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The Configuration of a Root System

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Year 0 —

There was a sun in the sky again.

A real sun this time, warm on his skin after months of cold, dark winter. Throndir welcomed it as he walked away from Fero, boots crunching in the snow. It calmed something in him, reminding him of those rare days when the blizzards around Auniq would calm enough for the sun to peek through the clouds. On those days, Throndir and Kodiak would venture into the woods, tracking animals for the fun of it, just to prove they could. Unlike so much in his life, those were good memories, and they warmed him on the inside just as the sun warmed his face.

If Fero was going to behave like this, Throndir wasn’t interested in anything he had to say. Maybe he’d made the wrong decision when he’d demanded Arrell bring Benjamin out of the bubble. Maybe if he’d had a child himself, he would have felt differently. But something in Throndir’s gut told him he’d done the right thing; there were too many people Arrell had already harmed, and too many that he would inevitably harm in the future, and Throndir had long learned to trust his instincts.

He didn’t have a clear idea of where he was going, just away from Fero, so it was Kodiak, barking low, who drew his attention as they passed by one of the bonfires set up around Corsica’s encampment.

Ephrim sat on a log bench, hunched over with a sword that Throndir didn’t recognize hanging loosely in his left hand. He stared into the flames, gaze unfocused, and for a moment, Throndir debated leaving him alone. Certainly Throndir could understand the need to be alone after everything that had happened, and he didn’t know Ephrim well enough to guess if he’d be okay with company. But Kodiak nudged at his leg, urging him forward, and Throndir sighed. He walked over slowly, purposefully making noise so Ephrim wouldn’t be startled by his appearance.

It was only after he reached the other side of the fire that he noticed the blood. There was more than what had stained them both after their fight with Arrell—it was dried all over Ephrim’s clothes, and on the blade, too. If Fero hadn’t been so distracting, Throndir would have noticed both the blood and the expression in Ephrim’s face sooner. That look was unmistakable: the hopelessness, the emptiness. Throndir had seen it in some of the other snow elves who were like him, before he left Auniq. He’d seen in his own reflection sometimes, late at night, after he’d first fled to Velas.

“You okay?” Throndir asked, voice just loud enough to hear over the crackling of the fire.

Ephrim looked up at him, blank-faced, as if he hadn’t processed what Throndir had said.

“Because you don’t look okay,” Throndir continued, punctuated by a whine from Kodiak, who nudged at Ephrim’s empty hand. Ephrim winced, but pressed the back of his knuckles against Kodiak’s face.

“Um,” Ephrim said, his voice rough, like he was trying to hold it together. “You know, honestly? Not really.”

“Yeah, the sword was kind of a hint,” Throndir said as he sat down next to Ephrim. “Where’d you even get that?”

“Rosemerrow,” Ephrim said. “Under the museum? I didn’t realize what it was, but then Lem got the hilt from that cult, and Uklan told us about Marielda, and I realized—”

He tilted the blade so the edge caught the firelight. For a moment, it glowed as bright as the sun. Ephrim sighed, turning the sword away, and the glow dissipated, leaving behind a simple sword of impeccable craftsmanship, still covered in blood.

“The Cult of the Dark Sun,” he said, so quietly that his voice was nearly drowned out by the fire. “You know how it was actually ‘son’?”

Throndir thought about that dinner down below, on the Buoy, and the moment it had all clicked together for them. He thought about the two swords—one made from the Dark, carried by Hella, the other shining gold, forged by Samothes, long missing—and finally realized whose blood must be on Ephrim’s armor.

“Ephrim,” Throndir started, but he didn’t know what else to say. How did you ask someone if they killed a god?

“He brought me back to life,” Ephrim continued. “When we were going to the New Archives. And he gave me this—this power. My fire was different. The Heat—it was different, but I didn’t even think about it. It was my duty to follow his will. So I didn’t think about it until Uklan—and when I put the sword together, I went to his forge. And he handed me his hammer and he told me to break it. To break this sword that Samothes made. He had Exarch Alyosha, and he was building things with the Heat and the Dark, and he told me that I was his, and I just—”

Ephrim shivered, but not from the chill in the air.

“It was all a lie, Throndir,” he said, his voice cracking. “The church, my—my destiny, or whatever. It was all a lie to get me to spread the Heat and the Dark for him. And then he did this.”

Ephrim moved his hand away from where it rested against Kodiak and held out his palm, fingers spread wide. In the center of his palm was… nothing. Literal nothing, an absence of skin and blood and bones, the emptiness of the void. An imperfect circle clawing through Ephrim the same way it clawed through reality. Throndir’s stomach dropped as he realized what it was.

“One last gift,” Ephrim said, his voice somewhere between sarcasm and sorrow, “from my lord Samothes.”

Kodiak let out another whine and pushed beneath Ephrim’s arm to drop his big head on Ephrim’s lap. Around them, the sounds of Corsica Neue’s camp fell away, regular life and war so far removed from the dark forge of a reborn god. Throndir didn’t have a connection to Samothes beyond his respect for Hadrian, but he understood that feeling of betrayal, that feeling of loss, of knowing things would never be the same again no matter how much you wished they would.

“I took the sword out to clean it,” Ephrim said, his voice now barely above a whisper. “And then I saw the blood.”

Slowly, Throndir reached over, and wrapped his hand around Ephrim’s right wrist, pressing his thumb against the heartbeat there.

“I don’t know if this means anything to you,” Throndir said, ducking his head to catch Ephrim’s eyes. “We haven’t really had a chance to get to know each other well. But I know right from wrong, Ephrim. And if it does mean anything, I think you did the right thing. Sometimes being a hero means making the hard decisions, you know? The ones no one wants to make—the ones no one else can make. That’s what the Golden Lance does, and that’s what I did with Arrell and Benjamin, and that’s what you did with Samothes. And if he was going to bring the Heat and the Dark here sooner, there wasn’t any other choice to make.”

Ephrim sighed, long and slow and a little shaky. His expression was fractured at the edges, his eyes a little glassy, but he didn’t cry. He clenched his fist once, wincing a little, like the darkness hurt, and then nodded.

“I’ll be fine, I think,” he said, looking down at Kodiak. “I just need to—to sit with it for a bit.”

“No rush,” Throndir said, pulling his hand away and leaning back. Snow had started falling gently from the sky, almost picturesque, small flurries melting before they hit the bonfire. They melted when they landed on Ephrim, too, leaving damp trails on his face. “The Last University is pretty far away. You’ve got plenty of time.”

Ephrim smiled, a little strained but very pretty, curling his arm around Kodiak as he looked up at the sky. A cloud had shifted to mostly cover the sun as snow continued to fall, but the light that still shone through illuminated Ephrim’s face.

“Yeah,” he said, closing his eyes against the light. “Thanks, Throndir.”

-

True to form, Red Jack set up a small, temporary bar just outside the stables not long after they arrived at the University. Throndir had started stopping by in between his endless duties to check in, but it had taken days for him to actually sit and enjoy a drink. He felt like he deserved the break after a day of organizing guard shifts and hunting parties. The work reminded him of life in Auniq, except instead of doing whatever he was told, he was the one in charge. It was more than a little surreal. Not that long ago he wouldn’t have ever considered himself a leader. He still didn’t, really, but there wasn’t anyone else who could do it. At this point—why shouldn’t it be him?

“I need a drink,” Ephrim said, sitting down on the rickety stool next to Throndir. Red Jack had pulled the seating, along with an old desk for his bartop, out of one of the classrooms they were repurposing for supply storage. Although they’d lost a little integrity over the years, none of the legs had snapped yet. Throndir considered that a pretty good sign. Compared to some of what they’d found so far, these were practically like new.

“Long day?” Throndir asked, laughing a little at how desperately Ephrim took the drink from Red Jack.

“It’s always a long day when people are relying on you,” Red Jack said. “But your shoulders are strong. You can handle that weight.”

