Chapter 1: Prologue: Movement in the Night
Greg could hear a nearby, quiet sound of scratching layered beneath the traffic noise from the busy street just round the corner. When he scanned the area, the narrow side street he was walking seemed deserted, bordered by street lights and parked cars, but something was off. He couldn't shake the feeling of being watched, of tingling in that vulnerable spot between the shoulder blades, or the shiver of the hair on the back of his neck rising. A copper's instincts, he supposed, but he couldn't pinpoint a source.
Uncertain where the odd sound was coming from, he turned and kept walking down the pavement, picking his pace up a bit. He'd just had a couple of pints at his local after a boring and completely enervating day of meetings and paperwork at Scotland Yard, hoping to relax a bit before getting some late takeaway and heading home. It was a little more than a dozen blocks from the pub to his small, lonely flat, and he'd thought the walk would do him good; he'd never been bothered on the way home when he walked alone. The street lights flickered along the block and his eyes shifted, his pulse quickening at the odd occurrence.
Before he'd got five steps further, the sounds intensified, seeming to come from all around and a little above him. Greg looked up, not seeing anything moving. There was no breeze. No trees lined the pavement that might brush against the buildings and make that kind of noise. He heard a chitter, then a series of sharp, quiet taps, and parts of the building's brick facade shifted as he watched. His eyes snapped into focus on long shapes, roughly brick colored, seeming to detach themselves from the background. The shadows moved, skittering down the wall, avoiding the windows, and defining themselves into clearly impossible insect shapes.
He'd only had two pints. They'd never left his sight, so he couldn't have been drugged, but hallucination was the only explanation for these things he could think of. If it wasn't drugs, a stroke, maybe; his thoughts rushed and scrambled, unable to make sense of it. One of the things turned its triangular head on a narrow neck, reaching out toward him from across the distance with a long, jagged foreleg, and Greg shivered. It chittered and he heard answering sounds, rasping and clicking, from all around him as he froze, trying to understand what he was seeing.
Mantises. They looked like three-foot-long bloody mantises and, as his head jerked round to look, he picked out over a dozen shapes surrounding him, moving closer. The street lights blinked out around him in a slow, rolling wave, all up and down the street from where he stood, their subliminal electric buzz vanishing into eerie, echoing silence as the narrow street darkened around him. Greg took a couple of stumbling steps back, his heart shuddering in his chest as he blinked. Surely they couldn't actually be there, but their movement reflected dimly in the windows of the cars parked along the side of the street.
When two tall, bony shapes draped in long, ornate black robes stepped, rustling, out of a nearby alley, his breath stopped. They had to be twelve feet tall if they were an inch, not including the antlers. They were bipedal, he thought, but there was nothing in the least human about them. He heard the click of hooves on pavement as they moved, looking at him, but how could anything without eyes -- bloody hell, without flesh -- see anything? Their faces, or what would have been faces, were long and bone-white, bleached stag skulls, with mossy antlers whose spread was far wider than Greg was tall. They had the heavy air about them of something ancient and uncanny.
One of them raised its head and made a sound like rusted metal scraping metal, and Greg's blood chilled. The thing raised a limb and gestured at him with what passed for a gnarled, bone hand, wreathed in dark cloth. Greg felt a sharp pain, like a razor of freezing wind, pass between his ribs, and he shivered violently. The keen intensity of the pain suddenly made the whole surreal situation all too real.
Its dry, white jaw began to move and it spoke tongueless words in that same high, rusted metal voice. Greg found them incomprehensible. Dim green sparks like fireflies drifted from its bare, flat-toothed mouth in curls on breathless currents of air as it approached. The mantises were closing in around him.
Terrified, Greg did what any sensible unarmed man would do. He ran.
Chapter 2: From the Tongues of Birds
The door to the office in Mycroft's flat opened without a sound. Not expecting anyone in the hour just before dawn, he raised his head from the papers on his desk and glowered at the intruder. "Sherlock." His lips tightened into a sour frown. "What are you doing here? You're well aware of the risk you're taking, showing yourself in London. This is completely unacceptable; you know what we agreed to when I said I would cover for you."
Sherlock rolled his eyes, his hands jammed into the pockets of his long, dark coat. He sauntered through the door and stood before Mycroft's desk like an emaciated, slack-shouldered raven, with an expectant expression on his face.
"Whatever drove you to my door is obviously important, then."
"Yes," Sherlock said, his voice a low, familiar rumble, "and you will find it concerns you directly."
Mycroft's eyes slid over his brother, noting his recent travels. Sherlock had been careful, avoiding public places and taking to the rooftops. One trouser leg bore the traces of his having knelt on dry pavement within the past hour. There was an air of urgency in his stance, beyond his usual impatience. The whole situation left Mycroft uneasy. "Do tell."
"Lestrade has been taken." Sherlock's eyes locked with Mycroft's, watching for a reaction. Mycroft's face remained impassive despite the immediate spike in his pulse rate.
"When, and by whom?"
Sherlock drew one long, pale hand from his pocket and handed Mycroft a shard of something. It was sharply oblong, about the size of an SD card. "About five hours ago."
Mycroft examined the shard; it was a thin sliver of pearly, translucent chitin, shaped rather like a laurel leaf, and slightly stained with rust-brown dried blood. Gregory Lestrade's, no doubt. Mycroft felt a chill in his gut but shut it down immediately. He looked up at Sherlock. "A stekkik." Sherlock nodded. "He fought."
"Yes, but I found no evidence that he was seriously injured."
Mycroft's eyes closed for a moment and took a steadying breath before he looked back up at his brother. "Wanted alive, then. Any indication of who sent them?"
"None I could discern. They were not alone." Sherlock's eyes flicked away for a moment, unable to face Mycroft. "The traces of what accompanied them were too muddled to interpret."
That was worrying. "How did you find out about this? And why were you in London to begin with?"
"I was tracing Moran's business, Mycroft. It was necessary. As to Lestrade's abduction, the sparrows told me. I followed one to the site; he was taken from the street, not far from his flat. This is bad, Mycroft. It's very bad."
"Yes," he said, "it most certainly is." Mycroft's mind flitted through a lengthy catalogue of possible perpetrators. His conclusion frightened him. "This is about the Boreas alignment."
"I fear that is the case." Sherlock couldn't hide the unease in his eyes or the tilt of his shoulders. "I know how you despise legwork--"
Mycroft nodded, his tongue thick and dry in his mouth, and a cold knot tightening in his chest. "But you cannot go. Your work is already before you."
"Find him, brother. Bring him back." There was tension in Sherlock's voice, and the hint of a plea.
After a deep, slow breath, Mycroft said, "I shall do everything within my power to accomplish that." And he intended to make whomever had taken Gregory suffer for it.
"What might I do to help, without jeopardising my own work?" The request was a major concession for Sherlock and Mycroft was loath to refuse his aid.
"I need time to prepare for this endeavor, but there are contacts who will need to be notified. Quietly. You will not put him at undue risk by revealing our knowledge of his abduction."
Sherlock's stiff posture relaxed. "Of course. You are aware that the alignment occurs within the week."
"It had not escaped my notice; I am well aware of the urgency of the situation, should that be the purpose in taking him. We can at least presume that Gregory is still alive for the moment." He stood and gestured toward the door. "Come. I can give you a list. There's a great deal I have to do before I can take action."
Chapter 3: Lamentations in a Very Foreign Tongue
The powerful stench of stale piss, eye-watering and intensely ammoniac, filtered into Greg's senses, dragging him back to consciousness. He wondered if he were lying in an alley. His head ached, he was cold, the pavement was unforgiving, and he felt like he'd been pummelled pretty thoroughly. He thought maybe he'd been mugged on his way home from the pub but, when he tried to raise one hand to his face to rub the grit from his eyes, he found his wrists were tightly bound together in front of him. He opened his eyes and blinked, uttering a soft, pained groan.
There was very little light, and what there was flickered slightly, with a dim yellow glow. He was lying on a thin pile of rough, filthy straw in a claustrophobically tiny stone room. It wasn't much longer than he was, and maybe half as wide as it was long. If he'd been able to spread his arms, he would likely have been able to touch the side walls easily with his elbows still bent. There was a thick metal door in the front wall with a tiny, barred window three quarters of the way up its length. It was the only window, and the flickering light that came through it cast long, softly moving shadows of the bars against the wall. He groaned and rolled to his side, examining the metal bands around his wrists.
They were thick manacles with only two short links of chain between them, giving him very little room to move his hands; he could separate them only a couple of inches. In the dim light he could see no hinge or seam, no lock, only the roundness of the shackles themselves, and the heavy, seamless links of chain. Engraved in the metal were symbols that were barely visible. It might have been writing but, if so, it wasn't in any language or alphabet he recognised. Greg had no idea how he'd been locked into the things, given there seemed no way to open them without a hacksaw. It bothered him; how had they even got the things on him without burning him badly?
At least his hands were bound in front of him. If he needed to piss he'd be able to unzip his trousers. Not that there was even a bucket for him to piss into. The metal of the manacles was chilly against his skin, and they were tight; he could turn his wrists within them but nothing more. There wasn't enough room for him to squeeze his hands through, even if he dislocated a thumb -- something he'd had to do once before when he was still a constable. Things were going to get uncomfortable with his arms trapped like this if he was kept in them for too long, but he was glad he wasn't actually chained to the wall.
With a push off the floor, Greg sat. He rubbed his face again and sighed, the stubble scratchy against his palms. More awake now, he staggered to his feet and walked the two short steps from where he'd lain over to the door, looking cautiously out the tiny window, the top of which was placed a little below the height of his chin; he had to stoop to look out. A corridor lay beyond, lined with several other visible doors like the one he was locked behind. There was a small table with a pile of candles on it between two of the doors. The light source in the room was a candle on a sconce on the far wall. He didn't hear the sound of anyone else, and the air outside his cell was musty and stale.
Greg reached up and took one of the window's bars in his hands, trying to shake the door, but there was no give. The thing was locked up tight, and bloody sturdy; the window was about a foot and a half wide and maybe a foot tall, so there was no hope of escape through that. He had no idea why he was in what looked for all the world like some medieval dungeon, but it was obvious he wasn't going anywhere until someone came by with a key.
Having a little more available light there at the window, Greg gave himself a once-over. He still had his clothing and his coat, though all his pockets were empty and his watch and belt were gone. His hands were scraped and bloody, so he'd obviously resisted whomever had attacked him. He had a long scratch along one cheek, still stinging a bit when he touched it, but scabbed over. One arm had been jabbed pretty deeply several times by what looked like a row of something thin and sharp, maybe nails or really narrow gauge spikes. He couldn't remember if his tetanus shot was up to date and hoped that whatever he'd been poked with wasn't going to give him a raging infection.
He felt bruised all over: both arms, a shoulder, his back, one hip, and his neck. There was a sore spot and what felt like a pretty good goose egg on the side of his head above his temple. He also itched in about a dozen places. Bloody straw was probably infested with fleas or bedbugs or god alone knew what other kind of biting vermin. Just his luck. Greg rested his forehead against the bars for a moment and stared out into the hallway. It was time to try and find out what this was all about.
"Oi!" he shouted. "Is anybody out there?" There was no response except the echo of his own voice. "Can anyone hear me?" The silence remained, thick in the enclosed space.
Images were coming back to him now, of things shaped like immense mantises, and tall, skeletal creatures in robes, huge and antlered. He wasn't sure if they were hallucinations or nightmares, but their presence had the unsettling feeling of solid reality, and he shuddered at the memory. It couldn't have been what had happened, could it? Nothing like that really existed. Definitely not the stag-skulled things, anyway. It was entirely unnerving, and Greg had no idea what to think about any of it.
There was no way to know where he was. The door wasn't going to yield, nor were the manacles that shackled his wrists. He cursed quietly and turned to examine the rest of the confined space around him.
There wasn't much he could see in the weak candlelight. The walls were large blocks of stone, irregularly shaped. There didn't seem to be any mortar between them, but they were fitted together in tight, precise lines. Even if he had something to work with, he'd not be able to remove one of them. As he walked around the tiny space, his fingers found traces where someone had left marks in the stone. Like the symbols on his manacles, he couldn't make heads or tails of any of it, though he traced the lines with one index finger trying to decipher them.
People didn't get tossed into dungeons anymore. Hell, were there even any dungeons at all in London? Not that didn't give tours, at any rate. Certainly not anything that would have filthy straw and bedbugs and tallow candles on the walls. It was like some bloody history book, except for the weird things he'd been attacked by in the street. That had been more like... well, like some bizarre fairy story, really. God, he had to have been nutted pretty hard to imagine something like that. Giant bugs. Things with antlers like some bloody extinct Irish Elk. It couldn't have happened that way.
But the stone was real, rough and cold beneath his fingers. The manacles on his wrists were real. The bars and the metal door were real. Something had happened on his way home from the pub, and he hadn't been that pissed when he was attacked. The whole mess was more than a little frightening. Arguing with himself wasn't going to get him anywhere.
It didn't take long to examine the entire space, as there wasn't much of it. He could touch the ceiling of the cell. Greg was glad he wasn't actually claustrophobic, or he'd have been flipping out at how confined he was. Mostly he just wished he could breathe some air that didn't stink. With a resigned sigh, Greg slid his back down the cell wall to sit on the straw again. He leaned his head back against the unyielding stone and closed his eyes, waiting.
Unable to do anything else, Greg dozed sporadically. It didn't help his headache much but at least if he were afforded some opportunity for escape he'd be rested. Just for something to do, he got up now and then and looked out into the hall beyond his cell. The only thing that even hinted at the passage of time was the slowly dwindling taper in the sconce on the wall opposite.
He tried shouting again each time he got up but there was never a response. He'd no idea how long he had been there already and wondered if he'd been missed, if anyone was looking for him. It wasn't like the Met was going to start searching for him until he'd been gone for a few days without any trace. Greg found himself wishing Sherlock were still alive; the arrogant git would probably be halfway to finding him by now. That, though, was nothing more than a pain-tinged fantasy. Sherlock was gone, had been dead for months. Greg had no idea if anyone had even reported him missing yet, and there really wasn't anyone else who would care that he'd been kidnapped by whomever -- whatever? -- had put him in this bloody dungeon.
Back when Sherlock was still alive, Greg thought maybe Mycroft would have noticed, but that was mostly because he watched anything having to do with his brother. He and Greg had been friendly enough in the years they'd known one another, and Greg liked the man most of the time -- was even attracted to him -- but Mycroft was so wrapped up in his Machiavellian bureaucratic plots that it was unlikely he was still paying attention to Greg. They got together for a friendly tipple occasionally, but that was about it. He wasn't important to a man like that anymore, someone with subtle power, and responsibilities that Greg had always suspected were global in scope. Since Sherlock had gone, both of them had been a little awkward, and Greg hated the guilt that flared when he was around Mycroft. It had been easier just to let some distance crawl between them, to drift away. It didn't hurt so much that way.
The candle was nearly burnt down to a guttering stub when he heard a grating sound. A key in a lock, maybe, and then the rough scrape of a heavy door opening just beyond where he had been able to see from his window. Greg bolted to his feet and leaned down to look out. "Hey! Hey, where am I? Why am I here?"
There was a shuffle of feet and Greg saw... something walk down the hall with a large, cluttered keyring in one hand and a small, rough, wooden tray in the other. A heavy-looking mace hung from its belt. It -- he? -- was short, his face about level with the little barred window in the cell door, but he was bulky and looked like he could take down a tank if he had a mind. The thing had a round, knobby face, with skin like smooth brown bark; a flowing, woody grain was noticeable along its contours even in the dim light. He had a huge, doughy nose drooping above his thin, jagged mouth. The thing's hair, if you could call it that, looked more like little birch leaves, dark and green and nearly triangular in the dim flicker. Its tiny eyes were shadowed in the candlelight, and it said nothing. Greg could hear its breathing and the friction of its clothing rubbing as it moved. He was pretty sure he wasn't hallucinating, but whatever was going on was entirely out of his realm of experience and thoroughly fucking strange. It was like being stuck in some nightmarish fairy tale, and that was possibly the most frightening bit of all. If this was real, how the hell was he going to get out of here?
"Look, won't you tell me what's going on? Please? I just want to know where I am."
The thing ignored him. Maybe it didn't understand English. Maybe it couldn't speak at all.
Greg watched, silent, as his captor set the tray down and changed the candle, lighting a long, thick taper off the old one and replacing the stub, which he blew out and dropped onto the tray. When the creature turned to Greg's door, he rattled through the keys on the ring and unlocked the barred window. Greg waited patiently, his heart thumping so hard that he could feel it in his throat.
The thing turned and picked up a small metal bottle and half a small loaf of what looked like dry bread from the tray, then opened the window and reached in with one hand, offering the bread first. Greg grabbed the thing's arm and tried to pull, wanting to unbalance it, knock its head on the door to stun it, and maybe find a way to get the keys or force it to release him, but it was steady and rooted as a tree, unmoving when Greg threw the entire weight of his body back against it with a sudden jerk. It grunted and dropped the bread on the cell's floor, grabbed him by one bound wrist and yanked Greg's arms out through the window until his face hit the metal with a painful thud. Greg cried out in pain as the thing shoved him back, and he dropped to the floor on his arse, smacking the back of his head on the stone. The bottle was then dropped in through the window, where it landed with a straw-muffled clank, and the bars were locked again.
Greg was on his feet in only a moment, trying to rattle the bars despite the reeling in his head and the trickle of blood draining from his nose, but the leaf-haired creature was already on its way out of the hall, presumably heading off to perform its other duties.
"Bloody fucking bugger it to hell!" Greg shouted. He leaned his forehead against the bars and closed his eyes, angry and feeling frustrated and helpless. At least he'd not broken his nose. With a sigh, he bent down to pick up the bread and the bottle from the filthy floor. He stared at them for a moment. The bottle was probably water.
Greg shook his head and seated himself again, propping the bread -- dry as sand with a texture like dwarf star material -- on his knee, and opened the bottle, taking a sniff. It smelled vaguely stagnant, perhaps a little brackish. He recapped the bottle and set it down on the floor beside him.
He was thirsty and hungry. Greg had no idea how long it had been since he'd last eaten, but it was probably in excess of twelve hours. His stomach grumbled at him. None of what he'd been given was going to taste like anything that ought to be labeled food, but he had no idea how long he'd be held here. Not that he wanted to eat anything that had been dropped into the filth on the floor of the cell. It wasn't like they were going to need to drug him to keep him in here, so he wasn't worried about that, at least. If the thing's strength was any indication, he doubted he'd be able to fight his way out of the situation, though he would try if he had to. If he could get his hands on a weapon, his odds would increase a little. Not much, though, he admitted.
The impossible situation weighed heavily on him. If he really were stuck in some sort of faery world -- the thing that had brought food and water was obviously not human, nor were the things that had captured him in the first place -- he wondered what the rules were. He'd read fairy tales when he was a kid, had read myths, heard snippets of folklore. Now and then he'd hear weird rumours on the streets of uncanny things that he'd dismissed as the drugged out ravings of hallucinating junkies, but now he was wondering what he'd missed, and if they really had seen things. Things like this.
There were always weird rules in otherworld places, in faery mounds, in the realms of gods. Things like not eating the food. Persephone'd fallen into that one, and look where that got her: three months out of the year in the land of the dead because of a few pomegranate seeds. If the thing that had brought the bread and water had looked even a little more human, Greg would have thought his eyes were tricking him in the bad light, but leaves for hair? Not a thing he could pass off as a quirk of vision.
He set the food and water aside, tucking them into the pockets of his overcoat; they barely fit, but it would do and it would keep them out of the crap on the floor at least. He knew he was taking a risk. If he refused food and water for too long, it would weaken him or kill him. He'd not be able to try to escape if an opportunity arose. But if he did eat or drink something, he might be trapped here permanently, never able to return to London again, and no escape option would save him from that. It was a hard choice to contemplate, but he thought he had a day or two before he'd have to make an irrevocable decision.
Maybe he'd be able to get out by then.
Ultimately, Greg decided to use the water he'd been given to wash up a bit. He'd been bloodied and the puncture wounds needed tending, even if the water wasn't the cleanest thing going. The bleeding from his bruised and tender nose had stopped reasonably quickly, but there was dried blood on him elsewhere that required a little scrubbing to remove. He'd used his undervest to wash up with. It was possibly the cleanest clothing on him, given the condition of the cell.
Greg was careful not to actually get any of the water in his mouth, just in case.
He slept again after that, figuring that nobody was likely to come and check on him for several more hours at least. In the sunless tomb where he'd been buried, time was already losing its meaning. There was no way to know if the time here was the same as the time in London, or even if it ran the same way; sometimes those fairy stories had people popping off into the otherworld for lunch and coming back three hundred years later to find the world changed and everyone they'd ever known dead and gone. Not something he really wanted to contemplate. He thought they would probably only bother feeding him once a day, though there had to be a reason for his captivity. Eventually someone would come and he'd find out what was going on.
The sound of a struggle roused him, his head still thick and pained. His eyes opened into the shadows of his cell as thumps and scrapes and hostile voices invaded the near-silence he'd become used to. He didn't understand a word of what was being said. Their language was strange and liquid, its cadences alien. The voices were masculine to his ears: one a deep and rumbling bass, the other a rough, sonorous baritone.
Greg rose and went to the window, grasping the bars and looking out, but whatever was happening wasn't in his very limited field of vision. The candle on the wall across had burnt about halfway from when it had originally been lit, so it had to have been hours since the last guard's entrance. He heard a door open and the hollow thump of a body striking something solid and wooden, then a closing door, with the argument rising in intensity.
"Oi! What's going on?" Greg called out, hoping that he might at last get someone's attention. The fight continued, with scuffling, and the metal door of another cell opening. There was a harsh thud of something hard striking flesh and bone, and a pained yelp, then the sound of a body hitting the floor and a cell door closing. "Hello, somebody talk to me."
The only response was a weak groan, and the sound of the guard leaving, the dungeon door closing behind him with a resounding boom. Definitely had his knickers in a twist, that one. Greg was just glad none of it had been aimed at him.
"Hey, mate, are you all right?" Probably a stupid question, given the sounds of violence he'd heard, but he had to say something, to try to elicit some response.
The other prisoner moaned and moved around for a few minutes, then fell silent. Nothing Greg said roused him.
Maybe later, when the bloke regained consciousness, Greg thought. Maybe he'd get some answers then. Assuming the prisoner could understand English. It certainly wasn't a given.
There was singing -- just a single resonant voice, and the slow, steady beat of a hand booming on thick metal. The sound of it shivered Greg's spine as he woke, high and keening, and the hair on his neck and his arms rose as the voice wailed its song. Despite the way it set Greg's skin crawling, the sound had a strange, haunting beauty to it, otherworldly and visceral. There wasn't a word of it he could understand, but he could feel the agony and the despair in it, all the way down to his marrow.
Greg's breath was caught by it, his breathing shallow and hesitant as he listened. The tune was like nothing he'd ever heard in his life. It was graceless and rough yet still oddly melodic and he felt snared by it, as though it were some eldritch incantation. It echoed against the stone walls of the dungeon around him, reverberating, frightening, and intense in the shadows. He wondered if this was the sound that Odysseus heard when he sailed past the sirens bound to his mast, because it drew him to his feet, and he leaned his face against the bars, trying to see the singer.
There was nothing more in his field of vision than there had been before; grey stone walls, a dripping, dwindling candle on a sconce, the little table, and a couple of doors in the wall opposite. The singer had to be the other prisoner, though these lyrics bore no resemblance to the fluid syllables of the language the prisoner and the guard had been speaking. Greg closed his eyes as he leaned against the door, feeling the despair of the song burrowing into him.
He hated the confusion and ignorance he felt, not understanding what was being sung, or what had been said, or really anything at all about his situation. None of it made sense. How the hell did a middle aged London copper get kidnapped and dragged into this strange, medieval fantasy novel? Given the type of injuries he had, he couldn't imagine he was hallucinating; his head hadn't been whacked that hard. God knew he wished he were seeing things, but no. This was too real, too solid, and too fucking strange to be anything but actually happening. The ache in his empty stomach and his dry mouth might not be the stuff of dreams, but they were too painfully ordinary to be part of a nightmare.
More than anything, he just wanted someone to talk to, someone he could ask about all of this mess. Maybe the singer, when he'd finished. Greg wasn't going to interrupt. The strangeness of the music felt inviolate and untouchable and he didn't want to break the spell.
The song went on for a long time and the fearful eeriness of it didn't abate. He was shivering as the last notes faded into echoes, absorbed by stone. Greg let himself catch his breath before he spoke. "That was incredible, mate," he said. "Creepy as fuck, and I hope I never hear the like again, but incredible. What the hell was that?"
There was a surprised huff and a chuckle. "Oh, you've good taste, you do. Only a true artist would recognise that for the beauty it was." Another rough chuckle sounded, and the ragged baritone continued. "That was the lament of Grendel's mother, what she sang when her son was murdered." The accent was unfamiliar, and it held echoes of something archaic.
"What, you mean like Beowulf?"
The voice turned cold and flat. "Don't mention that name, laddie. There's them what still remembers the Geats here, and not well, either, on my life."
Just as Greg thought things couldn't get more bizarre. "Sorry, then. Never mind. So, what's your name? What are you doing down here?"
"My name?" The other prisoner's voice was incredulous. "You want my name? You're bold, I'll give you that -- bold as buttons. Bold as long, sharp teeth. Why don't you tell me yours, first?" That last was asked with an eager menace that shook Greg's composure.
"No, sorry," Greg said quickly, "forget I asked. I mean, what should I call you?" What was it, in the old stories? His head was spinning. Names were power. Guessing someone's real name meant you could make them do things or force them to give you things. And he'd just asked for that. Stupid.
"Oh, you're too clever by half," the prisoner muttered. "Wanting my name, you were. Well you can call me Durstel, but it won't do you any good. You'll not bind me by it. It's a fine name, it is, though, so don't use it too often or you'll wear it out. And what of you, stranger?"
"Dave," Greg said. "Just call me Dave." God, anything but giving away his real name here. He didn't know how much of it somebody needed, so he wasn't going to breathe a bloody syllable. "Where are we, and why are we here?"
"It's Sralthan's dungeon, and I'm here because I picked the wrong song for the great one's meat tonight. A word of advice, laddie, and this one for free." Durstel's voice fell to a dangerous growl. "The next word will cost you dear. Never try to guess what one of the great ones wants. Even when they're in a good mood, you can't never tell. I'm lucky they didn't serve me up beside the boar."
Greg leaned against the door, standing simply for the sake of standing now. "Right. Thanks. No guessing what the great ones want." Powerbrokers were the same everywhere, he supposed. "But where are we? I mean does this Sralthan bloke live anywhere near London?"
"London? Never heard of it. Must be some backwater with three huts and a donkey."
"Er, no. Not really." Well, that was helpful. "So where is this place? Where does Sralthan have his dungeon built, I mean? In a city somewhere?"
"Sralthan's not a he."
"Sorry, she, then."
"Nor a she." The prisoner chuckled. "A riddle for you, Dave."
"Oh, no. I don't do riddle games, Durstel." Greg had never thought he'd find himself playing Bilbo Baggins in a dungeon. Didn't really care for it, either. What has it got in its bloody pocketses, indeed.
"No?" Durstel's voice was plaintive and whining.
"None of it matters so much, really. Sralthan's kind aren't like you, nor even like me." Durstel snorted. "I think maybe ea grew from a gem, like a seed. From garnets and pearls. Long ago. Back before it sprouted, the Tree that gave life to us all."
"Well that doesn't make any bloody sense," Greg mumbled.
"It's not supposed to. Nothing makes sense. But Sralthan was in a ripe good mood tonight, said something about having got a great prize, one ea's been waiting a long time for. I'd thought to sing a celebration song, but ea was having none of it. None at all. And so I'm here. With you."
"Speaking of which, why am I here?"
"Well, I'd not have a way to know that, would I? You're not from the keep. If you were from the keep, you'd be here for having fallen afoul of the law, or for offending someone, no doubt. Most likely offending someone. That happens a lot, it does."
"Easily offended, some creatures. Not like me. You've not been before Sralthan yet?"
"No. Never seen the bugger. Not that stubby thing, built like a tree, that brought me bread and water, is it?"
"Oh, no. Definitely not. Sralthan would never sully eaself in a place like this. Not that ea would fit down the hall here anyway."
"You'll see ea soon, I'm sure. All justice is dispensed by the great one of the keep."
"But I haven't done anything. I was just walking down the street when I was grabbed by some huge bugs and a couple of tall things with antlers and skull faces."
There was a pause, ripe with shock. "Ohhhh, that's bad, yes. That's very bad." Durstel sounded uneasy. "Nobody sends out the ard-fiadh unless it's important." He took a breath. "You're not here for offending someone, laddie. No. A great one thinks you're dangerous."
"That's ridiculous." Greg couldn't imagine why he'd be considered dangerous in a place like this, much less dangerous enough to send something like that after him. "Which ones are the ard-fiadh, anyway?"
"The antlered ones. Hwaet! Everyone knows! How do you not know?"
"Not from around here, remember?"
"Ahh, aye. Well, don't talk to me no more. I don't need more trouble than I've got." Durstel's voice was final, and Greg heard shuffling, like he was moving away from the door of his cell.
Nothing else Greg said got an answer. He kept trying until his voice cracked from the dryness of his throat, then he dropped himself back down into the straw, exhausted and no closer to understanding what was happening than he had been before. Now, though, he had a hollow ache in his chest because he suspected he wasn't going to ever see home again.
Chapter 4: In the Halls of Hieronymus Bosch
The rattle of a key in the door of Greg's cell woke him. Shaking his head to try to rid himself of sleep and confusion, he staggered to his feet, wanting to be ready for whatever might come. When the door opened, a guard entered, while another waited in the hall. The one that came in looked a lot like the tree-thing from before, but with little red-brown oak leaves sprouting from this one's head, and from its face, like a beard. He came up to about Greg's shoulder in height, and was broad as a lorry.
The one in the hall looked more like some poncy elf out of a Tolkien movie, though he was dressed in punk leathers and skinny black denim jeans, the studs in his jacket arranged in strange designs -- words maybe? -- with half a dozen rings through one delicately pointed ear, and a thick metal crescent piercing his septum. His white-blond hair was striped with magenta and blue and he was at least a foot taller than Greg, though thin as a whippet. He wore a long, narrow sword on his belt.
The walking tree reached for Greg and he stepped back, but he hadn't far to go before his back hit the wall. "Hey, wait. Can we talk about this?" His throat was dry and his voice rough from not drinking. Tree bloke grabbed him by one arm, not bothering to respond. Its flesh was like bark, slightly rough, and it caught on the weave of Greg's coat. Greg struggled but the thing was too strong for him to do more than flail a bit. He wasn't going to get out of this right now, no matter what he did, so he gave in and let the stubby tree bloke -- a dryad? but those were supposed to be female-- pull him into the hall. When the elf came at him with a metal collar, he tried ducking away, but it was useless.
Tree bloke held Greg by both arms, and moving wasn't really an option at that point. There was a snap and the collar closed, somehow shrinking itself to fit around his throat with very little room between the metal and his flesh. When they let go of him, he staggered and reached up to grab at the collar. Unsurprisingly, just like the manacles on his wrists, there wasn't so much as a weld seam on the metal, and it was covered with what he assumed were marks like the ones on the manacles.
Poncy Punk the elf tugged at the chain, yanking Greg forward, and neither of his guards spoke. Through the barred window of one of the cell doors, Greg could see a small, mossy face with a long, thin nose peering out at him. Durstel, no doubt. Unblinking coal black eyes stared at him until Greg looked away, trying to keep himself from stumbling as he was dragged along, elf before him, tree behind.
The door out of the dungeon led to a long stairway so narrow that tree bloke nearly didn't fit through. He followed Greg, pushing, as Poncy Punk pulled on Greg's collar; Greg kept stumbling because of it. Stubbed toes and banged knees and knuckles were the least of his troubles, though, when the stairway ended and opened out into a new, wider corridor.
A half dozen of the mantises lined the corridor, waiting for them; Durstel had said someone thought he was dangerous, but this was serious overkill. The bugs were taller than he'd originally thought, having seen them in the darkened street back home. Three and a half feet, maybe. A few might have reached four. These weren't the color of brick, but rather the dusty grey of the corridor they waited in. Their carapaces might have been painted, or possibly engraved, though the images were faint and Greg couldn't decipher them any more than he'd been able to read anything else here so far. He wondered if the mantises, like chameleons, might actually change colour to blend better with their environment. Their huge, multifaceted eyes glittered in the flickering torch light.
With them was one of those stag-antlered things, the ard-fiadh that Durstel had talked about. The tips of its antlers nearly scraped the ceiling of the corridor and, this close, he could see the fine sapphire blue embroidery on its long, intricately decorated black robe. It carried a black staff that came nearly to its shoulders, and it shone like carved and polished obsidian. The bleached bones of its skeletal face were no less unnerving than they had been under the flickering street lamps of London. Greg swallowed nervously, entirely too conscious of his very dry mouth and a rather uncomfortable need to piss.
The bugs flanked him and the guards, with the ard-fiadh leading the way. As they walked, the corridors began to be lit more brightly, with oil lanterns, and eventually they were lined with tapestries and banners whose images might have been right at home in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Now and then, strange, inhuman faces peered out of doorways or around corners, and he heard whispering around him, echoing in the long, hollow spaces. The strange insect feet of the mantises scratched and tapped on the floor, and the steps of the ard-fiadh were muffled by the thick cloth of its robe.
Greg had hoped, when he'd been dragged out of the narrow stairway, that he might have some vague chance of escape. Even with a collar around his neck, manacles on his wrists, and holding a length of chain, he might have had some hope of at least running faster than the stubby tree creature, if not Poncy Punk. A chain could be a weapon, though, and he was more than willing to use it, if only he were able. The escort, however, left him completely without recourse. He was vastly outnumbered, and it was a good bet that every last one of them was stronger than him. The bugs were just bloody creepy, and he was pretty sure those forelegs were where the still-painful puncture wounds on his arms had come from.
As they met people -- and Greg used the word advisedly, because nothing looked the least bit human here -- in the corridors, they all made way for the strange, silent procession. There were more of the tree things, like the guard, and other elves, though most of them dressed more like something from a fantasy reenactment group than Poncy Punk. Furry bipedal squirrels, about the size of toddlers, dressed in tunics, skittered out of the way and into a door that opened into a huge, fire-lit kitchen, bearing bowls and cups, as though they'd been clearing tables. Greg was discouraged from staring by the tugs at his collar and he had to stay focused to keep from stumbling.
They went up another flight of stairs, this one grand and cavernous. At the top was a huge open area, a foyer or an immense entryway within the building. Ruby chandeliers hung above, like baroque fountains of blood, from the cavernous ceiling. There were tall windows, brilliant with multicoloured stained glass and crystal that scattered rainbows across the walls and floors. The floor itself was a mosaic of greens and browns, and all of it echoed the Boschian themes he'd seen in the tapestries. The images were bizarre and orgiastic, replete with sex between beings of at least a dozen species, with brilliantly costumed creatures of all descriptions, unearthly musicians playing strange instruments, and graphic images of torture that might have spawned from the visions of Dante or the nightmares of biblical prophets. Greg could only wonder what fate awaited him at the end of this procession.
The column of bugs and beasts turned, with Greg at their centre, as they paced through the great entryway, facing two doors that rose nearly to the vast, echoing ceiling above them, their tops meeting at the centre in a gothic arch. The metal was inlaid with enamels as brilliant as the glass of the windows, portraying images of feasting and entertainment; elves and winged, bird-headed people danced, dressed in medieval finery, while dragons of gold and bronze twined up the sides of the panels. Words in some twisting, sinuous alphabet wound along the edges of the scenes, like passages from illuminated manuscripts marked out in a deep, oceanic blue.
The small company stopped before the door and the ard-fiadh raised its staff and struck the door with three booming blows that echoed in Greg's ears, reverberating through his chest. The doors opened slowly inward with an unnaturally silent glide. The ard-fiadh raised its staff and gestured, and Greg was again led forward, flanked and surrounded by the bugs and his guards.
Greg nearly stopped in his tracks at the sight of the huge room, but Poncy Punk yanked on his chain and Greg stumbled forward into the vast, open hall. It was filled with beings he could hardly begin to process, some standing whilst others sat at rows of tables. Before them all, at the far end of the room, was what Greg could only imagine must be Sralthan.
It was immense. It had to be at least fifteen feet tall -- far taller than the ard-fiadh, and nothing at all like it. The "great one of the keep" was no metaphor; it was a bloody giant. The thing had a feline head, narrow and sharp, with long, tufted ears like a caracal. Its eyes had pupils like a cat's, narrow vertical slits of black set in amber, and Greg didn't dare hold its gaze. Rather than fur, its face was densely covered with dappled moss in variegated shades of green and brown. Its body was slender and its limbs were long and sinuous, with thin, branching spirals for fingers, more like vines than anything else. Its neck and shoulders were covered with a thick mane of twigs, bristling out about three feet, which moved and rippled as the thing breathed. It was a being of eerie, otherworldly beauty.
The creature was clothed in the colours of peacock feathers, all jewel tones of sapphire and emerald and topaz, and it sat with grave dignity on an immense verdigris throne, shot with copper veins. At its throat it wore a heavy gold chain bearing a pendant of a single huge teardrop pearl, about the size of Greg's head, blue-grey and luminous.
On either side of the throne stood two more of the ard-fiadh, their tall, wraith-like forms dwarfed by the great verdigris edifice between them, and the creature seated upon it; they stood uncannily still, like statues, unbreathing, each with a long, obsidian staff in one hand. Sitting on the top step below the throne was a winged, falcon-headed woman with taloned feet, dressed in a pale grey robe, silver bracelets on her wrists. She was slim and slightly taller than Greg. Greg's stomach knotted, as much from abject terror as from nausea due to his lack of anything to eat or drink in two -- maybe three -- days. His heart raced at the sight before him and, if he'd been able to run, he would have bolted without a second thought.
The very air around Sralthan shimmered with an aura of ancient power, dangerous as crackling high tension wires; he could see it, like heat waves rising from a black road under the heat of a strong August sun, leaving mirages in its wake. Greg shivered, his limbs cold with shock, his vision going spotty, moving forward only because he was being dragged.
When it spoke, in that fluid language he'd heard between Durstel and the guard, its voice shimmered in Greg's head, eating at his mind like acid. He shuddered at the resonant, liquid tones as they trickled into him; it felt like water being dripped into his ears. As the procession moved closer to the throne, and to Sralthan, Greg only grew more uneasy; having that thing's attention on him was like being flayed. It was infinitely worse than Sherlock or Mycroft had ever been. He'd have given anything for this to be one of the Holmes brothers, airing Greg's uncomfortable secrets in front of his co-workers, rather than the exquisitely beautiful, nightmarish thing it was.
The crowd around him rumbled and hissed with hushed conversation, rippling as he passed, and it only added to Greg's apprehension. When they got to the foot of the throne, Poncy Punk jerked on the chain and threw Greg to the floor; he caught himself with his hands before his face hit the ground, but the cold, mosaic stone did no favors to his knees. Greg peered up, cautious, from where he had been prostrated on all fours, as everything in the room looked at him for one long, silent moment.
Sralthan's smooth, acid voice ate into him again as it spoke, addressing the ard-fiadh that had brought him; its response was sharp and metallic, grating on Greg's nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. It was pretty obvious they were talking about Greg. He was dragged closer, without being allowed to rise to his feet. His elbows and knees scraped on the rough mosaic, his body striking the rise of the stone stairs as he clutched at the collar to keep himself from strangling on it. He looked up, gasping for breath, from the foot of the throne as Poncy Punk stood next to him, one heavily-booted foot on his back to keep him in place.
The giant head turned down to look at him, moving with slow, inhuman grace. Sralthan reached out to him and its limbs moved with the smooth, boneless glide of tentacles, its fingers uncurling to grasp Greg's chin and turn his head. They burned like nettles, but far worse, and Greg couldn't stifle his shout of pain; the touch froze him like a bug on a pin. His body tried to struggle but he couldn't so much as twitch, and Sralthan's amber eyes took him in, turning Greg's head this way and that like some curiosity in an antiques shop. Sralthan's flesh smelt of ferns in the rain, crisp, and richly green.
It spoke, firefly sparks of dim green and blue light wafting in spirals from its mossy feline lips, and suddenly Greg understood everything being said around him. "A child of mist, yes," Sralthan said, and its voice was somehow even more chilling and invasive now that Greg knew what it was saying.
"A way opener's progeny," the bird-woman answered, leaning forward to look at him closely, head tilting to one side; her voice was high and piping, with a subtle rasp like a parrot's beneath the musical tones. She looked up, her head moving with the quick, twitchy suddenness of a sparrow. "Its blood may open the sigil on the gate, if we are lucky. Regardless, you can eat its power when you open its ribs." The raptor talons of her thin, bony toes twitched on the stone beside Greg's hands, scratching quietly.
Greg's eyes widened and his head spun; they meant to kill him. That was the exact opposite of good, and he tried again to struggle, to move, to run, but his limbs were still frozen with the agonising nettle numbness, even as Sralthan's vine-tendril fingers released him and it leaned back into its seat. "The alignment is in two days," Sralthan murmured, its voice burning behind Greg's eyes. "We must depart immediately." It turned to one of the ard-fiadh. "Prepare for our travel."
The creature nodded its bony, antlered head and backed away from the throne, then Sralthan turned its attention to Greg again. "Your name," it demanded.
"Gr--" He felt compelled to answer, a pressure inside him like building steam, but he fought it. He wouldn't give that away. God alone knew what this thing would do with his name, and he bit down on his tongue to stop himself from speaking, the pain of his teeth cutting into his flesh and the coppery taste of blood sending a shock through him. Greg gasped, nauseous with it, and blood dripped from his mouth onto the floor between his fingers.
Sralthan's focus became intense, piercing him. "It fights. It refuses." The chilling, liquid voice quieted to a dangerous murmur. "It is stronger than it looks. More power, then, for the sigil's breaking. Perfection." Greg's body shuddered, his limbs not responding to his fear or his desperate attempts to move. Sralthan looked at the ard-fiadh standing beside Greg's prone form. "Take it. We shall depart."
The ard-fiadh bowed and answered, "So be it, great one," in its rusted metal voice. Greg's eyes closed, his chest flooding with a rush of panic and despair. He had to get away from them. There had to be a way.
Chapter 5: The Forest of Bones and Dusk
The keep was huge -- a walled town rather than just a castle -- and Greg stood in a wooded courtyard with a pond in the centre, staring up at the building they'd just exited. The pond was half-covered in blooming water lilies, their scent deep and cloying. Towers rose above the castle and smaller structures below. Buildings crowded together along narrow streets, while immense trees dominated the skyline outside the walls. Sequoias, maybe, he thought; they were taller than anything he'd ever seen before, with broad trunks and drooping, coniferous branches. The air was tinged with the scent of wood smoke and raw sewage, the sweet scent of the water lilies combining to make the whole thing slightly sickening.
The entire area was bustling with creatures of every description, much like the crowds on the tapestries, windows, and mosaics of the castle. Seeing the different species as living, breathing beings was even more surreal than the illustrations had been, and it drove home Greg's absolute isolation and just how very far he was from home.
He was finally starting to recover from the nettle-sting agony of Sralthan's touch. His head was still spinning, and his body was weak and shaky. The nausea from when he'd bitten his tongue to bleeding still roiled in his stomach. He didn't think he had much time left for an escape attempt, nor much strength.
Greg's eyes stung in the sun after he'd been buried in nothing but darkness and candlelight for the past who knew how long, and he squinted as he looked around him. His escort had grown to eight bugs, two of the ard-fiadh, four of the wide, squat tree blokes, a couple of lizardy things that acted like scaly mastiffs, complete with nastily spiked collars, and two elves -- Poncy Punk and another who might well have been his twin brother, for all they looked and dressed alike. The only major difference Greg could see was their choice of unnatural hair color.
He was led to a cluster of horses near the pond, their coats the dark greens and red-browns of sea glass and kelp. Their long manes were black and dripping, and they smelt of salt water and decay. Greg balked, pulling back against his collar. Kelpies? Didn't those bloody things drown people? "Oi, you," Greg rasped, trying to get Poncy Punk's attention. "You. I have to piss. Give me a minute, would you?"
Poncy Punk turned his head, his eyes the color of glacial ice, and looked at Greg for a moment. "Should have done that in your cell," he grumbled. His voice was low but strangely smooth and ethereal.
"Well, I didn't have a chance, did I, so how about it?"
Poncy glowered at him. "I'll take you to a bush." He tugged on Greg's collar and Greg followed, noting that only Poncy's twin accompanied them.
Greg stared at the elves when they got there. "What, don't I get any privacy?" They just stared back. Yeah, he'd have done the same in their position, but it was worth a try. With a sigh, Greg did his business and zipped up again, then grabbed the chain with his scraped up hands and gave it a sudden, vicious yank, putting all his weight into it and managing to pull it away from Poncy. Before he could swing it as an effective weapon, both of them tackled him to the ground, and they beat him soundly. All Greg could do was cover his head with his bound arms and curl into a ball, unable to defend himself from their fists.
When they were satisfied that Greg was sufficiently subdued to prevent another escape attempt, he was hoisted upright and dragged back to the rest of the group. The Poncy Twins didn't bother speaking to him, but they hefted him up onto the back of one of the kelpies despite his struggles.
He'd never been on a horse before, and certainly never a kelpie. Its coat was wet and glistening, and it had been equipped with just a saddle, and a halter with a lead. They were obviously not going to give Greg any reins, not wanting to take the chance that he'd attempt another escape. The chain on Greg's collar was locked to the pommel of the saddle and he tucked his feet into the stirrups. He wrapped his hands around the pommel and hoped he wouldn't fall when the bloody thing started moving, as he'd probably break his neck.
One of the tree blokes came over to him and handed up a cup of water. Greg was perishing of thirst and his mouth was dry and tacky, the taste of blood still thick on his aching, lacerated tongue. His head pounded both from the beating and from dehydration, and he knew he wouldn't make it much longer like this. Fighting with the elves, and his struggle while they'd put him on the kelpie, had taken the last of it out of him. Even if he found some way to get away from Sralthan's minions, chances were very high that he'd never make it back home. He had no idea how he could even begin to find London again. Greg reached for the cup with shaking hands, not really trusting his balance in the saddle.
The metal cup was cold, and the water was at least clean, unlike the crap they'd given him in the dungeon. He rinsed his mouth and spat, trying to kill or dilute the taste of blood. One mouthful not quite doing it, he repeated the process while the guard looked up at him. Finally, he started sipping at the water, relishing the cool of it going down his dry, scratchy throat. He gasped in relief after the first mouthful, forcing himself not to gulp the whole cup down at once, even as he hoped that maybe water didn't count here as 'food or drink' that might keep him trapped. Not that it really mattered anymore.
Slowly, he finished the cup and handed it back down to the guard. He needed more, but wasn't about to ask for it. The water had helped slightly with the ache in his head and the sticky dryness of his mouth, but not much else. He wondered if they would try to feed him before the journey started.
Greg turned his head as the guard's attention shifted back toward the castle. Sralthan was approaching, accompanied by the bird woman. It was even taller than it had looked seated on its throne. Greg shivered to look at the thing in the light of day; Sralthan was radiant, a thing of elegant, verdant beauty, even as it was unbearably alien and unnerving. The bird fluttered above the ground, only about hip-high to the giant, bustling to keep up with Sralthan's long, sedate strides. The elves and the tree blokes mounted up as Sralthan arrived, and the lizard mastiffs circled and sniffed, crocodilian and restless, between the legs of the kelpies. Four of the kelpies were loaded down with supplies, and the tree guards held their leads. When Sralthan and the bird arrived, she mounted one of the kelpies as well.
Sralthan looked down at him, its amber eyes blinking slowly, transected by nictitating membranes, before it addressed the company. "A day's journey," it said, long wood-brown canines flashing in the light as it spoke. "Let us begin."
The group formed up into a column with the ard-fiadh leading the way; Greg was in the middle, flanked by the Poncy Twins and the bugs, while Sralthan and its bird took up the rear, behind the trees and the supply train. Nothing was said as the column moved through the narrow, crowded streets of the keep. Greg looked around him at the small houses and shops as they passed, watching the inhabitants in all their bizarre variety. If they'd been human, it would have looked a lot like any small, medieval city, with people just going about their business. Somehow that just made things more disconcerting. A place like this, filled with monsters and elves and things out of myth, shouldn't be so mundane. He sighed, knowing the thought was ridiculous.
The gate to the keep was immense, and the doors swung open with slow, ponderous motion as the portcullis behind it groaned in its rising. The company waited until there was room to pass through, and Greg stared out into the forest beyond.
The trees were dense, and the rutted earthen road that led from the gate was cast in dim, green shadow as only stray beams of sunlight passed through the canopy above them. The light was like the murky edge of dusk and the forest muffled the sounds of their passing, eerie in its near-silence. He'd only ever seen photos of trees this big, from the Amazon, or from northern California, and the rainforests of coastal western Canada. He'd never expected to see such things himself. Even in his pain, he was overawed by the grand beauty of the sight, gaping around him as the keep slowly diminished behind them. The evergreen scent of the air was intense, and the undergrowth was thick and verdant. It wouldn't take much to get lost without a trace here. Greg wondered if he should chance it, later in the day.
He wondered if anyone missed him yet.
They rode for several hours. The muggy heat of the day had him sweating in the long coat he was still wearing. He couldn't take it off with the manacles around his wrists, but he unbuttoned his shirt enough to cool down a little. Greg drooped more and more in the saddle as the morning passed, aching, exhausted, hungry, dizzy, and thirsty. He kept his fingers wrapped around the pommel, though he was a little more confident of his balance after so long on the back of the kelpie. He would have expected some conversation among his captors, but none of them spoke. That was fine with Greg, as it gave him time to think. The only sounds beyond the hoofbeats of the kelpies, the long, soft strides of the giant, and the skittering pace of the lizards were the shush of branches in the breeze, flowing water in the distance, and occasional birdsong.
When the company stopped for lunch, Greg was pulled off the kelpie and barely kept his feet. His arse ached and his legs were wobbly from riding, and the abrupt shift to standing had his head spinning violently from the hunger that burned in his stomach. Greg was pushed to the ground at the foot of one of the immense trees, while the elves sat next to him, keeping his chain in hand. He was handed a small loaf of bread, a fist-sized hunk of cheese, and a large cup of water. He stared at them for a moment, then thought 'fuck it' and began nibbling cautiously at the food.
