Moonhuntress lifted her massive head and sniffed the air. Oh gods, his scent! A’Grih blanked the smell and almost fell over. The only thing he had left to sustain him was fear and adrenaline.
The lioness-beast sniffed again, but lowered her head back on her paws. She did not seem to register him.
He tottered a third step. Four. Five.
Was that the sound of gravel?
He panicked and ran. Galloped and sprang like a goat, swallowing the three-score yards across the gravelly courtyard.
He heard the roar behind him, at the same time the guards tried jumping in front of his now very visible form.
But they were too late. He was out of the gate, running like had never run before. If terror gave wings, he was like the great eagles, faster than the riderbeasts, faster than the guards.
Faster than the Moonhuntress, he hoped.
He did not slow down before he was outside the Lady E’kira’s property. He chanced a glance behind him. He could see noone, but that meant very little. There were woods, fences, shrubs – and magic. A’Grih hunched down behind a boulder to try to catch his breath. The tiredness was far beyond the work of the body, though, and he wanted to sleep for a year.
But he couldn’t. His source was the only remedy that would truly work – and he didn’t expect the Lady E’kira’s fighters to be kind to it. He started crawling on all fours like a beast, step by step. Yard by yard, he crept until all that he could think of was putting one foot in front of the other. Occasionally he lifted his gaze to the Ashen hills only a mile or two ahead of him. They seemed to be on the other end of the world.
How he came to the hills unhindered and still breathing he would never know, but suddenly the ground rose before him and he stumbled on dark grey rock. The day-sun warmed his back and he crawled away from it up the path he had walked only a few days earlier. The crack was there, welcoming him, and he let the darkness swallow him. He stopped for a few moments to reorient himself, and heard ahead of him the laughter of guards. Demon guards having fun. And the whimper of a dwarf.
A’Grih crept forwards along the black walls, and finally noticed the pain draining him too. His knees had been rubbed naked and raw, and one hoof was cracking. He had broken most of his nails, and his hands were bleeding. He still had his knife, but he wasn’t sure he had the strength to use it. He peeked around the corner.
He could taste the energy. Like a thousand little suns exploding all over his body. Like the sweetest fruit enveloping his tongue. Like he was dancing on water and dreaming the earth. Like he was singing the song of a thousand beautiful birds. He saw his Source. He drenched himself in his Source. He sucked up his Source and he drowned in it and it fed him like nothing else in the universe could feed him. He felt invincible, and he lifted his hands to create the most wonderful spells he could imagine. A thousand vibrant wasps fled from his fingers and attacked the guards. A dozen images of warriors stormed into the little forge. Illusions all; light and sound and clouds upon the eyes, but the illusion of pain, the illusion of eyes blinded was enough to send them running.
Straight past A’Grih. He was cloaked to all the senses, and they did not even notice when he touched them. He could stab them, and they would think it was the wasps – or the fearsome warriors, and his shape would blur, move, disappear, reappear elsewhere.
There was no fighting back for them and they ran from the forge, away from his Source.
That was when he noticed the state of the dwarf. Chained, beaten, muzzled. The demons had amused themselves with playing with him like a dog. He was curled up like a dog, cowering, terrified, raggedly breathing through the riderbeast muzzle. A’Grih uncloaked himself from the illusions, and trotted over to him. Found a hammer to break the chains, found his knife to cut the muzzle.
Took him in his arms. Embraced, stroked his head, murmured soothing sounds until the dwarf rested easier.
“I am sorry my dear. I couldn’t come sooner. They pulled it from me. I didn’t mean to tell. There was… there was someone who dragged it out of me.”
The dwarf tried to reply, but it came out as muffled sobs.
A’Grih hugged him gently, taking care not to touch the wounds. “Can I take a little more,” he murmured, “to ease your pain?”
The dwarf nodded against his chest, and A’Grih felt the suns explode again, as he pulled and numbed the bruised nerves. He heard the dwarf’s breathing ease up. “What is your name?” The dwarf whispered into his embrace.
“Gramhet. Am I safe?”
