Chapter 1: To be alone
To be alone
"It's good to be alone," Fero thought to himself. He was walking through the forest, just a bit deeper into it than the day before. The only reminders of what was happening in the rest of the world were the occasional patches of nothingness and the starstuff shining among the treetops. But, in essence, he was alone. No one to ask more and more of him, no one to tell him how inadequate he was, how he never measured up no matter how much he tried. And he had tried. It just hadn't worked out.
Fero moved on, the faster he walked the farther he got from the memories, the thoughts. He just wanted to be alone and there was no place lonelier than the Mark of the Erasure. He could walk for days on end and not meet another person, not have to worry about where he was or where he was going.
Suddenly, he walked out of the trees. Fero looked around, confused; he was sure there was still forest to walk for days before hitting another pocket of the Heat and the Dark. Instead, he could see in the distance the ruins of the Tower. Somehow, he must have turned around at some point and gone back the way he had come. He shrugged; it wasn't like he cared where he went.
As he got closer, he saw the big, purple dragon resting by the sideways entrance. "He looks tired even in his sleep," Fero thought, feeling a pang in his heart. His first instinct was to turn into a bird, fly to Samol and peck him behind his horns, just to bother him. His smile faltered. No, Fero didn't do that anymore. Instead, he ran to him, calling at Samol as soon as he was close enough.
"Boy, I've been waiting for you," Samol said in his gravelly dragon voice, but a second later he was in his human form, walking towards Fero.
"I think I got lost," Fero said, rushing to walk towards him. Had it already been a week? Had it been more? But then Samol smiled at him and it didn't matter.
"Come, what do you want to eat today?" Samol put a hand on Fero's shoulder and guided him inside the Tower.
"I don't know, something sweet?"
"I know just the thing, do you know juice?"
"Of course I know juice!"
"Now, imagine it was solid, but not too solid..."
And Fero was laughing. It was good to be alone, but it was better to have somewhere to go back to sometimes. Someone.
Chapter 2: New things together
New things together
"It's not working," Fero grunted as he threw himself onto the ground. "I don't know what I did that time. Maybe it was just luck and I've run out of it."
With a sigh, Samol sat beside him, "You know that's not true."
"Yeah? Then how come I haven't been able to make anything since the sea squirrels?" Fero grumbled a little more, looking away from Samol. He didn't look disappointed, but who could say? The man was hard to read.
"Let's stop for the day," Samol squeezed Fero's arm. "Do you want to have some food?"
Fero hoped Samol thought he was blushing out of frustration, not because he had briefly touched his arm. He nodded and stood up. In the last second, he reached to Samol's sleeve.
"But I want you to cook it," Fero put all his strength in giving him a cheeky smile, in looking him directly into the eyes.
"You don't," Samol sighed again. "The people who left offerings brought only the best they could produce. It will be much better than anything I can make."
"Okay. I still want to taste your food," Fero shrugged.
"Suit yourself," Samol said and started to walk towards the tower. With a huge grin, Fero followed.
Unable to stay put in one place, Fero went to gather some wood while Samol brought pots and ingredients from another time, "I'm humoring you enough by cooking, I'm not about to go around gathering herbs and mushrooms too."
Fero just laughed. They've spent together almost two years now. Even though Samol was still as hard to read as the first day, Fero had learnt to know when he meant what he said, and when he was just being grumpy for the sake of it.
When Fero came back with an armful of twigs and a few bigger pieces, Samol was busy chopping something on the altar. Fero dropped the wood and ran to sit on the altar. Samol's hands moved quickly, used to the knife in a way that talked about thousands of meals prepared with love.
"Do you want any help?" Fero asked, swinging his legs.
"I got this, don't worry," Samol said. "Instead, what do you think should be your next creature?"
"Ugh, do we have to do this now?"
"May as well, seeing you've got nothing to do but bother me," this time, it was Samol who grinned at him. "What do you want to do?"
"Eat your delicious food."
"And after you've eaten my mediocre food?"
"It's going to be good," Fero nudged Samol's shoulder, making him smile again. "But after... I would like to fly."
"Your wings itching again, eh?"
"Yeah. I just... want to be out of the ground." Not only his wings ached to spread, but his feet also felt too trapped by the earth. "So, something with wings."