It didn't actually taste bad. The bread felt and smelt like actual bread. It wasn't like the nasty-looking brick he'd left uneaten in the dungeon, and the cheese was rich, if a bit crumbly. He closed his eyes and could feel his body responding to the food after days without. It was a relief to have something in his stomach again, and it helped with his headache, as well. He hadn't realized quite how sick he'd been feeling after everything he'd been through.
Greg watched the others as they went about their business, looking for escape opportunities and trying to figure out where there might be gaps in their attention, but they were alert despite their various tasks. The ard-fiadh didn't eat; Greg wasn't sure they could, or if they were even alive. They stood, silent as shadows, watching over the proceedings.
Sralthan didn't sit with its minions. Instead, it crouched at the edge of the group, and its spiraling fingers and toes burrowed into the earth like roots; he could hear the ground shift and crumble beneath the thing. Greg shivered to see it happening. Its amber eyes closed and its twiggy mane flared out, blossoming with leaves as he watched. Why the thing had teeth if it could do this, Greg couldn't discern. He wasn't sure if it was eating or just resting. Then again, there were carnivorous plants, and maybe Sralthan was one of those. He shut that thought down quickly, not liking the images it brought to mind.
It felt like about an hour later when they regrouped and set out again, Sralthan's leaves withering and falling away from its twigs as it rose from its crouch. As the afternoon progressed, the heat grew, even under the deep shadows of the trees, and the elves seemed to relax their vigilance, swaying gently in their saddles. Greg watched them closely, hoping for a moment of inattention that might provide him with a space for action.
Eventually, one of the elves yawned, stretching a little, and the other looked over at him, distracted, and made a comment that Greg didn't hear. Taking a risk, Greg made a grab for the lead rope on his kelpie and tried to turn it, to get it to run, to no avail. The elves weren't as inattentive as they'd appeared, and Greg nearly fell when the kelpie reared, roaring its disturbance with an unearthly wail that shot ice down Greg's spine. The sound and the near-fall left him trembling, frantically gripping the saddle pommel as the group continued, undisturbed by his fruitless effort.
As the afternoon dragged on, Greg slipped into an almost dazed state, in too much pain and still too uneasy in the saddle to sleep, but too exhausted and drained from the heat to remain alert. Greg's slow passage through the forest was steeped in misery and he tried not to think about London, about his flat, about any of the people he knew. These things who'd taken him were going to kill him, and all he wanted was a chance to get away from them. He might not make it far, but if he died in the process, it would be better than dying a victim and a pawn in whatever game Sralthan was playing at.
The humidity only grew thicker and more oppressive as the day passed. In the late afternoon, the air began to smell of rain, and Greg was sure a thunderstorm was in the offing. He couldn't tell if it was clouding by looking up, as the sky wasn't visible through the branches of the trees, but he desperately wished he could take off his coat.
Just before dusk darkened their path entirely, they turned from the road and made their way onto a much less traveled trail. It looked more like an animal track, really. Sralthan and the ard-fiadh moved with surprising grace through the close vegetation, despite their size. The group traveled for another half-hour, then made camp as night began to fall.
Sralthan sent the bird woman out into the forest, four of the bugs with her, telling her to hunt; she spread her wings and flapped, rising into the air and swooping off as soon as she got some height. The mantises flew behind her. Greg hadn't realized that mantises could actually fly, but he'd never been particularly into bugs when he was a kid.
While the tree blokes set up some tents, the elves fixed Greg's chain to a tree and set the lizards to watching him, then started making a fire. The lizards sat in front of Greg, their black eyes inscrutable and unblinking. They smelt vaguely sour and musty and their breath had a slight odour of rot.
The ard-fiadh followed Sralthan to a place slightly removed from the rest of the camp and, at a gesture from the giant, began to move and to speak indecipherable words in their high, rusted metal voices, the firefly sparks once again drifting from their mouths. Each of them raised their obsidian staves and gestured, and the smaller trees around them began to bend.
Greg watched in disbelief as the branches slowly wove themselves together, the trunks leaning in toward one another, creating a living canopy of thick vegetation. In about fifteen minutes, a shelter had formed, large enough for Sralthan to use for the night. Greg couldn't see everything inside the space, but it looked like a chair of sorts, and a sleeping pallet had been created of shrubs and lower branches.
Once Sralthan's shelter was finished, the ard-fiadh came to where Greg sat, chained to the tree. They spoke again, breathing sparks, and the brambles and wild roses near the tree began to ripple and move. Greg watched in fascinated horror as they twined into a thorny cage. Before it was finished, one of the elves came over and took Greg's chain, shoving him inside the structure and fastening his chain to one of the thick brambles, which then grew down into the soil, binding the chain securely around the bramble cane.
The cage sealed itself then, and Greg huddled in the centre of the small space, looking out at the assembly. The lizards sat next to the cage, one on either side, and settled, watchful. Everyone else went back to the centre of the camp. The lizards' scaly skin was thick and rough, and they wore spiked collars around their necks. They looked awfully tough and toothy and Greg hoped he wouldn't have to try to wrestle with either of the damned things. It would be a losing proposition.
Greg examined his flowery, sweet-smelling prison. It wasn't tall enough for him to stand in, nor wide enough for him to lie down flat. He could only sit, or lie curled in the middle of the dangerously thorny dome. The thorns themselves were wicked, long as fingers and sharp as needles. He didn't want to get too close. Yet the structure was only made of bramble and rose cane, the white bramble flowers and tiny pink five-petaled roses emitting a delicate scent. The stuff was tough, but if he could get his hands round the cane, he might be able to break it. The thorns, though, looked like they'd open him up good if he tried it.
After a few minutes, Greg picked up the loose length of the chain and started rubbing it along the inside of one of the brambles, careful to avoid getting himself pierced. It took some effort, but eventually the thorns began to break off the cane. With that information, Greg settled in to wait.
Just as it was growing too dark to see beyond the fire at the centre of the camp, the bird-woman and the mantises returned, burdened by the gutted carcasses of three deer. Venison for dinner, then, he supposed. Two of the carcasses were hacked up into smallish pieces and tossed into a cauldron with boiling water and some root vegetables, while the third was just spitted and slung over the fire to roast; one of the tree blokes set to tending the meat. Greg wondered if they'd give him any.
The venison soup was ready within about half an hour, and one of the Poncy Twins brought Greg a chunk of bread, a cup of water, and a bowl, setting them just outside the bramble cage, where Greg could -- very carefully -- reach, then backing away. He obviously didn't want Greg nailing him with boiling soup, not that Greg was going to waste any food at this point. As the deer continued to roast over the fire, thunder began rumbling in the distance; Greg could feel the shift in the air, anticipating the approaching storm. He was going to get soaked.
He drank some of the water then started sipping at the soup, dipping his bread into it. It was gamey, and the meat was tough, but it made a reasonable start on filling the sour, aching cavern that his stomach had become. Greg watched his captors as they sat around the fire, and listened as the storm drew closer. None of them paid attention to him so, when he was finished eating, he took up the chain and started patiently scraping away at the thorns on the inside of his cage.
Sralthan ate most of the whole roasted deer by itself, which really didn't surprise Greg that much. The thing was bloody huge, after all, and even if it essentially ate sunlight, that had been in short supply in the depths of the forest. The conversation of the creatures around the fire, and the slowly rolling thunder and increasing wind covered the sound of Greg's slow, anxious work. The lizards didn't seem to register anything as being wrong, and just lay with their long, jagged-toothed snouts resting on their forepaws, snoozing silently.
When the rest of the group went to their rest, Greg started working more quickly, tucking the chain around the outside of the canes as well, trying to make spaces for his hands to grip, and to push against with his feet. Not having to hide his work make things a lot faster. When the storm blew in, thunder rumbling and rain torrenting down, Greg was ready.
Each time the thunder boomed, he'd grip the bramble canes, jerking and twisting and kicking at them, listening with unease to the too-loud sound of the canes cracking. As he worked on breaking the canes, he managed to release the end of his chain from where it had been knotted into the wood of the brambles. He was soaked, lacerated, and bloody freezing by the time he'd created an opening large enough for him to safely crawl through, but he was careful to check and see that the lizards were asleep before he looped the chain loosely around one arm, took a sturdy length of cane with the thorns still vicious on one end in his bound hands, and wriggled out into the darkness. It might be a foolish attempt, but he wasn't going to go into it entirely unarmed. If they were going to kill him anyway, he'd do his damnedest to take some of them with him if they caught him.
Greg could hardly see in the darkness of the night storm, but the occasional lightning flash through the trees helped him avoid too many hazards. He worried that the sound he made getting out of the encampment would draw attention, but the storm and the wind were too noisy for him to be heard stumbling about in the bush.
He'd been gone for about ten minutes before the lizards noticed he was missing. Greg could hear the horrid, baying shrieks the things made in the distance behind him. Breathless and frightened, Greg did his best to run through the underbrush, sticking close to the trunks of the largest trees; they would entirely conceal him if he kept them between him and his pursuers, being far broader than he was tall.
Greg didn't know if the lizards could hunt by scent, but he hoped the torrenting rain would help cover his trail. He shivered as cold water ran down the back of his neck and dripped from his hair into his eyes. The uneven terrain and the roots and branches kept him stumbling, so he wasn't moving nearly as fast as he wanted to, but falling face-first into a frigid stream shook him, and he lost his thorny weapon to the water. He struggled to get up, but the stones were slick with algae. His manacled wrists made gripping anything more difficult, and he couldn't see what he was doing. Even though the water wasn't deep, the swift current carried him downstream a fair way, bruising and battering him further, before he could get back to his feet and stagger out the other side, soaked to the skin and gasping for breath. He sat for a moment, shaking with cold and nerves, trying to collect himself, before he got up and hurried on again.
The high, shrieking cries of the lizards sounded in the distance, muffled, but gaining on him. Apparently even his trip down the stream hadn't thrown them off his trail.
He managed to dodge them for over half an hour longer before he heard them getting too close. It was swiftly becoming apparent that his pursuers could see in the dark better than he could. Greg had never been much for the countryside, so the terrain was working against him as well. Those facts were less than encouraging, but he gripped the chain on his collar tight, determined not go down without a fight. Panting for breath, he crouched in the shelter of a hollow in the trunk of one of the immense trees, readying himself for the inevitable moment when they'd get him again.
A flash of lightning revealed the large, triangular head of one of the mantises leaning in to the small space, far too close to his own face. Greg couldn't contain his yelp as he struck out with the chain and slammed himself back against the far side of the hollow. His wild flail did no damage, but the thing retreated, and Greg would be prepared next time. They'd only be able to get in one at a time, and he could hold his position for at least a little while.
Next to enter were the massive head and shoulders of one of the lizards, squealing and snapping at Greg's leg. Greg let the thing have it with the chain, but the blow didn't seem to faze it at all. It made a grab for his knee, but only got a mouthful Greg's overcoat. That, unfortunately, was enough for the thing to drag him, kicking and struggling, out into the open.
Someone grabbed his arm, but Greg was ready. Greg spun, lashing out with both hands balled into a double fist, and struck the elf who'd attacked him. He wrapped the chain around its neck and jerked back with all his weight, throwing his assailant off balance and choking him. With the lizard still dragging at his coat and Greg's feet slipping in the mud, he flung his manacled arms over the elf's head and held on with all his strength, strangling the bastard as the elf tore at the chain twined round his throat.
The other one tackled him from behind, but Greg didn't let go; he gave a vicious twist and felt his prisoner's neck snap between his wrists, the body jerking and spasming, then going limp. He took a grim satisfaction in his pyrrhic victory as he dropped the dead elf and tried to pull the chain from its neck. To Greg's dismay, he was bound to the body by the twisted chain that had been his weapon only a moment before, and couldn't move quickly enough. A heavy blow to the side of his head thrust him into painful darkness.
When Greg woke, it was still raining hard, but there was light enough to see by. He was soaking wet, lying on his side on the muddy ground, his hands and feet bound together behind his back. The chain on his collar was staked to a tree as Sralthan's company broke camp around him. He was queasy from the blow to his head last night, but managed to avoid puking as he shuddered with the cold. God, he felt awful.
Poncy Twin kicked Greg in the kidneys as he walked past, carrying a rolled canvas tent. Greg could only groan and flinch at the blow. He knew the only reason he was still alive at that moment was because Sralthan had other plans for him. Twin, whose hair was green and purple rather than Poncy's magenta and blue, glared daggers at him every time he caught Greg's eye. Poncy's body was already strapped over the back of the kelpie he'd been riding yesterday; they weren't leaving him behind. Greg felt a rather guilty sense of savage satisfaction at what he'd done.
When the encampment was packed away and stowed on the backs of the pack kelpies, Twin and two of the tree blokes came to get Greg. Each of the trees took hold of a wrist and an ankle as the elf released the bindings on Greg's legs, then pulled the chain on his collar loose from where it had been fixed. They didn't even bother putting him on his feet, instead carrying him to the kelpie and depositing him on the saddle. They were so strong that Greg could barely even wiggle, though he struggled as hard as he could. Once his feet were in the stirrups, the elf ducked underneath the kelpie and bound Greg's ankles tightly together again, avoiding Greg's attempt to kick him. The rope effectively strapped him onto the back of the beast like the saddle he sat on, before he locked Greg's chain to the pommel. They left Greg's hands manacled behind his back.
Greg sat there, mud dripping down his face and the side of his body in the pouring rain. As the group set off along the narrow trail, the only thing Greg could feel was despair. He knew they would watch him much more closely now, not allowing him even the slightest opportunity for escape. He figured he could spare himself a bit of self-pity. His sopping clothes squished uncomfortably on him as the kelpie moved. He could feel his toes swimming in the water in his shoes.
The rain tapered off and had finally ended by the time the group stopped for lunch. Greg was left on the kelpie and given a little water, but no food. He wasn't entirely certain his stomach could have taken it anyway.
Throughout the afternoon, the trail rose into the hills, and there were occasional steep drops of ten meters or more along the side of the trail where they rode. It was unnerving, and the trail had frequent switchbacks, though the ground here was drier, and Greg didn't think that a mudslide was too likely. Toward evening, the trail took a steep turn up a frankly nerve-wracking forested hillside and then into a long, narrow canyon. Along the trailside there were thin slashes of green-streaked ivory lying on the earth. Some rose at angles from the ground. When Greg spotted a rusted sword jutting out of the ground, something snapped into focus in his mind, and he realized that he was looking at the remains of a battlefield, these dull ivory curves and lines the remains of hundreds of bodies from who knew how long ago.
Knowing now what he was looking at, he could pick out skulls, the long bones of thighs and arms, and the broad shapes of pelvises or scapulae. The sinuous knobs of long, strange spines curved into moss next to boulders, and bushes grew up through the arcing curves of ribcages. Flesh had long rotted away, along with cloth and leather; metal armor and weapons were decayed and broken, yet there was a heaviness to the entire area as they rode through that sent a chill through Greg's already cold body. He wondered if, in this strange place, the ghosts of men and beasts had stayed.
The canyon's passage was littered with bones for what must have been nearly a kilometer as the walls drew closer and closer, until they came to a narrow stone arch like a needle's eye. Piles of bone lay, bleached and mossy, around its opening, both outside and within, the trail itself obviously having been cleared over time. Sralthan and the kelpies barely fit through the archway, but the canyon opened out when they passed through, ending in a steep cliff wall that rose, grey and brick red, above them. The surrounding walls were less steep, but would still be a rough climb; it might not require mountaineering equipment, but Greg wasn't sure he'd be able to get up them.
The procession continued until they got to the foot of the cliff at the far end of the canyon. There was a broad, clear space there, and a huge black gate in the wall. It was ornate and heavily carved, with metal inlaid in strange geometric patterns and flowing, cursive symbols. Before the gate, at a slight remove, was a stone slab table, about two meters tall. Set into the stone beside the gate was a small metal cage, its door lying open in the dim light.
Before camp was set for the night, two of the tree blokes and the elf came to take Greg off the kelpie, accompanied by one of the ard-fiadh. He'd been bound tightly to the damned beast all day, and his legs barely worked. Not that he had to walk, because they carried him over to the cage by his arms and legs before shackling his ankles and wrists together again and shoving him inside. He was chained to one of the bars, and the cage was closed and locked by the ard-fiadh, speaking in its rusted metal voice, sparks falling from its lips as it touched the lock plate. Greg's captors turned away to attend to their duties, leaving the lizards just outside the bars as a not-particularly-needed precaution.
Aching and still cold and damp, Greg wriggled and squirmed, trying to work some of the awful cramps out of his muscles. He hadn't been in so much pain since last time he'd been in hospital, after being beaten and stabbed twice during a riot, back when he was a sergeant.
From what Greg recalled, they weren't going to do him in tonight; that was apparently reserved for tomorrow at some point -- Sralthan had been waiting for something specific, an alignment of some sort. He had no idea when that was supposed to happen. Was he going to die at dawn, or would he lie there, cold and filthy and aching and hungry, until late the next night when some alien star rose over the right stone spire? He shivered, despairing and afraid.
He was ignored, aside from the lizards. Sralthan's minions knew Greg could barely move. The idea of him making an escape attempt from here was laughable. His chances of fighting his way free of them at the last minute and escaping from this place were exactly nil. It didn't mean he wouldn't try, but he held no hope at all now. He imagined the end was going to be awful. Even being touched by Sralthan had been agony.
What hurt more than the ache in his body was the knowledge that there really wasn't anyone who would miss him. He had some mates down the pub, but they weren't close. There were his co-workers, but they'd likely be more interested in the unsolved case of his disappearance than mourning his loss. John Watson still hadn't forgiven him for the fiasco surrounding Sherlock's suicide, and god only knew what Mycroft ever thought. He'd only spoken to Greg a few times since the day Sherlock jumped from the roof of Bart's.
Greg was nearly fifty, divorced, and had no kids. His parents were both gone, as was his brother. Here, at the end of his life, he had no one, and the regret was devastating. At least, he thought, it meant nobody would suffer too much from his death. It was a very hollow comfort.
Chapter 6: With Flame and Silent Wings
There was no sleep for him that night.
Greg stared up at the sky, finally clear of clouds and the dense shelter of overhanging trees. Two moons hung in the sky, one at full and the other, slightly lower and just barely hanging over the ridge of the box canyon, a luminous, gibbous shape. He wondered idly if it were waxing or waning. The moons were a pale, golden yellow, and beautiful. He could see a few bright stars, away from the immediate glow of the larger, full moon, but nothing he recognized. Why he thought he might, with two moons above him, he didn't know.
The campsite was dimly lit by the glow of the moons, and the metal on the gate shimmered faintly. Greg could see that it glimmered with its own light, not reflecting the moons at all, as the end of the canyon was in shadow. It left him with a subtle but growing feeling of suspended evil, like radiation in heavy water or the tiny vibration of some immense, underground machine. Greg's skin prickled with his sense of it.
He'd eventually managed to shuffle himself into a semi-seated position on his hip, leaning uncomfortably against the bars as he stared up at the sky. Despite his body's stillness, he wasn't calm. He wanted to scream his frustration and rage and fear, but none of it would do any good. The most that would happen was that he might be beaten again for disturbing his captors. He already hurt enough; no need to add to that.
Greg sat for hours, watching the moons as they vanished over the short horizon of the canyon, then he watched the strange stars arc above him, moving slowly from one canyon wall to the other. He couldn't help the tears that fell, silent, for a little while as he watched. There was no one to see it, and no shame in feeling lost and hopeless when, in all truth, he was both. He doubted anyone else would do differently, under these circumstances. It didn't last long; the tears made his head ache even more.
On the last night of his life, Gregory Lestrade stared at the sky until it began to grow subtly lighter, the deep indigo fading slowly toward dawn.
A sharp whisper of sound and a pair of wet, hollow thunks startled him in the dawning light, and Greg turned his head to see that both of the lizards had suddenly sprouted arrow shafts from their eyes. They were still twitching, dead but not yet realizing it. Strange, black flames rose from the wounds in surreal dark against dark flickers. Greg's heart raced, his breath quickening. He had no idea what was happening, but dead lizards were a damned good place to start. Whoever was out there couldn't possibly be worse than what awaited him later in the day. Well, he hoped that was the case, anyway.
He looked up toward where the arrows must have come from and saw several figures moving silently down the slope of the canyon walls, shadowy shapes in the near-darkness. Greg held his breath, trying to calm his rattling heart. He wriggled a bit to get a better view and shot a quick look over toward the shelter where Sralthan lay, the ard-fiadh standing motionless as boulders on either side of the door. They didn't seem to have seen anything yet.
When he looked back, the figures were nearer, close enough to make out the human and semi-human shapes of bird-people and what might be elves. One of the shadows, harder to see in the brush, looked about two feet tall, with translucent dragonfly wings showing in the dim dawn. There were six of them. Greg quickly figured the odds -- six unknowns against more than a dozen minions, and Sralthan, who probably counted for another five all on its own. Greg wasn't sure he could count himself as a resource, if they even bothered to get him out of the cage. He wasn't sure he could walk at all at this point, after two days in a saddle and having his wrists and ankles bound together for so long. The chances of his arms being useful weren't that great, either. It wasn't like his aches had got any better overnight, without food or warmth or shelter.
Even though he was staring at the advancing group, the sounds they made were barely audible. He'd never have known they even existed, had they not just killed the lizards who'd been set to watch the cage. When they got close enough for him to see more clearly, he blinked, convinced he was hallucinating.
There, among the strange, mythological creatures, was Mycroft Holmes in his long overcoat and pristine three piece suit, carrying his umbrella, looking entirely unruffled. Greg shook his head briskly and blinked again, certain he'd completely lost his mind. When he looked back Mycroft was still there, as were his companions.
Greg was too stunned to make a sound and he looked over what was obviously his rescue party. Two bird people with bows, one a woman dressed in something out of a Jane Austen novel, with a cravat, knee breeches, and a tailcoat, the other male and looking more like Robin Hood. There was an elf, though this one was black as onyx, with equally dark hair in long rows of braids, dressed in dark leather and scale armor. The last of them was the little guy with the dragonfly wings, his skin metallic blue, dressed in his own punky getup. Greg was still gaping when they got to the cage where he was imprisoned.
He started to say Mycroft's name, but the man reached through the bars and touched his lips gently with one finger, shaking his head, reminding Greg that silence was a really good idea right now. Mycroft's hand was warm and solid, absolutely real and, god, Greg thought he could kiss him if the entire concept weren't so absurd. Greg closed his eyes and slumped against the bars in relief. He might not be out of the cage yet, but if Mycroft was here, Greg's odds of surviving the mess had suddenly skyrocketed.
Greg looked back up as Mycroft's finger left his lips; Mycroft gestured to the bloke with the dragonfly wings and the little guy came up to the cage, touching the manacles on Greg's wrists and ankles, whispering almost silently as firefly sparks swirled from his mouth. They opened and Greg clumsily shook them off, his limbs numb and stiff. The collar was next, and Mycroft reached in and pulled it from Greg's neck, leaning in to whisper in Greg's ear.
"There is a very good chance the lock on the cage has an alarm on it. If that is the case, there is likely to be a fight." Greg nodded as he tried to stretch and get his limbs functional though the sharp numbness. That made sense, and it also explained why they'd removed his bonds before getting him out of the cage itself.
"There's sixteen of 'em, and a bloody huge bugger on top of that," Greg whispered back, his voice rough and scratchy. Mycroft nodded, looking like he already knew. Probably did, considering. Greg had a thousand questions, but all of them could wait until they got the fuck away from here. He had priorities.
Mycroft looked down at the dragonfly bloke and nodded. The lock got the same treatment as the manacles and collars but, as the door opened, a shrieking sound cut the air, half-deafening Greg. Mycroft flinched but had obviously been expecting it. He reached in and pulled Greg out, dragging him to his feet as the camp around them began to stir.
Greg tried to stand, but his legs weren't working, all agonizing pins and needles. He couldn't feel his feet, or much of anything below the knees, really. "Fuck," he spat, as his legs collapsed under him, unable to bear his weight. Mycroft and the armored elf slung his arms over their shoulders and they started to haul him up the steep slope of the canyon, but it was obvious they weren't going to get far before they were set upon. The mantises were already advancing on them, swift and jittery. The ard-fiadh moved toward them with frightening, long-limbed speed, almost skimming the ground, their bone faces and antlers pale in the grey dawn. Greg could hear the tree blokes and Poncy Twin moving in their tents, and there was an unearthly sound from Sralthan's shelter.
The bugs and the ard-fiadh were on them before they got very far. The ard-fiadh towered over them, swinging their black staves; Robin Hood took a bad hit, knocked aside like he weighed nothing, a sharp, avian cry driven from his lungs. They started speaking, their rusted voices shrieking in the dawn, and Greg could see the sparks that meant something magic was happening starting to swirl from their bone jaws. He struggled to get his legs moving under him, but they were still painful and too weak, and he gasped,"Oh, shit."
Then Sralthan burst out of its shelter.
If the ard-fiadh were frightening, Sralthan was bloody terrifying, armed with swords in both vine-tendril hands and covering ground faster than Greg could believe, its bird flying next to it. Greg would have been perfectly content to run like hell, if only his legs would cooperate. Mycroft let go of Greg, leaving him propped on the elf, and snapped, "Get him out of here!" The elf renewed his effort to drag Greg up the slope through the chittering mantises while Mycroft's bird woman let fly with arrows that burned with black flame, causing Sralthan's bird to dodge out of the way. Greg couldn't believe Mycroft was actually going to face down that monster. What was he going to do? Poke it with his brolly?
"What are you doing?" Greg shouted, his voice hoarse, throat aching. "We have to get out of here!"
Apparently, Mycroft did intend to take the thing on with his umbrella, because now he had it in both hands, his feet spread in a stable, fighting stance. He gave the brolly a twist and jerked. There was a bomf like a distant explosion, and a wave of heat blowing outward, and suddenly Mycroft had a round shield and a bloody fucking flaming sword in his hand, with brown owl's wings billowing from his back. Greg's mind stopped working.
He took a sharp, terrified breath. His legs were finally starting to support him, but his weight was hindering the elf from defending either of them. Poncy Twin screamed as he came at them, sword raised, so Greg let go and gave the onyx elf some room to work. He grabbed a long, dry branch as he stumbled, and tried to hold off a couple of the mantises before they could grab him with their spiky forelegs.
Mycroft was in the air now, near level with Sralthan's mossy feline head, spinning, striking, and dodging with incredible skill and agility. Sralthan's entire attention seemed focused on him as the two of them fought. It moved with a frighteningly sinuous grace, even in battle, its viny limbs moving, fluid and fast as whips. Mycroft warded off blows with his shield and sword, and struck out repeatedly, leaving smoking stripes on Sralthan's arms and shoulders, and one across its face. The thing bled ochre, oozing thick, muddy yellow liquid down its mossy flesh, and it made horrifying sounds as it attacked.
Despite Mycroft's astonishing effort, it was a staggeringly uneven fight, and the man -- but was he really a man at all? -- was obviously not going to hold Sralthan off for very long. Light and power swirled around both of them, flashing out from their bodies, sparks falling and scattering as they moved; apparently Mycroft could do some of that magic shite as well, but it wasn't enough.
Sralthan's long, tendril arm looped and slashed, and Mycroft doubled over with a cry of pain, nearly dropping out of the air before he caught himself, his wings beating madly. He'd deflected part of the blow with his shield but it hadn't protected him enough. Still, he didn't let the injury stop him. "Run!" he shouted to the group, slapping the sword and shield together; they were suddenly an umbrella again, crooked over Mycroft's elbow. He swirled in the air and swooped down, scooping Greg up with a strength he would never have suspected, as Mycroft's allies scattered. Half of the mantises lay twitching on the ground. One of the tree blokes was flailing and burning with that uncanny black flame, shrieking his pain, and Poncy was injured but still determinedly battling the onyx elf. Despite that, things were looking pretty dire for Greg's rescuers; Robin Hood looked dead, the other bird was locked in running combat with Sralthan's feathered friend, and the dragonfly punk was buzzing one of the ard-fiadh. They were outnumbered and overpowered.
More than a little shocked, Greg wrapped himself around Mycroft's body, arms about Mycroft's neck, and tangled their legs together as they rose swiftly into the air. "What the fuck just happened? What are you?" He wasn't happy with the rising note of hysteria in his voice. The weirdness didn't stop Greg from clinging with all the strength that his stiff, aching limbs could summon.
"Carrying you is harder than flying alone," Mycroft panted, holding Greg tightly. "Kindly shut up while I get us out of here."
"Shutting up," Greg squeaked, watching Mycroft's mottled brown, near-silent wings moving, fast and powerful, over his shoulders. They rose out of the canyon and Greg trembled at being so far above the ground with nothing between it and him but air, and Mycroft's arms.
The remaining mantises were in the air behind them, hunting them like greyhounds after a rabbit, but Mycroft was faster. Greg saw nothing of Sralthan's bird woman and hoped she was out of the battle. It took some time, but eventually Mycroft left the bugs behind and ducked down into the canopy of the tall trees, using them for cover. He changed direction several times to throw off any potential pursuit, but as far as Greg was concerned, any direction constituting 'away' was an excellent choice. He shut his eyes and held on.
They'd been flying for a little while when Greg began to feel a wet warmth gathering near his waist, and he remember that Mycroft had been injured amid all the chaos. "You're bleeding," he said.
"I'm aware of that." Mycroft's voice was strained and more than a little breathless.
"We should land so we can deal with it." God knew Greg didn't want Mycroft to pass out from blood loss, particularly when they were near the tops of the immensely tall trees. The idea of a fall from this height was not in the least appealing.
He could feel Mycroft's head shake against his own. "Not far enough away yet. Sralthan can't fly, but ea moves very quickly. We're still not safe."
"No talking," Mycroft snapped. "When we're safe we shall land, and not before."
Greg kept his opinions to himself, but it didn't stop him worrying. He knew he was filthy from mud and the stream and the dungeon and worried that it might get into Mycroft's wound, but there was no way Mycroft wasn't aware of his state. Greg stank to high heaven after days in the same soaked, grimy clothing, and they were clinging to one another like lovers in their flight. Mycroft's fingers were knotted in Greg's coat, arms wrapped firmly around him.
By the time they landed, Mycroft was sweating and out of breath. He looked ragged, his face pinched with pain. There was a stream close by -- Greg could hear it. "Come on, we need to clean your wound up," Greg said. He took Mycroft's hand and both of them staggered over to the water and collapsed next to it. Mycroft dropped his umbrella and flopped down on his back. His wings folded beneath him, then seemed to retreat into his body, which Greg didn't really want to think about lest his head hurt even more than it already did. The blood stain on the front of Mycroft's ruined suit was impressive, and Greg's belly was red with it as well.
Mycroft reached beneath his overcoat and pulled a small shoulder bag from under it, the strap still slung around his shoulder. "Some first aid supplies in here," he said, panting, opening it so Greg could reach in.
Greg washed his hands first, gingerly cautious of his cuts, then looked at what Mycroft had brought. A roll of bandages, some waterless hand cleaner that would likely sting like bloody murder but would sterilize a wound, some paracetamol. God, he needed some of that himself, aching the way he did. Mycroft fumbled with the buttons of his waistcoat while Greg tugged his tie open and started working on Mycroft's shirt buttons. Mycroft wore a thin, white vest underneath, and Greg tugged it out of the waist of his trousers, getting a look at the wound. It was fairly shallow but cut a nasty line across Mycroft's stomach. It was still bleeding sluggishly, but the shallower end of it had started scabbing over, with tacky, drying blood everywhere. It didn't look good, and Greg was worried; Mycroft needed stitches, and that wasn't something Greg could do for him.
Mycroft just lay there, his chest still heaving as he caught his breath, eyes closed. Greg took the sterilizer and rubbed his hands down again, hissing at the sharp burn of the multitudinous cuts and scrapes on his hands from the thorns and the battering they'd taken.
"This is going to sting," he said, getting a small cloth pad and wiping at the wound with the cleaning gel. Mycroft hissed and jerked slightly, but didn't move as Greg worked. Once Greg was satisfied that it was cleaned up enough to bandage, he tucked a hand under Mycroft's waist. "All right, up with you so I can get the bandage round you." Mycroft nodded and wedged himself up on his elbows, grimacing when his waist bent. Greg wrapped him as tightly and efficiently as he could to stop the bleeding and keep Mycroft together, then fastened the end of the bandage so that it wouldn't come loose.
"How seriously are you injured?" Mycroft asked him, his eyes sharp and alert again, despite the pain in them.
"Not much. Bruised up and aching from riding on a bloody kelpie for a couple of days, been knocked on the head a couple of times, and possibly dying of hunger and thirst, but that's about it." He sighed. "I hope eating and drinking stuff here isn't one of those fairy tale things that'll trap me here forever."
Mycroft shook his head. "No. Were you entirely human, it might be the case, but you are not."
Greg blinked. "What?'
Mycroft shifted uncomfortably and sat up. "Did you wonder at all why Sralthan wanted you? You specifically? Enough to send ea's minions to London to find you?" He finally seemed to be catching his breath.
Greg stared at Mycroft, silent, for several moments, his mouth gaping open. "Yeah," he said, finally. "The question had occurred."
Mycroft pulled a little metal flask out of his bag and offered it to Greg. "Tea."
Greg grabbed it, startled, his questions entirely derailed by the idea of tea after all this time. "Oh, thank god. Is it hot?" Mycroft nodded, pulling a paper-wrapped packet out as well, as Greg unscrewed the top and stuck his nose nearly into the flask. He closed his eyes in bliss at the scent of the hot liquid, and the feel of rising steam on his face. "Oh my god, that smells good."
"You are a fucking god, Mycroft." He looked back up at the man. "I have no bloody idea what you are, what with the wings and all, but this? This is a piece of heaven." He poured some tea into the lid and sipped at it, then set the flask down so he could take the wrapped sandwich. Mycroft gave him about five minutes to take some paracetamol, and to eat and drink, before he spoke again.
"We haven't a lot of time, Gregory."
"What do you mean? We've not lost them?" Greg poured himself a little more tea and sipped at it, chasing down the last mouthful of his sandwich.
Mycroft sat and wrapped his arms around his legs, resting his chin on his knees and peering up at Greg. He looked curiously vulnerable like that. "Sralthan will continue the pursuit until ea finds you. The canyon from which we took you contains a gate to which, unfortunately, you are the only currently existing key." Greg's hand stilled, trembling slightly, with the cup resting on his lower lip, and he stared at Mycroft in silence. "Tonight at sunset, there will be a soli-lunar and stellar alignment which will allow the gate to be opened, provided that there is enough power, and the proper components are assembled. This alignment occurs approximately every fifteen hundred years." Mycroft took a breath. "I cannot allow that gate to be opened. It would have devastating consequences in multiple realms."
"Shit," Greg whispered. "How do you intend to stop it? That thing's too powerful for you to fight."
Mycroft nodded. "Of that, I am painfully aware. Yet we can easily remove the key." He gestured at Greg.
Greg's blood froze. "You don't mean to kill me before that thing can." If he did--
Mycroft's eyes widened in alarm. "Good heavens, no. I would not have gone to nearly so much trouble were that my intention. It would have been far easier to simply have you shot from a distance and then disappear, and I would certainly not have come myself to watch you die." He shook his head again, more vehemently. "No, keeping you alive is a very high priority for me, for a variety of reasons, but the salient point here is that you, Gregory Lestrade, are not what you appear to be, and releasing your inner nature before Sralthan finds you should end your usefulness in this endeavor."
"I don't understand."
"I know. I haven't enough time to explain things thoroughly because, I can assure you, we are being pursued. For the moment, suffice it to say that if you are revealed, you will be useless to Sralthan, and may possibly survive the night. There will be no need -- beyond pure spite -- to kill you, if your death will not provide the key to open the gate. It is, however, possible that ea may attempt the ritual anyway, hoping to use what power you do have, even if ea can not use the power released by your revelation. Ea will not succeed in opening the gate after you've been revealed, regardless of ea's efforts, and that is the critical point." He sighed. "I may well have to worry about Sralthan's vengeance against me, but that is an issue for another time."
"Wh-what has to happen? What do you mean, revealed?"
Mycroft reached over and took Greg's bruised and chafed wrist in one hand. "There is a ritual that must be done. It is part of what Sralthan had planned for you but, although it is quite painful, it is by no means fatal. Ea's plan was to perform this ritual as part of a much larger complex of rituals, culminating in your sacrifice as you were revealed. The process releases an immense amount of energy of a particular kind, which Sralthan was going to use to force the gate open at the moment of the Boreas alignment."
Greg sat for a moment with that information. "So you're saying this is going to hurt like hell, and we both may die anyway, but the alternative is getting killed even more painfully by Sralthan to unleash whatever horror is stuck behind that gate."
"Yes." Mycroft nodded. "That is the gist of it. What I need to do, the ritual to reveal you, will take about forty minutes, but your recovery afterwards will require at least two hours before you're well enough to travel." He paused, looking away for a moment, then back into Greg's eyes. His voice was soft and intense when he spoke, and his fingers tightened around Greg's wrist. "Believe me when I say that I have no wish to hurt you. I would not do this if it were not a matter of preventing a calamitous occurrence that will have extreme and long-lasting repercussions."
Greg drank the last of the tea from the cup in his hand and closed the flask again, handing it back to Mycroft. "Right, then. What do we have to do?"
A hesitant smile tugged at Mycroft's lips and he slipped the flask back into the bag under his coat. "Thank you, Gregory." He unfolded himself and stood, taking up his umbrella and offering Greg a hand to help him rise. "First, we should seek a somewhat more comfortable place. You will need to be lying down for this."
Greg nodded, wobbling slightly on aching but mostly functional legs. Mycroft looked around for a moment and then pointed with his umbrella. "There's a place over there, the mossy bit. It would likely be reasonably comfortable." Greg allowed himself to be led.
Chapter 7: Revelation
"You'll need to open your shirt," Mycroft said, as Greg lay down on the soft, mossy hummock. With a resigned sigh, Greg did as he was bid, and Mycroft sat down in the thick moss next to him, pulling what looked like a fountain pen from the breast pocket of his suit jacket.
"What are you going to do?" Greg asked, not much looking forward to whatever it was.
Mycroft uncapped the pen and showed it to Greg. It wasn't a pen at all, actually, but a tiny scalpel blade of a golden-green metal that Greg had never seen before. "I'm afraid I have to carve a rather large and intricate sigil on your chest. You'll need to hold as still as you're able so that the sigil is accurately drawn." He didn't sound very enthusiastic about the process.
"Oh, bloody hell," Greg muttered. "That figures."
"Once that is done," Mycroft continued, "I have to carve a somewhat less intricate one into the palm of my own hand and activate the sigil on your body with my blood."
Greg blinked at him. "I didn't think we knew each other well enough to exchange our precious bodily fluids yet, Mycroft."
Mycroft's eyes closed and he gave a resigned sigh, holding back a bit of a smile. "You really are incorrigible."
"I do my best." Greg gave him a tentative, nervous smile of his own.
Mycroft nodded. "If you're ready, we should begin."
Greg took a deep, slow breath, steeling himself for what he knew was going to be a really unpleasant experience. "Better than unleashing the hordes," he answered.
"Very well then." Mycroft touched the blade to the center of Greg's chest and started to speak in a language Greg had never heard, a soft cascade of cold violet sparks drifting from his lips. He pressed the blade into Greg's skin.
When Mycroft said it was going to hurt, he hadn't imagined it would be quite as bad as this. Greg groaned and ground his teeth together, struggling to control his instinct to flinch away. His fingers dug into the moss as he tried to displace the pain, but it didn't help much. Trying not to pant too harshly so as not to disturb Mycroft's work, he began reciting the stats for his favorite football team, mumbling to himself for distraction.
Mycroft's voice droned as he worked, the burning pain of the sigil spiraling out from the center of Greg's chest as Mycroft carved it into his body. After a while, Greg couldn't focus enough to remember the numbers, and eventually he gave in to the pain and just let it wash over him, falling into numbness and probably shock as well. He really wouldn't find it very surprising if it were, considering what all he'd endured in the past several days. The burn of the blade left trails of warm blood trickling on his chest behind it. His hands and feet felt cold, and his head spun, leaving him feeling weak and increasingly nauseous.
Time folded in on itself. Greg floated on a cold wave of pain and, when the cutting finally stopped, it took him a few moments to notice. Panting and shivering, he opened his eyes to find Mycroft carving into the palm of his own hand, still muttering and shedding softly falling violet sparks. Everything around the man was slightly blurry and shimmering.
When Mycroft was done working on his hand, he looked down into Greg's eyes, a peculiar expression on his face. He swallowed, looking slightly pale, then leaned down and pressed a soft, chaste kiss to Greg's lips. "I'm very sorry, Gregory, but this is going to be extremely painful."
"What?" Greg muttered, confused and more than a little disoriented.
And then Mycroft pressed his bleeding palm to Greg's flesh and spoke one glimmering word. An electric shimmer rippled along Greg's skin like static, raising every hair. "That's not so--" His body unravelled in sudden, sharp agony and his throat burned with a raw, tortured scream. His muscles spasmed and he thrashed, unable to control any of his movements. Mycroft moved, grabbing Greg and holding him in his arms, trying to still his frenzied motion as Greg screamed, over and over. Greg couldn't feel Mycroft's touch, but he saw the man's brown wings bloom again, bending and curving around him, sheltering Greg as best he could. Light blazed everywhere in great dazzling arcs, searing out from Greg's marrow like lightning calcining his bones. Thick, grey mist exploded out of Greg's every pore, and he could feel wings of his own burning their way out of his back like he'd been cut open with lasers; they flailed, a thicker mist on the edge of his blurring vision, before he passed out, still screaming.
Mycroft cradled Gregory's shuddering, glowing body in his arms; the man's screams had faded when he passed out, but the violent convulsions continued, and tears ran down Gregory's face as he jerked and trembled. Mycroft hated having to perform the ritual, but it had been the only way to keep Sralthan from opening the gate and unleashing things he didn't even want to contemplate into the world. He whispered a calming spell over and over, rocking Gregory gently until the man finally went limp, gasping harshly as his lungs attempted to recover from his body's convulsive change.
The light and the thick mist that had exploded from him swirled and spread beneath the trees, slowly dissipating, and Mycroft shivered with his own pain, from his hand and from the burning slash across his belly. Leaning back, he continued to hold Gregory, resting the man's head on his shoulder. He pressed his cheek against Gregory's dirty hair, relieved that the worst of the man's suffering was finally over.
The long, limp wings on Gregory's back glowed a dim silver-grey in the forest's filtered green light, ethereally beautiful. They felt as insubstantial as they looked, resting like a low layer of mist over the hummock; Mycroft's hand passed through them as he rubbed Gregory's back. They were cool and damp as fog at the seashore. They had a slight, lingering scent of salt air to them that helped moderate the stink of pain and terror and unwashed body that clung to Gregory's skin and his clothes.
Mycroft had been deeply distressed by Gregory's condition when he found him, bound and brutalized, propped against the bars of his prison. Gregory had obviously tried, more than once, to escape from his captors, and he was visibly cut and bruised in multiple places. His clothing was filthy and torn and his jaw was thick with days of unshaven stubble. Mycroft had no doubt the man was also dealing with the consequences of exposure to the elements, and of hunger and thirst. The pain and exhaustion, and the edge of illness he was suffering were graven into the lines of his handsome face and the dark arcs beneath his deep brown eyes. There had been despair in them before it turned to stunned disbelief. The sight had cut into Mycroft's heart, but he hadn't time to deal with it because his primary objective was to foil Sralthan's plan, and the more quickly they rescued Gregory and departed, the more likely they were to succeed.
Mycroft was exhausted himself, and near the end of his reserves. Collecting his allies for the rescue mission had taken three frantic, sleepless days. The fight with Sralthan had been harrowing and he'd known going into it that he might well be killed. The flight afterwards, carrying Gregory away from the canyon, had left him drained and aching, but he had feared stopping too soon. Sralthan would be on their trail, tracking them with spells and the uncanny abilities of the ard-fiadh. Mycroft hoped that he had put enough distance between the gate and their current location to give Gregory time enough to recover before the giant morlissan drew near.
More than anything, Mycroft wanted to get both of them out of their current dilemma alive. If he could get them to the court of the anarian queen, they would be safe. Taran of Feldspar was a friend, and an old ally who owed him many favors. Her Golden Court was possessed of a great army and ancient power. If it came to an attack, or even a war, she was capable of defeating Sralthan and ea's forces.
Eyes closed, he huddled with Gregory in his arms, sheltering both of them under his wings.
Greg woke feeling desperately sick and weak, still in terrible pain. He couldn't help the rough sound he made. "Gregory?" Mycroft's voice was quiet; Greg could feel his head resting on Mycroft's shoulder and Mycroft's arms around him, warm and strong. Greg's eyes fluttered open to see Mycroft's brown wings curved around them, protective.
"M-Mycroft." His voice rasped badly.
"There's a little tea left in the flask," he said, gently laying Greg back into the moss so that he could move. "I want you to drink it." As he pulled the flask out of his bag, his wings fluttered and wavered out of existence.
Too tired and weak to speak again, Greg let Mycroft cradle him in one arm and help him sip the tea. It was still warm and it helped to clear his head a little.
He felt... different. Not different broken, or not entirely, but different changed. In trying to move, he felt something strange on his back and turned his head to find he had wings. They weren't like Mycroft's, feathered and substantial. These were translucent and misty, glowing very slightly silver-grey in the forest's light, and shaped like a seagull's. Of course he'd ended up bloody well glowing in the dark. Jesus. "What h-happened?"
"Rest, Gregory. It will be at least another hour before you're able to travel again." Mycroft helped him to lie down in the moss again.
His wings twitched; he could feel them despite their seeming insubstantiality. "Need to know."
Mycroft nodded. He looked pretty wrecked himself, Greg realised. He wondered what Mycroft had done to find him, and to arrange that really rather spectacular rescue. It took a lot of effort, but he reached up and took Mycroft's hand, squeezing a little. The contact felt good and gave him something to focus on beyond his pain and misery.
"Since we have a little time, I suppose I should attempt to start at the beginning."
"We are in what you would probably consider a world parallel to that of our birth. As you have noted, many of the creatures of myth and legend actually exist here, and some of them are capable of crossing between this world and our own. There are gates, if you know what to look for and how to activate them.
"Our world has always held uncanny beings. Some originate here. Others, like you and I, were born human, but our true nature was hidden. We are rare things, Gregory, with unusual traits and powers."
Greg cast a side glance at his misty wings. "Pretty useless, these."
"No." Mycroft shook his head. "Not at all. You are newly revealed, and you have not yet discovered what your capabilities are. Believe me when I tell you that you are far more powerful than you currently understand. But allow me to continue." Greg nodded and closed his eyes, listening.
"There are ancient beings, immortal and with power beyond imagining. Most would consider them gods. They are the beings that make us what we are. They see... something within each of the hidden that resonates with their own nature and they... they touch us and imbue us with some fragment of their power. They are our progenitors."
Greg's eyes opened again, looking up into Mycroft's eyes. "Not possible."
Mycroft's mouth twisted into an impatient frown. "Next you'll tell me the past several days have not happened and you are not currently possessed of wings."
"You have a point."
"I generally do. You and I are sparked by different gods and so our powers and possibilities are also different. My own progenitor is Athena; you are the progeny of Manannán mac Lir."
"Who? But... isn't that some Isle of Man thing? I'm not Manx."
"And I am not Greek. They choose us by their own criteria; some are more obvious than others. Athena is enamored of genius. Her realms are wisdom and rulership, war, and peace."
"I..." Greg stared at Mycroft for a moment. "No wonder Sherlock said you were the government." Funny how things like that made sense when you had an inkling of what was going on behind the scenes.
"Your progenitor is a sea god and a way opener, Gregory. That is why Sralthan needed you for the ritual. Only the progeny of a way opener could act as a key to that gate, and only one who had not yet been revealed, because of the nature of the power.
"Manannán is also essentially a protector of others. Most gods possessed of powerful supernatural weapons would have no qualms about striking first if it were to their advantage -- he is different. His sword is called 'The Answerer' because he responds and defends. He doesn't start wars, but he will finish them, and the nature of your wings is an echo of his cloak of mist that conceals and protects."
"How do you know this?" Greg was feeling slightly less awful and tried to sit up, but Mycroft lay a hand on his chest.
"Don't. Just rest. Gather your strength, because you will need it.
"To answer your question, I knew something of your nature before this incident. While not all of the revealed will recognize one of the hidden, I could see your nature, in part because of my own."
"The deduction skills." A thought clicked over in Greg's head. "Was Sherlock...?"
"Yes." Mycroft nodded. "That, though, is a tale for another time. There are more important things that you need to know at the moment."
"Right." Greg moved his free hand to rest over Mycroft's, warm on his chest.
"In our own world, there is very little that can kill one of the revealed. We are not immortal, but we do live for an exceedingly long time if we are not killed." Mycroft paused for a moment. "I am several thousand years old, Gregory. And I have advised the chieftains and rulers of Britain almost from the time our island was inhabited."
Greg's mouth opened and moved, but no sound came out. That was entirely too brain breaking and he couldn't handle it. Wings? Okay. Magic? Sure. Myths and elves and gates between worlds? All right, he'd seen some of it himself so far. Near-immortality? Mycroft being thousands of years old? That was too much.
"I know you don't want to accept that. It is important information, however."
"Wait, you mean... the government knows what you are? About this place?" The idea was absurd.
A slight smile touched Mycroft's lips. "Oh, yes. Certain persons have always known, but glamours and spells have been woven about me for a very long time to conceal certain information about my nature, and to prevent knowledge of these things from being spread. It isn't something you need be concerned with at this point."
Mycroft took one of his hands back from Greg and pulled the little capped blade from his pocket, holding it up where Greg could see it. "The metal this blade is made of, sard, is not found in our world. It is only found here, and it can kill us. My sword is made of it, as were Sralthan's weapons. If we are harmed by things from our world, we can and will recover, and we will heal from those wounds fairly quickly. It is possible to kill us there, or for us to sicken and die, but it takes a great deal of effort to murder one of us. I suspect sustained automatic weapons fire would do it, but I have no particular wish to experiment with that hypothesis. I am not at all fond of pain."
"Don't blame you," Greg said, his voice wavering slightly. He paused, and Mycroft gave him a little time to think and process the whole thing.
"Now, wait," Greg said, rolling himself up onto one elbow. "You're thousands of years old? Is... was Sherlock even really your brother?"