A’Grih thought for a moment. He had not seen the Lady or the Favoured follow him, but that didn’t mean anything. And the guards would be perfectly healthy when the illusion wore off. “No. I think we need to get out of here.”
They stumbled together back up the passage. A’Grih making just enough light for them to find the path. The guards were nowhere to be seen, but he was still afraid. The lady would not forgive him for running – and neither would mother and father. It was beginning to dawn on him that he had made a choice that he could never go back on. Never going home? There was terror at home – but it was still his, and there was his room, his riderbeast, his clothes, his weapons, the books he had delighted in, the armsmaster he had grudgingly respected. The groom that had treated him kindly in return for how he treated his beast. The cook that had treated him to food when mother had punished him. Mothers handmaiden that had soothed his bruises after training with father. Mother and father overshadowed them all, their voices drowning the kindnesses, but there had been kindnesses there. There had been a home.
And now it was gone.
“Where do we go,” he asked the dwarf hanging on his shoulder.
“I can’t go home,” Gramhet cried softly. “They would never accept you. I had to lie about the brooch. I told my master you robbed it from me. It was taken off my wages. It will be years until I have paid them back. Years as his apprentice, while my brothers graduate and make their own businesses. Years while others live off my work. And now I can’t even do that.”
A’Grih frowned. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to him that the dwarf had had a life before him. He knew nothing of the boy really. Destiny had just captured his heart. He cursed silently.
“I can’t go home, either,” A’Grih said. “At best you would be tied up in a stable. Sources are valuable, too valuable to destroy – but they would find ways to destroy us both for the gall to be different.”
Gramhet rubbed his raw forehead. “Karchevet,” he said finally.
“The dark forest!” A’Grih felt his stomach knot. “Are you sure?”
“There are elves there – they would probably shoot you on sight. But it is hard to be seen in that place.” He added with a touch of anxiety, “or so I’ve been told.”
A’Grih smiled faintly at him. “Would you know how to survive in a forest? I have lived in the comfort of a house all my life.”
Gramhet shook his head, “I have been in the comfort of caverns and Kindred and towns. I can’t hunt, I have only seen food delivered on a plate.” He frowned. “But the food comes from somewhere. We grow little underground. There are farms on the west side of the Ashen Hills. Maybe we can head that way?”
“It will be hard to get there through the dwarven ways. So much people. I’m not sure I can cover us that much.”
“Then we take the southern way. There are fewer living there. It ends in the Karchevet forest, but there should be paths west and north out of the woods and to our farmlands. There are humans living there, but you are not hard to disguise as one. Change the appearance of your legs, and blank out those pretty, shiny horns, and you could pass for human. The ears are a bit pointy, you might want to fix those too.”
“Pointy ears – elves have those. Can I pass for an elf?”
“No, you shouldn’t risk it. They are steeped in magic. It would not take much of a Gift to penetrate an illusion.”
A’Grih was impressed. “You seem to know a lot! Do all Lunars know so much of the various Kindreds?”
Gramhet shrugged. “I had to learn about magic as part of my training. Some of our workings are meant for Gifted to enchant further. We needed to know how to make them suitable.”
They walked for a mere hundred yards though, before their way was blocked. Guarding demons, side by side across the entire corridor, knowing A’Grih’s Gift, they would not let them pass. A’Grih tried cloaking the two of them, but the guards pointed a wall of spears towards their hidden shapes. Gramhet held him tightly, he couldn’t see the dwarf, but he felt him squeeze, and the thudding of an anxious heart next to his own. Then he noticed the scent of perfume, and the wall parted just long enough to let the Lady Ekira through.
“We know you are there, my pretty gift. Come home with me, and we shall give your little Source the care it deserves. I am not out to hurt you. Why would I hurt my pretty one?”
A’Grih squeezed Gramhet back. Kept the shadow on them both.
“Very well,” Ekira said crisply. “Guards, forwards.”
