Warnings: This story will contain violence, swearing, slash, and mild sexual references.
Disclaimer: Opening lines preceding the chapter title are taken from Black Balloon, by the Goo Goo Dolls.
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The moon was already high in the sky, but its light was stifled by a brighter, reddish glow – a city in flames could be a thing of beauty, if only for those who were not caught in its fire.
Only corpses had stayed to see the sight. Not even 12 hours ago, a revolt had finally toppled the despot who had ruled over these lands, and the price to pay was the blood that now drenched the courtyard and town square. Most of those who had been fortunate enough to survive the city's destruction had fled by now. All that remained now were ghosts and ruins – and one man, carrying a smaller, lifeless body in his arms.
He paid no attention to the destruction around him, not even as he stepped on splinters of wood that used to be door frames, or shards of broken glass. He crossed the empty street with purpose and turned a corner, clutching the body closer to his chest. He then rapped on the door of a small house with the tip of his boot.
"Doctor Duncane," he called out in a hoarse voice. "I am here."
He had to wait an eternity before the door was finally pulled open. Leopold Duncane, who had once served with honor as physician to the Royal Family, ushered him impatiently, rubbing at the back of his head. Perhaps on some level, he was still thinking about how close he had come to losing it today.
"Quickly, Sir Fontaine. Inside."
Fontaine followed him into an old, dusty living room littered with crates and chests. Some of them had been left open, and were filled mostly with medical instruments. But he could also see several books whose titles he recognized – they had been bannedfor the last four years.
"I did expect you earlier," the doctor mumbled as he led them through a small dining room. "Make no mistake, I am grateful that you saved my life today, and it is only right that I grant you this favor in return. But we do not have much time."
"My apologies. I was not aware you were going to leave so soon," Fontaine said.
The doctor threw him a meaningful glance. "That is not what I meant."
Fontaine gritted his teeth, and pulled the young man in his arms closer to his chest.
Leopold finally stopped walking as soon as they were in the middle of the kitchen. He pulled back a filthy rug to reveal a trap door, and grabbed an oil lamp from the wooden counter. "Careful," he warned, before heading down the stairs.
Fontaine pulled the young man's head to rest onto his shoulder, and stepped down gingerly. He did not want to hurt him any more than he already had.
"Did you give him that potion as I prescribed?"
"Yes." Fontaine hesitated. "I did it as soon as I could find a place to hide. The bleeding seems to have stopped."
"But it will not keep him alive for long."
The doctor held the lamp in front of him as he guided the knight through the underground passage. The stones in the walls looked as though they must have been thousands of years old. Grime covered the jagged surfaces enough to make them glisten in the dark. The air in the passage was stale and smelled of earth, and he found the passage to be impossibly cold – not unlike the young man in his arms.
Fontaine pushed that morbid thought away. He would save him. He would.
"We are almost there." Leopold paused for only a moment, and turned around to throw a brief glance his way. "Step lively, Sir Fontaine, or we shall not make it in time."
When they finally emerged from the passage, Fontaine had to squint to adjust to the sudden brightness. Dozens of white candles had been lit, arranged in a large circle on the floor. From the sizes of the puddles of wax around them, it looked as though they had been burning for at least an hour.
They were in a vault with a high, arched ceiling. A hooded figure was waiting for them in the center of the room, behind a raised platform covered by red cloth.
Fontaine recognized those carvings on the wall immediately: they resembled the royal coat of arms, and he had hung up his shield enough nights to have those images seared into his memory. "This is – "
"The castle, yes," Leopold finished for him. He set the lantern down onto the ground. "Do not worry, we are still underground. There is no-one else here, and there never will be."
"What do you mean," Fontaine started, still holding the young man close, "no-one is here?"
Leopold's expression shifted, and sadness flickered over his features. "The people have all left, Sir Fontaine, and if they are wise they will not return. The destruction has taken its toll." He sighed. "I would advise you to leave as well, as soon as this task is done."
"Task?" Fontaine kept holding onto the young man, noticing how cold he still felt, and how light he was in his arms. "I am not leaving without him," he said firmly.
Leopold met his eyes, and then shook his head. "You are stubborn. But that is not for you to decide."
"I came here because you said you could save him. Can you? Or was that just a lie?"
"I cannot," Leopold shook his head. "To undo what has been done is beyond my reach." The doctor looked down and gestured towards the young man in the knight's arms, "And beyond that of any mortal."
