Firefly lamps flickered their odd shadows all around, while the fireplace's heat did nothing to stave off the unfamiliar chill of the bedroom. Maertagh had sent up a plate over an hour ago, but Shawn's appetite was non-existent. In the quiet he simply stood at the edge of the bed, daring himself to make the next move.
A pile of his meager possessions taunted him from atop the mattress. Shawn counted the tunics and kilts, the cloak made from the boar's pelt, and the dragon tooth blade, as well as the few random trinkets Rath purchased from the marketplace from time to time. Only a few months had passed and it appeared he would be leaving with not much more than he arrived with.
Last night's audience with the Queen filled him with dread, her words refusing to stop repeating in his mind.
“With Rath's gift broken, it's only a matter of time before his enemies learn of his weakness. When they do, they will come for him – because they will finally know they can.
“Since I am bound and no else has the ability to undo your damage, the only option is for you to go back to your world and hope the separation can dissolve your bond and restore him.”
“Are you sure that will work?” Shawn asked.
The Queen snarled. “Of course not. All I know is that you've undone a great work of mine. How that will impact the gift's effects is unclear and there will likely not be time to find out.”
“There has to be another way.”
“Then by all means, risk his life over your selfish desires. Keep in mind that a vision of that clarity is likely not far away from coming true.”
“All the things we just saw: Rath's death, the destruction of the keep, the dead bodies, the fires and screaming through Garadur; you believe that my leaving will keep all of that from happening?”
With an indifferent, dismissive wave, she made one final comment: “Just go, little ape.”
With that, Damhsaedroma turned away, refusing to speak again. Shawn protested and screamed, demanding answers as Sethus held him back. The goblin ultimately was forced to drag him out of the Great Hall before the guards gave up on the tricks of whispers and resumed their posts. It would have been a very poor idea to be discovered.
A sharp crack of the burning log brought Shawn back to the present and his unwelcome task.
With an unsteady hand, he placed the first tunic into the leather satchel Rath had been wearing the night the prince saved him. It would be just large enough and he simply couldn't run around asking for something else. This whole exercise was proving to be harder than he expected. And he knew it would be excruciatingly difficult as it was.
On the side table sat his ink, quill, and journal, opened to the last page. The candle lamp he used was burned down to a useless nub throwing a shadow over his workspace. The writing was dry but the book needed to be left behind. No matter how special an item it was, the last thing he wanted was to be forever reminded of what he was leaving behind. He struggled with the heart-wrenching decision but the journal's entries were too personal to relive over and over.
A knock came to the door and Shawn ignored it, trying to stay focused on his task. He wished they would just go away; he couldn't face anyone right now. The knocking continued and Shawn paid it no attention until it eventually opened on its own. He ignored the shuffling footsteps, recognizing the gait and matronly scent before a single word was spoken.
“I see you've na left yet,” Maertagh said.
Shawn paused. “Sethus told you?”
“Aye, laddie. He's told me what yuir up to.”
“Are you here to stop me?” Shawn refused to face the woman as he folded a kilt and continued packing.
“Have you na thought of waitin' to speak to Rath? Surely there's some other way.”
Maertagh's firm hand grasped his shoulder warmly, stopping his progress. Shawn ground his teeth and crushed his eyes closed to compose himself even as a sad laugh escaped him.
“Are you kidding? Rath would never let me go.” A shaky inhale and exhale punctuated the tension in the room. “And if I stay, he dies. What choice is there?”
“Ya canna know if the Queen is tellin' lies or na. She's na of the right mind.”
“You weren't there. The vision was so strong, Maertagh. I need to go and pray the distance,” Shawn gasped, “breaks the bond between us.”
Another hand captured Shawn's other shoulder. “Yuir his true mate. The prince loves ya with all his heart. I saw that from the moment he set eyes on ya. Rath will be devastated.”
“But he'll be alive. That's all that matters.” Shawn looked up to the ceiling as he tried to maintain himself praying Maertagh would just stop talking. This was hard enough without her presence.
Her fingers dug in and shook him gently with the rhythm of her words. “What if the vision was false?”
That question had rung in his ears from the moment the Queen insisted on his course of action. Of course he had doubts. Damhsaedroma made no effort to hide her disdain for him and certainly did not see his union with Rath as suitable for the future king. All words that came out of her mouth were suspect. But the alternative was unthinkable. With a ragged inhale, Shawn turned to the housekeeper, eyes glossy with tears he refused to let fall. His words were thick and raspy, giving away how closely he teetered on the edge.
“Can you really expect me to take that chance?”