Mycroft made a little huff of amusement. "Oh, yes. Very much so. He is only a few years younger than I am."
"And he's like yo-- like us."
"Damned near immortal."
"As I've told you."
Greg squinted at Mycroft, putting the pieces together. "But he's... He jumped off of Bart's."
"He's not dead." The concept gave Greg a headache.
"You are correct. Had he the time, he would have been the one here retrieving you, not me. I'm afraid he is engaged in work that is equally important, but he values you greatly. You are, in fact, one of the reasons he jumped from that building. Your life -- and that of Doctor Watson and Mrs Hudson -- was in danger, and that leap was the only thing that kept an assassin's bullet out of your brain. Before your revelation, you were as vulnerable as any ordinary human to injury and death by such methods."
Greg dropped back to the ground, dizzied by the thought. "Shit." He took a sharp breath. "Moriarty?"
Mycroft's head shook. "No. Moriarty was never one of us, nor was he one in potentia. He is dead, believe me. Some of his associates, however--"
"Sherlock's after them."
"Christ." Greg's eyes closed.
"There's a great deal more you need to know, Gregory, but you should try to rest a little longer. We must get to the Golden Court. That is where the nearest gate is that will take us back home. You, as a way opener, are capable of creating gates. It is an exceedingly rare talent, but one which you are not yet ready to practice. You're still far too weak, and the change has expended a great deal of your power. You're ill and injured, and you've not eaten enough in far too long."
"Is coming, yes, but I believe we have a little more time. You're still not strong enough to move, and I am too exhausted myself to carry you as far as we need to go."
Greg thought about it for a moment. Mycroft did look pretty rough, and Greg still felt like crap. Another half hour or so certainly wouldn't go amiss, if they could get it. "All right, then. But what about you?"
"I have to keep watch. Someone must."
Greg gave him a worried look. "You're sure?"
"There are no alternatives, Gregory." Mycroft didn't look at all pleased by that, but both of them were practical men. If Mycroft said Greg should rest and he should watch, then that probably was the only realistic option.
"All right," Greg answered. He sighed, knowing he didn't have to like it.
Mycroft tugged on Greg's hand with the one Greg still held. "Come here."
"You might be warmer and more comfortable here, which would help you rest somewhat better." Mycroft pulled him up into his arms. It was, in fact, much more comfortable than the ground, and Greg rested his head on Mycroft's shoulder again, his mind too muddled with pain and exhaustion to think clearly anymore. His eyes closed and he fell asleep very quickly.
Chapter 8: There Went Up a Mist From the Earth
Greg woke with a start, feeling Mycroft move beneath him.
"Sralthan is coming," Mycroft whispered. "Ea found us much more quickly than I anticipated. We must flee."
Greg ached in head and body, and weakness washed over him in waves as Mycroft helped him to his feet. He wobbled and staggered, leaning into Mycroft for support. Greg could hear the sound of swift movement in the distance and knew they hadn't much time. "Can you fly?" he asked, his voice hushed, and Mycroft nodded, stretching his wings.
"No bloody idea." Greg could still feel his wings, so they hadn't gone away while he slept. He tried to flap them, but it was miserably awkward, more flailing than anything else. "I doubt it," he whispered. "They're not moving too well, and I haven't the first idea how the whole thing works." At least they didn't hurt, unlike everything else. "Not even sure I can walk at all."
Mycroft just nodded and put his arms around Greg. "Hold on." Greg did, and Mycroft bore them into the air, keeping them low and out of sight as best he could. It was awkward, but faster than trying to run; Greg was glad Mycroft was able to carry them, but it didn't look like he was going to last long. The man looked knackered, pain and exhaustion painted on his pale, lined face. He was already breathing too heavily for Greg's comfort.
Greg could hear Sralthan growing nearer, much too quickly. He hazarded a glance beyond Mycroft's laboring wings and saw Sralthan and the ard-fiadh in the distance, closing in on them even through the trees and the tangle of underbrush, glowing with power and trailing firefly sparks as their voices roared and shrieked out words Greg couldn't understand.
It was obvious Mycroft was nearing the end of his endurance. Breathless, he said, "I'm sorry, Gregory. When I put you down, I want you to run. Get away if you can. I'll try to hold them off."
"You're insane. You can't -- all three of them? Mycroft, no."
Their pursuers had closed in on them in the few moments it took for the conversation, and Mycroft swooped low and dropped Greg. "Run!" he shouted, and spun to face Sralthan and the ard-fiadh, shield in hand and sword blazing with a green-gold fire that burned Greg's eyes like a welding arc.
Greg stumbled and fell, but rolled to his feet and staggered a few steps as the ard-fiadh caught up to him, reaching out with their strange, bony hands. Greg ducked into a shrub -- thankfully one without thorns -- and scrambled into the hollow beneath a tree before he hurried out the other side. It didn't keep the ard-fiadh off him.
He saw Mycroft whirl and shout and swoop down on Sralthan with a fury Greg could barely comprehend, his body suddenly surrounded by a blinding, brilliant red-gold aura of flame. The vicious, blazing attack drove the creature back a step, but it hesitated only a moment before it was lashing out with both vine-tendril arms, slashing and stabbing at Mycroft with its long twin swords.
One of the ard-fiadh grabbed Greg by the shoulder, its hand passing through his wing, and dragged him to where Mycroft fought Sralthan. It shrieked, "We have it," in that horrifying rusted metal voice, and Sralthan laughed an acid, mind-scraping laugh. Mycroft looked down, distracted for only a moment, but Sralthan uncoiled and struck hard. Mycroft shouted in pain at the blow that knocked him from the air and dropped him to the ground in a crumpled heap, the aura of flame around him going out. He looked broken, his weapon now only a brolly lying beside him. One of Sralthan's arms rose as both of the ard-fiadh closed in, meaning to finish Mycroft, and something in Greg shattered.
He howled out his rage and terror and frustration, desperately wanting to protect the man who had tried to rescue him. Mist exploded from Greg's body in a violent blast and a deafening boom of thunder. Dark and solid as an ocean wave, the mist struck his enemies and threw them back, knocking the ard-fiadh from their feet and staggering Sralthan. "Mycroft!" The mist roiled about them, seething and swirling like a storm, shifting in thick curtains that billowed and curled.
"Where are you?" Mycroft looked around him, as though blind, groping for his umbrella. The ard-fiadh rose to their feet again and Sralthan flailed wildly at the air around it, murderous and bellowing its rage.
"Right here!" Greg reached down and snagged Mycroft's arm, as Mycroft grabbed his errant weapon. Mycroft looked up, finally seeing him.
"I don't know what you just did, but we need to get out of here. I can't see anything except you." Greg had never thought to see genuine fear in Mycroft's eyes, but there it was. Mycroft lurched to his feet, and Greg staggered off as fast as he could, following a tiny current of air that thinned the mist slightly before them. Taking a quick look over his shoulder, Greg could see Sralthan and the ard-fiadh still stumbling behind them, unable to see though the spreading murk. Gathering his failing strength, Greg ran, and Mycroft ran with him, hoping to leave their pursuers behind.
Sralthan and the ard-fiadh spoke spells as they moved and a shimmering blue-white web of gems and starlight appeared between the bone-faced beasts. They strode into the mist, obviously not seeing anything, but you didn't need to see to catch something in a net, did you? Greg and Mycroft clung to each other's arms, as Mycroft was still nearly blind in the fog that swirled about them. Greg did his best to lead them, but he was weak and stumbling, and Mycroft was winded and thoroughly exhausted. They ducked into the underbrush and slipped around trees and under root balls, but their enemies kept advancing, and Sralthan directed its minions, muttering magic that seemed to be getting a fix on the fleeing men.
The ard-fiadh closed in, moving much too close for Greg's peace of mind. He tugged Mycroft out of the way of one edge of the net, but tripped over a stone, and the net came down on them before he could regain his balance. The net stung like icy needles and both of them cried out as they stumbled and fell; Greg couldn't help the panic that slammed through him, and the stab of grief that he'd got Mycroft trapped in this mess with him.
There was a tearing sensation in Greg's chest and a glimmering hole opened in the ground beneath him, spreading like oil on water from where his hand touched the earth; he and Mycroft dropped through it with a stomach-churning lurch.
Chapter 9: A Tiny Core of Stillness in the Heart
They hit the floor with a painful thud, the icy net dissolving around them in a shower of blue-white sparks. The glowing silvery-blue oval in the air above them wavered, shedding thick curls of mist. It tightened and closed with a sound like distant thunder; it felt like the door of a plane in flight opening, air sucked out of the space, deafening in its suddenness. They lay there, panting desperately, trying to figure out what had just happened. Everything here looked impossibly familiar. Their wings shimmered and vanished; it was quite possibly the oddest thing Greg had ever felt, like something living crawling into his back.
"We're in my flat. How are we in my flat?" Greg asked, after a long, stunned moment of thoroughly confused silence. "Did you do that?"
Mycroft shook his head. "No, Gregory. You did."
"We're not safe yet," Mycroft said, getting to his feet and leaning on the sofa. His umbrella still lay on the floor. "We have to ward the place, or we'll be found."
"They can find us here?"
"They tracked you to the street where you were taken. They can certainly find your flat, unless it's warded."
"How did you know this was my -- never mind. Of course you know. I don't have a clue what you're talking about, though. Warded?" Greg was too confused at finding himself back home and in far too much pain to follow the conversation very well. The thought of those things coming here, though, focused his attention and his swiftly waning strength. He pushed himself through the feeling of torn muscle where none existed. "What do we need to do?"
Mycroft offered him a hand and pulled Greg to his feet. "I'm afraid it involves more blood and sigils," he said, leading Greg to the door.
"Oh, Christ," Greg grumbled, not sure he had anything at all left to give. "Do I have to do anything, or is this all you, again?"
"Just trust me," Mycroft said, reaching into his pocket for the little blade. "It will require your blood, as it's your home, but most of it I can do myself. We don't have time for me to teach you." Greg sighed, then yipped as Mycroft jabbed him in the finger and started tracing shapes on the door with his blood, muttering firefly words; the sparks were dimmer here, but Greg supposed that shouldn't be too much of a surprise. The process took a little over five minutes, but Greg was beyond caring by that point. About the only thing he wanted was to pass out somewhere warm and sleep for a week. And a doctor. And food. He wanted food. And coffee.
"The last bit here requires your work," Mycroft told him. "You need to summon the mist and anchor it into the sigil."
Greg stared at him, his mind numbing too quickly. "What? How?"
"Concentrate, Gregory. Breathe it out of your core. You need to focus."
He took a shaky breath, feeling more than a little light-headed, the inside of his body burning with pain. He could smell himself, and it wasn't at all pleasant. Greg tried, but nothing happened. He gave a frustrated grunt and shook his head.
"You can do this. You summoned an extremely impressive wall of mist back there, and you got us here. You can create a little of the stuff now. I know you are able to." Mycroft gave him a stern look and, beyond anything else, Greg found that he really didn't want to disappoint the man at this stage of the proceedings. He took another deep breath then pushed through a haze of agony, and a glimmering curl of grey swirled out of him, faint but definitely there. "Now, anchor it to the sigil, Gregory."
Greg put his hand in the center of the thing and leaned into the bloody symbol, pushing the tendril into the design. The mist swirled along his arm and into the sigil, making it glow briefly with a dim, red light that crackled along its thin, sketchy lines. He could feel the moment the power anchored. It felt like something hooking into place, almost a physical sensation. The sigil flared and vanished and Greg slumped, completely spent and barely conscious, Mycroft catching him in his arms and helping him back to the sofa.
"Excellent, Gregory. You did very well. That will keep anything uncanny from entering without your express and willing invitation, and it will hide this place from them unless they are already aware of its location."
"Everything?" Greg said, his head swirling. He blinked, and a bizarre thought occurred to him. "What, even Sherlock?"
"Even Sherlock," Mycroft answered, grinning.
Greg laughed, but there was an hysterical edge in it; he was too far gone with exhaustion and pain. No more Sherlock sneaking in while Greg was having a kip, and making off with his warrant card, or perching like some posh, skeletal stork at the foot of his bed, demanding cases. It lasted only a moment as Mycroft gave him one of those x-ray glances. "God, I need a shower and some clean clothes," Greg said, looking Mycroft over.
They were both an awful mess. Mycroft's suit was shredded, and the bandaged gash across his abdomen was bleeding again. "And you need a doctor," Greg added.
"For you, as well," Mycroft said, nodding. "That, I can arrange. Allow me to call my PA."
"Sure." Greg wasn't sure he could keep his eyes open, but he wasn't about to stay filthy like this when he collapsed in bed if he could help it. God, he probably still had fleas. "I'm gonna shower. You can get one, too, if you want."
"Wait for me, this will only take a moment."
Greg gave him a puzzled look. "Wait for you?"
"If you get in by yourself, you'll only fall and break your neck. I didn't go through all of this trouble for you to expire in your own shower." Mycroft glowered at him, but it wasn't a very frightening one. More fond, actually, and wasn't that an odd thought? Mycroft dialed his phone.
"Okay." Greg really didn't care any more. He hurt too bloody much. His head spun wildly.
There was a brief pause while Mycroft waited for the phone to be answered. "Yes," he said. "The mission was largely successful. … At the inspector's flat. … Yes, send Doctor Lachlan, and some clean clothes for me; tell him we are both injured." Through his haze of pain, Greg doubted Mycroft's veracity. If that was 'largely successful,' he hated to think what disaster would look like. "Something hot to eat would also not go amiss. … Yes, do inform him. … Thank you."
Mycroft sighed and set his phone on Greg's coffee table, then offered Greg a hand. "Come along, then. Let's deal with the fact that we're both filthy, disgusting, and covered with blood. The whole situation is most distasteful."
It was far more effort to stand this time, and Greg just let himself be led. "I'm going to have to bin all of this," Greg mumbled, and Mycroft helped him remove his ruined clothes. "Need a rubbish bag." He should have felt weird, getting naked with the man, he supposed, but at this point nothing mattered. "Is this doctor you called one of us?" he asked.
Mycroft shook his head as he shed his own suit and unwrapped the bloody bandage, dropping them all in a heap with Greg's clothes. "No, but he knows about us and understands how to deal with anything he might find. There are a few humans who have small magical abilities, though they are not, themselves, among the uncanny."
Greg nodded and leaned against the wall of the shower as Mycroft turned the water on and got in with him. He was too dizzy to even think anymore, and only sheer stubbornness, the wall, and Mycroft were keeping him on his feet. "You've been through entirely too much in the past several days, Gregory," Mycroft murmured, as he started washing Greg's body. Greg reached for the shampoo and squeezed some into his hair. "You body is starting to shut down. Just stay awake until we get you into bed. Can you do that?"
He dropped the shampoo bottle on his foot, but barely felt it. Greg scrubbed at his hair, eyes closed against the foam, and spat when it got into his mouth. He hardly noticed as Mycroft finished with them both and got him out of the shower, toweling him down briskly and wrapping one large, dry towel around his waist. Greg was conscious of his arm over Mycroft's shoulder as he was half-carried to the bedroom, then shuffled into the bed, the covers tucked gently over him. He looked up at Mycroft, who stood there with a light blue towel about his own waist, thin and naked and wounded, his hair still dripping trails of water down his skin. It was the last thing Greg remembered.
"Wake up, Gregory." He felt a warm hand on his cheek. "Doctor Lachlan is here."
Greg groaned and forced his eyes open. God, he still felt like he'd been trampled and gored by rogue mammoths. He barely had the strength to move. He'd been hoping it had all been a nightmare, but there was no chance of that, given that Mycroft was hovering over him, half-dressed in a pair of loose pyjama trousers, with an elderly, East Indian-looking man standing behind him in the doorway of Greg's bedroom. Greg could smell Chinese takeaway somewhere nearby.
"He needs to look at you."
"What about you?" Greg asked, reaching out with a shaking hand to touch Mycroft's skin close to the gash. It felt warmer than it ought.
"As soon as he's done with you. You've had a much rougher few days than I." Greg was too exhausted and felt too ill to put up a fight, though he could see Mycroft was feeling much worse than he was letting on. Mycroft sat on the edge of the bed.
"I'm Narendra Lachlan," the elderly man said, offering his hand. His voice was a smooth tenor, and he had a slight accent.
"Yeah, Greg Lestrade," Greg answered, returning the gesture. He propped himself up gingerly on one elbow and Mycroft helped him sit up, one bare arm against the naked skin of Greg's back. Greg leaned into him, and Mycroft allowed it. Lachlan's exam was quick and professional, and the man didn't miss anything.
"What happened to your tongue?" he asked, as he peered into Greg's mouth.
"Bit it," Greg said. "That... that thing wanted my name. I didn't want to give it."
Mycroft and Lachlan looked at each other. "You resisted a compulsion?" Mycroft said, a hint of astonishment in his voice.
"I was told giving it wouldn't be a good idea, so I didn't say anything."
"That was wise," Mycroft said, nodding, actual respect shining in the man's eyes. It left a warm feeling in Greg's chest.
"Overall, I think you'll be all right, provided you get enough rest," Lachlan said. "You need a tetanus booster and a week's round of antibiotics for the infection. Anything else you'll need, you won't be able to get here. That sigil on your chest will scar, but the lines will be very thin. It shouldn't be too noticeable. Mycroft was careful." Greg nodded, looking over at Mycroft. "You've no broken bones, but you have deep bruising, cuts, and lacerations, these puncture wounds on your arm, and perhaps a mild concussion. You won't need any stitches--" Lachlan turned his attention to the other man, "--unlike this one."
"Then let's get the needle over with, so you can take care of him." Greg didn't take his eyes off Mycroft. The injection took only a moment to prepare, and it was over almost before Greg noticed it. Lachlan did a little basic cleanup and bandaging, but it didn't take very much; Greg was grateful. He just wanted to pass out again.
"More than anything else right now, you need food, and liquid, and a great deal of rest. You're dehydrated and you've been through some very difficult things in the past few days. You should stay in bed for a few days, and then you should see a physician on the other side of a gate." Lachlan handed Greg a couple of horse pills that had to be the antibiotics in question, and he downed them with some water.
Greg nodded, not quite registering most of it consciously. "Yeah. Okay." He looked at Mycroft. "What about the Met?"
"Taken care of," Mycroft murmured.
"Thought as much."
Lachlan took Mycroft's wrist. "Now you, Mycroft. And I will hear no arguments."
"You shall receive none," Mycroft said, letting Greg lie back down. "I should, however, inform you that the wounds from Sralthan's blades are poisoned."
Greg sat bolt upright as Lachlan glared at Mycroft, ignoring the vertigo from his rapid change of position. A chill ran through him. "What? Mycroft!"
Mycroft shook his head. "It's a slow-acting toxin. Without an antidote, it would take the better part of a week to kill me. It's not particularly bothersome right now, but toward the end, it gets quite... unpleasant."
"Jesus, Mycroft. What were you thinking, not telling me, and letting the doc look at me, first?"
Lachlan was rummaging about in his bag already, muttering about stubborn uncanny bastards, and Mycroft said, "I was thinking that there was ample time to deal with the situation, and that you required attention most urgently."
Greg groaned and buried his face in his hands, his elbows propped on his knees. "Mycroft." He couldn't help the frustration in his voice.
"Got it right here," Lachlan said, holding up a small vial of vaguely luminescent violet liquid. "Distilled luvias proproprium sap. The toxin on the blade was derived from the malleum genus, yes?"
Mycroft nodded. "Certainly what it feels like. It would likely be best to analyze a blood sample just in case, but what you have should take care of it unless this is something entirely outside of my experience."
"Right. Blood sample it is, but first let's get this into you." There was the rigamarole of the injection, then an exam and some stitches and bandaging, before Lachlan drew a couple of vials of Mycroft's blood. The doctor packed up his supplies and the detritus of his exams and treatment. "You lads both need food and drink, and rest." He gave Mycroft a pointed glare. "I am referring to you, Mycroft Holmes. You will rest, or you will hear from me. Don't think for an instant that pretty young assistant of yours won't sell you out."
Mycroft's mouth twisted into a small, wry smile. "I'm well aware of that fact, Narendra."
"Food and clothing are waiting there in the kitchen, with the young lady's compliments."
Mycroft rose as Lachlan did, and saw the man out, with his thanks. He returned after a few moments, bearing the Chinese takeaway. Even in Greg's utterly exhausted state, he was too hungry to sleep with food that close. "Narendra left pain medication for both of us," Mycroft said, "along with your antibiotics. We're to take it once we've had something to eat." Mycroft set the tray, laden with plates and two large glasses of water, down on the side table, then sat on the bed with Greg. "I'll sleep on the sofa."
Greg reached past Mycroft and grabbed a glass, taking a huge drink of water before he snagged one of the plates, and a fork. "It's barely big enough for me, and you're a couple inches taller. Would be stupid to have you there, all uncomfortable, when you're hurt and there's enough room for both of us here." Mycroft raised an eyebrow but said nothing. "Are you really going to be all right? With that poison and all?"
Mycroft nodded. "Yes. We shall have to remain in your flat for the next two days, though. Given ea's pursuit even after seeing you were revealed, Sralthan will very likely attempt to recapture you and attempt the ritual of opening. It wouldn't work, but ea has invested hundreds of years in preparation for this moment, and I can't see ea giving up quite so easily."
"Two days? But I thought that alignment thing was tonight?" Greg stuffed his mouth with a forkful of something with noodles. Beef, he thought, though he didn't much care.
"Time moves differently between the realms," Mycroft explained, between his own bites. "The alignment that takes place tonight there will 'occur' here in two days. There are places where time moves faster than here, and others where it moves more slowly. It can be difficult to discern which, and sometimes those things shift; it's to do with the gates, I believe. You've been gone from here for a week."
"A week?" He wondered what the people at work thought. "I don't even want to know how that works."
"You're technically on holiday for the next two weeks, Gregory. An illness in the family requiring your presence. I believe that should be sufficient time for you to recover physically and magically, but there is a great deal beyond recovery that lies before you now. You may wish to... reconsider your career. At least for the time being."
"You need to learn about what you are -- your nature, what you're capable of, and how to use and control your power. It is possible in this realm, but much more difficult, and it would require a considerable amount of time. The connection to power is more tenuous here, and it takes a great deal more effort to reach and to channel properly."
Greg took a long breath, staring down at his plate. He'd inhaled about half of his food already without even noticing; he felt too full and more than a little queasy, and hoped it wouldn't make him sick. Too long without food, and you could puke it all up if you ate too much, too quickly.
Mycroft regarded him solemnly. "What you did today Gregory -- summoning the mist as you did, using it as a weapon, creating a gate without being in a thin place -- it should have been impossible for you at this stage of your revelation. You are far more powerful than anyone could have suspected, and you must learn how to use it properly, lest you harm yourself and others unintentionally. You may already have damaged yourself badly without knowing it."
Greg waved a hand, dismissing the whole concept for the moment because it was just too big to cope with. "We can deal with that later. What I want to know is, what the hell is behind the gate Sralthan wanted to open, that you're so terrified of."
Setting his plate aside, Mycroft took a deep breath and let it out. "That, I'm afraid, is a very long story, Gregory. It really should wait until we have both rested. Tomorrow?"
With a sigh, Greg nodded. "All right, then. It'll keep. You said we're safe here for the moment, anyway."
"Right, then," Greg murmured. He put his plate down, as well. "I've got one last question before I pass out entirely." He looked into Mycroft's eyes, and Mycroft gestured for him to continue. "Back there, wherever 'there' is... Mycroft, why did you kiss me?"
Mycroft shifted, suddenly uneasy, and looked away.
"None of that," Greg said, reaching out to turn Mycroft's face back to him. "Tell me," he said, his voice soft and curious.
He could see Mycroft steel himself for it. "I was... I was quite certain that we were going to die, Gregory. I saw no escape for us. The only thing I could do at that point was prevent Sralthan from opening the gate, and try to minimize your suffering." His eyes skittered away for a moment, then met Greg's again, blue-grey and tense. "I didn't think I would ever have another chance." There was an awkward pause. "I'm sorry. Please forgive me. It was inappropriate of me."
"You... wanted to kiss me," Greg breathed, confused but hopeful.
Mycroft nodded and looked away again. "Yes. I did. I have always felt a certain attraction to you, but..." He shook his head and said nothing else.
"It's all right," Greg murmured. Mycroft looked up, tentative and vulnerable. "Really." Greg tugged on Mycroft's arm, urging him a little closer, feeling a growing warmth inside him, curling around his lungs and tightening his chest. "It's not like I've never snogged another bloke before, you know."
"No." Greg shook his head and put an arm around Mycroft. "It's all right. We can talk about that tomorrow, too." He leaned in and closed the small distance between them, pressing a soft kiss to Mycroft's lips and leaning back again. Mycroft, a look of astonishment on his face, raised his hand and touched his mouth where Greg's lips had been. He nodded at Greg.
"Now, come lie down. I don't think I can keep my eyes open for another five minutes, I swear."
Mycroft hesitated for a moment, then nodded again, and slipped under the covers with Greg. They lay down together, arms around one another, and Greg rested his head on Mycroft's shoulder, dropping off to the close warmth of Mycroft's body, and the sound of Mycroft's heart beating under his ear.
He woke with his limbs tangled in Gregory's, their bodies languid and slack. Gregory was still asleep, so Mycroft didn't bother to try to suppress his yawn. He stretched as well as he could without disturbing the man in his arms. Mycroft was uncertain of the time, as the shade was drawn over the bedroom window; it was day -- that much he could tell -- but the light was very muted.
Gregory looked awful. His wrists and ankles were chafed where he had been shackled, his wrists worn raw in places. His throat was bruised where the collar had been close about his neck. The man was covered with cuts and bruises, his hands a mess from thorns and his struggles; his arms had rows of reddened, infected puncture wounds from the stekkik spines. Neither of them had wanted to deal with a razor before they slept, so Gregory's face was thick with grizzled stubble; there was a scabbed-over gash in one cheek that would require care to work around safely. His eyes were sunken, with dark, bruised arcs of utter exhaustion beneath them. The lines of the sigil that would scar Gregory's chest only raised a surge of guilt when Mycroft thought of what he'd had to do; he ached at the thought of what Gregory had been through, and how hurt it had left him. He'd used too much of his energy when he'd struck out at Sralthan and the ard-fiadh, and that worried Mycroft much more than all the rest of it combined.
Gregory's weight shifted and his arm moved, trailing his fingers up Mycroft's side; he uttered a soft moan and his eyes fluttered open, groggy and unfocused. "How do you feel?" Mycroft asked, his voice quiet and gentle.
"Like crap," Gregory mumbled, unwrapping himself from around Mycroft's body and rolling onto his back. He stared up at the ceiling with half-open eyes. "Everything aches."
"I'll get you some tea and medication." Gregory nodded, silent, and Mycroft rose, feeling Gregory watching him as he moved. He started the kettle then returned with a glass of water and the pills, which he handed to Gregory.
"Thanks." Gregory yawned and took the pain medication and antibiotics, drinking the entire glass of water, then stretched prodigiously before he flinched. "Stretching shouldn't be as painful as all that," he grumbled. Setting the glass on the bedside table, he rose cautiously, still entirely naked. Mycroft refused to stare, much as he wanted to. He heard the rustle of cloth as Gregory slowly limped out toward the kitchen, wrapped in a threadbare brown dressing gown that had probably been the same colour as his eyes when it was new.
Mycroft followed, and Gregory dropped into a chair at the kitchen table. Neither of them spoke for several minutes, as the tea steeped. They were both trying to get their bearings, Mycroft suspected. The past several days had been long and stressful, and he had no doubt that Gregory was still exhausted, overwhelmed, and exceedingly confused about the entire situation. Gregory pressed a hand to his bandaged chest and sighed.
"What's behind that gate, Mycroft?" he asked, as Mycroft set a mug of tea before him, prepared as Gregory liked it. The man took a sip and nodded, a slight smile twitching at the ends of his lips.
Mycroft made his own tea and sat with Gregory, still only half-dressed in pyjama trousers. He stared down into the steam rising from his mug for a few moments. Gregory waited patiently.
"You should hear the entire tale, Gregory, so that you understand the situation fully. It is not just what is behind the gate, but why it's there, that is important."
"All right." Gregory nodded and gestured for Mycroft to speak.
Mycroft sighed and sipped at his tea, organizing his thoughts before he began. "A little over three thousand years ago, there was a long and extremely destructive war in the uncanny realms. The war was begun by a powerful necromancer called Kiaan, one of the lyraa -- the bird people you saw. Many of the lyraa are extremely powerful magicians, and she was one of the most powerful among them.
"Her intent was to consolidate power among the tribes of the lyraa, but the conflict spilled beyond the boundaries of their territories as many of the tribes resisted and requested assistance of their allies."
Gregory looked at him over the mug, pressed against his lips. "Were you there, fighting in that war? You said you were... what, thousands of years old?"
Mycroft nodded. "Although I spent most of that time in this realm dealing with other things, I did participate, yes. Sherlock was more involved than I, but that is not particularly relevant to the tale at hand." Gregory just nodded. "The war dragged on, becoming more and more violent and widespread as it continued. Kiaan created an army of necromantic constructs--"
"You mean, like zombies?" Gregory's expression was indecipherable, though Mycroft could read his disbelief.
Mycroft shook his head. "No. Kiaan didn't raise the dead in that sense, though she could easily have done so. The lyraa have strong taboos against reanimating the bodies of sentient beings, and she did not violate that stricture. These constructs were created of stone, and plant life, and the bones of animals. The ard-fiadh are similarly made."
Gregory's eyes widened. "So they--"
"Are beings of bone and magic. They are imbued with intelligence and magical power by their creator, as servitors. They are utterly loyal to the one who creates them, yet capable of independent action and thought."
"What about those tree blokes? Same thing?"
"No. The dryadae are a species of sentient plants. They are generally well regarded, and famed for their physical strength and sturdiness, as you might have suspected."
Gregory nodded. "Yeah, I could see how that might be the case." He touched the bruises on one arm in an unconscious gesture.
"Over time, Kiaan created an army numbering over two million constructs. Her power and influence grew with her military strength, but she became far too greedy. With the tribes of her own kind resisting her, she set her sights on the lands of other species, particularly those allied to the lyraa who fought against her increasing ambition.
"The war continued for one hundred and seven years, Gregory. It was devastating, and innumerable lives were lost. Sralthan's people, a very ancient and powerful species whose origins predate humanity, were nearly eradicated. There are very few morlissans left."
"Sralthan fought against Kiaan?"
Mycroft nodded. "Among others, yes. Near the end of the war, Boreas, one of the greatest of the way openers, began to create a trap for Kiaan's army."
"That's what's behind the gate? A couple million necromantic... things?"
"Not so many as that now, but yes."
Gregory let out a shocked whoosh of breath. "Bloody hell. But, if Sralthan fought against that army, why would it want to release it again?"
"Patience, Gregory. I'm getting there."
"Right, sorry." He looked vaguely queasy.
"When Boreas was ready, Kiaan and her army were lured to a place nearby. The army had been considerably reduced over the course of the war, but it was still vast. The canyon in which the gate is found was obviously not large enough to contain an army of hundreds of thousands, but the battlefield lay on the slopes of the mountain below. When Boreas opened the gate, he triggered an immense magical spell that drew the enemy army into it; essentially, they were teleported through the gate in their myriads, and sealed there."
"So the bones I saw, they were from that war?"
Mycroft shook his head. "No, that particular battle dated from about two hundred years ago. There was a brute-force attempt on the gate that failed miserably, thank all the gods."
"Okay, but why did Sralthan need me, of all people?"
"Because the gate and the spell were created by a way opener, rather than being a natural thin place where beings pass through, it is sealed with specific spells and bindings. Under ordinary circumstances, only another way opener could unlock this sealed gate. If a being attempting to open it is not a way opener, the power of a way opener would be required. Because the gate itself is so strong, only an extremely powerful way opener could unlock the seal; failing that, the raw energy of a way opener's revelation would be required. It would have to be channeled properly, and the entire ritual would be quite risky, but opening it would free the army and the concentrated power it embodies; the magical energy released by unravelling the necromantic warriors would be beyond imagining."
Gregory stared at Mycroft, his mouth slightly open as he attempted to understand the scale of what Mycroft had just told him. "And... I was supposed to be the key to this gate."
"Yes. You were the only hidden way opener currently living. There are a few others, already revealed, but they have neither sufficient power nor skill for the task, and Sralthan would be unable to recruit them to ea's cause."
"That being?" Gregory's voice was soft and somewhat subdued.
"Sralthan wishes to become a god." Mycroft rose from the table and peered into Gregory's fridge. "You should eat."
"How the hell would releasing some necromantic army let that thing become a god? I mean, how does anything become a god? And if Sralthan fought against that army before, why would it think letting hundreds of thousands of... whatevers out would be a good idea?"
Mycroft assembled eggs and other ingredients for omelettes, slicing and sautéing some mushrooms, then setting them aside. "The gate Boreas created was closed during a particular astronomical alignment that occurs every fifteen hundred years; it gave the teleportation spell a great deal more power and allowed the trap to be completed and the gate to be sealed. The army and Kiaan are unable to open it from the other side because they are contained in what is essentially a magically dead zone, lacking any accessible energy, but someone from this end, provided they were able to generate the necessary power type and intensity, would be able to do so during the Boreas alignment, even if they were not themselves a way opener.
"Beings from the uncanny realms are occasionally able to achieve godhood, but it requires an immense amount of magical and spiritual power, gathered over the course of millennia. The staggering amount that would be released by the unraveling of the necromantic warriors in such a quantity would be sufficient to spark the creation of a god. Quite a powerful god, in fact."
Gregory tilted his head and gave Mycroft a suspicious look. "And you're not one?"
Mycroft laughed as he prepared their breakfast. "No, and I have no desire to become one, Gregory. I am, in fact, remarkably unambitious. Both rulership and godhood make one a convenient target. I prefer exercising power from behind the scenes. It's much safer and offers a great deal more stability if no one is attempting to overthrow you."
"I see." It was obvious Gregory was exaggerating a bit regarding his actual level of understanding, but Mycroft knew he was working his way toward comprehension. "So you're, what, the Wizard of Oz?"
Mycroft grinned and shook his head. "Not at all. That would require me to be ineffectual and to project an illusion of power I do not have. On the contrary, I have a great deal of it; most beings have no concept of its extent, and I prefer to keep it that way."
Gregory nodded. "That, I'd believe. So, then, Sralthan's evil and nobody wants it to become a god?"
"No one particularly cares if Sralthan wishes to become a god, Gregory. The great concern is that ea is entirely incapable of containing Kiaan, or the army, and unravelling them. The war would begin again, with a great deal more ferocity, and no one wants that. Sralthan and ea's tiny escort would have been eradicated within moments of opening the gate. Sralthan is not evil, simply deluded as to ea's current strength. That ea was willing to kill someone to release that power is problematic, obviously, but not terribly unusual. Kings and governments do such things all too frequently." Mycroft shrugged. "Our own government is not above the death of innocents to achieve its goals."
Gregory's face darkened. "Yeah, unfortunately. I've never liked the idea."
"Believe it or not, I have never been particularly enamored of the concept myself." Mycroft could feel Gregory's eyes on him as he poured beaten egg into a pan. He listened to the liquid sizzle, its scent rising and spreading through the room. "I have a great deal of influence on our government, and more knowledge and information than any other living human being, but I do not actually rule, no matter what Sherlock says."
Gregory's sigh sounded, quiet, behind him. "I hardly know what to think."
Mycroft turned to him for a moment as the egg cooked, more serious now. "To prevent Sralthan from opening the gate, Gregory, I was entirely willing to sacrifice my own life and, if necessary, yours as well. I do not know if my companions survived our encounter with Sralthan's encampment. I hope that at least a few of them did, but each of them was a consummate warrior and well aware that what we were doing could likely have been a suicide mission."
"It nearly was." He was solemn and spoke slowly, thinking the whole thing over. "You came for me despite knowing you were likely to die."
"Yes." Mycroft nodded, not really wishing to contemplate the alternative. "I am extremely grateful that I was able to retrieve you, and not simply because the gate's opening would trigger a war. The danger is not entirely over, as I noted last night. Sralthan may well believe that ea can take your power, or force you to open the gate, if it is done at the time of the alignment. All the other known way openers are entirely too well protected for ea to approach within the time left before the alignment occurs. So long as we remain within the wards here, we should be safe. After the alignment, you will have a number of choices to face."
"I didn't think you... well, that you actually cared what happened to me, Mycroft." Gregory paused. "I wasn't sure anyone did, really. I'm surprised you didn't delegate a likely suicide mission to someone else."
Mycroft turned back to the eggs, adding cheese and thin slices of sautéed mushroom before folding the omelette to let it finish cooking. "While I may never have shown it in ways you could see, Gregory, I do consider you a friend."
"You kiss all your friends, do you?" Gregory's voice held a hint of teasing to it, but the most prominent emotion was confusion. Mycroft saw something that might have been a spark of interest in his eyes, but refused to speculate.
"No, not generally. But that is something we can wait to discuss. Neither of us should be distracted while you are recovering, nor learning about yourself and your situation." He flipped the omelette. "Your life has grown immeasurably more complicated due to your revelation."
"I kind of noticed that bit. I've got wings now, for god's sake. What the hell am I supposed to do with wings?" Gregory's distress was understandable. Everything had changed for him suddenly and very painfully, in mere moments, after being kidnapped away from everything he had ever known, and being subjected to imprisonment and torture. Mycroft slipped the omelette from the pan onto a plate and set it before his companion.
"Do eat, Gregory. Your health is still quite precarious after the past week's maltreatment and your revelation." He turned and started on his own omelette. "As to what you are supposed to do with wings, flight is usually rather high up on the list."
"Comedian," Gregory grumbled, but he ate his omelette. "And what are we going to do for the next couple of days?"
Mycroft looked over his shoulder at the man. "You are going to rest, and to sleep as much as possible while you heal and regain your strength, and we are going to talk about what your options are. I am going to take a good deal of that time to work on arranging things so that you will be able to both see a physician, and have the time to do what is necessary once your decisions have been made."
"Will I be able to go back to the Met?" His brow was wrinkled with worry.
"It would be problematic at this point," Mycroft admitted. He watched as Gregory buried his face in his palms, silent and still. "You need time to adjust to this. Simply ignoring it will not help you. It will not make this go away. Your revelation cannot be undone any more than a chick can be returned to its egg." He could see it was what Gregory really wanted; the man hadn't known, hadn't asked for any of this to happen to him. It would be a great deal for anyone to absorb.
Gregory sat quietly while Mycroft ate his own breakfast. Anthea would need to be contacted; she'd have to come to Gregory's flat so Mycroft could make plans for his own prolonged absence. Eventually, Gregory looked up. "Is John? One of us, I mean."
Mycroft shook his head. "No, he is not. And I fear for Sherlock when the inevitable happens. He's far too attached to the man."
"So that's why he's always been so... well, Sherlock, I suppose? That coldness, not caring, like when he was gloating about his own cleverness while some poor kid was only seconds from being blown up. God, that bothered me. But, getting attached to people who vanish after a tiny lifetime, when you measure it against thousands of years..." There was pain in his words; Mycroft understood it all too well.
"It is difficult," Mycroft murmured. "After a while, you simply stop allowing yourself any emotional involvement. It's like watching the fall of cherry blossoms, Gregory. They are beautiful, but their ephemerality is a defining factor." He took a slow breath. "You'll learn to live with it."
Shaky, Gregory rose to his feet. "I'm too tired to think about this right now, Mycroft," he said, his body screaming his pain and unspoken distress. "I'm going back to bed for a while."
"You need sleep." Mycroft nodded. "I shall still be here when you wake." Gregory gave him a pensive look as he left the kitchen, and Mycroft began to clear up the dishes.
Greg tried to sleep, but his pain and Mycroft's words haunted him. 'You'll learn to live with it.' It seemed so bloody cold and unfeeling, and Greg was having a very hard time imagining himself still alive in a thousand years' time. Hell, getting to one hundred had always seemed entirely unrealistic, but now he had to adjust to the idea that everyone he'd ever known -- everyone he was ever likely to meet, except for Sherlock and Mycroft -- was going to die millennia before he would, unless something from the uncanny realms killed him first.
He'd been prepared to die last night. Not eager, certainly, but resigned to it. Suddenly, what might as well be eternity stretched out before him, and he wasn't sure he could wrap his brain around it in any meaningful manner. What the hell did anyone do with that kind of time on their hands? Mycroft obviously got his jollies playing power games, and Sherlock by solving riddles, preferably the sort attached to something murderous.
Greg wondered what he would become.
The quiet murmur of Mycroft's voice on the phone droned in the background. The man was a mystery to Greg. Mycroft had personally taken on a probable suicide mission to rescue him; whatever else Mycroft might say, he'd cared enough that he'd not delegated it to anyone else when it was obvious he could have. And he'd said that Sherlock would have come himself if he'd not been busy with something equally important elsewhere. Greg didn't know how he felt about any of it. The whole mess was so hard to take in. What the hell did any of it even mean?
Greg's head throbbed. He still felt drained to his core as though a tunnel had been drilled through him, exhausted and ill, his body aching deeply and everywhere, though sleep and food and paracetamol had helped a bit. Restless, Greg rolled onto his side and tugged the covers up over his shoulders, burrowing down into the sheets as he sought sleep that would not come.
What did Greg want? His first instinct was to go on as he always had; he could ignore everything and just go back to his office, tell them he'd been roughed up a bit to explain the cuts and bruises, then get on with the next investigation to hit his desk. The strange things rumbling inside him left him uneasy, though, filled with the knowledge that his desire for that normalcy could never come to pass. Greg felt he was teetering on the edge of something vast and terrifying. The slightest shift could throw him into chaos.
Much as Greg didn't want to admit it, Mycroft was the only stability in his life right now. The man knew what was happening to him, knew how to control it, how to explain it, and where Greg had to go to learn those things. Mycroft knew how to protect him from things he couldn't even imagine.
That thought became more reassuring as Greg turned it over in his mind. No matter what else happened, Mycroft had risked his life and come for Greg, rescued him from an ugly and horrific death. Surely at least some of what Mycroft had said was trustworthy. Despite all of Greg's worries last night, someone had missed him, had actually cared if he lived or died. How much, and in what way, were still not clear. Greg didn't know at all how he felt about Mycroft, either. He wondered if Mycroft would offer any answers about what he'd meant by the kiss without a pry bar being applied. He rather doubted it.
Chapter 10: Beyond Warded Walls
Greg slept most of the day, waking only occasionally for a little more food and water, or to deal with bodily necessities. It was raining outside and a little after dark, but he and Mycroft were stuck in the flat anyway, so it didn't matter. All Greg really cared about was the fact that there was food, and that they were safe for the moment.
Mycroft had stayed in the lounge on the sofa. Greg supposed it was so Mycroft wouldn't disturb his sleep; he'd seemed rather under the weather himself when Greg talked with him, but at least the man was resting. Worry and sleep didn't mix very well but, even through the pain, Greg had been too exhausted not to drop off. Finally, still hurting badly and completely done in, he felt he might be up to being vertical and dressed again for at least a little while. He'd been awake for half an hour or so and was restless. Mycroft was curled up on the sofa asleep, looking awkward and vulnerable. Greg tucked a blanket around him and Mycroft didn't even shift -- surely a mark of his own exhaustion.
The flat was quiet but for the patter of rain on the windows and the quiet hum of the current in the walls. Greg stood looking pensively out into the dark, wet street. The act felt so very ordinary after everything that had happened to him recently. He didn't feel normal himself, now, though. He wasn't sure he would again for a long time. Honestly, he had no idea what normal was supposed to be anymore.
Cars drove by, their lights reflecting on the black street two storeys below, barely audible inside the flat. Greg sighed and leaned his forehead against the cool glass. After a few minutes, he reached out to pull the curtains closed, but his eye caught an odd movement in the rain. Puzzled and nervous, he froze, staring.
Across the street, clinging to one of the lamp posts, was a stekkik.
"Oh, just brilliant." Greg couldn't help how his heart sped, or the prickling under his skin. He stood there for a moment, looking for others. Where there was one, there had to be more. None were visible in the street below, or on the walls, but Greg didn't trust his perception. He cautiously edged out of the window and drew the curtains, hoping the thing hadn't spotted him with its huge, multifaceted eyes.
"Mycroft." Greg's soft word didn't have any effect, so he put a hand on Mycroft's arm and shook him gently. "Mycroft, wake up. We've got trouble."
"Hmm?" Mycroft's eyes blinked open, groggy. "What's happened?"
"There's a stekkik outside, on a lamp post. I only saw one of those bloody bugs but there have to be more nearby."
Mycroft was immediately wide awake and alert. "They know where we are. I had hoped they were uncertain. We would have had more time."
"Yeah, my luck. Welcome to it."
Greg shook his head. "No, it's okay. You said they couldn't get in, right? All we have to do is wait them out."
"Yet you're still uneasy."
Greg snorted. "Bloody right I'm uneasy." He raised one arm and showed Mycroft the bandages that covered the puncture wounds there. "Last time I had to deal with them here? This happened. I ended up in chains in a fucking cage, Mycroft."
"Your fears are entirely understandable." Mycroft rose and went to the window, slipping the curtain aside about a hand's length and peering out. "You're quite correct, more have arrived. As have three of the ard-fiadh."
"What? Three of them?" Greg hurried over and peered out, his cheek next to Mycroft's as the other man held the edge of the curtain back slightly. "Crap." He could see over a dozen of the stekkik, and the three ard-fiadh that Mycroft had noted. They were standing in the middle of the pavement like nightmares solidified, looking up toward Greg's window.
"A fair assessment of our situation. I'm... a bit alarmed that there are so many of them, and that they are not taking care to conceal themselves."
Greg huffed out a stressed breath. "If you're alarmed, then I'm thinking maybe having a panic might not be such a bad idea."
Mycroft rested a hand at the small of Greg's back as he let the curtain slip closed. "I think panic is a bit premature. I should, however, call Anthea. The situation is rather dangerous, I will admit. We may need an escape route."
"Escape route?" Neither of them moved. Greg was entirely too conscious of Mycroft's hand on his body, their eyes locked, intimately close.
Nodding, Mycroft said, "We have an advantage in that Sralthan most likely wants you alive. Any actions they take will be intended to disable you or render you unconscious, rather than kill you."
"That's not reassuring, Mycroft."
"Regardless, it is better than the alternative. I need to make a call." Mycroft hesitated for a moment before he looked away and broke their contact. The pause was tiny, but Greg felt every nanosecond of it, his own breath momentarily stilled.
"Right." He let Mycroft make his call while he tugged the edge of the curtain aside again, unable to keep himself from watching. The bugs moved closer, ascending the wall of the building while the ard-fiadh stood on the pavement directly below, their immense antlers and bone faces glistening wetly in the night. Greg couldn't help how his body jerked back when one triangular head suddenly appeared at the window. He swallowed, nervous, as they stared at one another through the too-thin pane of glass. "Fuck," Greg whispered.
The stekkik tapped on the glass with the pointed tip of one long, angular foreleg. Greg could hear it chitter to the others as it turned its head to look down at them. "Mycroft." His voice shook, but he was unable to drop the curtain and step back. He knew how thin and fragile that window was, and he couldn't bring himself to trust the strange warding sigil he and Mycroft had created. "They're here. I mean, right here. Right outside the window." He felt a tendril of panic curling in his chest, dizzying.
Mycroft was by his side in a moment, his warm, suit-clad shoulder pressed to Greg's as he gave the stekkik an evaluating look. "Assistance is on the way."
"Can those things even be damaged by normal weapons here? Do we have to use your sword or something?"
"The stekkik can be damaged by perfectly normal methods from this realm. The ard-fiadh are another story entirely." They both stared at the bug as it gestured, and two more of the giant insects joined it. Greg's hand trembled slightly as he held the curtain aside.
"I swear to god, Mycroft, you are not opening that fucking window to stick them with your brolly."
Mycroft shook his head. "I assure you, I have no such plans."
Greg took a deep, steadying breath. "So what are your plans?" Greg's flat was on a quiet side street, but that didn't mean there was no traffic. Cars slowed as their drivers gaped, and a couple who rounded the corner to walk along the pavement turned and fled when they saw the things. Greg couldn't blame them in the least. He'd done the same bloody thing the first time he'd seen them.
"Several agents are on their way with suitable weapons to deal with the stekkik. The ard-fiadh will be somewhat more difficult to eliminate."
Greg could feel a slight tremor in Mycroft's body as they stood, arms pressed together. "Still not reassuring."
"Their magic is somewhat less effective here."
"'Somewhat' is, again, not reassuring, Mycroft." He managed to take a step back away from the window as the bugs looked in at them, chittering. Greg could feel the hair on his arms and the back of his neck rise as the stekkik tapped harder at the window, testing it. Mycroft pressed his palm to the glass and muttered a few words, dim blue sparks falling from his lips; the stekkik jerked back, the volume and rate of their voices rising rapidly. "What the hell was that?" Greg asked.
"A warning." Mycroft turned to look at Greg. "I've given them a hint of what I'm ca--"
There was a glowing ball of violet flame and a loud whump, and the window exploded inward; Mycroft was thrown backwards, shouting in startled pain; Greg barely had time to lift his arm to protect his face from the flying glass as he fell too.
He landed on his back, stunned, as one of the stekkik tried to stick its foreleg through the window. Red energy blazed and crackled, mist rising into the gaping space, and the thing made a horrifying, shrill sound as it was blown from the wall by the ward; a smell like burning fingernails filled the air. Greg gasped for breath and scrambled over to where Mycroft had fallen prone on the carpet; he was shaking his head and pushing himself up onto his elbows. "Bloody fucking hell," Greg growled, wrapping a hand around Mycroft's arm. He could hear the sound of car alarms blaring on the street below, set off by the explosion.
Together, they staggered to their feet, leaning against one another for support. "You're bleeding," Greg said, barely resisting the urge to brush the shards of broken glass from Mycroft's back with his bare hand; cutting himself open on it wouldn't be a good idea.
"As are you." Mycroft gave him a swift look then turned to peer over his shoulder at the window. More of the stekkik clung to the wall outside the shattered glass, chittering urgently, but not touching the visibly vibrating, mist-whorled space. Greg could feel blood running down his forehead and brushed it out of his eyes with the back of a wrist. He was starting to register pain in the arm he'd protected his face with, and sharp cuts on the side that had been facing the window.
"We are so buggered." Greg checked himself for any embedded glass and pulled a small shard out of his hip. "Fuck, that hurts."