“You sure about that?” Ephrim said, in a rare moment of doubt. He usually worked hard to keep that hidden.

“It is the job you have, whether you like it or not,” Red Jack said. “Some of these people have leaders, yes, but you two brought them here. You have organized the beds and medicine, food stores and security. You have raised the star wall and given them hope. They will look to you for everything now, whether you want them to or not.”

“Thanks Red Jack,” Ephrim said sarcastically. “Adding even more pressure really helps.” He took a long drink, jaw tilting back, and the torch light caught on the metal plates decorating his armor. Throndir had seen it often enough during their journey to the University that the differences immediately stood out. Once, the metal had been engraved with delicate filigree and the symbol of Samothes. Now it was smooth and utilitarian, no longer flashy and ornate.

“Your armor,” Throndir said, before he could think better of bringing up an undoubtedly sore subject. “When did you do that?”

“Um, just now,” Ephrim said, hands gripping his cup tightly as he placed it back on the table. He had a bandage wrapped around the entirety of his right palm, his wound hidden from sight. “It just didn’t seem—I couldn’t wear it anymore.” He looked down at his drink, then at Red Jack, and finally at Throndir. “I couldn’t look at it anymore.”

Red Jack turned away to rinse out some of his cups and bottles in a bucket, giving them an illusion of privacy. Ephrim seemed to appreciate it, and Throndir saw some of the tension in his shoulders ease.

“Those fire powers are pretty handy, huh?” Throndir said, leaning forward against the makeshift bar. When Ephrim didn’t say anything, Throndir kept talking. “You know, after I first left Auniq, everything I saw made me think about it. I kept wanting to share things with my friends or my dad, tell them about the cool new food I was trying, or how different all the buildings were. Everything in Velas was so tall.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t get better, but it gets easier. My dad still won’t talk to me. It is what it is. I already made my position clear when I went back to help the goblins, and I don’t regret that.”

“Okay, but didn’t your council want to, like, cut you open or whatever?” Ephrim said, raising an eyebrow. “They’re lucky we let them stay here at all.”

“See? You’re great at being in charge,” Throndir said, amused at the thought of how the old Auniq Council would react if Ephrim kicked them out. “I’ve got no idea why you’re so worried.”

“I’m not worried!” Ephrim said, cheeks flushing pink. “It’s just a lot of pressure!”

“You did sound a little bit worried,” Red Jack said, matter of fact, and Throndir laughed, louder than he’d laughed in a while, unable to stop even when Ephrim smacked him in the arm.

“Whatever,” Ephrim said, something of the Eternal Prince returning to his expression, arrogant and so sure of his place in the world. “See if I save you any leftovers next time you’re late for breakfast.”

“Aw, come on,” Throndir said, getting his laughter under control. “You wouldn’t deprive Kodiak of a meal, would you?”

“Who said anything about Kodiak?” Ephrim grinned when Kodiak barked from where he was laying on the ground next to Throndir. “Kodiak has never once made fun of me. Of course he’ll always have breakfast.”

“Now you’re just being mean.”

Ephrim gave him an unimpressed look. “Do you even need to eat anymore?”

“Well, no,” Throndir said. “But I like to eat, Ephrim.”

“I don’t see how that’s my problem, Throndir,” Ephrim said, smirking. “Especially if you’re going to call me bossy.”

“It isn’t my problem either,” Red Jack said, his arms crossed. He looked entertained by them, but then again, Red Jack was entertained by most things. “Unless you plan on having another drink, of course.”

“You’re both so generous tonight,” Throndir said, but he pushed himself up, Kodiak following suit a step behind. “I should get going anyway. I need to check on the night watch and make sure they’re doing what I told them to do.”

The sharpness in Ephrim’s expression softened and he nodded. “The gnolls, right?”

“Yup,” Throndir said, putting a hand briefly on Ephrim’s shoulder before turning away. “I’ll see you in the morning, Ephrim. Promise I won’t be late to breakfast.”

-

Year 1 —

Ever since Ephrim had crashed—literally—into the underground garden, he’d taken it upon himself to turn it into something useful. Whenever Throndir couldn’t find him on the University grounds, he was in the grotto, crouched among the weeds, directing the volunteers who’d offered him their help. From what Throndir could tell, Ephrim found this task both an extension of his duties and something of a hobby. At the very least, he always looked more relaxed after he’d spent a couple of hours down there, similar to the way Throndir felt after going out into the woods.

It was where Throndir found him now, standing at the end of the path they’d cleared leading to the wellspring. Most of the garden was still overgrown, a sign of its long abandonment, but Ephrim stood by a few rows of orderly plants sprouting out of tilled soil, and Throndir recognized them as all having medicinal properties. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

“I was looking for you,” Throndir said as Kodiak trotted over to Ephrim, eagerly sniffing at the moss under their feet. Ephrim patted Kodiak on the back before turning to face Throndir as he walked over. “We made some progress on the storeroom. Couldn’t salvage anything, but we cleared away the bigger pieces of debris, so we’ve got a little bit of space back.”

“We’ll need to figure something out,” Ephrim said, frowning. “If we can’t store food—”

“I know,” Throndir said. He sighed and crossed his arms. “But we don’t have enough good stone to rebuild the spots where the roof pulled down the walls, and we don’t have enough lumber to make a new shed. Not after repairing the floors in the dormitories. And we had to do that. It wasn’t safe.”

Ephrim sighed too, short and annoyed. “Obviously, but Red Jack’s right. It’s going to be bad in the long run if we don’t do anything.”

“I don’t think we have much of a choice,” Throndir said. “Hey. It really does look good down here. You got a lot done.”

“There’s still a ways to go,” Ephrim said, tugging at his gloves. He’d started wearing them all the time now to hide his wound, and this pair was already patched and faded, stained with dirt, clearly not made for working in a garden. “Most of this stuff is just weeds. They choked out a lot of what was growing here before, but if we can make the space for it, we should be able to grow some food along with herbs. Root vegetables, things like that.”

Throndir looked around the cavern, surprisingly spacious, and thought Ephrim had a point. They wouldn’t be able to grow much—it wasn’t the open space of farmland—but it would be a start, and it was well protected from the elements. The worst of the blizzards had stopped, but the temperature hadn’t shifted yet, still winter cold, and no one really knew what the next season would bring. If they could get a garden going, at least they’d have something if it proved too difficult to work the land around the University.

“It’ll get there,” Throndir said, bumping his shoulder against Ephrim’s. “We’ve got foraging and hunting, and a lot of the refugees brought rations with them. We’ll survive for a while.”

Ephrim took a deep breath and sighed again, long and slow. Then he dropped to sit on the ground, staring at the rippling spring like it might provide answers. After a second, Throndir sat down too, propping his chin on his hands. Kodiak turned around to look at them, then walked over to lay behind them both, his back pressed to theirs. When Ephrim didn’t say anything, Throndir turned his head to look at him, but Ephrim’s expression was complex and indecipherable. The scent of flowers and the sound of water filled the silence, along with Kodiak’s heavy breathing as he fell asleep.

“I want to do more than just survive,” Ephrim finally said, looking away from the spring and over to Throndir. “You know?”

“Of course,” Throndir said. “Like, this all sucks. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck.”

“This really wasn’t how I thought my life was going to go,” Ephrim said with a pained smile. “I used to go to all the fancy parties around Rosemerrow, eating expensive food and talking to politicians. And now Rosemerrow doesn’t even exist, and I’m planning a farm.”

“Things change, huh?” Throndir said, trying to imagine that other version of Ephrim. After six months at the University, Throndir found it surprisingly difficult to picture. “You’re pretty good at this, though.”

“I mean, I’m good at a lot of things,” Ephrim said, and Throndir laughed a little. “You don’t know me that well, Throndir.”

“Okay, not yet,” Throndir said, grinning. “I’m getting there, though. What else are you good at?”