Side by side, not a foot between them, they advanced. A’Grih and Gramhet backed as quietly as they could, but A’Grih knew he couldn’t keep this up forever. He stopped, dug his hooves in, and pulled on the energy. Gramhet seemed to stagger for a moment, then steadied. The dwarf was so blessedly solid, A’Grih’s heart leapt with a joy he had not known was possible. His heart sang, his Gift sang, he let the cloak fall and twisted the exploding energy into daggers of excruciating pain towards his enemies.
They knew it was only an illusion, but illusive pain hurts too, and soon the guards were writhing in agony on the dirty floor. Screaming, shaking, tearing at their own skin and eyes to desperately be rid of the hallucinations tormenting them.
Ekira stared at them for a moment, then drew her longsword and walked forwards.
A’Grih soon realized her strength. She did not care that her sword turned into ice or fire or snakes. She did not flinch at suns sparking in her eyes, or wasps penetrating every inch of her skin. He needed more, he needed stronger.
He needed different.
He reached out to find Ekira’s other senses. Her sense of balance – she reeled and stumbled.
Her sense of space – she bumped into the wall and cursed.
Then A’Grih drew his own sword and let the shadows part just long enough to send out a copy of himself. The copy lunged and missed. It was meant to. Ekira dodged, laughed and stepped backwards to where he truly was. He stabbed her sword shoulder.
She shrieked, tried to shrug it off, like the imaginary pains he had thwarted her guards with – but this was not an illusion. Her arm was useless and the longsword clattered to the ground.
Ekira grabbed her knife with her left hand and spun around. Real pain and makebelieve imbalance was getting to her and she stabbed into darkness that was nothing. A’Grih stepped aside and punched his sword into her belly. She twisted towards him. Tried stabbing where he was. Grazed his leg. She fell and continued stabbing at his legs and shins. “Come home,” she whispered. “To your parents, your people, your Kindred. Don’t let those filthy cowards pull you away.”
A’Grih thought of his parents, his people, his Kindred. He thought of Mother. He thought of Father. He thought of the beast – no, the Kindred – that he had ridden on only yesterday. He thought of Moonhuntress who would kill him for being with a dwarf. He thought of the woman lying in front of him who would have locked him up to seed her children, and who spat on love. He thought of Mother and Father who laughed at kindness, and rage overtook him.
The energy disappeared. A’Grih fell to the ground. The red rage disappeared. Before him lay Ekira, bruised, bleeding. Her smirking smile replaced with bloody cracks, and her yellow eyes blackened. Why did he stop?
“I won’t allow this.”
The dwarf. The dwarf had taken the energy.
A’Grih turned to him, pleading, “I need it! I need to kill her. Give me!”
Gramhet shook his head, eyes closed. “No, I won’t be party to murder. Look at her. She is broken.”
Ekira wasn’t getting up. But A’Grih needed her dead. “Please! It is mine!”
“No!” The dwarf glared at him. “It. Is. Not. Yours!”
Gramhet added more softly. “Would you treat me like your animal? If you kill her with my energy, my heart will shatter. I would follow you to the ends of the earth, my Gift, but if my heart is to break – I must choose it myself.”
A’Grih stared at him, looked at Ekira. She was broken, beaten. But he had so much anger, so much he needed to release. So much tears.
Gramhet put a hand on his shoulder. “Let us go, Gifted friend.”
A’Grih touched the soft fingers, accustomed to crafting beautiful baubles, and felt himself a very ugly little object. Gramhet squeezed his shoulder, “now, please?”
A’Grih nodded and rose slowly. “As you wish. You choose.”
Gramhet sighed and shook his head, “stubborn demon. We choose. You and I. Together.” Then he grabbed the demons hand and took him back to the forge, supported A’Grih as the gift cloaked them both, supported him as they brought light to dark tunnels, far from the caves of the dwarves, supported him as they walked in silence into the deep forests where dwelled strange creatures and ancient elves and even further into lands owned by humans. He supported his demon as he changed his shape to resemble those they walked among, and he supported him in the night where one hug, one touch, one kiss chased the nightmares. Not in a day, not in a year, but Gift by gift in a lifetime.