Maertagh peered deep into Shawn's reddened eyes for long moments as her face gave way to the sadness they shared. The stoic, abrasive woman softened before him and lurched forward, clutching him in a fierce hug with a passion he only imagined a mother could possess. In her arms he let loose the torrent of emotion, crying shamelessly into the dwarven woman's shoulder as she held him tight and stroked his head with a foreign, yet welcome, tenderness. This was why Shawn had deliberately avoided her once he’d made up his mind.
He didn't want to look at her. He knew he would miss her terribly. He didn't want to have to say goodbye.
Maertagh sniffled roughly. “Och, laddie. Rath did such a fine thing when he chose ya.”
* * * *
The city of Garadur faded off into the distance as Sethus led Shawn away into the forest. Sethus pushed along silently; small talk seemed somehow inappropriate and Shawn wondered if that would make the whole process drag out. It would take the better part of a day to reach the hidden stairwell that would take him back above.
They traveled light; Shawn only bore the satchel over his shoulder carrying his effects and a small pack with food and water that Maertagh insisted he take along. Even still, he doubted he'd find the urge to touch any of it soon. As strong as Shawn had become his feet no longer tired as they walked, but his shoulders grew a strange weight each time he glanced back behind them.
The forest slowly swallowed them as Sethus kept the unseen path without faltering or checking. With silent cues, he shifted and turned periodically to avoid contact with various creatures. Shawn could see the twitch of the goblin's ears and heard the subtle inhales scenting the area. Sethus earned his place as the Prime Hunter for good reason.
The hidden glade and waterfall Rath shared with Shawn must have been nearby, he was sure of it. Even if there was no way he could track his way there without help. Memories of the hunt and the sex after pinched his chest and refused to relax. With his new strength, was it possible for his heart to burst? He listened to the sound of the moss crunching underfoot, the chirp of animals in the distance; anything at all to distract him from what he was leaving behind.
How long they walked, Shawn didn't know. He'd lost track of time once the forest was all they could see. Hours had passed before Sethus finally stopped. A massive wooden door with dense iron hinges stood embedded into the rock wall before them. It was impossibly tall and wide and Shawn had no idea how they would get it open.
“Seriously. A real door? I don't remember this at all,” Shawn said.
“I'm not surprised. I doubt you were conscious for most of the trip the first time around.”
From the pack Sethus carried, he produced an elaborate key and inserted it into a matching lock in the rock face near the door. The key turned with a grind of metal before Sethus began a soft chant that sounded like elvish but he didn't understand the words. With a tremendous groan, the door crept open, just enough for the two of them to comfortably pass.
They stepped through onto a stone landing that started several choices of tunnels leading upwards by stairs. Shawn peered into the dimly lit passages to see where they ended, but there was nothing but stairs running endlessly into the dark.
“Fuck me,” he whispered to himself.
Sethus snorted. “You really don't remember any of this do you?”
“I'd like to think I would have remembered this kind of thing. I was really out of it, wasn't I?”
Shawn shook the thought from his head and exhaled. “Let's just go.”
The stairwell went on for hours. The passage was dimly lit by a light source that Shawn couldn't follow but lacked enough brightness to give any real sight ahead of them. Occasionally, they came across another landing which branched off into another series of endless trails, making the place nothing short of a maze.
“How can you find your way through here?”
“It's part of the training for the Royal Hunters. We're taught how to follow the trail to take us where we need to go. There are hidden rune markers and other methods. It's kept secret to minimize the contact between our lands. Each stairwell will ultimately end at a door that opens to some point in your world. These passages are how we trafficked our people below ground when the time came to abandon the sun.
“The paths are used very rarely so I can still find the faint scent of Rath, you and myself coming home that first night. I'm just following the path back the way we came. It's been months, but it's still here.”
Shawn was impressed; he squinted at every little thing he could and could see no evidence of the markers Sethus spoke of. Without a guide, he would be hopelessly lost and die on these pathways. They walked for a while longer before Sethus blurted out in the darkness.
“How are you faring? I'm sorry to ask but the silence of these halls can make me a little crazed.”
“It's been pretty awful, really.” Shawn took a deep breath. “It's faint but I can still feel him. He's really angry and scared and I think it's because he can feel how upset I am. I've been trying to keep calm but it's just too hard.”
“Are you going to be all right?”
Shawn voice and face flattened as he attempted to center himself. “I'll be okay. It's just like going to another foster home.”
A fresh quiet accompanied them as they weaved through several tunnels until they finally came upon a door. It was identical to the main entrance to the stairwell in the forest but more normally sized. Smaller, but no less formidable, Shawn couldn't imagine what strength would be required to open it.