Ephrim gave him a suspicious look, like he thought Throndir might be teasing him. “I’m an amazing dancer,” he said, dead serious, “and I know a lot of poetry.”

“Fancy,” Throndir said. “There wasn’t a lot of dancing or poetry in Auniq. Mostly just, like, chores, honestly. It was like they were always preparing for another disaster. I mean, I guess another disaster kind of did happen, huh?”

“Kind of,” Ephrim agreed, tilting his head. “What about you? What else are you good at, other than the Ranger stuff?”

“Um, I dunno. That’s kind of my thing.” Throndir laughed again when Ephrim’s face twisted up with annoyance. “I didn’t go to school or have any fancy training, you know? Everything I learned was to help around Auniq.”

Working the sparse fields even in snowstorms; learning to carve wood for function rather than beauty; how to skin a rabbit, and how to make your food last during a lean year; how to keep a fire going through the night. How to find your way through a blizzard, and what to do if you got trapped. Those were the things Throndir had learned as a child, the things he’d been able to teach others when winter had arrived in Velas. He was proud of that, of how his skills had made a difference then, and how they continued to make a difference now. But it did make him wonder about certain things, the same way he’d wondered when he’d first left Auniq.

If he’d been born in another life, would he still have been the Ranger? Or would he have found another calling, never meeting Kodiak, never listening to the animals in the forests, never becoming an adventurer. In that other life, maybe he’d never have died at all.

“I’m pretty good at mending clothes,” is what he finally said, pushing away his thoughts. “And leatherwork.”

Ephrim hummed, expression thoughtful, as if he was filing away the information into a drawer carefully labeled with Throndir’s name. “Pretty useful where you grew up. Do you like it?”

“I guess I don’t mind it,” Throndir said, tugging self-consciously at the coat he wore over his armor. He’d mended it more times than he could count since leaving Auniq. Some of it was done too hastily to look nice, but the stitches had held, and that had been more important than whether or not his hunting leathers were fashionable. “Hey, actually,” he continued, reaching over to tap the back of Ephrim’s hand. “I could make you some new gloves if you want. Sturdier ones, so you don’t mess up your nice pairs when you’re down here. Those look like they’re about to fall apart.”

“Oh,” Ephrim said, looking down. His gloves really were a mess, and Throndir had a feeling Ephrim had done some of the patching himself given how uneven they looked. Throndir doubted Ephrim had learned to mend clothes when he was part of the Creed, and he was still figuring out how to use his left hand more than his right. “Um, I mean, you don’t have to do that. Aren’t you busy? These are fine.”

“I can find time,” Throndir said, shifting so he could lay on his back, head resting against Kodiak, staring up at the grotto ceiling. There was still the hole where Ephrim had first fallen through, and light reflected off the damp stone like a sparkling gem, strange plants growing in crevices along the walls. It was so unlike anything Throndir had ever seen. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll make working on the garden easier.”

“Well,” Ephrim said, a little stiffly, “then, I appreciate it.”

“It’s part of working together here, right?” Throndir said, closing his eyes. The sound of the spring was calming, and his muscles were starting to ache from hauling rubble out of the remains of the storeroom. “It’s really peaceful down here. I get why you like it so much.”

Ephrim hummed again, and his arm bumped against Throndir’s as he mirrored Throndir’s position. “You and Kodiak can come down here whenever. I mean—it’s not like it’s private or anything, and it gets a little cold at night, but if anyone’s used to that…”

He trailed off, and Throndir huffed out a laugh, because it wasn’t like Ephrim was wrong. “I’m gonna take you up on that,” he said, and Kodiak barked softly in agreement.

-

Year 2 —

Water had soaked through his clothes almost to his skin, Kodiak looked absolutely miserable, and every time Throndir looked back to check on Ephrim, he could see Ephrim shiver despite his attempts to hide it. Between the unrelenting rain and the strong winds, they were both chilled to the bone, and, unlike Throndir, Ephrim wasn’t used to being out in the elements like this. Guilt sat heavy in Throndir’s stomach. Ephrim had been counting on him for help foraging for extra food and medicinal herbs after they’d sent the main hunting party back with some game, and normally going slightly farther afield wouldn’t have been an issue.

Then the rain had started.

Throndir had first seen rain when he’d left the Mark of the Erasure, and he’d stood beneath the clouds as it fell from the sky, unable to hide his wonder. He’d lost that memory briefly to the Word Eater, and he still remembered his relief when it had been returned to him after the Word Eater’s defeat.

This rain was nothing like that gentle shower, though. This was a torrent, like standing beneath a freezing waterfall. It poured down so hard that the droplets stung when they hit his skin. Overhead, a branch snapped from the weight of the water, crashing down to the forest floor somewhere close enough that he felt the ground tremble with its impact. They needed to find shelter, and soon.

He’d barely had that thought when Kodiak barked, jumping over tree roots as he ran ahead. Throndir could just make out his shape, obscured by rain, but he knew that bark meant Kodiak was on a trail.

“Come on!” he shouted to Ephrim over the noise of the storm. “Kodiak’s got something!”

He held out his hand, not wanting them to get separated, and was surprised to feel damp skin meet his own. When he looked down, he saw that Ephrim had taken off both his gloves, which must have grown uncomfortable from water. It had been months since Ephrim hadn’t worn gloves, and Throndir could see dark nothingness had spread up the tips of his fingers on his right hand. Throndir looked away, uneasy at the sight of the strange wound, and tugged Ephrim onward.

They stumbled after Kodiak as fast as they could manage, trying not to slip on wet leaves or trip over obstacles hidden in puddles. Ephrim’s hold was tight, and Throndir squeezed his hand, as close to a promise as he could make.

And then, suddenly, they found themselves in front of a cave. It appeared out of nowhere, perfectly hidden among the foliage and crooked trees. Kodiak stood right at the entrance and shook himself dry, water splattering against the stone wall. Throndir could see evidence of animals once using the cave as their home, but everything was old, long abandoned. It was dry, and big enough to both stand and lay down. Throndir didn’t think they’d find anything better, and tugged Ephrim inside.

He dropped Ephrim’s hand and then his pack, followed by his bow and quiver. Even though he didn’t need to sleep, the emotional exhaustion of navigating through terrible weather had left him drained, and Throndir found himself wanting to rest.

“This is miserable,” Ephrim said, unhooking his cloak. It dropped and hit the ground by the cave mouth with a splat, and Ephrim grimaced as a puddle began to form beneath it. “I almost miss the snow.”

“I definitely miss the snow. Kodiak is gonna smell so bad,” Throndir said, which earned him a displeased bark. “Come on, we need to dry off and start a fire.”

For a moment, Ephrim looked apprehensive, and Throndir thought it was just discomfort at the thought of getting undressed. Then he saw the twitch in Ephrim’s right hand, and he remembered that there had been a time when Ephrim hadn’t needed to worry about starting a fire. Without saying anything else, Throndir bent down to dig the supplies from his bag: flint stones, torch, some coals wrapped in cloth he’d been saving for an emergency. Well, this was certainly an emergency. If they were stuck here for longer than a day, they’d have to try and find some dry wood, if there was any left to be found.

He arranged some loose stones in a circle, then piled the coals in the center, followed by the oil soaked rag from the torch. The flint sparked when he cracked them together, and it only took two attempts for the fire to catch, growing steady under Throndir’s care. Then he stepped away to peel off his outer layers, not wanting to accidentally douse the flames.

Beside him, Ephrim made a frustrated noise. “Throndir,” he said, tone carefully neutral. “Could—I need your assistance.”

Throndir looked over as he tried to squeeze out some of the water from his coat near the cave mouth. Ephrim had managed to get his first layer of armor off, well-practiced at working with one hand by now, but his second layer seemed to be giving him some problems. The water had made his sweater stiff and heavy, and frustration was clear on his face.

“Yeah, of course,” Throndir said, laying out his coat to dry as best he could before moving over to Ephrim. “Just over your head, right?”

