Part V


Chapter Seventeen

Date: Minarvir 33rd, 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Ruins of mn'Ael-a-ben'shteof
Time: Six shadows past moon's full rise

"Mama, wake up."

The child who had no name shook the woman's cold arm gently, not knowing in his innocence that she was already dead. He couldn't understand why she didn't wake up, why his brothers and sisters weren't about.

"It's time to get up, Mama."

He didn't understand what had happened, where everyone had gone; he was too young to have ever met death, too young to partake in the kill. He didn't know that it was the blood of the dead that coated his naked body, turned his fuzzy, golden wings red and caked hair the color of sun burnt wheat. He was just a babe, a child that still suckled at his mother's breast. He couldn't understand.

"Mama, please get up."

How could he know that his mother would never wake again? How could he know that in a few hours he, too, would die?

"Mama?"

So young.

"Mama?"

So very young.

"Mama, please, I'm scared." The boy snuffled, tears tracing a clean track down his blood stained face. "Why won't you wake up?"

"She won't wake up because she is dead."

The child looked up at the woman who spoke with bright, golden eyes full of innocent trust. He didn't know who this woman was, what the pale skin--so white as to be almost translucent--that was marked by the delicate tracery of blue veins portended. How could he know that this chalky, icy woman--with hair as silver as her wings and eyes the pale, chilling blue of deep ice--beautiful in her pale regalness, would lead ultimately to his doom. She was only another Ki'ir-ar to him, and a living one; or so it seemed. "Dead?"

"She..." here the woman paused, appeared to search for a word, voice low and full of compassion "she will sleep forever."

"Forever?" The child looked down on his mother, one plump hand clutching her convulsively. "Mama isn't going to wake up?"

"That's right." The woman smiled kindly, gently placed one white hand on the child's bloody shoulder. The boy gasped in pain at the chill from the touch, the cold that crept into his bones. "You're alone now, child. But you don't have to be. Promise yourself to me and I will take care of you."

"Who are you?"

The woman's smile turned as cold as her touch and she drew herself up haughtily. "I am Anai."

"No!" Innocent though the boy was, he knew enough to back away from the Vengeance Seeker. He wasn't ready yet to swear revenge. "No! Go away! Mama, help me!"

"Your mother can't help you now." Anai stared coldly into the boy's eyes, knowing that she could compel obedience from this innocent anytime she wanted. But she wanted this one to come to her on his own, to swear himself to her by his own free will.

"Go away!" The boy began to scream, voice shrill and desperate and filled with primal fear. He clung to his mother's body eyes closed tightly against the sight of Anai, and didn't stop screaming until the bite of a Tsa-Eitog sent him falling into darkness.

~~~

Date: Unknown
Location: Unknown
Time: Unknown

It was cold beneath the earth, and the boy was afraid. He hurt from the small bites that covered his arms and legs, and wondered how much longer he could stand the dark. He was hungry and tired and thirsty. He wondered how long it would be before the Tsa-Eitog came back and 'played' with him some more, their hissing laughter filling his ears as he tried to get away from their sharp claws and teeth. He wondered if he would just let them kill him this time, stop playing their game, stop fighting back. He didn't have the strength.

He just wanted to be warm and safe again.

"You know, child, there is a way for you to be free of this place." The voice came whispering out of the darkness and the boy turned blind eyes toward the noise. "You could hurt those that hurt you."

"Leave me alone," the boy whimpered. "Why can't everyone leave me alone?"

"I will not leave you here, child. You have too much potential to receive such a fate." An unseen hand stroked the boy's face and he turned in to it. "I care for you."

"You...care for me?" The boy closed his eyes and gripped the invisible hand. It was warm to his touch, but that may have been because he was so cold. "Like Mama cared for me?"

"Yes. I want you to be strong, to be able to revenge yourself."

"...revenge..." the boy sighed, hollow whisper filled with the sadness he held within his soul. There were no tears, now, when he thought of his mother; all of his tears had been shed in those first, few, terrifying moments, and now he had none left. He had nothing left. His home, his family, his life had been taken away before he had even begun to experience them, and he was empty inside, except for the hate he bore for those who had hurt him so.

A second hand ghosted over his eyes, and in the darkness he felt Anai smile.

"I'll take care of you forever."

"Forever?" There was a lump in his throat and the boy swallowed noisily. "Forever and ever?"

"Yes."

He sighed again breath ghosting out, eyes closed and his head slumped forward to rest on his thin chest. "I...I'm so tired. I don't wanna be alone anymore."

The Goddess' grin deepened and she gathered the still child in her cold arms. "As long as I'm here, you'll never be alone." She bent down and whispered into his chilled ear. "And as long as I'm here, those who have hurt you will never be safe."

"What do you want from me?"

"Nothing, child." There was silence and the boy worried that he had been left alone again. Then Anai spoke again and the boy felt his soul lighten to hear her voice. "Nothing except to see you happy again. Child, it need not be your fate to die here beneath the ground before you have ever had the chance to live. You can fight, child, you can rise up and revenge yourself against your enemies, revenge your family. Revenge your mother."

"Yes..." The boy closed his eyes at that thought, remembered again his family's screams, his mother's lips kissing his forehead before his father killed her. He could hear the screaming again, the animal-like grunts of the wingless ones who descended on his Aerie--the horror of that day echoed in his mind. He imagined the death of the wingless ones and the screams that tore through him lessened. "Revenge." His tongue caressed the word, held it lovingly in his mouth.

"Think of your people's pain, child. Think of the warmth you once knew. They have taken that warmth from you, child. They have thrust you out into the cold. But if you come with me, I'll make you warm once more. I'll help you revenge yourself on those who ripped the warmth of your home away from you."

The child opened his eyes, looked up into the glowing face of the Goddess--of his Goddess. His heart beat a little faster at the thought of bringing pain to those who had injured him, and a warm flush spread through his naked body, turning his golden skin rose. The thought of their pain made him feel good, but it may have just been the thought of never being alone again.

"I want revenge." His eyes gleamed. "I want you to help me, Anai." I want to belong to someone again. The air shimmered with his unspoken oath, crackling with an unknown energy.

The Goddess heard the child's thought and chuckled at how easily the boy had been lead into her grasp. She pressed her lips to the boy's forehead, making the boy gasp at the cold pain that burned but left no mark. "My child. My son. I'll love you forever."

There was a warmth deep within the boy, but he didn't know if it was from love or hate.

"You are mine, now, my child." Anai kissed the boy again, this time on the lips, and the boy shuddered at the contact, for it stripped his True Name from his soul and left him empty. "Xinai. My son."

The boy shuddered again, violently, as the new Name swept through him, killing the soul that had once been known as Augentrost. He arched his back and screamed as more pain than he had ever known lanced through his body, electric energy sparking between his fingers. And when the pain stopped and he lay still and gasping on the ground, as weak as a newborn hatchling, he was no longer the same innocent child that he had been. No longer was he the golden son of the plains, skin and hair and feathers reflecting the golden-brown-amber grass that hid the prey his people hunted. Instead, he had become something dark, his hair as black as the world beneath the earth, his eyes as dark as his thoughts. He had been reborn, changed in other ways; ways that he could not name but could feel throughout his soul. There was something new within him, something warm and pulsing and filled with anger that kept time with the beating of his heart. He could feel the force of Anai within that beating core, feel the heat of her thoughts and demands warm his soul. He looked up at his Goddess with wonder in his eyes and opened his mouth to speak, but Anai placed one chill finger against his flushed lips and smiled.

"Hush, my child. You are still too weak. Drink this and gain strength." Using one icy talon, Anai cut her wrist and her pale red blood oozed out of the thin cut to snake lazily down her palm. She placed her fingers against the newly reborn boy's lips, and raised his head. "Drink my son."

And as the boy drank the blood of the vengeful Goddess, Anai smiled, cruel and exultant.

~~~

Date: Telan 6th, 124th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Rein-Aerie
Time: 2 shadows before sun's rise

It was Getraut and Jostyn who found him, small and cold and naked, wings bloody--but too bloody to just be his blood--and fuzzy with down and golden beneath the rusty flakes. The pair of betrothed brought him into the Aerie, warmed him before the fire, fell in love with his dark, reflective eyes and soft speech and smooth skin.

But only Getraut noticed that he never smiled. And in his mind, Getraut would always remember him as the boy with bloody wings. And he was a little worried about this bloodied winged child, and what he would grow up to be.

~~~

Date: Janvier 14th, 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Rein-Aerie, Marak-lai's chambers
Time: Two shadows past sun's peak

"It's love at first sight and that's the problem." Getraut, youngest son of al'Joran-thegn, could see the stars from where he lay, little pinpricks in the blue-black sky and framed by the stone through which they peeked. "How can you argue with love at first sight?"

Chi'el shrugged, his powerful shoulders surging and rippling not unlike a mountain range during an earthquake. "I still don't see the problem, Getraut. You have a greater claim to Jostyn than this nameless upstart. She has been your intended ever since the two of you survived your first flight. Polnira the Seeress prophesied that the two of you would unite in marriage. How can something as foolish as love possibly change that fact?"

"Chi'el, love changes everything. You have no beauty in your soul, my friend, if you can't understand that." Getraut sighed and rolled carefully onto his stomach, resting his narrow chin on his folded hands. His silver-grey wings unfurled slightly, feathers shimmering in the starlight. From their perch in the mouth of the highest entrance in the Rein-Aerie, Getraut could see almost all of the large alpine valley that lay hidden in the imposing circle of the Aerie's mountains--and he could see the nameless boy who had stolen his intended's heart. "Love...love is more powerful than anything else in this world."

Chi'el snorted. "Well, Getraut, I'll leave such things to you. I'm nothing more than a simple Kreiger. Love and the like mean little to me. Force--now that's something I can understand. You should just take her, Oja. She is honor bound to marry you."

"Mmm. No. I would never do that, Chi'el. She has found love. She should be happy." Getraut's keen grey eyes focused on his intended, but more on the nameless boy. His stomach tightened as he watched them walk through the snow, and he made a small noise of need. Chi'el grunted and placed one heavy hand on Getraut's shoulder in wordless comfort. Getraut smiled, then wondered what his stalwart friend would do if he knew that it was Jostyn he was jealous of and the ease at which she could intimately touch the nameless youth--that he wanted to be the one holding the boy's hand, marveling at his black hair and staring into his depthless black eyes.

He wondered what Chi'el would do if he knew that it was Getraut who had fallen in love.

~~~

Date: Janvier 26th, 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: al'Shodar Abar
Time: Six shadows past sun's rise

They had named him Dinew and by 'they', he meant 'she'. Jostyn. The new center of his universe. The one who had been with him on his first kill.

It had been some sort of lizard-like creature, one that walked upright and hissed out the harsh words that plagued his memory and destroyed his sleep. And suddenly he was scared, the child called Dinew; he, who had escaped from the Tsa-Eitog's lair, who had flown across an ocean on wings that weren't ready, who had survived the cold of winter and the loss of family and the pain of learning the ways of Kreiger and Akush'ai in just a year when it normally took five--and learned the lessons so well that he had outstripped his teachers. He was scared, and Jostyn sensed it and told him that it was all right, he didn't have to do this right now, if he wasn't ready.

The thing was, he was ready. He was very ready. It was just that his bloodlust was so powerful that it frightened him.

He didn't even remember attacking, just the feel of the thick branch as he pushed off and the rush of air under his wings, air that tugged at his hair and his skin and made his eyes tear slightly and threaded through his feathers, and then a startled scream--two startled screams, really--and then he was sitting in a clearing, covered in blood and suddenly he was back in his Aerie asking his mother to wake up again.

Except this time there was Anai whispering in his head to savor the revenge, to savor the feeling of his enemies blood and when he licked his lips and tasted the ironhotsalty tang, he shuddered with pleasure. It was so good. So incredible, better than anything he had ever experience before. Better than the warmth of belonging to a Celai. And he looked up into Jostyn's eyes, words crowding the tip of his tongue, words to try and explain how it felt, explain how the blood and the revenge and the joy of battle all melded into something beautiful. Except Jostyn had a look of horror on her face, and Getraut somehow knew that something bad had happened, even though he wasn't there to see Dinew do anything, and a confused, frightened wondering came to them both through the bond of the Celai that they shared, and he tried to reassure them that he was the same person that he had always been--because he was, and this was just another facet of him.

But Jostyn didn't want to be alone with him anymore; and he felt the startled, frightened jerk of Getraut trying to pull away, trying to break the bond of the Celai when he tried to explain.

He wondered why they didn't understand.



Interlude
Excerpts from transcript
Talk With the Condemned
Subject: Keith S. Tsumetai,
a.k.a, a'Shteru, Ki'ir-ar of Nemai


Q: How do the Ki'ir-ar deal with death?

K: Which part of death? The dying or the aftermath of dying?

Q: Any of it. All of it.

K: Well, when it comes to dying, we Ki'ir-ar tend to die with great aplomb, a great deal of stoicism. We face death squarely, no shirking, no hiding, no pleading with k'Elava, the Dark Angel and messenger of Arail, Lord of Death. We are not afraid of death because death frees us of our mortal shells and lets us become one with the world. In death we become even more of life, one with all that surrounds us, for our bodies become one with the earth and our souls one with the wind. The bodies of the dead are not buried beneath the ground but left to become part of the world naturally; they
are bathed and anointed with an oil that stops the stench of decomposition, however, because nobody really wants to live next to rotting corpses. But we try to keep it as natural as possible.

Q: If the Ki'ir-ar don't fear death, then why is the punishment for breaking one of the Three Commandments death?

K: Because in that case, the death is not honorable. The punishment for breaking one of the Three Commandments is, as I said, to be beheaded at the Rein-aerie, usually by those whom you have wronged, or by a pair of executioners appointed by the Marak-lai. After the beheading, however, the head and body of the Kosei-asaka--the lawbreaker--is taken to Oka'tsho, which is a volcano near the Rein-aeire, and thrown into the fire, along with the axe that was used to behead the Kosei-asaka; every execution there must be a newly forged weapon, which is created through a fairly complex ritual. What makes this death so horrific is that through this method the Kosei-asaka can never become one with the world; the peace of unity is denied to them.

What also makes this punishment particularly painful for the Kosei-asaka is the knowledge that their Death Song will be filled only with their crimes, and there will be no entreating the Gods to accept their soul and make it one with the wind. All their good deeds will be overshadowed by their actions, and their fall from grace will be preserved forever in the Memory Song. Their name will be forever tainted, and none will use it again; they will be referred to only as Kosei-asaka. They will bring shame to their family, and there is nothing that they can do to bring that lost honor back.

Q: What are the Death Song and Memory Song?

K: The Death Song is a combination of things, really. It is both a story and a prayer: the chronicling of the departed's life, the remembering of great deeds, and a prayer to the Gods to make the departed one with all. It is sung after any battle where there have been deaths, and for those who have been taken to the Shi'bans--the deportation sites for Training Centers; once you have entered a Shi'ban, you are considered dead by the Ki'ir-ar. It is sung after the body has been bathed and anointed, usually accompanied by a feast. Unfortunately, because the Alliance has destroyed so many Aeries and taken so many of our young before they could live--sometimes before they could be named--the Death Song isn't sung for every one who has died. This is why we have the Memory Song, which is like the Death Song, but not really. Instead of remembering and chronicling a single person, the Memory Song remembers and immortalizes
all who have died. But the Memory Song is more than that, for the Memory Song is the history of the Ki'ir-ar, from the First to the present. Everything that has happened is preserved, taught to all Jao'xai, and the entire history is sung during Xia'tian'sho, the Festival of Summer, so that all Ki'ir-ar may know their past. The deeds of the great heroes are remembered and preserved, the tragedies that have befallen our race, and the lineage of every Ki'ir-ar to fly beneath Nemai's sky. The Gods themselves help crate the Memory Song, by watching over the doings of all the Aeries and then conveying those actions to the Jao'xai.

Q: I thought only the Akush'ai communicated directly with the Gods.

