It took a while for Gulcasa to actually calm down and fall asleep, but Nessiah didn’t mind it. He certainly wasn’t about to fall asleep himself, after the shock of Gulcasa’s nightmare—he’d heard people talk vaguely or cry in their sleep, but never scream like that.
At least he’d managed to get Gulcasa up on the mattress without much fuss or protesting; there were faint violet shadows under his eyes that said he was worn down. Sleeping in uncomfortable places while spending all his time nursing Nessiah had probably spread him too thin.
Nessiah folded his legs beneath him and continued stroking Gulcasa’s long hair. The repetitive motion was soothing for him, and helped provide a background for his thoughts.
As soon as he’d known that Gulcasa was asleep, he’d done what he honestly should have back when he’d first arrived here, the first time he’d heard Gulcasa claim that he was a monster. Gently, with as featherlight a touch as he’d ever employed, he had examined Gulcasa’s body for traces of magical power.
It was being suppressed—probably due to Gulcasa’s own fear—but once he’d taken the time to actually look, it was easy for Nessiah to sense it. There was indeed magical power running through Gulcasa’s veins—to be specific, demon blood.
But that wasn’t so unusual for the people of this country. Nessiah closed his eyes and let his hand come to a rest in the middle of Gulcasa’s back, thumb still moving back and forth as if he were petting a cat.
Because, after all, this was the Empire. It was the only empire on the continent, so people generally called it “the Empire” rather than its proper name, Bronquia. The name Bronquia meant “land of the sleeping dragon”; legend had it that over a thousand years ago, a demon god had appeared upon these lands. Nowadays people mostly considered that to be half fairy tale, but Nessiah knew that it was true. That demon god, a great dragon called Brongaa, had contracted with a clan of humans before it had been killed by a mortal hero, and those humans had gone on to establish Bronquia, becoming its ruling body. The Imperial family, having partaken of a demon god’s blood, had been changed—they were more demon than human themselves, and were able to draw on the strength of their patriarch, becoming many times more powerful than ordinary humans and obtaining an affinity with fire.
A thousand years was a long time, though, and over that expanse, that bloodline became diluted—so much so that nowadays, just about everyone in Bronquia or with Bronquian ancestors had a little bit of demon blood in his or her veins.
And every now and then, two people with enough of a connection to the old line would marry and have children, and those children would display signs of being the ancient dragon’s descendants. In this day and age, due to tensions between this nation and others that feared that kind of power, children born with demon blood were considered unlucky, much the way that twins had been viewed a few centuries ago.
Nessiah had done quite a lot of traveling and studying in his lifetime, so he knew all of that, and knew enough to recognize the signs of Brongaa’s blood when he actually bothered to look for them.
The problem was that considering what was normal among such people, Gulcasa’s blood was unusually potent. Remembering what the people in town had said about the fire fourteen years ago, Nessiah could readily imagine what a hell it must have looked like. The same as with young mages, people with abilities like Gulcasa’s tended to have breaks in control; until they were taught how to use their power at will and make it obey them, their abilities would erupt to life in response to their owners’ fear and adrenaline in order to protect them.
And for anyone as strong as Gulcasa, that could be disastrous for any innocent bystanders.
If Gulcasa had been born in ancient Bronquia, he would have started learning from a young age at least how to ground and center himself so as to suppress his abilities before he could use them consciously. But now…
Nessiah opened his eyes as the image of the woman dressed in white floated up from his subconscious, and he reached out to place his palm against Gulcasa’s cheek.
“Let me guess,” he murmured, his voice as quiet as his breath. “Somehow or other, your parents recognized what you are, and your mother left when you were still a baby—whether that was because she feared your powers or wanted to find a way to contain them. When she didn’t return, your father grew to hate you, and you took the brunt of that. Not even understanding your abilities yourself, you had no way to predict what would happen that day, and whatever had been holding your powers in couldn’t stand up to your fear and your rage.
“And then wherever she was, your mother heard about the disaster and knew that it could only have been you, so she imprisoned you here to keep you from accidentally causing anyone else any harm.”
There was no longer any question to it. He had to get Gulcasa out of this place. There was no guarantee that another tragedy wouldn’t occur unless Gulcasa was properly trained in how to use and control his abilities, and Nessiah knew enough about Brongaa’s blood that he could at least make sure that Gulcasa knew the basics.
And eventually, if left here by himself—he would suffocate and die, crushed by his loneliness and his self-hatred. Nessiah was determined to keep that from happening.
So he sat up and waited, half-dozing and half in deep meditative thought, until Gulcasa finally awakened, shaking off sleep and sitting on the side of the bed with a subdued air hanging about him. Nessiah shifted to sit next to him.
“I’m sorry—” Gulcasa began, not looking him in the face as usual, but Nessiah reached out and rested his fingertips to Gulcasa’s lips to shut him up.
“I don’t want to hear it—you have nothing to feel sorry about. I have a proposition for you, one that I’ve been considering for a while. In a few days, once my wound has finished healing enough for me to set out—will you come with me?”
Gulcasa actually appeared to forget his shyness for a few moments, and stared—then flushed and dropped his gaze again.
“No, look at me. I don’t expect deference, and it feels too strange coming from someone of your size. Look at me—be sure that I mean the things that I’m saying.” With an expression of distinct unwillingness, Gulcasa obeyed, lifting his head to look at Nessiah indirectly.
Well, that’s something to go on, at least. We’ll work on it.
“Will you come with me?” he asked again, smiling a little. “I can take you away from here—far enough that you can forget this tower if you’re sick of the memories. And this isn’t a good environment for you.”