“Yeah,” Ephrim said, not making eye contact. “Thanks.”

Throndir grabbed the hem of the sweater with one hand and the left sleeve with his other, pulling it up and over enough for Ephrim to slide his left arm free. He tugged the turtleneck loose as Throndir pulled it the rest of the way over his head. Ephrim took care of the right sleeve, carefully pulling it down, first to his wrist, then away from the hand, as if he was worried what would happen if the fabric came in contact with the darkness. It was easy to tell this was a well-practiced, nightly routine.

“Boots too?” Throndir asked, because it didn’t seem like Ephrim wanted to ask for more, and he crouched down when Ephrim nodded. The buckles were easy, and Ephrim helped before leaning back against the wall. Water had soaked through from the top where his pants were tucked in, making it harder than it should’ve been to tug them off. Ephrim still didn’t make eye contact as Throndir placed the boots to the side, leaning over to pull off his socks.

“Thanks,” Ephrim said again, quiet this time, a little more real. Throndir nodded and gave him a small smile, standing up to get the rest of his own clothes off, too.

He wasn’t actually sure if staying in soaking wet clothes would harm him now that he was a vampire, but it was uncomfortable, and peeling off the rest of his layers was a relief. He rang out the water as best he could and laid them out to dry, then did the same with Ephrim’s clothes, not waiting for Ephrim to ask. Throndir didn’t mind helping, and he could tell it was hard for Ephrim to admit he couldn’t do certain things on his own anymore.

“Did you bring any food?” Throndir asked, dragging both his pack and Ephrim’s over to the fire. Ephrim was already sitting next to it across from Kodiak, arms curled around his bare chest, hunched over as close to the fire as he could get. He’d pulled his hair loose, and the damp strands fell over his shoulder, longer than Throndir had expected. Ephrim usually kept it tied back, ever since it had gotten long enough to do so.

“Not enough for more than today,” Ephrim said. “It’s not like I could have predicted—” He broke off, and gestured vaguely towards where the rain was still pouring.

“That was definitely a surprise.” Throndir passed Ephrim his bag, then opened his own and pulled out some of the rations he always kept on hand. Sometimes they went to Kodiak, if he was being honest, but he’d made the decision to always keep some on him after he hadn’t needed to eat anymore for this very reason. “Here, in case we’re stuck.”

“You think we’ll get stuck?” Ephrim asked, though he sounded like he already knew the answer. He took the food from Throndir but didn’t eat anything.

“Honestly? I have no idea,” Throndir said. “I’ve never seen this sort of rain before. I’ve barely seen regular rain before.”

Ephrim snorted. “It’s usually not this bad, I promise.” He sighed and tucked his hair behind his ear. “God, I hope the hunting party made it back okay.”

“They had enough time to get back before the storm hit,” Throndir said, thinking about when they’d split off from the group. “I’m more worried about leaks. Some of the dormitories are really old.”

For a few seconds they both fell into silence, thinking about who would take charge of repairs and whether or not they had the proper supplies to actually make the repairs. If the damage was extensive, they’d probably have to just put some pots under the leaks and hope for the best.

Throndir jumped at a sudden pressure against his arm, surprised to find that Ephrim had moved closer to lean against him. Ephrim’s skin was warm, the lingering effects of carrying Samothes’s fire for so long, but Throndir felt him shivering, could see his skin pricked with cold. After a second, he lifted his arm to wrap it around Ephrim’s shoulders, tugging him closer.

“Sorry if I’m cold,” Throndir said, as Ephrim relaxed against him. “I think it’s a vampire thing.”

“Everyone’s colder than me, it’s fine,” Ephrim said, careful to not let his right hand make contact with Throndir’s skin. “It’s still helping. I don’t have a blanket.”

Throndir tucked his chin over Ephrim’s head, and leaned back against the cave wall to get more comfortable. Ephrim pushed closer, his chill finally starting to subside, and Throndir squeezed his shoulder.

“You should try to sleep,” he said, as Kodiak’s snores got louder and the fire crackled in front of them. “Maybe the rain will stop by morning.”

“Hope so,” Ephrim grumbled, wrapping his left arm around Throndir, his right hand tucked close to his chest. “Sleeping on the ground sucks.”

“You’re sleeping on me,” Throndir said, amused, but Ephrim didn’t answer, the stress of the day finally catching up with him. His breathing evened out and the tension seeped out of his limbs as he fell asleep, face tucked against Throndir’s neck.

Outside, the rain kept falling steadily all through the night.

-

Year 3 —

“This was your friend?” Mee Kosh asked, leaning heavily on his cane beside Throndir. They stood in the cemetery, the late afternoon sun a warm contrast to the cool breeze.

“Yeah,” Throndir said, looking down at the headstone he’d carved for Fantasmo. Of course, there wasn’t a body buried there. There hadn’t been anything left of that shadow created by Arrell for them to bury. It felt important, though, to make some sort of memorial. Something that proved Fantasmo had been real. “Kind of. It’s complicated.”

Mee Kosh hummed. “Friendship is always complicated. I told you that once, a long time ago.”

Throndir sighed, crouching down to brush away some of the dirt on the headstone and pulling up a weed that had sprouted beside the flowers. “Yeah, you did. But I thought maybe—I wanted it to be better here. I thought things were getting better.”

And things had seemed better that first year, when the residents of Auniq had all arrived at the University, a mixed collection of goblins and snow elves and people like Throndir, who were somewhere in between. Maybe it was that the new threat had pushed them closer together, the shared horror over the Heat and the Dark and the star stuff making it easier to bridge that gap, but for a time it really had seemed like things might work out. Sure, Throndir hadn’t spoken to his father or any of the other members of the old Auniq Council over the past three years, but he’d hoped that was a personal grudge rather than remaining hatred for the goblins.

Clearly he’d been wrong. It sat heavy in the pit of his stomach. If he’d tried harder—or maybe if he’d protected the goblins more—

“This is what happened in winter,” he said, looking up at Mee Kosh from where he was still crouched down by the grave. “What happened in Auniq.”

Mee Kosh was silent for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face. “You can put two seeds next to one another in the ground, and they will grow, but they may not grow together,” he said slowly. “Or they may. Sometimes, one plant eats the other. Sometimes one grows too fast, shades the other, and prevents sunlight from feeding it. Sometimes… sometimes they grow together.”

He looked down at Throndir, and when he smiled, it was wrinkled and proud. “You, Gnik, you helped. You helped grow together. But more seeds drop. Grow apart again. Hm?” He gestured at the flowers growing on Fantasmo’s grave, and then at the weed Throndir pulled up, before folding his hands over each other on his cane. “Never one thing. But never many-thing, like you, either. Always a mix.”

They stood together, faces turned towards the setting sun. It hurt, but Throndir understood. There was a reason he’d left, a reason Mitta had a left. It was hard to be a many-thing, sometimes. Hard to find a place where you could safely grow.

“Find me near the woods south, Many-Thing,” Mee Kosh said, placing a hand on Throndir’s shoulder and squeezing tight. Despite his age, there was strength in that touch, and comfort, and a familiarity Throndir hadn’t experienced since he’d been a child, when his father had still acted like a father. “If you ever have questions about where you come from.”

Throndir nodded, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “Thanks, Mee Kosh. Be safe, okay?”

Mee Kosh squeezed his shoulder again, and then his hand dropped. Throndir didn’t turn to watch, just listened to the sounds of his footsteps crunching through the grass and remnants of snow. The footsteps paused, and Throndir heard Mee Kosh thank Ephrim for his hospitality before continuing on his way. Throndir rubbed his face, taking a deep shaky breath, and finally pushed himself back to standing. He needed to—he should talk to Corsica, see if they had any refugees they could move into the newly empty dormitories. And he’d need to re-do the hunting party schedules, since he’d relied on the snow elves and goblins probably more than he should have, but they’d had the experience others were lacking. They’d be able to reallocate some of the supplies, too. The brutal reality of rationing meant that it always helped to have less mouths to feed.