K: Directly, yes. But all Ki'ir-ar can speak with the Gods, although only when they sleep. Or rather, the Gods can speak to them.

Q: So do you speak to Anai in your dreams or do you communicate with her directly?

K: A little of both, actually. But Anai only talks to me in my sleep when she can't talk to me when I'm awake.

Q: What do you dream of, if Anai doesn't speak to you in your dreams?

K: Dream of?

Q: Yes. Ki'ir-ar
do dream, don't they?

K: Yes, they do. Let's see...Well, I dream of many things. Sometimes I dream of my son. I miss him.

Q: This isn't a child you had back on Nemai, is it?

K: Oh no. This is a child of the Alliance. Lance--my ex-wife's cousin--is taking care of him for me. It's just...well, I haven't seen my son for a few years now. Lance took him...somewhere. I'm not sure where, exactly. I think that it was to protect him from those who would kill him because he is
my son. A half-Ki'ir-ar child.

Q: What else do you dream of?

K: Well, I dream of my old Celai, Jostyn and Getraut. I dream of
al'Shodar Abar--the city of trees.

Q: City of trees? I thought your people didn't have cities.

K: Well,
al'Shodar Abar really isn't a city city. I mean, the buildings do look like the sort of buildings you would be used to, but they're more like...tree houses than real buildings. And there are no roadways, or bridges or the like--to reach each building you must fly. But al'Shodar Abar isn't a city like you think of cities because those who live there aren't like those who live in a normal Aerie. They're more like soldiers living in a barrack. Which is basically what al'Shodar Abar is. It's the home for all of the members of Jin'an--the resistance fighters. These are the Ki'ir-ar that most of the news holos are about. The members of Jin'an are the Ki'ir-ar who actively fight back against the Alliance. I must admit that our Marak-lai is something of a pacifist. That is, he hopes that if we all pull back, content ourselves to living in the Rein-Aerie and the surrounding mountains we'll be left alone. He believes that there has been enough bloodshed, and enough lost Ki'ir-ar lives. He just wants the killing to stop, and there are many who agree with this point of view; as I've said, Ki'ir-ar love to fight, but we dislike killing. There is more honor in the touch than in the kill.

Those who belong to
Jin'an believe that the only way to win is to kill off the Alliance. They--and I was among them--believe that if the Alliance wants a war, then we'll give them a war. al'Shodar Abar is the base camp of Jin'an; most of the Zhiyu live in al'Shodar as well as the weapon-makers. There's even a sort of Breshav-Aerie set up in al'Shodar as well, because the Marak-lai won't grant adult status to those who would use their training to wage war on the Alliance.

Q: Speaking of war, what is the Ki'ir-ar term for war?

K: War.

Q: But that's the--

K: I know. The Ki'ir-ar have no word for war.

Q: How is that possible? If the Ki'ir-ar love to fight as much as you say they do, how can there be no term for war?

K: Because though the Ki'ir-ar fight, there has never been war on Nemai until the Alliance came. We have a hundred, thousand words for battle, for fighting for honor, for fighting itself. But there has never been a battle so grand that it could be considered a war. We have never sustained a grudge long enough to escalate into war. We have never killed enough to constitute a war.

Q: I see. Tell me, do you ever dream about the battles you have fought?

K: Sometimes. But really only those that occurred after my...transformation.

Q: Why?

K: Because those are the only battles that I feel guilty about the deaths of those who weren't Ki'ir-ar. I often dream of the innocents I killed, the victims of my orders.

Q: You don't feel guilty about your victims prior to your change?

K: No. I feel no more guilt than those who have killed
my people do. There's a difference between the deaths of those who have done you no harm and the deaths of those whose very presence threatens you. Besides, to the Ki'ir-ar, those who are from the Alliance are nothing more than animals. Dangerous, brutal, vicious animals.

Q: Now just a--

K: Because you
are animals. Only animals would use the find-and-destroy methods that this Alliance seems so fond of. Only animals would attack the young, the sick, the old and infirm. Only animals would delight in the suffering of the wounded, in their supremacy over others. Only animals would attack without provocation, kill those who are only there to help, strive for the total eradication of those that oppose them, destroy without thought or need--why do you think my people have declared it death to all those who destroy without need? You are all animals, and the worst kind; animals made mad with an incurable sickness, animals who are fit only for death. Only rabid animals--mad animals--attack with the blind ferocity that the Alliance exhibits.

It's not so pleasant on the other side of the fence, is it?

Chapter Eighteen

Date: Ma'ain 1st 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: al'Shodar Abar
Time: Moon rise

Winter was a bad time for the Jin'an of al'Shodar--then again, it was a bad time for all Ki'ir-ar who didn't live in the tropics. The cold crept into their hollow bones and took up an almost permanent residence, and the snow that sifted soundlessly from the overcast sky weighed down their wings and soaked through the feathers of those not equipped to deal with water. For a people whose customary clothing consisted of little more than thin pants and a sleeveless vest--and for some, no more than a loincloth and a weapon's harness--the cold weather could be fatal, and the hatchlings were kept wrapped up in their parent's wings and buried under soft cloth and down.

The only good thing that could be said about the winter was that it was a slow time, with only a few raids taking place during the five long, dark months. So most of the Jin'an spent their days and nights huddled close together in their wooden huts, sitting close to the glowing fires which snapped and popped, sparks leaping up to mimic the stars, showering those who gathered near it for warmth. In the distance, Chi'el and Hanai made plans for the morning's raid. It should be bloodless, a quick hit for metal and food and maybe some blankets to line the nests and protect the hatchlings, and then back to al Shodar. Their voices carried well in the still night, but none of the Ki'ir-ar who sat watchful and awake paid their leaders much attention, knowing that the plan created tonight would be but a guideline, Chi'el and Hanai too experienced to expect that any Ki'ir-ar would do anything other than what they pleased.

Dinew listened to them with half an ear, the rest of his attention focused on the soft voice of his 'mother' that whispered in his head.

You were meant to rule them, Anai whispered seductively. You were made to rule them. Under your leadership, the enemies of the Ki'ir-ar would wish they had never been born.

What must I do?
Dinew asked, trusting in his Goddesses' guidance.

Be patient for now. Do as these others say. But do it better than them, for you are better than they are. You are stronger, faster, smarter than they could ever be, because I have made you so. Prove yourself in battle, prove that they need you to lead them, need your guidance. But do not trust them, for they are inferior to you and would hurt you if they knew the truth.

I will do as you say, Mother.

Good. I love you, my son.


Ghostly lips pressed themselves to Dinew's forehead and the child shivered and huddled closer into the warm curve of Jostyn's body, head cocked and staring off at something that no one else could see. The fire flickered in his black eyes, flames reflected back from velvet darkness. His lips moved every so often, and sometimes a small, frightening grin would flit across his face.

He could see his enemies in the darkness, see those who had killed his family and his home and he promised them that he would exact his revenge.

Their deaths would be sweet.

~~~

Date: b'Irtsu 14th 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: al'Shodar Abar
Time: Five shadows past sun's peak

Getraut wondered, sometimes, if the boy was mad, and then wondered if he might not be mad as well, for following this child, this man-boy who was only a year old and yet had more notches on his belt than Chi'el, who was fast approaching his hundredth year. He wondered what his father thought of him, out here among the rebels, joined by the bond of Celai to his former betrothed and this mad child, for the child had to be mad if he was able to keep his innocence after all the blood he had spilled. He wondered what Jostyn thought of him, swearing Dilschaut ir'sange with the boy that the both loved.

Getraut sighed and looked at Dinew who sat across from him, black eyes bright, smiling and happy. The golden-green light of the noonday sun shifting down through the tree's spring leaves highlighted the bronze of his skin and the copper of his feathers. In that moment, it was hard to believe that Dinew was a killer. Not when the child was caught in a pool of light that brought out the roundness to his cheeks, the baby fat that made him just a little pudgy, the fuzzy down that still coated the underside of his wings.

"Now what, Getraut?" Even his voice was young, clear and high and filled with the gold of the plains where the child had been born. "Are we going to finish the rite?"

The young prince smiled at his Celai member and carefully lifted the heavy ceremonial knife; how could he possibly begin to summon up the strength to refuse the child anything when a single smile brought him crashing to his knees? "We must each make a cut on our palms from the heel to the pad of the middle finger. Then we dip a talon in the blood, clasp our hands so that our blood mingles, and draw here," Getraut tapped the slight swell of his sternum, "the symbol of Hasos. This will signal us out to Him and He will then create Dilschaut ir'sange. Then we say: a Hasos ta' tir'nan. And we're done."

"Okay." Dinew smile broadened and he took up the knife and sliced his palm. The smell of blood thickened the air and Getraut opened his mouth slightly, breathing in the heady aroma, wanting to take in as much of this child as he could. Dinew passed the knife back and Getraut sliced his own palm. The blood welled up hot and cold and thick. Getraut used his free hand to undo the wooden buttons of his vest and pull it apart, arching back slightly and pulling his wings back to thrust his sternum forward. He clasped Dinew's hand in his own, their blood mingling and making their palms slick, sliding down their forearms in intricate crimson trails, subject only to nature. One golden talon came up to gently touch Dinew's hairless chest and he shivered as the youth did the same, shuddering in almost orgasmic pleasure under the light touch of Dinew's talon tracing the serpentine pattern of Hasos the Ever-Watching. The design burned his skin, a strange mixture of pleasure-pain that made him open his mouth even further and squeak out the tension that gathered in the pit of his stomach.

"A Hasos ta' tir'nan."

The day dimmed at the words and suddenly all that Getraut could see was Dinew, a shining light in a world of darkness. And he knew, then, that the oath of blood wasn't the only thing that he swore that day, for he knew that there would be no other--could never be another--like Dinew. There would never be another person who captured his attention, his soul, so completely. And he knew that the oath of blood was nothing more than a pretense, nothing more than a sad attempt to capture just a little of Dinew, take back something to fill up the emptiness that replaced everything that he had been, everything that he had given to this strange child.

He was ruined in love forever, bound to one who he could never be with, made childless by a child; and there was something painfully ironic in that.


~~~

Date: Shon-an 3rd 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Foothills of ben'in a-Kar
Time: Three shadows past sun's peak

It was three days after Chi'el died in a raid that Dinew was made the new leader of the Jin'an, partly because the blindest akush'ai could see that this child was destined for great things, and partly because of a bright afternoon two weeks prior to the failed raid when Dinew herded a hoard of hatchlings--some of whom were older than he and many of them taller--who had been captured in the last Alliance raid and sung over and mourned, into the camp. He was smiling and happy and innocent and beautiful. Nobody had the heart to tell him that the children he had just rescued were already dead.

He cried when he found out that they could only save one. And his eyes burned with an unimaginable hate. He needed to feel their blood between his fingers, pay them back for every life they had taken.

Which was why they were out here on the planes, in the middle of the day when the sun was white with heat. The sun beat down on their unprotected heads, and Getraut knew that if they lay out in the sun many more days, his hair would be as golden-brown as the long grass they lay in. His head hurt from the heat and he could only muster enough self disgust to give a long sigh at the memory of how easily he had been convinced that this--this lying and spying and waiting which wasn't real fighting, wasn't blood and sweat and pain and joy--was a good idea.

"It'll just be a little recon, Getraut. I just want to take a look," Dinew had pleaded eye big and bright and Getraut knew that he saw the tiniest gleam of cool, calm calculation in the back of that gaze. He was being manipulated and by an expert it seemed. But even that knowledge made it impossible to say no. The boy had him--them, for Jostyn was just as kept as he--wrapped around one, small, thin finger.

Getraut sighed again, and carefully rolled onto his back. He stared at the perfect sky from between the bleached stalks that waved in the breeze and managed a small, self-deprecating smile. The longer he spent in this child's company, the more certain he became that he was truly a masochist. Or if not a masochist, than so deeply in love that he had forgotten himself.

Dinew shot a quick glare at the cloud-gazing Getraut, knowing eve as he did so that it was only this place that made him nervous. Getraut's soft sigh would never be picked up by the men below them, lost in the sounds of the wingless children floated through the air. Nor would he be spotted because his black hair made him stand out in the ocean of golden grass. It was just easier to worry about such trivial things than to remember vague memories that were summoned by this place. Better he snap at his companions than remember the curve of a mountain as it appeared from the air as he soared over it strapped to his mother's warm belly; or the smell of the grass and dirt that brought to mind the sound and touch of his siblings as the mock-fought on this very spot.

But how could he forget when the thought of revenging their deaths occupied his entire being?

"Dinew?" Jostyn's soft touch and softer voice snapped Dinew back to the present, and the child shook himself, sloughing off the memories as easily as if they were irritating drops of water. "Dinew, are you all right?"

He nodded brusquely and winnowed forward through the grass rather than looking into Jostyn's worried eyes. He didn't trust his voice to be free of the tremble of pain--a weakness that must be lanced from his being as soon as possible--that ate at his soul. Instead, he peered over the edge of the cliff and watched the Aerie of the wingless ones, squat buildings in a rigid square of bare, dusty earth. They were very strange, these invaders. He didn't understand half of what they did, didn't understand the large, metal beasts that they rode in. And he wondered, for a little while, at the apparent lack of supervision for their hatchlings. Then he realized that it was because these hatchlings would never experience the painful fear of a raid, or the emptiness that came in the Shi'bans.

Dinew decided that he hated the children even more than he hated their parents.

"What d'you suppose those are?" Jostyn whispered in his ear, breath sweet from the grass she had been chewing on. "The little black things. The one with the tethers 'round their necks."

Dinew shrugged and wriggled over the edge until the top of his torso was hanging off the edge and his wings were unfurled and stretched out to give him balance. He hooked one hand into the rough rock of the cliff's face and shaded his eyes with the other, gazing at the wingless ones. The small black things resolved themselves into animals, thin and serpentine and oh so familiar.

"Tsa-Eitog," he growled, lips pulled back in a snarl of pure hate as he gazed down on his primal enemies. His blood burned and he tensed his body, ready to spring forward off the cliff and tear into his foes. Hate and anger made his world red and it was only the icy touch of his goddess on his soul that kept him from exacting his vengeance now.

Wait, my dearest. Wait and have patience and I will lead you to your revenge. This world will become red with the blood of our enemies; the earth will groan under the weight of their bones.

Dinew shuddered and relaxed and the world was once more drenched in the golden light of the afternoon sun. He blinked, twice, and refocused his gaze on the dark forms below. The wingless ones were being lead by the Tsa-Eitogs, apparently unconcerned with their proximity to these ruthless warriors. They would lean down and stroke the heads of the Tsa-Eitog who would lean into the wingless ones hands and arch their backs and twine about the wingless ones legs. Dinew had seen such actions before, seen it in the small animals the wingless ones kept in their homes, soft pampered worthless creatures that wouldn't last a single day outside of their cages.

But why were the Tsa-Eitogs submitting to this...degradation? Why did these proud, powerful warriors allow the wingless hatchlings to crawl over them, tug at their ears and tails?

Dinew got his answer a few minutes later when one of the Tsa-Eitogs that were being lead about on tethers lifted its head and looked out to the plains beyond the city's boundary of bare dirt. It rose up onto its hind legs, determined and resistant of its wingless owner's attempts to drag it onward, and Dinew could tell that it was scenting the air even from this distance. For a moment Dinew experienced a chill of irrational fear that it was his scent that had carried down to the cat-like creature; but that moment passed quickly because he was upwind and there was no way the Tsa-Eitog could have scented him. But that didn't explain the Tsa-Eitog's behavior.

So what--There.

