See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.
The dim twilight slipped lazily through the wide, heavy boughs of the trees, casting long, deep shadows throughout the woods. The Shrouded Forest earned its name from this very phenomenon – the way that darkness fell early in the evening and blanketed the woodland in gloom. As a result, the two travellers passing through the woods didn’t notice the bandits lying in wait beneath the branches until it was too late.
The first arrow slammed into Cillian’s breastplate like a knife, the sound of it like thunder in the quiet forest, knocking the young paladin back a step and driving the wind from his lungs.
“Daithí, get down!” he managed to hiss to his companion, drawing his sword and shield just as the second arrow came flying from the dark, ricocheting away upon impacting with the shield. Daithí dropped like a stone, hearing the whistling noise of more arrows, coupled with the raised voices of their attackers. By the sounds, clearly more than two people were lurking in the woods. In other words, they were outnumbered.
“On your knees!” someone shouted at them. “Put your hands behind your head!”
Daithí cursed, the beginnings of a spell flickering to life in one hand. But even in the forest gloom, the telltale signs of his magic were visible, and he jumped as another arrow split the earth mere centimetres away from his hand.
“The other one’s a mage,” a voice called out from the shadows. “Watch him!”
Footsteps were surrounding them now, and figures were stepping out of the gloom even as Daithí slowly sat up. Cillian was slowly revolving in a circle, sword outstretched and shield raised as he took in the sight of their attackers. One of the bandits stepped further forward than the others, hefting an axe over one shoulder.
“Now, don’t try anything foolish,” he said, leering out at Cillian from under his helmet. “If you drop your weapons and get on the ground, you won’t get a scratch.”
“Daithí…?” The word was a half-whisper, but he heard Cillian call his name all the same.
“Too many,” he whispered back. Daithí Riverfall might have been an accomplished mage, but he was a healer, not a miracle–worker. There was no spell in his repertoire that could hold off a half-dozen bandits long enough for them to make an escape – not when the majority of their attackers still had arrows notched and aimed directly at them.
“Drop them!” the bandit leader snapped, the handle of the axe leaving his shoulder and landing in the palm of his other hand, gripping the weapon menacingly as he stepped closer.
“Cillian,” Daithí murmured in warning.
He didn’t listen. Instead he took a step forward, mouth opening to speak, and Daithí heard a sound like an inhalation of breath before Cillian toppled to his knees, choking as the arrow wedged itself into his throat.
The bandit leader jumped back and swore as Daithí’s insides turned to ice. “What the fuck?! Colm, what in Nerad’s name is wrong with you?!”
“He was going for you!” another bandit protested, from the direction the arrow had flown.
“I never gave the order!”
“Aodhán, leave it!”
“It doesn’t matter! Just grab it!”
Their voices swirled around him as Daithí stared down at Cillian’s twitching body, the arrow emerging from his neck like a branch from a tree, blood seeping from the wound and from between Cillian’s lips as he struggled for breath. It was no glancing blow – judging by the angle and the depth of the arrow, it had pierced Cillian’s windpipe.
Any healer knew a fatal blow when they saw it.
Daithí snarled and rose to his feet, hands crackling with magic, only for a fist to come careening towards his face, knocking him back down again.
“Forget the mage,” a voice called through the dull haze of pain that now shrouded Daithí’s senses. “Get what we came for and get out!”
Daithí lay there with his head spinning as footsteps pounding the dirt all around him, before eventually departing, vanishing into the forest once again. By the time Daithí was able to heal himself enough to sit back up, the bandits were long gone. Only himself and Cillian remained, the paladin having gone deeply, horribly still.
There was a rasping cough that made Daithí’s heart leap, and he lunged towards him, shaking Cillian’s body in desperation. Cillian’s eyes were dull and glazed-over, but they locked with Daithí’s when he spoke.
“I have to pull the arrow out,” Daithí hissed to him, grabbing hold of the wooden shaft and tensing his shoulders. “Otherwise I…I can’t…”
Cillian gave a half-incline of his head that might have been an attempt at a nod – all the permission Daithí needed. The healer grit his teeth and tugged as hard as he could on the arrow, which sprung free mercifully intact, accompanied by a spray of hot crimson fluid. Cillian choked as his throat quickly became clogged with liquid, but Daithí’s hands were already pressing against the wound, ignoring the way the blood soaked his fingers as he called on his healing magic again. Thin wisps of warm, soothing darkness wrapped around Daithí’s hands – the same black colour that covered his clothes from his boots all the way up to his collar – and surged into Cillian’s neck. The healing darkness knitted the torn flesh back together again, eased the pain, and had the unfortunate side effect of ejecting the blood that had collected in Cillian’s throat out through his mouth. Cillian heaved the last of the red liquid out between his lips before his head slumped backwards as though in a daze. Daithí swallowed nervously as he eyed the sheer amount of blood that now soaked the two of them – a puddle of it rapidly soaking into the forest floor beneath them. It was too much lost, too quickly. Even with how fast he had healed him, it hadn’t been enough.
Cillian knew it too, from the way his pallid face shifted into an expression of gentle weariness. “Daithí…”
“No!” he cried, hearing his own voice catch in his throat. “I won’t let it happen. I won’t!”
He redoubled his efforts, the magic sweeping through Cillian’s body, filling his veins in place of the blood that had been lost, grasping his heart like a vice and forcing it to keep pumping. Cillian’s whole body hummed with darkness, from his toes to the crown of his head, and when Cillian exhaled a rattling breath, Daithí saw wisps of darkness issuing out from between his lips.
“Please,” Daithí hissed, forcing another surge of magic through Cillian’s form. “Please…!”
But it wasn’t enough. Cillian’s eyelids flickered briefly as though heavy with sleep. Tired eyes softened at the sight of Daithí leaning over him.
“I love you,” were the last mumbled words to leave his lips before his eyes shut again.
“I love you, too,” Daithí whimpered, channelling another surge of healing magic through the paladin’s body. “Please, Cillian, don’t–!”
A final, faint breath escaped through Cillian’s nose as his head fell limply to one side. Teardrops splashed onto his cheek, having fallen from the face hovering over it, but he didn’t stir. Not any longer. Never again.
Daithí screamed as he shoved every last drop of magic he had left through his hands, darkness exploding out of him in waves, thundering through the corpse beneath him in a mixture of rage and grief. What good was all of his magical knowledge and strength if he couldn’t use it to save the most important person in his world? What was the point of being a healer if the man he loved was already dead and gone? What was the point of going on? What was the point?
Through the tears that blurred his vision, it was difficult for Daithí to make out anything beyond his own nose. But he could have sworn he saw a flicker of light play against one of his fingers – just for a moment – in between wave after wave of darkness.
Another glimmer of light radiated from his hands, like a sunbeam cutting through the clouds, and Daithí blinked away the brine, confusion briefly cutting through his despair. He could feel the familiar tug in his gut, like hunger, that signalled he was about to run out of magic. And still, he pushed on – forcing out everything that was left in him. The darkness billowing through his hands sputtered like smoke from a chimney, before dying out completely as his hands lit up with dazzling radiance, lapping like fire between Daithí’s fingers as it shot through Cillian’s body.
Daithí screamed again, the light swallowing up his hands, then creeping up along his arms, the black colour of his sleeves peeling away like bark from a tree. The hideous light was still pulsing from Daithí when his body collapsed onto the one beneath him, eyes rolling back in his head as the loss of magic hit him in a wave of inescapable, bone-crushing exhaustion.
The last thing Daithí felt before unconsciousness took him was Cillian’s chest rising and pressing firmly against his own as the corpse took a shuddering breath.
Daithí blinked his eyes open to the familiar ceiling of his tent, accompanied by the less-welcome sensation of a pounding headache. His limbs felt numb and lifeless, as though they had been drained of all energy, and when he tried to lift his head, his neck refused to cooperate.
“C-Cillian…!” he mumbled though parched lips.
There was a rustling noise from outside the tent, followed by a set of footsteps. The tent flap parted as Cillian’s handsome face appeared – looking somewhat more gaunt than usual, but no less relieved to see him.
“Oh, thank Óralen – you’re alright!”
Daithí winced as he tried again in vain to move. “I…I wouldn’t say that.”
“Here, hold on–” Cillian’s head ducked back out of the tent for a few seconds, before the paladin stepped back inside, this time carrying his flask. He knelt down beside Daithí and lowered the neck of the flask to his lips, letting Daithí drink steadily from it, the water trickling into his mouth. With a grunt, he signalled Cillian to stop, and his lover obeyed at once, sitting back on his heels as Daithí felt the cool liquid sink down inside him.
“What happened?” Daithí asked.
“Mana withdrawal,” Cillian explained. “You used up all your magic. Been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Ugh”, Daithí groaned as his head slumped back into his pillow. How had he been so careless? Young or not, he’d been practicing healing magic for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t like him to use too much. “How long was I out for?”
“A full thirteen hours. It’s Fourthday morning now.”
So he’d passed out yesterday evening and only woken up now. But what had made him use up all his magic in the first place? Daithí frowned as he tried to recall.
“Did we…get into a fight?”
Cillian’s face was unusually impassive, as though forcing himself to remain calm and stoic. “That’s putting it mildly. What do you remember?”