"Tell me more."
"Imagine..." Fero took a breath, a moment to organize his convoluted thoughts. Then the stream of words came out, as it always did when Samol asked him. It was so much easier to let go with him and just be, just follow him around telling him everything that crossed his mind. Samol never judged him, never doubted him.
By the time he had a clear idea on his mind of this new creature, Samol was ladling a thick soup full of vegetables and mushrooms into two bowls.
"Eat first, you can try when you're finished," Samol admonished him. Fero hadn't said a word, but he didn't need to; he was practically bouncing where he stood. Samol sat on the ground and patted the spot next to him, looking at Fero with a smile. "Come on, boy. You're the one who wanted to taste my cooking so much."
"Oh, right," Fero rushed to sit beside him, legs crossed and hands out to take the bowl. As Samol was reaching to bring a couple of spoons from another time, Fero was already drinking directly from the bowl.
"How disappointing is it?" Samol asked with a chuckle.
"Are you serious?" Fero turned to look at him with huge open eyes. "This is the best thing I've tasted in forever!"
"No need to exaggerate, you already know I like you."
"I wouldn't lie," Fero said, hoping the heat in his cheeks wasn't visible. "Much less to you."
"I know," Samol replied with a gentle smile.
They ate in silence, side by side. Fero was hyper-aware of every time their arms touched or their shoulders brushed. He had been for a while since arriving at the Mark, but he also felt it was still too soon to put a name to it. He was happy spending time with Samol and that was enough. It had been so long since he'd had fun being by someone's side.
They were almost done with their meals and Fero's mind went quickly back to his new creature. He could see the wings, the long body that would allow it to slither in and out of narrow places, a few rows of teeth, just for fun. Samol gave a soft gasp, followed by a low chuckle. Inside his mind, Fero laughed too. Outside, he used the long tongue of the new creature to lick the bowl clean, turned to Samol and made a chittering sound that he hoped translated to "it was delicious".
"Impatient as always," Samol said with a fond smile. He reached and touched the long, insect-like wings. "Let's go try them outside."
As soon as Samol was out of the door, he turned into a dragon and took into the sky. With a happy chitter, Fero followed.
Chapter 3: A new shiny thing
A new shiny thing
When Fero had reached for his pipeweed pouch, Samol stopped him putting a hand on Fero's own. With a gentle tug of his sleeve, Samol instructed him to follow. Fero walked, looking carefully around, but not seeing anything particular in the place they were going. It was just a gentle slope with some rocks on its top, as many others still left around the Mark.
Still, Samol sat on the rock and took out a pipe and some leaves seemingly out of nowhere. Fero chuckled and climbed on the rock, grateful that it was small enough that their legs had to be touching for them to sit on the same surface.
Samol gave the pipe a deep puff and passed it to Fero. His face was on fire, but Fero was careful not to let it show. The taste was just as he remembered having back in Rosemerrow, it grounded him and calmed him just as much.
"I don't know if I should admit it," Samol said considering the smoke hanging on the air before him, "but it's good to have someone to share this with."
"It's a bit sad to smoke alone," Fero nudged him with the elbow. "I should know."
"To share this time with," Samol said, turning to Fero with a calm smile. "Time is the most precious thing we have... almost the only thing I have left."
"Aren't you supposed to be convincing me not to despair? To go back to the world and do something for it?" Fero asked, leaning playfully against Samol's arm and reaching for the pipe.
"I'm allowed to complain about my misery from time to time," Samol huffed putting the pipe out of Fero's reach. In retaliation, Fero hopped to his feet and snatched it out of his hand.
"There's joy in sharing, isn't it?" Fero asked with a triumphant smile and took a long puff.
"Will you allow me to be serious for two minutes?" Samol sighed.
"No," Fero gave him back the pipe and immediately shifted his form to that of a cat-sparrow. He floated gently among the smoke, going high before dropping back to Samol's height. He landed on Samol's good shoulder, pecking him quickly on the ear.
"Be careful, little bird," Samol warned him, incapable of hiding his smile, "you don't want to annoy this dragon."
Fero chirped and hopped down Samol's arm, gingerly hanging from one of his fingers... before getting his claws out and flying away laughing.
