At long last, I present the next full-length tale in the Tales of El Universe! Here begins Stone Illusions. Join me on this road of missed chances and mistakes... and the emotional and life-consequences rising from each. As always, enjoy.

Thanks to my beta Fadded!


Prologue
The Intersect

Playing hooky, Gartol tried to catch his favorite scralla ball as it fell, but at the last moment, one of the flaps in the ball's outer shell dropped open, scooping the air and redirecting the descent. The scralla ball bounced off the damp planks of the temple's elevated walkway, hit the library's outer wall, then rolled down the walk's gentle decline.

As Gartol chased his wayward ball, he almost tripped: Gartol's twin, Parthol, chose that moment to unleash what had been unto then, a distant, nebulous displeasure. It grew sharp and cutting against Gartol's mind, making it difficult to see clearly. Parthol's unhappiness always did that to Gartol, and it ruined Gartol's perfectly reasonable 'duty shirking'. Unlike most rae`lirs, Gartol didn't need to be physically near his brother to sense Parthol nodding off and then to jostle him awake—advantages of twinship. Whether the lore that indicated twins shared a single soul was true or not, they did share a deep, constant connection that surpassed what most rae`lir formed with their families. Therefore, unlike most, as long as Parthol was Gartol's time-keeping counterpart for watch duty, Gartol could fulfill his function without having to climb to the top of the bell tower.

Gartol returned the mental prod, transforming it into a comforting caress that promised Gartol would provide a soothing back massage as apology and thanks. Parthol's mind settled just as Gartol caught up with his scralla ball. He heard distant voices he didn't recognize, though the tight vegetation hemming in the walkways blocked view of their owners.

"I don't want to stay here. I want to go home with you."

"That's enough." The new voice wavered about as much as the mountains' foundation against a slight breeze. "This is what's best. There's a purpose, and if you stop being stubborn, you can even enjoy it."

"But Ka-nah—"

"Wait here. I'm going to finalize arrangements with the High Master."

Gartol peeked around the corner just in time to watch an adult rae`lir pass into and then out of his line of vision where the path connected to a walk surrounding the main temple compound. He craned his neck, in attempt to see the boy who'd spoken. He remembered how nervous he'd been when he and Parthol came to serve at the High Northern Water Temple, and they'd been excited about it.

Like all rae`lir, the boy had ebony eyes and skin faintly tinted blue — like a greyish-brown river stone draped with translucent, blue seva — delicate fabric as soft as dawn breezes. The boy looked a year or two younger than Gartol—maybe nine or so. He leaned against the walkway's railing with one arm crossed tight over his stomach and his other hand rubbing the side of his head. His eyes locked on the planks at his feet, and his short, slate-colored hair, very common among the rae`lirs, fell down around his face. Despite this, Gartol could see his silver lips twisting downwards, and his face appeared especially dark, suggesting the blood had drained. Even from that far away, Gartol sensed the anxiety rolling off him. Poor kid. Still, that unhappy sight was really, really cute.

Gartol ducked under the railing at his right and crossed through the foliage, leaves dripping water down his back and against his face as he moved through them soundlessly. He pulled himself up onto the walkway right beside the boy. Standing outside the railing, Gartol leaned over it as he tilted his head forward. His short, dark grey braid swung downwards over his shoulder. "You know, it's pretty nice here most of the time."

The boy's gaze jerked up, surprise flashing across his features as sense of his mind grew tight and distant, nearly invisible like most strangers'. The boy dropped his arms, and his stance shifted to one that displayed strength and confidence as he backed away from Gartol's sudden appearance. But it was too late: Gartol had already seen the truth.

The boy cleared his throat. "I'm not sure what you mean."

Gartol chuckled and pulled himself up and over the railing to sit atop it, bracing his feet on the middle stabilizing board. He leaned against his knees. "My name's Gartol. I've been here for just over a year. The food's alright, and the temple patrons are pretty nice. There's this one old guy that comes every tenth moon-rise, and he always brings sweets for the younger apprentices."

The boy blinked at Gartol as if he couldn't quite comprehend the words. At last, he glanced away a little and gave a sad smiled. "I would rather go home."

"I can tell."

His eyes snapped back and his face paled in a flush. "You can?"

"I heard what your ka said, and then I come over, and you're standing like they just announced the end of El."

His flush deepened, spreading the subtle whitening clear to his ears. "I… uhm…"

"That's alright," Gartol continued. His goal wasn't to be mean, and making the boy flounder wouldn't be anything else. "It's natural to be intimidated."

"I'm not intimidated." His stance shifted again to re-strengthen after its slow wilting.

"I see." Gartol could only smile. "So what's your name?"

The boy looked down again. "Binne… of the Tagren House."

Gartol knew he should address the boy as 'Apprentice Tagren', but he just couldn't bring himself to observe decorum. He didn't want to be a stranger. He wanted to be a friend. "Nice to meet you, Binne."

Binne glanced up again. He didn't look offended that Gartol used his name instead of his House and title. He glanced about the surrounding forests. "It's really not that bad here?"

Gartol leaned over to catch the boy's eyes again. "Really."

The half-shy smile Gartol received hit him like the great mallet that stuck the time keeping bell. He tightened his grip on the railing because he felt like he might tumble off. Gartol reminded himself to breathe and sat up with the full and complete knowledge that he was both smitten and ridiculous for being so in such little time.

Oh well.

He rolled his scralla ball between his fingers. Sudden resolution shored in his chest, and he extended his hand. "Here."

Binne's gaze lifted from the scralla ball to meet Gartol's eyes. "What's that?"

"A welcome gift. Do you follow the scralla leagues?"

"A little." Binne shrugged even as tentative fingers accepted the offering. He rubbed a nervous thumb over the seal of one of the section flaps that only opened at the right angle and speed of descent. "I like watching Alness's team sometimes."

"Yeah? Are you from Alness?"

"Yes."

"Me too!"

"You are?"

"An uncle works at the stadium. He got that after a practice one day."

Binne's eyes lit up as he lifted them again. "Really?"

Gartol nodded. Water Lords, that exciting, hopeful expression had even more power than that smile.

Binne looked down again. "I… shouldn't take this."

"Why not?"

"Well, I…" The boy shrugged and held it back towards Gartol, staring at the ball with a sad resignation in his eyes.

"Tell you what," Gartol ruffled Binne's hair. "Keep it. If you decide you shouldn't have, then give it back, and I'll take it then… but I'll want a better reason than 'well'."

Binne smiled. "That's really nice of you."

Gartol hopped off the railing. Parthol's pushy inquiry as to what had Gartol so happy was getting distracting. "I've gotta run. I'll see you around though, yeah?"

Binne nodded. "Thank you… uhm… Gartol."

"Y'know, I think we could be pretty good friends."

Binne smiled, shy, adorable. "I think I agree."

Gartol gave a wide grin, winked, and turned to jog up the path towards the time-keeping bell. He knew Parthol wouldn't settle until Gartol talked to him. He smiled to himself as he ran. A quick bite to his lip reminded him that his sudden interest and the unexpected feelings towards this other boy were a little silly.

Oh well. He was a little silly, and that was okay.

In the two years that followed their first meeting, it was Gartol's silly refusal to adhere to certain social rules that allowed he and Binne become friends. During that time, Gartol's 'silly interest' only deepened while he did his best to prove the temple could be a great place to learn, grow, and live. For a while, things were good.

Very good.

But then, Rarnat Kar'nil arrived, and his presence shook Gartol's and Binne's respective worlds in very different ways.