Mechanics

Sometimes it was so easy to forget that Oliver wasn’t whole.

Sometimes he could make it an entire day without thinking about it, without someone commenting on it.  Those days were often the best days.  Then he at least felt more human.

But today wasn’t one of those days.  It had started early this morning when, while packing himself something for lunch, he had accidentally cut his finger.  Or rather, he cut the artificial skin covering his mechanical hand.  It wasn’t a big deal.  It stung a bit, and it only took him a minute to fix the minor cut.  Normally letting a knife slip like that would have resulted in cursing and blood.  It was the first reminder that day that he wasn’t normal.

The second had been when he had shaken a new client’s hand.  The man instantly recoiled, as if he had been bitten by a snake.  Oliver had, of course, been required to explain why his hands were so cold.

And now, here he was, at the gym.  One of the few places he completely resented.  He, of course, was supposed to come here everyday just to keep his torso strong.  It was all part of his contract.  Four years of service.  Of course that had been changed to 2 years active duty and two years on reserve.  Today marked the first anniversary since he’d nearly died.  Most people would have been grateful that they were still alive, and while he wouldn’t say he was ungrateful, he’d rather that the doctors had been able to save his arms and legs.

Even though he wasn’t out fighting any longer, he still had to fight continually to keep what remained of his body in shape.  As a result he usually would come here late at night, when there were only a few other people here.  That way he could work in peace without someone openly staring at him.  He couldn’t workout with the artificial skin on.  He had to take it off.

But today a friend of his, Brant, had invited him along to workout at the end of the day.  Oliver hadn’t been able to say no.  There was no way that he could, he’d been putting it off for a few days now.

Oliver completed his last sit up and climbed off the machine.  Brant gave him a thumbs up before getting on for his last set.  “Hey man, listen, a friend of mine invited me over for dinner tonight, I think you should come along.”

“Who is this friend of yours?”

“Just a single girl I met a while back before we were shipped out.  Since Nadine and I are dating, I thought maybe you might have luck with her.”

Oliver frowned, he doubted it, most women looked at him like he was some sort of monster.  “What is her name?”

Brant grinned, “You will just have to come along to find out.”

Brant climbed off and rubbed at his shoulder where his mechanical arm met with what was left of his original arm.  “Feels like there is a storm coming.  Stump aches…Anyways are you in or not?”

Oliver didn’t really feel any desire to go.  Whenever anyone found out that none of his limbs were real, they acted as though something was wrong with him.  Sometimes the shock was so much that they couldn’t even say a word and would just stand there gaping at him.  At best, they might apologize or thank him for his service, but even then, he could always tell they thought of him as an outsider, as inhuman.  It was especially worse when they found out despite the artificial skin he wore because then they felt as though he was trying to trick them.

“Look, I know how things are when people find out,” Brant said, “But she isn’t like that.  I promise you will have a good time.”

“What if I say no?” Oliver said, turning to go to the locker rooms so he could head home.

Brant pulled Oliver to a stop, “I will drag you there by force.  You need to get out some.  Smell the roses every now and then.”

“Yeah, whatever man.  She will just freak out, like everyone else.”

“I swear Oliver, you are so dense sometimes.  Here’s the address.  If you aren’t there we will come to your place and party there.”

Oliver rolled his eyes but took the slip of paper anyways.  Normally he would have just ignored a threat like that, but Brant really was the kind of person that would move a party to Oliver’s house just to make Oliver socialize.  It had happened before.

 

Oliver shifted nervously in front of the bright green doorway, hands jammed into his coat and his hood pulled over his head to block out the rain.  What was he doing here?

He freed one of his hands and looked down at the dark metal that made up his palm.  He wasn’t wearing the skin tonight.  Might as well get the alienation over with right away, then he could just slip out early.

Brant’s clear laughter could be heard through the door, along with some faint music.  Oliver took a deep breath and turned back to the dimly lit street.  Maybe he should just go home and lock his door.