"Our backup is less than five minutes away. If there's anything you need that you can carry, get it now. I suspect we will have to leave." Mycroft was already gathering his umbrella and grabbing the coat that Lachlan had brought. Greg's coat had been mangled in the uncanny realms and binned when he got back, but he had a jacket, and he grabbed that instead. On a moment's thought, he hurried into his bedroom and dug through the detritus at the bottom of the closet, pulling out the ASP he'd carried when he worked as a constable on the street. It wasn't much, but even a stick as a weapon was better than nothing.
Mycroft poked his head into the room. "Hurry, Gregory."
Greg nodded, trying to ignore his dizziness and exhaustion. "Right. One more thing." He dashed into the bathroom and grabbed the pain pills and the antibiotics, stuffing them into the pockets of his jacket with the ASP. If he managed to get out of this, he still had no intention of expiring of septicemia. Infections were no bloody fun at all.
There was another explosion and both of them ran back to the lounge to find part of the wall blown in and the curtains and the furniture closest to the wall already burning. Greg could hear shouts and screaming from the flats around his and hoped that the stekkik and the ard-fiadh would leave his neighbors alone in favor of pursuing him. "We have to get out of here, Mycroft. I can't let them burn the entire block down just to get to me. Call emergency, I'm getting a fire extinguisher."
Mycroft nodded, pulling his mobile from his pocket as Greg ran into the kitchen and got the small extinguisher he kept in one of the cupboards, activating it and starting on the spreading flames. "Where are your people?" he asked, trying to keep the panic from his voice.
The sound of automatic weapons fire answered his question, and the unearthly screams of giant insects sounded outside the window. "It's time to go, Gregory."
Greg followed Mycroft out the door into the hallway, but one of the ard-fiadh was waiting for them in the stairwell, hunched over but still impossibly huge and filling the space with its tall, antlered frame. Greg flung the extinguisher at the beast, but it bounced off and clattered down the stairs without making the thing so much as flinch. Mycroft's sword and shield were in his hands again, though the sword wasn't flaming here, nor did his wings appear. Greg could hear his neighbors coming out of their flats as Mycroft charged the ard-fiadh, shouting sparking words. Greg followed him, extending the ASP with a snap of his wrist and praying they'd be able to get past the horrifying thing.
The creature struck at Mycroft with its long, black staff, and Mycroft ducked, slipping around it to stab at its side. Greg tried to follow, but the ard-fiadh's eyeless face turned toward him, its shrieking, rusted voice crying out words that spewed curls of nearly black sparks into the air.
"Greg!" Mycroft threw himself into the ard-fiadh, knocking it into the wall as a bolt of ultraviolet energy blasted from its staff, narrowly missing Greg's body. Greg didn't hesitate, but dashed down the stairs past it, taking them three at a time, hoping Mycroft would follow him. God alone knew what awaited them in the street -- he could still hear weapons firing out there.
He hit the landing below and stumbled, striking hard with his ASP at the stekkik that clung to the railing as he bounced off the far wall. There was a sickening crunch as the carapace of its head cracked; it screamed and staggered back, clutching at its head with spindly forelegs as Greg got his feet back under him and ran past. He could hear Mycroft running behind him.
With the ard-fiadh coming down the stairs after them, Greg knew to expect trouble at the door out into the street; it was already open and he threw himself through it, low and tumbling, as two of the stekkik pounced for him. He rolled out onto the pavement and into a war zone, trying not to think about what would happen if he broke something right now.
He caught a glimpse of Mycroft taking a foreleg off one of the stekkik with his sword; Greg was on his feet in a moment, panting and fighting dizziness and exhaustion, as one of the ard-fiadh advanced on him. He could see three of Mycroft's people battling the giant insects and one of the ard-fiadh. They were not doing well. "Get to the car," Mycroft shouted, and Greg ran in that direction, pulling himself up short as an ard-fiadh reached down with one bony hand and flipped the armored sedan with a casual gesture. Stunned, Greg looked around in a panic.
Before he could react, there was an arm around him and the flutter of brown wings as Mycroft grabbed him and dragged him up into the air above the street. Greg couldn't help his startled yelp, but he didn't lose his grip on his weapon. With his empty hand, he grabbed Mycroft's arm and tried not to flail; he didn't want Mycroft dropping him because he was wiggling too much.
They shifted as a ball of dark energy flashed past them; Mycroft ducked and swooped, and then Greg was securely in his arms, the sword and shield transformed once again and safely out of the way. "Where are we going?" Greg panted.
"Wakefield Tower -- the nearest gate is there." Greg wasn't sure how far it was from his place, but with any luck it would be a short flight. He could hear sirens in the distance as they rose up and away from his flat, the fire already spreading out of control.
Try as he might, Greg couldn't get his own wings to appear; his pain and exhaustion weren't helping. Mycroft was obviously laboring to carry him, and eight or ten stekkik followed them, their wings buzzing in the night. He didn't try to talk to Mycroft, not wanting to steal the man's breath. Apparently having wings -- and flying -- was harder here than in the uncanny realms.
They were barely ahead of the giant mantises when Mycroft landed them on the leaden roof of the tower, gasping and puffing. He pointed toward the small door into the tower and Greg froze, finding himself staring at another ard-fiadh, looming beside the opening. Almost unnoticeable by comparison was a web across the door, glimmering in the rain. In the center was a spider as big as a fucking alsatian. Raising his ASP, he backed into Mycroft, who stumbled, and both of them fell, slipping on the wet lead.
The ard-fiadh came at them, striking with its staff, and both of them rolled frantically in opposite directions. The staff came down between them with a thunderous boom on the metal of the roof. Both of them rolled to their feet and Mycroft barked a sparking word, gesturing at the door with an open hand; a burst of green flame leapt from his palm, disintegrating the web and sending the spider leaping to one side, ugly and glistening in the rain. "The door, Gregory!" he commanded, and Greg ran as Mycroft distracted the ard-fiadh.
Greg hit the door with his uninjured side, grabbing for the latch and flinging it open, ducking inside as the spider charged him. "Mycroft!"
Mycroft, who'd been moving closer as Greg ran, turned and flung himself through the small opening, the ard-fiadh on his heels. Greg slammed the door in its face, bolting it from the inside. "Down the stairs!" Mycroft snapped, and they both hurried down the narrow stone stairway. Before he got to the bottom, Mycroft slapped his hand against the wall and spoke again, and a shimmering portal opened in the stone. He grabbed Greg and dragged him through.
On the other side of the portal, which came out of the side of an immense boulder, were two more ard-fiadh, half a dozen of the dryadae, and four lyraa. Behind them all was Sralthan, huge and vibrating with fury. Mycroft, still winged, threw his arms around Greg and leapt into the air, carrying them straight up through trees toward the brilliant afternoon sun. There were shouts and bolts of energy flying around them, along with a shower of arrows. The lyraa rose from the ground, pursuing them entirely too close for Greg's taste as Sralthan and the ard-fiadh rushed them. One of Sralthan's long, curling limbs grazed Greg's ankle, shooting agonizing nettle-sting pain through his leg as Mycroft gained altitude. It seemed that whole wanting Greg alive thing didn't need to include having him conscious and uninjured.
Greg gathered himself, knowing Mycroft couldn't keep this up much longer, nor could he stay ahead of the bird people; he pushed, willing the mist wings out of his back with utter desperation. They bloomed around him, insubstantial, tearing a line of pain through his chest and moving through the space occupied by Mycroft's body as though they were nothing but wind.
"Good, Gregory, try to fly," Mycroft panted. Greg focused and tried to get the things under control, flailing wildly to very little effect. After a few moments, he finally got the flapping part under control.
"They're not going to carry me," Greg said, more than a bit breathless himself and feeling the cuts from the glass and the nettle-born agony on top of the hollow tearing ache in his chest.
"You must try!" Mycroft dropped him, only holding onto Greg's wrist to keep him from plummeting to the ground. Frantic, Greg put all his focus into it. He flapped and fluttered at the end of Mycroft's arm, and the insubstantial gull's wings finally seemed to be supporting him. He was at least able to give Mycroft a little relief from carrying his entire weight while he tried to figure the whole flying thing out.
Without Mycroft having to support him, they gained some speed, opening the distance between themselves and their pursuers. That small but growing distance gave Greg more confidence and his wings beat harder and more steadily, gradually taking more of his weight and providing more actual propulsion. His back felt strange, using muscles that hadn't existed a few minutes ago, but he put all his effort into it, knowing their lives were on the line.
When Mycroft released him, Greg flew.
It wasn't graceful, but it was fast, and it was enough. Both of them flying freely, they raced to leave their pursuers behind. Greg followed Mycroft, half terrified and half exhilarated, having no idea where they were going or how long it would take. He wondered how long he'd be able to keep up his flight without faltering or falling to exhaustion.
Chapter 11: The Star-Born
Their escape involved passing through two more gates, both of which took them to vastly different places in the uncanny realms, before Mycroft told him they could stop briefly to rest. "We are close to the Golden Court. Sralthan may anticipate our destination, but ea won't be able to arrive before we do." He looked ragged and tired, his breath still harsh and rattling from his effort, wings drooping below his shoulders.
Greg was more than exhausted; he felt utterly drained, barely able to focus, having started out in worse shape, while trying to learn to control his wings under less than ideal conditions. He was slumped over, feeling half dead, arms resting on his knees, head swimming, and too out of breath to speak, so he just nodded to acknowledge he'd heard Mycroft's words. They were sitting on the shore of a small rocky island in the middle of a lake. The water was a crystalline aquamarine, clear and glimmering, and Greg couldn't tell how deep it was. They'd left the dim, mossy green of the forest behind at the last gate. The lake around them was surrounded by dead, barren trees, skeletal in the light, and much shorter than the conifers they'd fled, but at least here they could see anything on the approach long before it could get to them.
"You've done very well, Gregory. I could not have asked for more from you." Mycroft's voice was without artifice, and he rested a hand on Greg's arm; Greg found the contact soothing and closed his eyes, just letting himself rest, his insubstantial wings folded tightly against his back. After a few moments, still miserable, aching, and straining for breath, he looked over at Mycroft again; there were small spots of blood staining his white shirt near his waist, where his waistcoat lay open.
"I think you've split your stitches," Greg said, reaching out to touch Mycroft's abdomen with the tips of his fingers.
"It will keep. We haven't much further to go. There will be physicians at the Court." Mycroft squeezed Greg's arm gently before he let go, nudging Greg's fingers from away from his body. Greg didn't see a flinch, but he didn't doubt Mycroft hurt more than he was letting on.
"You don't have to be so stoic on my account."
Mycroft held up a hand. "Gregory, we can discuss this later. Please."
Greg opened his mouth to object but didn't. No point wasting what little strength he still had, really, he thought. He nodded, listening for a moment to the soft sound of lapping water and the slight warm breeze. "Right." He dipped one hand into the water and brought it to his face, washing away some of the sweat he'd worked up, then using both hands to wet his hair, running his fingers through it and cooling himself from the heat of the sun and his efforts. His reflection on the lake's rippling surface showed he'd thoroughly mussed it all. "This safe to drink?"
"Presumably. Pollution isn't nearly the issue here that it is in our realm."
Greg nodded, then leaned down and lay on his side to get closer, dipping water up in his palm to sip. It tasted slightly mineral without being sulfurous, which was just what he needed. With some effort, he wedged himself back up to sit next to Mycroft, his head spinning. The injuries Greg had sustained from the flying glass had stopped hurting even though the blazing nettle-sting of Sralthan's touch remained; he remembered Mycroft mentioning something about it taking a lot to kill them in their own realm. Curious, he tugged his shirt tails from his trousers and looked at the cuts on his side.
"The wounds from the glass will be gone by tomorrow, Gregory." Mycroft stared out across the lake, his gaze unfocused and distant. "Don't trouble yourself over them."
"Then... why are the other ones not going away?" The puncture wounds on his arm, the bruising and the raw wounds from the manacles and collar, the lacerations on his hands from the thorns, all were still painful and not healing any faster than normal. None of it had any effect on the utter exhaustion he was feeling.
"Inflicted before your revelation," Mycroft said, "or by uncanny things." Mycroft's focus returned and he met Greg's eyes. "They will heal at a rate to which you are accustomed if tended, though the physicians at the Court will be able to hasten that process considerably."
Mycroft nodded. "Some of it quite powerful. We'll be there soon." Both of them had finally caught their breath, though Greg still felt like he'd been run through a meat grinder. His body felt made of lead, nearly too heavy to move. He knew he had nothing left in him beyond pure stubbornness and a perfectly reasonable fear of dying. "I'll see to it that we're both given appropriate treatment. I don't want you to remain injured or in pain." He could read worry in Mycroft's shoulders and the tense lines of his back and wings. There was, as usual, a lot the man wasn't saying.
There was a moment's hesitation. "Thank you." The expression on Mycroft's face barely changed, but Greg could see a shadow of surprise there. He had been hesitant before, as well, when Greg had insisted he not sleep on the sofa. It made him wonder how long it had been since anyone had genuinely cared about Mycroft at all. Sherlock's attitude had certainly been antagonistic since he'd known them.
These past couple of days, he'd seen so much vulnerability in the man, and Greg found it profoundly disturbing. There was nothing vulnerable in the mask Mycroft usually wore, unless it concerned Sherlock. Their circumstances had bared something that Greg was still puzzling out, perhaps something about the core of who Mycroft might truly be. Maybe it was just that Greg's life depended on Mycroft right now, and he was reading too much into things; sitting there next to him, he felt hyper-aware of Mycroft and everything about him. Perhaps it was distorting his perception of him.
"Are you feeling rested enough to continue?" Mycroft asked.
"Another five, maybe?" Greg wasn't anywhere near up to it. "I'll be okay in a few." It was a lie, but he knew they had to keep moving.
"I think we can spare five more minutes." Mycroft sighed, then bent down to drink from the lake himself. It was odd to see such a refined, dignified man palming water from a lake up to his lips, liquid trickling from his fingers, but need was what it was.
Greg was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that Mycroft was, in his own words, several thousand years old. He'd said something about having been around almost since Britain was inhabited -- that was, what, some ten or twelve thousand years ago, after the last ice age? His grasp of prehistory was a little fuzzy. Had Mycroft seen the retreat of glaciers? Watched the sea rise, and Britain become an island? What had he been like back then, dressed in furs and living in mud huts? The image was jarring. How much had he -- and Sherlock -- changed in all that time?
"Mycroft isn't actually your name, is it."
Mycroft looked up, raising an eyebrow. "Of course not, but it's one I've answered to for a long time."
"This name thing people have here. What are we going to do about it? I mean, you can't call me by name if people are listening. It's not safe, is it?"
Mycroft's lips stretched into a very slight, tight smile. "One's true name is the full name given to you at birth. When I call you Gregory, everyone will assume it is a use-name because all names spoken aloud here are use-names. You will be able to hide in plain sight perfectly well. I doubt that most will suspect it is a fragment of your true name."
"Really? It's that simple?"
"For you, it might be, at least for now. Sralthan didn't know your true name or ea would not have tried to compel it from you, therefore there is no immediate need for us to create a use-name for you that might catch you out if someone calls it when you are not fully focused. Had Sralthan wanted to know your name before this, one of the vorren of ea's court would most likely have been sent to find it in our realm, though many beings here who have little business with our world would not know this."
"The beings like those you were referring to as the 'Poncy Twins,' I believe?" There was a slight lilt of humor in Mycroft's voice.
Greg nodded, nervous about the whole thing, but accepting Mycroft's greater knowledge of their situation for the moment. "But you know my name."
Mycroft regarded him carefully. "Do you believe you can trust me with it?"
"Well, I have to, don't I?" Greg huffed a sigh, unable to be entirely at peace with the thought. It wasn't as though Mycroft didn't have an immense amount of power even without that knowledge; Greg had seen it at work for years in their own realm. It was complicated; he thought he could trust him, but the decision had never been his own. "You came for me, didn't you? Believing you were likely to die, that thousands of years of your life might end because of me." He looked out over the lake, not wanting to look into Mycroft's eyes, once again uncertain of how he felt about everything happening to and around him. "That's immense, Mycroft. You could have sent someone else, but you didn't. It must mean something, yeah?"
"I give you a gift, Gregory. I give you my true name."
Greg's head snapped round and he looked at Mycroft. "What? Why? You can't. That's dangerous. You're mad."
"Because you had no choice in revealing your own to me. Consider it a bond of peace between us. A mark of trust." Mycroft's face was an unreadable mask once again. "It is not information I would give lightly to anyone." Greg was too stunned to reply, to tell him not to do it, and Mycroft leaned close, whispering into his ear, even in this barren place unwilling to utter it aloud. The name rolled from his tongue, strange and sensual, alien.
A shiver went through Greg's chest at the word, and the warmth of Mycroft's breath in his ear. "Mycroft, I... Thank you."
"You are one of only three beings in existence with that knowledge, Gregory," Mycroft said, soft, his lips still at Greg's ear. "The others are my brother and my progenitor. I have given you a power over me that no one else in this realm has -- that no one has had for millennia. Can you trust me now?"
Greg turned his face to Mycroft's, their noses nearly brushing, and he looked into the man's solemn grey eyes. "I hope I never give you reason to regret that." He swallowed, licking his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. "My own name is out there everywhere. Anyone in our realm could find it. I didn't want to be a liability to you, but I am now, more than I was before."
"You resisted a compulsion cast by an extremely powerful being, Gregory. There are few who could do such a thing, even here." Mycroft withdrew slightly, their breath no longer mingling with their closeness.
"There's just... there's so much I don't know, Mycroft, so much I don't understand. God, I don't want to fail you." He felt lost and overwhelmed, but all he could do was keep on and hope he was worthy of Mycroft's trust.
"You won't." Mycroft rose and offered Greg a hand, helping as Greg staggered painfully to his feet. "We should go. We've another twenty minutes to the next gate, which will take us to the Lapis Gates in Feldspar, where we will find one of my oldest and most powerful allies." Mycroft looked up toward the clouds, Greg's hand still in his. "Sralthan has only a few more hours before ea's plan is entirely foiled; the gate cannot be opened now -- you're too far away to get you there in time for the alignment."
"But I'm still not safe."
Mycroft shook his head, releasing Greg's hand. "No. Ea will certainly wish to satisfy ea's frustrations on us at some point. That, however, is a worry for another day. Even Sralthan will pause before attacking the Golden Court."
"After thinking ea could take on an army of a million necromantic constructs and unravel them. Right, then." Greg straightened up and flexed his wings of mist. "No time like the present."
Wings spread, they leapt for the sky.
The shimmering pool of mist and light delivered them into a cool, shaded clearing among tangled deciduous trees. These, like the conifers, were much taller than the trees Greg knew in his own realm. Their trunks were vast enough that you could build houses in them, and their limbs stretched wide, intertwining oaks and ash, beech and crabapples, birch and rowan and elm. This forest's colors were lighter than those they'd passed through before, and there was more variety in the species. The underbrush pressed close around the narrow, dappled space. Birds and frogs trilled in the woods around them.
They'd both let their wings go before they'd come through the final gate, as Mycroft had said they'd be making the rest of the trek on foot. Greg had taken the news with relief, being entirely too drained and in too much pain to keep them anyway. He'd been worried about them failing him in mid-air. After a couple of hours of working muscles he'd never even had before, on top of everything else, he was completely done in and ready to drop on his face. He was exhausted down to the core of his soul. He breathed deeply, taking in the scent of wood and leaf and blossom that surrounded them; it felt serene and Greg could feel some of the tension leaking out of his shoulders. He hoped they would finally be able to rest soon; he knew he was going to collapse at any moment, no matter how hard he pushed himself.
Mycroft called out into the forest. "I greet the Gems of the Cloak of Night."
There was a brief pause, and the forest fell silent. "I greet Her Eyes in the One-Moon Realm," a voice answered, high and hollow and rasping; it came from somewhere above them and to the right. There was rustling in the brush all around them, and Greg tensed again, barely suppressing an urge to bolt as small, brightly colored beings leapt into the clearing from the trees that surrounded them.
They were frogs, ten of them, about a foot tall. Their moist, glistening skins were striped and spotted in brilliant tones of blue, yellow, orange, red, purple, and virulent green. The creatures were dressed in clothing more intended as camouflage; they had bulging golden eyes, and pale green pouches beneath their chins that swelled slightly as they breathed. All of them held little hollow tubes in their hands, about as long as they were tall, with bandoliers of darts slung across their bodies. One of them stepped forward, greeting Mycroft by touching its webbed forefinger to what passed for its chin. Mycroft returned the gesture.
"We didn't know if you had survived, or if your attempt had failed," the frog said, its voice high-pitched and raspy. It gurgled all its R's with a slight croaking sound. Its eyes passed over Mycroft's body quickly. "You're hurt. The Star-Born won't like that." The other frogs shuffled closer to one another, watching Greg carefully. One nervously fingered a dart on its bandolier.
"Your concern for my wellbeing is touching, Mrreg."
"None of the others have yet returned. We thought you were all lost." Even Greg could hear the worry in the high trill of its voice.
Mycroft was silent for a moment, then nodded. "I hope they are merely delayed, though I know I saw Bree fall; I don't know what happened to the others." He gestured to Greg. "This is Gregory, the man Sralthan abducted. I assure you, with him here, it is now impossible for Sralthan to open the gate."
All of the frogs relaxed a little at this. "She will be pleased to hear that," Mrreg said. "I'm glad you were able to return to us."
"Thank you. Gregory, this is Mrreg, one of the queen's scouts."
"Pleased to meet you," Greg said, leaning down and starting to reach out to shake its hand; the leaning left him dizzy. Mycroft's head shook minutely in warning, and he touched his chin with one finger, as he had before. Greg imitated the gesture, and it was returned by the frog. "Call me Greg."
Mrreg looked up at Mycroft. "Does he mock me, with that name?"
"No, no!" Greg said, shaking his head -- which only increased the dizziness -- and holding up his hands in a placating gesture. Mycroft rested a steadying hand on his shoulder for a moment. "Really, that's what everyone but Mycroft calls me."
Mycroft nodded his agreement. "This is quite true."
"Sounds like one of our names, Grreg." Mrreg's already wide mouth widened a little more and it gave him a toothless grin. "Sure you're not part toggug?"
"I'm a bit tall for that," Greg said, awkwardly returning Mrreg's smile.
The frog laughed with little high-pitched peeps and the others nodded and laughed as well, sounding like the chorus of oversized tree frogs they were. "You are, at that." Mrreg turned to the others. "You lot, back to watch. I'll take these to the Court." There were chirrups and gurgles of assent, and the rest of the scouts returned to the trees in swift, prodigious leaps. Mrreg waved Greg and Mycroft forward, following a narrow path leading from the gate into the forest. Greg was more staggering than walking at that point, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. Had he not dropped his wings, he doubted he'd be able to even move them, much less try to fly. Mycroft took his arm, allowing him to lean as they walked, and Greg was grateful for the support.
Mrreg led them along the path, making an obvious effort not to take flying leaps ahead. Walking -- well, hopping, really -- at a human pace seemed a bit of a challenge for the little bloke. Mycroft spoke with Mrreg about what had happened at the gate, assuring him once again that it could not now be opened. At the end of Mycroft's account, Mrreg nodded. "She will be very pleased to hear that. We were all readying for war; tonight, though, I think there will be a celebration instead."
About fifteen minutes along the path, it began to open out, and Greg could see immense walls through the trees. They were faced with intense blue stone, streaked here and there with white quartz, like filaments of cloud, and liberally spangled with golden specks that shone like galaxies of fire in the sun. As they drew closer, Greg could make out figures in relief along the walls, enameled in subdued browns and greens. Above the walls were square towers flanking an immense blue gate, lined vertically with angular writing; it reminded him of photos he'd seen of the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, brilliant and strange and inscribed with cuneiform. He stumbled, gaping up at it. Mycroft's hand on his elbow saved him from a fall. "The Golden Court is a place of immense beauty," Mycroft said quietly. "This is a royal court, so please observe what I do and follow my lead. I'll let you know if you should speak."
"Right." Greg nodded.
"I would advise against offering your hand to any of the toggug. Their skin is toxic to rather a large number of life forms."
Greg's eyes widened in realization at what he'd done by reflex in the clearing at the gate. "Thanks for stopping me."
Mycroft shrugged. "Mrreg wouldn't have allowed you to touch him. They're well aware of their particular gift. It's why they are the queen's scouts and personal guard. Their weapons are all poisoned, so do be careful and touch nothing of theirs unless they give you permission. Toggug toxin is both painful and paralytic; it's quite fatal."
"Got it." Greg could see guards high up in the square, blue towers, their armor gleaming silver in the sun. They were all tall and elven, their skin and intricately braided hair black as onyx, like the one who'd accompanied Mycroft on the rescue mission. "What are those people called?" he asked, tipping his chin up to point without being obvious about it.
"Taran's people are called the anaria. They say that they came to this realm from the stars."
Greg couldn't help raising a skeptical eyebrow at the statement. "You believe that?"
"Do you believe there are gateways to other worlds than our own?" Mycroft's expression was vaguely smug.
"Point." Greg looked around himself at the procession of enameled animal figures on the walls leading into the Lapis Gates. Everything seemed to be swimming in front of his eyes through a haze of exhaustion. He felt like a bloody tourist. "This is... it's incredible. And you know their queen?"
Mycroft nodded. "There is a great city within these walls. This is but the first of three gates. The second is malachite, the third is marble of many colors. I have private chambers within the palace. I promise you, we will be able to rest there. You'll have time to recover from this."
Greg knew he was going to collapse soon. He could see Mycroft was flagging as well. "If the city's as big as all that, are we going to have to walk to the castle?" The mere thought filled him with dread.
"Mrreg will see us within the gates and we will be given a coach."
"Thank god for that. I can't go on like this." Mycroft's arm slipped around his waist, taking some of his weight. Much as he didn't want to admit it, Greg was grateful for the help and draped one arm over Mycroft's shoulders, not caring what anyone thought. When they got to the gatehouse, Mrreg hailed the porter with their business. The Lapis Gates towered above their heads, but a smaller gate to the side, sized for individuals rather than armies or elephants, swung quietly open to admit them.
He and Mycroft were met by an anarian guard, dressed in bright metal armor, gleaming a brilliant silver in the sunlight. She greeted them, though Greg was too exhausted to focus anymore. Greg sat on a little bench while Mycroft spoke with her, until the promised coach was brought around for them, drawn by a pair of dappled white does and driven by one of the bipedal squirrels, as he'd seen at Sralthan's court. The coach was open and opulently decorated, which would let him enjoy the last of the day's sunlight.
Greg stood and swayed a bit as he struggled to remain conscious, leaning heavily on Mycroft. He'd had more than a week of misery and maltreatment, nowhere near enough sleep last night, and dealt with the terror of having to escape yet again only hours before as his flat burnt around him. The pain in his chest was almost unbearable. It would have been too much for anyone, he thought. Climbing into the coach was more effort than Greg could quite cope with, and it intensified his dizziness to an uncomfortable degree.
Leaving the gates, they crossed an immense public square, with fountains near each corner and at the center. The fountains were populated with elaborate statues of all kinds of creatures, painted with brilliant colors, spitting water from mouths or pouring it from vessels. Around the edges of the square, the streets narrowed, winding and labyrinthine, teeming with people of dozens of different species. Greg tried to focus as he stared at the city around him. "Don't engines work here?" he asked, not sure why nobody was using cars, or at least motorcycles for transport, considering the narrow, winding streets. He could hear his voice slurring with his exhaustion.
"Less well than magic works in our realm," Mycroft answered. "They could be used but are much more trouble than they're worth. Before you ask, some of the guards here have firearms with bullets of sard to deal with large, powerful beings and there are cannons but, for general use, it would be like firing emerald-studded gold bullets in London -- extremely expensive and wasteful. Arrows and crossbow bolts are far easier to retrieve at the end of a battle, for re-use of the sard points."
Greg nodded and yawned widely, covering his mouth with one hand. He was just too far gone to appreciate the wonders around him. Mycroft slid an arm around Greg's shoulders and Greg leaned into him, no longer questioning the act because leaning against Mycroft was comfortable and almost familiar now. The magnificent buildings and the people and the narrow streets were little more than a blur around him; he tried to shake off his grogginess, to no avail. "It's all right to be tired, Gregory. You've endured too much recently. There will be time later for appreciating the city."
With that slightly worried-sounding reassurance, he let his eyes slip closed, letting the sounds tangle in his ears until they arrived at the castle. He didn't actually sleep because of the motion, but closing his eyes was at least vaguely restful. He was muzzy and disoriented when Mycroft encouraged him to wake. He tried not to lean on Mycroft as they were escorted into the palace, but it was a failed effort.
Several people spoke to Mycroft while they walked. Mycroft half-carried Greg up the endless flights of stairs, as Mycroft's chambers were several storeys up: a suite of rooms with pale green jasper walls, richly embroidered tapestries of forest scenes, and furniture that looked soft and entirely too tempting. "Lie down, Gregory," Mycroft murmured, taking him into the bedroom and walking him to the bed. "There will be a physician attending us soon. Try to sleep." He helped Greg to sit, as his legs were trembling and no longer stable enough for him to do it on his own.
Greg passed out as soon as he was horizontal.
"Sharayan, thank you for coming so quickly." Mycroft let the anarian woman enter his chambers and her hazel eyes skimmed him, evaluating his condition. She was dressed in a Victorian-inspired men's ensemble in the aesthete style, all violet and coral, with pearl buttons and cufflinks.
"You brought the way opener with you?"
Mycroft nodded. "He collapsed when I got him to the bed. You need to look at him, but I'd prefer you let him sleep while you do so. Gregory's not well -- not well at all. After everything that's happened to him this week, I'm honestly surprised he's still alive." He'd not wanted to express his worry to Gregory directly and had masked it as best he could; he found himself no longer able to conceal it. "You must see to him immediately."
"I'll see to you first; you're bleeding. And you should know that Tez and Kareen have returned," she said, attempting to steer Mycroft to a chair and make him sit.
"No, Sharayan, I'm not exaggerating my concern. You'll see him now. My bleeding is minor." He refused to be budged and led her to the second bedchamber. "Please, don't wake him."
"I shall be very gentle," she promised, moving into the room in near silence. For a moment, Sharayan stood next to the bed, just looking at Gregory. She breathed, slow and deep, as she observed. Gregory lay still as death in the bed, his chest barely rising and falling as he slept, and Mycroft touched his arm with one hand to reassure himself he was still living, letting his fingertips trail along Gregory's arm. The man didn't stir at all at his touch.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Sharayan touched Gregory, suppressing a flinch when she did. "He is dangerously ill with power-sickness." She looked up at Mycroft, her brow wrinkling. "I had not realized how grave the situation is. I apologize for doubting you. You always try to minimize your own injuries in favor of others. I was told he'd walked in; he should not have been able to walk at all. By rights, he shouldn't even have been conscious. I don't know how he survived such a drain upon his energies."
Mycroft's chest tightened. "I should have known," he murmured, shaking his head. "The things he did, they should have been impossible for one just revealed. I had hoped that his rest last night in our realm would help him at least a little. How bad is it?"
Her face was solemn, her expression guarded. "The well of his power is almost entirely dry. The wounds and his exertions have complicated matters considerably. I shall need my assistant."
Mycroft's hand was on the rope for the bell to summon a servant before Sharayan finished speaking. "I'll have her brought here."
"Thank you." Sharayan turned her attention to Gregory, opening his shirt so that she could examine the raw, red sigil that scarred him, and began to look at his other injuries. Mycroft watched from nearby until he heard a tap at the door of his chambers. He instructed the brilliantly-painted and liveried stekkik there to bring Sharayan's assistant, then hurried back to her, not waiting for an answer from the insect. Mycroft stood in the bedchamber doorway as Sharayan whispered flickering words of power over Gregory's still form, sparks glimmering in the dimness of the room.
Although Mycroft knew enough about healing and medicine to deal with basic first aid and injuries, power-sickness was a subtle and complicated illness. At the level Sharayan had diagnosed, it could easily be fatal, and it took a supremely skilled physician to set things right after such a dangerous drain on the body's resources. Like starvation, with the body eating itself in an attempt to preserve life, the physical body might also be severely damaged when too much of one's power was used too quickly. The hours after a revelation were delicate at the best of times, but considering what Gregory had been through, the impossible things he had done --
"Will he recover?" Mycroft's question was tentative but he refused to accept a 'no' from the woman. Such an answer did not bear contemplating.
Sharayan looked up, her hands glowing slightly with a faint rose light where they gently framed Gregory's face. "I don't think he will die, now that we can treat him, but he will require at least a week of absolute rest, possibly two. I would not recommend he rise from his bed before then, assuming he is even able to do so. It will likely take more time than that. This is undoubtedly one of the most severe cases of power-sickness I have seen in a very long time."
Mycroft nodded and went to answer the knock at his door. A young chek-tes stood there; a bipedal squirrel perhaps a foot and a half tall, with russet and grey fur and dark, tufted ears, wearing an embroidered ruby red tunic girdled with a garnet leather belt. She carried a pack on her back and bore a controlled sense of urgency about her. "Sharayan sent for me," she said, looking up at him with bright, black eyes. Mycroft stood back from the door and allowed her to enter.
"In the guest bedchamber," Mycroft answered, gesturing through the main room and back into the hall.
Sharayan's voice, quiet but clear, answered. "In here, Emeta."
"Coming, mistress." The creature hurried into the room and Mycroft followed. She hopped up onto the bed, standing next to Sharayan's seated form. The two bent to their work, using words of power and vials of alchemical elixirs, touching Gregory's body where he was wounded, drawing sigils upon his skin with powders and oils. He had been terribly battered and bruised on a purely physical level; the additional knowledge of how close Gregory had come to dying after all he'd done left Mycroft unable to cut himself off from his worry. After a few minutes of observation, he moved quietly around the bed and drew a chair near, gently taking Gregory's hand while the physicians worked.
Gregory's hand was cooler than it by rights should have been. Mycroft could detect the subtle thrum of energy flowing beneath Gregory's skin as the physicians worked -- a tiny current that registered as an almost subliminal tickle along his nerves. He could tell it wasn't Gregory's energy, and that left him uneasy. Mycroft knew how to shield his own from bleeding into the work of the physicians, much as he wanted to help. It would only interfere with their tasks, though, and he was aware of that, as well.
It was painful to sit, silent, able to do no more than hold Gregory's hand as they plied their arts. Only a lifetime of training in patience allowed him to remain in apparent calm beside the bed.
Three hours passed before they were satisfied with their work. Both Sharayan and Emeta's faces were lined with exhaustion as they packed up their supplies. "He must rest, Mycroft, and your wounds need treating," Sharayan told him. "You also need food."
Mycroft nodded, exhausted from the past few days and feeling it too keenly. "Have someone send something up."
"It will be done. Emeta." Sharayan sent her assistant off as she finished dealing with the small pack the chek-tes had carried in, then laid out the supplies she would need to deal with Mycroft's injuries. Sharayan turned to Mycroft, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Be sure that you do eat when the food arrives. I will know if you do not." She spoke quietly, in deference to Gregory sleeping in the bed beside them.
With a sigh, Mycroft agreed. "Don't worry. I am actually hungry." Sharayan nodded. "Tell me more about Tez and Kareen," he asked, as she set to work.
"They weren't certain what happened to you after the group was forced to part, and were most relieved to hear that you and the way opener survived."
Sharayan shook her head. "No. Tez needs two of his wings repaired. Kareen... well, regeneration spells take time, but they do work. The two of them were lucky to escape at all."
Mycroft closed his eyes, nodding. "Indeed. Did she say what happened?" He hissed as Sharayan poked at the long, still painful slash across his abdomen.
"No. I wasn't privy to their conversation with the queen. The stitching here is good," she said. "You must have had a very difficult escape, if you tore them."
"Yes, we did," Mycroft murmured. "The poison was treated in my realm, thankfully. The wounds simply need sealing."
"Hold still." Sharayan put her hand on his shoulders and closed her eyes, her tiredness apparent in her posture and the quietness of her speech. Mycroft felt the familiar tingle of healing magic swirl through him as she whispered words of power, making him shiver. There was a soothing warmth in the wounds as they closed and knitted, and he gave a relieved sigh as the pain drained from him like water into dry sand. Mycroft tried to clear his mind as the power flowed through him, but he could not help how his thoughts continually drifted back to Gregory, asleep beside him. The whole process took about twenty minutes; he heard a servant enter with food for him at some point, but paid it no mind. Eating could wait a little longer.
Mycroft looked at the palm of his hand as Sharayan finished her work. The wounds there had scarred, though they didn't interfere with its movement or flexibility. "Will you be able to heal the scarring on Gregory's chest?" The remaining traces of the ritual in his own flesh worried him. He hated to think of the marks he had carved into Gregory's body becoming a permanent reminder of unavoidable pain and terror, and the nearness of death.
She shook her head. "No. The power released by his revelation has burned it into him, just as it has done to you." Her finger traced a few of the lines in his palm, a soft, tickling touch. Mycroft couldn't help the ache in his chest at her answer. "I'm very tired now, Mycroft. I must go and rest. You should eat, and then rest, as well."
Mycroft hadn't the heart to attend the queen's dinner, though he would ordinarily have done so. He managed to drag himself out of his chair at the sound of a tapping on his chamber door late that night. His guest was something of a surprise. "Star-Born," he said, too tired and stressed to hide his confusion.
The queen entered his rooms, shaking her head. She was an ageless woman, beautiful and androgynous, dressed in an elegant midnight blue shirt and slim indigo trousers, dark like her skin, with delicate black leather ankle boots on her feet and a subtly glowing lapis pendant at her throat. "We are alone, Mycroft. You need not stand on formality."
"Forgive me, Taran." He bowed slightly before closing the door behind them.
Taran looked him over critically, her amber eyes narrowed. "Sharayan said you were worried about the way opener; this looks like more than worry, my friend."
Mycroft led her to the lushly brocaded, cushioned chairs by the fireplace and gestured for her to sit. The queen sank gracefully into the chair and leaned back, crossing one leg over her knee. Mycroft sat, though he found it more difficult to relax. "She's told you about his condition."
"Yes." Taran nodded. "I have not heard how this happened, though."
"He pushed himself much too hard only hours after his revelation. He..." Mycroft paused, taking a slow breath. "He struck Sralthan bodily by non-physical means. He summoned mist to conceal us." Taran's left brow rose. "When we were trapped by the ard-fiadh in their net, in his panic he created a temporary gate into his own home; he saved our lives."
Taran's amber eyes widened. "That should not have been possible."
"I know. And when Sralthan's agents came and burned us out of his home a day later, he was forced to manifest his wings again, and to fly for several hours. He should not have been able to do any of those things without training. Frankly, I'm surprised he's not dead." He'd tried to ignore that fear while they were still endangered and there had been no choices; now that they were at the Golden Court, too much of the last two days had caught up with Mycroft.
She looked over Mycroft's shoulder toward the bedchambers. "We are in agreement on this, my friend. How is he now?"
"Still unconscious." Mycroft closed his eyes and rubbed them with the fingers of one hand. "At least he's safe now. Resting. He'll survive."
"I should like to see this way opener."
Taran nodded. "Gregory. A strong name."
"For a very strong, very powerful man," Mycroft murmured, rising to his feet. He turned and led Taran to Gregory's room, opening the door silently and allowing the soft light from the hallway to fall across the bed where Gregory lay. Mycroft's voice was quiet when he spoke again. "I beg you not to disturb him, Taran."
Taran's hand fell, warm and gentle, on Mycroft's shoulder. "I shall not. But I wanted to see the man you thought you would die for."
He said nothing, her comment striking too close to the marrow for his comfort. He took her hand and led her into the room. She stood beside Gregory's bed and looked down at him, studying him minutely in the angled shaft of dim light. After a moment, Taran ran her slender fingers through Gregory's thick, tousled grey hair. The glow of her lapis pendant intensified as they stood there; Taran rested her hand on his head, absolutely silent, for nearly fifteen minutes before she was satisfied and led them back into the sitting room. They both took their chairs again before she spoke. "I will not expect your attendance in court until your way opener is on his feet again, my friend. I can see why he has earned your loyalty. Even in this state, his heart blazes. Such courage is rare."
Mycroft nodded. "The kindest word for stupidity," he whispered, wishing Gregory hadn't pushed himself so desperately hard, all the while knowing they'd had no alternatives. He spoke with slightly more volume when he answered her. "He is extraordinary, yes. Thank you, Taran. I know that Sharayan has people who could watch over him, but I feel a grave personal responsibility to him. He has been my brother's friend for several years now."
"It's more than that. I've never seen you like this about anyone other than your brother." Her gaze was piercing, too knowing for Mycroft's comfort.
"He is one of the people for whom Sherlock faked his death."
"I find myself unsurprised by this. Yet this feels more personal than simply caring for one of your brother's few friends." She leaned forward in her seat.
"I cannot deny that," Mycroft admitted, reluctant.
Taran sighed. "It has been a very long time since I have seen you care so for another."
"Is there anything I might do to ease your heart, Mycroft? I do worry about you. You've isolated yourself so over the centuries."
Mycroft's head shook slightly. "No," he whispered. "I fear I have no idea what to do about this. I only know that I have no wish to see him suffer, nor do I wish to be far from him while he's so ill."
She hesitated for a moment. "Do not neglect your own health in fear for his. You need sleep, Mycroft. He will sleep until morning undisturbed; you need not sit here all night watching over him."
Mycroft couldn't help deflating slightly at her words. "You know me too well."
"Your loyalty, your honor, and your sense of duty are all admirable traits, but they too often lead to your failing to care for yourself. You rarely let anyone else near enough to do it for you. Please, Mycroft, rest tonight."
It was phrased as a request but Mycroft knew it for the order it was. "Of course, Taran."
"I shall be sure someone is sent with breakfast for you, but not until late in the morning. I do not want to hear of you up haunting the halls before your meal arrives. And I shall have Sharayan visit again around mid-day to see to your Gregory's progress."
"He is not mine. He never has been." He likely never would be. Mycroft felt a silent twinge of sadness as he spoke, the feeling settling into his gut; he pushed it away.
She gave a graceful tilt of her head and her amber eyes caught his and held them for several long moments, her expression solemn and thoughtful. "As you say. Regardless, you require rest if you are to look after him properly."
Mycroft nodded. "Thank you, my friend. Your generosity and kindness are greatly appreciated."
"To bed with you, young man." Taran smiled at him, softening the strict, motherly words. She rose, and Mycroft rose with her to see her to the door. Before they parted, he took her hands and kissed her on either cheek. She reached up and touched his forehead gently with the tips of her first two fingers, and Mycroft felt a trickle of energy flow between them, banishing most of the tension he'd been holding in his body. "Sleep softly," she murmured, departing.
Mycroft made it back to his room and changed into his bedclothes before the rest of his energy left him. He drifted into sleep with Gregory filling his thoughts.
For three days, Gregory drifted in and out of consciousness. He was never quite awake, though he was aware of Mycroft's presence and they spoke briefly several times. The man was exhausted and confused, hardly able to raise a hand or speak louder than a murmur. Mycroft did what he could to help him, with the aid of Sharayan and her assistant.
Gregory was restless and feverish much of the time. Each time he was conscious enough to speak, he would ask if Mycroft was all right, and Mycroft's heart would ache; Gregory's only concern should have been recovering from his ordeal. "You need to rest, Gregory," he told him, over and over. "There is no need to worry about me. We are both safe, I swear to you."
Mycroft, for his part, worried constantly. It was not a new sensation, by any means. He was used to worrying over Sherlock, but his brother at least knew the dangers of all the realms as well as Mycroft himself. Watching over Gregory after their escapes from Sralthan and ea's servants left Mycroft feeling exposed as an open wound.
Late on the third night, Mycroft was awakened suddenly by rough, frightened sounds from Gregory's room. He scrambled out of bed and dashed down the hall, dressed only in pyjama trousers, barely conscious enough to stumble through the correct door. Breathless, he found Gregory thrashing in the bed, shouting half-formed words and trying to strike out at invisible enemies.
"Gregory!" Mycroft dropped onto the bed by his hip, taking his shoulders in a strong grip. "Gregory, wake up, please." His hands on Gregory's shoulders didn't calm the man's violent movement and Mycroft flattened himself on top of his body to try to still him. "It's all right, you're safe, wake up."
"It's... no... I can't h..." Gregory's arms wound around Mycroft's body, tugging him in, and he shuddered as he opened his eyes, not yet either awake or aware.
"Gregory." Mycroft was fully awake now, his heart hammering, and he held the man close, their noses nearly touching. Gregory's eyes slowly cleared as he gasped for breath, shuddering and finally stilling in Mycroft's arms.
"Mycroft," he whispered, his body going limp as he panted. "Oh, god." He reached up with one hand and cupped Mycroft's face, brushing his thumb along Mycroft's cheekbone. "Th-thought... oh, god."
"It's all right," Mycroft answered, his voice soft and gentle now that they were no longer struggling. "It was just a nightmare, Gregory, just a nightmare."
Gregory nodded, blinking a few times as his breathing slowly evened out. "You're not hurt."
"No. I'm fine." He started to sit back up, but Gregory's arm moved and he held Mycroft there. Mycroft relaxed into it and let Gregory hold him. "We're safe," he whispered.
"Was... bugs," Gregory murmured. "Ard-fiadh. They all... they had you, tearing you apart, I..."
"Shh, it's all right." Mycroft shifted his weight and wrapped himself around Gregory's body, holding him close. "I'm fine. I'm right here." Gregory nodded against his shoulder, breathing him in, his fingers digging into the muscles of Mycroft's back.
"Water everywhere. We were trying to get to the ocean. Mist was rising. Th-thought we'd be safe if we got to the mist. Someone was in there, was going to help us."
"Do you think you can sleep again?" Gregory's grip relaxed slightly and Mycroft rolled onto his side, lying next to him. He left one arm draped over Gregory's chest, rubbing gently along his flank, slow and careful.
"Don't know." Gregory turned his head and looked at Mycroft, his eyes only half open. "So many nightmares." His hand slid up Mycroft's arm to his shoulder, then over to rest on the back of Mycroft's neck, fingers trailing in the short hair of his nape. Mycroft closed his eyes for a moment at the sensation, resting his head next to Gregory's on the pillow. The man smelled of sweat and fear and Mycroft drew him closer into the circle of his arms.
"Sleep," he said. "You're still very ill, Gregory."
Gregory took a deep breath and rolled onto his side to face Mycroft, though it took obvious effort. He tangled himself into Mycroft's limbs, clinging to him, his head tucked under Mycroft's chin. Mycroft waited for him to speak, but he didn't. He could feel Gregory's breathing slow and realized the man had fallen asleep again. Surrendering to the inevitable, Mycroft shifted and twisted, slipping beneath the covers with him; if it would help Gregory sleep without night terrors, he would stay and hold him until he woke once again.
Voices drifted in and out, mostly those of women he didn't recognize, and a few deeper, masculine voices. Mycroft was there almost constantly, a stable point in Greg's wavering mindscape.
He dreamed of terrifying things, things that couldn't possibly be real -- cat-faced tentacled plant-demons, giant bugs, skeletal human-deer monsters, punk elves, and bird people. A huge bipedal squirrel made several appearances, and Greg knew that the jewel-colored frogs had to be some kind of hallucination. Always, underneath, there was the ocean and the fog; there was a presence in it that was calming, and the fog concealed him from the horrors. That, and Mycroft, were the only safe things in his world.
He remembered what might have been real conversations with Mycroft, though they were vague, and Mycroft seemed entirely too worried about him. Greg remembered Mycroft being hurt, badly, but he couldn't remember why or how or if it had even happened. There were wings, and that couldn't be right. He had to make sure Mycroft was safe, make sure they were both safe from the demons and the strange things that walked in dark forests and stone dungeons.
There had been a fire, he thought, and maybe he was in hospital, but dragging himself out of the hallucination was so hard. Greg could barely open his eyes. It didn't smell like a hospital, antiseptic and harsh, nor were there bright lights or white walls. His mind wasn't working well enough to understand much.
There were tapestried walls, their stone façades a pale jasper green. The bed was much too large to be a hospital bed. Mycroft was there in the dim light. Greg blinked and tried to focus. "Mycroft?" His voice was rough and weak.
"I'm right here, Gregory." Mycroft's hand was in his. That didn't seem likely. "Are you awake?"
"M... maybe?" None of what he was seeing made much sense. Was it hallucination or memory? And how could any of it be memory? But where the hell was he if it was real?
"How do you feel?" There was solicitous worry in Mycroft's voice rather than the snide condescension Greg was used to hearing when he had dealt with the man before. Why was he sitting with Greg at his sickbed? That certainly wasn't normal.
"Like some vampire sucked me dry and tossed me under a bus," Greg said, his voice barely more than a whisper.
Mycroft nodded, a slight movement that Greg nearly missed. "That would, sadly, be a fairly accurate assessment of your current condition. You've been semi-conscious for five days, Gregory."
That didn't seem -- "Five... days?" How could that be real? "What? Why?"
"Do you remember anything at all?" Greg closed his eyes for a moment and Mycroft's "Gregory?" sounded just this side of alarmed. Greg looked back up at him and squeezed his hand. A moment of relief passed over Mycroft's normally stoic, cold mask before it settled back into place.
"Mad things. Nightmares. Demons. Fire. Nothing real." He felt lost.
The coldness melted away from Mycroft's eyes, replaced by something open and vulnerable that Greg couldn't interpret; he looked more exposed than Greg would ever have imagined. "I'm certain a great deal of what you remember was entirely real, Gregory. We are not in London. We are not, in fact, in the human realm at all."
Greg stared at him for a moment, open-mouthed. "Y-you mean, the giant bugs? Those frogs? That... that thing with the cat face and the... tentacles? That was all real?"
"Yes." Mycroft's thumb moved gently over the back of Greg's hand, an unconscious caress. "All that, and a great deal more. I'm relieved that you remember. I have been very worried about you."
It looked like he was telling the truth. And now that Greg had got confirmation he hadn't been hallucinating, a cascade of images and emotions started coming together, the pieces fitting smoothly into place. He looked around the room; it was exhausting to maintain his focus for so long. "We're safe, then?"
Mycroft's lips twitched into a tiny smile. "Yes. This is the first time you've been able to understand that since we arrived." A wave of relief washed over Greg, and he relaxed, some of the stress and tension in his chest easing at the thought.
"So bloody tired."