Daithí did his best to ignore the ache in his skull as he thought. “We were…passing through the Shrouded Forest on our way to Treestop. And…and then…”
Shouts and raised voices in the woods.
“We were ambushed. Ambushed by bandits.”
Cillian nodded. “That’s right.”
“You…wanted to fight, but I said there were too many, and then…”
An arrow from the dark, and crimson drops on the forest floor.
Daithí’s stomach lurched, and he struggled to sit upright. Cillian was there at once, one arm around his back while the other hand gripped his shoulder, easing Daithí up into a sitting position. “Gods, you were…they hurt you.”
Cillian’s head tilted to the side, and Daithí’s eyes widened as they took in the dried blood coating the skin on his neck, blooming like a rose from a single point just to the upper-left of his windpipe. Daithí’s lip trembled as he lifted a shaking hand to gently brush his fingers against his lover’s neck, only to spot the same crimson stains coating his own hands all the way down to his elbows.
“No…” Daithí’s body began to shake, and not from exhaustion. “I…you were…they…”
“Stay calm,” Cillian’s voice was right in his ear, but it could have been leagues away.
“Daithí, I’m here.”
“They killed you, and I…I…!” It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. No magic could bring people back from the dead – no magic that Daithí had ever heard of, at least.
“You saved me,” Cillian assured him, giving Daithí a firm squeeze that made the world around him feel just a touch more solid once again. “If it weren’t for you, I’d have been lost forever.”
Still trembling, Daithí lowered his hand from Cillian’s neck, dropping it to his waist and slithering upwards along his torso, feeling lukewarm flesh against his palm. He came to a stop against Cillian’s chest, feeling desperately for a heartbeat, and finding none.
“I didn’t save you at all,” Daithí mumbled hopelessly, only for Cillian to take hold of his hand by the wrist, pulling it away from his chest and guiding it back up against his neck.
“Feel,” Cillian told him, and pressed Daithí’s fingers against the skin below his jaw, the healer’s eyes widening as he felt the steady rhythm of a pulse beneath his fingertips.
“I don’t know,” Cillian said. “But I think it might have something to do with whatever happened to your clothes.”
Daithí frowned, hazarding a glance down at himself and gaping in astonishment at what he saw there. He hadn’t been changed out of his clothes after he’d passed out, meaning that he was still wearing his well-worn healer’s jacket, shirt and trousers. And they were still stained with dried blood from yesterday’s attack. But the colour was all wrong – beneath the crimson stains, the deep black hue that was so associated with healers throughout Vhastia had been inverted into a bright white, as though the colour had been bleached out of his clothes.
Daithí’s stomach dropped. “This is impossible. I need…I need some air,” he muttered, and Cillian obligingly helped him unsteadily to his feet, leading him out of the tent and back into the forest air. Taking deep breaths to still his buzzing mind, Daithí was also relieved to feel the pain in his head ease.
“Do you know why so many healers wear all black?” he asked Cillian as they walked slowly around the campsite, leaning against each other like competitors in a three-legged race.
“I think so. I’m no expert on arcane magic, but I know that it makes your clothes change colour, right?”
“That’s because the magic we use alters the world around us: in healing someone – or something – we are changing that person or object’s reality. And that power has an effect on the world in turn, albeit a very minor, largely superficial one.
“And that changes your clothing, too?”
“Over time, yes.”
The trickling sound of water reached Daithí’s ears as Cillian brought him away from the campsite and through the trees, listening patiently as Daithí gave another of his usual lectures on magic, the paladin’s handsome face illuminated every so often by a shaft of morning sunlight that passed through the trees.
“Firedancers’ clothing begins to itself flicker with flames. Tidecallers’ clothing becomes tinged with the blues and greens of the sea. And for us shadowsoothers, our clothes slowly turn black as night, owing to the influence of the darkness we use for our healing magic. But this…” Daithí lifted a hand to examine his sleeves, still white as snow beneath the bloodstains. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Do you think you might have accidentally used a different type of magic than shadowsoothing?” Cillian’s gentle voice called Daithí out of his thoughts.
Daithí frowned. It was true that there were as many different schools of magic as there were stars in the sky, and plenty of them focused on healing magics; earthstriding and thunderbringing, or the divine magic used by certain clerics, for instance – not to mention schools that were foreign to Vhastia, like bardic magic or enchanting. But this bizarre, lifeless white colour that had dyed his clothes was nothing like anything Daithí was familiar with. Even the clothing of frostgunners wasn’t so pure a white, taking on instead the gentle blue colours of ice. The white that now covered Daithí’s jacket was like a void of colour – blank and empty.
Before he could ponder things further, their walk came to a halt. They were now at the edge of a pond, or perhaps a small lake, where the forest stream Daithí had been hearing for the past few minutes widened until it was more than a stone’s throw from one bank to the other.
“I made sure to set up the camp by a freshwater source,” Cillian explained, setting Daithí gently down by the edge of the water. “I brought the canteens.”
That was Cillian – ever-practical and patient, even after dying and being brought back to life by magicks unknown. He was nothing like Daithí, who panicked at the slightest hint of danger and fretted over details while missing what really mattered. Cillian was the anchor to his storm-tossed ship. Daithí needed him.
That was why Daithí couldn’t just let death take him. Not without a fight.
Daithí lifted a hand to eye-level, and watched it glow with the same, garish light that he had seen right before passing out. When he reached inside himself for the soothing warmth of his dark magic, he instead only found cold, unfeeling light.
“What’s happening to me?” he asked, voice too low for Cillian to hear over the sound of running water.
A hand on his shoulder brought Daithí back to alertness, and he glanced aside at Cillian, who had already kicked off his boots and removed his shirt, and was in the process of unbuckling his belt. He blinked in surprise at the familiar sight of Cillian’s bared torso, the top half of which was caked with the same dark red stains as Daithí’s hands and clothes.
“You should get those off you,” Cillian said, nodding to Daithí’s clothing. “We both could do with a wash.”
Despite the blood, despite the magic, despite everything, Daithí chuckled and smiled at his lover’s refreshing bluntness. “Ever the romantic. Always in a rush to get my clothes off.”
The look Cillian shot him out of the corner of his eye was one that Daithí was intimately acquainted with, and yet he couldn’t help but hold back a shiver of anticipation.
Within a handful of minutes, the two of them had slipped into the pond, and all heated thoughts had immediately flown out of Daithí’s head upon coming into contact with the cold water. He trembled as he rubbed the water through fingers that were already turning numb, while Cillian eagerly ducked his head under the surface and re-emerged with his brown curls plastered to his scalp. After a short time, Cillian evidently took pity on him, and waded over to wrap him up in his warm embrace. His firm hands were much better-suited for wiping away grime and dirt than Daithí’s, and Daithí was more than happy to allow his lover to do all the hard work for him.
This close together, even surrounded by the cold water, it was difficult for Daithí’s body not to respond in the manner it so often did when in the presence of Cillian’s naked form, and when the distance between their faces became short, Daithí closed the gap with a quick kiss. He was pleasantly surprised when Cillian leaned in for another, deeper one, and even more so when he felt something firm pressing against his naked belly, deep below the water’s surface.
“Seems like your heart might be the only thing about you that’s still lifeless,” Daithí muttered in between kisses that were only growing more and more heated.
“So it would seem,” Cillian replied, shoulders rising and falling as he panted. “Do you want to…?”
It was a quick, shameless affair that put Daithí in mind of the very first time they had made love – in a run-down little inn on the outskirts of Hillsfield, where the two of them had been made to stay in the only room left available after a hard day’s march south from Heartsdrop. The tiny, rickety excuse for a bed had made such a noise that it had drowned out their cries of passion, and Daithí had been amazed that the shoddy thing hadn’t fallen apart altogether as they’d writhed atop it.
Here, there were no sounds other than the gentle trickling of the stream and the twittering of birds in the forest canopy far above, and nobody to overhear their heated shouts as they ground against one another, gripping each other tight and kissing with increasing fervour. Cillian’s thighs squeezed Daithí tight as he came undone, Daithí swiftly following with a cry that echoed through the woods. He hummed into Cillian’s warm lips as his body trembled with pleasure, the water no longer feeling so cold against his naked skin.
“I love you,” Daithí mumbled, his head still swimming as his lips brushed against Cillian’s again.
“I love you, too,” came the whispered response.
And at that moment, with his body pressed firmly against Cillian’s, Daithí felt the steady thump of something beating inside his lover’s chest.
“Cillian!” he exclaimed, making the other man jump in surprise. “Your heart!”
“What?” Cillian had been jolted out of his blissful daze by the sudden shout. “What about it?”
Daithí loosened his hold on the paladin in order to wriggle one hand up between their torsos, palm skimming along Cillian’s bare chest, feeling desperately for the rhythm that he knew he hadn’t dreamt up. But after several seconds of pressing firmly against the skin by Cillian’s left nipple, Daithí could feel nothing beneath his touch save muscle and ribs.
Cillian grimaced. “Your hand’s a bit cold, honey.”
“…Sorry.” Daithí withdrew the offending hand with a sigh. “I thought that, just for a moment, I could feel your heart beating. Are you sure you didn’t…feel anything different?”
“I didn’t notice anything. But I was a little bit distracted.”