“This is your door. Are you sure, Puppy? Once you've gone through and the door closes again, there'll be no going back.”
Shawn glared at Sethus. “Shut up already and open it. This is hard enough as it is.”
Sethus nodded. With the underlying hisses of a goblin's voice, he began the chant made up of elvish words that Shawn didn't recognize once again. The door protested, its weight solidly resisting the lack of use. Once it stopped and the doorway was open, Shawn found himself staring into the darkness under the bridge he could only vaguely remember. Apparently the key wasn't needed for the smaller doors.
The smell of city air assaulted him, its foul taint freezing his feet in place. He could never recall ever wanting something less than crossing that threshold. Stepping forward made the whole trek very real – and irreversible.
But turning around was not an option. To save Rath he needed the distance and prayed dissolving their link would restore his mate.
His mate. Those words weren't going to be true for much longer, were they?
Shawn took a tentative move forward, barely rousing the courage for the next. It wasn't clear how long it took for both of them to be standing under the bridge, looking at the night sky. Shawn thought he'd be happy to see the sky again, but the dirty air and pale moon just lacked any character. How he wished for craggy cavern ceilings with rolling mists weaving through them again.
Shawn sighed sadly. “I guess this is my stop.” He stared into the night for long seconds before turning to his companion. “Thank you, Sethus. For everything.”
Sethus clasped Shawn's arm. “I can't say I would have the courage to make this kind of selfless sacrifice and that shames me. If we never lay eyes on each other again, I would like to say it has been an honor knowing you.”
“Same here, Sethus. Even if you did peg me for food when we first met.”
The goblin snickered. “Who knew you'd survive? Be well, Puppy. With all you've endured, you deserve it more than anyone I know.”
“My name is Shawn.”
“I know. Maertagh told me.” A mischievous grin played across the goblin's face. “But I like Puppy better.”
As he stepped back under the bridge, Sethus repeated the chant of elvish words and the doorway shifted with a scraping of stone. The seams faded into the concrete without a trace as the entrance vanished with a very final sound like a giant's drum. Once more, Shawn was alone in the world above.
* * * *
Rath couldn't run fast enough. The king was less than pleased when he left the meetings in Harridantha, incensed really, but he didn't care. When he first left, he could feel Puppy's unhappiness at their separation but it couldn't be helped. Of course, that left the option of a very intense and very naked homecoming to look forward to.
But the unhappiness spiked into something more. It became a constant fear and sadness that was far more than simple longing. The sensations agitated him, causing more than one quarrel with his father on a trip that should have provided them the beginning of some kind of bond. The king was dismissive over Rath's temperament and treated him as immature. The old habits were not so easily broken.
The night he could feel Puppy's tears on his own cheeks, it finally became more than he could bear. His mate was not upset, he was in distress.
Having long since exhausted and abandoned his mount, Rath increased speed as he caught sight of the edge of Garadur. Puppy was still upset, but it was more distant and that terrified him.
Ignoring the townspeople, he broke for the keep at full speed. Barreling through the guards, he nearly tore the doors off the hinges as he stormed into the building. Wise servants flattened to the wall as he ran past, growling and alarmed. Rath caught sight of Maertagh and as he approached, she lowered her head and turned away. A rush of ice filled his spine as he tore up the stairs and into their hallway. It was far too quiet as the bedroom door slammed open.
“PUPPY!!” he cried into the empty room.
No warm greeting. No rush of his little mate into his arms that he longed for. There was a stillness to the room that spoke of a hollowness beyond his missing mate. Something was horribly, horribly wrong.
The armoire was open with a chair in front of it, the basket containing Puppy's clothing was on the floor next to the bed. There was a stillness to the room that gripped his heart and squeezed it painfully. Nothing of his mate's belongings was visible except the journal and ink left out on the table.
The journal was open, a letter scrawled on the last page. Haythen had taught Rath to read human English many years ago, but he still remembered. It wasn't easy, it was very different from Orcish and Elvish and he had promised himself not to break Puppy's trust and read his private thoughts. He would keep that promise except the letter on the page was addressed to him.
I have no idea if you can read this, but my skills at writing in Orcish are total crap and I doubt I'll have the chance now to learn it. You have no idea how hard this letter is to write, but it's much easier than to tell you this face to face.
I have to go. Something bad is coming and my presence puts you at risk. I can not stay and watch you die because of me. By leaving, I'm hoping to restore your power so you can live and ultimately be the king that Garadur will need in the coming years. If you died because I was being selfish, I would never forgive myself.