A herd of jiran, grazing not far from the wingless ones Aerie. And in the tall grass upwind a bit, a Ki'ir-ar out hunting, so intent on his prey that he didn't even realize his danger. But just as Dinew pinpointed the object of the Tsa-Eitog's attention, so too did the Tsa-Eitog. The creature let out a shrill, undulating cry, one that made Dinew shiver with half-forgotten torments. From every corner of the wingless ones Aerie came answering cries and, as one, the Tsa-Eitogs broke free from their confinement, streaming out in a black wave toward the unknowing Ki'ir-ar. Their wingless masters called out to each other in their guttural language, words unintelligible to Dinew and his celai but their tone clear; they knew an enemy lay in the grass. The wingless children were herded into the small, ugly buildings by their mothers and the men grabbed their guns and followed the Tsa-Eitogs.

"We must go. Now." Dinew pushed off of the cliff, snapping his wings in as he streaked downward, a slim arrow of flesh and blood. He caught the updraft at the last possible second, soaring effortlessly up into the blue sky, arms and legs held in tight against his body. Getraut and Jostyn quickly followed and the trio made their way up into the high, thin, cold, burningly clear part of the sky, small dots of black to the eyes of those on the ground.

"We must warn the hunter," Jostyn sang out, trilling voice carrying easily.

Dinew nodded curtly, and the threesome wheeled about and dove, graceful and beautiful and deadly. They skimmed high above the heads of the men and the Tsa-Eitogs, silent and unnoticed. The trio soon outstripped the grim mob, easily reaching the lone hunter. Their shadows passed over the grazing jiran, scattering the swift-footed beasts and getting the attention of crouching Ki'ir-ar. The young hunter leapt up, cursing the trio that now circled above him.

"May your wings be infested with fleas! May Jiroch cause the wind to fail you and the rain weigh down your wings!"

"Not now, Aedel," Getraut called out. "There are wingless ones not far behind us and they hunt you. Fly, Brother, fly!"

The hunter looked out over the fields, face pale and eyes wide as he suddenly realized the danger. He swallowed and began to run, loping strides kicking up dust behind him. Then he leapt high into the air, his wings stretched out wide, beating quickly, muscles straining as he became airborne. Blood infused his skin, turning the golden flesh a pale orange. He rose into the clear sky, and at his flight the wingless ones that pursued him cried out in anger and fear.

"Quickly, Aedel," Dinew growled, his own wings pumping hard and carrying him up and up into the blue expanse. Jostyn and Getraut followed him close, closely tailed by the lone hunter. The quartet headed for the sun, eyes closed against the light, the world becoming smaller and smaller as they broke free of the pull of gravity.

~~~

Date: Shon-an 3rd 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: al'Shodar Abar
Time: Moon's peak

The whole of al'Shodar sat around the large bonfire, listening gravely to Jostyn and Getraut as they revealed what many had already begun to expect. A slow, but steadily growing, grumble of anger rose from the gathered Ki'ir-ar at the confirmation that the Tsa-Eitog led the wingless ones to their Aeries, to their children. And that was good, for the time for outrage and the swearing of retribution was now, in the darkness before the fire, when the moon pulled at their blood. Better that the anger be released at once, vented and so lanced from the soul. Better to give in to the fury as it came than let it eat away at the soul, grow cancerous and dangerous. To bottle rage was to take a step down the path of Anai.

But for the one who had already suckled at the Destroyer's breast, that danger was a moot point. Indeed, he was well down the path of Vengeance, reliving again all the grievances that he had sworn to avenge.

In the darkness of tree and night, Dinew sat brooding, fingers tracing the imagined wounds of another night in another time. He could smell the damp earth around him and the blackness of the night seemed to be the blackness of the world beneath the earth. He shivered, imagining that he felt the scrape of tooth against his skin.

What troubles you, Dearest one? Anai's burning touch replaced the memory-pain of the Tsa-Eitog's teeth and Dinew shivered and closed his eyes.

My enemies have joined forces, Mother. The Tsa-Eitog lead the wingless ones to the nests of my people, help the wingless ones destroy us. They must suffer as the wingless ones do, but how can I defeat them? I cannot come close enough to strike them down; they can kill us without coming close. They have weapons that shoot a burning light. Help me, Mother. Help me with my vengeance.

Hush my son. Be calm. I will teach you the names of the world. I will teach you how to call fire from the ground and death from the sky. I will teach you how to Name the spirits, how to call upon the world to help you.
Anai brushed her hand across Dinew's forehead and the child almost cried out from the pain, but bit his tongue instead until he bled. You are blessed, my son, my dearest, my precious one. Together we will crush any who stand up against you. With me on your side, you will be invincible. Listen close. The secrets of the world are now open to you.

Dinew opened his soul to Anai and then he did scream as the knowledge of the world streamed through his body, burned through his veins. His eyes rolled back and he seized, muscles spamming as pure energy, pure divine energy replaced his blood and flowed through his heart and his brain, scoring his bones, marking him for what he was. And the fire of that knowledge burned away a little something of himself, something that was pure and innocent because it was impossible to know the thoughts of a tree and the feeling of water smoothing and scraping and dissolving over years and years of time and still be the same.

The spasms were slow to stop, and even after his entire body stopped seizing, bits of Dinew still twitched and trembled. He opened his eyes--somehow blacker than before, darker, harder--and smiled, small and toothy. He could feel the power tingling at the ends of his fingers, feel the knowledge like a heavy weight in his head. He could do things. He could change the world.

He could have his revenge.

~~~

Date: Shon-an 4th, 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Badlands
Time: Before sun's rising

Dinew left al'Shodar before the moon had begun to give way to the sun. Roused by the excitement that came screaming through the bond of the celai, Getraut and Jostyn followed, confused and sleepy. The trio flew through the misty night, gliding above silver clouds and below the pale moon, dim shadows that skimmed over the hollows and valleys of the clouds. They raced the sun, heading ever westward, deep into the ben'in a-Kar until they reached the Badlands.

This was no man's land, a barren place of rock and thick, poisonous, yellow mud. Only the brave--or the incredibly stupid--came to the Badlands; it was all too easy to become lost in the desolate plains, particularly during the day when a thick haze rose from the small pools of bubbling mud. Their wings swept of clouds of thick dust and, even though they landed far from the edge of the mud flats, the air burned their lungs and brought tears to their eyes.

Yawning and blinking their eyes against the pull of sleep that crept over them now that they were out of the biting cold of air and surrounded by the oven-like heat of the Badlands, Getraut and Jostyn found boulders to perch on as far from the yellow plain as they could get. They had been promised that something special was to happen here, something wonderful that would help their cause. But what could the Badlands possibly have to offer other than a slow and painful death?

Dinew left his celai on the rocks and headed out onto the desolate mudflats. He could feel the spirits even here. They were different from the spirits of the forest, angry and destructive instead of deliberate and healing. He could feel them coming to him, and he threw back his head at the pleasure of their hate, bathing his face in the pale rose light of the newborn sun. He laughed as the spirits came at his call, and twirled in a twisted parody of a giddy lover caught in the rain.

The energy filled him, made the tips of his fingers tingle, hurt him as much as it pleasured him, shook his body until he felt that he would fly apart. He had to release it. The energy fled from his body and back into the world in the form of fire and thunder, earthquakes and explosions. The air about Dinew became scorched and smelled of burning death. The ground beneath him shook and lighting streaked from the clear sky to strike the ground, creating huge craters in the dust. Softly, as if from a distance, Dinew could hear the startled cries of Getraut and Jostyn as the boulders they sat on danced and jumped. He laughed again, giddy and wild.

When the world calmed down and the Dinew managed to stop the spirits and call them back, he turned to his celai, flushed and excited. Getraut and Jostyn stared at him, a little afraid, but mostly shocked.

"What?" Dinew smiled, innocent and vulnerable. "What's wrong? Isn't this great? Do you realize what we can do now? We've neutralized the wingless ones weapons advantage! We can defeat them! Isn't...isn't that wonderful?"

The pair looked down at the mud flats, at each other, at everything except Dinew. Confused, the child finally looked about himself. He stood on an island of yellow earth, surrounded by destruction on a scale almost unimaginable. In the span of five minutes, Dinew had reduced the Badlands into chaos. Rocks buried beneath the mud since the day the world began were suddenly exposed to the sun. Creatures of the earth and darkness writhed and died in the light. Craters pocked the ground and some of the pools of mud had slipped over their boundaries and oozing rivers made their wending ways towards new hollows. The few stunted trees that had thrust their way towards the sun were now felled, roots exposed to the dust filled air.

Dinew looked back at his celai, and now fear was beginning to creep into his soul. They wore disturbed faces, wary faces, and there was a worry in Getraut's eyes. Dinew opened his mouth to explain, but nothing would come out.

"Dinew...Do not...You can't..." Getraut trailed off and looked around himself with sad, strange eyes. Through their bond of blood, Dinew could feel his Oja's pain, taste his fear. It sickened him.

"We should go," Jostyn said, voice subdued but still thunderous in the silence left in the aftermath of Dinew's demonstration.

Dinew nodded and the threesomes launched themselves into the air. But Dinew trailed behind Getraut and Jostyn, mind in turmoil, suddenly doubting this gift he had been given. He had meant to test out his power--but not like this. He had never meant to destroy.

But that is the price of power, dearest one. How else will you stop your enemies unless you destroy them?

But...
A small part of Dinew still protested this use of force.

'But' nothing. This is the way it must be done. This is the only way.

~~~

Date: Xo'ash 16th, 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Plains of Khal
Time: Two shadows past sun's rise

They perched in the yellowing trees, dark forms in the darker shadows. There were close to fifty Ki'ir-ar hidden among the leaves, young and old, experienced and green fledglings fresh from the nest--the sum and total of all fighting Ki'ir-ar that Jin'an had to offer. Though not an army in the true sense of the term, they were there to be commanded and all eyes were trained on the small boy that stared dazedly up at the sky.

Dinew stood by himself at forest's edge, unconcerned with the piercing eyes that were trained on his still form. Nothing could ruin the moment for him, nothing could dampen the feeling of triumph deep in his soul. He knew they would win today; he knew that this would be the day that forever secured his place in the annals of his people.

"Dinew." The boy turned at the soft voice that called out his name, smiling broadly when he saw it was Jostyn who spoke. "I think...I think that you should make a speech. Curiosity has brought them here; you must make them stay."

Dinew nodded and turned to his assembled people. Something deep within him welled up and he knew that he could make them his. Pulling himself up to his full height, unfurling his wings to their full length so that the strong morning light caught the gold of his feathers and made them shine and gleam, he looked the part of the commander despite the roundness of his limbs and face. Raising his voice, deepening it as much as his youth would allow, he began to speak.

"My people! Today is a glorious day, a day made for battle. Today we will strike a true blow against the wingless ones. No more shall we skulk in the shadows, hiding in the clouds and trees like cowards. No longer will our attacks be limited to lightning strikes, tiny skirmishes with the patrols that invaded our forest. Today we fight back! Today we reclaim our honor! Today we prove our worth as warriors! We shall win this day and our victory will take us one wing beat closer to the day when our children will be free from the threat of the Shi'bans. Today we reclaim our rightful place, our place as the supreme warrior. Today the wingless ones will learn the true meaning of fear!"

His voice rose and fell in a mesmerizing cadence, completely capturing the hearts of the Ki'ir-ar who watched. He called to something deep within the souls of those who listened. They would follow him to the ends of the earth if he asked, now, and there was something sad that the powers that could have brought joy to the lives of all the Ki'ir-ar who sat entranced was used to rally them to die. Still, a roar greeted his words, the sharp, descending call of a raptor signaling its kill.

"Let's fly!" Dinew shot his arm into the air and the forest exploded in a flurry of claws and feathers and keen, killing eyes.

Dinew watched his army fly, shrieking their rage to the uncaring sky. The sight filled him with an indescribable pain, half of joy and half of sorrow. A hand touched his arm and he turned at the gentle pressure to look straight into Jostyn's eyes. And all that pain, all that joy, was suddenly translated into...something else. All that Dinew could think about was Jostyn's lips and her smooth skin and he wanted to do things to her, things that he didn't know the names of but knew how to do all the same.

"Dinew what--"

"Shh." He placed a claw on her red, red lips, smiled at her in the strange, hard fashion that he had somehow picked up. "Xinai."

"What?"

"My Name. It's Xinai." He smiled again and this time it was as it used to be, open and childlike and lovely. "Come on. We're going to miss all the fun."

~~~

Date: Xo'ash 16th, 125th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Plains of Khal
Time: Four shadows past sun's peak

It was only the element of surprise that saved them, and once that was lost the Ki'ir-ar were certainly doomed. Still the Jin'an could quite comfortably say that, in those few shocked moments the Jin'an warriors possessed after descending on the unsuspecting barracks, they had dominated the battle. The soldiers of the Alliance had never dealt with a group so vicious--and so desperate. The soldiers who looked stupidly up into the sky as their death descended upon them couldn't have known that most of the warriors who flew with Dinew were past the point of caring, past the point of feeling. Most were displaced, survivors of raids, of destruction. None had a home. Only ten still had families. Only one was an expectant parent. These were desperate people, deadly people who fought not for a cause but because they had been hurt and this was the only means left to them for removing that pain. They were Aldersine, and they were there to kill.

But desperation and a berserker rage didn't protect soft flesh from destruction by the Alliance's weapons. And when Dinew called they came back, bleeding and sore but obedient, to a small valley half way between the Alliance fort and the dark sanctuary of the forest. They lay in the soft grass, licking their wounds and watching Dinew fume with strange, glassy eyes.

"We need a strategy." Getraut was pacing. He always paced when he thought and sometimes Dinew thought it endearing and other times thought it annoying. This was one of the latter times.

"I have a strategy."

"Some strategy." Getraut sneered and crossed his bloodied arms. "Some fucking strategy. All we've done so far is prick the wingless ones. What happened to the 'great blow for all Ki'ir-ar kind'? Hmm?"

Dinew growled and for a moment he felt that like attacking Getraut. Clawing out his tongue or something. "I have a strategy and it's a damn good strategy and I am going to fucking destroy the wingless ones! All of the wingless ones! I will bury them beneath the earth!"

And that, finally, got Getraut's attention because, really, all he had been doing was getting rid of his frustration and his pain by taking it out on someone else. He hadn't meant for Dinew to take everything so seriously, hadn't meant for Dinew to, well, snap. But it was too late by then, because Dinew was already up in the air, winging his maddened way towards the fort. And all it took was one quick, piercing, accusing look in his direction and Jostyn was off after their young friend. And of course Getraut had to follow, because it was all his fault. But that really didn't help with the sinking feeling deep within his gut.

There was a low ridge just before the Alliance fort, just within range of their guns. It lay to the west of the battlefield, and when Dinew and his celai landed, they were outlined against the dusk sky. Well within the range of the Alliance's weapons, the ridge was a dangerous place to be.

Getraut was wary when he landed on the slope of the ridge where the wingless ones couldn't see him, but it was the thought of those who waited below, angry and shamed, that made his skin cool with fear-sweat. The soft, anxious noises Jostyn made beside him told him that he wasn't alone in his fear. He hoped that they could leave soon, that Dinew would have sense enough to realize that he couldn't take on the entire fort by himself. But that hope failed when Dinew passed over their heads to land on the lip of the ridge, and stand with his shoulders thrown back so that the dying sun gleamed on the blood that streaked his chest and arms. He was a perfect target and it was only the weariness of the wingless soldiers that kept him safe.

"Dinew. Dinew, this is foolishness. Please, let's go back. You're not proving anything!" Jostyn's voice sounded weak and empty as she pleaded with the child.

But Dinew ignored her call, and instead he began to strut along the ridge, exposed and vulnerable and arrogant. He called out to the wingless ones, taunting them, and even though they couldn't understand his words they understood the meaning. And Getraut knew with unshaken certainty that they--all of them, Dinew, Jostyn, himself--were going to die right here, right now because Dinew had gone mad and there was no way in hell that either of them was going to let anybody do anything to the boy that they loved. Besides, he could feel the scar on his palm pulse with the beat of Dinew's anger and it made his head light with a strange pleasure. So he dug his feet into the ground to give himself a good push into the air, and forced his weary arms lift Arathon, the sword of his family, and let the battle-joy sweep over him.