Daithí shoulders slumped as a snort issued out of his nose. “Point taken.” He nestled his head in the nook between Cillian’s head and shoulder, dejection foremost on his mind, until a gurgling noise from his gut drew his attention.
“Hungry?” Cillian asked, knowing well the answer already.
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” Daithí reminded him. “And somehow, I doubt you have either.”
“I’m not hungry,” the paladin insisted, as the two of them waded, hand in hand, back to the riverbank. “Too much on my mind.”
“Cillian, you might have died, but that doesn’t mean you should stop eating.”
“Doesn’t it? My heart’s stopped, so there’s no guarantee that my stomach is working either. What happens if I eat something and it just stays stuck in my belly, rotting away inside me? What happens if I wake up one morning and there’re maggots crawling around in my stomach?”
Daithí hoisted himself out of the water, goosebumps forming on his naked skin upon coming into contact with the cool air. “That wouldn’t be pleasant.”
“No, it wouldn’t.”
“But it’s not like you to just stop eating.”
“Well, I’ve never been dead before, have I?” Cillian retorted, his shoulders rising and falling heavily as though trying not to panic. “But, apparently, there’s a first time for everything.”
“Shush, honey, you’ll be all right.” He wished he could believe his own words. It was an unusual reversal of roles to have Daithí be the one trying to calm his usually placid lover down. Deciding to let actions speak louder than words, Daithí caressed the side of Cillian’s face in what he hoped would be a reassuring gesture, only to frown as his fingers worked their way down to the bare, damp skin of his neck, realising too late that something was missing. “Hold on, where’s your amulet?”
Cillian’s eyes fluttered shut as if in shame. “I don’t know. It was gone when I woke up – when you woke me up.”
From death, he meant. Never in all the years Daithí had known Cillian had he ever once seen his bare neck without the metal chain of his paladin’s amulet wrapped around it. It was a small, silvery pendant with the sun symbol of Cillian’s patron deity – Óralen, the Sacred – emblazoned upon it, and it had been conferred upon him when he had been made a paladin, several years before he had even met Daithí.
A paladin’s amulet was no mere trinket – it was the medium through which they made the will of the gods manifest with his divine magic, and a reminder to any servant of the gods that their patron was always with them. Cillian Coldlake was far from the most devout of Vhastia’s many paladins, but Daithí knew him well enough to know that he never took the blasted thing off – even when bathing or making love, the amulet could still be found nestled in its favoured spot between Cillian’s pectorals. There was no chance of him simply losing it. In other words…
“They must have taken it,” Daithí said. “Those bandits who–who attacked us.”
Cillian nodded, dabbing at his wet body with a dry cloth. “I think so, too. By the time I was back on my feet, they were gone. And I didn’t even realise it was missing until later.”
Daithí was at a loss for words. He had never been one for religion – he had no problem with the gods or anything, so long as they stayed far away from him. Even being in a long-term relationship with a devotee of the God of the Sun and Skies had done little to change that mentality. He’d heard that, in the lands south of Vhastia (where the Southern Faith had originated from), the gods spoke to the people directly through an oracle – which, to Daithí, sounded like the most terrifying thing imaginable – rather than taking a more lax approach by allowing their clerics and paladins to act in their stead as they did here. But he knew well how much the amulet had meant to his lover. The bandits might as well have carved off one of Cillian’s hands and stolen away with that instead.
“I’ll be fine,” Cillian said, and Daithí decided not to press him on the lie. “We should get dressed. The last thing we need is for you to catch a cold out here in the woods.”
“Better that than dying,” Daithí quipped, and was relieved when he earned a smile and a gentle shove in response.
Cillian cooked up a delicious breakfast with the food supplies they had gotten in Forestedge two day prior, before they’d set off on their trek through the woods. Daithí had attempted to persuade Cillian to try some food, but the paladin had refused – still insisting that he wasn’t hungry. Ordinarily, it was difficult to keep his lover away from food – Cillian’s parents ran a bakery in Coldlake, and all three of their sons had grown up to be gourmands. Even the loss of his amulet couldn’t have soured him on good food, and Daithí was soon forced to conclude that whatever strange new magic that was keeping Cillian’s blood pumping through his body without a heartbeat was also keeping him on his feet without food in his belly.
As Daithí wolfed down his meal, his head buzzed with questions – who were the people who had attacked them, and why had they taken Cillian’s amulet? He hadn’t recognised any of their faces or voices, so they clearly hadn’t been enemies (or even acquaintances). He recalled the words he had heard as he’d lain on the forest floor: “Get what we came for and get out!” Whoever they were, they must have been after the amulet all along, since Cillian had confirmed with Daithí that none of their other belongings had been taken – including their food, water, and scant few valuables. When he’d voiced the idea aloud, Cillian had agreed with him.
“I think you’re right,” he’d said. “But why in the gods’ names would they do that? And how did they even know I’d have an amulet on me?”
Daithí had chewed his lip as he’d considered this. “Maybe they were looking for paladins in particular?”
“I had it hidden away under my armour – they couldn’t have known I was anything but an ordinary knight or soldier.”
It didn’t make sense to either of them. How had a random group of bandits known they would find a paladin’s amulet on them? And for what reason had they needed one in the first place?
And then there was the unfamiliar magic that Daithí had tapped into to save Cillian. In all his years spent studying magic at the academy – even schools and disciplines that he was unable to use himself – he had never so much as heard of a “light” magic that brought people back from the dead. It was unheard of, and quite possibly sacrilegious by the standards of most Vhastians. But Cillian’s current state was proof that such magic existed. Had Daithí managed to somehow create a new form of magic altogether? It didn’t seem possible, but then again, none of this was.
After breakfast, they found themselves entwined in each other’s arms again – this time in the intimacy of their tent. Perhaps it was their relief at having survived (or having mostly survived) a terrifying experience such as the events of the previous day that drove them to seek comfort of the physical sort, or a desperation to reassure themselves that, despite everything, they still had each other. It was easy to forget, when tangled up in their shared bedroll and fervently whispering each other’s names, the unusual circumstances they had found themselves in. Pleasure eased the pain, Daithí concluded, as he lost himself to it.
And then it happened again – that familiar thump of a heartbeat, this time against his cheek as he rested it atop Cillian’s chest. Daithí hurriedly grasped his lover’s sweat-slickened hand in his own and guided it to where he’d felt the rhythm, watching as Cillian’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Oh my–” But after only a handful of seconds had passed, Cillian’s brows drew together in a frown. “It’s fading.”
They positioned their hands together over his heart, and Daithí was dismayed to feel the heartbeat dwindle away until there once again was no longer any sign of a beating organ within Cillian’s chest.
“That’s so strange,” Daithí sighed. “But I knew I didn’t imagine it!”
“I’m sorry for doubting you. If only it had kept beating.
“That would solve our biggest problem right then and there.”
Cillian’s cheeks were tinged with pink. “Seems like it only starts beating when I’m…when we’re…”
Daithí silenced Cillian with a warm kiss, before murmuring, “Bet I can make it start again.”
Cillian grinned up at him. “I’d like to see you try.”
Daithí succeeded twice more in getting Cillian’s heart to start before exhaustion bade them both give up. They snuggled into the bedroll, still wrapped in one another’s arms, and rested – content, for the moment, in each other’s company.
By the time the two of them were ready to move again, it was early afternoon. Daithí had been more than happy to spend the rest of the day in their tent, but Cillian was eager to resume their journey – albeit with a different destination in mind.
“Waterwood?” Daithí repeated in confusion once Cillian had told him where they were heading. “What’s waiting for us there, besides a dusty old temple?”
“Actually,” Cillian replied, as he helped Daithí dismantle the tent, “the temple is exactly where we’re going. Whatever’s happening to us involves a kind of magic that neither of us are familiar with – which means we need to enlist the help of somebody who knows more about unusual magicks than we do.”
“Oh, you’re talking about that cleric friend of yours – what’s his name, again?”
“Manus Autumnreach, I remember.” What Daithí remembered, exactly, was a pair of brown eyes set in a round face that had never once fixed Daithí with anything friendlier than a frown in the handful of times that the two of them had met. Cillian and Manus knew each other from Cillian’s time spent training to become a paladin, which had entailed retreats to temples of each of the five gods in the pantheon. In Waterwood lay a great and formidable temple to Elerath, God of Love and Waters, where Manus served his patron deity primarily by attending to the needs of the templegoers. Daithí had no interest in prying into the connection between Cillian and the cleric, although he could tell by the warm expression that lit up his lover’s face whenever Manus’ name was mentioned that the two of them had ‘worshipped Elerath in the traditional way’ – likely more than once.
“We could always go to Summerhall,” Daithí reminded Cillian. “I’m sure the academy archives know more about rare, arcane magical disciplines than a priest would.”
“This ‘priest’ also happens to be a scholar of magic,” Cillian said firmly. “Manus will at least be able to point us in the right direction. And, anyway, going to Summerhall would mean trekking all the way back east through the forest. I’ve had more than my fill of trees for the moment.”
Daithí shrugged as he packed away their supplies. “Fair enough. But if Manus tells us that I’m ‘possessed by a fell spirit’ and starts battering me with a sacred scepter, I’m walking to Treestop by myself.”