“—Why?” The word burst out as though Gulcasa had been straining to keep it inside, and there was a conflicted expression on his face. “Why would you—why me?”
“Well, let’s see. There are actually quite a few reasons,” Nessiah said mildly, tilting his head in a way that he knew full well made him look coquettish. “First of all, I owe you my life. I consider that to be an important debt well worth repaying, and I know that it’s cost you to spend your every waking minute waiting on my every need. I know that it’s also a change from your boredom, but you’ve been doing this for over a week now.
“After that, there’s the matter of your power. As one who studies the ways of magic, it’s my responsibility to make sure that people with special abilities like yours—whether they come from conventional magic or latent demon blood—are taught how to handle them. Gulcasa, I think you’re fully aware how dangerous you can be if you’re threatened—and while your mother’s solution of sealing you inside this tower has put off the problem, it hasn’t solved it.”
There was anxiety on Gulcasa’s face now, but Nessiah knew that he couldn’t stop. He reached out to place his hands over Gulcasa’s and squeezed them lightly, trying to speak as compassionately as possible.
“I came here, didn’t I? Priests and mages will be able to break through the enchantments on this place, and not all of them will find you as charming as I do. Robbers armed with magic, people who will see an innocent and attractive young man and want to take advantage of him, zealots who feed their egos by hunting down those with traces of inhuman blood in their veins—there are so many possibilities. And Gulcasa, your abilities have grown along with your body. Your power is much stronger now than it was fourteen years ago. If someone tries to attack you and you lose control again—other innocent people might be hurt, or you might harm yourself. Someone with experience has to teach you how to control your blood—and control it properly; your abilities are double-edged. I know enough about the source of your powers to at least get you started, and this tower is no environment to teach in.”
Gulcasa had gone pale as Nessiah spoke, and now he was looking down at their braided fingers as if he might cry. Nessiah extricated his left hand, reaching out to cup Gulcasa’s cheek and tilt his face back up.
“Even if you got away unscathed, I—I’ve seen the way you feel about your powers now. If you ever hurt someone else without intending to again—I worry that it might kill you. And I don’t want that.”
Gulcasa took a deep breath and closed his eyes as if resolving himself. Nessiah didn’t pull his hand away, but instead traced the line of Gulcasa’s cheekbone.
“Which leads me to the most important reason. I like you; I think this place is bad for you, so I want to take you away from here. I don’t like the idea of leaving and maybe never seeing you again.” He scooted a little closer to Gulcasa so that his shoulder nearly touched Gulcasa’s upper arm; when Gulcasa opened his eyes, he flinched a little in surprise at having Nessiah so close.
Nessiah did not back away. He shifted the hand on Gulcasa’s cheek to the nape of his neck, and slipped his other hand between both of Gulcasa’s, so that the redhead was clasping it as if making a vow. And as he did so, Gulcasa’s face started to redden; by the time Nessiah settled with their faces not even a foot apart, he was blushing quite vibrantly, and couldn’t look away.
“So let’s run away together,” he said quietly, and in the space between words, between breaths, Nessiah almost felt as though he could hear Gulcasa’s heart beating; it made him smile. Staring at Gulcasa so that he couldn’t mistake a single word, he leaned in softly so that they were almost nose to nose. “Elope with me.”
Gulcasa was staring at him back, those long golden eyes desperate, not quite believing.
“I—” he began uncertainly, but before he could say anything else, Nessiah leaned in to cut him off with a very light and brief kiss.
When he pulled away and sat up straight, Gulcasa’s expression had gone from desperate to poleaxed, and his face was redder than Nessiah had ever seen it.
And he stayed sitting still like that, frozen; Nessiah was just starting to wonder if he’d perhaps actually managed to send Gulcasa into a state of shock when Gulcasa’s hands found his clumsily, then held them.
“I—” Gulcasa began again, then stopped himself, looking away. He was squeezing Nessiah’s hands with considerable strength, and tried to speak once more only to cut himself off again. It took two more false starts—through which Nessiah waited very patiently—to screw up the courage to use his voice. “I want… I—want to go with you.”
Nessiah let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and smiled again.
“I’m glad,” he murmured, and shifted to get his knees under him, balancing on them so that he could leave another soft kiss on Gulcasa’s forehead without having to pull him down.
He’d said it; the hardest part was over.
The new hardest part was the wait. Gulcasa had made his decision and would stand by it, but the anxiety was building day by day now that he knew he would be leaving this place for good soon. His mother had told him so many times that leaving the tower was the taboo of all taboos, after all.
She would probably understand—she hadn’t known that there might be someone like Nessiah who could help him, after all—but the thought of disobeying her so hugely still made him nervous.
“I still can’t move too much, but we can at least pack now,” Nessiah had told him, and so that was what he did, gathering up everything he thought he might want or need and making sure he could carry it all.
Nessiah also warned him that they might have to be very careful and move quickly as soon as they left—the army sent by the duke he’d angered might still be searching for him.
“If it comes down to a battle, you’ve nothing to worry about—I’ll protect you. And there are cities where we’ll be able to take shelter—the capital is only a few days’ travel from here; that should be safe, and if it isn’t, we can cross the border and stay in the country neighboring this one for a while.”
While they waited, Nessiah also spent time walking up and down the stairs and around the room to build the strength in his legs back up, and get used to carrying his own weight again. He got tired easily, but thus far he seemed to be pleased with his recovery.
“I should be able to travel again in just a few days’ time. That’s when we’ll leave.”