Except his legs were trembling and he knew that it wasn't because he was tired or afraid, because the entire earth was shaking, pebbles dancing in the air. That was when the terror really struck, because he remembered this shaking, remembered the last time the earth trembled.

He's really going to bury them.

Beside him, Jostyn sucked in a breath, shot him a fear-filled glance. She knew as well as he what was happening here--knew that if Dinew went through with his plan than nothing would be the same. This was destruction without cause. This went against everything sacred, against everything that was pure and right to the Ki'ir-ar.

"Dinew! Stop this! NOW!" Getraut shouted, full force of his linage backing his words but not concealing his panic. But the small form paid no attention to the command and continued to strut calmly, confidently, even though the world around him shuddered with violent pain. "Dinew!"

"Xinai!" Dinew froze as Jostyn screamed his Name, then slowly turned, a questioning expression on his face. "Xinai, stop!"

"Jostyn--"

But that was as far as Dinew got, for on the plains below the Alliance soldiers had noticed the Ki'ir-ar who stood on the ridge. And they raised their weapons against him, all sights trained on this solitary symbol of their hatred.

The air filled with light. And then with blood as a hundred thousand lasers cut through Dinew's body, left gaping, steaming, burning holes where flesh and blood and life had been. The force of the impact sent Dinew reeling back a few steps, and then he tripped over a rock and fell beyond the range of their weapons, tumbling and rolling down the ridge's slope. But the damage was already done, for surely nothing could have survived such a concentrated attack, nothing could survive when it bleed all over, a red shape against the dead grass.

And as Getraut took a step forward, he began to wonder what had happened to the spirits that Dinew had been summoning. But he didn't have to wonder long, because the earth fell away from him and Jostyn screamed, briefly, before the spirits that had been released too soon and without guidance surrounded her, and when they passed her by there was only a rock in her place, one that looked like it might have been her long ago.

~~~

Date: Unknown
Location: Unknown
Time: Unknown

He remembered the darkness. He would always remember the darkness, would always fell the swell of panic in his breast at the prospect of endless blackness.

And yet, the darkness was his home, for he had been born in the darkness.

He wondered where he was.

"So you failed."

He looked up at the voice, at the glow that came with the words, glad at first for the light and then afraid for the light was the white light of Anai. "Mother."

"Do not 'mother' me!" A slim, pale hand snaked out from the long robes that clothed the Goddess and slapped him hard across the face; hard enough for him to bite his cheek and taste the blood that invaded his mouth. "You worthless, useless, spineless child!"

"I didn't--"

"I don't care!" Anai snarled and turned with a swirl of her robes and a rustling of her white feathers. "I don't care if you meant to fail, you failed none the less."

"Mother. Anai," anger was welling, now, summoned by the light. "How was I to know that she would call my Name?"

"Pah." Anai turned back, cold anger lining the icy beauty of her face. "You should not have told her in the first place."

"She is my friend, my celai-mate. I love her."

"No!" Anai hissed and suddenly she was beside him in the darkness, sharp fingers digging into the soft flesh of his chin. "You. Love. Me. You love only me."

"Mother, you're hurting me."

"Say it! Say you love me!"

"Mother!"

"Ahh!" Anai threw him aside and he fell to the ground, touching the five little cuts that wept his blood. The Goddess stood back, unfurled her wings, seemed to swell in the darkness until she was a giant, a monster come to destroy him. Her pale blue eyes were hard and piercing as she gazed upon his sprawled from. "You have forgotten where you came from, forgotten what I brought you out of. I made you, and I can unmake you."

Pain. Blood. Screams resounding in the night.

Footsteps, tramping, tramping, tramping. Heavy thuds as bodies hit the ground.

Huddle down. Stay hidden. Don't cry out though the fear makes you tremble. They will find you and take you away. Stay there until I come back. Stay there.

But she never comes back.

Mud, made from the earth and the blood. It seeps down into the hole, covers your belly, sticks in your toes. The bodies are heavy above you.

More screams. Always screams. Will the noise never stop? Will they never finish?

It is cold.

It is so cold.

Silence. Endless silence. What happened to the screams?

Maybe it's over. Maybe it's all right to get out of the hole.

No. You're supposed to stay there until she comes back.

But she doesn't come back.

Eternal silence.

Mommy?

Daddy?

Anybody?

Please, please, please, I'm afraid. I'm so afraid. Don't leave me alone, don't go away. Don't leave me. I'll be good. I won't cry anymore. I won't fuss. I won't fight. I promise, I'll be good, I'll do whatever you want, just don't leave me, don't leave me, please, please, please, pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. I'll be good! I'll be good! I'll be--

"--good!."

There was soft cloth beneath his hands and against his cheek and he slowly realized that he knelt before Anai, clutching at her robes. He looked up at her and there were tears in his eyes. Fear, primal and uncontrollable, gripped his heart and he pressed himself closer against his Goddess. "Don't put me back there. Please, don't put me back there. I promise I'll be good. I promise."

"Shh. Shh. My baby. My child. My son." A cold hand reached down to stroke his hair, cup his face. "It's all right. I won't put you back. Just remember that it was I who brought you out. If not for me, you would still be trapped below the earth. I gave you life. I gave you purpose. You are mine."

"I love you, Mommy, I love you, please don't leave me, please don't leave me, I love you." He was reduced to babbling, scarred and scared by something that shouldn't--couldn't--hurt him.

Anai smiled and then, gently, pulled her robes away from him. He fell to the ground, naked and trembling and crying and curled in on himself like someone had slugged him in the gut. The smile faded, but he didn't notice.

"You are too weak. I left too much of the child in you. Well, now is as good a time as any to correct that mistake." She touched his head and he leaned into the contact, biting his lip as a fire ripped through him, burning the child out of him, scouring him clean. He would be strong for his Mother.

But, oh, the change hurt so much. It was worst than the last time.

When it was done, and he had been stripped and re-Named with a Name so secret even he didn't know it, he found that he had bit through his lip and blood flowed down his chin in twin rivers that dripped onto the nothingness. He gasped and licked at the wound, trying to keep the salty blood within his body. "Mother."

"Shh, precious." Anai wiped the blood away with one finger. "Shh."

The blood was hot where it hit his chest, and then it turned cold and sluggish as the little droplets followed the course of gravity and oozed gently downwards. He touched one of the drops and it burned him, sparking and fizzling and dancing like water on a hot stove. He looked up at Anai. "Mommy?"

"Shh." She rubbed the blood-slicked finger against another finger, spreading the blood. The red stained her pale skin and that made her smile, a little, for it gave her an illusion of life. Her gaze, distant before, sharpened and she looked down on the boy. "I think it is time for you to learn how to take a little pain."

And then there was nothing but blood and blackness for a long, long time.

~~~

Date: Xin'yi 24th, 126th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: al'Shodar Abar
Time: Two shadows past sun's set

The first thing he noticed was that he hurt. A lot. In many and varied places. Including places that he didn't think it was possible to feel pain. Like the end of his hair.

The second thing he noticed was that he really wanted to punch something.

Someone sighed beside him, the weary sigh of the half-asleep. Feathers rustled in the darkness, and he turned toward the noise.

"Getraut?" He sounded funny. He felt funny. There was a coldness deep inside him and he wanted to feel some warmth. "Getraut?"

There was a snort as someone came fully awake, and then a blinding flash as a torch was lit. In the flickering light, Getraut's face looked worn and lined, and his smile was weak and weary. "You're awake! Good."

"What happened?"

For a moment Getraut wondered what to say. All his carefully chosen words had left him and he wanted to scream at this child who had put him through hell. He wanted to shout that Dinew had acted like an idiot, that he had almost gotten them all killed--had definitely killed Jostyn--and then proceeded to refuse to die for ten long, lonely months. By all rights he should have died. But he didn't and the longer he lay there, refusing to relinquish his grip on life, the more Getraut came to resent him, hate him, because Getraut was as suspended in time as Dinew.

Except now he was back and Getraut could live again and all the angry, bitter thoughts that had cluttered his mind those ten months began to feel shameful. So instead he looked down and, softly, said, "Jostyn died."

The boy smiled, nodded sagely and reached out his hand. "Help me up."

Getraut nodded and gripped the boy's hand, pulling him up out of the nest that he had lain in for so long. As Dinew rose, Getraut wondered who this strange, almost skeletal person was. Ten months had turned the once childishly rounded Dinew into a lean, whip thin man with cold eyes and a hard, edged face. The child had been burned out of him and Getraut wondered what had been left.

The boy stood in the center of the room and stretched his wings, and the light from the torch caught the gold of his feathers, except for the tips, which were a dark, rich red. The color of blood taken straight from the heart. Getraut made a small noise, somewhere between surprise and desperate sadness and that made the boy turn, thin brows rising in question.

"Your wings."

He looked down, fingered the blood colored feathers and then smiled a little. This felt right. This was supposed to be. "It's all right."

"But Dinew--"

"No." When he looked up, his eyes held a strange light, cold and hollow. The frozen spot within him expanded, captured him, and he realized that this was as it should be too. "Dinew is dead."

"Okay," Getraut said slowly, because really, what else was he going to say? "Okay. So what should I--should we--call you?"

The boy fingered his bloody feathers and smiled again. "Call me...a'Shteru."

Interlude
The Legend of Anai

In the beginning, there was Nothing and Chaos and the One. And from the One came the Word which created the World and the Gods. And the happiest of the Gods were Hanai and Tanan, Love and Peace.

The One left the World to the Gods and the Gods created life. They made the trees and the rocks, the waters and the wind, and placed spirits in all of their creations to ensure that their work was continued. But the beauty of the world was empty, for there was no life to enjoy the works and wonders of the Gods. And so came the First. And from the First came the Ki'ir-ar and the Tsa-Eitog, the beasts of the earth and the beasts of the skies and the beasts of the sea.

And this was good.

Now as life teemed on the planet, the original Gods split, and the Gods who favored the Tsa-Eitog became their Gods, and gave them gifts. And the Gods who favored the Ki'ir-ar became their Gods, and they gave the Ki'ir-ar gifts; gifts of strength and speed. They taught the Ki'ir-ar how to fight with honor, how to summon the spirits, and how to heal their sick. And this too was good, for the Gods that valued the Ki'ir-ar took great pleasure in the joy with which the Ki'ir-ar lived.

But not all of the Gods who loved the Ki'ir-ar taught them how to war. Tanan and Hanai gave the Ki'ir-ar beauty, teaching their chosen ones how to create art with their hands. And many of the Gods were discontent, for the chosen ones of Hanai and Tanan could entrance those who possessed the gifts of the other Gods and make them forget how to fight.

In time, a son was born to Hanai and Tanan and they named him Jao, Joy, and they were content. And there was nothing but peace and prosperity and procreation between the Gods. And as there was peace between their Gods, so too was there peace between the Tsa-Eitog and the Ki'ir-ar.

But peace does not last forever, and the First Age was shattered with the death of Tanan and Jao.

Nobody knew what--or who--killed the two Gods, but the death of her husband and son destroyed Hanai. Overcome with grief, she abandoned her chosen ones and rent her hair and clothes. Her sorrow was so profound that it tore her apart, destroyed that which made her Love.

None would help her find the killers of her family, for none wanted to confront that which could kill Gods. The other Gods of the Ki'ir-ar took the death of Tanan and Jao, and the internal destruction of Hanai as a means of sparking a never-ending hate between the Ki'ir-ar and the Tsa-Eitog. Long had a jealousy hidden beneath the peace between the Gods of the Ki'ir-ar and the Gods of the Tsa-Eitog. And as the Gods did, so to did their worshipers.

But this retaliation against the Tsa-Eitog did nothing to soothe Hanai's grief. Nothing could help her but pure Hate; Hate for everyone and everything. And she swore eternal vengeance against the World. That which she helped to create, she would now destroy.

Now she wanders the World under a different name, seeking her vengeance, a dark shadow of her former glory. She has become the patron Goddess of those who have lost all that they loved to violence. But beneath that Hate, some of the Love still remains, twisted and malformed and it is that deformed Love that drives her ever on, drives her to find her family again.

Chapter Nineteen


Date: Tso'ten 10th, 126th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: al'Shodar Abar
Time: Sun's peak

a'Shteru wheeled in the sky, exalting in the way the sun hit the blood red tips of his wings. His feathers glowed with an almost ruby light, and he crowed his delight to the sky, shooting up into the high, pale part of the sky where the air burned his brain. Getraut looked like nothing more than a speck from that height, a black dot in the blue sky. He wouldn't be climbing as high as a'Shteru today--not with his wing newly healed, and a'Shteru felt a momentary pang of sympathy for his blood-mate. His heart swelled for his dearest, for his other half, for the one who meant almost all the world, and it might have been called love had a'Shteru been capable of love. As it was, this was the closest he would ever get. And maybe that would have made him sad, had he still been able to feel anything but the blood rushing through his veins, been able to think of anything other than revenge.

To the west, the sun sparkled on the far distant ocean. The next target was there, a naval port. And beyond the ocean lay the continent of Kilan. a'Shteru wondered how long it would take to convince his army that they must migrate across the wide ocean. The wingless ones here were becoming a little too wary, a little too scarce. Across the ocean lay virgin territory, land unspoiled by fear of a'Shteru and his marauders.

The thought of bringing fear to those fat, complacent intruders brought pleasure to a'Shteru. He could smell their blood in the air, and he smiled.

~~~

Date: Tsu-xao 14th, 126th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Rein-Aerie
Time: Three shadows past sun's peak

Getraut went home for the spring festival, and a'Shteru went with him. Not the wisest of decisions, but nobody said 'no' to a'Shteru anymore. Nobody said much of anything to a'Shteru anymore, not since Dinew died and a'Shteru rose up in his place.

What happened during those long months when a'Shteru lay still and silent, body healing but soul gone, Getraut didn't know. Only a'Shteru knew that, and he wasn't about to tell. But Getraut knew that something had changed. Something indefinable, something important had been lost, killed, destroyed, and with that destruction, the boy that Getraut had known had been lost as well. In his place was this stranger with glittering eyes, this madman who didn't realize that everyday more and more of his army fled him, fled his madness; this stranger who ignored pain, ignored blood, ignored honor; this stranger who, just when Getraut thought he would finally be free of this unrequited love that tied them together, would turn and smile like Dinew used to, grip Getraut's arm in giddy delight and Getraut would melt all over again because suddenly the stranger wasn't quite so strange.

And that was what a'Shteru was doing right now, holding onto Getraut so tight that it was a little hard to tell where one scared body ended and the other began. His mouth gaped in wonder, amazed at the numbers of Ki'ir-ar that confidently strolled along the broad avenues of hidden Leyuan their bright feathers and bright clothes and happy, easy peace so very different from the grim, dark Ki'ir-ar of al'Shodar.

"Look at them, Getraut," a'Shteru breathed. "Look at them smile! That's what I want. That's all I want. I just want to see my people smile."

~~~

Date: Tsu-xao 16th, 126th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: Chambers of al'Joran
Time: Three shadows past sun's rise

"When will you come home, Getraut? Your mother misses you. I miss you." al'Joran poured himself a draft of the potent spring beer, words thrown almost casually over his shoulder. He stood facing the open window, body a silhouette against the setting sun. In Getraut's mind, this image was particularly fitting. His father had always been something of a shadowy figure, more marak-lai than Ki'ir-ar.

"I don't know."

"I don't like the idea of you out there, Getraut. Fighting these autaras hand to hand. What if you died?"

"Then I die. We all die eventually, father, and I'd just as soon die doing something worthwhile than hidden away in these empty mountains."

"Getraut," al'Joran's voice was harsh, "what you do out there is as useless as what you perceive my actions to be. All you do is anger the autaras, goad them into hurting our people even more."

"Is that so? Than why haven't there been any more captures since a'Shteru took charge of the Jin'an? Why haven't there been anymore shipments taking our people away?"

