on the rim of the tub. It didn't take long to confirm the obvious... that Jurev is really dead. 

Wedging himself between us, he caught Mikleo by the shoulder, pressing him close. "I suspected he'd be here. You all right?"

Mikleo seemed flustered... I mean, he should be. My gaze hasn't left them. "I'm good."

"He didn't do anything nasty-"

"That's not important. It was easy enough to bait him, and I couldn't have done it without letting him get close enough-"  

I could feel Mikleo's discomfort, but before I could interrupt, he was already a step ahead. "By the way, this is Sorey. I was just about to explain your part in all this when you came in."

"Oh, so you were talking about me?" the man asked, looking slightly inflated.

"Not much," Mikleo huffed. "Really, my chains... if you have the key, I'll be happy if you can unlock me first."

The man smiled. "I was hoping I could use it for later if Jurev hadn't beat me to it..."

This time, I found myself pushing the man away to wrap my jacket around Mikleo. 

"I'm not exactly cold, Sorey."

"But you're barely covered and-" My eyes fell on the curves of his smooth body, and I swallowed.

Following my gaze, Mikleo must have realized what I meant, and looked away.

"Fine, a little warmth is never a bad thing."

The man chuckles from behind me, pushing me away by the shoulder to wedge himself between me and Mikleo for the second time in barely five minutes.

"Here, you can use this to cover your behind. I get hard just imagining it through that veil." 

"Look, who are you anyway?" I knew the tease could've been nothing but a casual joke, yet that sexual innuendo rubbed me the wrong way.

"Rokurou's the name, but Aramis will do just fine. My real name is a forgettable tongue twister anyway, if there's such a thing."

I reached out my hand. "Well, I'm Sorey, and I'm Mikleo's husb-"

"He's a guest, and he's staying with us... my family, I mean." Mikleo gave me a fleeting glare that almost looked like he was pouting.

My jealousy was aroused but so was the rest of my body that wanted to be alone with him right now.

"I guess the more the merrier," he tells us, giving me a nasty look over his shoulder. "I would've wanted some time to be alone with you, though, I mean, I'd never lie about that."

"So how do we proceed from here?" Mikleo suddenly asked, changing the subject after that awkward gap.

"I passed you that map. It shows a secret passageway right here..." 

Aramis pulled a book out of a shelf standing in the shadows against the wall, and a secret panel slid open to let us in. I looked back at Mikleo who seemed to be reading something off a piece of parchment paper.

It must be the map that had been passed to him. I vaguely remember Aramis touching him intimately back in the guest hall when Mikleo fell off the platform. He must have taken advantage of the situation to secretly slip the map into the folds of Mikleo's garments, which gave him a good excuse for touching Mikleo that way.

Even if that matter seemed resolved, I felt bad about it. This guy had been able to touch Mikleo so intimately... and Mikleo simply let him.

"Is there anything you wanted to ask?" Mikleo was talking to me without looking up.

"Are you sure we can trust him?"

"I said my name's Aramis. You don't have to whisper when I can hear you loud and clear anyway."

"Well, Aramis, as of the moment, you're not part of the conversation."

Mikleo gave an exasperated sigh. "Sorey, this palace is crawling with his men. Aramis has been spying on Jurev for years as one of Forton's knights."

"C'mon, I don't feel worthy being called a knight right now, so you can drop the old-fashioned compliment," Aramis tells him, ignoring me completely as if I wasn't in the same room. "Ever since the Resurgents have split up, we've lost the decency to call ourselves anything, even if we still believe in noble causes. The order's broken, and it's undeniable that Michael and Lunarre started having issues after Forton's death. The resistance is in a crisis, and a new leadership is badly needed... someone with Forton's audacious tenacity and fearless resolve. We need tough, no-nonsense rule-breakers like her to lead the way... but what's tougher is finding a replacement with all the qualifications."

"I can't believe you can smile about this."

Aramis turned to me. "Would moping and groaning about it make you feel better?" 

"Are we planning to escape or just waiting to get caught?" Mikleo asked, shivering despite the jacket and the scarf.

I pulled his hands toward me, ignoring his surprise and the cold, warning glare that followed. I started blowing on his hands, rubbing his palms together as I clasped them.

"I forget you easily get cold like this."

Mikleo looked away, somehow avoiding my gaze as he pulled back his hands. "Thanks, but I'm good. Let's go."

 

o-----)O(-----o 

 

I pushed Mikleo down the fur skins on the cold floor of the cave, my manhood pressed against him as I twisted his arm behind him.

"Sorey!"

I kissed his throat, pressing a hand on his mouth. "Keep it down, you don't want us to wake anyone up."

He arched against me as I stroked him fast, taking all of him in my mouth as his arousal began to quiver. In seconds, he gave out a cry as his release poured into my mouth.