“Hey,” Ephrim said softly. He touched Throndir’s elbow, just a light press of fingers, and when Throndir looked over at him, worry was clear on Ephrim’s face. “Are you—” He broke off and sighed. “No, I know you’re not okay. That’s a stupid question.”

“Ha,” Throndir managed, bleakly amused. “Yeah. You heard him, right?”

“Not everything.” Ephrim picked some grass off his sleeves, and Throndir realized he must have been cleaning up the cemetery while he waited. “I was trying to give you space.”

“I just wanted to help, you know?” he finally said, after taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “I tried, when winter first hit. They called me back to Auniq. Can you imagine me doing diplomatic negotiations?”

“Honestly no,” Ephrim said, and Throndir smiled a little. “Flattery gets you everywhere in politics and you’re not exactly good at that.”

“I’m not gonna lie to people if they suck.” That made Ephrim laugh, soft and light, and Throndir smiled a little more. “You’re right, though. I didn’t do a lot of the work. A friend of mine did. I was mostly there to try and prove it was okay to be friends with goblins. That it was okay to be a goblin. It worked, sometimes. It wasn’t all bad. But it’s hard to change minds. The Word Eaters messed a lot up.” He rubbed his face again, inhaling deeply, a little unsteady, trying to keep his emotions in check. “I really just wanted to help.”

Ephrim stared out at the northern woods, tree tops visible from the cemetery hill. Finally he sighed. “Did I ever tell you my full titles?” he asked, a pained slant to his mouth. “Prince Ephrim the Gifted, His Summer Son, Lord of the Coming Spring, Prophet of the Unwavering Flame, Silver Hand of Samothes. Kind of a mouthful.”

“Worse than Hadrian,” Throndir said.

“Because I’m more important,” Ephrim said, teasing. “Lord of the Coming Spring. Prophet of the Unwavering Flame. I was so convinced I was going to be the one to end the winter. To bring back the sun. The hero of Hieron.” He sighed, a long exhale that seemed to make him diminish in size. “I guess I did do that, technically. But it didn’t feel particularly heroic.”

His right hand hovered over the hilt of the sword strapped to his belt, but he didn’t touch it. “You were the one who told me that being the hero sometimes meant making hard decisions. And that’s true, but I don’t think—that’s not the whole thing, you know? Sometimes it’s just trying your best to do what’s right. It’s trying to help. Even when things look bad. Even when it doesn’t work. And maybe we carry some regrets, but it would’ve been worse to not try, right?”

Ephrim’s shoulders straightened, and he looked backwards towards the University. “Besides,” he said, turning to Throndir, smiling again, “you’ve made a difference here. Aren’t you training that little oni kid? That’s you helping.”

“Blue Jay, yeah,” Throndir said, grimacing. “He’s good with stationary targets but not so good with moving ones. It’s a work in progress.”

“I know it’s not the same,” Ephrim said. “Obviously you’re allowed to be upset. Just try and remember all the good you’re doing here, okay? That’s important too.”

It was a hard thing to remember when this loss felt like such a personal failure, but he knew Ephrim was right. They’d managed to keep so many people alive despite their supplies being chronically low, despite the remaining piles of snow and the torrential rain. They’d made the beginnings of a real community here, and hopefully their defenses would hold for as long as possible, long enough for them to find some sort of solution. Or at least long enough to enjoy whatever time they all had left.

Throndir looked at Ephrim, meaning to say something else, but as Ephrim tucked some hair behind his ear, Throndir saw a hint of a rash climbing up his neck, past the collar of his sweater. It was the same rash the Ordennans had first developed last year. At the time, as it hadn’t spread to anyone else, they’d brushed it off as possibly an allergy to something in the environment that didn’t exist in Ordenna. So this—this was new.

“Hey. When did this happen?” Throndir asked, turning fully to face Ephrim, gesturing at the spot on his own neck where the rash was on Ephrim’s skin. “Are you feeling okay?”

Ephrim grimaced, not making eye contact. “It looks worse than it is, honestly,” he said, but tilted his head to the side to give Throndir a better look. After a second, Throndir reached out to pull the turtleneck down. The irritated skin didn’t cover too much space, but if the Ordennans were anything to go by, there were probably other spots hidden underneath Ephrim’s armor. It was obvious Ephrim had scratched at it, too, and Throndir sighed.

“It’s just the rash?” he asked, pulling his hand away. The fabric moved back into place, mostly covering up the evidence, and Ephrim shifted some of his hair to cover it up completely. He’d started wearing it down more recently, and Throndir wondered if this was the reason why. “Did you get any of the salve from Rosana?”

“It’s just the rash,” Ephrim confirmed, rolling his eyes. “I think it would be pretty obvious if there was anything else.”

“I’m just making sure. You didn’t say anything about this, so,” Throndir said. Petulance tinged his voice, but he didn’t like that Ephrim hadn’t told him. If Ephrim was sick, he needed to rest; they both had too many responsibilities, and they’d both seen what happened to people who tried to push through. Besides, if it did get worse—Throndir didn’t think he could take losing another friend.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Ephrim said. He finally looked up at Throndir, expression a little apprehensive. “If it gets worse or something—I’ll tell you, okay? I promise.”

Throndir nodded, then sighed and slumped against Ephrim, who laughed and wrapped his arm around Throndir to support his weight. “This was a really, really bad day.”

“I know,” Ephrim said, patting his back. “Do you need a hug? Do you need Kodiak?”

“He’s chasing after some birds. I don’t want to ruin his day, too.” Throndir let his forehead fall onto Ephrim’s shoulder. “A hug would be nice, though.”

Ephrim laughed again, more air than sound, and moved his left arm up and around Throndir’s shoulders to pull him close. Throndir wrapped his own arms around Ephrim’s waist, face hidden against Ephrim’s clothes, and let some of the regret take over, just for a moment. It was so heavy. He had a feeling it would always be heavy. Some things never got any easier.

Finally he pulled away, the lingering scent of flowers following him as he went, a sure sign Ephrim had been in the garden that morning. Ephrim’s arm fell away, and he adjusted the fall of his cape as he turned back towards the University.

“Come on,” he said, beginning to walk with the expectation that Throndir would follow. Of course, he did.

-

Year 4

Leading Fero into the Last University meant seeing it with new eyes. Four years in one place made it easy to forget how much everything had transformed. He’d told Fero that it was hard to feed and shelter a multitude of people, some of whom didn’t get along, and of course that was true. But even though it hadn’t ever been easy, there it all was: Rosana sitting and mending clothes with some of the other Velesians, Corsica barking orders to her remaining Unstill, Jerod overseeing the defectors from Ordenna as they practiced swordplay. The others—mothkin, halflings, orcs—ran between all the buildings, talking, laughing, working. Fero had asked why there were chances here, and this, to Throndir, was the answer: because they could live here, and as long as they were alive, they had the chance to have a community, to have something close to normal.

“What’s this building?” Fero asked as they passed by the First Wing, and Throndir heard the sound of muffled voices from inside. The First Wing had taken the least damage over the years of abandonment, and they’d been able to quickly repurpose it as a classroom. As one of the only spaces the kids of the University used as often as the dormitories, it had also become something of a hangout spot. Even when classes weren’t in session, it wasn’t unusual to find a few kids inside avoiding their chores.

“We’re teaching students in there,” Ephrim said, gesturing for Fero to follow him. He opened the door just wide enough for them to look inside, the muffled voices gaining clarity. It was a few young Velesians, their heads bent close as they played some complex game with cards and whittled pieces of wood. One of them slapped a card down on the table and laughed, sliding the pieces to her side while the other two complained. “It’s a day off, though.”

Fero watched a moment before stepping back, and Ephrim quietly shut the door behind him. “What’re you teaching?”