"I know." Mycroft nodded. "You should eat and drink something while you're awake. I have some fruit here, and some broth for you. It's about all you've been able to manage." At Mycroft's mention of food, Greg realized that he felt hungry and thirsty but, when he tried to sit, his body refused to cooperate. Mycroft let go of Greg's hand, got up from his chair and seated himself beside Greg, then tucked an arm behind his shoulders, helping him to sit. "It's all right. Let me help."
He wasn't sure if he was more grateful or embarrassed when Mycroft held a cup of warm broth to his lips, then fed him small bits of fruit with his fingers. The broth was rich and slightly salty, and the fruit an unrecognizable sweetness, the color of clear garnets, bursting on his tongue and sating the worst of his stomach's objections.
When he'd had as much as his drained and exhausted body could handle, Mycroft simply sat there with him, holding him, letting Greg rest his head on Mycroft's shoulder. His fingers moved slowly along Greg's arm, gentle and warm. The tenderness in the gesture, and in Mycroft's solicitous behavior, brought forth the memory of Mycroft's lips on his.
Greg's eyes closed and he let himself enjoy both the touch and the memory. For the first time in what felt like forever, Greg actually felt safe and calm. There was still some confusion in the back of his mind, but the tangible lack of that deep, underlying current of terror he'd been living with felt wonderful. He sighed, drifting, then slowly dropped into sleep, still cradled in Mycroft's arms.
"I hate this," Greg grumbled. He'd been actually awake and aware for three days, but his body wasn't cooperating. His injuries were healing, but he was dogged by an inescapable feeling of exhaustion and an intermittent fever. He could get out of bed, with caution, but staying upright for more than ten or fifteen minutes was damned near impossible, and he knew he'd been rough on Mycroft because of it. "I shouldn't have to lean on people when I want to go for a walk."
"I understand your frustration, Gregory, but what happened to you takes time to heal. It was more than just your body that was damaged." Mycroft stood beside Greg on a balcony in the tower where their rooms were located. The day was sunny and glorious, but, despite it being the first time Greg had been outside since he got out of bed, his foul mood wasn't lightened much by it. They leaned against the stone parapet, staring out over the city, Mycroft standing close enough that their shoulders were pressed together.
Greg sighed. "Sorry. I'm glad to be on my feet again, and outside for a bit, but I just hate feeling so bloody helpless. I shouldn't be taking it out on you." They looked at one another for a moment.
"No. You shouldn't," Mycroft said, his words terse and a bit strained. "It's only to be expected, though, as I am the one spending the most time with you. One does tend to snap at those in closest proximity under such circumstances."
"Yeah, like I said, sorry. It's not you." Mycroft's shoulders lost a little of their stiffness, and Greg looked back out over the city. He'd not seen much more than the blur of a narrow warren of streets when they'd arrived, but from above the larger pattern was orderly and symmetrical. The blue outer walls described a six-pointed star, covering a fair amount of territory. The secondary deep green walls protected a much smaller square of land, and the inner walls of the keep were circular, the marble façade a diverse spectrum that reminded him a bit of St Mark's Basilica in Venice, though the colours were more intense.
The castle proper was faced with yellow-tan stone that glowed golden and glittered in the afternoon sun. It was situated atop a hill, towering above the city below, and Greg felt like he could see forever over the canopy of huge deciduous trees that surrounded the outer walls in the distance. Here and there over the buildings of the city, Greg could see the tiny figures of lyraa and other winged creatures flying, on errands or just enjoying the beauty of the weather. Despite Greg's irritation, the day felt peaceful and the sun on his shoulders was warm and comforting.
"Let me know when you want to go in," Mycroft murmured.
Greg thought for a moment, evaluating. "I think I'm good for a little longer. Tell me about this place, would you? The Golden Court, you called it." He gestured to the walls of the castle with one hand. "Obvious reasons for the name, I suppose."
Mycroft nodded. "Yes, though the Star-Born's rule is regarded as a golden age among the anaria, as well. She's been an exceptional leader, and her reign has been largely peaceful. Taran is a brilliant diplomat and a capable military strategist." He paused for a moment, his gaze going soft and distant. "Were I not so attached to Britain, I would make my home here in Feldspar at her court," he said, his voice a bit wistful. "Perhaps, someday soon, I will."
The emotion of the statement struck Greg. "I guess I thought you weren't really attached to anything. Well, Sherlock, but he's family."
Mycroft's focus returned and he looked at Greg. "Taran is my oldest friend. I met her when I was very young -- younger than you are now. She taught me a great deal, and I value her friendship immensely. I am capable of affection, Gregory, and of sentiment, though I prefer not to show that vulnerability." Though Mycroft's face revealed nothing, Greg could feel Mycroft's body shift and stiffen slightly, and realized he'd offended him. Mycroft had risked his life for Greg, had been with him through everything here, and he wasn't being fair to him at all.
"I can't seem to say anything right today, Mycroft; I'm sorry again. I should just shut it, shouldn't I?' Greg sighed, closing his eyes. "I should go lie down."
He felt Mycroft slip his arm around him. "It's all right--"
"No. No, it isn't." Greg turned his head and looked at Mycroft, their faces close in the sunlight. "I've been a whinging arse the last few days, and you've been more patient than I deserve." He wrapped his own arm around Mycroft's waist and leaned into him, feeling a little dizzy. Dropping his forehead onto Mycroft's shoulder, he said, "There aren't any words for how much I appreciate what you've done for me. You've been a good friend, Mycroft. I just..." He turned and slid his other arm around Mycroft; after a moment's hesitation, Mycroft returned the embrace and they stood there, Mycroft propping him up as Greg started to waver. "I have no idea who I even am anymore."
One of Mycroft's hands found its way into Greg's hair, stroking gently. "You nearly died, Gregory. If anything, I should be more patient with you. This would be a difficult transition for anyone, but your revelation has been much harder than most due to circumstances entirely beyond your control." He tilted Greg's head back very gently and looked into his eyes. "You are still the same man you were before you were brought here, before your revelation. Everything that makes you who you are is the same. What happened has not changed the core of your being, it has simply given you a new set of abilities. You must remember that. We are here because it is a safe place for you to recover and to learn about these things, and I will help you. You do not have to go through this alone."
Greg nodded. "Right, then. I'll try to do better."
"Just remember that you have millennia ahead of you. This weakness will pass very quickly. You're going to be all right."
That, Greg thought, might be the scariest part of all.
Along with Greg's slow recovery came the realization that he had absolutely nothing here at the Golden Court. He didn't even have clothing at this point, his own having been cut up and bloodied by flying glass when his window exploded before his flat caught fire. Mycroft at least had clothes he could use, though none of it really fit Greg at all; the man was taller and a little thinner than he was.
That wasn't to say he was wandering about starkers, thank god. The people in Feldspar wore clothing in a dizzying array of styles, some of them influenced by different cultures and eras in his own realm, so there was a fair bit to choose from, really. It was just that nothing was actually his. It wasn't the only thing that bothered him.
"The last thing anyone would have heard about me, my flat blew up and now I've gone missing," Greg said. He was wrapped in a soft, dark green wool dressing gown with brown embroidery, and not much else, as he poked through a pile of clothes he'd been offered. Mycroft leaned against the wall with his arms crossed and watched, deliberately not hovering at Greg's elbow, though he looked like he wanted to. He was dressed in something heavily brocaded and awfully 17th-century navy, sans the ludicrous hat; it was a good look on him. "Everybody probably thinks I've been kidnapped or murdered or something." He looked up to meet Mycroft's eyes.
"The Met had been told you were away attending family business."
"Yeah, but they can't find me to tell me my flat's exploded, can they?" He shook his head and pulled out a pair of trousers and a shirt that looked a bit Victorian, pondering how they'd look on him. He didn't want stuff that was too complicated, as he still felt like crap and didn't want to put a lot of effort into it just yet.
Mycroft nodded. "There is that." His eyes narrowed slightly. "Though it might be to your advantage if they believe you won't be returning."
Greg sighed and sat on the bed, resting his elbows on his knees and burying his face in his hands. "Mycroft, I liked my life. Most of it, anyway." He looked up. "Could have done without the cheating ex, I'll admit."
"At some point, you're going to have to let go of it, Gregory. You won't age, and everyone around you will." Mycroft's face stilled into its familiar inscrutable mask. "You will lose them all eventually, and it is becoming harder and harder to hide what we are, unless we use glamours to obfuscate our appearance. Technology has made it exceedingly difficult to simply move a hundred miles and begin a new life."
Greg stared at him. "Everyone..."
"Yes," Mycroft said, very quietly, and Greg suddenly saw the weight of Mycroft's age on his shoulders, bowing them slightly, darkening his eyes with a well-hidden undertone of sorrow. God, no wonder the man had always seemed cold and distant. He'd spoken of it before, but it was horrifying to think about.
"Hey," Greg whispered, getting to his feet. He went to Mycroft and put his arms around him; Mycroft's body stiffened, but he returned the gesture, and they stood for several minutes just holding one another. Eventually, Mycroft relaxed into it, his breathing easing from a tightness that Greg only noticed when it wasn't there anymore. "As I said some time ago," Mycroft murmured, "you do get used to it."
Greg stepped back slightly and took Mycroft's arms in his hands. "I don't know how you do it, how you lose everyone like that and stay sane."
Mycroft huffed a humorless chuckle. "Who said I was sane?" Their conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door of their chambers. "I'll get that," Mycroft said. "I shall return in a moment."
With a nod, Greg let him leave and went back to staring at the clothing on his bed. He picked up a pair of black leather trousers that looked like they'd probably be painted on if he tried to wear them. It had been years since he'd had a good enough arse for something like that. "God, how does any of this stuff even work?"
He could hear Mycroft speaking to someone in the other room, their voices muffled. After a few moments, Mycroft returned. "The queen wishes to meet you, now that you're well enough to be up for a bit."
"What? Oh, Christ. What am I going to wear? Seriously?" He turned to Mycroft, wide-eyed and more than a little nonplussed. "I've never met a queen before, Mycroft. I'll make a bloody fool of myself."
"You'll be fine," Mycroft said, one side of his mouth twitching up slightly, his eyes lighter than they had been. He came to join Greg at the side of the bed and sorted through the clothing, pulling a few things out of the piles. "I suspect this will be more than adequate for the situation. And she is aware that you're still not well, so you will not be expected to remain on your feet for the audience."
"Well, right, then." That was a relief. "If there's a chair, I should be all right." He looked at Mycroft's choices. Silk, probably, or something like it, and in one of the styles that looked like it originated with the anaria. There were close-fitting but still very comfy trousers of a deep forest green, a slightly lighter green thigh-length tunic with loose sleeves that narrowed down to a closer fit along the forearms, a belt of interlinked and engraved silver ovals that lay low on his hips, and an elegant sleeveless jacket in a deep, midnight blue velvet, embroidered with silver knotwork along the seams. It fell about to his knees and looked good with the green trousers. He tugged on the nearly knee-high black boots that went with the ensemble and looked at himself in the long mirror that stood in the corner of the room.
He actually looked pretty good in it, he thought, though it was obvious he still wasn't well. There were dark arcs under his eyes and he looked paler and more fragile than he wanted to admit. His bruises were fading, but still discoloured and quite noticeable. He'd lost weight while he'd been bedridden, and he'd only been up and about for a few days. Greg ran a hand through his hair, trying to make it look a little neater but not really succeeding. "Are you sure this will be all right?" he asked, looking over at Mycroft. The man's gaze was approving and somewhat appreciative.
"It is more than acceptable, Gregory; it's similar to the style the queen wears much of the time, and it's very flattering on you."
"Feels like something out of Lord of the bloody Rings," Greg muttered.
Mycroft smiled and shook his head. "You've nothing to worry about."
"Yeah, so. Let's get this over with." Greg took a deep breath and steadied himself to meet royalty. Mycroft nodded and offered him an arm. Greg looked at him for a moment, wanting to reject the offer. He paused, evaluating how he actually felt as opposed to how he'd prefer to feel, then took Mycroft's arm for the support.
Aside from offering him an arm, Mycroft didn't treat him like some wilting lily, so Greg wasn't too self-conscious about it. No one gave them any odd looks as they walked through the immense castle on their way to the throne room. Greg held his head high and tried not to feel like the rabble he knew he was.
Mycroft told him what to do when he met the queen, and offered a couple of comments on what would be expected of him; none of it seemed too horribly complicated, thankfully. "I think I can manage that," Greg said. "I just don't want to offend anybody unintentionally."
Mycroft smirked. "One should always offend intentionally, if one is going to do so at all."
"Berk." Greg chuckled.
Mycroft's rooms were quite high up in the tower and they had to walk down several flights of stairs to get into the main part of the building. From there it was four more storeys of broad, open staircases. The last time he'd been escorted to a throne room, he'd been in chains and in fear for his life. The Golden Court was a larger keep, its halls lively with people and creatures of all kinds, talking and laughing. Mycroft was frequently greeted in a friendly manner and he offered quick but equally friendly responses; Greg wondered if he was like this in the halls of power back in London.
The walls in the bright hallways around them bore tapestries, friezes, and painted scenes of many kinds. There were some battle scenes but, for the most part, the images seemed to depict the daily lives of the court. Surrounding each image, there were columns of the strange, angular writing he'd seen on the Lapis Gates when they'd entered. He imagined they must give some context to the things carved and painted on the walls.
As they entered the great hall before the throne room's entrance, Greg admired the flowing abstract knotwork that covered the floors, and the long, plush carpet that cut across the open space as a path of grass-green. The doors to the throne room were open, showing a darker room within. The door was huge and round like a moon gate, and beside it were two of the toggug, both dressed in brilliant livery and holding their blowguns. The carpet continued into the space, and the frogs bowed to Mycroft and Greg as they stopped at the entry.
"You're expected, Magus," one of the toggug said, gesturing for them to enter. Mycroft nodded in response. As they stepped through the round opening, they both bowed toward the throne before them, then advanced.
The room was cavernous, the walls made of the deepest blue lapis Greg had ever seen, its gold inclusions shimmering in the light of the rows of clear aquamarine lanterns. Despite the darkness of the walls and the ceiling, the room didn't feel dark or heavy. The floors were a cream colored marble, polished to a high sheen, and the green carpet that bisected the room showed to great advantage. At the far end of the room was a dais with an intricately worked throne of gold, brilliant and gleaming in the light. It was cushioned with velvet of grass-green, like the carpet.
On the throne sat a beautiful woman with skin and braided hair like black onyx or obsidian. She was dressed in something rather like Greg wore, as Mycroft said. He didn't know what he'd been expecting -- some kind of flowing gown maybe -- but she was much more androgynous than he'd anticipated. Her clothing was in tones of gold and bronze, with lapis-blue accents, all of it shimmering like satin in the light. On her brow was a crown of gold inset with lapis gems and, at her throat, a lapis pendant gleamed. Her amber eyes followed their movement.
Beside the throne were two more of the toggug, liveried and armed, standing at attention. At the queen's elbow stood one of the dryadae, thick limbed and brown, with scarlet maple leaves on its head. It wore a suit of black, rather Edwardian in style, with a cream colored shirt and a scarlet bow tie around its neck that matched its leaves. Aside from these attendants, the queen was alone in the room.
When Greg and Mycroft reached the lowest step of the dais, they both bowed deeply. "You stand before the Star-Born," the dryad said, its voice formal and clear in the huge throne room, "the Cloak of the Vault of Night, Keeper of the Lapis Crown. It is her wish that you be brought before her."
"You may rise," she said. Mycroft and Greg straightened. The queen held out a hand to Greg. "Come with me, Gregory."
Greg shot Mycroft a confused look. "It's all right, go with her," Mycroft murmured, nodding to him.
Nervous, Greg took her hand and bowed, touching it to his forehead as he'd been instructed earlier. "As you wish, Star-Born." She kept his hand in hers and led him off the dais to a door behind the throne. Greg looked back at Mycroft, who simply made a shooing motion with one hand, encouraging him to follow along. With a nervous swallow, he turned and went through the door with the queen. There was a much smaller chamber on the other side of the door.
"Please close the door, Gregory."
"Yes, Star-Born." He did so and looked around quickly. This room was much more comfortable, with a small table and chairs, as well as a several couches along the walls and a couple of comfortably stuffed chairs situated before an unlit fireplace. The room was decorated in light colors -- aquamarines and sky blues, with beautiful woven rugs on the floor. There were two doors leading out of it on the opposite wall.
"Be seated," she said, gesturing to one of the cushioned chairs. "You may call me Taran. There is no need for formality here, Gregory. You may speak freely; I promise you will not offend me."
He hesitated a moment then sat. "Thank you, Taran." The chair was, in fact, as comfortable as it had looked, and it was a relief to sit after the long walk from Mycroft's chambers. It had taken more out of him than he cared to consider. "I don't know why you would want to see me."
She chuckled, her demeanor becoming much less intimidating as she set the gold and lapis crown on a side table; she sat in the chair next to Greg's. "Aside from the fact that you are possibly one of the most powerful way openers alive, you also appear to be quite important to a very dear friend of mine."
Greg tossed a quick look over his shoulder at the door. "What, Mycroft?" He was still trying to figure out what he was to the man, really.
Taran nodded once, continuing. "Mycroft has told me what you suffered at the hands of Sralthan. He spoke of your courage, your intelligence, and your resourcefulness. Why would I not wish to meet such a man?"
"I... erm... thank you. He thinks I'm intelligent?" This wasn't actually going at all like Greg had imagined.
"Well, if anyone would know, it would be the progeny of Athena, would it not?" A mischievous smile quirked her mouth.
"Put that way, I suppose so." He leaned back a little in the chair, wanting to rest a bit but not wanting to be rude.
Taran leaned back as well, crossing her legs to rest one ankle on her knee. "You look unwell, still. How are you recovering from your illness?"
He was going to lie at first, out of reflex, and tell her that he was fine, but she didn't look like she'd be fooled. "It's slow going," he admitted, folding his hands in his lap. "It's frustrating." He sighed. "I've got no idea what I am anymore, or how to deal with that." He twined his fingers together and stared down at them. "Mycroft says he's going to help me figure this out." Greg looked up at her. "Everything's confusing right now."
"I have no doubt you will distinguish yourself. He speaks of you with great admiration and affection. It has been a very long time since I've seen him care so for anyone other than his brother." She leaned one elbow on the arm of her chair and rested her cheek on her knuckles.
The casual ease of her posture loosened something in Greg and he relaxed just a little. "I don't know much about him, really. I've learned more about him since this whole mess started than in all the years I was working with Sherlock. I never thought... He always seemed like he was behind a glass wall, if you know what I mean. Sherlock would get himself into trouble and I'd be called out of my office or snatched off the street into some black car and hauled off to Mycroft's club or his office or wherever, and given my marching orders." Greg sighed, shaking his head. "I didn't always do everything he said, but he tends to operate with veiled threats and surveillance and creepy implications that things would go better if everyone did what he wanted." He heard Taran chuckle softly, and he looked up at her, but continued when she didn't interrupt. "I can't say as I ever thought he was a bad person, Taran, but his only priorities were Sherlock and Britain. I never thought he cared about anything else. I certainly never thought he cared a whit about me. Not until he showed up and nearly got himself killed trying to get me away from Sralthan."
Taran's face had grown solemn as he spoke. "It's true that he has isolated himself from everyone but Sherlock. It hasn't been good for him. There was a time when he was a much happier man, but the years and the weight of his responsibilities have drained the joy from him." She hesitated for a moment. "I worry about him, Gregory. I have for a long time."
"You didn't bring me here to find out about me at all," Greg said. "You wanted to talk to me about Mycroft."
She nodded. "Yes. You're quite correct."
"But you've known him pretty much his whole life. What could I possibly add to that? I don't know enough about him to tell you anything." He could already feel himself starting to fade again. He wished he could just lie down for a few minutes.
"You need tell me nothing, Gregory, but there are things you should know." Greg nodded at her. "Since Mycroft brought you here, I have seen more of the man he once was than I have seen in centuries. He worries about you more than he does his brother, but he is reluctant to even consider the implications of this. Mycroft has always been a cautious man, so his insistence on going to find you himself shocked me."
"He does tend to delegate," Greg admitted. "Delegates bloody everything. I'm surprised he doesn't delegate eating and sleeping." Actually, Greg was surprised Mycroft didn't have somebody to shit for him, but he didn't think that was quite the sort of thing you said to a queen.
Taran laughed. "You know him better than you realize. But this is the seed of the matter: Mycroft has cut himself off from everyone. Yes, we are close friends, but he has even become distant from me. His relationship with Sherlock soured long ago, but all they have is one another. They cannot help but circle each other, picking at old wounds, even as they still love one another and refuse to admit it. And then you appeared, and suddenly he has begun to open himself again. It has been very cautious, but it is happening. I can only encourage this."
Greg closed his eyes and thought about everything that had happened, and all that he and Mycroft had said to one another since Greg had been snatched from the street by Sralthan's agents. He took a deep breath and let it out, looking up at Taran. "I don't know what to say to him, Taran. I know he's... well, interested, I suppose, but I've got no idea what to do about it. I can understand why he'd not want to take a chance on losing anyone again, after what he's said about everyone dying around him for thousands of years. That has to hurt."
She nodded. "His lifespan is like ours," she said, gesturing around her to indicate more than herself. "His own people -- your people -- are but a breath in comparison. Your lives are like flowers, like mayflies, gone after a tiny span of time. It takes only hours to become hopelessly attached to someone, and then he is left with centuries to mourn what he's lost. I cannot blame him, really. I think I would feel much the same, confronted with such a situation. He learned that to care was to lose what he cared for, so he refused to be caught in that trap."
Greg's heart hurt, just listening to it. "He wants me to walk away from my life, Taran, to give up everything. I'm sure he thinks it's for the best, but I can't just stop caring about my friends or the people I work with."
"No. You will go through much the same thing yourself; it is inevitable, just as any child grows and learns and loses her elders over time. Yet you are no longer ephemeral, and I think he is having a hard time accepting that. He is too used to loss and grief. He no longer believes he can have joy in his life, or that he can love and be loved. He would never admit it, of course."
"Yeah, he wouldn't." That much Greg could see just in how Mycroft had always acted. "What do you want from me?"
"Do you care for him?" Her amber eyes were sharp, looking through him.
"I don't know. I think so, but what if it's just that he saved my life? I don't know if this is just a sense of gratitude I'm feeling, Taran. I can't tell."
Taran sat back again, letting her arm drape over the arm of the chair, fingers trailing in her lap. "That is a fair question. What I want, I suppose, is for you to give both of you a chance. He cares for you and I hope that you will not hurt him."
Greg's mouth was dry and he swallowed, nervous. "I don't want to, you know. I wouldn't. I just don't know what there is between us, if there's anything at all." He looked over his shoulder toward the door for a moment then back to Taran. "You can't command someone's affections."
"I know. And that is not what I'm asking. But he does need a friend, Gregory. That, at the very least, you can be to him."
"True enough," Greg said, nodding. "That, I can do. That's happening anyway."
"I also wish for you to ponder one question, as well, though you need not answer me. Would you feel the same way about Sherlock, had it been he who rescued you?"
Greg blinked, entirely thrown by the thought. "Ah…"
She smiled. "And you really should rest again. I know I've kept you too long. If you're able, later tonight, please do join the court for dinner, though."
"I'd… I'd be honored," he stammered, still stunned by her question.
Taran rose and offered Greg her hand. "Don't be afraid to lean on me if you need to, Gregory. I know you have a fair distance to go to get back to your chambers."
Greg took her hand but didn't let himself lean on her; a man needed a little dignity in the face of royalty, after all. They walked back to the door to the throne room, where Mycroft still waited for them. Mycroft, he could lean on. He had a lot to think about after what she'd said, and that was as exhausting as the thought of climbing all those stairs again.
Chapter 12: On the Dignities of Fire and Ice
"Why won't they let me do anything yet?" Greg knew he probably sounded like a whiny toddler, but it had been over a week now since they'd let him out of bed and he was feeling a lot better. Okay, somewhat better. A little better. Sure, he still got tired pretty easily, but that was no reason to treat him like a bloody invalid.
Emeta stared up at him, furry little hands on furry little hips. "If you'd just broken your leg this morning, and your life wasn't in immediate danger, would you try running out into the great forest and climbing the nearest tree?" The chek-tes glared at him, not pausing for breath. "No, you'd get it fixed first, then let it rest until it was strong enough to hold your weight." She paused, her breath uneven and angry. "Or maybe you wouldn't. You might be too stupid to let yourself heal first."
"Oi!" He wasn't going to let some bloody squirrel tell him off.
She hopped up to stand on the parapet in front of him, tail fluffed, almost at eye level with him. "Sharayan would singe my tail bare if I let you manifest those wings right now." She poked his nose with one tiny clawed finger and Greg backed up a step. "You're not strong enough yet and you'd put yourself back in bed for another week! Is that what you really want?"
"No, but--" Greg's hands rose, placating, but Emeta didn't stop her rant to listen.
"And we will not even talk about Mycroft. That one would just have someone skin me and nail my fur to the mantel of his fireplace if I let you harm a hair on your furry head. Oh, no. Not letting you do anything against Sharayan's orders. No, no, no." She chittered and propped her hands back on her hips, glowering a glower that might well wither plants at ten paces.
He wasn't keen on letting a squirrel order him about but, on the other hand, Mycroft. "Okay, yeah, maybe you have a point. Wouldn't do to get him all aggro, would it?"
"I'm glad you're starting to see sense," Emeta grumbled. "Idiot monkey."
Greg leaned his elbows on the parapet next to the chek-tes. "Come on, now, let's not make this personal." He watched as she sat on her haunches, her tail twitching, fur no longer puffed out. "I'm just not used to all this doing nothing. People are treating me like spun glass and it's awful. I'm used to running around chasing murderers and violent criminals, not being kept like some hothouse orchid."
Emeta nodded. "No, I do understand. But you could keep your mind busy, even if your body isn't, you know."
He shook his head. "I can't read anything here. I can't even recognize whether it's an alphabet, or some kind of syllabic thing, or ideograms, or whatever." That was more distressing than he'd realized. "I've been able to read since I was five, Emeta. I feel like a bloody child here."
"That would be hard," she admitted. "But there are people you can talk to. Everyone is curious about you, and you could learn so much that way."
"True enough. Mycroft's been kind of a mother hen, though. I think he's afraid I'll suddenly drop dead if he lets me out too soon." Greg knew Mycroft meant well, but it was hard to be more or less confined to their chambers most of the time. "I should talk to him. It's not like he's sitting around bored now that I'm on my feet again." Mycroft was, in fact, off at some meeting as Greg stood there speaking with the chek-tes.
Emeta's tail twitched in agreement. "You do that. Sharayan's awaiting my report on your progress, so I should be away."
Greg nodded. "Right, wouldn't want to get you in trouble. Thanks, though."
"Talk to him. You need a little more physical movement to build your stamina again, just don't try anything having to do with your new abilities, Gregory."
"I won't," he said, sighing in resignation. Maybe it was time to brave the stairs more than once a day.
Mycroft took the whole thing rather better than Greg was expecting. "You're right," he said. "Perhaps I have been a bit... over-protective." Today he was wearing something anarian in silver and grey, with a dark, purplish trim. It looked a lot more formal than what Greg was wearing, in shades of brown and rust reds.
"Thought that was your middle name," Greg muttered. Mycroft's eyes rolled but he didn't respond to the taunt. "Yeah, you have been. I don't think you can help it, actually." He settled back on the couch in their chambers; it was raining, so Greg wasn't interested in going out onto the balcony. Mycroft was seated beside him, fairly close.
"Mycroft, I know you're not doing it to annoy me, all right? I'm just going a bit spare here, without much of anything to do. Christ, I don't even know why I understand what everyone's saying to me. It's not like I did when Sralthan had me snatched off the street."
"Translation spell. It works for most languages, particularly when one is being directly addressed. Words of power seem to be exempt."
Greg shrugged. "That figures. Doesn't extend to anything written, though. Not a bloody book here I can read to keep from going stir crazy."
"I am sorry I've left you feeling bored and isolated. I was concerned that you would think I wasn't giving you any privacy if we were together all the time."
Greg hesitated for a moment before responding. "Yeah, I guess I hadn't thought of that. You're probably right."
Mycroft rested a hand on Greg's arm. "I have not been neglecting your interests while you've been recovering. We are arranging for another way opener to come so that you might study those arts. They will be able to help you with certain things that I cannot, when you're ready to do that work."
"There's things you can't do?" Greg wasn't sure if he was teasing or serious with the question. Mycroft seemed to know damned near everything.
"There are any number of things I can't do," Mycroft said, patting Greg's arm and moving his hand back to his own lap. "Though your confidence in my abilities is flattering." His lips twitched into a brief, crooked smile that lightened his blue-grey eyes, then vanished. Those moments of vulnerability, when Mycroft let Greg see beneath the mask, had become compelling and Greg found himself looking for them, wanting to create them.
As Greg recovered from his illness, Mycroft had retreated once again, taking on that colder persona from London that Greg had been so familiar with before his life changed. He was friendlier than he had been before, certainly, but there was a growing distance, and it worried Greg; Taran had talked about how Mycroft isolated himself, and he didn't want to watch him slide back into that deep loneliness. Greg had been contemplating her question, as well. He reached out and took Mycroft's hand, bringing it back and settling it on his thigh, low enough not to be too intimate, but definitely signaling his unwillingness to allow Mycroft's retreat. "I've seen you do some pretty amazing things," he said. "Why shouldn't I have confidence in you?"
"Gregory..." Mycroft looked vaguely puzzled, but there was something hopeful in his eyes.
"Don't think I haven't worried about you, too," Greg told him, quiet but open. "You put yourself at so much risk for me."
Mycroft started to withdraw his hand, but Greg wouldn't let him, covering it and tightening his fingers. "I don't want this to be about gratitude or obligation," Mycroft said. The hope in his eyes faded.
"No." Greg shook his head. "It's not. I wouldn't feel this way about Sherlock, if it had been him that came for me. I may not be thousands of years old, but I'm not some swooning virgin, either. Don't you forget it." He took a deep breath and watched Mycroft watch him, cautious and guarded, his eyes slightly narrowed. Greg breathed out. "Even while you're hovering, Mycroft, you've been backing away from me. It's been like watching a wall of ice go up, and I don't like it. I know you worry. I know you care. You don't have to hide that."
Mycroft shook his head and looked away, though he didn't try moving his hand again. "It's been too long," he murmured. "I'm not sure I know how to be anything else anymore."
Greg chuckled. "I'm sure you can find your way again. You are a genius, remember."
Mycroft turned his head and looked at Greg again. "It isn't so simple, Gregory."
"No, it probably isn't," Greg admitted. "But I can't stop thinking about you, about how you kissed me when you thought we were going to die."
"A moment of weakness, nothing more." Mycroft's fingers moved softly against Greg's leg for a moment, belying his words. Greg's breath caught, stilling briefly.
"If I were like John, would you still feel like you do?" It was something that had been gnawing at the back of Greg's mind since he'd been revealed.
Mycroft's face crumpled, miserable, and he looked down at their hands on Greg's thigh. "Yes," he whispered. "But I would never act on it in any way." He blinked rapidly a few times, and his expression slid back into something neutral and detached. "I watch what Sherlock is going through with John, and with Mrs Hudson - there is nothing physical in it, but the affection that he feels, it can only cause him pain. He will lose them, far too soon, and it will hurt him, perhaps more than you can understand right now. I've seen too much of it in my life, Gregory. I can't do it again." He could see the deep layers of loss in Mycroft's instinctive distancing.
Greg reached out with his free hand and gently turned Mycroft's face toward him, his heart racing with his uneasiness. He hoped he wasn't making a huge mistake. "But you told me I'm not like that anymore. I'm not likely to die in the next twenty or forty years. God, you don't know how strange it feels to say that, but you know it's true. I'm not going away anytime soon."
Mycroft reached out and touched Greg's chest, fingers tracing over the cloth, marking the lines he'd carved into Greg's body weeks ago. "I hurt you," he said. Greg could see the thin, white scars in the palm of Mycroft's own hand. "I caused you terrible pain, and pushed you to the point that you nearly killed yourself; I would have killed you with my own hands if it were the only way to have kept Sralthan from opening the gate." The guilt that tightened his eyes was nearly unbearable, and Greg wanted more than anything to take that away from him. "I fear I would only hurt you more if I allowed you closer."
"No," Greg said, shaking his head gently. "You saved my life in the only way you could, and I understand, Mycroft, I really do, that your duty to everyone here outweighed anything you might have felt for me in that moment. Knowing what was possible, I'd have rather died than let that happen." He took a shaky breath as Mycroft pressed his palm to Greg's chest and he looked Mycroft in the eyes, not letting him look away. "I forgive you for that, Mycroft. Everything you did was necessary, and I'm sitting right here, still alive, still breathing. I'd have done exactly what you did in your shoes. You know that, right?"
"This could go very badly," Mycroft murmured.
Greg didn't think; he leaned in and pressed a gentle, undemanding kiss to Mycroft's lips. Mycroft froze for a moment then responded with equal gentleness, making a small, broken sound. Their mouths opened, slow, and their tongues caressed; Greg was shaking and he could feel an answering tremor in Mycroft's body as his fingers closed, grasping the cloth over Greg's chest. They didn't move closer, didn't embrace, but the intensity of it was devastating, and it felt like their kiss might never end.
When Greg eventually retreated, breathless, he could see the hope and the genuine depth of fear in Mycroft's eyes. "Or it could be brilliant," he whispered. "We can't know unless we try."
Mycroft nodded, his lips damp and glistening from their kiss. "Perhaps... perhaps I could be persuaded." There was uncertainty in his voice and the tilt of his body.
"We have time. We have more time than I ever imagined. There's no rush."
Mycroft untangled his hands and kissed Greg's cheek, then moved to sit closer, pressed up against Greg's side. He slid an arm around Greg's shoulders, pulling him close, and Greg could feel the shift in him. There was still a lot of caution there, and uncertainty, but Mycroft murmured, "Yes, I think you're right."
Greg leaned his head on Mycroft's shoulder and closed his eyes, letting himself relax against Mycroft's body. His heart still rattled in his chest, tight and a little painful, but he finally felt like he was doing the right thing.
Mycroft flipped through the pile of files on his desk, prioritizing for the next day's work. Whitehall or the Golden Court, none of it seemed to matter. He always had more to do than time to do it in. Gregory was constantly on his mind, and he found it difficult to focus. He looked up at the soft sound of a throat clearing. "Laris."
A short, heavyset vorren entered; he had green eyes, and brown hair in a single long braid, and the points of his ears were particularly elegant. He wore a white kurta woven with gold paisley, and a pair of white trousers. Laris held another file in his hand. "It's getting late." Mycroft took the file and glanced at it then back up at his secretary. "The Star-Born did say you shouldn't stay in your office past dinner, Magus."
He looked toward the window of his office, noting the fading light. "I'm afraid the time got away from me again. Thank you, Laris. You may go." Laris nodded, touching his chest with one hand, and departed. Mycroft stood and walked to the window, staring out over the city of Feldspar.
There were twelve other living way openers. Most of them stayed in the uncanny realms; one lived in Brazil for reasons Mycroft had never been able to fathom. Of those, three might be suitable as mentors for Gregory. The situation would be delicate with any of them, for Gregory was extremely powerful and that could lead to a great deal of trouble if the potential mentor was inclined to envy or jealousy.
A quiet tap on the open door of Mycroft's office interrupted his thoughts, and he turned to see Gregory standing in the doorway. The sight of him in the comfortable anarian clothing he'd taken to wearing brought warmth to Mycroft's chest and a slight smile to his lips. "You coming to dinner?" Gregory asked.
"Yes." Mycroft nodded. "Just let me put the files away." Gregory waited while Mycroft cleared his desk and stored the files in a drawer, murmuring a locking spell. That done, he joined Gregory at the door; the man took his hand, leaning in and pressing a kiss to Mycroft's cheek. "I apologize for my tardiness," Mycroft said. "I was rather absorbed in my work."
"Yeah, I figured." Gregory's fingers tightened around his and they made their way toward the great hall. "That's why I'm here, not waiting downstairs for you."
"I have been pondering the right mentor for you. The list has been narrowed down to three. I'll have to consult with Taran before extending an invitation, however."
"Politics again?" They began descending the stairs. It would take them a while to get down to the great hall, but Gregory had been less easily exhausted in the past few days, and Mycroft took it as a very good sign.
"Everything is politics, Gregory."
Gregory gave him an uneasy look. "How long have we been gone from London, Mycroft?"
Mycroft sighed. This was no doubt going to lead to a worried discussion of Gregory's position with the Metropolitan Police. "As I've said, time moves differently here. It is difficult to know with absolute precision." Gregory opened his mouth to object, but Mycroft headed it off. "I would guess approximately five weeks."
"And we've actually been here... for three now?"
"Thereabouts. Even if you do return, it should not be before you have gained some control over your abilities. That will take at least a couple of months, even if you are a quick study. I believe that Sharayan intends to clear you to begin your work tomorrow, but it may take another week to get a mentor here for you, for instruction regarding issues specific to way openers."
Gregory frowned, pursing his lips, his eyebrows drawing together. "Is this one of those things where you think you're gone for a few days and you get home and everyone you knew is dead?"
Mycroft shook his head. "No, though that occasionally happens. The knowledge of time flow between the realms is quite arcane, but it is something you should eventually be able to control with some precision due to your nature."
"Really?" Gregory's discontent turned to pleased surprise. "And you can't?"
"I'm not a way opener, Gregory. It isn't my talent. I can make better estimates than most, but I can't control it the way you'll be able to."
The stairs seemed endless; Mycroft's office was at the top of the tower that housed his chambers, and it was ten flights to the ground floor. "I want to go back to London once this is over. I can't just give everything up."
"And what do you intend to tell them about your disappearance when you return?"
"I... I don't know." His mood had returned to mild distress, but Mycroft knew it would take time for him to adjust to everything. Gregory had been restless, and his boredom hadn't helped. While he had taken to conversing with people when they were available, the courtiers and servants had work to do just as Mycroft did, and there were hours during the day when Gregory was alone with little to do. Mycroft hoped things would get easier the next day, when they would begin work on giving Gregory a grounding in all the things he would need to learn. "While it's true that I was kidnapped, it's not like I can identify anyone, or tell them anything even close to the truth about what's happened to me. They'll think I'm mad."
"I'd like you to consider staying here, Gregory. You would be able to make a new life here."
Gregory stopped on the landing and stared at Mycroft. "You want me to stay here? Alone? I don't know anyone here well enough to call them a friend. I hardly know how to act around people without doing something stupid or embarrassing. I can't even read or write." His voice grew strained with his distress, the palm of his hand dampening with sweat in his anxiety. "You're going to abandon me here? You can't do that! I've got no bloody idea what I'd do or how I'd live, Mycroft. That's insane."
Mycroft turned to him. "You misunderstand. I wouldn't leave you here alone." He took Gregory into his arms in a loose embrace, wanting to calm him. Gregory shifted his hands to Mycroft's shoulders and held on tightly, looking him in the eyes. "I don't intend to abandon you," Mycroft said.
"Then you'd best tell me what you do intend. It's not like you're ever going to leave London. God knows where Sherlock is, and he'd drive me barmy if he was the only one here I knew."
He could see the rising anxiety in Gregory's face and let one hand slide slowly up and down the man's back, trying to comfort him. Mycroft shook his head. "I've known for years now that it is eventually going to become impossible to hide what I am from the wider world. Identification technology has become difficult for anything other than a shapeshifting spell to fool and, even then, DNA might well give me away. I'm going to have to retire at some point, sooner rather than later." Gregory's eyes widened in shock and confusion.
"I've seen too much to believe that people will not react poorly to what are essentially immortals in their midst. The witch hunts, the purges of heretics, the pogroms -- all of it has been aimed at those who are different, Gregory, and the only reason that Sherlock and I have survived it in the past was because we were more clever than everyone else, and willing to disappear for a few years in order to begin again later, in another place. While there are gates that could take us anywhere in the world, even now, concealing our identities has become very difficult. Within just a few years, it will no longer be possible, and even my position in the government will not shield me."
Gregory had gone pale, listening to Mycroft's words. "You think they'd give you up, even with all you know? With all you've done?"
"I know they would. I have largely been able to continue occupying my position in the government through binding spells that do not allow those who know my nature to speak of their knowledge, through glamours and, quite frankly, through blackmail. Once I am unable to continue concealing what I am, I will be considered far too dangerous to be allowed to live. Other governments would make things impossible even if Britain did not turn on me. While I could possibly bring enough magical power to bear to preserve my life, it would destroy everything I worked for millennia to foster."
"Christ," Gregory whispered.
"Can you imagine the governments of the world, upon discovering that at the heart of Britain's intelligence network is an immortal, with the ability to essentially predict the course of human events? One who is able to wield magic to attain his ends?" Mycroft sighed. "Assassination is the kindest result I could hope for. I have no desire to be the subject of what would no doubt be a great deal of very unpleasant scientific research before they did away with me. I have, for some time, been contemplating staying here in Feldspar, where it is safe and where I can be useful and continue doing what I love." Mycroft raised a hand to Gregory's face, tracing his lower lip with one thumb. "Your revelation simply gives me additional incentive for a somewhat earlier retirement than I had anticipated."
Gregory stood staring at him in shocked silence. After a moment, he swallowed and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. He looked at Mycroft again. "That does put a different light on things," he admitted, his voice rough with emotion.
"I will not allow harm to come to you, Gregory," Mycroft murmured, pulling him into an embrace. "Even if we do not pursue a more intimate relationship, you are important to me, and I will not abandon you."
The warmth of Gregory's arms encircled him, and he rested his chin on Mycroft's shoulder. Mycroft could feel the racing of his heart and held him closer. "I should have known," Gregory said. "God, my life's work has been finding people, and I've been watching that technology happen. I should have realized how dangerous it would be for you. For us."
"You had no reason to consider such things. And I have certainly taken advantage of it in my work, given that I could not stop it."
"This is all a bit much to think about right now." Gregory held Mycroft more tightly for a moment before letting him go. "We've obviously got a lot of time to talk about this, and there are probably better places to do it than in a stairwell. We should go down to the great hall."
"I agree. I think I missed lunch."
Greg had never imagined himself living even temporarily in a castle; Mycroft's suggestion of staying had taken him aback. He felt so uncertain of the whole concept, even with Mycroft's explanation of why it would be wise to remain. Greg's former life was slipping away from him more with every passing day, and he'd had no chance to even try to regain some equilibrium.
He sat at the long high table next to Mycroft, several seats down from Taran, and lost himself looking around the great hall. The swirl of species living and dining together still dizzied him. There were stekkik in the crowd -- he'd seen them now and then in the halls, attending to whatever business they were about. Even knowing they were a part of the city's population and that many worked in the castle, painted in the livery of the Golden Court, they still left him twitchy. Despite the translation spell on him, he couldn't understand their clicks and chitters as anything approaching language.
Everything around Greg left him feeling lost and vaguely confused. He was trying -- god, was he trying -- but it was all so alien. Mycroft could obviously tell Greg was out of sorts but, aside from the occasional concerned look or reassuring touch, he was quiet, once again wearing that aloof, distant mask. Greg was a little relieved, really. It was hard enough to gather his thoughts inside his head, much less try to articulate them. Culture shock, he thought. He'd never dealt with it before, not having lived anywhere outside of England, but this certainly felt like some kind of shock.
The fact that all of this had been forced on him only made it harder to adjust. Greg honestly didn't blame Mycroft for any of it. The man had saved his life in the only way possible. Even though the sigil on his chest had healed and scarred, he could still feel the memory of that agonizing pain in his body, like a physical presence. He wondered if it would ever go away entirely.
Whether or not he could ever have a prayer of becoming part of a place like this was an open question. It still felt unreal, like some strange cinematic dream, swimming with colour and splendour and strange disjunctions of time and place and culture. People here wore things that could have been from the sets of a dozen historical dramas, from dystopian science fiction shows, from high fantasy sword and sorcery epics.
Here and there, some wore things that Greg might see in the streets of London -- suits or jeans or summer frocks. Mycroft had noted that there were beings here who visited their world, who walked about ensorcelled, hidden by spells and glamours. He wondered if he'd ever walked by people from the uncanny realms without ever knowing it, if he'd talked to them, sat near them in cafes or stood with them, jostling and swaying in the tube, on his way home from work.
Voices blended and murmured around him as he ate. Greg hardly paid attention, just letting it wash over him. Later, he thought, he'd start listening in more actively, trying to figure out who was who, and who did what.
After dinner people entertained themselves in various ways. Greg and Mycroft ended up facing each other over a chessboard. Greg knew Mycroft would kick his arse but it was something to do, at least, and it kept his mind busy. Others indulged in music or dancing, and over in one corner there was a vorren telling some kind of tall tale to a small crowd.
Greg talked with Mycroft about nothing in particular while they played. Back in London, he'd never seen the man relaxed. Mycroft's cold bureaucratic mask had always kept Greg at a distance, even as they had worked together to get Sherlock off the drugs and keep him busy. Here, Mycroft had opened up a little, particularly since Greg had kissed him. It was slow, but Greg could see a current of something warmer beneath the façade. He liked what he was seeing and wanted to encourage it, but Mycroft's hesitance was understandable considering the things he'd said, and what Taran had told him about Mycroft's past. Greg was pretty sure, though, that he wanted something more than friendship from the man.
"You seem distracted."
Greg looked up from where he'd been staring sightlessly at the chess board. "Yeah, sorry. A lot on my mind."
Mycroft nodded. "Understandable. You are, however, losing very badly."
Greg snorted. "Like that wasn't inevitable."
"You'd do better if you were actually paying attention, Gregory." Mycroft smiled at him, and Greg felt a little flutter in his chest that dulled some of the remembered pain of his scars. He smiled back.
"Do you want to call it a night?"
Mycroft raised an eyebrow at him. "The game isn't over."
"We both know how this is going to end, Mycroft." He reached over and took the man's hand. Mycroft looked down at their intertwined fingers then back up to meet Greg's eyes.
"A persuasive argument," he murmured, nodding as he rose. Greg stood with him. Someone else would tend to the board and pieces, Greg knew. Hand in hand, they walked toward the doors of the great hall. Greg walked close by Mycroft's side, their shoulders brushing together, and Mycroft didn't pull away.
As they crossed the room, someone started singing, accompanied by a lute. The song was about a faery queen and her ungrateful mortal lover, and Greg realized after a few moments that it was a mirrored version of Tam Lin, from the faery's side of the story. Greg looked around, sure he had heard the voice before, but he couldn't see the musician. He was starting to recognize the voices he heard frequently, much as he recognized Taran's or Laris's or Sharayan's or Emeta's. There was something comforting in that thought. Perhaps, he thought, he might eventually be able to belong to this place.
If Mycroft were with him, it was worth trying.
Chapter 13: Harsh Lessons of the Body
"Try again, Gregory," Mycroft said, his arms crossed over his chest as he leaned against the parapet of their chambers.
Greg pushed with everything in him, but his wings stubbornly refused to come. He shook his head, frustrated. "I can't," he snapped. "Nothing's working."
"You're over-thinking this."
Greg stared at Mycroft. "Oh, that's rich, coming from you. You're the definition of over-thinking."
Unperturbed, Mycroft shrugged. "Perhaps, regarding some things. Manifesting your wings should be instinctual, Gregory. The first time they manifested was when you were revealed. The second time, your life was in danger. In neither of those cases were you thinking about them. They simply arose in response to your circumstances and dispersed due to your exhaustion."
"I don't have any instincts about sprouting wings. It's the most unnatural--"
Mycroft reached out and lay a hand on Greg's arm. "You're becoming overwrought. Stop and breathe."
They'd been working on it for over an hour and Greg had worked up a sweat just trying to push his body to make it produce something that shouldn't exist. He knew Mycroft was probably right, but that didn't make it any easier. "Sorry. Breathing." He closed his eyes and leaned against the parapet, letting the wind ruffle his hair and cool his skin. Slowly, he inhaled and exhaled, trying not to think of anything, and to release his frustration. Mycroft said nothing, so Greg stayed like that, eyes closed, breathing quietly.
"Much better." Mycroft's voice was soft next to his ear, his shoulder pressing gently into Greg's. "Keep your eyes closed. Continue breathing as you have been." Greg nodded, trying to stay in that quiet internal space. "Now," Mycroft murmured, "I want you to remember what your wings felt like. Can you do that?"
"Of course I remember." Greg looked over at him, Mycroft's face near his.
"Close your eyes, Gregory. Just let yourself remember. Don't push for anything at all. Simply remember."
With another deep breath, Greg closed his eyes again and let his mind drift back to what it had felt like to have wings. The memory was mixed with agony and panic and exhaustion, but he remembered the odd weight between his shoulders and tried to sort that sensation from the rest of the tangle.
"Much better." Mycroft's fingers trailed between his shoulder blades where Greg's wings had been, sending a shiver down his spine. "Your body remembers, just as your mind does. Let yourself feel that part of the memory in your body, the physicality of it -- the sensation of weight, the opening out, the feeling of spreading yourself on the wind."
He relaxed into it, following the thread of wings, of wind, of flight, the sharp spike of fire in his chest where he'd been cut. Greg shuddered and opened his eyes. "Too much of it is wrapped up with being in pain. I don't know if I can do it."
"That is, regrettably, understandable." Mycroft's palm rested flat against Greg's back, warm and comfortable. "It's all right to let yourself remember the pain. At the moment, it is a part of that experience. You will build new memories, and that part of the association will fade. Eventually all that will be left is the sensation of wings, and their manifestation. It's a simple matter of conditioning."
"Got a bell, Pavlov?"
Mycroft didn't crack anything even vaguely resembling a smile. "Gregory. Again."
With a grumble and a nod, Greg closed his eyes again, slipping back into the memory more easily this time. He focused as best he could, staying with it until it settled into his muscles, Mycroft's hand still there on his back.
"Very good." Mycroft's fingers moved slightly, a soft caress. Greg's lips curled into a slight smile. "Let that sensation grow. Imagine the wings. Feel them unfurl."
He did, almost hearing the soft sound of their appearance.
"Excellent." Greg could hear the satisfaction in Mycroft's voice. "Open your eyes."
They were there at the periphery of his vision, translucent and shocking. They quivered as he realized they were real, that they'd come. "Bloody hell. I've got wings. I'm a fucking seagull."
Mycroft chuckled. "All I want you to do with them now is to move them. You need to understand how they move, what they do. We won't try flight until later."
It was like figuring out how to walk again. They moved, but Greg felt awkward and ungainly despite having flown with them before. If they were legs, he'd be tripping all over himself and he suddenly understood how fledgling birds must feel, flopping about with no real control.