In between consulting with Nessiah about how much of the food in the cellar could be packed and checking and doublechecking the bookshelf mournfully—there was no way that all of the books could come along—Gulcasa spent hours at a time sitting next to Nessiah on the mattress, just talking.
Nessiah told stories about the various countries he’d traveled through, and they talked about books—Nessiah had read a lot of Gulcasa’s favorites, and they spent some time discussing the merits of the authors’ style and the strange things that characters in stories tended to do.
And every bit as enjoyable as the talks themselves, there was the feeling of Nessiah’s warmth beside him. Gulcasa basked in it. It was something that he hadn’t been able to experience since Siskier had died and his mother had found him—the warmth of another living being.
When he turned to look at Nessiah, it still kept surprising him that he was the taller of the two of them. It always felt as though with Nessiah’s knowledge, he should be the one who was older and taller; he gave off the presence of someone much larger than his real height. Maybe it was a little silly to be surprised by a thing like that at a time like this, but it was like the undercurrent of physicality reinforced the way that he wanted to think.
Nessiah reached out to hold his hand often, and when they sat side by side, it was always close enough that their skin would touch. The warmth of Nessiah’s smiles had grown considerably, and they seemed to be brighter every day; Gulcasa would turn around and whatever he wanted to say would be lost as he was transfixed by half-closed green eyes mostly-obscured in blond hair and the soft curving of Nessiah’s lips.
And Nessiah seemed to know full well what effect he was having, because it made him laugh, and he kept doing it whenever Gulcasa could possibly be caught unawares. It always worked, and so the only time Gulcasa could consider himself safe was when he was cooking.
It was as though his heart had withered in a state of constant gloom for all of his life, and everything choking it had been cut away in a single graceful sweep, exposing him to warmth and sunlight for the very first time. And basking in the affection, those newly budded emotions flourished, erupting into riotous bloom.
Despite all those years of reading, it was something that was hard to articulate. These were words he had never thought he would have the chance to use, and things he’d only ever read about in books, never experienced himself.
Kissing, for instance. He was anything but good at it, but Nessiah just laughed and patiently taught him where his hands were supposed to go, how he was supposed to use his tongue, and when he should breathe, all quite without shame.
“You’ll get used to it after a while. Besides, you’re already catching on, aren’t you?”
Aside from the kissing and the hand-holding and the fact that Gulcasa now felt justified in looking at Nessiah when they talked—even if actually staring him in the face was still difficult—not that much had changed between them since Nessiah had phrased his proposal as an elopement.
There was a lot of talk about what the actual travel was going to be like, since Gulcasa was inexperienced at taking to the road and there was no way to measure his stamina in comparison to his strength. And that was enough to make him think about some things that were very embarrassing.
Still—there was another day or so until the time they had planned to leave, and after that all their energy would be put towards surviving the road and finding a safe place for Gulcasa to begin learning how to control his power. This was an opportunity, if he wanted to seize it.
And he knew that it was dangerous to let things remain unsaid—it was never possible to predict whether this would be your last chance.
He hadn’t said it yet, even—well, Nessiah hadn’t said anything like that either, so it made him nervous thinking that he might be the only one who wanted to. And he wanted to.
That night—they’d eaten, they’d put their things away, they’d gotten the bags in order and the light through the windows was roseate gold. As usual, Nessiah was sitting on the edge of the mattress; he was staring out the window with a distant look on his face.
He halted a few feet away from the bed, and clasped his hands behind his back. “May I…?”
Nessiah looked up with him with a blank expression as though startled, then smiled and nodded. “It is your bed, after all,” he said as Gulcasa sat down, lifting his legs up onto the mattress and folding them. After that, he went back to staring outside.
“What is it?”
“I keep thinking. For so long, the view from here was all you were able to see of the world, and that’s all going to change tomorrow. It’s a big step.”
Gulcasa leaned forward and down until his forehead was touching Nessiah’s back.
“I love you,” he murmured, closing his eyes and sinking down further as he felt his cheeks begin to burn bright.
He felt the muscles of Nessiah’s back shift, and then the next thing he knew, slender arms were wrapped over his back, and his face was pressed against Nessiah’s chest.
“Thank you,” Nessiah said softly, his voice sweet. “It makes me happy to hear you say that.”
“And…” Trying to force his racing heart to slow down, he raised his head a little, enough to glance up into Nessiah’s face. “How do you feel… about me?”
Nessiah closed his eyes and lifted one hand from Gulcasa’s back to rest it over his own heart.
“When I’m with you, my chest is filled with light. It’s a very airy feeling, a beautiful sensation with no name. I’m sure that, as well-read as I am, I could put terms to it if I wanted to, but it’s only bloomed so recently, you see. It’s very frail and I’m not sure how well-sustained it is. I don’t want to weigh it down with heavy words like ‘love’… this beautiful nameless feeling.”
It was certainly the prettiest way of talking oneself out of having to answer a question that Gulcasa had ever heard, and he was about to remark on it when Nessiah leaned down and kissed his forehead, then his cheek, then lined their bodies up angle to curve, his lips finding a sensitive spot along the side of Gulcasa’s throat that made him gasp softly and drained all the strength from his body. His back hit the mattress and he was left looking up at Nessiah, who had planted a hand to either side of him and was smiling down with his dull gold hair all tumbled like a lazy thunderhead.
On impulse, he reached up and ran the tips of his fingers over Nessiah’s cheek, tracing the line of his throat down to the sharp angles of his clavicle. Nessiah made a soft low sound—Gulcasa felt the rumble of it against the back of his fingers, a soft buzz like a bee in a bell jar—and then he was sinking down onto his elbows so that their bodies were pressed in close, and he closed his eyes at the touch of Nessiah’s lips against his, sinking into a soft and lovely dream.