Without really meaning to he turned back towards the doorway and knocked.  Even the sound his clenched fist made against the  door sounded artificial to him.  But, tonight, he would do his best to forget about it.

The music inside grew quieter, the laughter stopped.  Brant said something and the sound of footsteps making their way towards the door drifted through the air.  Oliver found his heart pounding heavily in his chest.  He was already mentally bracing himself for the inevitable.  Maybe he should have worn a long-sleeved shirt.

Even if this girl was smart enough to not act surprised that he was mostly mechanical, there would still be signs.  Little pauses in her speech, moments when she would glance at his hands and arms.  And even then, he could always see the look in someone’s eyes.  Everyone always had the same look, the look that said he was different, that he wasn’t normal.  He hated that look more than anything else.

There was a slight pause between when the footsteps stopped and the door opened.  A pause that almost seemed to say that he shouldn’t be here, that maybe the person on the other side of the door would just close it the moment they saw him.

The handle turned in a smooth motion and the door swung inward bathing him in warm yellow light.  Luxurious and inviting smells from cooking food drifted out, embracing him.  The interior of the house was inviting and cozy.  He could see Brant down the hallway, a crooked grin across his face and Nadine tucked under his arm.  For a moment Oliver felt like he did whenever he returned to his parents house.  The light felt warm and comforting, like he belonged here.

And then she stepped out from behind the door, a warm smile on her face, eyes dancing with life, gorgeous brown hair tumbling down over her shoulders, a red blouse and blue jeans.  Oliver felt his heart skip a beat and he struggled to keep his jaw from dropping.  What in the world?  “Lu…Lucy?  Is that really you?” he stammered, stepping back.

Shock quickly spread over her face, her hands covered her mouth and she managed a little nod.  Oliver took another step back and crashed down the stairs.  He lay there, on his back, for a long time, rain dripping down onto his face.  So she was alive.  Lucy had survived.

He heard the door up the stairs close, shutting off the warm light.  He didn’t blame her, not after the way they had left things.  He wouldn’t have wanted to talk to himself either.

Oliver blinked, well, that charade was over, it was time to go back home and forget tonight ever happened, forget her address, and move on.  His heart was still pounding heavily in his chest and he felt sensations that he had thought had long since vanished.

“Are you alright?”

Oliver looked up at Lucy, who stood over him with a concerned look on her face.  He pushed himself up, “I should get going.  Sorry.  Forget I was even here.”

She put her hands on her hips and scowled, “And where will you go?  Huh?  Just go back to being alone?”

He started to say something but she cut him off.

“You always were bad with people.” She said softly, offering him a hand up, “Come on, let’s go inside,

Without meaning to he reached up, but then he saw it, the flash of surprise and confusion the moment she realized that his hand wasn’t real.  He snatched his hand back and got to his feet.

“Your hand…”

Oliver nodded, straightening his jacket, “Yep, and my arm.  Both arms really.  Oh and my legs too.  Brant didn’t fill you in?”

She shook her head, “What happened?”

“I served the country.  That is what happened.”

Again she covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes wide.  There was sadness in them.  He jammed his hands back into his pockets, “I should just go, you have guests to look after.”

Before he even took a step she crushed him in an embrace.  She felt so warm, even in the cold rain.  The bitterness and distance he felt for the world seemed to just melt away into nothingness.  He returned her embrace and for the first time since he had returned, his body truly felt whole again.

 

Advertisements

The Mansion

Ugir strolled through the streets of the city with hands stuffed in his pockets and his tattered jacket drawn tight against the cold evening air.  Around his neck hung a necklace with a single clear crystal and compared to the rest of his attire, the necklace was the only valuable thing he had.  A few people looked at him briefly as they strutted by.  He could almost hear their laughter at him.  They might not laugh out loud, but he knew they were snickering under their breath.

