Vaughn spoke several languages, but as he dangled over a narrow pit, enveloped in unfathomable darkness, he couldn't find a single word in any of them to describe how terrified he was. The rope, which Kale had carefully wrapped around each of his thighs, was the only thing he could feel. The darkness was so absolute that there might not have been any walls around them, or they might have been in a few cramped inches of space for all he knew.
"Is it much deeper?" Marcus asked, from somewhere below him.
"How did you survive falling down this?" Vaughn asked. He remembered the flash of memory Kale had shared all too well, but seeing it through another's eyes wasn't the same as being in the same shaft, where the smell of damp and earth and stale air churned together to create a scent that was almost sickening.
He thought he heard Kale laugh far below. "I didn't."
Marcus grunted and something scraped against the rock below him. "Oh, thank the gods," Marcus whispered. "Keep going, Vaughn, we've found something solid to stand on at last. Can we have a bit of light?"
"Not yet," Kale said. "The winds from the canyon don't bring fresh air deep enough to reach this shaft. No fresh air means other gases rise through the dirt and fill the emptiness."
"It's not poisonous, not at this concentration. But it does tend to explode."
Vaughn lowered himself down bit by bit, until he felt two sets of hands catch him. Kale and Marcus guided his feet to the stone floor of the shaft. "You can see, right?" he asked, trying to ignore the warmth left by both men's hands.
"I can see," Kale assured him, unwrapping the rope from Vaughn's thighs as though he'd done this a thousand times. From the way his hands were moving, Vaughn knew Kale was kneeling or squatting beside him. He could imagine it so easily, he reached out in the darkness, trailing his fingers along Kale's temple. Kale shifted against his fingers, then moved away quickly.
Vaughn bit back the sound that almost escaped from his throat. Distance was what he needed, but damn it his body craved Kale's touch. His mere proximity made Vaughn's heart race, but he was not going to let his body's reactions over-ride his reason. Not again.
Kale's fingers trailed down his arm and flittered over the outside of his hand.
"Here, take the damn Lord Enforcer's hand," Kale said, hefting Vaughn's arm in the darkness and aligning Vaughn's hand with Marcus's. "It's fairly straight stone work until the tomb, and after that the caves open up."
Marcus brushed against him, then tugged him forward, into the darkness. They wandered through a long tunnel, but there was nothing jutting up from the floor to trip over, and Kale seemed to guide them over a flat, even surface. He felt a fresh breeze against his face, the air perfumed with the smell of clean water and growing things and sand. Everything in the Wastes smelled of sand, but the smell of blood had sunk in around the walls of Ro'don, so the entire city reeked of it. Down here in the dark, the air was fresh and sweet, as if the atrocities above couldn't permeate this far into the earth.
"Here we are," Kale said. "The air flows through, so the gas can't build up." A light flared to life along the wall. The wick of an oil lamp jumped and stuttered as Kale lit it from a distance. "Let's see if we can get a bit more light." Along the passage, flames sprang to life, casting warm circles of light far ahead.
The passage was indeed well made. Smooth heavy stones were set so closely together there seemed no need of mortar between them, and the walls were strong and sturdy even after all this time. After two thousand years, Vaughn realized.
"These tunnels look untouched," he whispered. "By time or man. Who else has been down here?"
"I don't know. Before the last battle, just me. I spent a lot of time down here—reading, thinking, hiding from the thousands of stupid little problems people thought I was the only one capable of solving. Oh, and Drak, my first captain. He knew about them."
"No one else?"
Kale chuckled. "No. As far as the Enforcers were concerned, the shaft was a bottomless pit. Ari Theodrick has probably been down here, but beyond him, I doubt anyone else has dared."
"Must you call him that?" Vaughn grumbled.
"It's who he is," Kale said. He dropped Marcus's hand and strode forward, into the lamp light.
Marcus tightened his hold on Vaughn's hand. "Come on. At least one person who's actually excited by books should see this library of his."
When they reached the end of the tunnel, a large space opened up, not quite round by close to it, with a large rectangle of rubble set in the center atop a stone dais. Vaughn felt a tingling, not quite physical but not imagined, run through him. He felt like he stood in his family's crypt beneath Monchol, watching his mother being interred all over again.
"The tomb of Shi Ro," Kale announced, gesturing to the broken stones and rocks. "What's left of it, anyway. Chime built all of Ro'don as his monument."
"I thought he loved Tyr," Marcus said. "Seems a lot of trouble to go through, if he loved another."