The wings weren't physically there, not really. They genuinely did seem to be formed of mist, and his hand passed through them when he reached out to touch. They weren't stopped by the stone of the parapet, or the walls of the tower, though all of these things caused a strange sensation in them. "God, that feels weird. How the hell do I fly with them if they're just mist?"
Mycroft's raised eyebrow was just this side of 'you idiot.'
"Magic, right." Greg shook his head. "I am never going to get used to that."
"You will, and sooner than you think. How do you feel?"
"Aside from awkward?"
"Aside from that."
Greg thought for a moment, giving his body a once-over. "Like I've pulled something somewhere." It was a slight sensation of ache in his chest and back, not localized anywhere, but feeling like a strained muscle nonetheless.
Mycroft hmm-ed, his brow wrinkling. "Sharayan should be informed of that. You may not be quite ready for this yet. You were very badly injured."
"I'm not made of porcelain, Mycroft," Greg grumbled, his wings tucking in around him like a cloak. "You're just being overprotective again."
"Perhaps. I should let Sharayan be the judge of that, however." Mycroft favored him with a skeptical look, tinged with concern.
"I'm not going to drop dead."
"You nearly did," Mycroft answered, his voice sharp.
"That was weeks ago." Greg's response was almost surly. He knew he was overreacting to the idea, but he was so frustrated with the restrictions he'd been under. He was still too easily tired, but surely that was just a lack of activity and, if he got a little more exercise, he'd build himself up again.
There was anger in Mycroft's eyes and he opened his mouth to say something, but then took a breath, and the anger dissolved. Stepping close into Greg's space, he raised one hand to Greg's cheek, brushing a thumb along the crest of his cheekbone. Greg shivered at the tenderness of the gesture. "You nearly died," he said, very quiet, "and I had to sit and watch your recovery, not knowing if you would ever open your eyes again. Forgive me if I am more cautious than you think I should be."
Greg brought his hand up to Mycroft's, wrapping his fingers gently around the man's wrist; the frustration he'd been feeling drained away. "I'm sorry, you're right. It's just, it's bloody frustrating."
"There are still so many things you don't know, don't understand. It takes time, Gregory. All of this takes time. Your perspective is still very limited. You're thinking like the ephemeral being you were only weeks ago. Time still passes very slowly for you and I must remind myself of this and be more patient with you. I may not be the best person to instruct you in these matters. I fear I'm too... too close for objectivity when it concerns you."
Mycroft's hushed confession shook something in Greg and he shifted closer, wrapping his arms around the man. Mycroft returned the embrace and they stood for several minutes, just holding one another, their cheeks pressed together, bodies close and warm. Finally, Greg whispered, "I want this, Mycroft. I want you."
Mycroft's fingers found Greg's hair, twining between the strands, pulling him closer into his arms. "I don't know if I can give you what you want," he responded, murmuring.
"Just try. Please, just try." The ache in Greg's chest knotted and shimmered, as much a flow of sorrow as a twinge of something strained.
Mycroft's head shook, a slight motion against Greg's cheek. "I can't, Gregory. Not yet. I'm sorry." He stepped back from their embrace, the pain in his eyes clear and deep. They shuttered quickly, his mask falling back into place far too easily for Greg's comfort.
"I shouldn't have asked." Greg tried in vain to hold back the regret in his voice.
"I need time." The cold London bureaucrat was back.
Greg nodded, a little numb. "I'll… I'll wait."
"I'm sorry." They stood looking at one another, awkward, for a few moments before Mycroft spoke again. "Don't try releasing your wings until we've spoken to Sharayan. She should see you with them manifested to accurately assess your condition."
Greg shrugged. "I wouldn't know how to put them away anyway."
It was more than a week before Greg was able to manifest his wings easily; Sharayan had agreed with him that Mycroft was overly concerned, but Greg wasn't inclined to gloat about it. Not that he could, even if he wanted to, as Mycroft had been avoiding him. It hurt, but it didn't surprise him much. Laris was apologetic but kept Greg out of Mycroft's office, on Mycroft's orders. Mycroft was out of their rooms before Greg woke in the morning, ate in his office, and didn't return until after Greg had gone to bed at night, assuming he returned at all.
Greg's instruction in the basics of magic had been fobbed off on Veli, a cypress dryad. Ea was tall and thin, with scaly evergreen leaves and absurdly knobby knees. Dryadae didn't actually have a gender, though some of them grew 'beards' of leaves and others didn't. Greg still found the concept a little odd, but he was getting used to it, and supposed it didn't really matter at all. He wasn't interested in shagging one, he just needed to know the right pronoun for talking about them. 'It' wasn't even on the table by this point.
Magic was weirder than having wings. When he finally managed to get things to work, it tickled under his skin, and the sparks that fell from his lips sometimes made him feel like he was about to vomit. They might have looked like snowflakes, drifting, but now Greg knew that it actually took some force to bring the power up from his center and send it out into the world. Veli was also teaching him to read the anarian cuneiform script so that he could use the reference books for his studies. He finished most days with a headache from the intensity he was putting into his focus on everything.
When he was alone, Greg practiced working with his wings as much as he could without pushing himself into exhaustion, but Mycroft's deliberate absence irritated him and it didn't help his patience at all. Sharayan had told him he'd be able to try flying in the next couple of days, and that she'd find a lyraa to work with him on that. Wings were wings, after all, whether they were flesh or mist. They worked the same way when it came down to getting your arse off the ground. Greg was confident he could already do it again, but Sharayan insisted that he had to learn proper control under non-emergency conditions, and that took patience and practice, thank you very much.
"Right, mum," Greg grumbled, taking himself out in search of something to get his mind off his annoyance. His wandering took him into the courtyard garden, where he heard music in the distance, among the wild roses and the myrtle. He couldn't make out the song at first, though the voice seemed masculine, and a good one, if rough. Greg thought he recognized the instrumental accompaniment as a lute, or something similar. Someone else played a low wind instrument, brass maybe, its bass eerie and plaintive below the baritone vocal line.
The voice sounded familiar; he knew he'd heard it in the great hall several times. As Greg drew closer, he could hear the lyrics. It was a song of mourning for the loss of a seal-skin and the deep places of the sea, the tale of a selkie imprisoned among land-walkers and longing for home. It sparked more than a little longing for home in Greg, as well, trapped here in a place he barely understood, a stranger in his own skin. He bit back the aching pang of loneliness that it dragged from him before his eyes could grow damp. There was no sense in mourning what he had no control over.
Not wanting to interrupt the music, he approached quietly. There was a group of eight people sitting on elegant benches of bent, living wood in a small clearing along the path. They were a mix of species: a stekkik, a couple of chek-tes, a lyraa, one of the dragonfly blokes -- Greg had been told they were tizztef -- and one of the toggug were listening to a vorren and some mossy looking fellow making music. The vorren was playing a sort of horn. It looked like it had been folded several times, like a switchback road in the mountains. The mossy bloke had hair like straw and thin, dried grass sticking up in seedy tufts, and a long, sharp nose. His ears were pointed, drooping a bit, and he played a lute made with a turtle's shell for the body of the instrument. Eyes closed, his sharp nose was pointed to the sky as he reached for a particularly eerie run of high notes, and Greg's heart stood still in his chest.
It was Durstel, the musician from the dungeon in Sralthan's keep.
"Crap," Greg muttered. He took a quick look around but it didn't seem like anyone had seen him. With a steadying breath, he turned and hurried away from the garden, quiet as he could manage. Mycroft had to know about this. Hell, Taran had to know about this, but Mycroft would be his first stop, and he wasn't about to let Laris put him off this time. Once he was out of sight and unlikely to be seen from the group on the ground, he spread his wings and flew, climbing awkwardly through the air up the tower where Mycroft's office and their rooms were located.
Flying up to the balcony of their chambers took everything out of him, but he made it. Maybe Sharayan was right and he wasn't quite up to much flying just yet, but he was in too bloody much of a hurry to spend time slogging it up the stairs any further than he had to. Greg let go of his wings and hurried up the last few flights of stairs to Mycroft's office, bursting into the entry chamber, where Laris sat at his desk.
"I'm sorry, Gregory, but--"
"This isn't personal business, Laris. It's not about me," Greg panted, rushing past the seated vorren. "Mycroft!" Greg got to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked. He thumped on it with his fist. "Mycroft! I know you're in there, you have to let me in!"
Laris was at his back a moment later, trying to tug him away from the door, but Greg grabbed the handle and hung on with one hand, pounding the door with the other. "Mycroft! Mycroft!"
Laris pulled on his arm and both of them stumbled as Mycroft opened the door. "Gregory, I can't--"
Greg staggered upright and put one hand in the center of Mycroft's chest, shoving him back into his office and slamming the door before Laris could follow him in. "Sralthan!" Greg shouted.
Mycroft stopped in mid-sentence, his mouth still open. He blinked as Greg stood before him, panting for breath. Mycroft's entire demeanour changed, no longer agitated, but cold and calculating, his body a tense, rigid line. "Tell me." Laris opened the door and poked his nose in. "Not right now, Laris," Mycroft snapped, and Laris ducked back out again with an undignified yip.
"Down in the gardens," Greg said, "I just saw one of Sralthan's people. Some bloke I talked to in the dungeon there. He's here. Sralthan's got somebody inside the keep."
Mycroft took him by the elbow and led him to a chair as they spoke, making him sit. "What was he doing?"
One of Mycroft's eyebrows rose. "Singing."
"Yeah. He's a musician. But he's got to be a spy. I mean, you don't just stroll up to the gates and say 'hey, I'm a spy, let me in,' now, do you? That would be bloody stupid."
Mycroft covered his face with one hand for a moment, leaning his hip against his desk. "That would be rather counterproductive, yes."
"We've got to tell Taran."
"I agree." Mycroft nodded. He sat in the chair next to Greg's. "But if this musician was singing when you saw him a few minutes ago, he's unlikely to be doing anything important at the moment. Tell me what you know of him."
"Bloke said he was called Durstel. He's a… well, he's not a dryad. He's kind of mossy, with hair like straw. Black eyes. Not quite as tall as me."
"One of the gruigi. Another plant species, generally ungendered."
"Right, okay. Any rate, ea was in the dungeon with me at Sralthan's keep, in another cell. Apparently ea'd annoyed Sralthan by singing the wrong song at dinner, or at least that's what ea said at the time."
Mycroft thought for a moment. "It is possible -- perhaps not likely, but possible -- that ea is passing through as an itinerant scop, but that will need to be determined. We have been keeping eyes on Sralthan's movements and we know that several agents have been placed within the walls, but some of their identities have not yet been determined with certainty."
"There are others?" Greg shifted uneasily.
"There are always spies, Gregory, in every court, and in every government. One cannot eliminate them all, and it is best to know their identities and let them pass carefully controlled information until their usefulness has come to an end, or their existence becomes too great a risk to security. Remove one, another will take its place, and we may not know that one's identity."
Greg nodded. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Still makes me nervous, though."
Mycroft rose again. "And now you should go, and I--"
"Oh no," Greg growled and stood along with him. "You're not shoving me out the door, Mycroft. There's giving you some space, and then there's you digging a hole and pulling a rock in over you. You said you'd not abandon me and what the hell have you been doing but leaving me entirely alone here lately?"
"I bloody well deserve an explanation, you tit."
"This is a delicate situation."
"What, me or Durstel?"
"The spy, Gregory." Mycroft's voice was cold and it made Greg furious.
"Don't do this," he snapped. "Either talk to me or send me back to London, but don't leave me alone like this."
"You cannot go back to London right now."
"Then talk to me, Mycroft. Tell me what the hell is going on."
Mycroft's eyes closed for a moment and he looked like he was gathering himself. He opened his eyes again. "Soon, Gregory."
Greg crossed his arms over his chest. "Yeah, right. Is this human 'soon' or elven 'soon'?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Is the sun going to go cold first?"
"You're overreacting to this."
"You know what? Fuck it," Greg spat, disgusted. "You don't want to talk to me, you obviously don't have to. You want to fob me off on your minions, fine. I thought -- well it doesn't matter what I thought, does it?" He turned his back on Mycroft and stormed out of his office without waiting to see if Mycroft was going to offer him a response. 'Soon.' Yeah, bloody likely.
Greg had taken himself down into a district of the city within the malachite walls and had found himself something pub-like, where he was pointedly Not Sulking over a bitter. He'd pulled a few coins from the box in Mycroft's room, knowing the man wouldn't really care about the small amount. Not like Greg had anything of his own yet anyway, which was still a sore point for him. No money, only a few clothes that had been made for him and actually fit properly, no place for him here at all beyond Mycroft's pet untrained way opener. Not that Mycroft was even paying attention to him anymore. He'd managed to bore the man already, and he was staring down thousands of years of life like this.
All right. Maybe he was sulking.
He'd been there about two hours when Veli showed up.
"Oh, what do you want?" Greg growled. "Did Mycroft send you?" Just another tug on the leash.
Veli shook ea's head. "No. The Star-Born wishes to see you." Ea sat on the bench next to him, folding ea's long legs under the table. "But we have time enough for a drink first."
Greg looked down at his partially-finished bitter. "Right enough. Mycroft's buying."
Veli's chuckle was like wood rubbing on wood. "I do believe the Magus can afford it."
"What's your poison?" Greg signalled the waiter over.
"A little vitheen, I think."
Greg had tried it once, but it was too much like thick turpentine for his taste. Bad retsina was hardly a whiff of pine by comparison. He grimaced, but ordered up a glass of the stuff. "It's your funeral."
"Your tongue hasn't the discernment required to enjoy its subtleties," Veli said, watching as the waiter sauntered off to fill the order.
"I'm not sure my anything has the discernment required to enjoy things here," Greg sighed.
Veli laid twiggy fingers on Greg's shoulder. "The adjustment can be difficult for the saplings of your world. You are doing better than you think, though. When you have learned more, you'll feel more at ease. Your roots will grow stronger and you will become more comfortable in your bark."
"I don't have bark," Greg grumbled as the vitheen arrived at their table. "Or roots."
Veli took a sip of the emerald green liquor. "Consider it a metaphor."
"I want to go back to London, and that's not metaphorical." He glowered into his mug.
"You are not yet ready, Gregory."
"Is that what the Star-Born is going to tell me, too?"
"I don't believe she would waste her time with such trivialities. This is another matter entirely."
Greg knocked back the rest of his bitter. "I probably shouldn't keep her waiting, then." His mug thumped when he set it back on the table. It had to be about Durstel. Mycroft had probably already talked to her.
"So impatient, your kind. But you're right." Veli finished the vitheen quickly, muttering about how things ought to be savored, not rushed.
The dryad had a doe-drawn carriage waiting for them outside the pub. The trip back up to the court was quick and Greg was relieved he wouldn't be out of breath by the time he got there, as he'd been expecting if they'd had to walk. Veli left him outside the office where Taran actually conducted her day-to-day business; he was greeted there by a toggug guard and allowed into the chamber. It was nowhere near as impressive as the throne room, being much smaller and decorated in earth tones, with citrine lamps on the walls; it felt close and cozy and smelled of cedar and juniper, a slight breeze ruffling the sheer russet curtains over the windows.
Taran was seated behind her desk. Mycroft was seated in a comfortable chair before it and to one side, looking cool and collected as ever, not a hair out of place. In another at the opposite side was an Asian woman, with greying hair. She was dressed in jeans and a white shirt, with a line of small jade buttons down the front. Leaning against her chair was a worn wooden staff, painted red and black. She wore a necklace of cowrie shells close about her throat. The woman eyed him critically, her face sharp and intelligent. Greg bowed to Taran.
"Gregory," Taran said, "this is Jiang-Li. She will be your instructor in the arts of the way openers." Greg offered Jiang-Li a polite bow and she inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment. "Please, be seated." Taran gestured to the remaining open chair and Greg sat, waiting uncomfortably for his fate to be handed down to him from on high.
"I've been told about your revelation, and the power you displayed," Jiang-Li said, steepling her fingers before her lips. "Your circumstances are very unusual." She had an accent that Greg couldn't place.
He shifted in his seat. "As far as I'm concerned, everything here is unusual. Bizarre might be a better word."
"Revelation requires adjustment, even if it comes in its natural time. The energies need to settle into your body properly. And, of course, there's the additional adjustment to this realm after living a lifetime in your own. For you, this process has barely begun. I'm told your progress in magical studies is promising, however."
"If feeling like I'm going to heave every time those sparks come out of my mouth is promising, then I suppose so."
"You'll learn," she responded. "It gets easier." Greg just nodded.
Mycroft nodded. "You've gained sufficient skill from Veli that your magical studies can now be handed over to Jiang-Li. This will free more of your time to focus on way opening."
"Got nothing but time," Greg muttered.
"We'll start at dusk, Gregory. We'll meet at the moon gate in the gardens." Jiang-Li took up her staff and stood. Mycroft stood with her, both of them obviously ready to leave. Greg started to get to his feet as well, but Taran held him back with a gesture.
"Please stay, Gregory," she said. "I wish to speak with you." Taran turned her attention to the other two. "Thank you. Jiang-Li, I hope your stay at my court will be a pleasant one. Mycroft, we shall speak this evening on the matter you brought before me earlier."
"Of course." Mycroft bowed, as did Jiang-Li, and Greg watched as they left the room. Taran waited for the door to close behind them before she spoke again.
"You're feeling restless and alone," she said. "You no longer wish to be here."
Greg looked into Taran's eyes for a moment before he shook his head. "Not really, no. It's not like I have a choice, though, is it."
"You could return to London if you wished, but you are still in an extremely vulnerable state, Gregory. Sralthan's agents would find you there, and very quickly. You would be without protection and unable to defend yourself." Greg shivered, knowing she was right. "Ea is searching for you. Ea knows you are here for the moment, but you are too well protected in Feldspar to be taken."
"But why? I mean, the gate can't be opened now. It's not like having me would accomplish anything at all."
Taran sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Ever since the incident, I have had more eyes upon Sralthan's doings. Ea has become more and more unstable. Mycroft believes that Sralthan wishes to try to force you to open the gate, even though it is beyond your capabilities, and then to kill you. I believe him. Your escapes left ea in a rage, and ea is gathering an army. We believe war is coming, Gregory. I believe this has been building for some time. You are the trigger, but you are not the cause. Sralthan's mental state has been deteriorating for centuries, and there are many who believe this is the reason why ea seeks to become a god."
Greg's stomach knotted and he tightened his fingers on the arms of the chair. "You're sure I'm not the cause."
"You are not. I can state now with absolute certainty that if you had not been the focus for ea's plans, ea would have attempted to take one of the other way openers and accomplish the opening of the gate anyway. Jiang-Li is in agreement with me on this, as is Mycroft. All of the other way openers have been warned, and they are taking precautions now. Several have gone into hiding. The rest will likely follow them soon."
"But why would Sralthan try to start a war with you? Ea's keep isn't anywhere near the size of yours. I can't imagine ea would be able to pull together an army that would be any challenge for you. I mean, beyond pure insanity. And who'd ally with Sralthan, knowing all that?"
Taran rose from her chair and walked around her desk. She gestured to Greg and he followed her to one of the open windows. They both leaned against the sill, looking out across the great city and the surrounding forest. "Feldspar and her allies are wealthy, with vast expanses of good land and water. There are rich forests, and mines where we extract sard and gold, gems, and other precious things from the earth. We have skilled smiths and crafters who can create and enchant objects of power. The chaos that a war would engender would leave all of this," she gestured widely over the city with a hand, "and all of the people in these lands vulnerable, presumably to be easily stolen, enslaved, or destroyed. Very few would ally with Sralthan to assist with ea's attempted ascent to godhood, but there are many who would cherish the opportunity to take these things for themselves as the world burns around us."
Greg swallowed, his mouth dry, and nodded. "That… makes way too much sense."
"Mycroft has been working himself far too hard gathering information and piecing it together." She sounded concerned.
"Maybe that's part of why he hasn't spoken to me for damned near two weeks." He hated to admit it, but it was more than sufficient reason. He obviously couldn't have the distraction of dealing with Greg's problems while he dealt in the fate of entire kingdoms.
Taran looked at him, puzzlement in her amber eyes. "He hasn't spoken with you?"
"No." Greg shook his head. "Not beyond me pushing my way into his office a couple of hours ago to tell him about Durstel."
Taran's shoulders slumped and she made a frustrated sound. "That man, I swear. He has no idea what's good for him."
"You don't think he's got better things to think about?"
She buried her face in her hands as she leaned her elbows on the window sill. "I thought he was at least going home and spending time with you at night, but apparently he's been sleeping in his office. I'm going to have to have words with Laris."
"He's had Laris keeping me out when I've tried to speak with him."
Taran growled. "And I shall have words with Mycroft, as well, Gregory. Those few times in his life when he acts the part of the fool, he most certainly gives it his all."
Greg couldn't help but chuckle at that. "Well, he's good at everything, isn't he?"
She looked up at him, laughing, and shaking her head. "You would be so good for him. Why doesn't he see that? Why does he deny what his heart tells him?"
"Maybe it's been too long since he remembered he has one." Greg shrugged, wondering why he was defending the colossal prat.
"I shall speak with him, Gregory. He will be at home tonight, and he will listen to you. You may be assured of that."
"I'm sorry I've dropped something else on your plate, Taran. You've got a lot to deal with right now, and you didn't need me whinging at you today."
"No, it was right of you to bring this to me. I knew Mycroft was out of sorts and hadn't inquired as to why. That was my own oversight. Go. Enjoy the free time you have this afternoon before you meet with Jiang-Li. I have a stubborn Magus to deal with; I may need a drink to fortify myself first."
Greg nodded. "Thank you." Taran took his hand and gave it a firm squeeze before shooing him out of her office with a frustrated, impatient gesture.
The gardens were lit at night with lanterns hanging from the branches of trees, clear but dim. In the dusk they were just beginning to flicker on, like fireflies, as Greg made his way to the moon gate. Jiang-Li was waiting for him, lolling on a mossy bench, her ankles crossed, arms crossed behind her head. Her staff lay on the grass beside the bench. "You didn't keep me waiting," she said. "Good."
"I'm generally on time unless I'm up to my arse in corpses," Greg said, hoping she wasn't going to have too much of an attitude about their work together.
Jiang-Li just laughed and got to her feet. "They say your wings are mist. Let me see them." She made a curt gesture with her hand, obviously meant to hurry him along. Greg breathed out and they billowed into existence, glowing very slightly, behind him. It didn't take any effort anymore, just focus. Using them, okay, that took effort. Jiang-Li walked around him, poking at his wings, passing her hand through them. "Well," she said, "that really is different. You must belong to the sea. Gull wings. Really."
"Nothing wrong with my wings."
"I didn't say there was, did I?"
Greg looked over his shoulder at her as she stared at his back. "No. I suppose not."
"Defensive. You should get over that. It'll do nothing for you here." She prodded him with the tip of an index finger where one wing joined his back.
"Would you please stop poking me?"
She raised her brown eyes to his. "I just need to understand. Mostly the revealed have bird's wings, not something like this."
"What about you?" Greg turned to face her.
Jiang-Li grinned. "Crow." She shrugged. "You can let them go now. I just needed to see." Greg let them fade away and she watched them disperse. "Your power is obviously in the mist. It's a gateway between worlds. Easy to get lost in. Easy to trick people in. Remember that, because it's an advantage for you."
Greg thought back to his revelation, and the mist that rose around him and Mycroft, concealing them from Sralthan and the ard-fiadh when they were running for their lives. "Yeah, got it."
"Can you make some mist for me?" She crossed her arms and leaned back on her heels.
"I can try, at least."
She waved one hand at him without bothering to uncross her arms. "Don't talk. Do."
"Right, Yoda," Greg grumbled, under his breath. He tried to remember what it felt like when he summoned the mist in his flat, to seal the sigil of protection that Mycroft had drawn. Focusing, he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, then pushed as he exhaled.
"Oh, now that's different." Jiang-Li sounded curious and vaguely impressed. "I've never seen that before. Quite extraordinary, really."
Greg's eyes opened. He was standing in the midst of a thin mist that seemed to be exuding from his pores, sinking down and curling out around him like cigarette smoke in a slight draft. "It's the first time I've tried it since… well, since then."
She nodded. "I've never met one of his before. This is fascinating. I'm going to have to think about this for a while before we begin. Mycroft told me a little bit about the situation, but seeing it for myself provides much more data. I have some research to do. I wonder where the Star-Born keeps her library?" That last was mumbled to herself and Jiang-Li looked toward the keep, a pensive expression on her face. A moment later, her attention snapped back to Greg. "You can go. I need a couple of days to investigate this."
"That's it?" He felt a little disappointed, actually.
Her brow wrinkled. "For now. Until I have more information, I won't know where to begin working with you. The mist is a different vehicle than my own way opening. I only have a small understanding of it. I've not met anyone else with this particular talent, and none of the other way openers alive now have it, either. There must be a text somewhere…" She tapped her lower lip with a finger a couple of times, then looked back up at Greg. "Why are you still standing there? Go away."
Greg didn't bother saying anything before he left. He didn't figure he needed to.
Mycroft arrived late in the evening. Greg hadn't really been waiting up for him; he'd been trying to practice his reading after Jiang-Li dismissed him, and lost track of the time. "I'm surprised you're still awake," Mycroft said, standing in the doorway of the study.
Greg turned to look at him. "I'm surprised you're home. Then again, Taran said she'd make sure you were here tonight. Sorry it took a queen's orders to get you to see me." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but wasn't having much success.
"Gregory…" Mycroft's voice was tentative, and Greg couldn't interpret the look on his face.
Greg leaned back in his chair, setting his pen aside. "What?"
"I apologize for neglecting you." There was something tight about Mycroft's eyes and a tension in his shoulders, but he looked Greg in the eye as he spoke.
"You've apparently got a war to avert. Not like I'm all that important." Greg shrugged. There was a cold, queasy knot in his stomach.
"Please don't," Mycroft murmured, approaching slowly and carefully, as though Greg might bite him if he moved too quickly.
Greg didn't rise as Mycroft came to stand beside him. "Look, Mycroft." He paused and Mycroft allowed him a moment before he spoke again. "I just, I don't know what to do, okay?"
"Would you believe me if I said neither do I?" His face was still unreadable.
Greg pondered that before answering, his head tilted as he thought. "Maybe," he finally allowed.
Something in Mycroft lightened slightly at Greg's words. "May I sit with you?" He gestured to the nearest empty chair.
"It's your flat."
"It's yours as well." Mycroft rested a hand on the back of the chair, not moving.
Greg shook his head. "Nothing here is mine."
"On the contrary," Mycroft said, his voice fading to a whisper. "Everything here is yours."
Greg's eyes closed and his chest ached. "Sit down, Mycroft." He heard the chair move as Mycroft pulled it closer, and Mycroft sat with him. When Greg opened his eyes again, Mycroft was facing him, watching him silently. He could hear the soft sound of Mycroft breathing, could feel the warmth radiating from him, sitting so near. Greg turned away for a moment, looking at the desk, before he turned back and spoke. "Why did you dump me like that?"
"Seemed like it to me." There was no anger in Greg'is voice, just a resignation that he felt down to his bones.
Mycroft reached out, hesitant, and rested the tips of his fingers on the back of Greg's hand. They were cool and sent a trickle of something electric up Greg's arm. "I know I've hurt you, Gregory, but that was never my intention. Taran reminded me of the… differences in our perspective."
Greg nodded. "Mycroft, I know you experience time, well, really differently than I do. I mean, yeah, I'm supposed to be like you now, but for me, fifty years is still my entire life. It might be nothing more than the blink of an eye for you, but I can't even imagine that yet. When you say you need time, I don't even know where to start. I don't know what you mean by that. I just -- I don't even have words yet."
"Everything is still very immediate for you." Mycroft's fingers rubbed slowly and absently back and forth over Greg's skin. "It was not my intention for you to feel abandoned."
Greg turned his hand so that Mycroft's fingers passed over his palm and then twined with his own. "I know. Doesn't make it any easier." He tightened his fingers around Mycroft's, and Mycroft's echoed the motion. Greg looked down at their joined hands. "Do you actually feel anything at all? For me, I mean." He saw the motion of Mycroft's nod from the corner of his eye and looked up.
"You must understand that for me, affection is something that I must be wary of, Gregory. It's a weakness, a vulnerability. It doesn't last."
"And that worries you."
Mycroft's fingers seemed a little colder. "Terrifies me, actually." Greg just stared at him, unable to really believe he'd just heard the admission. Mycroft took a steadying breath. "Taran was rather explicit about my being honest with you regarding this matter."
Greg huffed softly. "Yeah, I'm betting she'd know if you weren't."
"But it doesn't have to. Scare you, I mean. I'm not going to die like that. Not now."
Mycroft shook his head. "Perhaps not. Life is still unpredictable. And you want to return to London."
"Yeah. Taran had some good reasons why I shouldn't right now, but later? What would be the problem? I've still got another forty years or so that I could reasonably expect to be around, right?"
Mycroft brought Greg's hand to his cheek and rested it there gently. "For forty years you could watch your friends and everyone you know die, Gregory. It would happen naturally, but you would no longer be aging along with them. You would remain as you are, even if you were glamoured to appear to be aging naturally. Consider this, though: what happens if, in the course of your duty, you are injured to the extent that you would be expected to die, and you do not? What if you are involved in a vehicular accident, or a fire, or some other disaster and you survive when you should not?"
Greg paused, thinking, feeling the warmth of Mycroft's cheek against his hand. He watched Mycroft watching him in the glow of the lamplight. "All right, I admit that would be hard to explain to anyone."
"Sherlock has already had to find his way around this issue. His encounters with drugs and his addictions should have killed him a dozen times over."
"I watched over him through some of that, Mycroft. I was scared half to death for him sometimes. But you knew it wasn't going to kill him." Mycroft had put up a good act of being worried about his brother, at least.
"He would not have died of the overdoses, but he could still have done himself considerable long-term harm. It is possible that, with enough exposure, he could have damaged his mind, and that I could not countenance. It has happened to others. I still worry about him, Gregory." There was a strain in Mycroft's voice that Greg recognized from a few of their early conversations about Sherlock's using. "Like you, we are both going to lose England soon. This… this is the last lifetime either of us will be able to live there unless things change drastically. He is responding with a self-destructive rage."
Greg took his hand from Mycroft's grip and brushed his fingers across the man's cheek. "And you've been shutting yourself down completely. Cutting yourself off from anything that could possibly hurt you more." Mycroft nodded; Greg leaned into him and pulled him into a hug, his heart aching for a loss that was unimaginably more immense than his own. "Don't shut me out, too, Mycroft, please," he murmured.
Mycroft was still for several moments before he moved, hesitant, and returned the embrace. He said nothing, but Greg could hear how his breath had roughened a bit. Greg just held him for a long time, both of them keeping still.
Mycroft moved first, shifting slightly without letting go. "You are so young and so beautiful, and I am so very afraid of hurting you because of what I have become," he whispered.
Greg untangled himself from Mycroft's arms enough to brush a gentle kiss across his lips. "Pain happens no matter what anyone does, Mycroft. The only thing you have to be for me here is yourself. All I'm asking is that you try to let me in."
Mycroft's hands glided across Greg's back and up his arms until his palms cupped Greg's face, thumbs caressing his cheeks slowly. His blue-grey eyes seemed endless and sad. "I am trying," he whispered. "Will you give me a few weeks? Just a few weeks to work through this. To move that quickly on something like this after so many centuries of habit will be difficult, but this is not something I can resolve within myself tonight."
Greg nodded. "I can do a few weeks, as long as I know what's happening. But talk to me, okay? Can you do that for me? Just let me know what's going on with you? I know you've got, god, a war coming, but don't lock yourself in your office all the time. At least let me see you now and then."
"Yes. I shall make time for you." He took a breath. "I am sorry about London, Gregory. If I could give that back to you, I would. Please believe me."
Greg kissed him again. "I do now, Mycroft. Thanks."
"The crossroads are thin places," Jiang-Li said, sketching a rough equal-armed cross in the dust with her staff. Dim red sparks of power followed the line of its movement and spiraled out from the earth. "Crossroads are gates; they reach between places and between realms. They're where people change directions, where the road opens possibilities. The mist is like that, but more ambiguous. It's more open to possibility, but more dangerous at the same time. Most people can't see through the mist, but you belong to it. Your eyes can follow the roads there."
Greg nodded, remembering his and Mycroft's escape from Sralthan and the ard-fiadh, when he'd been the only one able to see a clear path through the mist. "It's like following a thinner place through the fog," he said. "I think there was… I don't know, an air current maybe, making a little tunnel or something."
"And then you made a gate, they said." Her eyes were sharp and curious.
"Not consciously. We fell, and it just… happened." He shrugged.
Jiang-Li's brows knit. "Nobody 'just happens' to make a gate." She tapped the center of the cross she'd sketched with the end of her staff, and Greg could feel a ripple in the fabric of reality pass beneath his feet.
"We fell. My hand went right through the ground, and we ended up in my flat. There was a hole in the air. It glowed a little, kind of blue, with mist tendrils flowing down out of it. Then it folded shut." He still had no idea how it had happened, but he wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
"And there was no preparation." She gave him a skeptical look.
He stared at her for a moment. "How was I supposed to prepare anything? We didn't have any time to even think. I had no idea I could do that at all."
"Hmm." She nodded. "What were you thinking about at the time?"
"That we were going to die."
"How much I wished I was back at home, that none of it was real." An echo of that terror tingled beneath his skin as he recalled what he felt.
Jiang-Li hummed again. "The safest place your heart could conceive."
"Not like it really was, considering, but yeah." Greg thought for a moment. "I don't know if it would have happened if it had just been me. I think the fact that I felt responsible for Mycroft's life being in danger was what pushed it over the top, you know? That I wanted him to be safe, that he shouldn't have to die for me." The pang of guilt still remained in his chest.
"Interesting," Jiang-Li muttered. She rubbed her bottom lip thoughtfully. "Most people can open an existing gate if they know how, but that obviously wasn't what you were doing. I need to see you open an existing gate."
"I don't know how."
She laughed. "If you can't do it, I'll show you. That's why I'm here, remember? Come with me." She gestured with her staff and set out across the garden, Greg at her heels.
At the bottom of the garden, Jiang-Li stopped. The place was overgrown, with a narrow earthen trail leading into a grove. It looked more like a deer track than a pathway, but they followed it in. The trees were close there, thick with shrubs and underbrush, but there was a tiny clearing at the center of it, barely enough room for three or four people to stand close together. Rising in the center of that space was a pole, carved with rough faces of birds and beasts; it had obviously been made from a tree that had grown there, still rooted in the earth. It was a little taller than Greg, and maybe a foot thick, the worked wood gone silver and smooth with age. Moss grew in the crevices of the carvings, and Greg would almost be willing to swear the faces were breathing, though everything was still and silent around them.
Jiang-Li gestured to the pole. "Open the gate, Gregory."
She held up a hand and stopped his protest. "I want to see what you can do. Open the gate. No excuses."
Greg stared at her for a moment, then sighed and turned his attention to the pole. At least she'd told him where the gate was. Assuming even that part wasn't some kind of test. He took one step, bringing him within arm's length of the pole, and looked at it for a few moments. Aside from the sense that maybe it was breathing, Greg couldn't see anything particularly different about it from anything else in the area.
He reached out, gingerly, and touched the beak of one of the bird faces. The wood was warmer than it should have been, and there was something thrumming under the surface of it. Carefully, Greg walked around the pole, his fingers trailing over the shapes of wood and moss. If he focused, he could feel how the energy changed from place to place within the pole; some spots felt more alive to him than others, though he wasn't certain what it meant.
All the gates that he'd been through had been opened by Mycroft, except for the one Greg had made himself. He tried to remember what Mycroft had done, but all he could remember was Mycroft touching the gates to open them. The one at Wakefield Tower he'd just slapped with one hand, and the thing had bloomed into light. Maybe he was supposed to touch the pole in a particular place, or a certain way? Greg squinted at the pole and tilted his head, wondering if that would help him see something he was missing.
Taking a deep breath, Greg stepped back and scratched his chin, still staring at the pole. A thought crept into his head. "Oh, right," he muttered. Gathering himself, knowing it was going to be a little uncomfortable, he whispered the words of a revealing spell, sparks drifting from his lips as he felt the force of the magic flowing through him. He walked around the pole as he spoke, looking for -- there it was; the eyes of one of the beasts glowed a subtle blue amid the moss, and he put his fingers into the eye sockets and reached out with his energy, groping almost blindly for a moment, thinking about the mist and how it was supposed to reach between worlds, then reaching for that feeling in the pole and drawing it out.
A pulse of blue vibrated out of the pole, enveloping it in an oval of energy that swirled and hummed. Greg stepped back, pleased with himself.
"Nicely done," Jiang-Li said, moving to stand next to him and examine his work.
"Where does it go?"
She looked at him, half a smile tugging at her lips. "Want to find out?"
Greg shook his head. "Fuck, no." He had no intention of stepping through that bloody thing without knowing what was on the other side.
"Good boy. That was the right answer." The half-smile edged into a sharp, narrow grin. "Too many things are looking for you right now. You don't want to go anywhere without telling someone, and taking an escort. And you absolutely don't want to go anywhere without knowing what's on the other side, until you have a lot better idea of what you're doing." She tapped her staff on the ground and the light collapsed back into the pole leaving a momentary feeling of vacuum in the clearing.
"I'm not entirely an idiot," Greg grumbled.
"No," she agreed. "And you hadn't been taught how to open a gate before, you're sure?" She sounded skeptical.
"Never. The only ones I've been through, Mycroft opened. Except the one I made, and that was kind of a fluke."
Jiang-Li pursed her lips and shook her head. "No, I don't think it was a fluke." Her fingertips tapped her staff in a random pattern as she thought, her brow wrinkling. "What did you learn when you watched Mycroft open those gates?"
Greg shrugged. "I don't know. I just thought maybe there was a particular place you were supposed to touch them to trigger them. He didn't look like he did anything else."
"So, the revealing spell."
"But there's more to it than that." She tilted her head at him, encouraging him to speak.
"I don't know," he said. "I guess I was looking for a doorknob. Something to pull on. I wasn't sure if it had a knob or if it needed a key, if you know what I mean."
She raised an eyebrow. "Very good, you recognize that there are different ways that gates might work. How did you choose?"
Greg thought about it for a moment. "Well, there didn't seem to be any… lock on it, I guess. There weren't any sigils that I could see. It didn't particularly seem to be resisting when I reached into it. It didn't feel locked. I… erm, I was looking for what the mist felt like. When I found it, I pulled on it, and the gate expanded out of the pole."
"No," Jiang-Li said, "you're not an idiot at all. This wasn't meant to be an easy test, and you did very well with it. Good analytical thinking. I wasn't expecting you to get it right the first time."
"You reckoned you'd have to show me how to do it," Greg said, thoughtful.
She nodded. "I hadn't seen anyone before who didn't have to be shown the first time." Jiang-Li's eyes ran up and down Greg's frame, narrowed. "You've got so much raw potential it's frightening," she growled. "No wonder Sralthan thought ea could use you to open the gate. Might actually have managed it, even. That would have been a disaster."
"Yeah, I'm kind of glad to still have all my parts, thanks."
She gave him a side-eye. "I'm kind of glad not to be in the middle of a war with a bunch of necromantic uglies right now, parts or no parts."
It felt like a slap. "Sorry for being glad to still be alive."
Jiang-Li shrugged. "Not what I meant, and you know it. Perspective, kid."
Greg resisted the urge to tell her to bugger off. He grit his teeth and took a bracing breath, letting it out slowly. "Yeah, okay. Moving on." Never a good idea to aggravate the teacher when they were showing you things that might save your life some day. He could do this. He had to do this. It was the only way he might ever get back to London.
When his office door opened, Mycroft looked up from the current intelligence report he'd received from London earlier that morning. "Laris, I told you that-- Ah, Star-Born, I wasn't aware you wanted to see me before our meeting this afternoon." He stood and bowed slightly as Taran entered the room.
"Please, Mycroft, sit. This is informal." She gestured him back into his chair.
"Shall I have Laris bring tea?"
Taran shook her head. "It's already on the way, thank you." She settled into one of the chairs in front of his desk.
Mycroft leaned back in his chair. "Gregory?" If she wasn't here about his work, it had to be about Gregory.
She nodded. "How are you doing with him?"
"He's making good progress--"
Taran shook her head as a brilliant metallic green tizztef brought a tea tray into the room, placed it carefully on Mycroft's desk, and left, silent but for the slight flutter of her wings. "I meant personally, Mycroft. I shan't allow you to dodge the issue."
Mycroft poured the tea. "I don't understand why this aspect of my personal life is of such interest to you."
She took the delicate celadon porcelain cup as he handed it to her. "Because you are important to me," she said, sipping, "and he is important to you. Your constant fretting is distracting you. In fact, this seems to be making you miserable."
"I did speak to him," Mycroft objected, pouring himself a cup as well. "I asked him to give me a few weeks."
"A few weeks." Her head tilted slightly, her amber eyes locked with his own. It was disconcerting, which was a feeling Mycroft did not care for at all.
"You are well aware of how long it's been since I've been involved with anyone." Mycroft couldn't help the hint of asperity and frustration in his voice. "Readjusting to the idea of… relationships takes a certain amount of time."
Taran sighed and gestured at the papers on Mycroft's desk. "Yet you're able to analyze and make decisions about issues that affect nations in only moments, and to act on those decisions without second-guessing yourself. You are second-guessing everything having to do with Gregory and you are still allowing your guilt over his situation to drive your response to him."
"That… may be true." Saying the words felt rather akin to pulling teeth.
She sipped at her tea again, still not breaking eye contact. "Mycroft, I can't remember the last time I had to tell you something more than once."
"You still believe I should stop hesitating."
"I believe that you deserve some happiness in your life, and that each moment you hesitate steals that moment's happiness from you. I will tell you, my friend, that nothing is more precious, even when loss is a possibility. Loss is always a possibility."
Mycroft's chest tightened. "No. Happiness is ephemeral at best. Loss… What's gone is gone forever, Taran. The dead don't return. Lost loves only burn a chasm in your heart. They leave nothing but ash on your tongue."
"Or those memories can be enshrined within your soul to warm you for the rest of your existence. I know this, for I have lost loves also, as you well know." Mycroft set his cup down and buried his face in his hands for a moment, not wanting to remember. "Have you no good memories of those you've loved?" Taran asked. "Not one? Nothing that you still cherish from your time with them?" Her voice was gentle now, and soft, and he felt the warmth of her fingers on his wrist.
"It is far easier, far safer, to feel nothing, Taran. I've told you this before. Emotions interfere with logic." He tried to suppress the emotions already roiling within him, but his entire life had been fragmenting, and Gregory was at the center of all of it. "They're so messy."
"And yet you still want him. You're still falling in love with him, no matter how hard you try to cut yourself off from the emotions."
"Yes." Mycroft's voice was only a breath.
Taran shook her head. "You'll not be able to talk yourself out of love, Mycroft, so accept that it is happening. Allow yourself a little happiness; you deserve as much as you are able to find. You know that he feels alone here, and afraid. If he cannot turn to you, eventually he will find what he needs from another. Would that not also cause you pain and loss?"
The thought of Gregory turning to someone other than Mycroft himself for support, and to assuage his loneliness, sent a chill through his body and he took a warming sip of tea to try to moderate it. "I have been speaking with him again." He had, every night since Taran had first spoken to him about it.
"It's obviously not enough."
"I should not suffer this weakness!" Mycroft snapped, trying to drive back the desire that ate at him constantly. "I can think of nothing but him. This obsession interferes with everything." Frustrated, Mycroft picked up the London report from his desk. "I should have had this dealt with an hour ago, yet I was sitting here still staring at it when you walked in. This whole situation is hopeless. I'll be no good to you at all if I give in to what I feel for him!"
Taran's eyes squeezed shut and she pinched the bridge of her nose, huffing a frustrated sound. After a moment, she took a deep breath and looked back up at him. "May I suggest, on the contrary, that if you simply give in to what you feel for him, that distraction will ease. If the needs of your heart and your body are sated, your mind will be at rest. You will once again be able to give your work the focus it requires."
Mycroft stared at her, saying nothing for several moments. She simply watched him, waiting for his response. "The body is little more than transport," he said, finally, though even he wasn't convinced by the words. "Too much is happening right now for me to take more time away from our work."
She shook her head sadly. "The world will not end if you acknowledge that you have needs and desires, that you care for someone, and then act upon those things. You eat and you sleep because your body requires those things. You require these, as well. The more you object, the more distracted and obsessed you will be. How have you lived these thousands of years and not understood that?" Without waiting for a response, Taran rose and turned away from him. "You need Gregory, Mycroft, and he needs you," she said, striding toward the door. "You need to stop denying what you know to be true." The door closed behind her almost before she'd finished speaking.
The ache in Mycroft's heard did not diminish.
From the journal of Greg Lestrade
I lost track of time weeks ago. I feel like there's a gaping hole in me where my life used to be. There are moments when I wonder if I'm still myself anymore, but that's way more existential than I usually get. Something about this place, I can't help having thoughts about identity and what's real. I was always happy to get out of London for a holiday, but the thought of never going back kills me sometimes, late at night when I should be hearing traffic and sirens and the telly going with god knows what on in the background. The quiet of a place with no motors, and no current in the walls, is eerie, even with the sounds of other people around.
There are streetlights here, but I don't know if they're gaslight or magic or something else. They glitter below the castle like a pool of stars in the darkness of the forest when I look down at night, but I find myself looking up at the moons a lot of the time instead of down at the city. That's still hard to accept, even surrounded by all these people who aren't the least bit human. Doesn't seem to matter what I do, the stekkik still give me the shudders. I'm not sure I'm going to get over that anytime soon.
I wonder how my team at the Met is handling the whole thing. I don't even know how I would explain anything to them if I could go back. "Sorry, kidnapped into faery" just isn't going to fly, no matter what I've seen here. Somebody would likely lock me up somewhere in a snug, white jacket and drug me to the gills.
At least I have a few things to do with my time. I've learned a lot about magic and gates and the mist. I can open things easily now, without having to think much about it. I don't feel like I'm going to be sick when the sparks start flying out of me anymore, thank god. I hated that. I can't help feeling that Jiang-Li is leaving things out sometimes, though. She asks a lot of questions and nods and hums when I answer, but she doesn't often elaborate if I don't entirely understand, and she doesn't always answer my questions clearly. Bloody Yoda. Sometimes all I want is a fucking straight answer, but everyone here seems to evade stuff on a professional level.
Talk about the king of evasion, Mycroft is around in the evenings, but he's always distracted. Everyone around here has been getting more tense by the day. I know it's about the impending war, I can see it all around me. It feels like something is going to snap soon, the air is so bloody thick with it. I've been repeatedly told there's nothing I can do and that I just have to keep working on my studies. Feels like uni all over again half the time, but without the hangovers. Not that I haven't been tempted to just get thoroughly pissed to try and forget how much I miss my life. It wouldn't do to be that unaware of my surroundings, though. All the tension's got me paranoid, and Durstel lurking about isn't helping things, either.
I ran into ea the other day, though I've been trying not to. It was awkward and both of us were pretty suspicious, though ea seems more angry about losing eas job at Sralthan's keep than anything else. Accused me of being the cause of it, escaping like I did. There weren't any direct threats made, but I don't think there had to be. Mycroft assures me that Durstel's being watched but I can't help the itchy feeling between my shoulder blades.
There were raised voices on the balcony outside his quarters as Mycroft returned home that evening. Jiang-Li and Gregory were arguing, though the words were indistinct and the shouting stopped before he got close enough to clarify. A moment later, Jiang-Li stormed past, silent and fuming, her fist white-knuckled about her staff as she hurried by, not bothering to acknowledge Mycroft's presence.
Cautiously, Mycroft passed through the door onto the open balcony. Gregory whirled at his approach, obviously ready to shout again, assuming it was Jiang-Li returning. He stopped himself before he spoke, but Mycroft could feel the crackling tension in the air; the hair on his arms and the back of his neck prickled and rose before Gregory took a deep breath and stepped back, no longer tensed for an immediate verbal attack but still agitated.
Crossing his arms, Mycroft leaned against the stone balustrade and waited for Gregory to speak. Asking questions was only likely to aggravate the man, and it was obvious that something about the evening's work had gone seriously awry; he'd noted an increasing tension between Gregory and Jiang-Li in the past few days. It took several minutes before Gregory calmed enough to begin speaking. Finally, he shook his head and sighed. "I'm used to you and Sherlock keeping things from me, but she's supposed to be teaching me stuff that's going to keep me alive. Where does she get off, withholding information?"
"I'd been concerned that this would be a possibility," Mycroft said, nodding. "What was she withholding?"
Gregory made a sound of disgust. "If I knew that, Mycroft, I could tell you. She's just… I've always got the feeling that she just wants to see what I can do, not that she's trying to help me, and there's not bugger all I can seem to do about it. It's always 'when you need to know, I'll tell you' or some other such shite." Gregory's jaw clenched, as did his fists. "I thought the whole bloody fucking point was that I did need to know things!"
"I can speak with her, if you'd like."
Gregory's eyes narrowed. "You're actually asking me? You're not just going to waltz in and do what you want?"
Mycroft tilted his head slightly. "I do try to respect your boundaries, Gregory. You've expressed a great deal of discomfort with what you perceive as your limitations here. While I'm concerned about this situation, I have no desire to increase your sense of displacement or powerlessness. You're not Sherlock and, contrary to what you might believe, I trust your ability to make your own decisions."
For a moment, Gregory hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah, all right. Talk to her. It's not like my saying anything does any good. And ta for asking. That really means a lot to me."
"Right, then." Mycroft straightened from his leaning perch. "I'll speak to her tomorrow. Arguments before dinner tend to negatively affect my digestion." He allowed himself a small, tight, grimace. Gregory chuckled. "I'm delighted you find it amusing."
With a sigh, a shake of his head, and a wry smile, Gregory rested a hand on Mycroft's shoulder. "Well, I need something to keep me amused," he said. "Let's go find something edible." The warmth of his touch echoed in Mycroft's body for much longer than the touch itself lasted.
Mycroft's 'talk' must have shaken the foundations of the castle, because Jiang-Li, while obviously not happy about the situation, was a lot more forthcoming in the next several days. This wasn't to say that things were any easier, as the atmosphere everywhere was growing taut as a bowstring. Greg hadn't seen Mycroft in nearly two days, not because Mycroft was avoiding him but because armies were gathering in preparation for an anticipated attack on Feldspar.