The sun was going down.
Gulcasa’s fingers were clenched loosely in the front of Nessiah’s robes, and he was panting harshly and shallowly in thin little kitten breaths as Nessiah kneaded the side of his throat with kisses.
It was probably just out of his own inexperience, but Gulcasa was so helpless at every movement he made. It was almost addicting, being able to dominate someone who was so physically imposing so very thoroughly.
But Nessiah pulled himself back, reined himself in; this wasn’t the time, and in the press of their bodies, he could tell that Gulcasa was more than aroused enough already. There was no need to be a tease, and anyway Gulcasa might faint if he didn’t get the chance to breathe properly.
While he levered himself up on hands and knees, Gulcasa closed his eyes and worked on breathing more deeply, but didn’t loosen his grip on Nessiah’s clothes enough for him to sit up all the way or really move much at all.
“Why are you stopping?” Gulcasa asked at last, his eyes opening halfway. They were honey-colored and blurred with the heady intoxication of lust, the pupils rather overly dilated; his face was flushed and his chest still heaving invitingly, his voice quiet and indistinct.
Nessiah rested more of his weight to the left so that he could cup Gulcasa’s cheek in his right hand. “Even if you really are ready for this—and I’m not sure that you are—there are a few things we’d need to make certain that you wouldn’t be hurt; this would be your first time, after all. And even if you have a proper substitute downstairs, that’s a long way to go and a long hunt to make. By the time we finished, the moment would already be dead and buried.”
“Oh.” Gulcasa blinked hazily, but lay still, apparently physically incapable of making himself let go by now; he just lay and breathed and stared up at Nessiah in an unintentionally sultry sort of way.
“Besides, there’s still this.” Nessiah tilted his head slightly to indicate his mostly-healed wound. “Too much exertion would strain it. I don’t know whether it would open back up or not, but I’d rather not find out firsthand.”
“Oh,” Gulcasa said again, and they lapsed into that partial silence and the backdrop of rushed breathing.
It was that look. Nessiah would have liked to challenge anyone to attempt to resist it, but no one was there to disparage him for being unable to, and so he just leaned down and grazed his lips over Gulcasa’s, repeating the motion with a shallow kiss and then a more involved one.
“Well,” Nessiah said as brightly as he could while struggling for air, “there are a few less strenuous ways that I can make you feel good, if you’d let me.”
He could tell when the import of the sentence sunk in, because Gulcasa’s eyes quickly regained their intelligence, and blood rushed fiercely back into his cheeks.
“If you’re going to—but I want—I want to make you feel good, too—”
And that was how Nessiah came to be sitting on the edge of the mattress, the skirts of his robes gathered up at his waist, with Gulcasa kneeling on the floor in front of him.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked in a murmur, for Gulcasa’s face was quite as red as his hair, and it was getting hard to imagine how he was able to spare enough blood for functions like breathing and thinking.
Gulcasa didn’t say anything, but he nodded, the tiny movement amplified by the sway of his long hair.
Nessiah smiled a little, wryly. “How do you even understand how this is done, anyway? You’ve spent your entire life here, after all.”
“I-I—I read about it in a book once.” His voice was very small. Nessiah supposed that it was harder to resolve oneself to go through with this when being stared in the face with it, so to speak.
“…What has your mother been letting you read?” Unbidden, the edge of a giggle stole into his voice.
“B-be quiet! I’m trying to concentrate…”
Nessiah bit his lip and fell silent; Gulcasa took a deep breath and reached.
The contact of Gulcasa’s fingers against his skin sent a shiver throughout his whole body, but the touch of his lips—the sudden wetness and heat of his mouth—made his breath catch.
It soon became clear that despite whatever he had read, Gulcasa still was not quite sure how to go about this; he must only have gotten the general idea. His movements were hesitant and shy, and he was still just holding the length of Nessiah’s flesh in his mouth rather than actually doing anything at all.
But it had been quite some time since Nessiah had paid any attention to his sexual needs at in the least, and the warmth and Gulcasa’s intent expression and his blush more than made up for his lack of expertise. It only took a few minutes for Nessiah’s breathing to become staggered and his face and chest to flush with agonizing levels of pleasure.
“Gulcasa—,” he said a little desperately, short of breath and knotting his fingers into the sheets to keep from fisting them in that long red hair, “that’s enough—I can’t hold back for much longer—”
If Gulcasa even heard him say it, then he certainly didn’t take heed—if anything, his efforts redoubled, and the feel of Gulcasa’s breath rushing against the bare skin of his lower belly and the pressure of his tongue managed to systematically destroy what little control he had left. Nessiah closed his eyes as his back arched and his muscles tightened, and he came in one sharp bright burst of relief. Gulcasa choked briefly, the sound distant, but then Nessiah could feel the inside of his mouth and the muscles of his throat working as he swallowed hard.
The intensity of the pleasure ebbed into relaxation as Gulcasa sat back, and Nessiah opened his eyes, still breathing a little unevenly.
Gulcasa was sitting sprawled, the curve of his back in a slouch, supporting himself with his hands; his eyes were half-lidded and clouded with lust, and there were white stains along his cheek and trailing from the edge of his lips.
“You didn’t have to keep going,” Nessiah murmured patiently, leaning forward so that he could wipe Gulcasa’s face clean. “Your hair will just get dirty like this, and that would just be a shame.”
“I wanted… to.” Gulcasa’s voice was thick, and he spoke as if half-dreaming.