He stepped back. Fontaine saw the hooded figure raise its head, but it was not enough for him to make out a face. As his eyes eventually adjusted to the candlelight though, he thought he might have caught a glimpse of a soft jawline, and pale lips.
"Who are you?" he called out.
"I have been given many names, Sir Jude de Fontaine," came the reply. The voice was unmistakably that of a female, but possessed an ethereal quality that made her whisper sound as though it were echoing from the very walls. "And yes, I do know who you are. I have watched you fight valiantly to defend these lands I love. Because of your bravery, and that of your comrades, these lands were not razed to ashes today. For that, I thank you."
"Then will you help me? Please?"
The woman paused, before the hood finally moved, ever so slightly, from an otherwise imperceptible nod. For a second, before she lowered her head once more, he thought he could have glimpsed tendrils of spun gold, and eyes that might have been pale, pale blue.
She was not human, Fontaine realized. Was she a spirit? A witch?
It did not matter either way. He shifted the young man in his grasp so that he would not touch the floor as Fontaine sank down onto one knee. "Please… help me," he repeated. "I will offer you any compensation that you require."
"Compensation is not needed," the woman said. "Your heart is pure. And as I have told you, you have my gratitude." She walked over to him with her long robes trailing behind her, and when she touched his cheek, somehow this put him at ease. "I only wish for you to know is that this will require immense sacrifice, as well as time."
"I can grant him his life back, but not all at once. My powers do not extend that far. Instead, what I offer you is this: he shall sleep until a thousand winters, summers and springs have passed. Until this very castle is nothing but rubble, and the knights and kings who walked these grounds are spoken of only in legends."
"Then…" Fontaine felt his heart sink. "I shall never see him again?"
The woman's lips turned up in the slightest hint of a smile. "You think like a true mortal. Take heart, Sir Fontaine – your wish shall be granted, so long as the price is paid."
The more he mulled over those words, the more it began to dawn on him that perhaps this had been a mistake. He pressed the young man's head against his shoulder, and moved a tiny step back.
"Jude." The doctor called him by the name his mother had given him, and spoke in a solemn tone. "There is no other way."
Leopold's words reminded him of the ugly alternative, and after slowly rising to his feet, Jude walked a short distance over to the platform. Once he was there, he lowered the young man gingerly onto its surface.
The woman stepped forward, took the young man's hands into her own, and placed them so that they were folded atop his chest. As she pulled away, Fontaine could see the young man's tattoos – identical, twin imprints of carnations in bloom, one each on the back of the hand. His throat tightened.
"Your heart's desire involves walking in the realm of the gods," she whispered. "The sacrifice required will be great – a price that no lesser man can ever pay."
"I will do whatever it takes."
Fontaine drew back, the harsh coldness of the woman's tone having felt like a slap. "What? But you said…" He trailed off, eyebrows knotting. "I do not understand."
"And that is how it must be." The woman nodded towards Leopold, and told him in a quiet voice, "Take the good knight outside."
Fontaine's heart sank further, and fear grappled inside his chest. He shook his head. He was not ready; there still had to be some time left. "Wait... at least let me say goodbye!"
But Leopold was already pushing him out, insistently. By the time they were both out of the chamber, and just before the door shut, Fontaine could see the flames lighting the candles beginning to die out, one by one.
Coming down, the world turned over
And angels fall without you there
And I go on as you get colder
Or are you someone's prayer?
01. the sleeping knight
The breeze was cool, the night sky was clear, and a tall man in black was running away from gunfire.
He didn't need the comprehensive instructions being fed to him from his spotter's voice, over his earpiece. He'd simply picked a direction where the gunshots hadn't been coming from, and began running for his life. He wished he weren't running uphill. He wished he didn't have all of this gear under his jacket weighing him down.
He wished for a lot of things.
"That's not the escape route we planned, Fenrir! What the hell are you doing?"
That was a very good question. A gunshot smashed a rock that was just inches from his right foot, so he kept going, even as his calves ached in protest.
43 minutes ago, he'd killed a retired underboss who had been laying low in his secluded cottage in rural Scotland, waiting out a bit of heat. All it had taken was a single bullet to the back of his head. It should have been an uneventful, easy job.
But it wasn't. A last-minute change in plans due to his mark's increasing paranoia had meant there were more bodyguards than they'd anticipated. And the problem with this place was that there was nowhere to hide.
He didn't like running away. Among his colleagues, he'd always been known as the 'tracker' of the group. As such, he would always be infinitely more comfortable on the other side of the chase, but there wasn't much he could do about that now.