People were stressed and prone to snapping at each other, and Greg wasn't immune. He'd taken refuge at the Oakmoss Pub from his anger at Mycroft the day Jiang-Li arrived, and had found himself going back frequently when he felt out of sorts. Sharayan's assistant, Emeta, joined him one evening. Since he really wasn't allowed to go anywhere outside the castle proper without an escort, a guard had accompanied them. G'saro was a huge naga, a half-snake with scales the colour of an oil slick, and a more-or-less humanoid torso. His venomed fangs made Greg a little nervous, but he supposed venomous guards were the way to go, if you lived in a fantasy novel. Never without a weapon, were they?
"No matter what Mycroft and Taran say, I feel like this is my fault," Greg grumbled. "Worst of all, I've got no idea what to do to help." The three of them sat in a dark corner of the pub, back near the kitchen door; the naga's long, armoured tail was curved protectively around the front of their small table. Greg was more conscious than usual of escape routes these days. He took a long, deep draught of the bitter in his hand.
Emeta's tail twitched and she shook her head. "No single person could be the cause of something like this," she said, "and all you can d-do is… is fight it." Her little ears twitched back and forth and she watched the room sharply. She'd been much more on edge whenever he'd seen her during the past week or so, and it was making Greg more nervous as well. "S-Sralthan's mad," she stammered. "I'm just… I'm so worried about everyone."
Greg reached out and patted Emeta's shoulder gently. "Hey, it's all right to be upset about this. It's unnerving for everybody."
She nodded, her small, furry face turned downward, away from him. Greg sighed and took another drink, feeling a little warm and a bit looser than usual after only a little over half a pint. He leaned back in his chair. "Sorry," she squeaked, her voice tiny and quiet.
"Nothing to apologize for." He took another long drink, wanting to believe that the impending war wasn't actually about him. He was hoping the alcohol would let that concept seep into his subconscious a little more easily.
G'saro raised one hand to order another round, as their drinks were nearly empty now. "You need to relax, Emeta," the naga said. His face was blunt, covered with tiny, intricately patterned scales, and his eyes were deep pools of absolute black. Her body tightened slightly and she shivered, but nodded.
"You're right, but I can't." The poor thing looked miserable.
Greg tilted his head back against the wall behind him, closing his eyes for a few moments, trying to gather himself a little. When he opened them again, there was a second pint of bitter in front of him, the first glass having already been taken away. "Hope this one tastes a little better," he said. "The last one was a bit harsher than usual. I think my tongue's going sort of numb."
"Maybe you won't be able to taste this one," G'saro said.
Greg chuckled. "Yeah, that would be good." He brought the glass to his lips and rolled the bitter on his tongue. "Huh. Can't hardly taste anything at all." Greg sighed. "At least it doesn't taste bad this way. Yours?" he asked, looking to Emeta.
"It's not as good as usual, no." She stared into her glass.
By the time he was halfway through his second pint, Greg's eyes weren't tracking anymore. "Wha'hell's in this?" he slurred. He tried to set the glass down, but it smacked on the table with more force than he'd intended. "I… I don' feel…" Head swimming, Greg put a steadying hand on the table.
"You don't look well," G'saro said. He rose, slithering up from his seat and tucked an arm around Greg's torso, hoisting him to his feet.
"We should get you back to your rooms," Emeta said, but the tightness in her face was clear even in Greg's thoroughly pissed state. He tried to struggle, but the naga was too big, too strong, and Greg's body was betraying him. He could hardly move on his own; his knees weren't able to bear his weight.
"H-how… why?" he asked, reaching out to Emeta, his hand flapping weakly in an uncoordinated movement. She closed her eyes and looked away as G'saro picked him up and carried him toward the door. His stomach went all queasy.
Emeta dropped some coins on the table. "He's not feeling well, we're taking him home," she said, when the tizzteff waiter gave them a glance.
Her translucent green wings vibrated. "Tomorrow, then?"
"If he's up to it," G'saro said, gliding smoothly between the tables toward the door. Emeta followed close. Greg's head spun violently as he sagged in the naga's arms. Before they'd got all the way out the door, his consciousness fled.
Chapter 14: The Prison of Your Name
"What do you mean, he's not been seen?" Mycroft snapped. "He was supposed to be accompanied if he left the castle proper."
Laris shook his head. "No one's seen him since before the midday meal, Magus. I've asked everywhere throughout the court."
Mycroft's stomach dropped sharply, his entire body going cold. "Find him. Now." It was late in the night; Gregory hadn't appeared for dinner, nor was he in their quarters, and the thought of him being abducted from the keep was devastating. Laris scuttled away, eyes wide and frightened. Mycroft hurried to Taran's private chambers, knowing there was likely not much time, if Gregory had truly been taken.
He was breathless when he arrived, folding his wings hastily, but the toggug guards at her chamber doors saw the look on his face and allowed him through without a challenge. Panting from his flight and from running along the last corridors, he leaned on the door and knocked frantically, hoping Taran had not yet retired for the night. He heard movement inside after a moment, and the door opened to him.
Taran looked at him, surprised for a moment, then grim with the realization that something awful had occurred. "Come in," she said. "What's happened?"
"Gregory's missing." Mycroft's voice was rough with stress and emotion, though he stomped on his outburst immediately.
She didn't question the statement, for she knew the consequences if Gregory were delivered into Sralthan's hands. "How broad a search have you carried out so far?"
"The guards have not yet been called out, but everything short of that is being done."
Taran nodded. "The city will be turned upon its head. If he is still here, he will be found."
"Thank you," Mycroft said, still catching his breath.
"Will they take him to Sralthan's keep, or to the gate, do you think?"
Mycroft shook his head. "I'm uncertain just yet. It's time to round up all ea's known and suspected agents and have them questioned."
"Agreed. Do it."
"To go after him yourself."
She took Mycroft's wrist and squeezed gently. "As soon as we determine where he was taken, you may choose a small force of the Gems, and anyone else you feel will be necessary, to retrieve him." Mycroft opened his mouth to speak, but she continued. "A small force. You are going on a retrieval mission, Mycroft, not to exact vengeance. You are not powerful enough on your own to face Sralthan, no matter how deeply your fear and fury may drive you right now. I have armies massing to face Sralthan and ea's forces. Even with all your wisdom and power, you are but one man. Do not forget that. You are invaluable and cannot be replaced, no matter what has happened to him."
"Neither can Gregory." The truth of those words was nearly overwhelming, and Mycroft's chest ached with it.
"It will take time to determine what has happened in enough detail to formulate our plans. I know you'll wish to question the spies yourself."
Mycroft nodded. "Yes. Thank you." The tight fury in him was barely under control.
"You will not torture anyone," Taran said, blunt as a truncheon, her eyes fierce.
Mycroft swallowed and nodded again. "I shall restrain myself," he whispered.
"I know you will."
Mycroft's most trusted people had been sent to retrieve all the suspected agents of Sralthan in Feldspar. The process would likely take a couple of hours to complete, but Mycroft's first report on the situation arrived within half an hour, as he was sorting through his mental files of those he would call upon for the retrieval mission.
"The body of one of the guards was just found," Laris said, steady now, and in control of the situation. "A naga called G'saro, in a midden near the Lapis walls. He'd been skinned."
Mycroft's lips tightened in distaste. "How long had he been dead?"
"About a week, possibly more."
"Why was this not reported?"
Laris looked down at his notebook. "G'saro had been reporting for duty as usual. No one suspected him missing."
"Someone has been skin-walking." Necromancy. The idea sent a shiver down Mycroft's back. "I want to know where G'saro was seen today, when, by whom, and who was with him. I want to know every possible moment of the skin-walker's movements."
Laris nodded. "I've got someone on it already, Magus."
"Very good. Have Durstel brought to me as soon as ea's escorted into the secure offices. And I wish to speak with Jiang-Li immediately after that."
"It will be done." Laris touched his chest and turned, leaving as quickly and quietly as he'd come.
Less than ten minutes later, Durstel was dragged, struggling, into the room by two of the anarian guards. The gruigi was shrieking for help, ea's legs flailing as ea tried futilely to kick them. Mycroft watched, glacial, as Durstel was chained to the wall by ankles and wrists and waist, unable to do much more than throw ea's head back and forth and scream. "Why am I here?" ea howled. "What does the great one of the keep want? Is the music not good enough?" Durstel sent up a mournful keen, loud and aching in Mycroft's ears.
"Silence!" Mycroft bellowed. Durstel squeaked to a trembling stop. "You came here from Sralthan's keep." Durstel nodded, frantic, ea's eyes huge and round and black. "Why were you sent here?"
"Nooo, no, not sent! Not sent! Sralthan, the great one, there was no pleasing ea with my tunes, not a happy one in the lot, not a smile, not a--"
"Enough. You expect me to believe that you arrived here, just by coincidence, after Gregory was rescued from Sralthan?"
Durstel was trembling violently now, looking quite pitiful chained to the wall. Mycroft let himself feel only the cold fury in his heart. "Gregory? You mean Dave? He called himself Dave. The great one took him from the dungeon and that's the last I saw of him until I got here. That's it! That's all! I'm a scop! Just a scop!"
Mycroft leaned in closer, his wings bursting from his back, and he towered over the gruigi, letting every bit of his fury show. "What do you know?"
"If you do not tell me what I wish to know, I shall take it from you," he snarled. He could feel the power rising in him, curling in his gut and crawling along his skin.
"Songs! All I know is songs! Making tortoilutes and flauti!" Durstel shrieked, utterly terrified. "Just a scop!"
Uttering words of power, sparks of magic spilling forth, Mycroft reached out and covered Durstel's eyes and forehead with his hand. The spell snapped into place, and Mycroft tore memories from Durstel's mind as the gruigi screamed. He sifted through the images, swift as lightning, seeking, sorting, collating.
Mycroft's hand fell to his side and Durstel shook, whimpering. "This one is no spy. A pickpocket and a petty thief at most. Ea has nothing whatsoever of interest. Let ea go."
"Should we take ea to a physician?" one of the guards asked.
Mycroft shook his head. "Ea'll be confused for a little while, perhaps a headache, but ea's merely been terrified, not harmed."
They unlocked Durstel's bonds and took the trembling creature away.
"Should I expect that treatment?" Jiang-Li asked, entering the room with one guard as an escort.
"Will you require it?" Mycroft catalogued every detail about her, his skin still tingling with the power of the spell he'd wrought. Jealousy was written in every line of her body, but he saw no evidence of guilt in her bearing.
Jiang-Li snorted, leaning on her staff. "You think I want to give Sralthan any power? I might be jealous of Gregory's gifts, but I've no wish to harm him and I'm not a part of any kind of conspiracy. He's actually kind of a sweet kid, and you're ridiculously attached to him. I'm not suicidal, Mycroft. I know what you're capable of and I'm on your side in this war. The Star-Born isn't my enemy, either." She shrugged. "Look around, if you like, but try not to give me a headache." Mycroft raised a hand. "Bring it," she said, stepping into his reach. He touched her forehead and she yielded to the spell, utterly unresisting, slipping into the stream of it smoothly, revealing everything and nothing.
"Thank you," Mycroft said, removing his hand.
Jiang-Li nodded. "Yeah. Find him, Mycroft, before Sralthan destroys everything." She shook her head. "Before you destroy yourself."
Mycroft closed his eyes for a moment. "Thank you," he whispered, taking a steadying breath.
Greg woke, bound and gagged, in a sack, curled around himself in miserable discomfort, his breathing made difficult by the enclosed space and the gag. His struggles yielded nothing; his control of magic wasn't good enough to do anything without speaking, though he pushed with everything in him to try to open a gate around himself. He was muzzy, queasy, and disoriented, his head throbbing with the drugs still coursing through his system. He had no idea how long he'd been out but it obviously wasn't long enough to arrive at wherever he was being taken.
Listening told him nothing; his ears were roaring with the coursing of his blood in his veins, and the echo of distorted hearing through a doped-up haze. He felt like he was being hauled by something large, maybe the naga or perhaps a kelpie. The sounds of a city bustled around him and he wasn't sure if he was still in Feldspar or if he was at Sralthan's keep already. He guessed the latter. He must have been unconscious long enough for them to take him from Feldspar. He had no sense of the time at all.
Emeta's betrayal soured his already sick stomach. She'd seemed so harmless, friendly even. How could she have turned on him like that? He couldn't think. Nothing made sense. Did Mycroft even know he was missing yet? God, he hoped so. If Sralthan got ea's tentacles on him, he'd die this time, he was sure of it. Greg just hoped his death wouldn't actually contribute to opening that bloody gate.
He was dropped without warning onto a stone floor. The impact stunned him, knocking the breath from his lungs, and the shoulder he landed on hurt like hell. A moment later, Greg was dumped out of the sack, face-first on the floor, relieved at least to no longer be struggling to breathe. Looking up at Sralthan, however, made him wish briefly that he was still in the bag. There were a couple of ard-fiadh and a dryad there. It looked like it had been an ard-fiadh carrying him.
The short, stumpy dryad approached with a metal collar, like the one they'd put on him when they took him from the cell in Sralthan's dungeon, snapping it around his neck as his weak body tried to struggle. The bindings around his wrists were replaced with manacles to hold his hands behind his back, and the gag was removed from his mouth. Still dizzy and breathless, he tried to speak a protective spell, but nothing happened. He pushed, almost making himself vomit with the effort, and air passed through his lips without sound, but the metal around his neck and wrists seemed to be blocking the magic entirely. It tingled against his skin with pinpricks of heat like static electricity.
Sralthan reached down with one vine-tentacle hand, wrapping it around Greg's neck and upper body, and Greg screamed at the nettle-agony of ea's touch, worse this time than the last. That horrifying, acidic voice burned through him, intoning, "Gregory Alan Lestrade, I compel you by your True Name and command your obedience."
Greg's entire body shuddered as he fought the feeling of suffocation that the spell pressing into him wrought. His muscles jerked and spasmed and he went limp, still screaming as Sralthan dropped him again and began drawing some kind of sigil around him with ea's own thick, ochre blood. The pain was nearly blinding, and Greg couldn't have moved if a fire had been lit under him. His throat was hoarse from his cries at the intensity of the pain in the places Sralthan's tendril fingers had touched him. Sparks of dark, indigo energy fell around him, drifting down like snow from Sralthan's feline mouth as ea moved.
He passed out, his body no longer able to withstand the torment.
Greg surfaced slowly. His body was still wracked with pain where he'd been touched, and his throat still hurt. It took what felt like forever to get his eyes to open. Focus took even longer. He was lying on a stone floor in the center of a large circular room, manacled and collared, the human focal point of an intricate triangular sigil. There were columns rising at even intervals around the room, not far from him. He was alone.
His body felt leaden and movement was slow and difficult. He rolled onto his side to get a better look at the lines and figures drawn around him; he was too exhausted to sit. Sralthan's brown-yellow blood had dried like paint on the stone, in flat, solid lines. Cautious, he reached out slowly with one foot to try to rub some of the line away. He thought maybe if he could break the sigil open physically, he could escape.
As the toe of his boot touched the nearest line, a chill shivered up his leg and into his body, carrying sound with it. It was low and deep, resonating through the marrow of his bones, intensifying swiftly. The sound was like a chorus of howling angels, echoing in caverns that extended to the center of the earth. The echoing roar resolved into raw, bass voices chanting words of power in flowing torrents that grew and expanded, filling him, pounding through his chest and rattling his teeth like he was standing in front of a tower of speakers at a rock concert, making his body shudder with the force of its terrifying volume, his body now cold as space. With a sharp, wailing cry, Greg jerked his foot back, panting open-mouthed in fear as the wall of mind-numbing sound faded.
He could still feel the voices sparking under his skin like electricity, raising the hair on his body as he tried to shake off the pain and the echoing sensation. Greg thought if he tried it again, his bones would vibrate into their separate atoms, blown apart by the voice of the cosmos itself. Sralthan wasn't taking any chances this time. He lay there, resting, as he tried to catch his breath and focus through the buzzing.
It settled slowly, the vibration fading like dust drifting in sunlight. Eventually, all that was left was the constant low-burning remnant of Sralthan's nettle touch and a ringing in his ears.
Finally able to think again, at least a bit, Greg wondered why Sralthan hadn't just brought him to the gate. It would have made more sense. He eased himself up to sit so that he could look around, being careful to come nowhere near the blood-lines on the stone.
The columns he'd noticed were of near-human height. There were twelve, and atop each of them were spheres; eleven of them glowed dimly with a coruscating amethyst light, their wavering auroral pulse slow and hypnotic. The twelfth floated like a shadow of the others, unfilled. Directly above him, floating unsupported just below the ceiling, was a thirteenth sphere, larger than the rest, also empty and dark as dusk. The spheres reminded Greg of soap bubbles, and he thought he could just barely hear them humming, threads of sound connecting them all in webs, but he wasn't sure if that was his ears, or if maybe he was just hallucinating. There were no other features he could distinguish -- nothing else on the curved wall, the ceiling, or the floor. There were no windows, but the chamber had four plain, wooden doors evenly spaced around the circumference of the room like the points of a compass.
He heard the door behind him open quietly, and turned to face it. A lyraa entered, carrying a bag in his hand. "Drink," he said, tossing the bag into the sigil that contained Greg. The imprisoning lines didn't seem to have any effect on the wineskin. Greg looked at the birdman, wondering how the hell he was supposed to open the thing with his hands behind his back. It took several minutes of struggle but he finally got the thing open without spilling the contents everywhere. He had to lie down on the floor and move it with his teeth.
Water. It didn't smell off or stale, just slightly of leather. He took a sip, and it eased the ache in his throat. Slowly, he drank the rest, trying not to make himself sick with the roiling in his stomach. The lyraa waited for him to finish. "You got a name?" Greg asked.
"Not that you need to know," the bird answered. "The skin." It gestured for Greg to give the bag back. There was no sense in trying to keep it, so Greg kicked at it with one foot, flipping it out of the sigil.
"Do I get to leave the room when I need to piss?" The lyraa just snorted and rattled his beak in response, giving a disdainful ruffle of his wings, then turned, leaving Greg alone again. "Guess not." He rubbed his face against one shoulder, wondering what would happen next.
Greg wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting there. It could have been hours, maybe, by the time the door before him opened. He braced himself for Sralthan's entry, but his jaw dropped when a man stepped in silently, accompanied by some of the little frogs from Feldspar. He was dressed in a long leather coat, and tall, heavy boots. There was some kind of light leather armor around his chest, over a cream tunic, and that familiar black brolly in his hand. A kind of odd half-face mask made of brass and leather dangled from a strap around his neck, and a small pair of goggles was perched on his forehead. It was Mycroft, obviously, but he looked like a bloody steampunk. Greg opened his mouth to speak but the words stuck in his throat when he saw Mycroft go pale as his own cream coloured tunic at the sight of the columns with their floating spheres.
"Oh, no," Mycroft whispered, his blue-grey eyes wide, looking like he'd been shot.
"Mycroft?" Greg whispered back, confused. Mycroft shook himself, deliberately and visibly pulling himself together as the toggug spread out around the room with lightning-quick hops and flips. They stuck to the wall and ceiling by the pads of their toes, guarding the doors with their blowpipes at the ready. The toggug were almost invisible despite the brilliant colours of their skin, as they were dressed in pale, stone-colored clothing that concealed them in the shadows of the dim room.
Mycroft approached the sigil imprisoning Greg and narrowed his eyes, looking at it for a moment. "Don't touch it," Greg hissed. "Bloody thing's nasty."
Mycroft muttered a few sparking words, one hand extended toward the glyph, palm out, feeling for its magic. "It's designed to imprison only you," he replied after a moment, voice still quiet. He reached out with the tip of his umbrella and scratched a thin gap through the bloodstain on the floor, breaking the line of the triangle. Greg could feel the power of his prison snap, like air bursting from a popped balloon, and he gasped for breath as the pressure changed. Mycroft went to him, hefting him to his feet with one hand, then releasing the collar and manacles with a touch and the falling sparks of a spell, as a shrieking wail rose from the discarded metal. "Let's go."
The toggug were already in motion. Greg nodded and started running, close at Mycroft's heels, though he struggled to keep up due to the dizzying residual effects of the drugs he'd been given. "Sralthan knows my name," he panted, worried. "Ea did some kind of binding on me."
"We have to get you out of here before ea arrives; it'll take more time to drag you back here by the binding if you're further away. When we escape, the binding can be broken. Swiftly, Gregory." Mycroft's voice was tight and strained, his hand wrapped tightly around Greg's wrist to keep him near. He led the way out of the room, the toggug leaping with them. They passed the fallen bodies of several vorren guards just outside the door, poison darts sprouting from them like glittering blades of grass, but shouts echoed along the passage they'd entered, rapidly nearing. They'd have to fight their way past them, and Greg hadn't a weapon. He was hardly in any shape to run, much less try to fight bare-handed.
When the door at the end of the hall opened and the dryadae rushed in, the toggug scattered again like little anime ninjas. Mycroft released Greg's wrist. He heard the hissing puff of darts being blown all around him, flying everywhere, whining past his ears all thin and bright as needles. He ducked behind Mycroft, staying close to avoid the tiny shards of death. Mycroft's sword and shield were in his hands now, blazing with green fire. The dryadae were tougher than the vorren and they seemed to take dart after dart in their thick bark before they fell, still fighting viciously as Mycroft cut a blazing gap through their line to lead Greg out of the corridor and into a wide, high hall. They weren't out of the woods yet, and he could hear the roar of Sralthan's acid voice echoing from another corridor, rapidly approaching.
Greg didn't have to hear his name to feel the way his body jerked at the end of the binding spell's tether. "No," he gasped, stumbling back from the shelter of Mycroft's moving body. Pulling against the magic with all his strength, he threw himself after Mycroft. They ran forward as more of their enemies joined the fight from side doors. Greg reached down and grabbed a spear as he ran, tugging it out of the hand of a fallen dryad. If he was going to be dragged back to Sralthan, he'd go down with a weapon in his hand this time. He wasn't going to let them take him alive. There was too much at stake.
All around him, he could see the toggug leaping. They bounced off the walls in acrobatic leaps, spinning and flipping in mid-air as they shot their darts. They launched themselves at the vorren soldiers, almost appearing to fly in their incredible speed. Every time their flesh touched uncovered skin, one of their enemies screamed and fell, clawing at the poison as it burned. Sralthan's voice called out his name, and Greg fought the binding, struggling with his uncooperative body as Mycroft reached out and grabbed his arm, dragging him along through the gap in the enemy's line. Sralthan moved like sinuous lightning after them, knocking eas soldiers and guards out of the way in eas pursuit. As ea closed in on them, the tension of the binding grew, until Greg couldn't move his legs anymore. Mycroft didn't let go, hauling Greg's dead weight along, desperate as they cleared the door out to a raised courtyard at the top of one of the keep's towers.
One of Sralthan's long, vine limbs unfurled at them and Greg tried to brace for the blow, but mist exploded around him, unsummoned. "Keep going!" Mycroft shouted to the toggug as Greg's arm slipped out of Mycroft's tight grasp; Mycroft didn't seem to notice.
Greg tripped, fell, and rolled, only to find himself gasping on his hands and knees on wet sand, facing a furious sea under gale-force winds. The waves roared as Greg panicked and looked around for Mycroft and the toggug, but there was no one else -- only himself, the mist, and the raging waters. "What the fuck?" he panted. He'd not called up the mist. There hadn't been time, and he didn't have the strength in him to create a gate.
As the whitecaps roiled, shapes shifted and formed in the water. Foam whipped like the manes of great grey-blue horses, and he could hear their cries in the wind. One wave rose above him, towering a dozen meters into the air, pouring down and leaving the shape of an immense bearded man as the horse-wave retreated back into the ocean behind him. Greg staggered to his feet as the water poured down, the man solidifying into something twice the size of any human, dressed in a silver-grey tunic and spray-white leggings, with a mother of pearl belt that had a silver-sheathed sword hanging from it; a billowing cloak made of mist, like Greg's wings, was draped from his shoulders. Greg took a step back away from the man, whose skin was still the color of the storm-torn sea.
"It's you," Greg breathed, his short hair whipping in the wind. This was the presence he'd felt in the mist in his dreams, the form he'd been trying to find to protect him. "You're him. You're Manannán."
"You are trouble, lad," Manannán said, with a voice like storm winds. He grinned. "I like that in my people. You've eyes like a Selkie, brown as kelp, you do. Quite the handsome one." Greg swayed, stunned, still trying to process the fact that he was standing in front of a god. "I have plans for you. Can't let the plant have you, nor let ea open the gate."
"Sralthan knows my name." He had plans? Plans could wait. Greg could still feel a tenuous thread of the binding Sralthan had put on him, even here. "Mycroft's in trouble. I have to help him. He came to get me."
Manannán waved a hand and the winds calmed around them, the waves gentling in only a moment. "Time has no meaning here. We can talk."
Greg blinked a couple of times, then nodded. "Of course. Should I… I don't know, bow or something?" he asked, no longer having to shout against the gale.
The god laughed with a voice like water. "You're worried about the wrong things, lad. All I want is your presence here, not courtly manners. You need to think only of your future from now on. Your life hasn't ended, it's just beginning. Where you are doesn't matter, it's what you do when you're there that's important. Do what you're meant to do and -- for the moment -- that's stopping what's now in motion. You must stop Sralthan."
"Why can't you stop ea yourself? With all your power--" Greg gestured helplessly at the sea.
"That's why we have our progeny. You are our hands in the worlds."
"Oh, great," Greg muttered.
"The plant and the gate, they're your task for now, and don't forget it, but you can't deal with them like this, name-bound." Manannán waved a hand at him, and Greg could almost see the glowing binding Sralthan had laid on him, feeling it tighten and pull like a hook in his gut. "We have to get rid of that problem before all, right enough."
"But ea knows my name. Mycroft said ea could control me with it. I can feel it, even here, pulling at me. You can break the bond, but ea'll just create a new one. I'll never escape."
"You will if I take your name from you."
"Take my -- what? You can do that?" Greg's head was spinning and he wasn't able to process everything that was happening to him.
"It's rare," the god said, nodding, "but this is an exceptional case. The plant wants to be one of us. That can't be allowed. Ea's much too unstable. Many of the others are unsettled at what's happening. Things are out of balance. Our progeny are in danger."
It sounded a bit terrifying, but Greg didn't know if there were other options. "What do I have to do?"
Manannán advanced on him, raising his cloak as the wind rose again. He opened his mouth and it was like a hurricane, like the sea itself roaring, deafening and overpowering as mist exploded out and the god's form expanded into something incomprehensible. Seaweed and tentacles and shells and whales and gods alone knew what else passed through Greg's mind, blurring into water. "Gregory Alan Lestrade, I take from you your name."
Greg felt like his soul was being ripped from the existential root of him, and he screamed, his body jerking. The pain was unlike anything he'd ever known, blazing along every nerve, blasting through the marrow of his bones, leaving him feeling emptier than an echo. He barely managed to stay on his feet.
Darkness enveloped him, and the cold of the sea; he was drowning, but too weak to move. His limbs were water. He was water. He spun and floated in nothingness. He was nothing.
The god-voice roared again, beating like storm waves against the face of a cliff, inhuman, echoing through layers of reality like layers of pearl forming over a grain of sand. Greg felt it filling him, his wings bursting from his back, an unimaginable power burning him with each word, his spine curving backwards beneath it as he writhed in something deeper and stranger than agony.
"You are the glimmer of moon upon wave
You are the salt of the spray under mist
You are the flood-tide that sweeps clean the sand
You are the sea-foam called forth by the gale
You are the silver wave bright with the sun
You are the silver wave rising at dusk
You are the silver wave swift on the strand
You are the silver wave drowning the land
Tonnargat I make you
Tonnargat I call you
Tonnargat I bind you
Tonnargat I name you"
Wind, voice, wave-roar, salt-spray, all of it echoed down into profound silence, and Greg fell to the sand, stunned and gasping for breath as his ears rang with the fading sound.
Manannán was beside him, crouching next to him, human-sized and warm. "Stand, Tonnargat." He took Greg's arm and helped him to his feet. Greg wobbled but then steadied, looking into the sea-grey eyes before him.
"What just happened?"
"I have made you anew." The god's voice was gentle, a bare breeze after the gale Greg had just been through. The mist swirled slowly around them. "You could not do what I require of you with your name known, so I gave you a new one. Guard it like the pearl of your heart."
Greg nodded. "I will." He didn't know how he felt. He was dizzy and his nerves were raw, but he felt more stable than he'd been since the whole bloody mess started. Greg flexed his wings.
"You will become more powerful than you can understand right now. There's little I can tell you, for you must learn on your own. But I will give you one last gift before I send you back to your friends." Manannán drew his sword from the sheath at his belt. The metal flashed a brilliant, blinding silver like moonlight on water, and Greg shielded his eyes from it.
"Your sword?" Greg asked, not believing it.
Manannán snorted. "A shadow of Fragarach, lad, not the real one. Reach out." Greg reached out and mist flowed from the blade into his hand, forming itself into an insubstantial echo of the god's sword. The mist sword was cold in his hand, a blade of flowing ice.
"Thank you, but I've no idea how to use this." The thought rather terrified him.
"He'll answer your need. You've only to think of him. Your body will know what to do. You're wiser and more skilled than you know. Don't fear."
The mist swallowed Greg before he could reply, and then he was back with Mycroft, as though he'd never left, stumbling into step as they ran desperately toward the crenellated wall with Sralthan and eas ard-fiadh at their heels.
"When I say jump, follow me," Mycroft snapped, then shouted, "Nemeoth!"
Greg heard the great thunder of wings in front of them, a black streak falling from the sky, then rising from below the wall. Mycroft slipped his goggles down over his eyes and the mask up over his mouth and nose, shouting for him to jump. The toggug vaulted forward. Greg leapt, wings out and spread, and landed with an "oof" on the back of something huge and black and--
"Why didn't you tell me there were dragons?" Greg bellowed into the wind as they and the Toggug rose into the sky on the back of an immense, winged lizard. It was black and sinuous and long as a river, its scales glistening like obsidian in the sun. The creature turned and dove at the tower, blasting the open floor of it with sulfurous black fire. Sralthan's guards screamed as they burst into flame, and even the ard-fiadh burned, but Sralthan stood in the midst of it, leaning into a dome of golden power that blazed around ea, warding off the flame.
"It was irrelevant!" Mycroft shouted. Greg threw his arms around Mycroft, clinging to him, and Mycroft grabbed hold of Greg's arms with one hand, and gripped a leather harness around the dragon's body with the other, holding both of them secure to its back.
"Dragons are never irrelevant!" Greg shouted back, his voice cracking, clutching Mycroft's coat until his fingers cramped. He held onto Mycroft desperately as the dragon flew, blindingly fast, tearing Greg's breath away until he buried his face in Mycroft's shoulder to shelter it from the ripping wind. It was a matter of only minutes before they arrived at a gate in the side of a cliff; it blazed open at Nemeoth's piercing cry, and they left Sralthan's keep behind.
Chapter 15: The Light of Souls
Nemeoth's flight was too fast for speech; wind tore the breath from Greg's lips if he raised his face from its shelter, or tried to open his mouth. Mycroft handed him a mask and goggles of his own, which made breathing a lot easier and protected his eyes from the wind as well. They passed through three gates, he and Mycroft clinging together like a pair of freezing cold limpets, before they flashed out of a mountainside and into the the brilliant blue sky over a forest.
"Feldspar soon below," Nemeoth rumbled. Greg could see the glitter of the Golden Court far in the distance, on a ridge above the forest. Below them, among the trees streaking by, Greg could see masses of bodies on the move. Armies, he knew. Spear tips glittered an eerie green-gold in the sun through the leaves, but the dragon moved too fast for him to get a sense of any numbers. Taran was already well aware of the situation, but he could see Mycroft watching carefully.
By the time they plummeted to the top of a tower in the Golden Court, the battle had already begun, several kilometres from the city. Armies attacked on two fronts, with more on the way, and Greg worried that even with the reinforcements Taran had asked from her allies, it might not be enough.
Upon landing, the toggug leapt from Nemeoth's back, while Greg and Mycroft dismounted, tugging their masks down. "Nemeoth, my gratitude," Mycroft said, pulling Greg away even as he spoke.
"Go, Magus. Time later for thanks." The dragon nodded once and flung himself into the air again with a mighty wind from his beating wings. Greg stared after the great beast for a moment, even as they hurried toward the door.
"How strong is Sralthan's binding on you here?" Mycroft asked as they ran.
The man must not have even noticed he'd been pulled away, back at Sralthan's keep. "It's gone." Mycroft turned his head to look at him as they moved and nearly ran into a wall. "Look out!" Greg grabbed him and Mycroft turned his attention back to their headlong flight.
Only minutes later, they rushed into Taran's war room. The Star-Born, her military advisors, and the generals of the allied armies were in council, speaking intensely as a moving image of the emerging battlefields shimmered between them over a large, round table. Taran turned as they entered. "Mycroft, Gregory. I am glad to see you."
"It's worse than we thought," Mycroft said, slightly breathless. "We've only days before Sralthan opens the gate." His words triggered a frantic babble of questions until Mycroft raised a hand and stilled them all. "Is Jiang-Li safe?"
"She's in her quarters," Arfas said; ea was Taran's castellan, the scarlet maple dryad Greg had met several times before.
Mycroft nodded. "Send someone to bring her. If Sralthan's agents could take Gregory from the city, they'll be able to find her here, as well. She needs to hear this." One of the aides hurried from the room.
"Mycroft, what's happened?" Taran asked. She turned to Greg for a moment. "Gregory, are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, Star-Born," Greg said. "Better than."
"He was bound by his name, but he says that Sralthan's binding is gone. I didn't remove it," Mycroft said. "There was no time." This caused a ripple of surprised murmurs among the various beings in attendance.
Taran looked Greg up and down with a very keen eye. She paced over to him with slow, even steps, and laid a hand on his chest, still examining him with a frightening intensity. "There's no binding," she said. Taran looked into his eyes. "You're certain you were name-bound."
Greg nodded. "Yeah, absolutely. There was no mistaking it. It was awful when it happened. Fought it as hard as I could, but there was nothing for it."
"Then how was the spell broken? Did you do that, as well?" Her head tilted slightly.
"No." Greg shook his head, uncertain whether he should speak of what had happened. He was still pretty confused about it himself. "It's… complicated, I think. I'm not sure what I should say." He looked around the room. "At least not in public." What had happened felt like an immensely private thing.
"Ah. Yes." Taran nodded, obviously understanding that even this council might not be entirely secure, nor the best place for such a discussion. They were saved from any further conversation on the topic by the return of Taran's aide with Jiang-Li.
"You needed to see me?" Jiang-Li asked.
"The Magus called for your attendance," Taran replied. She looked to Mycroft. "You said that we had only days before Sralthan opens the gate. What happened?"
When Mycroft spoke, there was a haunted look in his eyes. "The other way openers," he said. He paused and swallowed before speaking again. "They did not go into hiding."
"What do you mean?" Jiang-Li said, cautious.
"Sralthan had soul-traps."
The looks of horror on the faces of everyone in the room were unmistakable, regardless of species. "I don't know what that means," Greg said, feeling very far out of the loop.
Mycroft turned to him, grasping his arm with one hand. "The spheres above you in the room where you were imprisoned, Gregory -- they were filled with the souls of the other way openers. All of the other way openers."
Greg's head spun. "Then the empty ones…"
"Were for you and Jiang-Li."
Greg sat heavily in the nearest chair. Jiang-Li looked about ready to fall over as well. "Oh, shite," Greg breathed.
Mycroft nodded, looking a bit peaky himself. "I believe that ea has collected enough power in this manner to force open the gate, even without the additional aid of the Boreas alignment. But it will take a few days to transport the traps and the mechanism to the narrow box canyon where the gate lies; it's a delicate operation, and the entire thing will need to be reassembled there. If we can destroy the traps, or stop ea from getting to the gate, we should be able to prevent this disaster."
"I will do anything necessary to stop that --" Jiang-Li spat something vehement that Greg didn't understand. It must have been really odd for the translation spell not to catch it, he thought absently.
"The attack on Feldspar is obviously a diversion," one of the generals, a naga, said.
"Yet we cannot allow the armies to take the city," another added, this one a dryad.
"Troops will need to be sent," a lyraa officer said.
Taran nodded. "Agreed on all counts." She gestured to Jiang-Li. "Remain with us and aid us with our strategies in the light of this new information. Magus, take Gregory and make sure he's unharmed. If he needs a healer, call upon Sharayan. We must also be certain nothing has been missed regarding the name-binding spell."
Mycroft bowed. "Of course, Star-Born."
She turned back to the table and dismissed Mycroft and Greg with an absent gesture.
Mycroft didn't speak until they got to their rooms. "Are you hurt?" he asked, running his hands anxiously over Greg's arms as though feeling for physical evidence.
"Only some bruises," Greg said, stilling Mycroft's hands with his own, "and I think I pulled a muscle in my shoulder when I got dropped on the stone floor. Aside from that, just some residual ache from Sralthan grabbing me, and from touching a line in the sigil."
Mycroft shed his long coat and the light cuirass, tossing them over a chair before his composure fragmented, and he pulled Greg into a strong, frantic embrace. Greg fell into it, his arms around Mycroft, who trembled as Greg held him, his breathing ragged and sharp in Greg's ear. "I've been an idiot, trying to keep you at arm's length for no reason but my own fears," Mycroft said. Greg could hear the tremor in his voice. After a moment, Mycroft pulled away and took Greg's face between his hands, kissing him with a passionate intensity that robbed Greg of his breath. He held on and kissed back, relieved that Mycroft had finally made up his mind, even if it had been almost too late.
When the kiss ended, Mycroft nuzzled Greg's face, placing soft, open-mouthed kisses there, and Greg ran the fingers of one hand up into Mycroft's hair. "I love you, Gregory," Mycroft whispered into his ear. Greg's chest tightened, and the words left him breathless. He held on tightly, eyes closed, and tried to keep breathing steadily.
A few moments later, Greg managed to pull himself together. "I love you, too, you great berk," he murmured. "But there are things I have to tell you."
Mycroft nodded. "No doubt. And I have questions." He let go of Greg and led him to a couch, where they sat, side by side, their bodies touching. Greg took Mycroft's hand.
"Emeta drugged me," he said, "and she and one of the nagas, G'saro--"
"Emeta was name-bound," Mycroft responded. "G'saro had been murdered and his skin used as a disguise. It didn't take long to find out, once you'd been taken."
"Crap." Greg shuddered with disgust at the thought of using someone's skin that way. "What have you done with Emeta?" he asked, concerned about how Mycroft and Taran had reacted. "If she was bound by her name, there was nothing she could do to resist the orders she'd been given. I knew she looked upset about the whole thing, but I didn't recognize what was happening until it was too late."
"She's had the binding removed and been sent out of Feldspar. She has family elsewhere, in the Cher'gen Forest, very far from here. Had it been anything other than a name-binding, though..." Mycroft shook his head. "I would not have allowed her to live. Not if she'd genuinely betrayed you. She could still be bound again, but now we know she's vulnerable and won't allow her access to the city until there's no further danger."
Greg nodded. "All right. As long as she's not been killed over the whole thing."
"The binding Sralthan put on you. How was it broken? If I didn't do it, nor you, what happened? And when? There was no time."
"I'm not sure how to even start on that one," Greg said. Mycroft raised an eyebrow, his head slightly tilted to one side. "I got… The mist rose, but apparently no one else saw it. I got pulled somewhere else. By Manannán."
Mycroft's eyes widened. "You met your progenitor?"
Mycroft nodded. "Of course he could break the spell." He paused, waiting for more.
"It wasn't just that, Mycroft."
"No, it never is, is it?" He squeezed Greg's hand. "What else happened? If you can tell me."
"He took my name and gave me a new one. Said I had to stop Sralthan, and with ea knowing my name, it was too dangerous."
The expression on Mycroft's face was a mix of shock, disbelief, and utter astonishment. "Gave you… a new name. A new True Name."
"Hurt like a bloody bugger when he did, too. It was sort of like having my soul sucked out, like being annihilated."
"I suppose it would be, at that," Mycroft murmured, thoughtful.
Greg paused for a moment, hesitant. "I still know your True Name. You don't know mine anymore. I'm not sure that's fair to you. It leaves you way too vulnerable."
Mycroft shook his head. "You don't have to tell me. What happened to you is vanishingly rare, and it happened for a reason. I don't want to endanger you further. Right now, you are the most powerful way opener alive. It's a precarious situation for you. Anyone knowing your True Name would put you at risk, even me."
"But I know yours, and you never used mine against me. All you've ever done is try to keep me safe."
"I trust you with that power over me, Gregory." He raised Greg's hand to his lips and kissed it.
Greg's eyes closed and he savored the softness of Mycroft's lips against his skin. He sighed, opening them again. "And I trust you with everything I am." He leaned in and whispered his Name into Mycroft's ear.
Mycroft gave a short huff of a chuckle. "Of course," he whispered in return. "How fitting." He shook his head, then kissed Greg gently, his fingers threading through Greg's hair to hold him close. "Thank you. You do me a great honor. I swear, I will guard this secret with my life."
Greg nodded. "I know." He took a breath. "I don't have anything else for you, really. I was unconscious almost until I was dumped at Sralthan's feet, then imprisoned with no company until you arrived. I didn't hear any plans, I only knew ea intended to kill me at some point. I hardly hoped you'd be able to find me. Manannán pulled me out of time long enough to give me a new name and my marching orders, then dropped me back right where I'd been before."
"And what orders were those?"
"Like I said, I'm supposed to stop Sralthan. Apparently the gods don't want ea being one of them. Probably drop the property values in the neighborhood." Greg tried for a smile but he was too worried to pull it off. "I've got no idea how I'm supposed to do that, and he wouldn't tell me."
"Meeting your progenitor at all is a rare thing, Gregory; most of the uncanny never do. It marks you as even more powerful and important than I initially believed. That he would also give you a new name… it's unprecedented. I've never heard of it happening before. Other things may have occurred as well, things you're not necessarily aware of yet."
"He gave me a weapon. Told me I'd know how to use it when the time came."
"You didn't have anything when you returned. I noticed no differences in your clothing, and you weren't carrying anything."
Greg shrugged. "That's because it's like my wings; it's mist." He let go of Mycroft's hand and stood. With a flick of his wrist, the blade appeared in his hand, his wings billowing from his back. "Said it was a shadow of his own." The intangible leaf blade shimmered in his grasp, wisps of mist falling from its silver-white shape.
"Every time I think I've figured you out, you astonish me anew," Mycroft murmured.
"I've never handled a sword in my life. Closest thing was a truncheon or an ASP, but it's not like using a blade. Hard to accidentally cut yourself open with a blunt weapon." Greg let the weapon and his wings go. When had he become inured to this sort of thing, he wondered?
"I'll have to inform Taran about some of this," Mycroft said. "Are you sure you're well? I suspect you might be in need of some rest after all you've been through today."
"I'm not really hurt, Mycroft. I feel fine."
Mycroft stood, facing Greg. "Still, I think I'd feel better if you rested for a time. I must speak with Taran, but I'll be back very soon. I don't think you need to deal with any more today than you already have. I'll have some food sent up, and I'll join you in a little while."
He looked like he wasn't going to take no for an answer. Greg had seen that look in his eyes many times before, usually as a result of something Sherlock-related. He knew better than to fight it. "All right. This time. But I won't be ordered about."
"I know," Mycroft said, nodding. He touched Greg's face softly with the tips of his fingers. Leaning in, he kissed Greg once more, unbearably gentle. "I'll return soon."
Mycroft's mind was spinning as he spoke privately with Taran about what had happened. He calculated new odds, followed new scenarios to logical conclusions, and followed the subtle shifts of power and tactics, given the new information he had. New webs of possibility spread out from the center of the problem.
No matter which thread he followed, the situation remained dire.
"Troops are already being sent to the gate," Taran informed him, "and three dragons. Two of the remaining morlissans are coming. They are bringing a seed of great blight that may weaken Sralthan enough for us to stop this threat."
Mycroft rubbed his face with one hand. "Such seeds take time to sprout and come to fruition, even with magical encouragement. We haven't more than a few days at best."
Taran nodded. "Yes, but perhaps a holding action can restrain Sralthan until the seed is ready. They said six days."
"Taran, we don't have that long. Four, at most, no matter what we do. Even sabotaging the gates between Sralthan's allies and the Boreas gate won't hold the armies off long enough, and the sabotage would take time and resources we do not have."
"Unfortunately, I have to agree. The war council is doing everything possible, and Jiang-Li's insight has been invaluable. There is nothing further you can do tonight, Mycroft. Go. Join Gregory. He's been through too much of late, and it seems that you have finally come to an understanding with him."
Mycroft inclined his head in a slight nod. "You were right. I was being an idiot. And now, our time may be running out entirely. I've wasted too much of it already."
"Well, waste no more. Go. Take time with him until tomorrow morning. After that, we have work, and you likely won't have any private time with him again until this is finished, for good or ill." She sent him away and turned back toward her council chamber, where her allies waited.
Dinner had arrived as Gregory waited for him in their chambers. He was staring out at the battles in the distance from his place on the balcony as a storm approached from the west. He looked up when Mycroft came to stand beside him, laying a hand on Gregory's shoulder. "How'd it go?" Gregory asked.
"Our chances are better than before, but still not good," Mycroft answered. Gregory sighed, his head hanging down a bit as he leaned on the parapet. Mycroft slid an arm around his waist. "We have tonight, at least. Taran won't call upon us until morning comes."
Gregory turned to him, wrapping his arms around Mycroft's shoulders. "We've got a god who thinks we can pull this off, you know."
"I am taking that into account, but I must also be realistic about the capabilities of our enemy."
"Yeah, but I'd rather not worry too much about that right now. Nothing I can do about it here." Gregory sighed, and shook his head. "Come to bed, love," he whispered, his lips brushing Mycroft's. "We've waited long enough."
"Far too long." Mycroft kissed him, slow and tender, slipping his tongue into Gregory's warm, wet mouth. Their embrace grew closer, arms winding more tightly about each other, and Mycroft lost himself to Gregory's hands as they slowly caressed his back and shoulders. Strong, thick fingers kneaded his muscles and Mycroft melted.
He'd always been physically attracted to Gregory; the man was slightly shorter, with broader shoulders and a more solid build than Mycroft's own. The sensuality of holding him in his arms was nearly overwhelming. Gregory's kisses were decadent, licking and sucking at Mycroft's thin lips, nipping at his chin, brushing his soft mouth over the delicate skin of Mycroft's eyelids. His lover was so warm and so intensely passionate, and Mycroft reveled in Gregory's strength, and the power of his own emotions.
Gregory led them back into Mycroft's bedchamber, not breaking contact with him. Mycroft ignored his hunger for food in favor of his hunger for Gregory's touch and his kisses. They undressed one another slowly and carefully. His hands were worshipful on Gregory's tanned, scarred skin. He traced the remains of the sigil he'd carved into Gregory's chest gently with one fingertip, and Gregory shivered for a moment, covering Mycroft's hand with his own.
"It's all right," Gregory murmured. He kissed Mycroft again, tossing aside Mycroft's tunic. Wrapping his arms around Mycroft's waist, he brought their bodies together, skin to skin, and dipped one hand into the waistband of Mycroft's trousers, caressing his hip. "You only did what you had to. You saved my life, Mycroft. Never regret that." He traced the line of Mycroft's cheekbone with the tip of his nose, eyes closed.
"I will always regret hurting you," Mycroft answered as they removed the rest of their clothing. Gregory sat on the bed and tugged him down, the two of them moving to lie on their sides facing one another, their mutual arousal obvious in their nakedness.
"I'm all right," Greg said. The conviction in his words was echoed by the expression on his face and the look in his dark brown eyes. "I promise, Mycroft. I'm alive, against all the odds, and it's because of you. I don't regret the pain, love. I don't regret the scars. I want you. I need you."
Mycroft bit back unwanted and unbidden tears, burying his face against Gregory's shoulder so as not to show them, and he wrapped the man in his arms. Their legs tangled together, warm and moving and vital. After a couple of steadying breaths, Mycroft kissed the curve of Gregory's clavicle, his lips following the arc of Gregory's throat to his roughly stubbled chin. Their hands moved on each other's bodies, slow and intense, as though they were seeking out the bones beneath the flesh.
Mycroft wanted to burn this memory into his own body, fearful of what might happen in the next few days, afraid of what he might lose. His teeth tugged at Gregory's earlobe and Gregory gasped and writhed against him, his cock pressing against Mycroft's in the cup of his groin, both of them hard and fever-hot.
"I want to feel you inside me," Mycroft whispered, his voice rough with his desire. If they died -- if this was all they would ever have -- Mycroft wanted to feel everything, to let Gregory in, to give him his body at its most vulnerable.
"God, yes." Gregory's voice was nearly a growl, and he rolled Mycroft onto his back, his dear weight upon Mycroft's body, more desired than anything else Mycroft had ever known. How had he come to love this man so much, after so short a time? He'd known him only a very few years. It was unthinkable, but Mycroft could no longer fight it any more than he could still his own beating heart.
They untangled for a moment, and soon Gregory's slicked fingers were gently pressing into him, opening him as he gave himself to his lover. Mycroft's breath caught, and he groaned, loving the sensation and needing more. Gregory was careful, moving slowly, and Mycroft begged him for more, breathless and desperate. "I love you, My," Gregory whispered, panting. "I want to feel you around me. God, you're so tight on my fingers. I want to make this last."
Mycroft hardly noted the shortening of his name, not caring when it came to Gregory. All he wanted was to join with the man, to be one with him in the most base and sublime manner possible. "Yes, now, please," he gasped. He wrapped one leg around Gregory's hip as his lover's fingers slid out of his body, barely breathing as he felt Gregory's cock enter him, filling him with a slow ache that sent deep, diffuse pleasure through his entire body. He'd had so many lovers over the ages he'd lived, but this was pleasure of a kind he'd not had in thousands of years, lying with someone he truly loved, someone he cared about with such breathtaking depth.
Gregory moved, skin sliding on damp skin, and Mycroft shattered, crying out with need and passion and desire. He clung to Gregory, shaking as they made love with devastating intensity. Gregory was panting, his hips rocking slowly as he moved in and out of Mycroft's body, eyes closed, his face suffused with need and bliss. He whispered words into Mycroft's ears that were barely heard, and not understood beyond the immense, oceanic emotion in them. Nothing mattered but this. Nothing could touch them here, in the circle of their embrace. Mycroft moved with him, throwing his head back and forth on the pillow, unable to control his body as he succumbed to the intensity of his pleasure and his love.