They were all so stupid, so annoying.  So…small minded.  Always laughing at him, always shouting at him for being different.  What had he ever done to deserve such treatment?  Nothing.  Not one damn thing and yet, they still did.

But things were different now.  Ever since he had found the book everything had changed.  Now he knew that he wasn’t alone.  The things that he could do did not make him different.  They had always made him better, made him stronger.  At first he could only do simple things, but now, with the crystal, he was so much better.

Ugir kicked viciously at a rock on the sidewalk, watching it skitter away into the distance sliding to a stop at the foot of a sandy colored building.  A government building no less.  He strode up to the bottom and looked up one of the carved columns holding up the roof.  Some Latin was carved into edge of the stone roof.  He scowled at it, people always thought that a dead language made them look smarter.  He scoffed at it and went on his way.  While he despised the government this was not the proper spot, it didn’t have the right feel to it.

It was close though, he could sense the direction he needed to go.  Not long now.  Not long till the laughing stopped, till the mocking ended.

Finally he was there.  The massive buildings stretched up into the sky.  A monument to the rich, to the privileged.  They were the ones that laughed the loudest, mocking his rags and his depravity.  They thought they were safe in their fancy cars and their fancy buildings.  They had all the money in the world and they thought they were safe.

Dead men.  The lot of them.  Fuck the rules of the book.  He had power now, power to do away with the world.  Nothing could stop him.

Ugir planted himself in the center of the crossroads and started to draw the power to him.  Its exhilarating feel drew a wicked smile across his face.  Oh how they laughed at him when they found out what he could do.  What threat was a man in rags?

He called more power to him, channeling it through his crystal necklace before wrapping it tighter around his fist.  The rags of his jacket fluttered slightly on his skinny frame as he drew himself up.  Enough of this place, he thought, he was a master of his form, not some street beggar to be pitied.  Fuck the rules, fuck this life.  He had enough.

The drab colors of the city began to waver around him, furthering his twisted smile.  They would finally know exactly what it was he could do.  The whole world would know.

When he could barely contain the power whirling around him he bent down and released it all into the ground.  A deafening explosion rocked the city.  A few of the oldest buildings crumbled in a plume of dust.  For a moment he wondered if he had done it wrong.  Ugir saw red. The book had been wrong!

The ground shuddered slightly before it thrust upwards with an angry roar.  Like waves on water, the earth shook up and down violently, spreading outwards from him in a destructive path.  Entire buildings collapsed, vehicles were tossed about like toys.  Wave after wave of rock spread outwards from him, turning the city to dust.

All the while, Ugir stood at the epicenter, chuckling softly to himself as silence began to fall on the now lifeless city.  Finally, he had the last laugh.

 

The Gate – Chapter 1: The Trax

Elder Rex strode through the gathered people and took his place in a chair at the foot the Gate.  The clear crystal that made up the Gate scattered the fading light of day, filling the room with beautiful colors.  Just past the Gate sat a single carving that perfectly framed the setting sun on the horizon.

For a moment Elder Rex let the temple sit in silence as he looked from face to face.  His somber attitude stood in juxtaposition to the celebration earlier in the day.  Of course it was his job to be somber, he was a keeper of the past.  Without him the Ceremony of Twilight couldn’t be completed and the past was bound to be repeated.

Or at least that’s what Rawlin’s parents had always told him.  Now he mostly doubted that there was anything to the Ceremony.  Aside from the celebration that took place before it the Ceremony was mostly just words.  Originally it had been used to link together two different people, one of the Trax, and one of Rawlin’s people.  But that hadn’t happened for a very long time.  Now, Elders just told stories of the past.

Rex took a deep breath and began just like he always did, “In the time before remembering, there were two Peoples that walked this land.  The Trax and our ancestors.  Together they lived in harmony and peace.  Magic roamed the lands then, free and strange.