With everything packed away, they began their journey northwest. They were moving for less than an hour before it happened. Cillian had insisted upon scouting ahead, likely spurred on by fear of another bandit attack. Daithí’s eyes had followed his lover’s armoured form as his long strides had taken him over twenty paces ahead, widening in shock when they watched him collapse to the ground.
He caught up to the paladin in a matter of seconds, twigs snapping underfoot as he sprinted over to his side. Mercifully, the paladin’s eyes were still open, and he was still breathing.
“I-I’m all right,” he choked, as Daithí knelt down beside him.
“No, you’re not!” Daithí told him firmly. “What in gods’ names happened?”
“I’m n-not sure. I started feeling a bit numb and heavy – like I was really tired or something, and then I just collapsed. Like my body stopped working. But it’s gone now.”
Daithí shook his head in a combination of exasperation and disbelief as Cillian sat up. “You couldn’t just be all right a few moments after fainting dead away!”
“But I am,” Cillian instead, getting to his feet and managing not to stumble, taking Daithí by the hand and dragging him up with him. “I’ve been getting that heavy feeling a few times since yesterday – but that was the only time it got bad enough to make me fall.”
Daithí’s jaw clenched with frustration. “It must be a side effect of the spell. When, exactly, did you start feeling numb before?”
“It was when you were still out cold,” Cillian explained as they set off again, worry making Daithí hover determinedly by his elbow. “I put you into the tent and started setting up camp – I was on my feet for most of the evening and started feeling a bit faint, so I lay down in the tent beside you. Felt better right away.”
A thought occurred to Daithí at that moment. “So you felt fine when you were near me? But when you moved away…”
Cillian cocked his head at him, thinking the idea over. “You think the further away I get from you, the worse it gets?”
“We’ve been practically glued together since I woke up this morning. Only when you moved away from me did you start feeling bad.”
Cillian folded his arms as he considered this. “You’re not wrong. How about this – you stand there and I’ll start moving away from you, slowly. We’ll see if your theory is correct.”
“I don’t want you to collapse again,” Daithí protested.
“I won’t go too far away, I promise.” Cillian kissed him on the cheek before stepping away, moving further into the forest as Daithí stood warily on the spot, watching his lover like a hawk. His first ten strides were at a steady pace, but he soon slowed down as he got more and more distant. He was nearing twenty paces when Daithí called out to him.
“Are you alright?”
“Feeling a bit sluggish,” was the answering shout from Cillian.
“Just don’t go too much further–shit.”
Daithí swore as Cillian dropped like a stone once more, racing over to him. The paladin was already groaning and sitting up by the time Daithí was at his side again.
“New rule,” Daithí said firmly as he eased Cillian back onto his feet. “You’re to stay near me at all times until we figure this out.”
Cillian nodded. “Right. Sorry.” A momentary silence bloomed between the two of them before he spoke up again. “Why do you think this keeps happening?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because of the magic that’s keeping you going. The spell must be tethered to me still: the farther away from me you are, the weaker it gets. That’s why you started feeling heavy and sluggish.”
“Does that mean that if I get too far away, I might die again?”
“Yes,” Daithí told him, lacing their fingers together as he stepped in close. “And I don’t want to lose you a second time. So, please…”
“I understand.” Cillian pressed his lips momentarily to Daithí’s forehead before stepping apart, their hands still clasped together. “And thank you. Did I ever thank you for saving my life?”
“I…don’t think so?”
“Well, thank you, Daithí.”
He gave the paladin’s hands a quick squeeze before letting go. “You’re welcome. Just…don’t ask me to do it again. I still don’t really know how I did it the first time.”
Cillian jerked his head in the direction they’d been travelling. “Then we’d better keep moving. It’ll be dark before too long, and there’s still a bit of a trek. We’ll be at Waterwood before nightfall, if all goes well.”
The two men set off again, this time making sure that neither of them strayed too far from the other. All the while, Daithí’s thoughts were whirling yet again with questions. The more he learned about this strange new magic he’d tapped into, the more he hungered for further knowledge. If he knew more about it, perhaps, he could restore Cillian’s body properly. It was enough to make him look forward to seeing Manus’ unsmiling face again. He just hoped that the cleric had the answers they needed.
Waterwood was a small settlement that had grown up over the years around the Temple of Elerath, built centuries ago on the southern shores of Lake Feldin. The gap between the forest’s edge and the lake was dotted with small, rustic buildings – all of them perched atop a series of stilts – more a village than the small town it claimed to be. It was a quiet, quaint place, as Cillian put it. It made Daithí, however, long for the lively streets and taverns of Summerhall or Shellport – somewhere filled with too many people to count, where he couldn’t hear himself think.
Aside from the travellers who stopped by the temple on their way from Treestop to Cragfort (or vice versa), Waterwood was primarily visited by pilgrims looking to worship the God of Love and Waters – particularly during the Great Thaw after winter’s end, when the meltwaters caused the lake to rise and flood the land nearby. People flocked to Waterwood from all over Vhastia to give thanks for Elerath’s blessing, the town’s unique buildings staying high and dry even during the heaviest floods. Currently, however, it was approaching summer, and the town was as quiet as its name suggested, the temple looming high over the placid lake, casting its shadow over the waters.
“At least there’ll be plenty of room in the temple for us to stay overnight,” Cillian remarked as they passed through the near-silent town.
“Ever the optimist,” Daithí said. “You’re assuming the priests won’t kick us out – you, for being a lifeless ghoul, and me, for putting you in that state.”
“Manus wouldn’t do that.”
“Ever the optimist,” he repeated, as they began to climb the great ramp that led up to the temple entrance.
During the annual festival at winter’s end, the temple’s main hall would be thronging with people – many bowed in prayer, others sharing wine, and others still entangled in the arms of the clerics. Even now, months later, it was clearly busier than anywhere else in Waterwood, although few people were partaking in wine or one another’s bodies. What little conversation there might have been was muted, and the hall was quiet enough for Daithí and Cillian’s footsteps to echo from the mighty walls as they strode towards the statue in the temple’s centre.
The Master of Peace and Desire stood tall at the head of the hall, nude save for a strip of cloth that was loosely draped over one shoulder, as though threatening to slip down his arm, and dangled down over his groin to preserve his modesty. Elerath surveyed His temple with a gentle smile, gazing approvingly down at his followers even long after the festival’s crowds had departed. The statue was beautiful in the classical sense – with a broad chest, a round belly, and wide hips – and had been carved so smoothly out of rich, black marble that it might well have been mistaken for flesh. The clerics of the temple evidently did their utmost to ensure the statue was well-cared for: even so many years after its creation, the statue showed little signs of erosion or denudation.
“I don’t think I could ever get tired of this view,” Daithí muttered, just loud enough for Cillian to hear, as the two of them stepped into the statue’s great shadow.
“We’ll change your mind about this place yet,” Cillian said, unable to suppress a smirk at his lover’s words.
A blonde woman, perhaps a little over a decade older than the two men, noticed their approach and straightened to her feet. She was clad in robes that were the rich azure of the temple clerics, and she smiled warmly as she addressed them.
“Elerath’s blessings upon you, travellers. How may I help you this evening?”
“We’re looking for Manus Autumnreach,” Cillian explained. “I take it he’s here in the temple?”
The cleric nodded. “Yes, of course. I believe he has retired to his private quarters, in the east wing. Would you like me to show you the way?”
“No need. But thank you, all the same.”
“Not at all. Gods be with you, travellers.”
Cillian led Daithí out of the main hall, and through a series of steadily-narrowing passages, until they reached a much cosier and intimate part of the temple, where the candlelight was dim and the halls almost-silent. Daithí had never been to the east wing of the temple before, and he trusted that Cillian knew the way to Manus’ chambers well enough to not need any directions.
At last, they came to a plain, wooden door – identical to any of the others they had passed along the corridors – and Cillian raised a hand to knock. Daithí had known Cillian long enough to know that he always knocked five times – an old superstition among Vhastia’s faithful. This time, however, he only made it to three before the door swung open, his knuckle hitting air for the fourth knock instead.
A figure appeared in the doorway to replace them: a man in his late twenties, with curly black hair and a round, stubble-covered face – one familiar to both Daithí and Cillian. Manus Autumnreach was clad in the same azure robes as the temple clerics, and his two, bushy eyebrows rose in surprise at the sight of the two men at his door.
“Cillian. And Daithí. I wasn’t expecting a visit.”
“It’s urgent business,” Cillian told him, making Manus’ brows furrow. “You’re not busy, are you?”
“Not at all. Come in.” Manus waved a hand to beckon Daithí and Cillian inside.
They followed Manus into his chambers, which were more brightly-lit than the hallways of the east wing. The candlelight illuminated row after row of bookshelves, packed from floor to ceiling with tomes both big and small. A small shrine to Elerath was squeezed in between two of the bookshelves, the hourglass-like symbol of the Southern Faith emblazoned on the wall above a small statue – a replica of the much-larger one out in the temple’s main hall. Elsewhere in the room, there was a desk with a single chair, a scattering of cushions and pillows strewn across the carpeted floor, and a large bed, pressed up against one of the larger bookshelves, whose sheets were unmade, as Daithí noticed.
“Sit down, sit down,” Manus said, gesturing towards the cushions on the floor. “Can I get either of you something to drink?”