"Because those they capture, they kill. I have seen the ravaged Aeries just as you have. I have seen the bodies left to rot under the sun." And now al'Joran had turned completely, stepped away from the window, face and form all to discernible. There was anger deep in al'Joran's steel blue eyes, a clenching in his granite jaw. "And I have seen what a'Shteru has done. I have seen his battles, seen his viciousness. He is no longer a Ki'ir-ar, Getraut. He is shunned by the Aeries, followed only by Aldersine. Getraut, if he doesn't stop his fruitless attacks on the autaras than I will declare him Sans Mei'yo. He will be an outcast, and all those who follow him be outcasts."

"Then he will be an outcast, and I will be too. He will not stop, and I will not leave him." Getraut straightened, knowing that he cast off that which was near to the core of his world. His family would be lost to him if he followed a'Shteru. But how could he not follow the small boy who cruelly gripped his heart? "Is that all, father?"

"Getraut, don't be foolish. What does this destroyer offer except pain?" al'Joran's stony glare was beginning to melt, his hard eyes beginning to soften as fear for his child entered his soul. "His is the path of disaster. The reports from the Aeries he 'protects' are full of fear. Our people are beginning to hate him, Getraut. They believe that he is the Keith'an-skai; a superstition I realize, but that is what they believe. They want him killed. Getraut, you hear their whispered fears as well as I. You must know that he has strayed from the path of sanity. Why do you follow him?"

"Because I have sworn Dilschaut ir'sange. Because Jostyn loved him. Because I love him. Because...because I can't help myself. I will protect him at all costs, father, and from anything that would harm him. I will protect him from the autaras and I will protect him from you." Getraut looked into his fathers eyes, and it was suddenly hard to believe that the man across from him was his elder. In the past year, Getraut had seen more, done more, than this man had done in his long centuries of life. "I will protect him. Nothing will harm him."

"But who will protect you?"

There was a moment of silence, the Getraut stood. His face was a perfect copy of his father's, stony, impenetrable. Outwardly, he was angry; but inside he finally understood his father's mask. Better to appear offended, to appear apart than to let the world know--to let his father know--just how unsure he was inside.

"Getraut-" al'Joran stretched out a hand.

"May I leave?"

"Getraut, he will be your death. He will kill you."

"May I leave, marak-lai?"

"Getraut, please, don't do this. I am your father. I care for you." All pretenses at stony separateness had left al'Joran as he begged his son. "Please, don't do this. Don't get yourself killed. Don't. Stop this now. You have some power of a'Shteru; talk to him. Bring him back. You're the only one who can do this. If you can't...then I must kill him. He is too dangerous to live."

"Goodbye." Getraut turned, stalked haughtily out of his father's chambers. In his mind, he knew that what his father said was true, that a'Shteru was going too far in his fight. But his heart, his blood, his soul, would not listen.

"Getraut! Come back!"

Getraut ignored the cry, though he wept inside for that which he had lost. The son of al'Joran would never return to the windy heights of the Rein-Aerie.

~~~

"We're leaving."

a'Shteru looked up at Getraut, eyes squinting against the glare of the sun. "What?"

"We're leaving. Now." Getraut looked out past a'Shteru's whipcord body at the Ki'ir-ar that dove into the sun warmed waters of the Rein-Aerie's hidden cove. He wanted to memorize the way the light played off of the silvery scales of the still fighting fish as they were torn from their watery home.

"Why?" a'Shteru leaned back, closed his eyes and turned his golden skinned face up to the morning sun. "I like it here. Besides, the spring festival isn't even half over yet."

"Because we must. Because I have just come from my father, and he has cast us out." Getraut felt strangely formal, his voice flat as he spoke the stilted words. He felt a mad laugh pushing against his lips, strain against his chest.

"Outcast, huh?" a'Shteru said. He sighed and pushed himself up, brushing the sand off of his hands. "Well, it was bound to happen."

Getraut stared at his young charge, a slow burning anger center in his heart. How could a'Shteru take this pronouncement so calmly, accept this unthinkable fate with such unwavering aplomb? Surely the child knew what being an Outcast meant. Surely the child knew that they were cast adrift, alone in this unfriendly world. How would they survive? How would the live without the comfortable web of family and clan supporting them? Didn't a'Shteru feel the twisting pain in his chest, the slowly sinking, maddening feeling, the helplessness that made the world swim in an unrelenting vertigo? Surely Getraut wasn't the only one filled with a panic so great that it crushed his chest, squeezed his heart. Surely a'Shteru could feel the emptiness, the sudden lonely abyss that gaped within the soul. No sane creature, no true Ki'ir-ar could live and thrive without the surrounding support of the invisible, intangible lines of the clan and Aerie.

"a'Shteru..."

"Cheer up, Getraut," a'Shteru said. He smiled, gripped his bonded's hand tightly. "You have me, and I have you. That, and our battles, is more than enough to keep us going."

Getraut stared into a'Shteru's dark, reflective eyes and for the first time, doubt crept into his heart.

~~~

Date: Bellan 3rd, 126th year of the reign of al'Joran-kai
Location: al'Shodar Abar
Time: Five shadows past sun's peak

Getraut didn't want to believe. That was the truth, plain and simple. He didn't want to believe. And then he had to.

Maybe it was because of love that Getraut had taken so long to believe. Getraut liked to think that he had delayed out of love, out of the unwavering belief that someday, somehow, a'Shteru would turn around and become the small, cold, frightened, bloody child he and Jostyn had found in the snow. But, secretly, in the deepest part of his soul, Getraut was sure that it was because he was afraid; afraid of life with a'Shteru, afraid of life without. He was afraid of what a'Shteru did, of what a'Shteru would do. He was afraid that a'Shteru would leave, and then he truly would be alone.

He had given everything up for this boy; he had lost his family, his clan. He had lost himself in the child's black, empty eyes. And he couldn't even get mad, because he had willingly given all of that up, willingly relinquished himself. He had lost almost everything, and he didn't want to believe because then he would really have nothing, but he had to once a'Shteru began to talk about the children; he had to believe that a'Shteru had slipped past all reasoning when he spoke of taking the battles to the innocents, to the children of the wingless ones unguarded villages. a'Shteru called the plan "retribution." Getraut didn't call it anything, because there was no name, no word capable of describing the horror that twisted his soul at the very thought of killing children.

It was that horror that drove him to betray a'Shteru to the wingless ones. It was the horror that sent him to speak to the wingless seneschal of their cousins the Breshav'i, and work out the plan. It was the horror that made him sever the bond of blood, and the bond of trust, but not even the horror could destroy his bond of love.

And so it was done, and there was nothing left but an empty ache and waiting; forever waiting in the empty al'Shodar.

He could still feel a'Shteru's shocked rage resonating through his soul.

The sun slipped through the fire-clothed trees, long paths of golden warmth that Getraut tried to avoid at all possible cost. There was too much in this dying day that reminded him of another time, another world that existed so long ago in his mind, but so near in time. Getraut remembered another day when the trees had been green, and the sun a welcome friend that brought life to the world. He remembered another time of happiness and light, of air and laughter, when the world was new. So strange it seemed to him that that world had been a year ago. A saddening thought, and appropriate for the mood that Getraut had put himself into. The silence, and the dying earth that surrounded him, was all too appropriate. How the world had changed!

"Betrayer!"

Getraut had a moment of pure confusion, and then a'Shteru landed on his back, claws digging deep into soft flesh. Getraut stumbled forward, grunted in pain as his wings were pulled down by a'Shteru's weight. Instincts screamed at him to roll, to scrape the enemy off his back, to somehow, some way, get free and run. Run as fast and as far as he could, because that would delay the inevitable a little, give him time to grab his sword or even a large rock and pretend to fight back when a'Shteru came to kill him. But he couldn't, because this was a'Shteru, this was the one he loved with all his heart and soul whom he had betrayed, and he deserved death. He deserved to die at a'Shteru's hands.

"Betrayer!" a'Shteru howled again, and his talons ripped scarlet paths in Getraut's skin. Getraut howled as well, and fell to his knees. He trembled as his mind fought with a lifetime of blood and instinct and battles.

"You have betrayed me!"

And that was the last coherent thing a'Shteru said for a long while, for a red mist descended on him and all he could see was blood, all he could hear were screams and the icy laughter of Anai. He felt nothing, thought nothing; he simply existed in a haze of rage.

Then the haze receded, and the golden afternoon sprang into focus, and there was red all. There was red on the ground and on a'Shteru's skin and in his hair and eyes and coating his face like a horrific mask. The only where there wasn't any red was in Getraut, where it was really needed.

Not that there was much of Getraut left, really. Most of him was in tatters, some deep enough that a'Shteru could see Getraut's insides pumping and pulsing away, pushing out even more of his life to soak the ground. For a long, confused moment a'Shteru wondered who had done this. Then he realized that he could taste Getraut's blood in the back of his throat, and he pulled away from his friend's remains to be violently sick.

A soft wheezing chuckle brought a'Shteru's attention back to the pile of soft flesh and white bones that had once been Getraut, and to his horror the pile moved. A head that was little more than muscle and teeth turned gouged out eyes unerringly onto a'Shteru. The shattered remains of a hand gripped a'Shteru's with a pulpy slickness. a'Shteru shivered and Getraut laughed his wheezy, empty laugh.

"Getraut...Oh Gods! Hold on, I'll heal you. I'll make it better, I promise! I promise!" a'Shteru crawled over to Getraut, carefully placed his friend's head on his lap. He knew how to heal. He had healed himself just this morning after he had escaped from the Shi'ban. He knew how, and he knew that it would hurt, but this was Getraut. This was his family, his blood-bonded even though that bond had been severed. He would protect this family, because he hadn't been able to the first time. The pain of the healing spirits filled his hands and his arms, licked at his skin with a malevolent blue light and a'Shteru welcomed the pain.

Getraut shook his head, and there was what may have been a smile on his face. "Too late. It's too late." The fluttering of his lungs was easing, the pulsing of his heart steadily slowing. "I am dead." He sighed, and he felt a vacuum in his chest as his lungs refused to inflate. The Dark Angel stood over him, clearly seen though Getraut no longer had sight.

He smiled, softly, gently, welcoming his death. Peace filled him, and a kind of wordless joy burned in his soul. All the pain of life had been bled out of him, and there was only love and happiness in the world. From a distance he could still hear a'Shteru crying, still vaguely feel the touch of his beloved's hand, and Getraut wanted to share this overwhelming peace with the one person he loved the most.

"The sun is so warm," he said. "So warm."

"No, Getraut, don't go. Please. Stay with me. Don't go!" a'Shteru blinked his eyes, and felt the sharp sting of tears. He could feel Getraut growing colder, weakening with each painful breath. "Please."

"Let's fly in the sun, a'Shteru." Getraut turned and even through the ruins of his eyes, a'Shteru could see the peace his friend had achieved.

"Getraut," a'Shteru moaned, choking on the word.

"I love you." The whispered words were almost hidden in the wind, wheezed out by Getraut's fading lungs. a'Shteru leaned closer, bent almost double over his friend's body until Getraut's lips brushed his ear. "I love you. Mishak son'ryou."

"Oh Goddess...Getraut..."

A tear fell from a'Shteru's check and splashed on Getraut's forehead, washing away the slowly drying blood.

Getraut's hand spasmed, and then released.

He was gone.

a'Shteru stood and backed away from the corpse, more horrified than he had ever been before. He could feel his breath hitch, his chest ache and burn and he felt a darkness growing in his mind.

He had killed Getraut! He had killed his family. There was no one else to blame, no one to seek revenge on but...himself.

And for the first time since his mother died, a'Shteru cried, wept for his pain and sorrow until all of his tears were gone.

~~~

Date: Unknown
Location: Moratum
Time: Unknown

The world was empty and dark, and a'Shteru couldn't feel anything. There was neither heat, nor cold; no hunger or thirst, no pain, no joy. There was nothing to touch, nothing to smell or see or hear or taste. There was nothing to stand on, nothing to fly on. There was nothing except the memories.

a'Shteru wanted to open his mouth and scream, but he wasn't sure he had a mouth anymore. He wasn't sure if there was anything left but the memories of blood and pain and sadness. All the old guilt, all the old suffering became magnified in the nothingness. And he deserved the pain, the suffering because he had killed his family. He deserved whatever the wingless ones did to him; he was unworthy of life as a Ki'ir-ar, unworthy of death's peace. He needed to suffer, just as he had made his enemies to suffer.

How long had he been here? How long had he been reliving the old pains, the old mistakes?

He was unraveling.

I am a'Shteru, he screamed silently, defiantly, into the darkness, Keith'an-skai, chosen of Anai!

I am a'Shteru, Keith'an-skai, chosen of Anai!

I am a'Shteru, Keith'an-skai, chosen of...chosen of...

I am a'Shteru...Keith'an-skai...chosen...

I am a'Shteru...Keith'an...Keith...

I am a'Shteru...

I am...

I...am...

I...

I...

...i...

Then, silence.

~~~

Date: September 30th, 10039 A.F, Day 12 of trial
Location: Inside the Chamber of the Council of Five
	  New Earth, Priman quadrant.
Time: 1020 STG

Keith slumped forward, sweat making his hair clump. His pounding heart could be heard clearly in the still courtroom. With a weary sigh he raised his head, looked out at the world with sad eyes.

"Now do you see?"

Interlude
Excerpts from transcript
Talk With the Condemned
Subject: Keith S. Tsumetai,
a.k.a, a'Shteru, Ki'ir-ar of Nemai

Quiril: This is Antin Quiril, interviewer, appointed by order of the Council of Five. My subject is--Excuse me. What should I address you as?

Keith: It doesn't matter.

Q: Of course it does. This is history! Nobody's ever interviewed a Ki'ir-ar before. Imagine all the things that can be learned from your testimony!

K:
No one other than the Council is going to see this, and I doubt that they're particularly interested in learning anything.

Q: But...but what about your family? Don't you--

K: NO! They
will not see this. They will not know what I have done, what I am.

Q: I...see...

K: Sorry. It has been a long week. I apologize for snapping at you. You may call me Keith.

Q: Right. We, uh, we have to go through some guidelines before beginning so--

K: I know. I've done this before though admittedly not in this exact context.

Q: Is there any topic that you wish to not discuss? I realize, of course, that you must speak of your life as a Ki'ir-ar, but I don't want this interview to be too painful.

K: No. It's fine. I have nothing to hide from the Council. Let's just begin, all right?

Q: Let's start with a little history. I understand that you went by the name of a'Shteru when you were a Ki'ir-ar.

K: Correct.

Q: Is this the same a'Shteru that lead the terrorist attacks on Nemai in the early tens and twenties? The same a'Shteru that was later captured and sent to the Moratum?

K: Yes.

Q: The Alliance loses track of you after your entrance to the Moratum. It was assumed that you died in the explosion in 10,022. What really happened?

K: I escaped. I know that this isn't the most satisfactory of answers, but at the time of my escape, I was truly insane. A year of total sensory deprivation does that to a person.

Q: Total sensory deprivation?

K: You haven't heard of this? It's the Moratum's favorite method of breaking those who are slated to be sold as sex slaves. This method doesn't leave scars--at least, not visible ones. Those considered too pretty to be broken in the normal fashion have these collars put on them, collars that take away their ability to experience touch and leave them speechless. They're sort of like the collars the Lykorns use. After that they're put into chambers that have no gravity, and permit no light or sound. They're left to float there, trapped in nothingness for a standard year. The only escape is into their mind, into their memories...A year of this would drive anyone insane.

Anyway, I don't remember much of what happened after my escape. From what I can piece together, I believe that I disguised myself as just another docile slave being shipped to the slave markets on New Earth. My intent was to destroy the heart of the Alliance. However, before I actually reached New Earth, I was purchased by one Lt. Ash Tsumetai of the Land Forces, and sent out with him to some of the Alliance's outlying planets; I can't remember their names right now, but if you look in Ash's records, I'm sure you'd find the assignments. If it wasn't for the fact that it would have been impossible to escape, I'm certain that I would have killed Ash. As it was, the year between my escape and Ash's death was rather...boring. Full of impotent rage. Ash was a good master, though.