I stood up, pulling off my clothes until I'm naked to the bone. Mikleo looked away, flustered and embarrassed to find my arousal in such a state.

I pried his legs open, pressing his arms over his head. "I want you... you know how much I do."

With that as a warning, I entered him, grunting and groaning his name in pleasure as he tightened around me with a hiss.

I kissed his mouth savagely, my hands stroking him as rapidly as my cock dove deep into him, sinking itself to the hilt with every thrust.

I was about to come, the wave of pleasure rolling, rising, peaking and threatening to burst-    

 

I woke up. I felt something cold on my forehead as a hand touched me, making my skin feel warm. Nicely warm... almost like that time...

There's only one window letting the sunshine in, but it feels warm enough. Though the warmth next to me is so much warmer...

Mikleo is just waking up, looking soft and pale against the morning light. He smiles, then looks flustered as he realizes something.

Stand down, officer!

Stand down? Mikleo...

"Sorey..."

I blinked, feeling my head spin. Although I'm certain my eyes are wide open, there's nothing but darkness all around us. The light I thought I saw wasn't there, and even if it wasn't completely dark, the subtle glow that filled the room seemed far and unreachable... like the faint light of stars against a moonless midnight sky.

"Don't try to get up..." Mikleo told me, pushing me back. It was only then that I felt something in my chest and noticed that my undershirt was soaked.

It smelled of blood... my own blood.

"You were shot. Aramis said it must have been poisoned bullets."

I looked around us. "Where are we?"

"We're a mile from Jurev's palace. The ruins around here are safe enough. It's an intricate maze that's believed to be haunted. Humans have a lot of superstitions like we do, let's just hope they're enough to keep anyone from chasing us in here."    

I was suddenly reminded of what von Graf said. I tried to sit up. 

"I told you your injuries are deep."

"Is everybody else all right? Von and I are supposed to meet here..."

"He's with Rokurou now. They're outside, keeping watch. Since you're awake, I think I should tell Von..."

Without thinking, I grabbed his left hand. Mikleo gave me a curious look.

"How long have you known that guy?" I couldn't use the man's real name as that would signify familiarity. And I'm not about to deny that Mikleo's familiarity with Rokurou makes me feel uncomfortable.

"We don't have to talk about that right now. You need Von-"

"I need you."

More than anything, I wanted to be patient and to take things slow... to forget what I read from Mikleo's diary so I can be fair and level-headed about my feelings. But saying that is just my conceited self overthinking things. It's just my ego believing it can always do the right thing.  

Right now, I don't want to be right. I just want to be true to myself... I just want to be me.

"Sorey, you know my memories haven't returned, and I don't know if they ever will..."

"I'm sorry you have to see me like this," I told him, doing my best to look away so I don't have to regret my feelings too much. "But ever since you left, every single day felt like a century..."

I felt a hand caress my cheek. "Stop thinking about things that only make you feel worse. You need to heal, you need all your energy to recover. I'll be back with Von. You'd be needing Von's blood to heal you. Unlike Forton's, the poison they used is too weak to kill but strong enough to keep you immobilized for hours. I guess humans have their own way of targeting a vampire's weakness even if the damage is temporary..."

"Look, even if I agree with you there, there's nothing you can say to make me take von Graf's blood." It sounded childish, and it makes me cringe to hear myself like this, but I have to be honest.

I reached out for Mikleo's hand again.

"Don't argue about this. It's not like you need so much of it. Von's immune to most poisons... that much I know or he's lying for no reason. I'm sure a fair amount is all you need to heal-"

"How can you take his word for it?"

"Sorey-"

"I remember that day you were bitten by Forton's snakes. Von Graf said there was no way we could get rid of it by sucking off the poison since it might just infect us both. But then I remember him saying not to worry about the cuts and bruises Forton dealt on him because he's immune to any poison, and it's always been one of his gifts as a pureblood. At that time, I was too worried to realize the contradictions, but when you think about it, has von Graf ever really been honest with us about what he and the Resurgents have been planning all this time?"  

Mikleo couldn't say anything. I wouldn't hesitate to admit that, to this day, I harbor small doubts as to von Graf's role in all this. If he really has any part in that twisted fate the Resurgents have been fighting for, and I'm not supposed to know certain secrets as far as that fate is concerned, there's no way I can put all my trust in him... even if his help has always been indispensable.

Neither would I want Mikleo to trust him absolutely. I don't want him to feel betrayed by false hopes even if his memories of von Graf's friendship seem intact.

Thinking about it, I can't help but feel a pang of jealousy. How can Mikleo remember so much of other things, and yet so little of me?    