“No, thank you,” Cillian said, although Daithí wouldn’t have said no to a glass of wine, after the day he’d had. “Sorry for dropping in on you unannounced, by the way.
Manus shook his head and waved a hand in dismissal. “Nothing to be sorry for. So, what brings you here?”
Manus had never been one for small talk; in that, at least, Daithí could relate. Cillian launched into the story of what had happened to them both in the Shrouded Forest – describing how the bandits had set upon them and felled Cillian with an arrow.
“After that, well…” Cillian glanced at the healer. “Daithí knows more about what happened next.”
Daithi swallowed nervously as Manus’ concerned look fell upon him. This was the part of their trip to Waterwood that he’d been dreading most – Manus might have been a scholar of magic, but he disapproved of arcane magic by default, as the majority of clerics did. Worshippers of the Southern Faith traditionally believed that magic was the realm of the gods and, as such, ought only to be performed by clerics, paladins, and others of the faith. It was a conservative, dated view, and was slowly dying away amongst the younger generations of Vhastian faithful, but Daithi had little doubt that the view was part of what contributed to Manus’ apparent dislike of him.
“I…tried to heal him,” Daithí explained, steeling himself under Manus’ gaze. “But the wound was too severe – even after healing it, too much of Cillian’s blood had been lost. But I kept going, driving my magic through him in an attempt to keep him alive. And as I was healing him, my magic changed. It went from darkness to light, and it revived Cillian–”
“What?” Manus cut in, his eyes having widened with shock at the word ‘light’. “You couldn’t have…”
Daithí held out one hand, palm facing upwards, and allowed his hand to glow with the cold, bright light that had spared Cillian from dying. Manus’ widened eyes narrowed at the sight, and he shook his head as his lip curled with anger.
“What have you done?” Manus asked, voice dangerously low.
“Do you know what this is?” Cillian asked. “This…strange, new magic of his?”
“It’s not new magic,” Manus bit back. “It’s old. Very old. And, what’s more, it’s extremely dangerous.”
Daithí let his hand drop, meeting Manus’ furious glare with a steady gaze. “Well, it saved Cillian’s life. So, it couldn’t be all that bad.”
“You didn’t ‘save his life’!” Manus snapped. “All you’ve done is trap him in the space between life and death. The magic is all that’s keeping him going – it’s a mockery of life, not a resurrection.”
“So, I should have just left him there to die?” Daithí ground his teeth together. “I thought you were supposed to be his friend?”
“Stop!” Cillian interrupted their growing quarrel, Manus’ mouth shutting before he could deliver his retort. “Manus, please tell us more about this magic.”
Manus folded his arms over his broad chest, his gaze softening as he turned to face Cillian once again. “It’s called ‘lightwaking’. One of the eight primary schools of Vhastian arcanism.”
Daithí frowned. “Hold on, there are only seven primary schools of arcane magic.”
“That’s what the academy teaches,” Manus said with a nod. “But it’s a lie intended to cover up the bloody truth. One of the few times in Vhastian history that the arcanists and the Faith worked together in unity was when they outlawed lightwaking, after the wielders of light magic decimated the land in a war, thousands of years ago.”
“I’ve never heard of a war like that,” Cillian said.
“Even the knowledge of the war itself is a closely guarded secret. The arcanists and Faith alike both forbid the public from accessing any information about lightwaking. Even most clerics don’t know the truth. Fortunately, my position both as one of Elerath’s faithful and as a scholar of magic allows me to access knowledge that most aren’t privy to.”
The thought of the Arcanists’ Academy censoring information about magical history was a frightening one to Daithí, a graduate of the very same institution. Just how much of Vhastian history were the arcanists hiding?
“What makes lightwaking so dangerous?” he asked aloud.
“The magic keeps a person’s soul suspended in limbo – unable to truly live, but incapable of dying. Lightwakers would use this magic on themselves, becoming deathless revenants that needed no food, water, or sleep. They could survive injuries that would kill an ordinary human, because their magic would just repair the damage.”
Daithí cast a hesitant glance at Cillian through the corner of his eye, worried at how he would receive the news that he had been turned into, as Manus had put it, a ‘deathless revenant’. Cillian was frowning at Manus, his hands clasped in front of him as though in prayer.
“So, on top of being powerful mages,” Cillian said, “the lightwakers had none of the ‘weaknesses’ shared by living beings. Which made them the perfect soldiers.”
“Correct.” Manus’ face was grave as he spoke. “And what’s more, the fell magic of lightwaking wasn’t limited to just this; they could also infuse corpses with light to re-animate them – not quite as revenants, but instead as mindless thralls that would unquestioningly carry out the will of their ‘master’.”
Manus stood, only to sit back down again, clearly agitated. Daithí had never seen him this upset and, judging by the expression on Cillian’s face, neither had he.
Manus went on. “Imagine, if you will, an army of rotting, shambling creatures that never tired, never ceased, never fell until they were hacked to pieces and could move no longer. Imagine having to cut down the walking corpses of your parents, your lovers, your friends and family – now animated by perverse magic and determined to slaughter you. That was what our ancestors faced, all those years ago, when the lightwakers raised the dead against them.”
The room fell into silence in the wake of Manus’ words. Cillian had gone very still, hands still clasped together as though to keep them from shaking. When Daithí spoke, it was in a low voice.
“What you’ve told us is…horrible, I’ll admit. But you have to know – even having heard all of this, I don’t regret what happened. If Cillian was dying right before my eyes, I’d do the same thing all over again.”
Manus’ jaw clenched but, to Daithí’s surprise, he gave a solemn nod. “I know. And I understand. Even knowing what I know of lightwaking…I’m not so sure I would have done anything different, had I been in your shoes.”
Daithi blinked. “Really? I thought you hated arcane magic of any kind?”
“I don’t hate it. I simply feel that we mere mortals ought not to tamper with the fabric of reality in defiance of the gods’ wills.” Daithí saw Manus’ large hands ball up into fists. “But, if Cillian lay dying at my feet, and I had the power to spare him from dying…gods, I don’t know.” He cast a guilty glance over at the statue of Elerath, which was surveying the chamber with its perpetual confident smile. “Forgive me, Great One.”
Cillian’s arms had folded across his chest, his brow furrowing as he thought. “What I don’t understand is, how did Daithi become a lightwaker in the first place? I thought he was a shadowsoother?”
Daithí piped up. “Actually, I’ve been thinking about that for a little while, and I might know the answer. Have you ever heard of biarcanism?”
Cillian shook his head, while Manus nodded simultaneously.
Daithí continued. “It’s a term used to describe mages who can access multiple schools of arcane magic at once. As you know, most mages in Vhastia can use only one school, but every so often, somebody comes along who can use two, or even three or four. No one is certain exactly how or why biarcanism occurs, even to this day, but many biarcanists report suddenly unlocking access to their secondary magical schools after suffering severe trauma or a great upheaval in their lives.”
“Like me,” Daithi agreed. “But I’m not sure this is exactly true biarcanism. Not since I seem to have lost access to my shadowsoothing altogether.”
“Some mages do lose access to their original magical school when they come into their second one,” Manus said. “Some even eventually recover it, and are able to use both, as any biarcanist would. Others do not, and few of them are recorded as being biarcanists for that reason. But it’s not unheard of. Give it time.”
It was perhaps the kindest tone Manus had ever taken with him, and it was even accompanied with a ghost of a smile on the cleric’s face. Daithí was somewhat irritated to find his face quickly becoming heated. “Right. Thanks.”
“As for you, Cillian,” Manus said, turning back to the paladin, “I have good news and bad news. The magic that ‘revived’ you, for lack of a better term, won’t last indefinitely. The lightwaker revenants required continuous infusions of magic – otherwise, their bodies would simply collapse and become as ordinary corpses. And even then, since they weren’t truly alive, as such, their bodies would gradually deteriorate over time. Eventually, even the most powerful lightwaker would become little more than a walking corpse themselves.”
Both Daithí and Cillian tensed. “How long do we have?” the mage asked.
“I can’t say for sure,” Manus said. “Years, most likely – so long as Daithí is keeping you going with his magic.”
“But not forever,” Cillian said gravely. “So, what’s the good news?”
“The good news is that I may have a solution for you; according to records dating back to the period of time just after the War of Light had ended, the Faith discovered a way to free the lightwaker revenants from their deathless state. Some of them were fully restored to life, while others…”
He didn’t need to finish. “That’s a risk we’re willing to take,” Cillian said after Manus had trailed off. “If you know of a way to bring me back to life, then I’ll happily do whatever it takes.”
Manus nodded. “Well, you’re in luck: the ritual involved calling upon the divine magic of Óralen, God of the Sun and Skies. In other words, we can use your amulet as a focus.”
Cillian screwed his eyes shut while Daithí swore under his breath.
“What’s wrong?” Manus asked with a frown.
“My amulet,” Cillian said. “It’s…gone. Stolen by the bandits who attacked us.”
“Are you serious?” Manus gaped. “Then…you have no way of using your power as a paladin.”
“Not until we get it back,” Daithi said firmly. “And I know just where to start looking.”
“You do?” Both cleric and paladin regarded him curiously.
“I remember the bandits running off into the forest,” he told them. “They approached and departed from the opposite direction we were travelling from. In other words, they came from the west. And the only nearby settlement in that direction is…”
“Treestop.” Cillian started. “Even if they aren’t there anymore, I’m sure the locals would have noticed a pack of bandits come barrelling through the place.”