After Ash died, his parents decided to disguise me as a Sentient. I'm not sure what they did, or why, but when I awoke I was Keith. From there, my actions are well recorded.

Q: I see. And if you had been able to reach New Earth what would you have done?

K: Blow up the sun, probably.

Q: You have that kind of power?

K: Oh yes. Well, if I'm in the right state of mind, I do. It's hard to give yourself completely over to a Goddess. You tend to think rather strange thoughts for days afterward. Most of them are about cramps and breasts.

Q: Why didn't you enact this plan while you were the slave of Lt. Tsumetai?

K: What would have been the point? I wanted to hurt the Alliance. In order to do that, I needed to strike where the Alliance was the most powerful; and that was New Earth. The destruction of some outlying planets would have been terrifying, but nowhere near the level of fear that the destruction of the center of the Alliance would cause.

Q: And now? What do you want to do now? Do you still wish to blow up New Earth? Do you still hate the Alliance?

K: Well. That is the question, isn't it?

Q: Yes. Let's...Let's talk about something else. Could you describe the Moratum? If it's too painful, we can talk of something else.

K: No. I said I would speak of anything that you asked. It's just...

Q: Take your time. I realize that it has been awhile. You've probably forgotten--

K: Forgotten? How could I ever forget anything about that horrible place? How could I forget the pain, the way the very walls groaned with the agony of those captured and held in the Moratum? I remember everything about that hellish place as if I were still there. At the Moratum, Death hovered in the air, and blood stained the steel floors. Only the insane and the living dead inhabited the Moratum. All that could be heard was screaming, and those of us who were not experimented on were the silent witnesses of the agony of our kindred who screamed and screamed and screamed until they were forever silenced. How could I forget the grey, twisted men who poked and prodded me? How could I forget the way the world seemed drained of every color except that of blood--blood on the ground, and on the walls, and in the air and on the white coats of those silent, empty men? How could I forget the bodies of the children who died in droves, their fragile forms callously piled in the center courtyard, waiting to be destroyed? How could I forget the smell of burning flesh and the greasy ash that fell from the sky, or the white smoke streaming from the crematorium whose fire was fed by the bodies of my people? How could I ever forget?

I am haunted by my memories of that place. In my nightmares, I remember the tests, the foul experiments conducted on the weak, and the young and the very old, torturous punishment for those who could not be sold. I spent but three days outside of the chamber, but the things I saw in those three days are more than enough to chill my soul. I watched my people enter a living death, their souls destroyed and their bodies becoming nothing more than puppets. I watched as they cut out the tongues of those Ki'ir-ar who weren't fated to be used for sex. In truth, those who were sentenced to die in the mines of far off worlds were the lucky ones. Their souls were gone, and their bodies would soon follow. They were broken quickly and then they were gone. For those of us who stayed, we only had a life of tortured madness ahead of us. We weren't allowed to die, we weren't allowed to let our souls break the corporal bonds and find sanctuary in the arms of our Gods. The chambers didn't kill our souls. No one would buy our flesh if there wasn't some spark of life, of spirit, if we looked on them with dead, empty eyes. They merely trapped us in our minds, made that which was once our solace our prison.

On Nemai, we mourn those who are captured and sent to the Moratum. They are dead to us. But death would be a blessing for those who pass beneath the gates of the Moratum, and into the steel maw of the Alliance. Men, women...even children. All are sacrificed to feed the Alliance's hunger.

Chapter Twenty

Date: September 30th, 10039 A.F
Location: GG Headquarters, 1534 Kissinger St
	  5th floor. Suite 5166.  
Time: 1020

Sven knew they had been tricked when Coran greeted them with a knowing, expectant smile and pushed the button that closed and locked the steel doors behind them. By then, of course, it was too late to rethink their plan, and Sven doubted even Hunk's augmented strength could open the office doors.

That Hunk didn't seem surprised made Sven wonder what else he hadn't been told. How much was being kept from him? How in the dark was he?

"Boys. I've been expecting you," Coran said. "You have some questions, I'm sure."

"Yeah, we have questions," Hunk said. He leaned down over the desk, almost nose to nose with Coran. "Why did you do it, Coran?"

"Do what?"

"Betray us all, that's what!" Hunk pressed down on the desk and Sven winced as the old wood cracked. He moved out of the way, knowing that he had stumbled onto something immense, something that stretched beyond his feeble knowledge.

"And how, exactly, have I done that?" There was a banal smile on Coran's face and he sat calmly in expensive leather chair. He treated the enraged cyborg with the same patient condescension he would give to a petulant child. "I was just being a good citizen of the Alliance, turning in a dangerous criminal."

"Bull shit." Hunk slammed his hands down on the desk once more and then turned away. Behind him, the old wood still held the impressions of Hunk's anger. "You knew that this was going to happen. You knew that once the world found out about Keith's origins, once Allura found out about Keith, she would fight for the Ki'ir-ar for all she was worth. You knew that all we could do was damage control that we would have to go through with this farce of a trial. Everyone knows that Ki'ir-ar are Sentient. But nobody wants to face this fact. If you were just being a 'good citizen' you would have kept your fucking mouth shut. You should have let it be! If you were really as concerned as you say you are you would have killed Keith the minute you found out--or said nothing."

"Said nothing and let a sentient race be enslaved? Said nothing and let the lies go on?" Coran said, rising to stand face to face with Hunk.

"Yes! Gods, yes. You knew what you were getting into when you joined us. We let the lie go on. We always let the lie go on because the truth is too dangerous, too damning. You were supposed to help us keep the lie going, keep shit like this," Hunk turned back, eyes hard, "this stupid trial from happening."

Coran shook his head gently, smiled benignly at Hunk even as his own eyes went hard. "Hunk, Hunk, Hunk. Don't you know that that time has passed? Don't you know that a new era is arriving?"

"What do you mean?" Hunk paused and felt his anger abate as a cold chill washed over him. Suddenly, he was afraid of the frail, old councilor with his long, grey hair and floppy, unassuming mustache.

"I mean that it's time to stop lying. The age of New Earth is over." Coran's smile turned cruel. "It's time to join the new powers or be destroyed. Arus is on the rise again, and now that Doom has been defeated there is nothing to stop Allura from retaking her place in the Alliance. And you can be sure that the first thing she will do is eradicate the Articles of Slavery. This trial is just the first step on that road."

"No. No. That's not right. New Earth won't give up her place that easily. HE will see to that. No weak, simpering girl will take HIS place." Hunk firmed his jaw, stared straight into Coran's cold eyes. "Besides, you wouldn't dare do something so drastic, not now. Not when we've just re-engaged with the Lykon's. The Alliance must be strong now, free of internal conflict. Only HE is capable of maintaining unity among us all."

"Ah yes. General Javert." Coran laughed and there was nothing comforting or benign in his manner now. "I'm afraid that 'HE' has been taken care of. Sadly, your precious master was not as careful as he should have been. His body has probably been discovered by now. And, as the next highest ranking member of the Consortium, I must regretfully take his place."

"No." Hunk shook his head, not believing Coran's words. He had seen HIM the day before. He had been ruled by HIM for most of his life, had looked up to HIM like a child to a father. With out HIM, what was to happen to Hunk now? "You lie. You lie!"

Hunk lunged forward, intending to kill Coran. The Arusian's hand slipped beneath his desk and suddenly Hunk couldn't move. He stood frozen, hands stretched out, body thrusting forward, straining, trembling, wanting nothing more than to close his large hands around Coran's frail neck and squeeze. Coran brought his hand back out, a slim, black remote in his hand.

"Poor Hunk. You didn't honestly think that we hadn't built it certain safety precautions against any potential insubordination on your part. You're a much too valuable weapon for us to lose."

Hunk howled, a muffled, strangled, piteous sound. His cry was closed in his throat.

"No!" Sven cried, voicing his lover's pain. He moved forward and gently touched Hunk's frozen face, placed a hand on Hunk's arm and felt his trembling muscles. Fear filled Sven, fear at the power Coran held over Hunk, fear of losing Hunk. He had grown attached to the burly mechanic, and feared life bereft of his last friend.

Coran turned his cruel smile on Sven, idly tossed Hunk's controller from hand to hand, a subtle reminder of his power over the cyborg. "Ah. Young Bjornson. Good, good. I hoped Hunk would recruit you. Now. I am offering you a golden opportunity. Will you join me in this new age?"

"And vat vill yew do if I refuse?" Sven asked.

"Nothing." The immobile Hunk made a low, strangled noise of disbelief at this, which Coran studiously ignored. "Nothing at all. I trust you will make the correct decision."

"Vat makes yew think that yer vay is the right vay? Vat makes yew so sure of yerself?" Sven could feel Hunk's anger, feel the half-man's fear. It radiated off of him in a hot wave and it made him afraid.

"Because it is better than what we have now. Did you know that I had a wife and a son." Sven mutely shook his head. "Of course you don't. They were killed long before you came to Arus. They were, in fact, killed here on New Earth, stoned to death before my eyes. Not here, of course. We were visiting one of the more...backwards areas of this planet." Coran put the controller down on the table and turned his back on the two younger men. He stared out of the large bay window that composed the back wall of his office with melancholy eyes, seeing again his family's blood, hearing their screams, feeling the impotent rage of being unable to save them, to do anything in fact. "You see," he continued, softly, words filled with distant sorrow, "my wife was an Arusian Ki'ir-ar, my son half-Ki'ir-ar. Their very existence necessitated their deaths."

Sven stared at the Arusian advisor, and then at the discarded remote. He could reach it before Coran, he knew he could. A quick dash and the remote would be in his hands, Hunk would be freed of his paralysis. But then what? If they killed Coran, they would never escape this building alive; but what would happen if they worked with Coran.

Sven stepped away from Hunk, eyes suddenly shrewd. "Vhy? Vhy us? Vat do we have that yew vant?"

"Because I know you, I know you both. I know that you are true soldiers of the Alliance." Coran turned back and Sven knew, then, that the deal had been made and set and all that was left now was to formalize their silent agreement. "You understand that the Alliance is not just one planet, nor one people, but all planets and all people. You understand that there are sacrifices that must be made and there are unpleasant tasks that must be done. You are not burdened with idealism like your peers. This is why I have approached you, offered you this opportunity to prove yourself and to protect the Alliance. Join me and I will groom you for power, for a place among those who make the real decisions. Will you join me?"

Sven looked into Coran's eyes and saw a reflection of himself. The choice was so simple, really, and he felt Hunk's tension slack in resignation as he too saw what they must do. This was what they had been born for, what their years in the Academy and out in the field had prepared them for.

The Alliance was all. There had never really been any question about that fact. The Alliance must survive, and if things had to change and people had to die, so be it. Sven had known that when he signed up to be a soldier, and he knew it now. His father had died for the Alliance.

"Will you join me?" Coran asked again.

"Yes," Sven said.

The Alliance was all.

~~~

Date: September 30th, 10039 A.F, Day 13 of trial
Location: Inside the Chamber of the Council of Five
	  New Earth, Priman quadrant.
Time: 1020 STG

Allura recovered first, and the scrape of her chair against the floor as she stood echoed loudly in the silent room. The harsh noise broke the trance Keith's spell had woven, and around her the other members of the court slowly shook their heads, blinked their eyes and tried to return to normal. Allura wondered if they felt as a drift as she did, as unsteady on her legs as a newborn fawn. They had been cast ashore from the sea of raw emotion that had engulfed them only seconds ago and the world around her seemed less real than the world of Keith's memories.

She opened her mouth to speak, but found that no words could come out. Swallowing hard a couple of times, Allura tried again.

"The, uh, the plaintiff has no further questions, your honors."

The five judges nodded, some briskly, some dazedly. The New Earth judge focused his attention on Keith who sat with his shoulders hunched, rounded as if he was trying to hide from something.

"Counselor Swift, your turn to cross examine."

Swift stood, slowly, a vague, lost look in his eyes. What could he do or say that would counteract Keith's raw memories, his pain and love and hate? How could there be any doubt now that Keith was a Sentient, that the Ki'ir-ar were Sentients? All of the Alliance's defenses were flimsy, wasted words now.

"The Defense has no questions, your honors."

"You may step down, Keith," Lotor said. Of all the judges, he alone seemed unaffected and Allura wondered if some of Keith's pain resonated in Lotor's soul as well.

"The plaintiff rests, your honors."

"Defense?"

Swift stood and opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Nothing could be said, and so he closed his mouth. He was a smart man. He knew when he was beaten, knew when he should stop a useless war.

"The defense rests."

"What? You aren't going to present a counter case?" The New Earth judge's face was turning red with suppressed anger. This was not how the trial was supposed to go. This was not how Arus was to be embarrassed and drummed out of the Alliance once and for all.

Swift shrugged almost imperceptibly and sat back down. The New Earth judge glared at him, but could do nothing more. He was powerless and everyone knew it.

Lotor stood. "Gentlemen. Shall we retire?"

The courtroom was filled with the scrape of chairs against the wooden floor as the small assembly stood and watched the judges file out. The great room echoed with their passage and when the last traces of their presence faded, Keith stood and wearily rubbed his temples. Something about him had changed, and it took Allura a long moment before she realized that the image of strength he projected was truly nothing more than an image. There was a new fragility to him, a brittleness that hadn't existed before.

"Let's go."

Allura nodded slowly, still slightly shocked. The pair made their way through the maze of hallways that made up the Alliance headquarters. They stood apart, each wrapped in isolating thoughts. The corridors began to blur becoming in their sameness one endless corridor.

Keith listed to one side, stumbling on an unseen snag. He leaned against the cloth-covered wall, trembling violently, his control slipping. He looked like he was about to cry.

"Keith." Allura reached for him and he pulled violently away, shuddering and trembling. His chest heaved as though he couldn't get enough breath.

"No. Don't touch me. I'm. I'm not. You can't, Allura."

"Keith, you don't have to-"

"I do." Keith turned away, pressed his face against the wall. "Allura, you can't help me now. Not in the way you want to."

"Keith, I don't understand."

"Yes you do!" Keith turned back. "Yes, you do. You know exactly what you must do. You've known from the start. So please, don't make it harder for yourself. Pull away from me now."

"Keith." Allura's voice was strained and filled with desperation. "Why?"

"Because the Gods must be satisfied. And there is nothing you can say or do that will change that fact." Keith pushed away from the wall. "As leaders, there are duties we must perform for the greater good that we do not like. Yet, we will do them anyway because that is our purpose. You know this--I'm sure it was a part of your training as heir to the Arus throne. It's time you started putting that training into action."

Allura nodded slowly, took a shaky breath and sighed. There was sad resignation in her eyes. "All right, Keith. All right."

"Good." Keith's shoulders sagged. He gritted his teeth and stooped the tremors. "Good. How much further to Arusian Consulate?"

"It's just a few corridors down."

Keith nodded and trudged on, one hand pressed lightly against the wall. Allura let him go, torn with wanting to comfort him and the knowledge of what she must do. She sighed, rubbed her forehead and followed him to the undistinguished door that led to the Arusian Consulate.

The door to the suite slid open softly, pausing Lance in mid pace.

"Keith!" Lance stepped forward and then paused, unsure of what Keith would allow. The former Voltron captain smiled wanly and stooped at the threshold, one hand closing around the edge of the door's frame.

"I. um. Lance..." Keith trailed off. His hand spasmed and gripped the frame tighter, until his knuckles turned white and blood ran down his arm.

Lance said nothing, but stepped forward and pulled Keith into a tight embrace. Keith shuddered in Lance's arms, shaking as though he cried, but no tears came. Lance bent low, his mouth near Keith's ear, warm breath stirring Keith's hair as he whispered wordless comfort.

Allura watched them and felt a pang of sorrow. She hoped them happiness, wished that what was to be could be avoided. But she knew their time together was limited. She hoped they used it well. She closed the door and moved into the suite's makeshift conference room. Pidge looked up from the magazine he was perusing with some surprise.

"Allura? What are you doing back?"

"It's over. The trial is in the hands of the Goddess and the judges."

"Well? Now what?" Pidge asked.

"Now? We wait."