I pulled Mikleo to me and kissed him. I didn't want Mikleo to push me away, so I did my best to be gentle and tender despite the longing pressing itself against my chest, making me want to do so much more than just kiss. I was pleasantly surprised that Mikleo let himself sink into my arms submissively, his weight falling on my chest, heating me up.

The kiss lasted for a few seconds before he realized what was happening, and he gently pulled away.

Some of my blood has stained his jacket. He looked down at it, shaking his head. "I shouldn't have let you do that. You're still recovering."

I watched Mikleo remove the jacket only to feel my body rage at the sight of him beneath the thin veil that barely hid anything from view. It was erotic, how the thin fabric softly caressed the faint silhouettes of his smooth curves.

I swallowed and looked away, asking my urges to leave my cock alone even if it was already hard and furious. "You sure you're not going to be cold with only that?"

Mikleo's eyes hovered over his own body, and I found myself following his gaze. "Not if you help me get warmer..."

My body moved on its own. I reached out and pulled him toward me by the waist, kissing his mouth, then his collarbone through the thin veil. It felt silky against my lips, the moisture making the fabric cling to his curves shamelessly, erotically, making me want to grind myself senseless against his yielding softness. Following the shape of his body, I trailed kisses along the smooth fabric, pressing its moisture against the pink buds that stood erect as soon as my tongue began fondling them.

With a deep groan, I parted the fabric between his legs and pulled down the rest of my own clothing to let myself in.

"Not yet..." Mikleo pleaded. I watch his own arousal quiver shamelessly and knew right away what stimulation he needed.

Moving between his legs, I took him in my mouth. He gasped, arching his back against the stone floor that I cushioned with my cloak and jacket. I felt his fingers rake through my hair, scratching the skin on my back as I slipped a finger through his hole. Completely at the mercy of my lips and fingers, I tore the silky fabric off and finally entered him.

Mikleo arched against me as I ground all my lust into him, filling the silence with moans of pleasure that can't deny how much I wanted him all this time.

I began to knot in seconds as I kneaded the supple skin around his thighs and grunted his name. Mikleo chased his breath, panting against my heaving chest.

We released at the same time, holding onto each other until the last few seconds of our climax. Then with a satisfaction too wanton for words, we sank into each other's arms contentedly. I watched his body gleam against my skin, and almost immediately my hand began stroking him again as he lay his head on my chest, eyes languid with desire.

He groaned a mild protest in my ear. "Stop, Sorey... someone might come any moment."

I knew he meant either von Graf or Aramis. Kissing him deeply to muffle his worries, I pressed my growing arousal against his hip as my hand moved faster up and down his length.

To say the least, I couldn't heed his warning when the scent of him and his body yielding so tenderly to my touch was this overwhelming. 

"Sorey... I'm the worst... to think you needed rest..."

I pushed my tongue inside his mouth playfully, stroking him even more vigorously. When our mouths parted, I looked down at his arousal and chuckled.

"I already feel better just watching you."

Mikleo gave a shudder. "Not so... fast... I might come again..."

I could hardly feel my wound leaking blood as I turned him around, continuing to stroke him. When he released, I entered him from behind, deepening each thrust as my desire mounted and threatened to burst.

Just like before, my knots would come in rapid succession, unable to stay calm in between orgasms. Only Mikleo has ever made me feel this way... 

I wouldn't have stopped if Mikleo hadn't grabbed the hand that I was using to grip his hips for leverage. Still, I couldn't have just heeded that warning as every quivering thrust brought me closer to my peak. The cave walls echoed with the muffled sounds of our desires merging and aching for release as I moved faster and deeper into his core...

"You're bleeding... Sorey-"

I opened my eyes. There was blood trickling down Mikleo's thigh which obviously came from my chest as I was leaning over him. Mikleo pulled away to lie down on his back as he reached up to touch my cheek, eyes softening as he gazed at me in a way I haven't seen in a long time... 

Without further warning, he started licking my wound as I pressed my weight on top of him. I closed my eyes at the insane pleasure of his tongue giving my wound rapid flicks as it caught every drop of blood oozing from my wound.

The sensation made me harder. Before I knew what was happening, I was inside of him again, rocking him hard with every deepening thrust that was desperate and furious.

Mikleo was achingly soft... so tender and smooth against me, and in that moment I wanted nothing but him. I wanted all of him to be mine just like before...

When my knot came, I pushed him up against my chest, savoring the feel of his tongue and my massive fury spilling all its seed inside of him. Unable to resist the impulse that comes only when the pleasure reaches this kind of peak, I bit into him, making him gasp.        

Mikleo shivered, moaning my name as he released. The euphoria was beyond anything we've felt in a long time, enough to render us speechless for minutes as we silently stroked each other's calming urges.   

Mikleo pressed his forehead against mine. "I hate it when you make me contradict myself so quickly."

"And I love it when you do."