“Twas the duty of the Trax to safe guard magic and its use, for they were creatures born of magic.  While the responsibility of looking after the land itself fell to our ancestors.  For this land we call home represents the sacred grounds upon which the Gods first walked amongst mortals.  There is power here, not just in the magic, but the land itself, being so touched by divine power.

“But that harmony was not to last.  A betrayer rose up the ranks of the Trax and took for himself the power of magic.  With it in his grasp he wrought untold destruction upon the lands.

“The Gods were enraged by the actions of the Trax and descended upon the land.  In their mercy they created another realm for the Trax to live in, one identical to but separate from this one.  There they sealed away the Trax where they could do no harm to this world.  Our ancestors were then charged with a new task.  To protect the gateway between the realms.

“Before the Trax were sealed away, we elected representatives from amongst ourselves to join with representatives of the Trax.  Today we celebrate that holy ceremony and tonight, at the fall of twilight, we put up our representatives as we have always done.  Before the pairs would be named as Guardians of Otium, but now, our representatives become Guardians of the Gate and the realm beyond.

“There is no higher honor than to be chosen for this holy purpose.”

Drums began to thump behind Rex as he was handed a list of names.  There was never more than a few names read each year.  Being chosen was more of an honor now because of the skill and mastery it took.  This year Rawlin was eligible to be chosen, and he wanted that more than anything else.  His father had been a Guardian before him, and so had his father’s father.  For that matter his family had been standing watch over the Gate for as long as the Gate had stood.

It didn’t really matter to him whether the stories were true.  There were many perks to being given an Atie sword that marked the Guardians.  There was prestige to the position.

Rex waited patiently as the drums beat in the background.  The single sliver was all that remained of the sun, moments before twilight fell.  That thin sliver of light sat framed by an intricate and ornate sculpture just above Elder Rex’s head.  Slowly but surely the sun disappeared leaving the land and the temple in twilight.  With a final resounding beat the drums went silent.

Rex raised his voice against the silence, “We, the people of Otium, select Rawlin Crysal and Havern Medat as our representatives.  We find them pure of heart, strong of mind, and skilled in the art of swordplay.  They are worthy to be named as Guardians.  It is our hope that they are found worthy in the eyes of the Gods.”

Two men came forward and presented Elder Rex with two beautifully carved boxes adorned with the crest of the people.  Elder Rex laid each box carefully on the floor before him and stood, “Rawlin and Havern, rise and come kneel before your blades.”

Slowly Rawlin rose up, just barely keeping himself under control.  He had waited so long for this moment, had worked so hard for this.  Already he could imagine the sword at his hip and the feel of the hilt in his hand.  There was no blade equal in all of Otium to an Atie sword.

When both Rawlin and Havern were knelt before Elder Rex, Rex opened both boxes to reveal the swords and scabbards within.  He lowered his tone again back to somberness, “Repeat after me Guardians, I take up this sword in the protection of Otium, its people, and the Gate.  By my hand or by my life peace shall remain.  The Gods as my witness I join the Guardians, for now, and forever.”

Rawlin said each word with conviction, excitement pounded through him.  When both he and Havern were finished Rex closed his eyes and said, “Take the swords then and if you truly are committed touch the blades to the Gate.”

Havern glanced momentarily at Rawlin and rose first, drawing his sword from its scabbard.  Carefully he touched the edge of the blade against the crystal gateway.  A spark of magic leapt from the gate and darted up the blade of the sword, leaving the distinct and glowing lines that marked the blade as an Atie sword.

Rawlin rose and drew his sword preparing himself to do the same.  Father had said that it would hurt.  The magic would burn like fire within him and he would want to drop the sword.  Rawlin could not be a Guardian if he did not pass this final test.  This final binding of sword to man.

Nervously he approached the gate and slowly reached out with the sword.  The moment the blade made contact with the crystal all of his muscles clenched tight with sudden pain.  It felt as though he had been struck by lightning.  For a split second he could feel the terrible power of the magic racing through him, tearing at his insides.