"It was complicated. He loved Tyr," Kale said, grimacing. "He did, but Tyr betrayed him and kicked him out. Their souls were bound together, and that betrayal nearly killed Tyr." Kale held up both hands, apparently at a loss. "For Hokati, bonding with a mate was weird. When a pair forged a bond, it went soul-deep, and it was unbreakable. No matter how Tyr treated him, how much he hated him and raged against him, Chime still had to feel all of it. Every cruel thought, every time Tyr fucked someone else, Chime felt it. He broke Chime, I suppose. Ro helped him find himself again. But the bond went both ways, and Tyr felt Chime become happy again. It infuriated him. After he killed Ro, Chime continued to treat Ro with all the love and respect he would have paid to a bonded mate—probably just to piss Tyr off more and prove Tyr couldn't take his free will from him." Kale shook his head. "It doesn't matter. If I had my way, I'd let the dead be, and let Tyr's memory die with them. I don't think we'd manage peace, even then, but it'd be a start."
Vaughn scoffed. "Since when do you care about peace?"
"Since I started listening to you," he said, although there was no censure in his voice. "I never really thought about it before. How much the men I killed actually had to lose. Or, if I did, I became angry because my own people had never even had the chance to live their own lives before meeting the same fate. I think you're right, resentment is like a disease, and I nearly let it kill us all when I should have been fighting to stop it. Even when there's justice, someone still have to be left bearing the pain. If they can't bear it, they seek out revenge and the cycle starts all over again. That's why I need the Lord Enforcer to get his head out of his ass, because he's more likely to listen to reason than Chime."
"I have a name," Marcus insisted.
"And I don't care to use it. It's awkward enough admitting you're right. What you don't understand is there can be no justice while the Order of the Covenant only has mistranslations of hearsay to construct an accurate picture of what happened."
"I can't let you destroy the Covenant," Vaughn said, ashamed of the way his voice cracked.
Kale rolled his eyes, leaving no question of just how little he felt Vaughn could do to stop him. "The library is this way." He led the way through a small break in the stone wall, hardly big enough for him to squeeze through.
Vaughn followed, although he had to turn sideways to fit through the gap. "I doubt Theodrick could fit through this," he huffed.
"He might not have bothered."
Oil lamps blazed to life along the walls, and Vaughn gasped. The lights seemed to stretch on forever. The ceiling was twice as tall as any man, supported by massive stone pillars every few yards. Tall shelves stood to their left, and each shelf was lined with books, their leather spines glistening. The shelves stretched on and on.
The right side of the room contained an army.
Or rather, enough suits of monstrous armor to outfit an army of Hokati, each suit of layered plate set upon a small model that might have been human. Rows of weapons hung behind the armor, swords of rippling Hokati steel, ornate spears, and massive bows carved of wood Vaughn had never seen before.
Marcus gasped at the armory. "How, by the Gods, did you lose the war?"
"Hokati steel has many virtues," Kale said blandly. "Being edible isn't one of them."
He stumbled closer to the cache of weapons and armor, his mouth agape. "But the value of these swords alone…. And plate mail? You could buy all of Strong Guard for the value of one of these suits of armor!"
Kale smirked at them. "So, books aren't your thing but the armor turns you on?"
"I…." Marcus gestured at the weapons, blushing even in the dim glow of the lamp light.
"That explains a lot," Vaughn whispered. He kicked at the smooth stone beneath his feet.
Marcus's head snapped in his direction. "What are you talking about?"
"Why you never looked at me the way you look at Kale. I never was much of a soldier."
Kale folded his arms across his chest, his expression hardening in an instant.
"What are you talking about? When you were in the citadel, I was responsible for your training. I would never abuse that position of trust. Which admittedly made training you a nightmare."
"Which might be why he was never much of a soldier," Kale pointed out.
"He never had the stomach for it," Marcus insisted. "But I admit I kept my distance during training when I might not have otherwise. I would never, ever allow myself to appreciate one of the novices entrusted to my care like that."
"Why do you lie when I'm standing right next to you?" Kale snapped.
"It is no lie! I never—"
"What of the vision, then?"
"Oh," Marcus chuckled. "My own fantasy, nothing more. You think you're the only one who likes to be a petty ass when given the opportunity? For the record, it was a fantasy I only allowed myself when he was well beyond my sphere of influence."
"What?" Vaughn cried.
"Then why do all this?" Kale asked, his eyes narrowed.
"I'm protective of all my charges. He's beautiful and kind without thinking about it, even to people who don't deserve it," Marcus said, as though he were stating a matter of common knowledge. "He tends to see the best in people, regardless of what they're really like. Like you, I know what it's like to come of age when everyone you might have a bit of fun with is too terrified to come near you. You were a noble savior sent to deliver the slaves of Ro'don from evil. I was the Wrath of the Gods sent to punish men for every sinful thought in their tiny, hateful little heads. Instead of having a demon to comfort me, I had to learn to appreciate beautiful things from a distance and protect them when I had the chance."