“Honestly?” Ephrim said, leaning against the wall of the building. “Anything that we can. We have a lot of resources from the University, so. I mean, Benjamin’s been getting pretty good at magic.”

“Who?” Fero asked, expression blank.

Throndir said, “Oh.”

Ephrim said, much more helpfully, “Hadrian’s kid.”

“Oh, him!” Fero snapped his fingers. “He’s still here? He didn’t, like… go with his dad?”

Throndir grimaced. When Sunder and Glasseye had arrived with the broken sword, Ephrim had admitted he’d assumed their friends were dead, lost to the Heat and the Dark, or the star stuff, or maybe even killed in a lower Strata after meeting Samol. Any of those explanations would’ve made sense after three years without word. But Fero had left almost immediately. Why wouldn’t he have assumed they’d return on schedule?

“No, he…” Ephrim trailed off. He looked at Throndir, one shoulder shrugging while he tilted his head to the side. “We should explain that too, probably.”

“Yeah,” Throndir said, sighing.

“They’re in a sword,” Ephrim said, also sighing.

Fero blinked. Throndir nodded understandingly; he’d felt a similar incomprehension when Jerod had first told them, too.

Ephrim gestured vaguely as he continued, “His dad, and Hella, and Lem, and Adaire, and…”

“Yep,” Throndir said. “Plus other people.”

“We don’t know how many people,” Ephrim added. “We’re trying to get them out.”

“What kind of sword?” Fero asked, but his expression shifted to one of realization even as Throndir said, “Hella’s sword.”

“I figured it out,” Fero said, nodding quickly. “I said it, and then I was like, I know what kind of sword.”

“Yeah,” Ephrim said, resting his head back against the wall.

“I guess there’s probably that star in there?” Throndir said, trying to remember how many people he’d personally seen Hella kill with that sword, let alone all the people he hadn’t seen her kill. It was a lot, honestly.

Ephrim hummed. “I believe they said every person killed with that sword in some way is in the sword, but…”

“That’s messed up,” Fero interjected, and Throndir could see him wondering if Hella was the reason they were trapped.

“Hadrian, Adaire, Hella, and Lem aren’t dead,” Ephrim continued. “Or at least, we don’t think they are. So we should be able to get them out.” He paused. “In a few years.”

“How?” Fero asked.

In Throndir’s opinion, it was hard to tell whether or not his interest was genuine, but it wasn’t like they had a good answer anyway. “I’m letting Uklan Tel worry about that.”

“Yeah,” Ephrim said. “We’ve got a guy for that.”

For a moment, Throndir thought Fero was going to actually take this seriously, and then he said, “Too bad we don’t have Uklan Show here.”

They both stared at Fero, while Fero grinned with an oversized sense of pride.

“That was pretty good,” Throndir said, patting Fero’s shoulder.

“And that ends the tour,” Ephrim said, but he laughed as he pushed away from the wall. “I have to go check in with Corsica. Did you want to show him the—?”

“Yeah, sure,” Throndir said. “You’ll like the garden, Fero. It’s underground? And we’ve got it mostly cleaned up now, so you can actually walk through the whole thing, finally.”

Ephrim tousled Fero’s hair as he walked past, heading back towards the direction where they’d seen Corsica. “Good to have you back, Fero.”

A few months back they’d redone the entrance to the garden, shoring up the stairwell down to the cavern and adding a rope hand rail, but Throndir still almost lost his footing when, halfway down, Fero asked, “So, like, what’s up with you and Ephrim?”

It wasn’t the question he’d been expecting, in the middle of his explanation about which plants grew in which parts of the garden, and it caught him so off guard that Throndir had to catch himself on the rope in order not to slip and fall. Kodiak barked in an amused way from the bottom of the stairs where he’d rushed ahead to wait.

“What d’you mean?” he asked, pausing to look back at Fero once he’d regained his balance. “I dunno,” Fero said, scratching at his chin, a comically thoughtful expression on his face. “You guys just seem, like, weird. Super close.”

“I mean,” Throndir said, “it’s been four years, Fero. I’ve spent more time with him than I spent with any of you guys.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Fero hopped down a couple more steps, then kept going past Throndir. “It’s just, you kind of talk like you got married and didn’t invite me to the wedding, that’s all.”

Throndir sighed and looked skyward for patience. “Honestly Fero, I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean.”

“I dunno,” Fero said again, then laughed when Kodiak barked. “Yeah, exactly! What Kodiak said.”

They finally reached the bottom of the stairs, and Fero walked to the center of the garden. He looked around, hands on his hips. Fero always looked so much more comfortable surrounded by nature than anywhere else, which was something Throndir could understand. Even four years later, there were days when the mass of people living in the University made Throndir itch beneath his skin. On those days, he’d go out with Blue Jay or the gnolls, tracking animals and leading the hunting party even though he hadn’t shot an arrow in two years. Just running through the trees could settle some of that anxiety.

“This place is great,” Fero said, grinning back at Throndir. “Hey, can I make a den down here?”

“You know what?” Throndir said, because that, at least, was something he could answer. “Go for it. Just be careful, alright? We’ve put in a lot of work down here and Ephrim would probably kill you if you ruined it.”

“Yeah, sure.” Fero’s grin sharpened a little, and Throndir could just see him holding back another joke. “I promise. I’ll be super careful.”

-

Year 5 —

The sun was bright, high above them, and the snow had almost entirely melted away by the warmth of spring. Early that morning, Throndir had taken Blue Jay out into the woods to practice tracking animals, and the weather couldn’t be more perfect. Kodiak ambled along, happy to sniff at trees and take it easy. Throndir was enjoying himself too, finding comfort in the stillness of the forest, the sounds of birds and insects, the rustling of leaves in the trees. Although many of the plants were new and strange, everything still felt so alive. Sometimes Throndir could feel its heartbeat, even now, three years after hanging up his bow.

Three years had changed a lot of things about Blue Jay, too. While he hadn’t ever been nervous with the bow, there had been a sense of uncertainty in his decision-making. Sometimes that uncertainty still shone through—he took being the next Ranger very seriously—but in terms of practical skill, Blue Jay was reaching the point where Throndir had nothing else to teach. The rest would come from experience.

“We should head back,” Throndir said, glancing up at the sun. They’d left at dawn, and it would be near lunch by the time they reached the University gates. While a day out in the forest sounded great, there was always work to be done, and Blue Jay had lessons in the afternoon.

“Sure,” Blue Jay said, hopping down from a tree branch. He’d climbed up to peek at a bird’s nest, the eggs inside just beginning to show hairline cracks. Even in the midst of Hieron’s chaos, life continued.

Kodiak led the way back to the University, running ahead and then doubling back to make sure they were still following. Blue Jay was quiet, rather than the usual stream of questions and stories, and at first, Throndir wasn’t sure if he was daydreaming or just distracted. Then Throndir realized he was deep in thought, lost in his own head. When they were almost back to the University, Blue Jay finally broke the silence with a deep, heartfelt sigh.

“Wow,” Throndir said, glancing over and slowing his pace a little. “That sounded heavy. You wanna talk about it?”

“I dunno,” Blue Jay said, his shoulders curving inward. “I just—I guess I’m kind of confused?”

“About what?” Throndir asked, whistling at Kodiak to slow down, too.

“Um, like, a bunch of things,” Blue Jay said. He scratched at his cheek and didn’t make eye contact. “Like—how do you know if, um, you like-like someone.”

Benjamin, Throndir thought, smiling. Cute. Extremely obvious, but cute.

“Well, I think there’s lots of ways,” was what he actually said, stretching his arms above his head. “And I think it’s different for everyone. For me, it’s always someone I want to be around all the time, someone I don’t get sick of. I’m used to being on my own, and I like it, so when I find someone I want to be around all the time, it’s different? I know it’s different.” He looked up at the sky, thinking about what it had felt like when he’d been Blue Jay’s age, how overwhelming every single feeling was. “When my day is better just because they’re in it. When I want to hold onto them and not let go.”