He was going higher and higher, enjoying the wind on his face, the speed. Suddenly, the world turned black around him. And weirdly humid. He felt the gravity of going down a long distance in a very short amount of time and, soon enough, he saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
Fero rolled out of Samol's mouth and turned back into a halfling, "this is gross, you're gross."
The deep laugh of the dragon ran deep through his body, swaying him a bit.
"I warned you not to annoy me, little bird."
"You didn't have to cover me in your spit, though," Fero said and, immediately, plastered himself to Samol's huge face, trying to distribute the spit as far as he could reach.
"Agh, now you're being gross."
Samol started to turn away, ended up on his back with Fero climbing his neck to reach his face again. Fero felt a deep sigh under his body and how Samol's dragon form shifted, a bit slower and more gentle than usual. In the blink of an eye, Fero was lying with his hands on Samol's chest, almost face to face with him.
They were so close that there was no way Samol couldn't see Fero's blush. He didn't think much of it. This close, he could feel the heat on Samol's face too. Fero rearranged himself to lay more gently on Samol, with his legs around his waist, now their noses almost touching. Samol reached and cradled Fero's cheek in his hand, and Fero closed his eyes.
"You should go wash at the pond," Samol said in a gentle voice. "You stink."
"And whose fault is it?" Fero smiled. "Also, you stink too."
"Then I shall accompany you."
With a grin, Fero stood and offered Samol a hand to get off the ground. Once he was on his feet, Samol didn't let go, so Fero squeezed his hand as they walked away from the mound.
Chapter 4: And then they...
And then they…
The rain had never bothered Fero since he had become the Druid and he didn't think it had even bothered Samol either. After all, rain came from the lakes and seas that ran through his body, as much part of him as any mountain. Neither of them mentioned this when they rushed inside as soon as they felt the first drops on their heads.
Now the rain pitter-pattered on the only room they had found with a complete roof while they sat around a small fire in the ruins of a chimney. From time to time, the distant roar of thunder came to them. Fero swayed content, soothed by the sound of the rain and warmth from the fire and Samol's presence beside him.
He couldn't tell when exactly it had changed, but now, every time they sat together, they always ended up pressed against each other. Fero could never resist an opportunity to clash his feet against Samol's leg or cling to his shoulder.
They had already been sitting for a while in silence after their conversation had gently died down when Fero bumped his head against Samol's shoulder.
"I want to eat," he declared. Samol smiled and, absentmindedly, run his fingers through Fero's head from his forehead to the back of his neck, finally resting his hand on Fero's rocky shoulder.
"This room was not an altar, but there was some food in here. What do you want?"
"I want to cook with you."
Samol raised an inquisitive eyebrow but was still smiling. Fero just grinned at him and jumped to his feet.
"We already have a fire, we just need some ingredients and pots. And you can get that, right?"
"Right," Samol said slowly. "I don't get why you would want to do that, though."
"Cooking is fun, isn't it? You seemed to enjoy it the few times you've done it here," Fero said. "And I guess it would be quicker with two of us, too."
"Not by much," Samol chuckled. "But, yes, it can be fun to cook when you do it to feed the people you love."
Samol's eyes were trained on Fero's, boring deep into his soul. Fero didn't flinch, didn't look away, just smiled and looked back into Samol's eyes. Fero felt proud of this decision. Then, something heavy shifted inside his heart. Without giving the idea a second thought, he reached to put his hand on Samol's cheek and moved closer to him.
"Is this okay?" He asked in a whisper, quieter than he had even been.
"Of course it is," Samol said, letting his hand rest on Fero's nape for a moment before burying itself in Fero's curls.
Their first kiss was barely a brush of their lips, Fero hesitatingly meeting Samol halfway through. Fero wasn't used to having this kind of feelings, it had been ages since he had. Still, he suspected no amount of experience could have prepared him for how it felt to have Samol wrapping his waist with an arm and pull him towards him, to feel Samol's lips parting for him. It was like plunging into the ocean having to trust that your new gills would keep you alive.
When they parted, Samol rested his forehead on Fero's.
"Thank you for this, Fero," Samol whispered. "These past years, you've been giving me life. Quite literally."
"Am I just a snack for you, too?" Fero asked with a mocking smile, holding Samol's hands in his. He loved the feeling of Samol's skin roughened by millennia of work and living.