“Come up here.” The way he was acting, it wouldn’t be fair to leave him wanting for much longer, at any rate.
It took a bit of maneuvering, but after a few tries, Nessiah was successfully able to get Gulcasa up on the mattress with him. They sat facing each other; Nessiah brought Gulcasa forward so that he was leaning his forehead to Nessiah’s shoulder, and slid a hand down his chest and belly to the front of his pants.
Gulcasa tensed immediately, and held on to Nessiah so tightly that it almost hurt. He had to smile, and put his free arm around Gulcasa’s shoulders while he moved his hand in quick firm strokes.
Almost as soon as he’d started, Gulcasa’s breathing was reduced to sharp gasps, his face bright red and tremors running through his entire body. The sight of it made Nessiah smile—the simple fact that he could please someone to this degree with just a touch.
Gulcasa was fighting hard to keep control of his voice, but low moans continued to escape every time he exhaled, until finally he stuttered out Nessiah’s name as a long shudder made its way up his back. Nessiah smiled, held him close, and continued to stroke him as he climaxed.
He closed his eyes, and leaned his cheek against Gulcasa’s temple as the redhead’s breathing began to return to normal; this was more than enough for now.
They were walking side by side, hand in hand; it was night, and all he had to guide himself was the town lanterns like overlarge fireflies and Siskier’s hand in his.
It wasn’t too far away to his destination, he remembered vaguely; it was with a sense of relief that he kept walking—until there was a sharp jerk from Siskier’s hand. He turned to her, and saw through the dim illumination that she was standing still.
“This is where I have to stop,” she told him, giving his hand a squeeze and smiling at him warmly. “You know the rest of the way, right? I’ll watch ‘til you get there, so go ahead.”
There was a part of him that wanted to cling to her hand and refuse to let go and try to stay with her, but there was something even more important waiting for him at the end of the road.
Releasing her hand was probably the hardest thing he’d ever done, but Siskier was smiling at him. Her expression was still telling him that everything was okay.
He turned to face the darkness, and her hand gave his upper back a light, encouraging pat.
Taking a deep breath, he started to run.
It was well into the day by the time that Nessiah woke.
He was lying atop the bed, his body still tangled up in Gulcasa’s; they hadn’t even bothered with the sheets when they’d been so tired and perfectly capable of holding each other to keep warm.
Gulcasa himself was still asleep, arm wrapped around Nessiah’s waist, his expression much more peaceful than it usually was when he was dreaming.
It was already past time. Gently, Nessiah rested his hand on Gulcasa’s shoulder and shook him; he was rewarded with a faint groan and Gulcasa’s pushing himself up on his elbows, eyes half-opened and hair tousled.
“We have to go, don’t we?” Gulcasa asked dully, without being prompted, and Nessiah smiled and nodded to him.
They got up, gathered the things that had already been packed, and prepared a small meal to give them enough energy to walk. Gulcasa continued to give everything in the tower searching looks, as if saying goodbye to it, and when they couldn’t justify making any more delays, he left a folded paper on top of the bedside table.
“She’ll find it, and she’ll understand,” he murmured in a low voice that Nessiah probably wasn’t supposed to hear.
Nessiah reached out his hand; Gulcasa, seeing him do it, stretched out his own, layering their palms and interlocking their fingers. He let Gulcasa take one last long look around the room, and then they began to walk slowly down the stairs.
…And then there was a loud creaking noise, and Nessiah felt a dispersal of magic. Beside him, Gulcasa went tense.
From where they were standing, they could easily see the door as it opened on the silhouette of a woman dressed in heavy white robes.
Nessiah looked down at her appraisingly as she stared up at them. There was something of a resemblance in the facial features, but other than that, she didn’t look like her son very much at all. Her hair was white and hung at her shoulders, her eyes were deep blue, and the creases on her face gave her a look of fastidious sternness.
Her hard gaze traveled from Nessiah to Gulcasa and back, and she stood firmly, wordlessly, in the door; her countenance silently demanded some form of explanation.
Nessiah squeezed Gulcasa’s hand briefly, then released it, spreading out the skirts of his robes and letting his body dip in a slight curtsy. “You must be Gulcasa’s mother, then; I’ve heard so much about you. You’re the one who made this place into a containment field for his powers, correct? Your efforts are truly to be commended, but I must let you know that there is no longer any need for them.”
“So you intend to leave?” Her voice had a strangely dry tonal quality, and nothing of the warmth of Gulcasa’s. “I must apologize, but I cannot permit that. You seem to know what this boy is and what he is capable of; there is no way that a researcher of Brongaa’s blood like myself can let such a monster run free.”
“Dear, dear, but it seems as though we’re fated not to get along,” Nessiah said, projecting his voice so that it boomed throughout the tower as he lifted his chin and raised one eyebrow. “You see, I know of more effective ways to contain Gulcasa’s blood than this. Far more effective, and far less harmful. I’d be more than happy to discuss the details if you would kindly step back.”
“That boy must not leave this tower. As long as I am alive, I will not permit it.”
“And so you would sentence your son to death for the sin of being unable to contain himself at the age of six, with half-developed abilities and no control of which to speak?” Nessiah scoffed lightly. “You should rejoice that there isn’t any need to go so far.”
The priestess narrowed her eyes. “Do not tell me what is best for the child I birthed.”
“I’m not telling you what is best. I gave Gulcasa the choice to come with me instead of staying here, and that was what he decided upon. He isn’t a monster to be caged; he is a person whose free will should be respected.”
“As long as I am alive,” the priestess repeated, “I will not allow him to leave this place.”