But it was over as soon as it started.  Rawlin withdrew the blade and stared at the faintly glowing lines now etched along the length of his sword.

The drums began to beat again, their powerful sound echoed around the valley and rung heavily in the temple.  Rex opened his eyes and said, “May the Gods guide you on your holy path Guardians and may your swords never break.  All praise be upon you Guardians of the Gate.”

The gathered people rose as one and joined together chanting, “Praise be upon the Guardians of the Gate.”

Rawlin took his place next to Havern and sheathed his sword.  He looked out to the crowd before him, hardly able to believe that he was actually standing here.  It had taken so long and now that it was here, he couldn’t believe it.

As the chanting began to die out there was a loud crack behind him, as though one of the drums had broken.  But when he turned to look, what he saw was far worse.

A glowing rope of light stretched across the Gate’s entrance, snapping and cracking with energy.  People stood in awe as the rope began to stretch and flatten out, forming a shimmering surface in the Gate.  Rawlin drew his sword again ready to take down whatever was going to come through the gate.

Rex grabbed his wrist though, “Wait, let us see what comes through before you kill it.  This may be an act of the Gods.”

Rawlin had his doubts that the Gods cared but relaxed anyways.

The Gate stood ominously open well into the fall of night before anything happened.  Havern and many people had already left assuming that nothing would happen.  Rawlin stayed put, sword in hand, waiting.  There was no way that he would muck up his first day as a Guardian by leaving the Gate unattended.  So he took to pacing just before the Gate, waiting to see what would come of this strange turn of events.  Rex stood leaning against a wall, arms crossed and his face growing ever more impatient the longer the night wore on.

Another loud crack resounded through the temple and the Gates color changed from a shimmering silver surface to pitch black.  Out of it came a human like creature running as fast as it could directly into Rawlin.

It took Rawlin only a moment to incapacitate the strange creature.  “Please, please, don’t kill me!  I am here to honor the Ceremony of Twilight!”

Rawlin froze, “What did you just say?”

“I am here to honor the Ceremony of Twilight.”

“Who, or what are you?”

The creature looked around the temple with pure black eyes, “I am Ajay of the Trax.”

“Blasphemy!” Rex shouted, “The Trax were banished from Otium.  Guardian, kill the Trax invader!”

“No, please, I mean you no harm!” Ajay said, struggling to get away from Rawlin.

Rawlin looked from the Trax he held pinned beneath him, to Rex who had gone beet red.  “This is your duty Guardian, you have sworn your life to this.”

Rawlin took a breath, he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t kill Ajay.  He had no reason to assume that the Trax was dangerous, it certainly looked to be unarmed.

“I swore I would keep peace and protect the Gate.  As far as I can tell, one Trax isn’t a threat.  You selected me as a Guardian, Elder Rex so that I may choose what is a treat and what is not.”

Rex calmed a bit, “Fine, but the Trax is not to leave the temple until we know for sure what it is doing here.”

The Gate snapped shut then, plunging the temple into sudden silence.  For a moment no one moved a muscle until Ajay finally said, “If you’d get off me, we could complete the Ceremony properly.  Then I will tell you why I am here.”

Rawlin carefully got up and helped Ajay to her feet.  She frowned at Rawlin as he looked over her strange skin, “What did you expect that we would look the same?”

He hadn’t really known what to expect, no one had ever described a Trax before in the stories.  Ajay did look human, save for her orange hair and black and dark blue skin, the same lines glowing lines that had just been etched in his sword were on her skin and traced their way up from her left ankle up to the right side of her face.  Their glow could even be seen faintly through her clothes.  “Why isn’t your skin all the same color?” Rawlin asked.

Ajay looked at him as though he had asked a stupid question, “Why isn’t your skin different colors?  The Gods made us this way, we do not question why any more than you question your skin.  Now, we must complete the full ceremony.  How many representatives did your people present?”