~~~

Date: December 21st, 10039 A.F
Location: The Star Chamber
	 New Earth, Priman quadrant.
Time: 1745 STG

"NO! NO! NO NO NO NO NO NO!" The New Earth judge punctuated each word with a slam of his fist against the conference table. His face was red with anger, and his lips flecked with foam. He was an overweight man and Lotor thought that, if he was lucky, the man would die from a heart attack and they could finish with this nonsense and all go home. "This travesty will not continue! We have wasted enough time on this damn case that should never have made it onto our docket in the first place."

"Jacob, this is not a travesty and it will continue," the dEkk-mnzvar said. "This is the last case of this term that must be decided. We have put it off at your and Galrack's request, but we will delay no longer. We will not leave here until we are all in agreement. The decree must be unanimous."

"Ha'asaashi is correct," Larisan said. He tapped his bionic fingers against the table in slow boredom, body expressing the frustration that he could not speak. "Our decision will be one of the most important pieces of legislature in the history of the Alliance. There can be no wiggle room."

"Then there will be no decree," the Renstat grumbled, shifting his massive body. "I agree with Jacob."

"Thank you, Galrack," Jacob said, bowing his head slightly. "I'm glad someone sees reason."

"Well, I will never let those beasts run free on my planet." The Renstat shuddered, his rough grey flesh making the movement look like a mountain avalanche.

Lotor sighed. He was tired of this, tired of the petty bickering of insignificant men. Unless he did something now, flexed his weight, this stalemate would continue indefinitely, and Lotor didn't think he could handle any more time away from Allura. As much as he hated her at times, hated her stubborn, willful ways, nothing could keep him from her side. This continued absence hurt him in ways he had not known possible.

"Your planet, Galrack? Don't make me laugh." Lotor pushed back from the table, tilted his chair back at a lazy angle. "You stole that planet from its rightful owners and then concocted this lie to prevent the obviously superior Ki'ir-ar from claiming what is rightful theirs."

"What!" The Renstat judge sputtered incoherently. "You insolent bastard! You have no right to-"

"I have just as much right as you have. I have the same right that gave you leave to take Nemai from the Ki'ir-ar: the right of power. With just a word I can have the entire Doom armada terrorizing your borders. In months I could be sitting in this very chamber as the conqueror of New Earth."

"You wouldn't dare," Jacob said. "The Alliance would push you back. You haven't the manpower. Doom is small, weak. And under the terms of admittance, you restored the sovereign rights to all the planets your father conquered."

"Most of those planets were allies, you fool. And it won't just be Doom that you're fighting. If I attack, so too will the Drule empire. Our blood runs deep, our ties of blood loyalty have not been weakened by time and petty family squabbles. Arus will join me as well, and all of her allies. Allura is just itching to pay you back for all the slights and insults paid to her planet. Would you like to be on the business end of Voltron's sword? Your Alliance will disintegrate under your very noses."

"You would threaten the peace and prosperity of hundreds of planets for some measly, flea-bitten slaves?" Jacob roared.

"Yes, I would."

"And I would join him," Larisan said.

"As would I." Ha'asaashi smiled, pointed teeth gleaming in the light. "I would not have the suffering of a race of peoples on my consciousness."

"You ungrateful wretches," Galrack rumbled. "After all that New Earth and Nemai have done for you."

"And that was what, exactly?" Lotor smiled slightly. "Face it, gentlemen, you have been overruled."

"How could you do this, Lotor? You keep slaves yourself! How can you mandate that we free the Ki'ir-ar and yet not free your own captives?"

"Because my slaves have something the Ki'ir-ar don't: hope. They know that someday they will be free, be it on the day I die or some earlier time. Besides," and here Lotor leaned forward, the convivial expression on his face turning harsh, "my slaves are not property, they are not objects. They still have their identities, their individuality. The Ki'ir-ar have been stripped of humanity. And that is the true crime here."

~~~

Date: December 26th, 10039 A.F Location: Arusian Consulate, 1532 Kissinger St Kulala City, Alliance Island New Earth, Priman quadrant. Time: 0200 STG

Keith watched Lance sleep. He was so beautiful, so innocent. Keith wished for a hundred more nights like this, a lifetime of peaceful moments where he could watch Lance sleep, hear him breathing in the night. He could feel time slipping through his fingers, feel the press and weight of time.

He touched Lance's cheek with one gentle hand, stroked his lover's hair. It felt like a river of silk, and Keith kissed the lock he held, kissed his eyelids, his check, his forehead. He wanted to remember everything, take in everything about Lance. He pressed his nose against Lance's neck, breathed deeply, pressed his body closer to Lance's.

Lance made a small sleepy noise and pressed back. Keith draped an arm around Lance's waist, felt Lance's heart beat.

"I love you," Keith whispered into the night. "I love you so much."

~~~

Date: December 31st, 10039 A.F
Location: Inside the Chamber of the Council of Five
	  New Earth, Priman quadrant.
Time: 1400 STG

The five judges filed in slowly, to the sound of scraping chairs and curious murmuring. The press was out in full force, cameras trained on the entering judges, recorders at ready. Keith shifted idly in his seat, outwardly at peace. Allura envied his ease. She could feel the tension from Lance and Pidge behind her, echoing her own tightly wound nerves.

"All rise," the bailiff called.

The judges took their seats, Lotor at the head. Allura caught her lover's eye and he winked, the barest hint of a smile playing about his lips. Allura smiled back, and relaxed, the tension leaving her muscles.

Lotor took the front seat to the increasing murmuring of the crowd, looking more like a judge than his compatriots. "Be seated. We, the Council of Five, are prepared to lay down our judgment." Lotor turned toward Keith and Allura. "Would the plaintiff please stand?" They stood and Lotor smiled slightly. "It is the judgment of this council that a grievous error has been made on the part of the Alliance. We have stripped a noble, Sentient race of their freedom and humanity, enslaved them and abused them. Our wrongs against them cannot be possibly be redressed for they are too great. It is therefore the judgment of this council that the Ki'ir-ar be granted all rights as Sentient beings. It is the order of the council that, if there is any way we can possibly repay the Ki'ir-ar, we must repay them."

"I," the Harmoni judge stood, "Ha'asaashi of the Harmoni people, so uphold the ruling."

"As do I, Larisan of the dEkk-mnzvar." The dEkk-mnzvar gazed at the remaining judges with steely eyes. He surreptitiously kicked the chair of the New Earth judge.

Grumbling, Jacob stood, a foul expression on his face. "I, Jacob of New Earth also uphold the ruling."

Long seconds passed before Galrack stood, grudgingly, under the dark glares of the other judges. "As do I."

Lotor nodded. "Good. As Keith is the only Nemain Ki'ir-ar present who can represent their interests, we must ask him to express their desires. Keith?"

Keith stepped forward, moving away from the table where Allura sat until he stood in the center of the courtroom, facing the judges. "Your honors, the desires of the Ki'ir-ar are simple. Give us back our planet and leave us alone."

"What!" Galrack leaned forward over the judge's podium. "And what would my people do?"

"I don't care. You have stolen our home, destroyed our people. All we want now is to live in peace. And we can't do that so long as there is any trace of the Alliance on our planet." Keith stood firmly before the judge's scrutiny. "You said you would do anything to redress the slavery of my people. This does not make amends for the centuries of abuse my people have endure, nothing can. This...this is a start. Someday, maybe, the Ki'ir-ar will wish contact with the Alliance. But not now."

"We will comply." Lotor glared at the Renstat judge. "Is this all?"

"Yes."

"Good. Let it be known throughout that this is the decision of the council: The Ki'ir-ar are Sentient creatures. Let it also be known that any who persist in enslaving the Ki'ir-ar are subject to severe punishment. The planet of Nemai is to be returned to the complete control of the Ki'ir-ar and the Renstat and all Alliance members are to leave the planet immediately. These edicts are not to be questioned in any fashion." Lotor looked around. "Very good. Then I declare this case closed." Lotor accompanied his pronouncement with the clack of the gravel. The murmur of the crowd grew to a roar, as the press reacted to the council's decision. Keith turned toward Allura and nodded, briefly, curtly. Allura nodded back and stood, approaching the young man.

"Keith," Allura raised her voice to be heard over the crowd's noise, "known as a'Shteru, as the representative of the Marak-lai of Arus, I place you under arrest. Do you resist?"

The crowds stilled at Allura's words, focus shifting once more to the new drama playing out on the courtroom floor.

"No." Keith's answer was soft but firm, almost a sigh and tinged with relief.

"I name you Kosei-asaka and charge you as breaker of the Three Commandments. Do you deny this charge?"

"No."

"I sentence you to death by beheading. Your execution is to be tomorrow at 0800. Do you accept these terms?"

"Yes."

"Good. Will you name your Lar'ilar?"

"Yes. I name Sven Bjornson and Henry St. Cloud."

"Very well. Then let it be so." Allura turned away to face the new uproar of the bystanders. She caught Lance's shocked eyes and looked away, unable to face his pain.

~~~

Location:  Arusian Consulate, 1532 Kissinger St
	  Kulala City, Alliance Island
	  New Earth, Priman quadrant.
Time: 1430 STG

"Allura! Allura, stop!" Lance grabbed Allura's shoulder, turned her around. "Allura, how could you?"

"Lance, let me go." Allura sounded weary, her voice heavy with fatigue.

"No. Allura, how could you do this? How could you sentence Keith to death?"

"I had to, Lance. He is wanted criminal on Nemai. And he could not rest peacefully now, not with his memories restored. He is not quite the Keith you know; he is a Ki'ir-ar, and he could never be happy living with his guilt. Even if he were not Ki'ir-ar, he couldn't live with his guilt, you know this."

"What is he guilty of, Allura? And how could you condemn him without a trial?"

"Because I have seen his mind. He has broken all three of the Three Commandments. He is guilty of a Ki'ir-ar crime and must therefore be punished in a Ki'ir-ar fashion." Allura turned away, entered the suite, Lance right on her heels. "I'm sorry, Lance, but that's the way it has to be."

"What do you mean that's the way it has to be? Allura, he's your friend! How can you do this to your friend?"

"I have to, Lance. If the Ki'ir-ar are to be considered Sentient, then their laws must be upheld as well." Allura rubbed her forehead. "Listen, Lance, Keith knew what he was getting into and, quite frankly, I don't have time for this right now. Tomorrow, the first reports of a massacre are going to be coming in. The citizens of the Alliance are not going to take the council's decision well. They're going to take their anger out on their slaves. I'd be surprised if any Ki'ir-ar not on Nemai survives tonight. Removing the Alliance from Nemai will be difficult as well. So you'll pardon me if I don't want to spend a lot of time dwelling on a matter that has been decided and cannot be changed."

"We were going to get married tonight," Lance whispered. Allura was glad that she didn't have to face Lance, face the anguish that filled his voice. His pain was palpable, a tangible presence that shimmered in the air tonight. "We were going to get married tonight, no matter what the verdict, and we were going to ask you preside over the ceremony."

Allura concentrated all of her energy on not letting Lance see the pain that suddenly pierced her heart. She said nothing, but felt Lance's pained gaze. She wanted so badly to hug Lance, promise him that everything would be all right, but she couldn't get the lie past the lump in her throat.

"I'm sorry," she said at last. "I am truly sorry."

The room's walls and carpet swallowed her words, and the silence stretched between them. Then Lance turned away, went to the room he shared with Keith. He turned at the threshold, opened his mouth and then closed it. He had no words left for Allura. The door closed softly behind him, and Allura let herself crumple.

She wished Lotor were here, wished that she had shoulder to cry on. She wished she could hold Lance, hold Keith, spirit them away from this cruel world. But she was powerless. For the first time in her life, she was truly powerless, trapped within her role as a leader, the protector of the greater good. Allura hoped that she would never feel this way again.

But she knew her hope was vain.

~~~

Location:  Arusian Consulate, 1532 Kissinger St.
	  Kulala City, Alliance Island
	  New Earth, Priman quadrant.
Time: 1900 STG

They were married that night, before their Gods and the law and Pidge. It was a beautiful ceremony, if unseen, and Pidge was the only wet eye in the house, Keith and Lance too intense to think beyond the moment.

It was a quick ceremony, and then Pidge was exiled and Keith and Lance retired to their room and didn't speak. They tried only to memorize the other's body, their other's presence. Words were too weak now to express anything that hadn't already been said.

When the night was over and the dawn was beginning to lighten the sky, they were too spent and so they lay there together, face to face, forehead to forehead. That's when Lance began to cry, too exhausted to live in the now.

"Keith, Gods, Keith," Lance sobbed. "Why?"

"Shh. Lance, don't cry." Keith stroked Lance's sweat streaked hair, tucked Lance's head under his chin. "Shh. I know, it's hard. I'm so sorry I have to put you through this."

"I don't. I don't regret anything, anything at all. I just. Gods. I."

"Shh." Keith kissed the top of Lance's head. "Don't think about it."

Lance made a choking, moaning noise and buried his head in the crook of Keith's neck. He kissed Keith's chest, his cheek, trembling with need. "Keith, Keith, Keith."

"Lance," Keith sighed. He felt the heat of Lance's tears on his skin. "I love you, Lance, never forget that."

"I won't." Lance kissed Keith's lips and clutched him close. "I couldn't. Oh Gods, Keith."