My life has been full of disappointments, but you were never one of them. You made me feel more alive in a few short months than I have felt over the course of my life. I owe you my life three times over and I can never repay you, but hopefully, this will balance the scales in some fashion no matter how hard this is. Believe me when I say, if I could find a better way to save you, I would.
I'm going back to the top world to break our link and pretend that this never happened. Maybe then we can both live out our lives without worrying about the safety of the other.
Oh god, I love you so much. Never forget that.
Rath read the letter three times before closing the journal and buckling it closed. His breathing grew deeper as he pressed the book tightly to his chest in one arm and gripped the chair at the table for support. The once proud warrior was finding it difficult to bear his own weight.
Puppy's words echoed in his mind. Puppy was gone. His mate was gone.
The chair in his hand began to splinter as he roared, raised it up high and hammered it into the table, then flipped both against the wall. The bottle of ink shattered against the stone, dripping black lines down the wall as he screamed and one-handedly reduced both pieces of furniture to little more than tinder. Sinking to his knees, he clutched the journal to his chest; Rath curled over until his forehead touched down, roaring in sick volume into the unfeeling floor.
Guards and servants came to the door and rightly stepped away as he continued to wail until his throat went raw in a vain attempt to voice his pain and grief.
Puppy was gone.
* * * *
Kenrick couldn't sleep. The rumors of clients considering leaving and taking their financial assets with them were growing in strength. Word of the criminal investigations of Jimmy Small and Shawn Martoni's disappearances was circulating and it was making his investors nervous. He wondered if the detectives were responsible. They had failed to obtain a warrant to search the premises, which meant they had nothing, but damage was being done all the same.
The best he could hope for was that everything calmed down and the world would go back to normal.
Even after several hours in the vaults, Kenrick couldn't find the peace of mind he was looking for. It wasn't the same as in the past where you could touch the gold coins and feel their silky touch to your skin. Rolling in a mound of treasure was something for the cinema and not realistic in this day of electronic enterprise. Kenrick had his hoard and it pleased him, but there was so much fortune that was insubstantial.
How he missed the old days – the fear of the people and power to lay waste to any who crossed your path. He still carried the power, but most of it was trapped and useless. It couldn't be trusted if he decided to wage war with all these soft people who stood in his way. Kenrick would leave them all alone if they would just allow him to make his money and do as he pleased. Was that too much to ask?
The phone shattered the night's quiet. Who the fuck would call at this hour? Even if he couldn't rest, the disturbance bristled him. Kenrick snatched up the phone and found the lobby's security guard on the other end. The building had better be on fire or someone was going to find the unemployment line within the next five minutes.
Clearly the guard was worried about that as well given the tremors in his voice. Kenrick listened to his rushed babble and he nearly dropped the phone, his anger instantly diffused.
“I'll be right down.”
Kenrick was half dazed as he shut off the phone and jumped out of bed, scrambling to find something to wear. A pair of grey lounging pants slid over his taut thighs and a red sweater quickly covered his broad chest. He was in such a hurry, he strode barefoot into the elevator, his hair wildly disheveled in a manner few had ever witnessed.
The elevator had never been so slow. Perhaps living in the penthouse wasn't the best choice right now, the delay was leaving him impatiently shifting from foot to foot.
Kenrick was greeted by a very anxious security guard as the doors finally opened. The man was large and fresh faced, but knew the demands his employer kept on everyone beneath him. The guard's professionalism was being sorely testing this evening.
“We called you as soon as he arrived, Mr. Balfour. He's waiting in the lobby.”
Barely listening, Kenrick nodded. “Thank you.”
Bare footsteps made an unfamiliar sound as Kenrick tried to contain his excitement. If this was a joke, someone would lose more than their jobs today. Heart pounding, he rounded the hallway. Standing next to the security desk, the man perked up when he caught sight of Kenrick.
Strangely dirty yet strong, the smaller man stood dressed like some Scottish warrior in kilt, knee high boots and sleeveless shirt. Sporting a longer unkempt mohawk, his rippling tattooed arms were on display along with new calligraphy on his face and neck. What happened to him? It had been months, but he looked hardier and more fiercely attractive than ever. There was something different about him, enough to make Kenrick wonder if he had actually fallen asleep and this was simply a kind but taunting dream.
Even with this newfound strength, there was a weariness in his face that Kenrick couldn't tell if that was exhaustion or misery. That wilder appearance couldn't dampen that expression while he grew increasingly uncomfortable in Kenrick's presence; his dirty brow creased as he found the will to speak.
“Hi, Kenrick,” Shawn Martoni whispered. “I'm sorry to knock on your door so late, but I didn't have anywhere else to go.”