“Do not tell her that!  Figure out what she is doing here first.” Rex said.

“Elder Rex, I mean no disrespect, but could you please wait outside of the temple?  I promise I will not allow Ajay to leave until I know what she wants.”

Rex took a breath and opened his mouth to say something but then crossed his arms and let out a sigh, “As you wish Guardian.  I will be waiting outside.”

Once Rex was gone Rawlin said, “We only named two this year.  Myself included.”

“And where is the other?”

“Honestly, everyone left a while ago.  The Gate is a fairly long distance from the village and no one wanted to walk back in the dark.  No one wanted to wait and see what would happen.”

Ajay nodded and took a moment to look around the temple, “The Ceremony grounds are not as the books described they would be.”

“What did you expect?  Bonfires?”

“No, not that, I just thought they would be more extravagant.”

Rawlin shrugged, “Perhaps they used to be, now though the Ceremony isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be.”

Ajay nodded again and walked to where the gate stood, Rawlin could see rips and cuts in the back of her shirt.  “Are you alright?”

“Oh, yes, I am fine.”

“But your shirt.  Looks like you were attacked by an animal or something.”

Ajay shrugged, “You could say that.  There was some that were against my coming here.  But that’s not important right now.  That statue is.”

Ajay pointed at the statue that stood behind the Gate.  It certainly had the appearance of being something important to the ceremony, but what it was for Rawlin had little idea.  “What exactly does the rest of the Ceremony entail?”

“Well first, we need to check if you and I can be paired or not.  The magic that etched your sword and my body was only the first step of the Ceremony.  If the magic is the same for both of us, then we can move to the next step.”

“Which is?”

Ajay paused for a moment, “Are you squeamish at all?”

“No.  Why?”

Ajay motioned to a small bowl that sat at the base of the statue, “We both must fill this bowl with our blood drawn by your blade and with my magic I will create the binding drink.”

“Wait, what do you mean binding drink?”

“It’s better for me to show you.  Now, draw your sword so I can look at the marks left by the magic.”

Rawlin did so and watched as Ajay carefully inspected the blade.  She brushed her orange hair back out of her eyes every now and then as she inspected the length of the blade, occasionally she touched its surface and traced some of the lines.  “Interesting, I didn’t expect to see this pattern.”

“What are you talking about?”

Ajay straightened and said, “Well the magic that marks the sword isn’t just random in what it does.  The lines on your sword are a representation of your heritage and also certain things within you.  The parts of the lines that represent your heritage are a well known pattern among my people as this pattern designates descendants of those who originally were paired as Guardians.”

“And, what does that matter?”

Ajay frowned, confused, “What do you mean what does it matter?  Your bloodline is everything.  Doesn’t it determine your social class and position amongst the others?”

“No.  Each person is for themselves.  They either succeed or fail by their own merits here, regardless of their parents.”

“Oh, I see.  Well, then don’t worry about it.  Just thought it was interesting.  In my world, a mark like that would basically make you royalty.”

Ajay flipped the blade over and then nodded to herself and started to undress.  “Hey, what are you doing?”

Ajay paused midway through unbuckling a leather strap that held several pouches at her waist.  “I need to check the patterns on my body.  I haven’t had a chance to see them yet so I don’t know if we can be paired or not.”

“Do you really have to take your clothes off though?” Rawlin asked.

Again, she gave him a look as though he had just asked a stupid question and said, “If you feel that uncomfortable at seeing me naked then turn your back.”

“But what if someone walks in?”

She gave him a blank stare, “So what if someone walks in?  I don’t care.”

Rawlin opened his mouth to say something again but thought better of it and turned his back.  A few minutes later Ajay said, “Alright I am done now.  We can pair.”

“How do you know that?”

“Well without showing you the mark, I can only say that you and I come from a similar heritage.”

“So you’re saying that you are royalty then?”