She stepped forward, and held out her hand; there was a shimmer, and a tall silver scythe appeared in it. Her body haloed in magic, she continued to advance slowly.
“Of all the idiotic ideas,” Nessiah murmured, and turned to face Gulcasa, who was standing frozen, looking down the stairs towards his mother with a stricken expression. “Come on. We’re getting out of here.”
But he’d already seized Gulcasa’s hand and was running back up the stairs at top speed, pulling Gulcasa after him; they reached the bedroom in no time at all, and Nessiah ran to the window, passing his free hand before him in a horizontal slash.
The glass cracked and exploded outward in a great crystalline sound like choir bells. As the myriad pale fragments rained downwards, clearing the way, Nessiah made his way up to the window in hurried steps, still dragging Gulcasa along with him.
He turned, staring straight into Gulcasa’s eyes, and smiled.
“You decided to leave this place, so I’ll get you out of here. Just trust me, all right?”
He could see the fear on Gulcasa’s face, but he still nodded sharply. That had to take a lot of courage.
“Then let’s go.”
Ignoring the approaching footsteps, Nessiah took the last few strides at a run and flung himself through the window, hand in hand with Gulcasa. His shoulder ached briefly but sharply at the strain of pulling Gulcasa into the jump with him, but he paid it no heed; as their jump reached its arc, he reached back to grip Gulcasa’s arm in his other hand and pulled, spinning them so that he could get his right arm under the other man’s back in something of a bridal carry—of course, he wouldn’t normally be able to support Gulcasa’s weight, but he released a powerful blast of wind from his right hand to offset the pressure.
With his left arm, he gestured broadly, and power funneled up below them, slowing their descent enough for them to touch down softly, well beyond the scattered glass fragments that littered the grass just under the window.
“Gulcasa, listen to me,” Nessiah said urgently, keeping his voice low. “Our objective here is to disable her long enough that we can get away without having her follow us. Stay back; I’ll draw her far enough away so that you won’t be in danger. If things look bad, go ahead and run; I can trace you and find you. All right?”
“Shh. Here she comes.”
And the door blasted open, and Gulcasa’s mother rushed from it with a speed that belied the lines on her face. Gulcasa seemed to be far enough back by now; Nessiah gathered his power and ran forward to meet her, a spiral of lightning engulfing his body and solidifying into a helix of energy blades, each roughly twice the length of a ritual dagger, their hilts pointed towards him. He gripped two in a flash of light, and the others fanned out at his back, ready if he ever needed them.
The priestess in white brought the blade of her scythe crashing down, and Nessiah blocked hard with the two blades in his hands. She spoke a harsh word in the language of magic, and feeling a chill starting to gather around his body, he shouted out, giving his blades a push and leaping backwards. As they exploded with power, he reached back, and the next swords fell into his hands; he flipped them over experimentally, then swept in to catch the next blow on one and strike at her body with the other. The first place they’d clashed was covered in spikes of ice.
To Gulcasa, or to any untrained observer, this would seem more like a well-scripted waltz than a battle; every time a pair of Nessiah’s blades dispersed, the energy would be restored to the blade-shaped feathers gathered at his shoulderblades, and so he had an endless supply of them; Gulcasa’s mother moved as gracefully as a dancer and seemed not to feel the weight of her own thick clothing. They pushed each other back and forth throughout the courtyard that the clearing formed, with Gulcasa waiting anxiously in the distance.
…Her magic was quite powerful. Her specialties, Nessiah noted, appeared to be in binding; most of her spells seemed to be geared towards freezing him in place or otherwise trapping him so that she would be able to score a clean hit. So far, Nessiah’s own skill and reflexes had helped him to avoid being caught, and he was more than strong enough to fend her off physically.
But just fending her off wouldn’t do any good in the long run.
Nessiah ducked to the side and leaped backwards, putting him a few yards away from the priestess, then crossed his arms in front of his chest, palms out. The blades at his back disintegrated into pure energy, and as he spread his arms, there was a great flash of light and a crack; white lightning rained down about her body, forcing her to her knees.
“I know.” He pointed, then spoke; a tight electric field bound her scythe to the ground. Supercharging it with electrical energy would pull it inexorably to the metals in the earth, making it unable to be lifted until the spell wore off.
But just as he was about to turn to Gulcasa and make for the woods, she spoke harshly, and the thin crawling strands of lightning that had bound her legs and kept her unable to stand dispersed; her hand plunged into the folds of her robes and came up with a knife nearly as long as her forearm, and she made for him with the speed of a fighter half her age; Nessiah pushed his arms out in front of him and yelled, sending a strong burst of electricity towards her—her legs faltered, but her arm shot out, and there was a flash of silver
and then a brutal shock of pain
and the sharp blow against his left shoulder and side as he hit the ground.
Gulcasa watched the narrow crescent of the knife and the sudden gush of blood, watched Nessiah fall, and something in his heart froze.
He couldn’t hear, couldn’t feel; he had no idea when he’d decided to move, but he was running and running hard before it really registered.
Nessiah lay sprawled on his side, his face hidden in the crook of his right arm. His body was rigid and shaking, and there was a very soft, very low moan of pain rising in his throat. Gulcasa couldn’t see the injury itself, but there was already blood all over Nessiah’s cheek.
“Nessiah—Nessiah, hang on—”
“Gulcasa,” Nessiah said softly—his voice was strained, as if he had to force out every word—“give me your hand.”
“I can’t see. I need you to give me your hand.”
Not knowing what else he could do, Gulcasa did—and a peculiar pins-and-needles sensation ran up his arms as soon as their skin made contact.