Blue Jay made a face, huffing out another sigh. “That’s so—you make it sound so easy!”

Throndir laughed. “I think it gets easier. Sorry if that’s not very helpful.”

“No, I mean, it’s not helpful, but it also is? I’m just so—” He broke off, making a frustrated noise. “Confused! Annoyed! I dunno!” He kicked a rock, sending it flying into the trunk of a nearby tree. Some leaves showered down as a squirrel flung itself to another branch, making angry chattering noises. “Sorry! Sorry!” Blue Jay called to the squirrel, then sighed again. “I just don’t know what to do.”

They broke from the treeline, and the stone walls surrounding the University came into view. At the open portcullis, Ephrim was talking to one of the halfling guards on patrol, and when Kodiak barked, he turned to look over at them and wave. Throndir smiled and waved back as Kodiak ran over to go say hi, then stopped walking, putting a hand on Blue Jay’s shoulder to keep him back for a second. He really did look miserable.

“Look,” Throndir said, trying to sound as comforting as possible. “I’m not trying to tell you it’s not hard. It’s always hard? Deciding what to do, what to say, if you should even say anything—it’s always hard. But I think—it’s about deciding if that risk is worth it. It’s like when we decided to come here, five years ago. We didn’t know what the University would be like. We didn’t know if the shield would work. And that was scary. But the risk was worth it, because it gave us a chance to protect all of you.”

Throndir put his arm around Blue Jay’s shoulders, tugging him in for a half-hug. Blue Jay was just about the same height as him now, and wasn’t that strange, too, getting to watch someone grow up, helping them become the best person they could be. “You’ll figure it out. You’ve got plenty of time.”

Blue Jay nodded, his expression clearing a little bit, though he still didn’t look great. “Yeah. Thanks, Throndir. I just—I can’t talk to my dad about this stuff. He doesn’t really—I don’t think he really gets it, you know? He’d probably tell me to just take Benjamin on a dragon hunt—I mean, uh—” Blue Jay’s cheeks darkened to an indigo, and Throndir patted him on the shoulder.

“I promise I won’t tell anyone,” he said, mostly because he didn’t really need to tell anyone, but Blue Jay didn’t need to know that. “Go grab some lunch and get to class. We can talk more later if you want.”

Before Throndir could react, Blue Jay gave him a quick, tight hug, then ran off towards the gate. Throndir heard him shout, “hi Lord Ephrim!” as he ran past, and Ephrim laughed and waved in response. Throndir followed at a slower pace, waiting for the guard to move on in her patrol route. He shrugged at the curious look Ephrim sent his way as he approached.

“What was that about?” Ephrim asked, left hand on his hip. His right arm, always covered by long sleeves and gloves, was now also hidden beneath a cape draped across his shoulder. Throndir had noticed the change in Ephrim’s wardrobe a few months back, but found himself struggling to ask about it—he knew he wouldn’t like the answer.

“I’m sworn to secrecy,” Throndir said, grinning when Ephrim raised an eyebrow. “But if I say it’s about Benjamin, you can probably guess.”

That made both of Ephrim’s eyebrows shoot up, but he smiled too. “I promise I won’t say a word. I just wanted to tell you what the scouts came back with. Did you have lunch plans?”

“I do now,” Throndir said, following Ephrim in the direction of the kitchens. “Anything good in the report?”

“You were out there today. You saw what it’s like.” Ephrim shook his head. “Wait until we’re away from everyone,” he added quietly, leaning close before heading into the cafeteria. It was easy enough to pack a basket with some food, dodge the polite small talk of the people on kitchen duty, and make their way down to the gardens.

While technically a public space—and despite the improvements over the years—it was rarely utilized outside of the actual work schedule. At this time of day, a few people were tending to the plants near the storeroom gate, but the area near the spring, where they’d found moments of quiet ever since that first year, was empty. They’d moved some large stones over as rustic seating, and Ephrim perching on one in all his nice clothes was as entertaining as always.

“So, the new plants,” Throndir said, once they had all the food out, including a bone for Kodiak. “They’re changing the landscape.”

“They’re completely different!” Ephrim said, stabbing at the vegetables in his stew with more force than necessary. “And they might be fighting back the Heat and the Dark, but they’re killing everything else to do it. Remember when we got stuck in that storm? When you found all those dead plants?”

“Yeah,” Throndir said as he tore off a piece of bread. “That’s how they’re growing, huh?”

Ephrim nodded and sighed. “Exactly. I think—” A sudden cough broke off his sentence, his body curling inward until it passed. Throndir frowned with growing concern. Much like the Ordennans, Ephrim’s illness had lingered over the years, sometimes receding to nothing but a rash, easily hidden by his clothes. Other times it confined him to his room, his body exhausted from coughing, headaches, and sore joints. It was something he took day by day, and Throndir always worried when it seemed to worsen.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Ephrim said when he turned back, but he didn’t quite make eye contact. “I’m fine. Really.”

“Well, you’re not,” Throndir said, his patience thin. “But it’s not like there’s anything I can do about it. Why’re you hiding your hand more?”

“Subtle,” Ephrim mumbled, resting his chin on his left hand. His right hand was resting on his lap, half-obscured by his cape. “I don’t like the stares. You’d think some of these people had never seen an injury before.”

There was honesty in his expression, a melancholy that Ephrim usually kept hidden, and it made something ache in Throndir’s chest.

“We can talk about something else,” he said quietly, and smiled a bit when Kodiak shifted from where he’d laid down to lean against Ephrim, offering comfort. “You can make fun of me for not making my gun yet if that helps. Victoria was so unimpressed the other day when she stopped by.”

Ephrim smiled, slyness replacing the sadness as he shifted his gaze back to Throndir. “Such a disappointment. Maybe you should stop running around the woods so much, huh?”

“I can’t believe you’re blaming Blue Jay for this!” Throndir said. Ephrim laughed, and the dark mood slipped away.

They finished the rest of their meal talking about mundane things, trying to stay distracted from the difficulties that plagued the University, but by the time they finished the meal, a pink flush had settled high on Ephrim’s cheeks, a sure sign of fever. Throndir bit back his concern, but he still stuck close to Ephrim as they walked back up the stairs just in case he lost his balance. When they reached the top and Ephrim had to lean against a building to catch his breath, Throndir couldn’t stay quiet anymore.

“You need to go rest,” he said, stepping close to Ephrim so he could keep his voice low and also shield him from sight. “Was it bad this morning?”

Ephrim closed his eyes and sighed. “I spent the first two hours of my day in bed,” he admitted. “I swear, I really was feeling better.”

“Those are the days when you’re not supposed to push it.” Throndir put his hand on Ephrim’s back, and glanced around. Most people in the area seemed distracted by their tasks, and many were still eating lunch; it was as empty as it was going to get. He knew Ephrim didn’t like to show signs of weakness, but Throndir was past the point of caring. Ephrim could barely stand on his own. It seemed absurd to care more about appearances than his safety. “Come on. I’ll help you up to your room.”

Ephrim opened his eyes, and Throndir could see him wanting to refuse. Finally, he pushed away from the wall and let Throndir take some of his weight, careful to keep his right arm tucked close to his body. “I was supposed to meet with Rosana after lunch.”

“I’ll tell her you couldn’t make it,” Throndir said, leaving out the part where he’d see if she could get Ephrim some more medicine, too. “Unless you want to have that meeting in your bedroom.”

“God, no,” Ephrim said, and Throndir huffed out a laugh as they walked slowly towards the tower.

-

Year 6 —

Walking up the stairs to Ephrim’s rooms felt more difficult than usual. Maybe it was because he knew the coming conversation wouldn’t be easy. Or maybe it was simply the weight of the past year on his shoulders, and the difficulties of the coming year, too. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand why Fero was so upset. Sometimes, all Throndir wanted to do was flee into the new rainforests with Ephrim and Kodiak, maybe hunt down Arrell in Velas, survive on their own until Hella’s blade was repaired. They’d managed okay in that storm all those years ago, and certainly they could manage now.