A pained expression ran across her features, “Well, technically yes.  I guess I am.  Now, give me your sword.  I’ll go first.”

Rawlin proffered up the edge of the blade and couldn’t help but grit his teeth as she cut the inside of her forearm on the blade.  Carefully she let her red blood drip into the small dish until it was about half full before she pulled a strip of cloth from one of her pouches and bandaged her wound shut.

“Your turn.”

“Why exactly should I do this?”

“Because, you are honoring your ancestors and taking up the true duty to which you are called.  Guarding the Gate is only a half measure and you are not a person who is satisfied with half measures.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

Ajay shook her head, “Just do it.  This is supposed to be the Ceremony of Twilight.  Not Darkness.”

With a sigh Rawlin laid the edge of his sword against his forearm and drew it across his flesh in single smooth motion.  The feeling of fire spread out from the fresh wound and immediately he began bleeding.  Not wanting to waste time he thrust the fresh wound over the bowl and let it drip.

When the bowl was full Ajay took his arm and bandaged it with another strip of fabric she had ready.  When she released his arm he cleaned his sword on the outside of the bandage and then slid it home into its scabbard.  Meanwhile Ajay had quietly begun to chant over the bowl.  The blood in it began to spin and mix together on its own accord, slowly turning from a red color to a dark purple color.

Glowing lines began to spread up the statue, moving away from where the bowl was up to where the sun had been framed previously.  The bowl at the bottom slowly rose up towards the top of the statue and Ajay followed it up chanting faster and faster as she did.  When she reached her full height she stopped chanting and drew a deep breath.

“Come here and stand opposite to me on the other side of the statue.”

Rawlin did as he was told and looked across the bowl to Ajay.  “Remember what I said about being squeamish?”

Rawlin nodded.

Ajay reached up and grabbed one of the two handles on the bowl closets to Rawlin, “Take the other handle and drink after me.”

“You have to be joking, I am not drinking that.”

“It isn’t blood anymore.  Trust me I wouldn’t drink it if it was.  This is what you have to do.”

Rawlin took a deep breath and relented.  He reached up and took the other handled.  Ajay chanted a few more things over the bowl that made the liquid quiver and shake.  “By the way,” she said, “I never learned your name.  I thought that might be important to know now.”

“Rawlin.”

She smiled at him pleasantly then, “Well, to good health then, Rawlin.”

With that she drank no more than a mouthful of the liquid and swallowed.  “I should admit, I have no idea what this is going to do to us.  I know only that it must be done.”

Rawlin frowned and then raised the bowl to his lips.  The liquid tasted like a poorly aged wine, but wine none the less. He found that there was only enough left for a single mouthful and without thinking about it again.  He swallowed.

Ajay smiled at him when he finished, “That wasn’t so bad was it?”

“How did you do that?”

“I am of the Trax.  We have magic.  Now, nothing in the things I read said much about what happens next.  I only know that it might hurt.”

Before Rawlin could say anything he felt his knees give out below him.  The ground rushed up suddenly and he heard himself moan as he fell.  He was vaguely aware that his body hurt, but it felt distant and dim.  Somehow he could see Ajay laying next to him, her own features were similarly contorted by pain.

Somehow he felt a connection with her, maybe that’s why he had done the things he had done, why he had stood up to the Elder on her behalf.  For whatever reason, it made him ache all the more to see her in pain.  It baffled him that he felt so powerfully about someone he had only just met and despite the pain he was in, he wanted to let her know that he was here.  That he wanted take her pain from her.

With immense effort he reached out towards her and she towards him.  He couldn’t say anything to her, nor she to him, but he could see her eyes still.  I wish I could take your pain from you, he thought.

Their hands met and the warmth of her presence flooded through him.  He gripped her hand tightly, imagining that he could send her his strength.  Perhaps he held her hand also for her support and strength.  They were united against their shared pain.

Eventually it grew to be far too much for him to handle and the world faded out to darkness.