Going up the hill had its advantages, though: the gunshots were getting less frequent now. He wondered how much longer this would take.
"Where are you going, Fenrir?"
"I don't know," he ground out. He finally reached in through his open jacket, pulled out his gun and returned fire. "Can you send a chopper?"
"Not for another half-hour. By then, it won't matter."
"Right. Right." The tracker took a deep breath, ducked as he heard another series of shots, and fired back two of his own. The sudden, frantic spray of bullets echoing from behind informed him that at least one of those had been put to good use. That was slightly comforting.
The sky really was dark now, and if he looked up he could see the stars overhead, a blanket of blinking dots spreading out above him. The air grew colder the higher he climbed, and the mist gradually thickened.
But the gunshots from his pursuers were now few and far in between, and quite a significant distance away. He was beginning to see the end of his climb now, too: the incline was gentler now, and he thought he could see something in the distance.
"There's a forest on the other side of that hill you're on – "
"Wait," he interrupted. "I was told that this whole hill was just empty grassland."
His spotter sounded confused. "But it is."
The tracker frowned. "…I see."
He didn't comment, then, on what he saw here: ruins of what once must have been a grand structure, a palace or castle of some kind. Its walls blackened and charred, it stretched out before him like a huge skeleton with its bones put out to proud display. Tattered cloth from remnants of curtains or flags dangled behind dusty, rounded windows on the few walls that had somehow remained standing.
There was no gate standing in his way. Nor did any signs hint at these grounds being guarded under some historical preservation effort.
From afar, he heard another gunshot. Maybe his mark's bodyguards hadn't quite given up on the chase after all.
"Fenrir, report! What's going on over there?"
The tracker took a deep breath, taking in the ruins again. "There's…" He paused, wondering if his spotter would believe him if he described the ruins to her. Maybe now wouldn't be the best time for that, he decided. "I think I've found a hiding place," he said instead. "I'll try to wait this out."
"Good idea. I'll see what I can do to get you out of there. Keep us posted."
He pulled his jacket closed, and jogged forward.
While the tracker sought refuge in the ruins, an assembly of men dressed in white met in a huge hall, on the other side of the world.
They stood gathered around a huge, round table of heavy marble, with golden embellishments all around its circumference, depicting carnations in bloom. The table's surface was smooth enough to be almost perfectly reflective, and atop it lay a ceremonial sword with a gold handle. Intricate carvings ran up the length of the ivory scabbard, stopping only at the elaborate, golden lock which ensured that this sword would never drink another man's blood.
The men had their eyes closed as though in prayer, and each wore a fresh white carnation on his breast pocket. They clasped their hands together and sang:
"Glory to our King, to he who stopped all sin.
Glory to he who fell, but shall rise to power again."
Silence befell the room as the North-facing door opened, and a man in a white robe walked in bearing a length of worn parchment. He moved to the center of the room, and the rest of the men made way for him as he approached the table.
The man unrolled his parchment, and began to read.
"…And so on that day the kingdom fell to ruins, and with time all traces of the great King Magnus faded away. He was betrayed by some of his most trusted knights who had sworn to serve him, and by foolish subjects who craved only chaos and death."
The others muttered harsh words to themselves under their breaths. The man in the robe raised his hands, and silence returned.
"But we, his faithful followers, know it is our duty to preserve what is left of his legacy. We must wait and prepare. For we declare that our King will return. Soon, his most loyal knight, the only one who stood by his side until the very end, will awaken once more. After that, it will not be long…"
He spoke in a solemn voice that grew louder as he finished reading the prophecy. The other men listened attentively, and when he finished, the whole room erupted in cheers and applause.
Opening yet another door in the castle, the tracker found himself in a world of dust and decay: spider webs hung down from remnants of the ceiling, and the further inside he went, the more nature had re-conquered what had been lost. Beetles crept along the surface of a very old table in one of the rooms, and he heard other critters skittering about elsewhere.
Thin beams of light fell in from the moon outside, revealing the dirty floors and the vestiges of what must have once been a splendid hall. Rusty suits of armor guarded these dead corridors, wielding swords and shields that seemed less ravaged by battle than by sheer time.
He must have been on the run for about an hour now, and he'd been out of contact with his spotter for about as long. For some reason, his earpiece wasn't working in here.
He could no longer hear gunshots, but he knew that assuming the danger was over now would be foolish. Sighing, the man in black stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and didn't bother to tread lightly, kicking up dust with every step.