He wouldn’t, of course. Unlike Fero, Throndir couldn’t abandon these people. Rosana had been right when she’d told him the refugees needed people to look up to, people to rely on. He and Ephrim had accepted this responsibility six years ago, and they couldn’t abandon it now.

For a moment, Throndir paused on the landing outside Ephrim’s door, letting himself feel that weight and his frustration, before finally knocking, two soft raps.

“Come in,” Ephrim called, resigned, and he didn’t look surprised when Throndir opened the door, Kodiak squeezing past to say hello. “You took longer than I expected.”

“I tried to get Fero to stay,” Throndir said, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him. “I don’t know why I bothered.”

Ephrim was standing in front of the fireplace, the fire lit and crackling, warming the room to a nearly uncomfortable temperature. His gloves were off, thrown on the armchair, his right hand—his lack of a right hand—on display. There was still the shape of a hand, an impression of one, a hand made up of nothing, and the strangeness of that was more unsettling than Throndir had expected. It had gotten so much worse since that day at the New Archives six years ago. He should’ve paid more attention.

“This is what Fero always does,” Ephrim said, his tone neutral, accepting.

“That doesn’t make it okay,” Throndir countered. Kodiak flopped down on the carpet, stretching out in front of the fire. Ephrim smiled a bit at the dog, and then smiled at Throndir, too, a weary smile that mirrored the weight Throndir had felt outside the door.

“I mean, no, but we should’ve expected it.” Ephrim shrugged. “It’s not that I don’t like Fero, but…”

“He never wants to take responsibility,” Throndir said, his annoyance returning. “He doesn’t see how his actions impact people. I don’t think he cares. He needs to learn that sometimes doing the first thing that pops into his head is what makes things worse.”

“And it’s not our job to teach him that,” Ephrim said. “Throndir—”

Before he could say anything else, the coughing started, all too common these days. Ephrim turned away, left arm coming up to cover his mouth, his whole body shaking with it. Kodiak sat up, concerned, and Throndir instinctively moved towards Ephrim, even though there wasn’t anything he could do to help. He let his hands fall back to his sides, fists clenching as he waited for Ephrim to recover. When the coughing finally subsided and Ephrim turned back around, spots of blood dotted the inside of his sleeve.

“Ephrim?” Throndir managed, voice strangled. He couldn’t—it was like his mind didn’t want to connect the blood with Ephrim’s health. The thought that Ephrim had deteriorated so much in such a short amount of time left Throndir so, so cold.

“Don’t—” Ephrim started, then he grimaced and sighed. “Can you get me some water?”

Throndir nodded, mechanically moving over to the jug sitting by Ephrim’s bed. He poured fresh water into the empty glass, barely aware of what he was doing, and walked it back over.

“When did it get worse?” Throndir asked. “I didn’t push—I know you didn’t want to talk about it—but Ephrim, this is—”

“I’m dying,” Ephrim cut in, taking a sip of the water and grimacing again. Probably at the taste of blood. “I told Fero the truth.”

“I thought you just meant your hand,” Throndir said, because the hand had always seemed bad enough. Kodiak laid back down, resting his head on his front paws, sadness in his eyes. Throndir could relate. “I thought maybe—if we stopped the Heat and the Dark—”

“Yeah, maybe. If that’s even possible.” Ephrim took another sip of his water, then placed it down on the table beside the armchair, the glass clinking against the wood. “It’s not like the Ordennans. For them, it’s because of the steel. Stop using it, and they can recover. But it’s inside me, Throndir. It’s going to burn me up eventually.”

His words hung in the air between them, a tragic prophecy. The truth of it didn’t make it any easier to hear.

“There’s gotta be something we can do,” Throndir said, his voice edging towards desperate. There had to be a way to save him, or at least stop his health from getting any worse. He wondered if he should talk to Victoria about it—Throndir wasn’t sure that making Ephrim a vampire would stop the Heat and the Dark, but it was worth exploring, especially if—when—there weren’t any options left. Victoria would be back soon. She usually circled back every few months, and maybe by then they’d have some ideas that Dr. Lake could help with, too.

He couldn’t lose Ephrim. Not now. After all these years, it was more than just losing another friend, and the thought of that, without even—

Something tightened in Throndir’s chest. He remembered what he’d said to Blue Jay over a year ago, when he’d been so confused and unsure about his feelings for Benjamin. Throndir thought about the time he carved out in his days for Ephrim, how sometimes that was the only way he made it through another week, how being with Ephrim was so comfortable and so easy. He couldn’t put a finger on when, exactly, he’d started loving Ephrim, but the depth of it was like surfacing from a deep lake, as if he’d been holding his breath for years and now, finally, there was fresh air in his lungs.

“It’s okay, Throndir,” Ephrim said, indulgent, his face sad and beautiful. Throndir’s heart didn’t beat anymore, but he still felt frantic, overwhelmed. “The sun’s breath helps with the cough, and I’m already used to not using my hand. I can manage.”

“Okay, yeah, but—” Throndir started, but he didn’t know how to say all the things he wanted to say. He needed more time to think about it. His mind was a chaotic swirl of memories, a cascade of images: every time they’d had a meal in the garden, the way Ephrim looked when he was standing at the war table, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Ephrim’s laugh, increasingly rare over the years, and his smile, the one he saved for when they were alone, the one that had always felt just for him.

“Throndir,” Ephrim said again, softly, placing his good hand on Throndir’s arm. “I can’t afford to be selfish about this right now.”

All Throndir wanted to do was be selfish. Why shouldn’t they get a chance to be selfish? Six years of dedication to the University, to the people who needed them. When did they get to rest? How many more years would it be before Ephrim could think about himself? Would he even get a chance before the Heat and the Dark consumed him? Just the thought of that was enough to make Throndir sick.

Still, Ephrim wasn’t wrong. There was never enough food, and so many other people were sick, too, and they still needed to gather enough lumber to repair the water damage from the ongoing rains. Fero refused to make any difficult decisions, and there wasn’t anyone else to pick up his slack, so once again it was just the two of them, just Throndir and Ephrim, doing their best to make it through another day. One more day, and then another, until the Blade in the Dark was repaired.

He wrapped an arm around Ephrim’s shoulders, pulling him close, enjoying the way Ephrim fit against him. He wished they had more time, more privacy, more freedom. He wished they had the luxury of selfishness.

He really wished he could tell Ephrim how he felt.

“Yeah,” he said, pressing his face against Ephrim’s hair, grown long after six years. He always smelled like the garden these days, fresh and floral and alive, and it was comforting in a way Throndir forced himself not to linger on. “You’re right.”

“Of course I am,” Ephrim said. “Anyway, I’m not going anywhere yet. Stop acting like I’m already dead.”

Throndir huffed out a laugh and let Ephrim go. Kodiak was giving him a look, like he knew exactly what Throndir was thinking, but he turned away when Throndir shot him a glare. He didn’t need to take shit from his dog. That just seemed cruel.

“One more year until the sword’s repaired,” Throndir said, reluctantly pulling his hand away from Ephrim’s shoulder. “We can make it one more year, right?”

He didn’t say that once the sword was fixed they’d have time to focus on finding a way to keep Ephrim alive, but judging by Ephrim’s smile, he’d heard what Throndir meant regardless.

“Obviously,” Ephrim said. He stepped over to the armchair and picked up his gloves, sliding them back on. They were the leather work gloves Throndir had made for him years ago, well-worn and stained from dirt and plants, and warmth bloomed in Throndir’s chest at the sight. “We’ve made it this far. I refuse to fail now.”

“Just tell me what I should do,” Throndir said, eyes tracing the line of Ephrim’s jaw, the sweep of his eyelashes, his thin shoulders. “I’ll follow your lead.”