Kale stiffened. "You didn't want to be an Enforcer?"
Marcus barked out a bitter laugh. "Not like I had a choice in the matter. A few nobles get by with the delusion that their parents were giving them a choice about the Order, but the majority never had any say in the decision. It's funny, isn't it? The Enforcers you slaughtered were really just as enslaved as you."
"I'd hardly call someone privileged to hurt others without consequence a slave to the very status that gives them power."
Marcus held up a single hand to stop Kale's argument cold. "I know they committed atrocities. Their status was no excuse for the crimes they committed. Those who didn't fall by your hand, the ones who escaped, fell by mine."
Kale considered him for a moment. Finally, after a long moment, he nodded.
"Can I play with a sword?" Marcus asked, wandering toward the weapons.
Kale actually smiled. "Have at."
Vaughn rolled his eyes and folded his arms across his chest. "Do I want to know what that was about?"
"I…." Kale scratched the back of his head. "I sort of asked him if you were ever lovers."
"You said something about a vision?"
He nodded. "His answer. He showed me a… well, I thought it was a memory… of the two of you…"
"The two of us?" Vaughn wasn't sure who he should feel angry at. "You showed him a fantasy? About me?"
A suit of ancient armor clanged to the floor around Marucs's feet. "The memory of a fantasy," Marcus clarified, not looking at them. "I wanted it to be convincing. But, Mr. Perfect here apparently doesn't get jealous. Hurt, yes, but he actually stops himself from feeling jealous. It's creepy."
Kale gaped at him. "You think I'm creepy? You're supposed to form rational judgements about someone's guilt or innocence, and dole out an appropriate punishment, and you're a perverted, manipulative little twat."
"Hey," Marcus snarled. He only managed to look angry for a moment, though, before he broke into a bright smile. "I am not little. And I have a question for you, Ari Kale the Demon Child. Why the hell weren't you the one we were negotiating with?"
"Being back here reminded me of it. You had some giant pretending to be you."
"Because I am little. Who would have actually believed I was Ari Kale the Demon Child?"
"Your men. And me."
"Yeah, but you were one of four leaders there. Besides, the only one I trusted more than Drak was Celeste. He did everything could have."
"But did he do everything you could have?"
Kale shrugged and turned away from the armory.
"How did these books survive?" Vaughn asked, his sense of awe returning.
"The Library is enchanted. One of the few places where you can take a nap without worrying about the rats." Kale explained, stalking toward the shelves intently. He pulled out several volumes and turned to a small desk near the shelves. "Come here."
"I can't read any of it," Vaughn reminded him.
"I teach more than swordplay," Kale reminded him, shoving him down onto a worn stool in front of the books.
Vaughn's pulse spiked as he felt Kale ghost his fingers over his neck. He'd been so worried about Kale at Monchol, had missed him so damn much, that his treacherous body refused to be prodded into submission by the conscious reminder of the men Kale had killed. The memories of ash and the stink of cooked flesh faded, becoming a distant echo, as words filled his mind. Letters, rules of conjugation, pronunciation, and tiny nuances of a writing style lost for millennia flooded through his being. The information crashed into his mind, the letters scorched like fire behind his eyes, until his head felt like it would explode if the pain continued.
Behind the words was an aching, familiar pain that felt raw and fresh, deeper than any memory and more painful than any wound.
He gasped and grabbed Kale's wrists, keeping him close just in case he tried to move away. "They all feel this, don't they? Everyone but me."
Even the Enforcers felt Kale's misery.
"I hope not," Kale whispered. "I'm usually better at controlling myself."
Vaughn explored the sensation curiously. He felt an echo of old hope, a fleeting desire to be wanted simply for who he was, rather than claim a lover like a battle-prize. And he could have. Given the way Kale had grown into his powers, the way he'd become accustomed to using them to command men by the thousands, it would have been easier than Kale hadn't been excluding him by reaching out to everyone else, he'd been consciously trying to allow Vaughn to keep some semblance of free will.
"The lesson will take better if you focus," Kale hissed, twisting his wrists out of Vaughn's grip.
He spun to face Kale and shot to his feet. "No."
"You don't want to read them? You should. You know the Order better than I ever could. Pick out which ever text you think might help everyone reflect on things rationally and set them aside. I don't know how many you'll be able to carry, but… Never mind. It was stupid to think books would be…."
"You've shattered the world as I know it and you're worried about teaching me to read a dead language?"