“Sorry. I have to borrow your power for a moment.”
And almost before Nessiah had finished speaking, a great heat ran through Gulcasa’s body, and with a sound of snapping, a great light bloomed in the expanse of grass between the two of them and Gulcasa’s mother.
It was fire—a contained ring of fire that cut the tower—and his mother—off from everything else in the surrounding area. But unlike the fire from that day, it was pure gold in color, and it didn’t eat away at the ground to either side of its line—it simply burned high, a thick wall between one side of the world and the other.
The pins-and-needles sensation left, along with most of the heat, but a great warmth remained in his and Nessiah’s interconnected hands.
“You foolish child.”
A chill stole through his skin, and he looked up; his mother was standing on the other side of the fire.
“Don’t worry,” Nessiah said faintly from beside him. “She won’t be able to cross the barrier until it goes out naturally, and it will hold for at least three days. It’s a fusion of our power.”
“But what do you think you have accomplished by keeping me here? You know nothing of the world, and your blood is like an undetonated cannon shell. You cannot hope to contain it forever.”
“Nessiah will teach me. And I can’t stay here any longer… I couldn’t even if I wanted to.” Gulcasa stared up at her through the obscuring screen of the flames. “You hurt someone that I love.”
“So this is your choice?” There wasn’t any emotion in her voice, and he couldn’t see her face well enough to try to figure out how she felt about it.
“Yes, it is.” Even so, he tried to sound as firm as he could.
“Then so be it. I certainly hope that your power doesn’t bring you any more misery over the course of your life, Gulcasa.”
His breath caught, and something moved in his chest—she rarely ever said his name.
But he turned away as Nessiah squeezed his hand. “You have to help me up.”
Nessiah’s movements were very cautious as Gulcasa supported him and helped to raise him to his feet; his face was virtually coated in blood by now, and he wiped clumsily at his cheeks with the back of his free arm, which only helped a little bit.
“There isn’t much time. We have to go.”
Gulcasa took one look back at the tower and the figure in white, then walked into the forest with Nessiah. His chest didn’t feel nearly as heavy as he’d thought it might.
Once they had been swallowed up by the canopy of the trees, he turned to Nessiah. “What are we going to do now?”
“Tiera is about two hours’ walk away, as the crow flies. We have to get there, and we have to hurry. My body is going to go into shock before long, and even if we tried to apply pressure, I don’t think that’s going to help too much this time.”
“Whatever you do, don’t let go of my hand. Right now, you’re my eyes.”
“Nessiah, what are you talking about?” He felt very cold—felt the chill all the way down to his heart. “Why won’t you look at me?”
“I don’t want you to see my face right now. Honestly, I…” His hand was shaking, Gulcasa realized with a shock. “I have enough of an idea what she did to me, but I don’t want to hear it. I’m sharing your vision right now because I can’t see anything. And… if I turned to you, you would see it, and I would see it, and I don’t think I could take that. I don’t know if you could take it, either.”
“We have to go,” Nessiah said faintly, and tugged Gulcasa’s arm, walking forward again.
He could hear the suppressed panic in Nessiah’s voice, and as nervous as that made him, it hurt even more. Nessiah was such a strong person—even without his eyes, he wouldn’t be cowed and beaten down so easily.
The least he could do was try to be as strong.
So Gulcasa tightened his grip on Nessiah’s hand, and they walked forward at a faster pace. Nessiah was still losing blood, after all, and if he wouldn’t even let Gulcasa bandage his face, two hours might be too long.
He had no idea how long they’d walked in silence—his hand was starting to hurt from how tightly Nessiah continued to hold it, his palm beginning to sweat, and there was the faintest hint of ache in his legs—but there was noise coming from up ahead of them, great snapping and the low sounds of voices.
“Oh, damn it,” Nessiah breathed.
“What is it?”
“The army. Balin’s army. No, hold on.” Nessiah held out his free hand, a fresh line of blood sliding down his cheek and dripping as he bit his lip. “Damn it. There are too many of them, spread out too far. It’ll take too long to try to go around them; they must have figured that I would hole up wherever I could find shelter near here, and are just waiting for me to run into them.”
“Then—what should we do?” Panic was rising like bile at the back of his throat, but he tried hard to keep it out of his voice. He had to be Nessiah’s strength right now.
“We risk it.” Nessiah lifted his chin and blew out a tense breath. “We have no other choice. I have the power necessary, but—it’s all a question of how long my body can hold out. I feel chills; I think shock will be setting in fully in ten minutes’ time or so, and you’d need to carry me after that… well. We can worry about that once we’re through here.”
He didn’t turn to face Gulcasa, but he could see the grim smile curling Nessiah’s rapidly paling lips. “Whatever you do, don’t let go of my hand. Follow me as closely as you can. We’re going to make a path—and it will be all right as long as you can hold on to me. The second you let go, we’re both dead.”
Gulcasa took a deep breath and squeezed Nessiah’s hand. If it hurt, Nessiah wasn’t saying anything; selfishly, he was glad, because he wasn’t sure he could cope with even the idea of this without Nessiah’s hand in his.
“Then hold on.”
And Nessiah gripped his hand so tightly that his nails pushed painfully into Gulcasa’s skin, rushing forward—after the first jolt of being pulled, Gulcasa forced his legs to move, refusing to slow him down.
They broke from the cover of the trees into a camp.
There were so many people—more than Gulcasa ever remembered seeing in one place at one time—and almost as soon as he first glimpsed them, they were already dropping what they were doing to grab weapons.
“Ruquion, lightning god crossing the heavens…
Part the clouds, and answer me in a flash of light!”