“We’ll set off first thing in the morning,” Daithí announced, eyeing Manus as he spoke. “In the meantime, we’ll need a place to stay.”
The cleric spread his hands wide. “The temple is always open to those who need it – especially at this time of year, when the pilgrims are long gone. I’ll arrange sleeping quarters for you both.”
“Thank you, Manus.”
The three of them got to their feet, heaving themselves up from their cushions and making for the door. No sooner had they stepped out of Manus’ room did the cleric ask the question that had been hanging in the air since their arrival.
“Did something happen to Éanna, too?”
Cillian and Daithí both froze simultaneously, something which Manus was unable to miss.
“Is this a tender subject?” he asked.
“Kind of,” Cillian admitted. “Éanna is…not a part of our relationship anymore.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. I take it that it wasn’t a pleasant separation?”
Cillian swallowed. “You could say that.”
Manus cocked an eyebrow at Daithí. “And what would you say?”
“I’d say ‘good riddance to the heartless bastard and I hope he enjoys the rest of his miserable, lonely life.’”
Manus grimaced as they set off down the corridor. “Should I ask what he did to make you both despise him so?”
“It’s a long story,” Daithí told him, rubbing his eyes as a wave of weariness ran through him, coupled with the resurfacing of more than a few painful memories.
Cillian began to explain while Daithí tuned out the words, not needing to hear again about how their former lover had disapproved of their methods – of the way they travelled from town to town, helping the sick and needy, without expecting so much as an ounce of copper to cross their palms. Every last jab and negative comment Éanna had thrown their way replayed itself in Daithí’s head every single day, especially the ones he had said on the night he’d finally walked away for good. He was the last thing Daithí wanted to think about now.
“Are you serious?” Manus scowled, his scandalised tone waking Daithí from his trance.
Cillian nodded. “So, we went our separate ways. We’ve no idea where he is now or what he’s doing. It’s been six months since we saw him last.”
“And we’re better off,” Daithí concluded. Manus clearly caught the tone of finality in his voice, for he ceased in the questioning and changed the subject to lighter matters.
Manus led them out of the east wing, passing through the great hall (and under the gaze of the towering statue) once again to reach the opposite end of the temple. The west wing was far more open than the east – the corridors were wider, and the candlelight brighter, and the various doors opened up into prayer rooms, the occasionally cloister, and even a refectory. But they passed by all of these until they came to a series of wooden doors beyond which lay sleeping quarters for any pilgrims or other overnight guests of the temple.
“Since it’s nearly summer, these rooms are all empty,” Manus informed them as he led them inside. “You’ll have this one all to yourself.”
“Thank you, Manus,” Cillian said, as he and Daithí began unloading their packs and supplies at long last by the foot of one of the larger beds. “This is perfect.”
“I’ll see you in the morning before you leave. Goodnight.”
And with that, Manus left the two men alone in the room – with only their thoughts, each other, and yet another miniature statue of Elerath at the head of the chamber for company.
“They must have one of these in every room in this bloody place,” Daithí commented, eyeing the statue bemusedly.
“It is a temple in His honour,” Cillian reminded him, a hand coming to rest on Daithí’s shoulder. “How are you feeling after…well, after everything?”
Daithí turned to face him. “I’m more worried about you, Sir Deathless Revenant. How does it feel to be a walking affront to all that is good and holy?”
“I can’t imagine I’d feel much better if I was dead.”
Daithí snorted. “At least your sense of humour survived.”
“You didn’t answer my question, you know.”
“I suppose I didn’t.”
Cillian brushed a lock of dark hair out of Daithí’s face. “So…?”
Air escaped through the mage’s nose in a sigh. Where to even begin? Over the past day or so, he’d somehow singlehandedly resurrected a forbidden magical art that caused a war thousands of years ago, and turned his lover into a living corpse in the process. And now he’d learned that the only way of restoring him involved going on a hunt for an object that could have been spirited halfway across Vhastia by tomorrow morning. What was there not to fret about?
“I’m worried that we won’t find your amulet,” he said aloud. “Or that, even if we do, Manus won’t be able to restore you to life. And then you’ll be stuck like this until–”
“One thing at a time,” Cillian’s lips brushed against Daithí’s momentarily, before he said, “We’ll find the amulet, whether it takes a day, a month, or a year. As long as I have you by my side, I don’t have anything to fear.”
“Did you forget that when you were killed by bandits, I was right next to you?”
“You were. And you brought me back. That’s why I know I have nothing to be afraid of. You’ll be there to save me.”
Daithí wanted to protest – to complain that Cillian was putting too much pressure on somebody who had already failed to protect him when it mattered most. But the look in Cillian’s eyes and the warmth of his words moved him, and his reply came straight from the heart.
“I will,” Daithí said. “Always.”
They kissed again, before Cillian clapped Daithí on the shoulder. “Alright, come on. Let’s get you to bed.”
Daithí didn’t need to be told twice.
“Manus cares about you, you know,” Daithí told Cillian, as he huddled in close against his lover’s naked body. “A lot.”
“You’re not jealous, are you?” Cillian asked, his well-defined chest shimmering with sweat in the dim candlelight.
“When have you ever known me to get jealous?”
“Well, you don’t seem to like him very much,” Cillian pointed out, making Daithí shrug.
“I didn’t, it’s true. After today, though, I might just change my mind. He’s certainly not as difficult as I’d thought he was.”
There was a short lull in the conversation, during which the only noise to be heard was that of their own breathing. Daithí’s thoughts were still on Manus, and on the kindness he had shown in the face of Daithí’s doubts. He’d been angry, yes, but he hadn’t turned them away for their crimes against the Faith or anything of the sort. Maybe there was a decent person hiding somewhere underneath those robes? Maybe that was what had drawn Cillian to Manus when they’d first met, all those years ago.
“You should go for it,” Daithí said, breaking the silence at last. “He’s a cleric of Elerath, you know. I don’t think he’ll turn down the chance for a bit of ‘prayer’ with a gorgeous paladin like yourself.”
Cillian chuckled. “I think that would involve moving more than twenty paces away from you – meaning I’d have to wait until after I’m brought back to life.”
“Not if I was there, too.” Daithí winked
Cillian grinned at him, his head sinking back into the pillow. “So that’s your plan?”
“My plan,” Daithí said, “is to see you restored to your normal self. Anything else can wait.”
Daithí traced a finger in circles over the left-hand side of Cillian’s chest, relishing the way his lover shivered against his touch. The heartbeat that had started up as they’d rutted in the bed a few minutes before had by now dwindled away to nothing again. Considering this for a moment, a thought occurred to Daithí.
“Do you think the reason why your heart starts beating whenever we make love is the same reason why your body gives out when you move too far away from me?”
Cillian rolled over in the bed to face Daithí. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it would make sense, wouldn’t it? The further away you get, the weaker the magic keeping your body moving becomes. So, when you’re as close to me as is physically possible, the opposite happens.”
“You mean my body starts acting more…alive?”
“Or something like it,” Daithí said in agreement.
“Would you like to test that theory of yours out again?”
Daithí chuckled and cupped Cillian by the jaw as he planted a warm kiss on the corner of his mouth. “Maybe in the morning, sweetheart. We both need to rest.”
“I’m not so sure that I can,” Cillian confessed. “Remember what Manus said? The lightwaker revenants didn’t need food, water, or sleep. I haven’t felt hungry or thirsty since I woke up in the forest yesterday evening. And I stayed awake all through the night while you were unconscious.”
“So you haven’t slept at all in nearly two days? You must be exhausted!”
“Well, that’s just it,” Cillian said. “I don’t feel tired at all.”
“Maybe you should try and sleep anyway? Even if your body doesn’t need the rest, your mind certainly does.”
Cillian nodded. “Alright. But I hope you won’t mind me tossing and turning all night.”
“No different than usual, then.” Daithí pressed his lips to the paladin’s forehead. “Goodnight, honey.”
Daithí had slept by Cillian’s side through more nights than either of them could count, and he knew well when the paladin was actually asleep or merely pretending. Suffice to say, then, that he’d been glad (for once) to have woken up once or twice in the middle of the night only to be greeted by the sound of his lover’s peaceful snores. It seemed that, despite what Manus had implied earlier, lightwaker revenants were not prevented from being able to sleep. Daithí took this as a sign that Cillian would be more than capable still of eating and drinking if he wished, and assured him as such when they woke up in the early hours of the morning. Despite Daithí’s confidence, Cillian still adamantly refused to swallow so much as a bite of breakfast, and Daithí wasn’t keen to force the issue.
So, after Daithí had eaten a hearty meal in the temple refectory, he and Cillian set off for Treestop – winding their way through the streets of Waterwood before taking the road south along the edge of the forest. Manus had seen them off, slipping a few extra provisions into their bags before bidding them farewell. They had promised him that they would return as soon as they had recovered the amulet, and he assured them in turn that he would be waiting at the temple until then.
The road between the two towns was far more well-trod than the path through the Shrouded Forest, and comparatively free of potential hiding spots for ambushers, Daithí noted. If all went well, the two of them would be in Treestop before nightfall – the thriving town promising to be a welcome change from silent temples and gloomy forests. Despite the circumstances, Daithí felt a spring in his step as they marched south.