"Two dead languages," Kale insisted. "If you just would have focused, you'd have noticed they're different. Not so different, though. The character sets are the same, which I think means they probably were the same language once."
"So… what? You fiddle around with my head and suddenly those curvy lines are somehow supposed to make sense?" Vaughn laughed, gesturing to the enormous books in front of them. His eyes traced the lines stamped into the cover and he knew their meaning, although he couldn't consciously say how. "Alchemy, Metallurgy, and the Components of the Physical World," he read aloud. "I can read Mogakati."
Kale beamed. "See! And this one is fascinating. I'm not sure if I believe all of it, because it sounds more fantastic than the stories of Tyr shaping the world out of sand. But it kind of makes sense."
"Does it?" Despite himself, he opened the cover. The velum pages were all written in small, precise letters by someone who'd obviously made a study of the material as he was writing it, because it read more like a journal than a scholarly text. Within the first few pages, though, Vaughn had to admit that he shared Kale's skepticism. "Tiny little building blocks that are so small no one can possibly see them? Chime believed this?"
"One of his tutors wrote it, and Chime took it as true. And one of the last chapters is about working with the individual building blocks themselves. Apparently the only thing that can create a bigger explosion than breaking them apart is forcing them together. It'd described as harnessing the fire of the sun."
"So this was… one of his text books when he was a little… thing?"
Kale passed him another two books. "This one is philosophy and tactics, this one is a record of their laws, and this one is all spiritual stuff. I think that one is probably a load of crap, but Chime says it's all that's survived of Hokati magic."
"What's this?" he asked, reaching for what looked like the oldest volume. It was slim and leather bound, but the leather looked as though it had been worn away by centuries despite Chime's lingering magic.
"It's a book for little ones," Kale said, glancing at the book. "More religious stuff, but at least that one's an easier read. Big letters and lots of pictures."
"It's just the Song of Creation," Vaughn said, skimming the first page with surprising ease. The letters weren't the same as those in the other text, but Vaughn's mind raced through them regardless. "It's a children's story. Every boy at Strong Guard learns it. Except in our version it's Tyr reaching into the fires of creation and shaping the heavens and the world and all of us out of the ashes."
"In this version, the universe begins with fire."
He focused on the first line again, eager to spot the differences in what seemed like a similar tale. "In the age before time, the Fires of Creation dwindled into nothingness, awaiting a spark to forge matter anew in the dark…." He looked up at Kale. "I know these sounds, but it's not a word you gave me."
"Inferno," Kale said, leaning over his shoulder. "A cosmic inferno, where all of the elements of this universe were created by being crushed together and heated beyond measure. The Dragons of Creation were born in the fire, and set out in all directions to fill the emptiness with stars and worlds and life. They crafted servants from the elements, minions who could endure the eons of time and decay, to watch over and direct the worlds they would build."
He turned the page to an illuminated drawing of a bright star, surrounded by curling, entangled dragons. Compared to the star in the center, the dragons were massive, but they circled the bright spot until their overlapping bodies filled both open pages. The next page contained more text and another picture, this time of three massive reptilian bodies surrounding a bright sun over a word of blue and green. Between the world and the dragons, there were two groups of figures, one tall, sinister and wrapped in bat-like wings. The others were just as big, and their sharp ears and fierce eyes made them look like something of a cross between the winged creatures and human beings.
"One they crafted after their own nature, with wings fit to fly among the fires of creation. The other they crafted after the life that sprang from the chaos, so that as the endless generations progressed toward…." He looked at Kale again.
"Sentience? If you say so. …progressed toward sentience, they could guide and teach them without causing them fear. And so the Hokati were crafted in the form of their masters, and the Anari were crafted in the form of man, who first grasped tools to adapt the elements to their own use."
"Bit different, isn't it?"
"More than a bit. This is… It's written in Anaru." Vaughn flipped through the pages carefully. "This is the actual language of the Gods."
"It was made by Tyr's grandfather. Given to Chime's clan as part of his…" Kale shrugged. "Dowry? I don't think we have a word for it, exactly. Purchase price, I suppose."
"They were equals," Vaughn whispered. "They were meant to work together. And whoever or whatever these dragons were… what happened to them?"
Kale tapped the book gently. "They're a metaphor for the sun, for our star."
"Our sun isn't a star, it's the sun."
Kale looked confused. "The others are the same, they're just too far away to imagine."