The air exploded—there was no other word for it. A brilliant light filled Gulcasa’s vision, and a boom like the earth was being split open rendered him momentarily deafened; all he could do was close his eyes and stumble after Nessiah until the burn had gone from the back of his eyelids.
As soon as it had, he forced himself to open them once again—Nessiah couldn’t see if he couldn’t—and began to shudder at the smoke and flames running across the clearing. Old memories flickered in the back of Gulcasa’s mind, but he swallowed hard and kept running as Nessiah did. There was the snap and sizzle of lightning from around Nessiah’s left arm, and he was murmuring some sort of incantation so lowly and at such speed that Gulcasa had to wonder if he was stopping to breathe. People—soldiers—kept running towards them, trying to block their way, but Nessiah would sweep his arm widely and lightning would flash and those people would fly back and collapse and did not move afterward.
Aside from those uneasy memories and the stench of lightning and death and spilled blood making the blood coursing through his own veins feel like it didn’t belong there, Gulcasa found that the gray world of battle superimposed on the verdant forest seemed incredibly surreal. Something about it disconnected him from it all. People were dying, but Nessiah’s presence beside him was so much more immediate; the sweat-coated palm connected with his and the sharp heat linking their vision meant far more than the dying screams of the soldiers.
Perhaps it was just that Gulcasa’s mind was trying to protect him by refusing to see it as realistic, or that he knew so little about why these people were after Nessiah in the first place. They might have been the reason that he and Nessiah had met, but he hadn’t ever really cared about why Nessiah might be a fugitive. This conflict had nothing to do with Gulcasa; this battle was nothing but another obstacle, a fleeting dream blown apart by the lightning strikes Nessiah created.
Instead, as he looked ahead, wheeling slightly to give Nessiah a full view of the battlefield, Gulcasa was most aware of the twist of Nessiah’s body beneath the fabric of his robes—the sweat standing out on his skin—the slight hoarseness to his voice even as it boomed arrestingly with words of such power that Gulcasa’s very soul shook to hear them—the blood pouring down his face like tears, black in the harsh illumination of the lightning. All he knew about magic was learned from books, so he could only guess how much of a strain this was, but despite how much it must hurt and how much it must cost, Nessiah was still pushing himself—not just to protect his own life, but Gulcasa’s too.
It seemed to go on forever, but then abruptly they crashed through the other side of the clearing and were running through the forest again. The world that had been so loud before was silent except for the sound of their own breathing, their footsteps, and the rustle of the plants they shoved past.
Momentum carried them—how long, Gulcasa couldn’t have said. But his legs were starting to ache and a stitch had started in his side when Nessiah stumbled, bringing them both to a halt.
“I’m sorry—I don’t think—I can go any farther—” Nessiah’s voice was faint between gasps for breath; he had sprawled forward onto his knees, supporting himself with one hand flung out before him and the other gripping Gulcasa’s hand so tightly he wondered if those nails would draw blood.
He knelt, wrapped an arm under Nessiah’s chest to help him stay up.
“Try to hold on,” he managed to wheeze out—Nessiah’s body was seized with tremors, and even though they’d stopped moving, it seemed to be getting even worse. Even the most fleeting thoughts about what that could mean terrified him. The only reason he’d been able to come so far was because of Nessiah—and if anything happened to him now—
“Gulcasa, listen to me. Keep going in the same direction—run for as long as you can—the town of Tiera is very close. Ask for the landgrave’s protection, do you understand? Landgrave Velleman—as long as he agrees to treat me, I can explain later, but right now my body—”
“I understand,” Gulcasa said quickly, trying to keep himself from starting to tremble too. Nessiah was entrusting him with both their lives, in case there were still soldiers who had survived their attack. It felt like such an impossible thing to ask, but—
There was a voice, deep down in Gulcasa’s chest, that was saying softly but surely, I refuse to let it end like this. He’d never known that his own voice could sound so determined, but the thought took hold and spread throughout his body, filling him with a kind of strength that felt equally revelatory and nostalgic.
Because there was no way—no way—that he was going to just give up now. He had the strength at least to carry Nessiah, and as long as he could do just that, then he wasn’t going to forsake the happy, terrifying dream of living out in the wide world together that Nessiah had painted for him.
“I understand,” he said again, and wrapped his arms around Nessiah carefully but as strongly as he dared. “I’ll do the best I can.”
“I’m counting on you,” Nessiah said weakly, and then the only sound that came from him was the agonized rush of his breath. The grip on Gulcasa’s hand loosened, and Nessiah slumped, quivering and panting.
Carefully, Gulcasa shifted Nessiah’s body so that it was cradled in his arms, Nessiah’s head resting just below his left shoulder. He looked even tinier than usual, all limp and pale and soaked in sweat and blood, his chest heaving, the slash wound across his eyes still seeping violent red.
He was so small, and yet he was so wise and brave and full of nothing but love and encouragement. It was awe-inspiring, that a body the size of Nessiah’s could hold so very much good.
Gulcasa wasn’t any of those things—brave or smart or strong. He had power, but no matter what Nessiah had told him, he was afraid of it; that was the power that had turned his boyhood surroundings into the kind of hell that the priests were always talking about, the power that had taken Siskier away. He was dangerous, a monster whether he wanted to be one or not. He didn’t know anything about the world, and he was a coward.
But he was at least strong enough to carry Nessiah this far. He could at least try to imitate Nessiah, and step forward in pursuit of what he wanted.
He took a deep breath, held Nessiah close—and stood up, pushing off against the ground in a headlong sprint.