“You seem awfully cheerful,” Cillian observed.
“And why not? It’s been a while since we last visited ‘the birthplace of Vhastian theatre’. I, for one, am looking forward to enjoying myself for a change.”
“It’s not a holiday.” Cillian’s mouth twitched as he fought off a smile, obviously doing his best to try and keep the mood focused. “We’re looking for a group of dangerous bandits who’ve already killed me once – or mostly did, at least.”
“That time, they had the element of surprise. This time, we do. We’ll track those bastards down, make them tell us where they’ve hidden the amulet, snatch it out from under their noses and still have time for a dance with a charming gentleman or two, or maybe three?”
Cillian snorted. “I’m surprised you’re being so optimistic about this.”
“Just trying to lighten the mood,” Daithí said, holding out a glowing hand to emphasise his little joke.
Cillian stifled a chuckle. “Alright then, Sir Lightwaker – how do you plan on finding these bandits in the first place?”
“I’m thinking we should pay a visit to one of the local bars – the Jester’s Folly, perhaps, or the Hoary Oak. There, we socialise, buy a few drinks, spend some coin, entertain the locals with our tales of adventure and romance. And, once the moment is right, we’ll ask a few questions of our own – about any shifty-looking fellows who might have emerged from the Shrouded Forest several evenings ago.”
“And if they’re still in town?”
“Didn’t I tell you, already? We steal the amulet.”
Cillian made an uncertain hum in the back of his throat. “Somehow, I doubt it will be so straightforward. Neither of us are exactly known for our agility or dexterity. That was Éanna’s forte.”
Daithí’s smile waned at the sound of the name. The two of them had gone weeks without speaking of their former lover and Daithí would have been more than happy to have gone many weeks more. “You’ve been thinking about him, too.”
It wasn’t a question, but a statement of fact. Cillian nodded. “Hard not to, after talking to Manus yesterday.”
Silence bloomed between them, unusually uncomfortable for two men who spent almost all their time together and were used to such moments of quiet. After some time, Cillian asked, “Do you want to talk about him?”
“Why would I?” Daithí’s good mood had evaporated completely at the change in subject.
“We never do.”
“That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. We’ve barely spoken of him since he walked out.”
“And why should we?” Daithí demanded, his irritation seeping into his voice. “He lied to us, manipulated us, and tried to turn us against each other. He never did anything good for either of us.”
It wasn’t entirely the truth – Éanna had done plenty of good things for Daithí and Cillian both. He’d brought the two of them on a trip to Winterwood to attend the Solstice Festival, where they had watched in awe, hand-in-hand-in-hand, as the night sky had lit up with green and white. He’d looked after Cillian while the paladin had been sick, and Daithí had been away and unable to heal him. He’d given Daithí a new pair of robes for his twenty-fifth birthday, made of a fine material that shimmered like starlight even after it had been stained black by his magic. Daithí had worn them every day until Éanna’s departure, at which point he’d given them away, no longer wanting to hold onto anything that reminded him of the ginger-haired archer and his smug little smile.
But even all the good Éanna Frostfield had done for them both felt sour and hollow in the wake of discovering just how insidious his true nature had been. Daithí knew now what he wished he’d known at the time – that Éanna’s gifts and good deeds had all been a way of winding them around his finger, of softening the blows of his numerous angry outbursts, and of disguising the manner in which he picked away at their faults and flaws, then feigning shock and offense when they inevitably bit back in anger. All these memories and more swirled around in Daithí’s head, exacerbating his bad mood.
“I don’t want to just…pretend that none of it ever happened,” Cillian said.
“Well, I do!” Daithí snapped. “I wish we’d never even met him, let alone brought him into our relationship.” A peculiar thought popped into Daithí’s head, and he snorted in contempt. “You know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the one who stole your amulet.”
“Who else do we know who has a grudge against you? Against either of us? Who else knew you well enough to know you had an amulet?”
“Every paladin in Vhastia has an amulet,” Cillian pointed out. “And anyway, I don’t remember seeing him amongst the bandits who attacked us.”
“Maybe he hired them to steal it?”
“Why would he do that?”
Daithí threw his arms in the air. “I don’t know. Maybe he wants to deprive you of your connection to the divine? Or of your power?” When another pained silence arose in the wake of his words, Daithí muttered, “You think I’m just grasping at straws.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you’re thinking it.”
The mage clenched his jaw and exhaled through his nose. He’d lost his temper, and over what? Somebody he hadn’t even seen in half a year, let alone spoken to.
“Sorry,” he said. “I…I really hate how he can do this to me – to us – when he’s not even here.”
“That isn’t your fault. He wanted us to fight. It’s part of how he controlled us.”
“I still hate it.”
Cillian extended an arm and wrapped it around Daithí’s shoulder, pulling him in close as they walked. “I know, sweetheart. But bottling all that anger up…it’s not good for you. And I’m always able to listen.”
Daithí nodded, still feeling sullen. “Yeah. Thank you, honey.”
“Not a problem.” The paladin’s arm gave Daithí a quick squeeze before releasing him. “Now, come on. There’s still a long way to go, and daylight won’t last forever.”
Trying his best to shake thoughts of Éanna and his conniving influence, Daithí continued his march south, his lover ever by his side.
Treestop proved a marked change from the dismal and silent town of Waterwood; the gates were open wide in welcome, and the sound of people thronging the streets reached Daithí’s ears even from a distance as they approached. The town had started life as a settlement right at the western edge of the Shrouded Forest, and most of the original buildings had been either hollowed out of the massive trunks or built amongst the branches. As the centuries had ticked past, Treestop had grown into a sizable town, and had naturally spread out westward into the plains and away from the forest, but many of the old wooden buildings still stood – more relics now than habitable dwellings, but an integral part of the town’s history all the same.
Treestop was famed for its theatrical past (and present) – home as it was to numerous stages and venues, and furthermore the birthplace of some of Vhastia’s most revered bards, poets, and playwrights. Immediately upon passing through the great wooden gates, Daithí and Cillian were presented with an actor perched atop a nearby podium, gesticulating wildly as they performed what Daithí recognised as a soliloquy from a classic romantic tragedy. A small crowd of people had gathered at the podium’s foot, listening to the young actor as their voice rang out loud and clear through the street.
“…Beautiful and as fine as the dawn’s sweet light, doth my love be,
And yet cold as the fiercest winter – he chills my poor heart still.
Oh, how I wish to be with my dear beloved, my life’s joy.
But now, hark, as the shadows prey on my heart, as the sun sets…”
The actor straightened, standing up tall atop their platform, which had the effect of casting their youthful face in the shadow of a nearby building as the evening sun sank to the west; undoubtedly, they had timed their performance to the setting of the sun, and they received a polite round of applause from the audience on cue.
“Have you ever seen that play?” Daithí asked Cillian as they stepped by the watching crowd. “Faith and Loss, I mean.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re probably better off,” Daithí said. “Two and a half hours of monologues and murder – none of it premeditated, either. I’ll never understand the love for tragedies.”
“You’re more a fan of the raunchy ones with lots of innuendo.”
Daithí barked a laugh. “You know me too well. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see a snippet of one of those plays instead.”
They carefully moved through the crowds filling the streets, milling in and out of the various pubs and taverns as the working day ended and the evening began. Daithí caught sight of various shop owners closing their premises down for the day, while others were just opening up in anticipation of the night. The aromas of various foods wafted their way, making Daithí’s stomach grumble with need. Treestop’s signature dish was the “Coiled Elm” – a platter of pork and mushrooms, seasoned with herbs fresh from the forest – and all these scents (and more) caught in Daithí’s nose as he inhaled.
“Getting hungry?” Cillian prompted him, knowing his lover well enough to know the answer already.
“Starving,” Daithí replied with a groan. “I haven’t had a proper feed since we left the temple.” He inhaled again. “Mmm…doesn’t that just make your mouth water?”
“It’s certainly pleasant, but I can’t say it inspires feelings of hunger.”
Daithí sighed. “I wish I knew more about lightwaking – enough so that I could cast a spell to get your appetite working again.”
Cillian eyed him warily. “Perhaps we should avoid meddling with dangerous magicks just so I can have dinner again. Besides, I’m actually quite happy not needing to eat to survive – I don’t have to take time out of my day just to shovel food into my mouth.”
“How unlike you,” Daithí said, gaping in only half-feigned horror. “What would your poor parents think of you? You really don’t miss eating your favourite meals at all?”
“I didn’t say that. It’s just…convenient, is all.”
“Well, convenience aside, I certainly can’t go hunting for bandits on an empty stomach. I’m sure the Hoary Oak will provide…”
The two of them made their way to the tavern in question, passing through the town centre as they moved eastwards towards the forest. The Hoary Oak was one of the oldest establishments in Treestop, and had gotten its name from the ancient tree that the original building had been carved out of. Nowadays, there was little of the old tree that remained, as the tavern had grown over the years and most of the old wood had been replaced with stone and mortar. But the Hoary Oak was still considered by many to be the heart of Treestop and, as such, provided the perfect place for Daithí and Cillian to begin their search.