He took the hint and turned back to where he'd left off, the continued reading aloud. "Their fires extinguished, the Dragons of Creation withdrew from the emptiness they had filled, leaving life to strive, to rise and fall, to change and grow blessed by their light and warmth." The next page told of how the Anari grew in power and knowledge, teaching the men they'd been tasked with guiding. It described the Hokati acting as messengers and scholars, studying and expanding upon the knowledge left to them until they learned to shape the elements around them by sheer force of will, how they looked upon the world and saw it with new eyes, as a world of interconnected energy that bound all life together. And, through knowledge and training, they taught the Anaru, who delighted in seeing the power and beauty of the spirits around them.
He swallowed hard and sat back, trying to think. Had the creatures he'd been taught were all-powerful Gods gained their power from the Hokati? From the monsters of his childhood fairy tales?
"How did the Covenant happen, then?" he asked, not bothering with an explanation. "How could the Gods turn the Hokati's own magic against them?"
Kale shrugged. "I think it cost Este her life, that she dispersed the energy of her spirit into the humans who agreed to help her. As for the others, I've no clue what happened to them. All I have of that time are Chime's memories, and the stores of the Order. Banished from this world, maybe…" He shook his head and sat down on the desk. "
"So Este was Tyr's daughter? If they were immortal, why reproduce?" he asked. "You said Tyr's grandfather wrote this? Why would they need to have children if they don't die?"
"They weren't immortal, they just lived a long time. But they reproduced to grow. It's in another textbook," Kale said, shuffling through them. "And I don't know where it went. A child is never like its parents, but it's a mixture of the two. And that child's children will be a mixture of two others, and so on. The more traits go into the mix, the more capable the offspring will be."
"Like breeding dogs?" Vaughn asked, skeptically. "Because it's always the mongrels that turn out the best, no matter how much the kennel master rages when someone lets a bitch out of the pen."
"Exactly. It's here somewhere, although it's really just a lot of experiments with tiny flies…."
"They live and die in the course of a day. It apparently makes them ideal subjects to study how things change from one generation to the next."
"Of course," Vaughn said, nodding. "The immortal Hokati couldn't be bothered with something like patience…" He took the book when Kale found it, locking his hand on Kale's again. He opened the dusty text and tried to focus, refusing to let Kale shift away from him. "I meant what I said to Mary," he whispered. And he was surprised by how true that was. Maybe he'd needed to say the words as much as he'd thought Mary needed to hear them. "It was no one's fault."
"You might believe it, Vaughn, but your belief doesn't make it true."
Vaughn snaked his hand behind Kale and slapped the back of his head, not hard, but hard enough to get his attention. "Stop that."
"I burned the Order. If things had been different, I might have burned you."
He shut the book and shoved it aside, then pulled Kale down into his lap. His skin was fever-warm and he was trembling. Vaughn tucked Kale into his arms and held him tight. "Just stop," he whispered against Kale's silver hair. "I'll never like the things you've done, but now that I've had two days of forced marching through this fucking desert to think about it, I can recognize that you did the best you could with what you had. And if you'd been anybody else, it would have turned out worse." He rubbed his hand up and down Kale's back, stung by the way Kale shuddered beneath his touch. "I was angry. I was horrified, and angry. And honestly, I was a little jealous."
"Yes. You let everyone in, let everyone form that creepy bond, except me."
"I didn't want you to lose yourself," Kale whispered.
"Don't give me that shit. Is Celeste's will her own?"
"Even Chime's not powerful enough to force her to do something she doesn't want."
"I'm damn sure Hegan is still himself," he continued. "I understand why you didn't… do whatever you just did, but I didn't understand before."
"You didn't think it was possible before."
"Yes, well, I've experienced direct evidence since then. Besides, every place I looked for magic or divinity before was a disappointment. There is no power left in the Order, if there ever was any to begin with. I chalked Marcus's antics up to cheap tricks and mind games, combined with some parlor tricks to frighten people into obeying the old laws."
"That's it in a nutshell," Marcus said, cheerfully hopping up onto the desk beside them. Aside from the huge grin on his face and his slouched posture, he looked like a knight straight out of legend. "And what Vaughn's never going to get around to saying is: he loves you. He'll love you whether you're a demon, man, or goat. And for his part, he's finally gotten it through his head that you love him. You're his, he's yours, bound together for the rest of your days. Be mindful, though." He glanced at Vaughn carefully. "His heart's fragile. And you…." He glared at Kale. "So is his. If you leave him to clean up another battlefield, you'll break him. Either way, it's done, so there's no backing out over a little thing like one of you being a demon zombie and the other one being too soft-hearted to skin a rabbit."
"Zombie?" Vaughn couldn't help but smile.
"Came back from the dead, didn't he? Zombie. Or zombie demon spawn, whatever you prefer. Either way…." His friend really tried to look serious as he held up a massive sword. "Can I keep a souvenir?"