He eventually found one chamber that still seemed to be intact, for whatever that was worth. Short, half-melted remains of candles stood fused to the floor, cold, and he counted more than 50 before stopping. Several jars lined the walls, made of porcelain that had long since either cracked or dulled. Two of them were empty, but one of them held long, withered-up sticks – incense, perhaps, in another lifetime.
The last urn was half-filled with small coins: not copper, but not gold either, they seemed to be made of an alloy that resembled both and yet neither. The man reached in and picked up one, examining it against the feeble light. He couldn't make out the writing, or the carving on the coin's face.
Maybe his brother would appreciate the souvenirs, he thought, and pocketed a few of the coins anyway. It was then that he noticed the huge stone slab standing in the middle of the room.
He didn't know for sure what exactly about this piqued his curiosity. Maybe it was the exhaustion of having spent most of his night running from gunfire, or maybe it was something else entirely, but he found himself walking towards the slab before he could help it. Just like the candles that had burnt out centuries ago, the slab showed its age clearly, with long cracks on its surface revealing glimpses of what used to be its original, pristine color.
The tracker traced his fingers over the surface, noticing how cool it was. He looked up, and saw only the candles and urns bearing witness. His curiosity grew.
Bending forward, he placed his hands at the corners of the lid and started to push.
It took a while before the slab even budged, and by then sweat was already running down his back. It took every ounce of strength he possessed before the slab fully yielded, and he finally heard a thud. Pausing to catch his breath, he waited for a few seconds, before lifting his head to see what was underneath.
The man had expected a skeleton, perhaps with an ancient sword or some other kind of memorabilia buried beside it, or held to its breast. His blood froze when his eyes came to rest instead upon the face of a sleeping young man. There was a splash of freckles on and around his nose, but they were hard to make out because of the light pink of his complexion. The tracker would think it odd, later, that the first real thought he formed after seeing the young man here was to wonder how it was possible, that he could have been buried like this for God-knew how long and not be as pale as a ghost.
That was another thing: who knew how long this young man had been here? It surely must not have been for very long, because he was still clearly very much alive. He could see the rise and fall of his chest, and when he moved close enough, he could hear the young man breathing.
He glanced up and around. The rest of the entire chamber was in clear disrepair, and the thick coat of dust on the floor, several years in the making at the very least, had been left undisturbed by any footprints except for his own.
This didn't make any sense.
He thought that perhaps he was finally starting to lose it, and that he would wake up from this strange dream soon enough. Perhaps those men chasing him had caught up with him after all, and he was already dead: this was some kind of limbo, then, and the young man in the coffin would be the first of many oddities to come for an eternity.
Still, he felt that he should probably back away soon, and leave this place.
'Wait for me...'
Something in his head pulsed. Groaning, the tracker clutched at his temple, wondering if he'd been hit by shrapnel or some stray bullet an hour ago, and only noticed it now. This certainly wouldn't have been the first time.
But his hand came away dry.
He hesitated, and reached down into the coffin. He'd been intending to feel for a pulse, but for some reason his fingers came to brush against the young man's cheek, and lingered there.
'And then, come back to me once and forevermore.'
The tracker felt a jolt run up his arm. The young man sucked in his breath, shuddered, and let out a soft groan.
And then he opened his eyes.
The tracker stopped breathing.
'Thank you for freeing me.'
The young man smiled when he saw him. His eyes were a brilliant green, framed by curls of red that had fallen over his forehead. "Jude," he whispered, and leaned into the tracker's touch. His cheek felt warm to the touch.
The tracker shivered. But he didn't withdraw, despite himself.
He could count on both hands the number of people who knew his real name. And now, in a ruined castle that was a whole ocean away from the city he called home, here was this this young man whom he'd never seen before in his life, speaking it softly and fondly as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
"How... do you know my name?" he said in a low voice.
The young man's smile widened, his eyes lighting up with affection. He chuckled softly. "But of course I know your name." He reached for Jude's hand. "You are my mentor, my friend, and my…"
He shifted and tried to sit up, pulling the hand towards his face and kissing the knuckles. Jude just stood there, stunned.
But he still had the presence of mind to catch the young man as he faltered and swayed.
Jude rested the young man's head on his shoulder, confused. His hair smelled familiar, and he was impossibly warm. Jude himself felt dizzy now – as though he were wandering through a dream.
"Jude," the young man whispered again, "I would never forget the name… of the man I…" But he never managed to finish his sentence, slumping forward into Jude's embrace.