They kissed again, over and over, open-mouthed and desperate. The animal sounds they made filled the soft, warm space between them. Mycroft whispered unplanned, unintended words that sparked and bound them together. Their consummation was a twining of two souls, not the mere satiation of a momentary physical desire. Mycroft felt its weight, and hoped that Gregory understood it as well. The spell touched strange, profound tides of fate and destiny between them. Gregory moaned and breathed in the fragments of indigo light like shared smoke from a cigarette, his mouth covering Mycroft's gently.
The slow, slick friction of Gregory's cock moving inside him made Mycroft shudder with pleasure. His entire body responded to Gregory's touch, and the sound of his panting breath. The warm rush of it in Mycroft's ear sent a thin, electric current down his spine; intense desire shivered his muscles and left him light-headed, his pleasure building in him like pressure in the cavern within his ribs as Gregory's movements sped and intensified.
Gregory sucked at Mycroft's throat, his mouth hot and demanding. Blunt teeth scraped Mycroft's skin and he felt Gregory's thick, strong fingers digging into the muscles of his back and shoulders. Mycroft heard himself groan, the sound more raw and primal than he could imagine. He gasped Gregory's name over and over like a mantra, the power of it filling his chest the way Gregory's cock filled his body.
"Come for me, love. I want to feel you," Gregory murmured, his voice rough and sweet as wet sand on a tropical beach. The words triggered something in him, and Mycroft's orgasm blew through him like thunder, rumbling and fathomless, and the broken sound he made shuddered in his throat, dissolving him into lightning and bliss.
Gregory's movement continued, hard and deep, and he moaned and shook as Mycroft came. His breath came harsh and sharp, and he thrust even harder and more quickly as Mycroft's body went lax beneath him, finally coming himself. Mycroft's name was on his lips, before all movement ceased and they held one another, trembling and gasping for breath, their skin wet with their sweat and Mycroft's semen.
It took many minutes before either of them was capable of speech. Mycroft's half open eyes regarded his lover's sweat-slick skin and damp, greying hair, appreciating the man's beauty with astonishment. How had this happened to him, he wondered. In the midst of his post-coital bliss, he remembered that he'd spoken the words of a binding spell, and and his breath caught.
"You all right?" Gregory asked, seeing the unguarded look on Mycroft's face.
Mycroft tried swallowing but his mouth was dry. He licked his lips. "I… Gregory, I'm afraid I've done something unintentional." His heart thundered in his chest.
Gregory nodded. "I felt it. I saw the sparks when I breathed them in."
"Then you know--"
"That we're bound together now, on some kind of a… a spiritual level, maybe. Yeah." He didn't seem upset. On the contrary, there was a slight smile curving his lips. "After all that's happened, Mycroft, I'm okay with that. I'm… I don't think it would have worked if I didn't want it to. I can feel it in here, vibrating between us." He rested one warm, broad palm over Mycroft's heart. Mycroft covered it with one of his own and twined their fingers, his eyes locked with Gregory's. Somewhere within him, the pounding of his heart had turned to an almost disbelieving sense of wonder. "I have some idea of what we're facing in the next few days, and this gives me something more to fight for. Something personal. And, yeah, I do love you. I think I have for a while, even when I didn't know you cared about me at all." He nuzzled Mycroft's face, closing his eyes. "I wanted you to see me, even though I thought I wasn't anything to you but Sherlock's convenient minder. I never could have imagined this." Warm lips caressed the arc of Mycroft's cheekbone, making him shiver.
"Imagined what?" Mycroft asked.
"You," Gregory answered, his eyes opening again. The tip of his nose pressed gently against Mycroft's, both of their heads resting on the pillow together. "Lying here with you, feeling like this. Being in love with you, and having you return it. You were always so distant. Untouchable. I never really let myself imagine it because it felt impossible. Why should I ever even hope for something I could never have?"
Mycroft didn't speak, but moved his head just enough to kiss his lover, lips and tongue moving slowly together. Gregory's eyes closed, but Mycroft's remained open just a fraction, watching the man's face. There had to be something he could do, some way they could turn the tide. He couldn't lose Gregory. Not now. Mycroft reached out and pulled Gregory on top of him, holding him with all his strength.
Greg barely had time to wake before he and Mycroft were summoned to the war council. He'd hoped they would at least have a chance to spend a little while in one another's arms, but he'd been warned things were going to be moving fast.
"Our reports from the Boreas gate are very disturbing," Taran said, once everyone was assembled. The moving images of the battle outside the Golden Court were in full spectral display on the table between them.
"Have the soul-traps been relocated there already?" Mycroft asked, alarmed. Greg hadn't thought it was possible for Sralthan to move that quickly, from what had been said yesterday.
Taran shook her head. "A handful of the Gems have been sent. They have sworn to succeed in its destruction, or die trying. But Sralthan has summoned the korybantes. Soon, the box canyon will not be a canyon at all, and ea's entire army will have access to the gate. They will arrive in short order, without that barrier to restrain them."
Jiang-Li rubbed her face with both palms. "We have to stop them. It's bad enough with only a few people able to access the place at a time, but this? This is a disaster."
"Even dragonfire has little effect on the korybantes," Mycroft said, his voice a quiet aside in Greg's ear, and Greg went cold at the thought. "Their work will cut at least a day from Sralthan's timeline, possibly more."
"Our troops are on the move," the naga general told him, "all we can spare from the efforts here. They were dispatched last night, but they may arrive too late to be of any use. Only the dragons and the lyraa will be able to move fast enough."
"The other morlissans will be here in a few hours," Taran answered. "They can be sent as well, T'sani." The naga nodded. "It will take several hours to get them to the gate, even traveling as quickly as they're able."
Mycroft raised a finger. "If Nemeoth carries me, I can get to the Boreas gate within the hour, Star-Born."
"By yourself? For what?" Greg shook his head. "You're not going alone, Mycroft."
"To attempt to put a halt to the korybantes. Nemeoth isn't exactly no one, Gregory." Mycroft tilted an eyebrow at him. "We can certainly defend ourselves if necessary."
The entire room fell into a chaos of contradictory opinions. Greg took Mycroft by one arm. "Going in just you and the dragon is mad. You need more backup than that. You know how dangerous all this is, even just with Sralthan. I don't know what these korybantes things are, but it doesn't sound any good to me at all."
"And what would you suggest, Gregory?" Mycroft gestured to the discussion going on around them. "I need to see what's going on for myself. I need to know if I can keep them from opening the canyon to Sralthan's armies, which would at least allow us a better chance of success if -- when ea does arrive with the soul-traps."
"You can't just bind us together like you did last night, then go waltzing off by yourself to get killed," Greg snapped. "What in bloody hell are you thinking?"
"Maybe," Jiang-Li said to Greg, "if all three of us go, you and I can gate them somewhere."
Greg looked between Jiang-Li and Mycroft. "I haven't much practice at making gates, but that might work."
"Perhaps," Mycroft agreed, though he sounded skeptical.
"It sounds worth an attempt, at least," Taran said, nodding. "But if you're not able, you must return at once. I won't see the three of you injured or killed in this attempt. We need all of you far too much." She gestured Arfas to her side. "When you return, Gregory, I'll have the scrolls with the spells and sigils Boreas used when he originally created the gate. They will be in your chambers." Arfas nodded and scurried from the room, shedding a few tiny scarlet leaves as ea ran. "Go, and return quickly."
The three of them kitted themselves out with clothing against the cold and wet, and masks and goggles against the wind, then met Nemeoth at the top of the tower. "Korybantes," Nemeoth said, as they mounted up. "Very tough. There is no burning them."
Nemeoth flew faster than their own wings could have taken them. Greg's initial ride on dragonback had been so shocking he'd forgotten he could fly on his own, and that even if he'd fallen he was in no real danger, but he wouldn't have been able to follow at that speed. He was grateful for the leather coat, and the face protection as the rain lashed at them. Greg was tucked between Mycroft and Jiang-Li on Nemeoth's back, and he held on to Mycroft's waist, looking over his shoulder as they flew.
They took only two gates as they traveled to the box canyon. After the second gate, the weather had calmed, but the wind still whipped by, chilling Greg's flesh and leaving him shivering. Their trip was longer than Greg had expected, but eventually they were circling above the canyon. Below, Greg could see dryadae, several ard-fiadh, and a couple of obviously supervisory vorren. There were lyraa in the sky above the canyon, but they kept a fearful distance from Nemeoth.
Then there were the beings that had to be the korybantes. They looked a bit like centaurs, but they were stranger than that. Their skin was grey and reflective, mirror-bright, like hematite, and Greg thought they might be made of stone. They all had one huge eye in the center of their foreheads, and they were lion-maned. Each of them held spears or javelins of some sort in one hand, and their tips glittered like diamonds in the wet light. They moved together in groups of four. There were a few dozen of them, at Greg's quick glancing count.
Their dance shook the land, and their hooves thundered, even through the wind in Greg's ears. That slow, circling dance was flattening the earth and stone of the canyon's walls. "They're the sons of Sekhmet," Mycroft shouted over the wind, as Nemeoth strafed the troops on the ground with sulfurous black fire. "They can only be wounded with a lightning blade."
Some of the ground troops were hit, though the group scattered quickly when Nemeoth was sighted. One unfortunate lyraa hadn't been able to move fast enough when the dragon dived, and fell from the sky in flames. The korybantes ignored the raging fire around them and danced on.
"There are too many to take on like this," Jiang-Li called out. "Even with covering fire, we won't be able to gate them all right now. If we dismounted, we wouldn't last five minutes."
Mycroft nodded. "Agreed."
Nemeoth made one last strafing run and turned, flying swiftly for the gate.
"We can't stop them," Jiang-Li said, addressing the war council still dressed in her wet riding clothes. Greg and Mycroft stood with her, equally soaked from the storm. Greg was freezing, his teeth clenched, trying not to shiver.
Mycroft nodded his agreement. "At this rate, Sralthan will arrive early tomorrow and be able to assemble the mechanism by late that day or early the next. Our only hope is that the Gems intercept the caravan, or that we are able to disrupt the process once it arrives, rather than attempting to contain the gate in a bottleneck."
T'sani, the naga, traced scaly fingertips along the edge of the map table. "If we divert any more troops from the defense, the city will fall. The accessible gates for troop movement are overloaded anyway."
The dryad commander spoke, a linden tree with gold-green leaves. "If we cannot stop Sralthan, this city will be the least of our worries."
"I know, Peran," Taran said, her eyes tight and grim. "With this in mind, I believe we should order all but the barest defense perimeter troops out to the site of the gate. Civilian evacuation will begin immediately. Should Sralthan succeed despite all our efforts, we will need every hand, every spear, and every arrow at our disposal at the Boreas gate. The chaos that will be released upon the gate's opening will overwhelm Sralthan and ea's army, and we will be all that stands between our world and annihilation."
She turned to Greg, ignoring the uneasy discussion between her generals, and the slow rumble of thunder in the distance. "I've provided the materials from Boreas for your study. You, Mycroft, and Jiang-Li should spend today going over them, then try to rest tonight. First, however, you need dry clothing and something hot to drink. I've sent Laris to see to those details. Your quarters should be prepared for you."
"Thank you, Star-Born," Greg said, and the three of them bowed and left, dismissed.
The brief hot shower in their quarters, shared with Mycroft, was bliss, and there was actual British tea waiting for them once they were warm, dry, and dressed. Jiang-Li joined them shortly afterward, her straight black hair still damp. She sipped at a mug of hot cocoa, her body wrapped in a thick red wool jumper, as they opened the scrolls and notebooks Taran had provided. Greg stared blankly at the glyphs and sigils, trying to process the complexity of it all.
"Never seen anything like this," Jiang-Li said.
"How am I supposed to make heads or tails of it?" Greg asked, though he'd seen a few of them before, on the gate itself. The images glowed and spun before his eyes, twisting and interlocking in ways he didn't understand.
Mycroft poured more tea into Greg's cup. "Begin with the pieces that make sense," he said. "It should fit together in your mind like a jigsaw puzzle. If you are as powerful as your progenitor said, you will be able to understand it if you simply allow the sigils to flow. This may, however, take some time."
Jiang-Li set her mug on the table next to a half-open scroll. "Time we don't have."
"No pressure," Greg grumbled. "Just the entire bloody fabric of existence in peril."
"You're not the type to appreciate pretty lies, kid," Jiang-Li answered.
Greg sighed. "Yeah, you're right. I'm also not the type to deny when I'm in over my head and I need help. Tolerating Sherlock's more than enough evidence of that."
"That's why we're here, Gregory." Mycroft lay one warm, slender hand on his wrist. Greg looked up into his blue, blue eyes and knew he had no choice. He couldn't fail the man.
"Right enough." He dug through the pile of scrolls and diagrams and notes until he found the one that looked like it might be the one at the center of the web that glowed and shimmered in his mind. "Let's start here."
It was well after midnight before Greg even began to understand, and to piece the puzzle together. The three of them had discussed several of the more complex items, and theorized about others, though most of it was still thoroughly confusing for all of them.
"I think it makes some sense this way," Greg said, laying out several of the sigils in a pattern on the table before them, the curled edges of the scrolls weighted down with random decorative items from the shelves. "It's like I can feel the energy flowing between them when they're arranged like this. I know it's only fragments, but --"
Mycroft nodded. "It's the first time you've dealt with anything this intricate, Gregory."
"The only time," Greg sighed. His head ached and his eyes were dry and scratchy; he rubbed them slowly with one palm, but it didn't ease the discomfort.
"Neither of us are doing any better with it," Jiang Li added. "The others wouldn't have…" She lowered her eyes for a moment and shook her head. "You and I are all that's left, Greg. This," she gestured to the piles of documents, notes, and diagrams on the table before them, "is what remains of the legacy of the way openers.
"The fact you're sensing something in this pattern is a positive development," Mycroft said. "We didn't have that an hour ago."
Greg shook his head. "I'm too bloody slow, Mycroft. I'll never figure this out in time." The thought only made his head throb more. A tightness in his chest joined the chorus of his body's objections to the entire situation. "Everyone is going to die if I can't pull this together."
Mycroft stood, stretching slightly, and stepped behind Greg, rubbing one shoulder gently. Greg sighed at his touch. "I'm not going to ply you with platitudes. The situation is dire, and everyone knows this. But you are still alive, despite the immense odds against you." Mycroft's hand tightened slightly. "I'm hoping this trend will continue. For what it's worth, I do believe in you."
"I'm still alive because you risked your life to pull my arse out of the fire, twice."
Mycroft arched an eyebrow at him. "Does this not suggest something to you?"
"That I'm hopeless?"
Mycroft gave him a pinched frown. "You know better than that."
The tightness in Greg's chest snapped into sharp focus and he turned in his chair, wrapping his arms around Mycroft's waist and burying his face in the man's chest. Mycroft slowly combed his fingers through Greg's hair and held him, just standing there for several minutes. Finally, Greg heard Jiang Li shift slightly, uncomfortable but not wanting to interrupt. "Sorry," Greg said quietly, without raising his face.
"No, it's all right. I understand, believe me. If I had somebody to wrap my arms around right now, I'd probably be doing it too."
Greg sighed and shook his head, pulling himself unwillingly from Mycroft's embrace. "I want to try something," he said.
"What do you have in mind?" Mycroft asked.
Standing, Greg reached down and picked up one of the sigils on the table. "I want to try putting bits of this together here. I don't know for sure if it'll work, but maybe we can have some of the structure in place before we get to the gate."
"It's a sound idea," Mycroft said, nodding.
Jiang-Li nodded as well. "It would save time, and some effort. These sigils, they're only ink on paper, but gates are infused into items all the time, ready to be opened. Admittedly, they're almost always created at the point you want to leave from, but there are temporary mobile gates. Trying to destroy or permanently seal a gate is different, but I think it's worth a shot."
"We're going to have to destroy it," Greg said. "If there's a gate, somebody somewhere will eventually be able to open it. If it's not Sralthan, it'll be someone else. Sralthan's just the most immediate threat."
"We're going to have to modify a good deal of this." Mycroft traced one finger over lines inked in indigo and raised beads of gold.
Greg watched the slow movement of Mycroft's hand. "I know. That's why I want to try some of it here first. At least if it blows up in my face, nobody's going to die because I made a mistake."
"Let's get started then," Jiang-Li said.
Chapter 16: The Fury and the Mire
They'd spent the next day and a half sleepless, slowly building pieces of the construct Greg had seen in his mind as he studied the sigils and Boreas's notes. All three of them were exhausted, but too wired to even consider resting, by the time Taran came for them.
"Nemeoth is waiting," she said. "The Gems failed in their attempt to disrupt the caravan. The korybantes have opened the canyon and Sralthan will arrive with the soul-traps in the late afternoon, but the morlissans are in place and encouraging the seed as quickly as they are able. The dragons are gathering. Our armies are arriving ahead of schedule, but they will not have enough time to rest before battle is engaged." Greg huffed out a harsh breath, trying to expel some of the panic that had been gathering in his chest like angry wasps. "Are you ready?"
Mycroft and Jiang-Li looked to him. Greg nodded. "No choice, really, is there?"
"No," Taran said, shaking her head. "Choose your armour wisely. We will give you as much support as we can, but you are what stands between Sralthan and the gate, Gregory. Whether we stand or fall depends upon you."
Greg closed his eyes and shivered. "I know," he whispered. He licked dry lips and looked back up at Taran. "I'll try to do you honour, Star-Born."
She touched his cheek with one night-black hand. "Whatever happens next, Gregory, you have already done so. I could not have asked for more. Go, with my blessing." The lapis pendant at her throat glowed with a dim, blue light, and Greg's chest loosened, his panic easing. "And you, Jiang-Li, as well." Taran took Jiang-Li's hand for a moment. Then she turned to Mycroft. "Fight well, old friend," she said. "Guard them both as best you can."
"I shall," Mycroft said, taking her hand and touching it to his lips before she left them.
"Right, then," Jiang-Li said, taking her up her staff from where it leaned against the wall. "I'll see you shortly on the rampart."
And then Greg and Mycroft were alone. "We must hurry, Gregory."
Greg nodded but reached out and took Mycroft's hand. "If this doesn't--" He shook his head and pulled Mycroft into his arms for a moment, then kissed him and looked into his eyes.
Mycroft caressed Greg's cheek. "I know," Mycroft murmured. He pressed his lips to Greg's, then turned away. "Let's go."
The land around the gate was a shambles when they arrived. Greg's eyes widened behind his goggles as he surveyed the mess from dragonback, circling above a vast, rubble-strewn field of mud and the broken corpse of a forested mountainside. "Oh, Christ," he murmured. He could feel Mycroft and Jiang-Li's bodies tense, before and behind him on Nemeoth's broad back. The korybantes were arrayed below them in an arc around the stark stone cliff that contained the gate, with the armies of Taran and her allies arriving in the distance. The rain blurred everything in his field of vision.
Off to the west, a tiny group of morlissans were surrounded by part of Sralthan's army, the entire area lit up with magical shields and the brilliant green spark of a growing seed in the center of their small, vulnerable circle. Even knowing they were on his side, they made Greg uneasy. He felt the ghost of Sralthan's burning touch, just looking at them.
Sralthan eaself was near the gate, with eas troops building a structure there in the thick of the fighting. Greg could see a heavily fortified caravan carrying the line of glowing soul-traps making its slow way toward that central point.
"There has to be a way to get them away from the gate," Jiang-Li shouted, above the roar of the wind and beating wings in their ears.
Mycroft turned his face over his shoulder as Nemeoth banked and glided into a spiral above the site. "The armies will draw them out. There's little the four of us can do right now."
"Can we land on the cliff above them?" Greg asked.
"It is not safe yet," Nemeoth responded. "There is not enough height to protect you from danger."
"But we have to get down there to get things started," Greg objected. "We can't do anything from up here."
Mycroft reached back and his hand closed around Greg's knee. "We have to stay alive long enough to begin. We'll have to wait until the armies engage with the korybantes. It should happen within the hour."
"And what will we do until then, sit on our bloody thumbs?" There was work to be done, and Greg desperately wanted to get to it. "I know it's dangerous, but we don't have time, or any guarantee of safety anyway."
Jiang-Li shifted her weight behind him and leaned forward slightly. "I hate to say it, but I agree with him."
"We're here, Mycroft. We have to do something!"
Nemeoth banked away from the cliff again. "I shall not land yet. We have come too far to lose this to impatience."
"Taran knows we need a clear space to work," Mycroft added. "The right time is approaching. Just have a little more patience. I know you're exhausted, Gregory, but we must wait a little longer." Greg made an angry, frustrated noise and rested his forehead against Mycroft's shoulder.
"Do not argue with dragons," Nemeoth growled.
"I argue with him all the time," Greg snapped, tightening his hand on Mycroft's arm.
There was a rumble Greg could feel through his whole body, in Nemeoth's answering, humorless laugh. "Even the Magus is not a dragon."
Greg watched with despair as a company of dryadae began pushing a wedge through the chaos below, pulling the korybantes out of their arc and trying to split their line. The battle was vicious, even with air support from the lyraa. Sralthan's guards slaughtered the dryadae, and lyraa fell from the sky like the rain. Inch by inch, the company moved closer to the gate, and Greg wanted desperately to help somehow. He tore his eyes away and pressed his face against the back of Mycroft's shoulder, terrified of what would happen when they touched down.
"Focus on the sigils," Mycroft told him, shouting through the wind and the rain. "Use this time to build or reinforce what you can before we land."
Greg reached for Mycroft's hand and their fingers intertwined. He held on tight and forcibly pulled his mind out of its spiral of panic and into the intricate maze of the Boreas documents, letting the shapes glow behind his eyes. The power of them was stronger here, closer to the gate, and he could feel the force of them growing, the patterns starting to slide into place in a way they didn't at the castle in Feldspar. It was as though the land was reaching out to him, pushing to manifest the energies. It would be better with the soil beneath his feet, better when he could touch the stone of the gate, he knew this in his bones. He could feel it, as though the gate itself was willing him to succeed.
Time melted away in the intricacy of the burgeoning designs. He was shaken from the blazing patterns when Nemeoth landed, jarring Greg out of his focus and back into the cold reality of soaking rain and screams and the shuddering earth beneath the massive battle going on around him. He pushed his mask down from his mouth and nose so he could get a deeper breath. His feet touched the ground and Greg's body hummed and vibrated with the energy of the nearby gate. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck rose, and he shivered. He ducked a volley of incoming arrows, sheltering behind Nemeoth's great body. The dragon roared and sent a gout of black flame toward the archers, who shouted and scattered before regrouping.
The cliffside stood before them, with troops and the giant, vegetal form of Sralthan blocking their way. Behind them, the caravan with the soul traps drew nearer. Greg could see their eerie glow through the dim light and the pouring rain. "We'll have to fight our way in," Jiang-Li said. She slammed her staff into the muddy earth with a shouted word, sparks flying from her lips, and Greg could feel a wave of energy blast from the point of impact in a sharp wedge, pushing toward Sralthan, forcing a path through the mass of bodies as the wave threw combatants aside.
Nemeoth moved into the breach, his flame widening the gap, but Sralthan raised ea's tendrils and ea's acid voice spoke light-flecked words, instantly raising a blood-red shield of energy between them. Jiang-Li's push and Nemeoth's flame both beat uselessly upon the glowing arc. The backlash of them hit Greg's skin as he raised one wet arm to protect his face, the heat of the flame intense; he could smell scorched hair and leather through the sulfurous fumes. Steam rose from his clothing where it had been exposed to the intense heat, and he shivered, squinting behind his goggles.
The chaos of the battle grew around him, pressing closer once again, and Mycroft was already flinging himself at a group of combatants who were rallying, charging Greg and Jiang-Li even under the protective wing of the great dragon. Mycroft cut two of them down with a single vicious stroke, his tawny wings spread and moving to balance him in his swirling attack. Greg dodged one of the attackers, tripping her into the mud as he moved and landing a savage kick to the side of her armoured head. His own wings burst from his back, saving him from a tumble as she grappled one of his legs. Greg summoned his sword and drove it down through her back, severing her spine with a blow; she shrieked and died, spasming in the muck. He tried not to think about having just killed someone.
Jiang-Li paid little attention to the battle, focused almost completely on trying to get them closer to Sralthan's shield and the gate. She lashed out with her staff, chanting something Greg couldn't hear. Arcs of power like lightning flashed from the painted wood, knocking their assailants back as Greg, Mycroft, and Nemeoth fought to give her space to work. A rain of arrows fell upon them, and Nemeoth sheltered them. Most of them bounced from his leathery, armoured flesh, but some penetrated, sticking out like quills from his huge, black wings. The dragon roared and shook his wings, turning teeth and claws upon their attackers. Greg, Mycroft, and Jiang-Li threw themselves out of the way of their massive defender as he charged. The troops before them parted, also trying to dodge the charge, and the three of them ran in the dragon's wake, advancing several meters before Sralthan's defenders rallied again.
Even as Greg moved, he could feel the energies of the gate seeping into his body through the muddy, broken land. Tendrils of energy spiralled up his legs and along his torso like lines of light on his skin. He reached out to it, tugging on the threads of it, and the designs in his head spun and whirled, their complexities nearly blinding him to the physical realities of the battle around him.
The land beneath him rumbled and shook as the korybantes regrouped, their voices chanting as they danced, deep and resonant as drums. The sound beat on Greg's skin, rattling his teeth and echoing through the chamber of his chest. It was like being in front of massive columns of speakers at a rock concert, and just as deafening. Gasping for breath under the thundering sonic assault, he could smell mud and blood and mangled vegetation all around him; he reached into that to try to ground himself. They inched closer to the gate, with Nemeoth pushing forward, gusting black fire with each breath. As Greg and his companions advanced, so did the caravan of soul traps, growing ever closer.
Mycroft fought a furious defense, covering Greg as best he could while Jiang-Li and Nemeoth forced their advance. The power that overshadowed Jiang-Li's frame surged and blazed like flame in the chaos, lighting up the area around her as waves of it threw smaller combatants aside. Despite their best efforts, the Korybantes were coming together again, blocking the way to the gate.
Sralthan saw Greg and ea's face twisted into a horrifying mockery of a grin; ea laughed and ea's eyes rose above Nemeoth's broad wings to the approaching soul traps. "Let them come!" Sralthan gestured and the troops before ea parted. "I know your Name, I shall still have you!" Greg hesitated but Nemeoth charged forward, roaring, his massive fangs bared. Greg stumbled after him, undignified but determined, staying close to his escorts. He could feel the soul traps moving closer, and the power of the Boreas gate thrumming in his bones.
"Gregory Alan Lestrade, come to me," Sralthan roared. Greg felt nothing in response; no swirl of magic hooked into him, no connection, no stabbing pain. There was nothing. Greg grinned, just for a moment. Sralthan's face shifted to feral confusion. "You, why do you not respond? You are not one of the Nameless."
Lyraa swooped down, attempting a bombing run on the soul traps, but a wave of them were shot from the sky by Sralthan's archers with a volley of flaming arrows. The lyraa fell, their screams the sound of terrified hawks. Above them, more dragons soared into view, strafing Sralthan's troops and growing closer to Greg's company. He saw the tiny, brilliantly hued bodies of the Gems leaping from their backs down into the fray, blowguns spitting darts as they fell.
And then, on the back of a large, red dragon, Greg saw Taran approaching, her banners flying above her, snapping in the wind. Sralthan's attention turned toward her, and ea began gathering power, chanting acid syllables as the ard-fiadh drew in close about ea. Their rusted voices joined the chant, sparks gathering like swarms of fireflies around the group. Taran raised one hand and gestured, and a bolt of lapis blue power leaped from her fingers down into the caravan of soul traps below. The explosion, even at a distance, threw Greg and Mycroft and Jiang-Li from their feet. Only their wings kept them out of the blood-drenched mud. Rubble and bodies flew through the air and Greg ducked as Nemeoth raised a sheltering wing to cover them.
When Greg could see the caravan again in Taran's wake, he saw energy sparkling along the crazed lines of cracks in several of the spheres. He could feel them more clearly now, the fury of the riven souls of the other way openers within their prisons, desperate for release. Jiang-Li turned her face toward them, obviously feeling it as well, and she cried out in triumph, sending a surge of power toward the nearest of the globes, opening the strange material with her will.
"Yes!" she shouted, and a brilliant violet light burst from the opened globe.
It didn't disperse. The blaze of violet light spun and shot toward Greg, faster than he could perceive it. He felt, rather than saw the impact, as the soul of the murdered way opener merged with him, leaving him blinded by a sudden, brilliant burst of knowledge. Thousands of years of experience and identity overwhelmed him and he dropped to his knees with a raw shout of shock. The icy power of the unfettered soul burned into him.
He heard Mycroft call his name, but it barely registered through the chaos in his mind. The patterns of the Boreas sigils became clearer, their pieces slotting into place more quickly than before. Greg staggered to his feet and pushed his way toward Sralthan and the gate, barely conscious of his companions and the battle raging around him, his body drawn inexorably toward the increasingly clear void between dimensions.
Moments later, Greg was struck again, then again, by swirling streams of violet light. Voices in his head struggled to be heard, screaming and shouting for attention as he fought to stay on his feet and keep moving. He gasped, trying to remember to breathe as more and more souls joined with his own. The Boreas sigils snapped into perfect clarity and Greg understood it all -- the brilliance of it, the complexity, the absolute fractal intricacy of it all. He wondered, for just a moment, if this is what Mycroft felt like all the time. He looked up, the huge vegetal mass of Sralthan's body filling his sight.
Around him, the korybantes were dancing troops into the earth, their hematite bodies glistening in the rain. Dragons and lyraa flew overhead, raining death upon the battle below. Sralthan reached out toward Greg as Jiang-Li opened the path before him, and Mycroft and Nemeoth fought to stay between him and everything seeking to kill him. Mycroft was battered and bloody, fighting for his own life as well as Greg's, and Nemeoth threw himself into Sralthan's tendril arms, breathing black fire as the two giant beings fought. Both of them screamed, the sound deafening Greg to the clamour of the battle. His ears echoed and rang; his mind swirled with thoughts not his own.
More of Taran's troops advanced into the gap opened by Jiang-Li and the wake of the way openers' souls. Greg raised a hand to wipe rain and mud and blood from his goggles, only to find that his flesh was glowing with the violet light of the souls inside him. His breath was violet light, swirling around him. Greg saw what he needed to do and stopped moving forward, instead reaching into the place where gates are born, and pulled forth the mist. It blossomed from the air then exploded around him, blinding his enemies, and he stepped into it. A breath later, he stood at the base of the cliff that contained the Boreas gate, Mycroft and Jiang-Li by his side. He could see the furious form of Stralthan towering above them, entangled with Nemeoth's writhing, scaled shape.
Greg's hand slapped the stone, pushing his energy into the pattern that Boreas had wrought so long ago. "Help me," he shouted, hoping that Mycroft and Jiang-Li could hear him through the chaos. Mycroft stepped closer, his back pressed to Greg's as he sheltered him from the fighting. Jiang-Li grabbed Greg's free hand and, with the physical contact, Greg could feel his control of the power he touched and the souls within him solidifying.
The bindings on the gate unknotted as Greg traced the patterns, blind and deaf to everything but the brilliant lines of light and energy. They spun and spiralled away from him, reaching out to the battlefield, pulling as they had been designed to from their inception. It was as though Greg had opened a gate into the black vacuum of space, and he dug his feet into the muck, bracing one of them against the stone of the cliff to keep himself steady as wind and mist whipped around him. He shouted the words of the formulae, rainbow sparks flying and drifting in the currents of power.
Error, the voices in his head shouted. Weakness. Greg's energies blended with the sigils and he saw what the voices pointed out, the flaw in Boreas's design. Lightning and mist coalesced around him as he used the knowledge of the other way openers, and he felt his progenitor's presence nearby, lending him strength. The vortex of power began pulling at Sralthan's troops. Some of the dancing korybantes began to be dragged toward the vast and widening gap created by the sigils.
In only a moment, the gate tipped into the point of no return. There was no closing it again until the task for which it had been created was complete. A howling, shrieking wind rose around them, and Mycroft and Jiang-Li pressed closer, trying to remain stable against the violence of the storm. Beings of all descriptions tumbled past them as Greg held the three of them in place in the midst of the fury. Armies were decimated in the chaos, bodies and weapons flying through the air, and Greg had no idea what would survive when the gate was closed. Sralthan struggled to stay on ea's feet, rooting eaself into the mud, but Nemeoth's claws dug into ea's mossy bark and the powerful beating of his wings tore the morlissan from the soil and flung them both into the howling air, toward the fissure in reality.
"Nemeoth!" Greg screamed, his voice lost in the wind as the dragon and the morlissan tumbled through the gate. Nothing could come out of that gap. No being who fell in could ever be allowed to return, because that would mean everything imprisoned within could escape. His heart breaking, Greg pulled on the knots, dragging the ragged edges of the chasm closed. Before he sealed it, Greg changed one of the sigils, pushing and twisting with everything in him.
There was silence.
Greg passed out.
Chapter 17: After-Silence on the Shore
The sudden cessation of the storm staggered Mycroft and he stumbled as Gregory fell. Flinging one arm about the man, he dropped to his knees, barely managing to save him from ending up on his face in the blood-churned mud of the battlefield. Jiang-Li reached out quickly, grabbing Mycroft by one shoulder and keeping him from tumbling as well. The three of them sank to their knees, with Gregory unconscious in Mycroft's arms.
"Is he alive?"
Mycroft nodded, seeing that Gregory still breathed. He pulled the unconscious man slightly closer. Jiang-Li took a deep breath and looked around them. "What happened to the gate?"
Mycroft raised his eyes from Gregory's mud- and blood-streaked face, casting his gaze over the now half-empty battlefield, and the mute stone cliff immediately before them. Where there had been a subtle vibration and inscribed sigils there was now… nothing. No marks on the stone beyond those of battle. No metal in the cliffside. No muted, unseen glimmer of magic. Nothing. He looked down at Greg's limp frame. "I don't know."
"We need to get him back to Feldspar." She paused. "We need to find out if the Court is still standing."
He nodded as Jiang-Li helped him lift Gregory out of the muck, both of them still in shock in the near-silence of what had, only moments ago, been a tidal wave of battle. The only sounds Mycroft could hear were the moans and subdued cries of the wounded and dying, and the still-falling rain. He looked for anything that resembled organization, but found nothing nearby. Overhead, there were ravens. He called out to them and one banked in its flight, soaring toward them; it fluttered for a moment and perched on Jiang-Li's shoulder, tilting its head to look at Mycroft.
"Taran," Mycroft said.
The raven made a quiet, guttural sound, and clacked its beak twice. "Don't know yet," it replied, its voice a rough croak. It puffed its feathers and shook itself. "What happened, too sudden. Nothing is as it was."
"We must find a safe place for him." Mycroft indicated Gregory with the tilt of his chin. The raven nodded once. It flapped heavily and launched itself back into the air. Once aloft, it called out to its comrades, and the flock of them wheeled then scattered. Mycroft looked for something at least resembling a dry place to sit as they waited the raven's return with news.
"Over here," Jiang-Li said, gesturing to a slightly less muddy piece of tree trunk. Mycroft eyed it suspiciously, but there was nothing better in the immediate vicinity. He lay Gregory carefully onto the trunk, feet dangling off one edge, while he supported the man's body in his arms. Jiang-Li sat next to him, gently removing Gregory's goggles; his flight mask dangled beneath his chin where he had pushed it aside. The pale skin around his eyes was the only part of him spared from the filth. Mycroft's eyes closed and he bowed his head, touching his forehead to Gregory's for a moment. Jiang-Li rested one hand on his back, her staff in her other hand. After a moment, her fingers moved, rubbing gently. Mycroft didn't object.
The rain still poured down upon them, and Mycroft was cold and wet. He sighed and opened his umbrella over them. Late, perhaps, but better than nothing. "That's… really an umbrella?" Jiang-Li asked.
"Among other things, yes."
Jiang-Li nodded. She tucked in closer to him for shelter from the downpour. "They're gone, aren't they?" she asked.
"The way openers?" Mycroft nodded, then looked up at her. "I believe so. I don't feel any of them here." He'd seen the violet flash of their movement, the brilliant light erupting from Gregory's body, and the explosion of power as he'd drawn the gate closed. "They may well be the only reason any of us are alive." His fingers tightened on Gregory's arm for a moment. Gregory made a small sound, his eyelids moving slightly but not opening. "Gregory?" He paused for a moment but got no response. "Greg?" Mycroft cupped Gregory's jaw in one hand, his thumb caressing the man's cheek.
Gregory moved one arm, slowly and carefully, but his hand fell limp on his chest. His eyes opened, a sliver of dark brown between dark lashes. He made a sound; his eyes closed again before he managed to form coherent words.
"Definitely not dead," Jiang-Li muttered. She took Gregory's hand. "Come on, Greg, open those eyes again. Let us know you're still in there."
"Myc…" His voice was strained and soft, and he didn't have the strength to finish the word.
"It's all right, Gregory. It's over. We're here." Mycroft took a deep breath and let it out, relief flowing through him.
Gregory's eyes opened again, slightly wider this time. "Done?"
"Yes. Done. You did well." The ultimate situation was unknown, but their primary goal had been met. That was all Gregory needed to know right now. Mycroft wanted so badly to protect him, but all he had was the air and his hands.
"What…" Gregory tried to sit up but Mycroft laid his palm on the man's chest. "Mycroft, what's happening? The battle?"
"It's over, Gregory. You're exhausted. Rest."
Gregory looked up at the umbrella above them. He shook his head. "How is this my life?" he muttered.
"What happened to the gate?" Jiang-Li asked.
"It's… I couldn't let it stay that way."
"It's gone, Gregory," Mycroft said. "Where did it go?"
Greg shifted and pressed his face to Mycroft's body for a moment. "It couldn't stay like that. Someone else would try to open it again. It would always be there."
All of them looked up as the sky darkened above them. A huge red dragon spiraled down, ravens in her wake, and Mycroft's chest loosened with relief as he saw Taran astride her. The dragon flapped her wings, setting down heavily nearby. Taran and several of the Gems dismounted, approaching quickly. "Is he all right?" Taran asked, looking at Gregory.
Gregory struggled to his feet despite Mycroft's protestations. "Star-Born." He wobbled slightly and Mycroft and Jiang-Li each put a steadying hand on him to keep him upright.
Taran reached out to him. "Come, we should return to the Court."
"It's still standing?" Jiang-Li looked at Taran and the Gems, then at the dragon.
Taran nodded. "The battle yet rages, but yes. For the moment." The three of them helped Gregory onto the back of the dragon, then mounted up themselves, while the tiny toggug all leapt up and clung to the dragon's scales. Goggles down and face masks up, Taran signalled the dragon, who leapt into the air. Mycroft held Gregory close as they flew, anxiety tight in his chest, both for the man and for the city to which they were returning.
Greg watched through a dizzy haze of exhaustion as they spiraled down over the besieged city. Toward the back the enemy's ranks were breaking, but it seemed obvious that news of Sralthan's loss at the gate was only now beginning to arrive. He wondered if the various armies would abandon the war, or if they would press on for their own reasons. Feldspar was still a prize they might want.
The scene below them was chaos, with Taran's limited remaining troops doing their best to hold off the overwhelming numbers of the attackers. He'd seen that some of her armies had survived at the gate, and knew they would return as quickly as they could. He had hope that Feldspar would hold out until the reinforcements arrived.
"We can turn this," Jiang-Li shouted, over the sound of the wind in his ears. "I think we can turn this."
The red dragon soared above the battle then swooped down to the landing space atop one of the towers, setting down heavily and crouching to allow them to dismount. Greg needed help moving, still feeling entirely like a scrambled egg after the invasion of his mind and body by the other way openers, and the strain of the gate working itself. He stumbled as his feet touched the ground, but Mycroft was there, solid and supporting him.
"Go," Taran said, waving one hand in the direction of the door as staff from the Court hurried out to meet her. "Help him get clean and warm and dry. We will all meet in your quarters, Magus. Half an hour."
Mycroft nodded and led Greg away, and Greg was thankful for the reprieve. He hadn't the ability to string thoughts together again very well yet, but hoped being warm and dry would help. Mycroft stopped one of the people in the corridor along the way and asked him to arrange for hot tea and food to be sent up to their rooms; Greg realized belatedly just how much he wanted that once he was clean and dry. "Thanks," he murmured. Mycroft just nodded in response.
When they got to their rooms, Greg dropped his mask and goggles, then stripped down with Mycroft's assistance. It wasn't until he was clean and dressed in clean clothes again that he collapsed into a chair and shook. Mycroft wrapped a blanket around him and handed him a mug with hot tea, and Greg could see his trembling in the liquid. He held the mug with both hands and rested it on one arm of the chair to minimize the shaking. He closed his eyes and focused on trying to slow his breathing, aware of Mycroft hovering nearby with a close eye on him. "I'll be all right," he said, trying to be reassuring, but his voice shook just as his hands did.
"You're still in shock," Mycroft said. He sat on the other arm of Greg's chair and gently rubbed one hand along the top of Greg's shoulders, fingertips straying into the hair on the back of his head. Greg let out a deep breath and his muscles relaxed a bit. Carefully, he lifted the mug and sipped at the hot tea.
There was a tap at the door, and Mycroft called out to enter; Taran came in, followed closely by Jiang-Li, Arfas, and Larris. Mycroft nodded and gestured for them to sit. "How are you, Gregory?" Taran asked as she seated herself. Jiang-Li sat in the chair next to hers.
"Still in shock," Mycroft finished, "but recovering."
Greg stared down into his mug. "I can speak for myself," he grumbled.
"You're a terrible liar. It's obvious you're not 'fine.'" Mycroft's fingers tightened slightly on his shoulder. Despite the comment, the gesture was reassuring.
"Right, okay," Greg admitted. "Ta for that. I'm not fine. I'm shaking like a bloody leaf. I can still hardly think."
"Do you remember what happened, Gregory?" Taran shifted in her chair.
Jiang-Li tapped a finger on the arm of her chair. "I released the souls of the other way openers from the soul traps. The souls flew toward him. I think they entered him somehow. I have no idea what happened after that. It was chaotic."
"They did," Greg said. "I didn't know what was happening at first. I'm still not sure I can sort it all." He tugged the blanket more closely about himself as he tried to think. "I don't... I'm not sure I could have done it without their help."
"And what was it you did?" Taran's voice was calm and clear. It helped Greg focus a little.
"It was… there were too many of them, all talking at once. It was like being invaded. I'm still kind of, kind of scrambled." Greg rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand. "Still trying to sort it. I know what I did. I think I know. But explaining -- I don't have all the words back yet. It's just…" He made a frustrated sound. Things were on the tip of his tongue but his mind wasn't cooperating.
"So they came to you, their souls all blended with yours?" Jiang-Li asked.
Greg nodded. "I didn't know what was happening at first. It all happened so fast, you know?" He took a slow breath and sipped his tea before speaking again, the others waiting patiently. Greg looked over at Mycroft, bruised and battered. The man needed a doctor, probably more that Greg did. He tried to focus, knowing Mycroft wasn't going to accept any attention until the debrief was finished. "There were voices. So many voices. I could see how everything fit together, could feel the lines of the sigils. Everything was sharp and clear and…" He trailed off, trying to figure out how to explain what he'd done.
"You changed something, something critical." Mycroft's voice was quiet and his fingers trailed through the hair at the nape of Greg's neck.
"Yeah. I just…" Greg traced a figure eight in the air. "You know how you twist a strip of paper and join the ends, and then you can draw one continuous line along both sides of it? A moebius strip, like that. The gate, that's what I did to it."
Mycroft's eyes widened. "Brilliant," he whispered.
"So the gate opens into itself," Taran said.
Jiang-Li nodded. "That's perfect."
"No in, no out. It doesn't exist here anymore, because there's no gate to here anymore. Anything inside can try to open it, but it only leads back to itself. We'll never have to worry about it again." Greg sipped at his tea again as Taran nodded.
"That truly is brilliant," she said. She looked at Mycroft. "And now, the three of you will be seen by the healers and you will rest."
"But the battle continues," Mycroft objected.
Taran nodded. "So it does. But this is why I have generals, Magus. You are injured, as are they," she gestured to Geg and Jiang-Li, "and you can be spared now, long enough to be treated and to sleep. It's been days since you got any proper rest."
"And you?" Mycroft asked.
"Soon enough," she said. She nodded to Arfas, who rose with a bow, and hurried from the room. "Larris, see that the Magus complies when the physicians arrive."
"Of course, Star-Born."
Mycroft didn't object, and Greg looked him over more closely now that his own responsibilities were discharged for the moment. "How badly are you hurt, Mycroft?" Greg asked.
Mycroft shrugged but didn't reply. Taran rose. "I expect your full cooperation, Mycroft." She looked at Jiang-Li. "I know you have more sense."
Jiang-Li made a humorless sound. "I'll be in my room." She rose and nodded to Taran. "If you need me for anything, let me know."
"Of course. I have things to attend to. I shall see you no sooner than tomorrow afternoon, Mycroft, unless the battle is at the castle's gates."
Taran and Jiang-Li both departed, leaving Larris hovering like an anxious puppy. "Please don't be stubborn, Magus," he said.
"I am not my brother, Larris."
Greg took a small piece of cheese from the plate of food nearby, watching, still dizzy and overwhelmed but finally convinced that it might be all right to rest.
"No, this is true. Yet you do share stubbornness as a trait, and I know that your concern for the Court may well overcome your common sense if you are not, shall we say, encouraged to comply with the Star-Born's wishes."
Mycroft opened his mouth to object, but closed it again and nodded. "That is a fair assessment."
It was over an hour before Greg and Mycroft were alone again, curled together in the warmth of a shared bed. They were both silent, holding one another carefully in consideration of injuries and exhaustion. Greg's mind was still spinning, and he tried not to dwell too much of the battle going on beyond the city's walls.
"Stop thinking," Mycroft murmured.
"You're one to talk."
Greg paused. "How many people died today? I mean, so far?"
Mycroft shook his head. "I don't know."
"You could have died. We all could have died." The thought was horrifying to contemplate. "I killed people, Mycroft. Hundreds, probably thousands of people died today because of me."
"You saved a world, Gregory. Everyone dies eventually, even dragons. Even the uncanny. All of us. But the world goes on and, today, you made that possible. Your brilliance and your efforts stopped what could have been the destruction of all life in this realm, and possibly others as well." Mycroft's fingers traced the line of Greg's stubbled jaw gently. "I am very proud, and very honored to know you."
Greg closed his eyes, not wanting anything to leak out. His chest tightened, and he took a shaky breath. "I'm just--"
"Don't finish that sentence. You are not 'just' anything. Your progenitor saw this within you -- your courage, your persistence, your heart, your resilience. You have survived so much horror recently, and you have acquitted yourself with honor. Don't diminish that. Don't diminish yourself, despite any doubts you may harbour."
"I never wanted this," Greg whispered.
"None of us ever do," Mycroft said, pressing a kiss to his forehead. "None of us ever do."
Chapter 18: Epilogue: The Only Afterlife We Know
Greg looked out over the lights of London from the top of St. Paul's. Mycroft stood by his side, one arm draped over Greg's shoulder.
"I'm going to miss this," Greg said, quiet in the darkness.
There were soft footfalls behind them. A deep voice said, "You're back."
"So are you," Greg said, turning his head to look at Sherlock. "I'm not here for long, though."
Sherlock looked him up and down with that piercing, x-ray gaze. "You regret this."
Greg shrugged. "The leaving part. London's in my blood after so many years."
Mycroft looked at his brother. "I'm glad you've returned to your work here, Sherlock. Soon enough, though, you will need to leave as well." His eyes held sadness and loss, and Greg tucked an arm around his waist, squeezing gently.
"I thought you would never let go of it all," Sherlock said. "Eternally the spider at the center of Britain's web."
"She will continue without me. We always knew this day would come."
Sherlock sighed. "It won't be the same."
"There is a life beyond this place," Mycroft murmured.
Sherlock's eyes met Mycroft's. "Your meddling will be missed."
"The gates remain open. Your presence will always be welcome, however annoying, brother mine."
"You'll come?" Greg asked.
"Greg," Greg grumbled.
Sherlock smirked. "So many changes in the six months you were gone."
"Six months here, maybe," Greg said. "I still can't quite wrap my head around it."
"That's nothing novel." Sherlock's smirk broadened.
"Likewise," Mycroft said, "nothing novel."
The smirk flattened into a tight frown and Greg chuckled.
"I'm not going to forgive you for leaving the Met," Sherlock growled.
"Poor thing, having to work with Gregson and Dimmock. I'm sure it'll put a terrible cramp in your day." Greg grinned at him, amused but still saddened by the sudden change in his life.
"Idiots, all of them. You were the best of them."
Greg tilted his head, surprised. "You really mean that."
"Since when do I ever lie about that?" Sherlock asked, affronted.
"Since any time you actually need something from somebody. You'll lie whenever you think it'll get you what you want."
Sherlock's eyes narrowed. "All right. That's usually true. But not about this. Not about the work."
"For what it's worth, I'm glad you're not dead, Sherlock." Greg leaned back slightly, into Mycroft's body.
"I'm relieved you weren't killed," Sherlock answered. "I was… concerned."
"This isn't the end, Sherlock," Mycroft reminded him.
"Sentiment, Mycroft." He looked at how the two of them were standing, Mycroft's arm around Greg's shoulder, Greg's around Mycroft's waist.
Mycroft nodded. "It was time to put that thought aside."
"You'd been alone too long." Sherlock's voice was soft and sad.
"Take care of your Doctor Watson." Mycroft reached out to his brother with one hand. Sherlock took it for a moment, in a brief acknowledgment.
"What will you do there?" Sherlock asked, looking at Greg again.
"Taran asked me to work with her security people," Greg said. "This… what I am. It's given me some advantages for… finding things, seeing things. Not like you two do, but in my own way."
Sherlock's eyes brightened. "Oh? That is interesting."
"I'm sure there will be mysteries enough for you, Sherlock," Mycroft said.
"Perhaps a visit might be arranged at some point. I'm sure you'll find yourself in over your head, as usual."
"Ta for that," Greg said, frowning.
"Oh, don't take it like that. You know what I mean."
Greg snorted. "Yeah, I love you, too, you bloody git."
Sherlock's laugh echoed in the darkness as he walked away.
Greg and Mycroft stood for a moment, regarding the city of London one last time. Finally, with a sigh, Greg said, "Right, then. Let's go home."