Keith said nothing, could say nothing, and settled with just rocking Lance slowly. Lance could hear Keith's heart beating, slow and steady and comforting. The sound soothed him, and he wished that he could listen to Keith's heart forever.

~~~

Date: January 1st, 10040 A.F
Location: Execution Arena, 1003 Columbus Ave
	  Kulala City, Alliance Island
	  New Earth, Priman quadrant.
Time: 0800 STG

When the soldiers came, Keith was ready. He sat calmly on the suite's couch, holding Lance's hand. Everything about him spoke of resignation, from the peaceful look in his eyes to the stillness of his body. Had the guards not dismissed the thought out of hand, they could have said that Keith looked...relieved. But that was foolishness, for who would be relieved about their death?

They did not bind Keith's hands, letting him walk freely to his death. Though older than he, they knew a true warrior and they would not dishonor him with their distrust. Lance walked beside him, gripping Keith's hand so tightly his knuckles were white. Keith felt Lance's rapid pulse, his tiny tremors that were kept hidden from the guards. He looked pale and shaky, not nearly as cool as Keith. He looked like he was about to throw up.

The guards were silent, respectful. They were professionals, the very elite members of the Alliance's forces.

They came to the arena underground, out of the sight of the watchful, vengeful eyes of the citizens of New Earth. The straight, neutral tunnels were confusing, deceptive in their bland, similarity. Lance didn't know how long they walked beneath the city's streets, how far it was to the arena. He hoped they would walk forever, but the journey was a short one. It seemed like only moments before they were at the foot of the ramp that led to the Condemned's Walk. Lance could hear the murmur of the crowd, which wafted in through the open gate. He could see a bit of sapphire sky and feel the warmth of the distant winter sun. It seemed incongruous that today should be so pleasant, not when Keith's blood was to be spilled. Couldn't the Universe feel the emptying, gaping wound his death would bring?

Keith eyed the ramp, felt the tremble of Lance's hand in his increase. He stopped and his guards stopped with him, turning inward slightly, hands resting on their guns.

"Could I have a moment please?" Keith asked. The guards looked at each other for the briefest of moments and then nodded, almost in unison before moving off to a discreet distance. Keith turned to Lance, face solemn. "Lance."

Lance had to take a breath before he could speak. "Y-yes?"

"I'm sorry I have to do this to you, but there are a couple of things I need to take care of now. I need you to do two things for me."

Lance nodded, unable to speak. He wanted to wallow in his own self-pity right now, hate Keith for doing whatever it was that led to this fate, this end. He wanted to scream at Keith, vent his anger at the world on the man he loved. But he wouldn't because his pain was inconsequential, not in the face of losing Keith, not on the day of his execution.

Keith took a deep breath and stepped closer to Lance, voice low with intensity. "I need you to look after Asher. You're the only family he has now. You're the only one I'd trust with him."

"Of course."

"Good." Keith smiled slightly, sadly. "And now. Well. Lance what I'm going to ask of you may be a little hard. When I." Keith stooped for a second, face growing sad. "When I'm dead, they're going to give you my body. I want you to cremate me and then launch my ashes into space. Can you do this for me?"

Lance nodded, the first of the tears trickling down his face. Keith pulled him close, held his husband tightly. Lance's tears soaked Keith's shirt, his cries of pain muffled by Keith's body. Lance could hear Keith's heart again, the same slow, steady beat that had lulled him to sleep the night before.

One of the guards coughed discreetly. "Sir. It's time to go."

Keith nodded slowly and disengaged himself from Lance. The other man wrapped his arms around his body, face streaked with tears. The guards bound Keith's arms behind him, comfortably but securely.

"Are you prepared?" the guard asked. "Is there anything you would like? A blindfold? A final cigarette?"

Keith shook his head and squared his shoulders, turning to face the ramp up to the arena. Even with the circles under his eyes and the pale, sickly cast of his skin, he looked every inch the regal warrior. "I'm ready. Lead the way, gentlemen."

The guards nodded and each took one of Keith's arms in his hand, prepared to lead the former captain upwards into the crowded arena.

"No! Stop!" Lance dashed forward, placed himself between Keith and the opening. "Stop. Please, just for a moment."

"Lance," Keith began, but he was cut off as Lance kissed him, hard and passionate and desperate. His lips pressed against Keith's brusingly hard. The guards turned their heads away, embarrassed by this act of desperate sadness.

Lance captured Keith's face in his hands, pulled back for a moment to gaze into the other's eyes. He ran his hand through Keith's hair a final time, kissed him again, gently this time, and pulled him close.

"I love you," he whispered.

Keith swallowed around a lump in his throat and touched his forehead to Lance's. He breathed in deep Lance's sweet smell. "I know."

Above them, the assembled crowd's distant murmuring grew louder with discontent. One of the guards touched Keith's shoulder. "I'm sorry. We really must go."

"No!" Lance held Keith as tight as he could, his chest heaving with his sobs. One guard grabbed Keith's arm and tore him away, leading him upwards to the waiting crowd; the other held Lance back, grunting against the wildly struggling man.

"Keith!" Lance's anguished cry followed the former captain as he stepped into the bright morning light. Keith wished he had tears left to cry over Lance's pain, over his own loss, but his eyes remained dry and clear.

The crowd that gathered in the stands roared as he appeared, harsh cries of derision filling the air. Keith ignored their cries, concentrating on what lay ahead of him. On the raised platform, before a heavy wooden block, stood Hunk and Sven. A gleaming ax was in a stand close at hand, beside Allura who was dressed in full formal wear.

With a slow, even tread Keith made his way to the platform. Inside his head, a'Shteru was calm and silent, in full agreement with this course of action. Mad though he was, a'Shteru was still a creature of honor and duty. His task was done as best as it could be, and Anai could no more stop this death than she could find mercy in her cold, frozen heart. His punishment was the punishment of the Gods, for it was their rules that he had broken, and not even Anai would defy the full 30.

Allura watched Keith approach, struck by the difference in his step in this, his second death walk. There was a confidence and calm to his body now, a regalness that had been lacking the last time he had come to die. If it were not for her role in his death, Allura might have felt a certain pride in his bearing. He made those who were about to kill him appear crass and common, unworthy of taking a life as noble as his.

The walk was shorter this time, and Keith was soon standing on the platform. Allura took a shuddering breath, mentally rehearsing her role. There was to be no reprieve this time.

Keith stopped by Hunk and Sven, between them and before the chopping block. His old friends looked uncomfortable, though whether it was because of their duty or because of the morning sun in their eyes, Keith couldn't tell.

Hunk looked at Keith out of the side of his eyes. There was some time before the ceremony started, time allotted to let the crowd stare and hate the condemned. "Keith. Why are we to be your executioners?"

"Because I have wronged you. In some fashion, I have wronged the both of you, and I would not have your hate follow me to my grave." Keith's voice was low and soft, meant only for their ears. It brought to mind memories of dark corridors and tense moments, where any movement could let the enemy know they were there. "Forgive me."

Hunk said nothing, but looked across at Sven over Keith's head. He wanted to forgive Keith for the thousand imagined wrongs he had accumulated over the years. He wanted to release his hate that he had kept hidden and festering ever since that disaster on SinisIV.

He wanted to beg Keith to forgive him.

"Keith, known also as a'Shteru, you have been found guilty on counts of needless destruction, leading your celai unknowingly to their death, and the murder of Getraut, son of al'Joran. As such, your punishment shall be as it is written down in the Ter'a'ta. I cast you out. Let your name be forgotten forever, your deeds removed from the Memory Song. I name you Kosei-asaka. Are you prepared to die?"

"Yes." Keith knelt before the block. A cool breeze had sprung up and it pulled at Keith's hair and sent dust swirling about in small tornados. A small cloud had drifted over the sun, darkening the day. Sven strapped his head down to the block and picked up the ax. He took a deep breath and raised the ax high. Its blade glinted dully, reflecting back the shadowed light. It wailed keenly as it sliced through the air and ended with a sickening thud deep in Keith's neck.

Keith screamed, long and loud and high and primal. Sven pulled at the ax handle, but it was stuck, the blade trapped between to vertebrae. Blood spurted high into the air and Keith's body writhed in agony. Sven yanked at the handle again, mouth tightly closed but gagging noises escaping from around his lips. Keith's talons dug into the block, and he strained back against the strap that held his head down. Something behind his eyes burst and the world became dark and red. He could feel blood running down his cheeks and tasted it in his mouth. Sven yanked again and his hands slipped on the ax's handle. He collapsed, sobbing incoherently, covered in Keith's blood. Hunk stepped forward and grabbed the ax, roughly pulling it clear from Keith's neck in a fountain of blood. Keith had stopped screaming, but Hunk could hear the high pitched keen of Lance who stood at the entrance to the underground tunnel. Hunk spun the ax, flinging blood high into the air, and brought it whirring down. It cleft through what remained of Keith's neck and buried itself in the wooden block. Lance's keen reached a new height and then cut off suddenly.

Hunk wiped the blood from his face and took a step back. The ax dropped from his hands and landed with a clatter against the platform. He was so tired. Hunk touched Sven's back, pulled the younger man into his embrace.

Allura shakily approached the chopping block. She unstrapped Keith's head, gently cradling it to herself. A trail of blood still wept from each eye like tears and a strange, happy smile adorned his face. Behind her, two of the Arusian guards picked up Keith's body and carried him out of the crowd's sight.

The wind blew the small cloud away from the sun. It was going to be a beautiful day.

Interlude
Excerpts from transcript
Talk With the Condemned
Subject: Keith S. Tsumetai,
a.k.a, a'Shteru, Ki'ir-ar of Nemai

Q: The execution of the--what was the word again?

K: Kosei-asaka.

Q: Right. What are the preparations that go into this ritual?

K: Well, for starters, the ax that is used to behead the Kosei-asaka is made from the taproot of a Han tree, a tree that grows only in the sacred grove of Larakai, the God of wind. This root is burned slowly for three days and prayed over by representatives of all thirty Heavenly Ones. At midnight on the third day, it is taken from the fire and cleaned of charcoal and ash, until all that is the heart of the root, which has been shaped into an ax head by the Gods. For three more days, the ax is cleaned and inscribed with runes of power. During this time, the Kosei-asaka is kept in total seclusion. Seen by no one, fed by no one, the six days before the beheading are meant for contemplation of ones crimes and penitence. Not that the Kosei-asaka is particularly penitent. In truth, the seclusion is more to keep curious Ki'ir-ar from being contaminated by the Kosei-asaka's evil.

At the end of the six days, the ax is ready. This is a sacred weapon, endowed with the blessing of the thirty and so keen that it can slice through a Ki'ir-ar's neck as easily as it cuts the wind. At dawn on the seventh day, the Kosei-asaka is lead to die. The execution takes place at dawn because it is the between time, the time before the birth of a new day, but after the death of the old one. The Kosei-asaka must be killed then because that is the only time their spirit can be severed from the ties of earth and sky. The ritual of execution is very complex, and each step must be followed exactly, or the entire ritual is botched and the Kosei-asaka dies a painful, suffering death. If the steps are not followed exactly, if even one of the thirty does not bless the Kosei-asaka's death, then the execution becomes not the necessary lancing of an evil but the torture of an innocent. If this is the case, then the Kosei-asaka's spirit is cleansed of crime and allowed to become one with all. Their name is put back into the Memory Song and a new Death Song is sung for them, one that gives them back the honor and glory of their life.

Q: How do you tell if the ritual has been botched?

K: The easiest way is if the Kosei-asaka does not die quickly and painlessly. A sure sign is if the Kosei-asaka goes to death suffering; to suffer is to atone and to die suffering is to die atoning. If they repent, their soul is cleansed. Of course, the Heavenly Ones are asked if the death of the Kosei-asaka was displeasing, just to make sure. It wouldn't do to reprieve a guilty soul.

Q: Yours are a cruel people, Keith.

K: No crueler than the rest of the Alliance, Quiril. We're just more open about our darker sides.

Q: So I see. Why is the ax made of wood?

K: Because there are no metals to be found on Nemai.

Q: No metal whatsoever?

K: Well, maybe a little metal, but not much. There are some gold nuggets to be found in streams, and I'm sure a scan of the planet would reveal small deposits of ore. But even if metal ore was available to us we would not mine for it. No Ki'ir-ar, unless under great duress or in dire straits, willingly goes underground. Besides, we already own all the metal we need.

Q: What do you mean?

K: I mean the bones of the Ki'ir-ar. Our bones are stronger than the strongest alloy. They have to be, because the winds on Nemai are fickle beasts and will as often sling you into the mountainside as bear you above the earth. If you tried to fly, your bones would break under the strain of flying on the Nemai wind. Our bones are strong enough to withstand even the most fearsome gale Nemai can whip up; and we can fight in it too.

Q: I don't believe you.

K: I am deadly serious. Why do you think our wooden weapons are so deadly to the Alliance soldiers? What good is space armor against a weapon designed and forged to be strong enough to cleave through Ki'ir-ar bones?

Q: Then how do you fly?

K: Our bones are hollow, like those of birds.

Q: Actually, that reminds me of something. How
do you fly? I mean, I understand most of the mechanics, but I don't understand how you can steer without a tail.

K: We use our legs. Our hips sort of lock in place and act as a surrogate tail.

Q: Huh. Interesting. Quite amazing, in fact.

K: Well. I like to think so.

Q: If you win the trial, do you plan to go back to Nemai?

K: No. I'll never return to Nemai.

Q: Why not?

K: Because I'm the Keith'an-skai. If I set foot on Nemai, I will be killed, hunted down like an animal and slaughtered.

Q: Well then what
do you plan to do?

K; Nothing really. I honestly don't really care about the outcome of the trial. I mean, I do hope to win because it will mean freedom for my people, but personally, I don't care.

Q: Why not?

K: Because I will die no matter what. If the Alliance wins, I will be executed as a slave who tried to be Sentient. If I win, I will be executed as a Kosei-asaka, for crimes I willingly admit to committing. I am dead no matter who wins.

Q: Oh my God.

K: What?

Q: That's horrible!

K: No, not really. I'm ready to die. I have been ready to die for a long, long time. My body aches from the countless battles I have fought and my soul is weary beyond belief. I just wish...

Q: Yes?

K: I just wish Lance wouldn't have to see me die, executed as the criminal that I am. That. That is the only thing I regret.

Q: You really love him, huh.

K: More than anything in the universe: more than freedom, more than air, more than flight, more than life itself.

Epilogue

Date: January 1st, 10100 A.F
Location: Third floor, West Wing
	 Castle of Lions, Lecub,
 	 Arus, Diamond Quadrant.
Time: 2130 STG

The stars were bright tonight. Even with eyes and old and rheumy as his, Lance could see them twinkling in the velvet black sky. He leaned against the cold railing, body heat melting the small dusting of snow that had accumulated during the day. It was nights like these that he almost wished he was young enough to fly again and be one with the stars.

"Pop? Pop, what are you doing out here, you're going to get sick." Strong hands took his and helped him back into the pleasantly warm room. Lance turned his head and smiled at his son. Asher had grown into a handsome man, but his eyes were Keith's, and for a fleeting second, Lance thought he stared into the gaze of the father and not the son.

"I'm not an invalid yet, Asher," Lance grumbled good naturally. "I could still kick your tail in a sparring bout, if I felt so inclined."

Asher smiled indulgently and helped his father to a chair. "I'm sure you could, Pop.

"Damn straight, I could, and don't you forget it, boy." Lance sat down careful, a long sigh escaping his lips. As much as he hated to admit it, he was old. His bones ached and there seemed to be a chill in his chest that he just couldn't shake. The old wounds of war made him feel twice his age.

Asher sat beside Lance, idly scratching his beard. "Pop, why didn't you ever remarry?"

Lance laughed and the coughed as he ran out of breath. "I never felt the urge to. Why do you ask, Ash?"

"It's just. Dad has been dead a long time, now-"

"Sixty-one years today," Lance interrupted.

"Right. And in all that time, I don't remember you ever going on a date. You were a handsome man when you were younger, Pop."

"I know, Ash. It's just." Lance paused, his old eyes clouded with thought. He absentmindedly turned the golden ring on his finger, the decorated band warm to the touch. "I loved your father, Asher, more than anything else. I was consumed--I still am consumed by that love."

"But weren't you lonely?"

"Not really. I had you, after all, and Allura made sure I had enough work to keep me busy, especially at the beginning." Lance frowned. "But why do you ask, Ash?"

Asher sighed. "Helen was in an accident about a week ago. Nothing serious, but it could have been, and I got to thinking. You know. About death and love and all that. About what I would do if Helen died."

"You'd go on. I raised a fighter, didn't I?" Lance smiled and patted Asher's leg. "You'd have friends to help see you through your pain. You'd take care of your little ones. Speaking of which, when are you going to bring the rug rats over to visit, hmm?"

"Pop--" Asher began to remind his father that his children were no longer babies, but young adults with lives of their own. He thought better of it, though and changed his mind. "Soon. Soon, I promise." Asher looked at his watch. "It's getting late, Old Man. Time for you to go to bed."

"You're just trying to get rid of me so you can go commiserate with Lotor and Allura about how old I've gotten." Lance leaned on his son's arm as he stood. He felt weak, suddenly. "Lucky for you, I'm actually tired. Go on, go on. I can make it to my bed on my own. I don't need you to tuck me in." He squeezed Asher's hand. "It was good to see you, son."

Asher hid his smile. "Good night, Pop."

"Good night, Ash." Lance climbed into the soft bed with a low grunt. He closed his eyes and raised his voice. "Oh, tell Pidge and Hunk that Red's been acting up lately. And let Sven know that I'll be awake for my turn at the watch."

Asher paused at the door, worry creasing his handsome brow. "Pop. Pidge, Sven and Hunk have been dead for years."

Lance opened his eyes and blinked. He looked small and frail in the great bed. "Oh. Right, right." He laughed, softly, sadly. "Right."

"Get some rest, Pop." Ash turned off the light and closed the door.

Lance lay in the darkness for a while, remembering the olden days, and times that shone bright in the light of memory. He sighed and let his mind go blank. The anniversary of Keith's death was always a hard day for him.

Sleep crept over him, and he welcomed it. His breath slowed and grew shallow as he wandered into the world of dreams, a world where he was young again and walked hand in hand with Keith, forever. The spaces between the beats of his heart grew longer, until only silence was left.

At nine o'clock, Lance died, smiling as he went.



Part IV