I watch his fingers curl around the fringes of the veil that I've thrown aside. Following my gaze, he gave the fabric a long, despondent look.

"It's a miracle you haven't torn it into shreds."

"I had a mind to..." I told him, trying to get my cock to calm down as I imagined myself peeling that veil off his flawless body every night. "But then you look too good in it I regret wasting it."

Mikleo sighed. "You probably know by now that I can't really... I mean-"

I lifted his chin to me. "You're thinking I'm gloating over this, aren't you?"

"Well... there's no reason for you not to... after everything I said... I mean... even if I feel attracted to you, the way I am right now... I'm too fickle and unstable to be trusted. I'm not even sure if it's right to act on my feelings when it's possible this is just guilt nagging at me-"

I softly pressed a finger against his lips. "I'm willing to wait until you're sure. But I have to admit... you're saying that you're attracted to me is more than enough-"

"Hey, are you trying to embarrass me more than I already am?"

I smiled at his pouting face. "There's no way you can lose me if you get mad like that. You know I love you in every way that I can love you..."

Mikleo pushed his face between my neck and shoulder, making me catch my breath. The feeling of it was too close... too damn close to what only he could ever make me feel back then, before his memories started slipping away.

"What if I don't remember everything I'm supposed to? What if all I can give you is this... and nothing more?"

I caught his lips in mine, wanting the kiss to be as tender as the promise I'm resolved to keep for him. "It's not like I want you to be anything you're not ready for."

"Everyone has expectations, Sorey. I just don't want to start something that might end badly."

"I can't say I know exactly what the future has in store for us, but one thing's for sure. I won't let it come between us... not the same way Forton had."

I pulled Mikleo to me, wanting to feel his warmth and reassure myself that I can't lose him, not when it took me so long to find him.

Mikleo allowed himself to be pulled, resting his head on my shoulder as I held him close.

"I wish I could promise the same thing, Sorey... I wish I could tell you I won't ever change my mind about all this."

I pulled him toward me as I sank back onto the spread of clothes on the cave floor with Mikleo nestled on top of me. He seemed cautious of putting too much weight on my chest, though I told him repeatedly I was fine, the wound has stopped bleeding and I could hardly feel any pain.

By now we were both stark naked as I discarded the rest of his clothing and mine. Mikleo squirmed against my touch as I started kissing him all over again, admiring his pale, creamy smoothness gleaming softly under the starlight shining through the cracks.

"Sorey, even if we do this again and again... it's not like I'm the same person... who feels the same about you. I'm not saying it to hurt you. I'm saying it 'cause I don't want to disappoint you... or to take advantage of your memories. Being this way with you, I feel like I'm being selfish..."

I breathed in his scent, wondering how I've survived those years without him by my side. "Stop it. You know as much as I do that I'm the selfish one."

He shakes his head in the middle of the kiss, pulling back only to have me look into his eyes so I could focus on what he was about to say.

"I want you... I'm deeply attracted to you, Sorey. I don't understand how, but whenever you're this close, my body longs to be with you."

I felt my body heat up with those words alone. But Mikleo's eyes told me that there was more to it that needed saying... so much more that I needed to hear.

"There's no guarantee that my feelings can ever be as deep as they were before. It's possible that I'm just drawing you in to satisfy my needs... that there's nothing more to this than just my attachment to someone who hopelessly pines for me and thinks he's still in love with me."

"That almost makes me shameless," I chuckled against the kisses I pressed on his throat.

"You mean it's not true?"

"I'm not disagreeing if that's what you mean."

"Then you're admitting you're hopeless?" Strangely, Mikleo seemed more offended than I was. 

"I don't really mind, but is that all?" I asked almost playfully as my fingers explored the deepest recesses of him, hoping to arouse those secret pleasures his body had taught me before. 

With a helpless moan, Mikleo opens up, drawing me in as he says yes in a shuddering breath.     

I held Mikleo's hand in mine as I burned and melted with pleasure inside of him, reminding me even more clearly what I've always wanted... a happiness I can find only here in this warmth, this scent, this ecstasy and pleasure that I've never felt for anyone else.

"Sorey, it feels so good..."

"Because you are..." I groaned, waiting for my knot to unravel in the middle of a full thrust.

"I wish I knew how it was... when I was a different person..." 

As my lust and longing filled him up, I stopped to gaze at him, putting all my feelings into that promise I would do everything to keep.

"I don't mind waiting, love. Whoever you want to be or need to be, I'll be here waiting... so long as you'll be there too no matter how long it takes..."

That night we sealed our vows under those moonless stars, forgetting everything else save the sound of each other's heartbeat and our heated desires merging again and again, until finally we found ourselves surrendering to sleep, leaving to the gods whatever tomorrow may bring.         

  

o------------o)O(o------------o