"Not 'just'," Samol huffed. "Maybe thirty percent."
"That's a lot," Fero laughed and reached to kiss him again.
Chapter 5: Almost a goodbye
Almost a goodbye
One would have thought that things would change between them after they had kissed, but not Fero. He knew another person would have expected him to stay, but not Samol. Wherever he went, even if they could not touch each other, Fero knew they were still together. The very earth he trod on was part of Samol.
So, Fero came and went as he had been doing those past years, only now every time he went back to the Tower it was sweeter than the last.
Fero had left to wander two days ago and was already back. He had gone to an area that he had thoroughly explored the first year he had spent on the Mark of the Erasure. He remembered it as an area of vibrant colors and had hoped to see if the new animals were thriving there too. Barely a day away from the Tower he had found himself face to face with the chasm of Nothingness.
All the way back, he could think of nothing else but all the trees and the animals that he had seen in there and the darkness that had replaced them. He had tried, he repeated himself, he had tried and it hadn't work, and how could he do anything that could make a difference, when he was just one halfling that had only wanted to get away from the stifling town he had been born in...
When the sideways entrance to the tower came into view, Fero saw that Samol was already there waiting for him, arms crossed and a gentle smile on his face.
"You've seen it," Samol said when Fero was in hearing range.
"It's closing over," Fero nodded.
"Come," Samol offered his hand and Fero quickly took it and intertwined their fingers together, squeezing it firmly. "We don't have to talk about it just now."
Fero nodded, but that didn't mean he wouldn't be thinking about it. How could he stop? This had been his last refuge, his place to rest and heal from the world. And, soon, it would be gone. Just like the rest of it. And with it, Samol. He squeezed his hand harder.
"Come, I need help cutting these vegetables," Samol pulled his hand to take him out of his thoughts.
They were already inside the room they had spent that stormy night in, loving each other for the first time. The fire burned softly in the hearth feeding a pot with water and, on a table that hadn't been there before, Samol had already laid all sorts of vegetables, roots and mushrooms. Samol took some of them to the pot, while Fero took a knife and started his work.
"Do you...?" Fero started asking, frowning frustrated before trying again. "Are you glad I came here?"
"That's a broad question. Do I approve of you leaving your companions? Of you giving up on the world?"
"That's not...!" Fero slammed the knife on the table, but Samol interrupted him with a hand gently caressing his cheek.
"Do I think that it was all worth it because you created new life for me? Because you took back your self-confidence?"
"You helped," Fero tried to interrupt again, but then Samol smiled the brightest that he had ever seen.
"Am I glad that I met you?" Samol finally asked. Fero waited with bated breath for the answer. Instead, Samol leaned in and kissed him first. "The answer will always be yes."
Fero could feel the heat in his cheek and this time he was sure Samol could see it, too. He let his head fall on Samol's shoulder and reached to hold his hand, playing with his long fingers while he tried to find the words.
"I can't see the future, Fero," Samol said after a few moments of silence. "But we both know what lays immediately before us. I don't regret any of this."
"I don't think I can regret it, either," Fero muttered. "I don't need to leave now, right?"
"It's your choice, as it's always been," Samol turned around until Fero's head was resting on his chest and he could reach to kiss his unruly curls. "But we still have at least this meal together."
"And a night together," Fero looked up with hope in his eyes. "And tomorrow, at least. I’ll... I'll know when it's time."
Chapter 6: Alone together
It'd been almost a week since Fero had come to the conclusion that he would have to leave the Mark and he'd returned every day to the Tower. He no longer had the drive to wander alone through the forest, not when he knew that these would be the last moments he would spend with Samol.
"Until we save the world," he's added with a wide smile when he was telling Samol about it. "Or you find a reason to come meet me."
"Who knows what can take me out of this place," Samol sighed. "I think the place itself will push me out first."
"Come on, I'll need to talk to you or those guys will drive me crazy," Fero groaned. "Like, at least Throndir and Ephrim are not Lem, 'cause Lem is the worst, but they can still be..." Fero made a noise of exasperation that made Samol laugh.
"There's something," Samol said pensively, looking at the horizon. "There's a way people talk to gods."
"Are you going to ask me to be your paladin?" Fero grinned and bumped his shoulder against Samol's arm. "I don't think I can go around wearing an armor. Sounds like a hassle."
"You would look great in armor," Samol winked at him, now smiling too. "But no, I don't need any paladin, I leave that to my sons. I already have my Druid."
"Am I your Druid?" Fero pointed to himself, shit-eating grin plastered on his face.
"Actually..." Samol started laughing. "I can't. Of course, you are."
"And that means I can pray to you?" Fero guessed.
"Exactly," Samol lied down on top of the rock they were sitting in and Fero immediately followed, leaving them face to face. "But don't you dare anything use that sounds like they would say at my son's church. Just call to me and I'll come."
"Now I know what to do if you don't answer," Fero put his hand on Samol's face, his finger running through every line. "Call upon thy name, my Lord."
"Oh, that sounds so gross coming from you," Samol shuddered, but immediately relaxed again under Fero's touch.
"Will we be able to touch like this?" Fero asked, letting his hand rest on Samol's neck, feeling the pulse of the world underneath his skin.
"Will you miss my kisses so badly?"
"You know I will," Fero leaned in to steal one as proof. Samol gladly closed his eyes and kissed him back, and then again.
"Let's try," Samol said once they broke apart. "Call my name."
"Oh, Samol, purple dragon..." Samol pushed Fero's shoulder just as he started to laugh. "Okay, okay. Do I have to call you in my mind or with words or...?"
"Both? I don't know, I don't pray to anyone."
"I'll go stand over there and try, I don't think it'll work if we're this close."
"That's not how..." Samol tried to say, but Fero was already running away, getting past the tree line until they could no longer see each other.
Fero had felt it before but hadn't noticed it consciously. He walked farther into the forest, but it was still there, inside him. Right beside his heart. He could feel Samol's presence.
He sat by a tree, focusing on it. It seemed to expand, filling him through his body at first, and all around him, radiating from every tree and rock, and the earth. Fero smiled.
"Hey," Fero called, keeping his voice barely above a whisper. Immediately, he felt a warm breath on his neck and heard a sweet laugh.
"Hey," Samol answered.
"Is this it? Are we doing it?"
"This is it," Samol hummed content. "Wherever you are, whenever you want to talk to me, you can just call my name. I'll always answer you."
He felt the weight of a pair of well-known hands delicately squeezing his shoulders. Fero sighed and closed his eyes. Then, he could see. Samol was sitting in front of him, their faces so close. And Fero could feel him.
Chapter 7: Extra: guidance
"So I said, 'hey, we can build another room, there's a whole wall completely unused'. But they wouldn't just shut up, because, ugh, people. But I started working, and other people came to work with me, and eventually, we were all working on it and now the Outhouse has a huge eating space," Fero stopped gesticulating as his story came to an end, but his feet continued swinging in the water, making small ripples. "I'm glad I got to see it before leaving. Like, the Outhouse belongs to everyone, but also..." he made a vague gesture.
"You created it, it's just as part of you as any of these," Samol pointed to the sea squirrels that were swimming around in the pond. Then he squeezed Fero's hand. "Don't worry, I get you."
"You really do," Fero slammed his shoulder on Samol's side and then stayed there, leaning his head onto Samol's shoulder and burying his nose on Samol's shirt and taking on his scent.
"I could swear you sound happy every time you talk about this Outhouse of yours."
"Don't tell anyone, they'll think I'm going soft," Fero sighed. "If you're ever close, come and see it. I think you'd like it. And the people here would love you."
"I've not been the most pleasant company as of late," Samol sighed.
"That's not true, it was awesome living with you all those years," Fero stood up to his full halfling height. "And people love stories and songs and you're the best at those."
"I'll have to take your word for it," Samol said and raised with his hand toward Fero. "Now, this water feels wonderful and I bet it'll feel even better to swim in it."
"Do you think it will hold?" Fero asked. "Can we really... you know, interact with the environment and all of that?"
"You're sleeping right now, aren't you?" Samol asked and Fero nodded. "So, this is almost like a dream, I don't see why we can't try. Unless you don't want to."
"Of course I want to," Fero immediately reached to take Samol's hand and helped him to his feet. Holding fast onto each other, they walked into the pond.