The mage wolfed down his pork-and-mushroom meal while Cillian did his best to socialise (making sure to never stray too far from Daithí’s table in the process). Daithí had been hoping to relax a little bit, now that they were finally back in civilisation again, but it was difficult for him to take his mind off of the reason why they had come here in the first place; he found himself casting intermittent glances up from his food, keeping an eye on the bar’s many patrons as he ate. None of them looked like heavily-armed bandits – least of all the ones they had encountered in the forest – but he made sure to try and scan each of them in turn, searching for familiar faces.
It’s hard to enjoy your dinner when you’re constantly jumping at shadows like this, Daithí reflected, realising he had hardly been able to taste the food he’d been shovelling into his mouth.
Just as he was finishing his meal, a rather lovely young woman with flowing, red hair and a greatsword strapped to her back waltzed up to Cillian whilst the paladin was standing awkwardly by himself and began chatting him up. Over the din in the tavern, Daithí was only able to catch a few snatches of conversation, although his lover’s body language told a thousand words.
“Thank you,” Cillian was saying, leaning slightly away from the young woman as she moved closer. “You’re, ah, very kind to say so.”
She smiled warmly at him. “You’re welcome, handsome. Did you come here alone, or with a friend?”
Daithí took the opportunity to swoop in, marching over and throwing an arm around the paladin. “I’m afraid he did, although, lucky for you and me, he doesn’t mind sharing. I’m Daithí, by the way. Daithí Riverfall.”
“Aoife Treestop,” she replied, her green eyes pivoting towards him.
“Oh, a local,” Daithí remarked. “Born and bred?”
“Born, certainly. Bred, not as often as I’d like.”
Daithí laughed loudly as Cillian excused himself, taking the seat Daithí had occupied moments previously. “We’ll get along just fine, I think. What brings you to the Hoary Oak?”
“The ale, mainly. I was on my way to the bar when I caught sight of your man,” she jerked her head towards the paladin. “Has he got a name, or is he just a pretty face?”
“A fellow warrior, by the look of him.” Those eyes swept over him, and Daithí suppressed the urge to shrink under her penetrating gaze. “And you, a mage, judging by those clothes. I take it he’s the one who charges into danger and you’re the one who has to save his ass?”
“More often the other way around,” Daithí admitted with a snicker. “He’s the sensible one, after all – a paladin.”
Her eyebrows rose. “That so? I always thought paladins were supposed to be celibate.”
“So did I. Once upon a time.”
She laughed at that, and Daithí steered her towards the table Cillian was sitting at, chatting as they went. “So, what’s your profession? I imagine you don’t use that blade for cutting meat.”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I’m a hunter, by trade. I keep the town supplied with fresh meat.” She nodded towards the remains of Daithí’s Coiled Elm, the plate still sitting on the tabletop. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Indeed? Well, thank you very much.”
Aoife acknowledged his gratitude with a nod, before saying, “And speaking of fresh meat, what brings you two to Treestop?”
Her blunt manner told Daithí that it was better to cut to the chase, and he leaned in closer while lowering his voice. “We’re looking for somebody. Well, a group of somebodies, actually. As a hunter who spends much of her time in the Shrouded Forest, you’ve undoubtedly heard of bandits who prey on travellers passing through the woods.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Including the two of you?”
“I’m afraid so. Something very important of ours was stolen from us by them and we’re looking to track them down and get it back.”
“Got any names?” Aoife asked.
Daithí thought back to the shouts he had heard as he’d watched Cillian bleed out on the forest floor. “Yeah. Colm and Aodhán.”
Aoife chewed her bottom lip for a moment as she thought. “I think I know who you’re talking about. There’s a group of lowlives who like to throw their weight and money around here whenever they get the chance. They call themselves the ‘Forest Cowls’ and their self-styled ‘leader’ is a fella named Aodhán Treestop. I didn’t think they were the type to resort to thievery, mind you.”
“Can you tell us more about them?” Daithí asked her. “Any places they might frequent, or any potential bases of operation?”
“Daithí!” Cillian hissed.
Daithí glanced over his shoulder to see his lover sitting with his jaw clenched tight, staring across the bar. “What’s wrong?”
“What?” Daithí followed the paladin’s gaze, trying to spot whatever he was looking so intently at, only for his insides to turn cold as realisation hit him. A man had just entered the tavern and was making his way towards the bar with the slow, casual gait of someone who had been here before, and too many times to count. Even if he hadn’t been wearing the same helmet he’d worn two days prior, Daithí would have recognised the axe that clung to his back.
“Yeah, that’s him,” Aoife said, evidently having noticed where the two men were looking. “Aodhán Treestop.”
Daithí and Cillian stood as one, narrowly avoiding knocking into the table in the process. “We have to go,” Daithí hurriedly told Aoife. “Lovely meeting you, of course, but–”
The hunter waved them off with a hand. “Go on. Don’t get yourselves killed.”
Again, Daithí added in his head as they left her behind and waded into the throngs of the tavern. Aloud, he asked Cillian, “Do we have a plan?”
The paladin glanced sidelong at him as they stepped around a particularly merry couple. “I assumed that you were coming up with the plan.”
“I don’t have anything more elaborate than just threatening him into giving up the location of the amulet.”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Should you do the talking, or will I?”
“I’ll do the talking. You can sneak up behind him and clap a firm hand on his shoulder if or when he tries to make a break for it.”
“Honey, he’s looking right at us.”
And so he was, Daithí realised with a start as he caught the bandit’s eye. The man who was apparently named Aodhán had cast a brief glance over his shoulder, and his gaze had landed upon Daithí immediately. He watched as a frown creased Aodhán’s forehead, as though he were trying to remember where he had seen Daithi before, only for the frown to evaporate as his eyes widened upon recognising the man walking alongside him.
Aodhán staggered away from the bar, abandoning the fresh flagon of ale that had just been deposited before him, and dashed through the crowd, knocking a handful of patrons aside as he went. Daithí, being the narrower of the couple by far, gave chase by winding his way through the crowd, while Cillian followed in his wake, stammering out apologies to anybody who came close.
Aodhán raced out the door, swiftly followed by Daithí, who caught sight of the bandit sprinting into a nearby alleyway. Leaving Cillian somewhere behind him in his haste, Daithí ran after the fleeing bandit and into the darkness of the alleyway, only for a strong pair of hands to grab him by the shoulder and arm, wheeling him around and slamming him against the wall of the tavern.
“Try anything funny, mage, and I’ll yank this arm right out of its socket.”
Daithí recognised the snarl of the man who had addressed them in the forest. He had rather been hoping that Cillian would have made a dashing and heroic entrance by now. Panic clutched Daithí’s stomach as he realised that, in his haste to chase down the runaway bandit, he might have moved more than twenty paces away from Cillian, and the paladin’s lifeless body could have collapsed inside the tavern somewhere. But that panic died away just as soon as it had blossomed to life upon hearing a heavy set of footsteps approaching.
“Don’t move!” Aodhán snarled. “Come any closer and I’ll make your little boyfriend wish he were–”
He broke off in a strangled yell as the alleyway was illuminated momentarily by a surge of light that erupted from Daithí’s free hand, searing the bandit’s side as he had been temporarily distracted by Cillian’s arrival. Aodhán swore in pain, hands instinctively loosening their grip on Daithí, who ducked out of the way. He heard Aodhán lunge for him again, followed at once by a heavy thud as Cillian’s fist impacted with the bandit’s gut. Daithí reached for the helmet and pulled it free, tossing it away and hearing the clattering of metal as it rolled away down the alley, just as there was a sickening crashing noise as Cillian rammed his fist into Aodhán’s face. The bandit’s body went slack, and Cillian caught him before his legs gave out.
“Sorry for the delay,” Cillian grunted.
“It was my fault,” Daithí told him. “I shouldn’t have run off on you like that.”
“You’re forgiven. Now, come on – I might need a hand with this…”
Together, they dragged Aodhán’s stunned body down the alleyway and further into the darkness – away from prying eyes. Cillian propped him up against the wall as Daithí let a spark of magic run through the bandit, jolting him back into alertness. Aodhán bared his teeth impotently as he glanced back and forth between the two men, settling on Cillian after a few moments.
“You’re supposed to be dead, big man,” Aodhán spat.
“Do I look dead to you?”
“I saw that arrow pierce your throat. You were bleeding out when we left you. No healer could have kept you alive after that.”
“Lucky for him, I know how to reanimate the dead.” Daithí waved his hand and allowed a flicker of light to glimmer between his fingers.
“Don’t bullshit me!” Aodhán snarled.
“It’s nothing of the sort. You said so yourself – by all rights, my beloved companion here should be dead. And yet, here he stands, filled with fury and a need for vengeance.”
The bandit grit his teeth, but the fight was quickly draining out of him. “I wasn’t the one who killed you! It was Colm – Colm Autumnreach! I-I can show you where he lives, if you let me go…?”
Cillian shoved him hard against the wall. “You coward! Don’t try to weasel your way out of this by foisting the blame on one of your men!”
“This doesn’t have to be difficult, Aodhán,” Daithí told him. “All you have to do is answer some questions for us. Then we’ll let you run away with your tail between your legs. Otherwise, Cillian here will put you to the sword and we’ll hear the truth from the mouth of your corpse, instead. So, what will it be?”
Silence filled the air as the fight slowly drained from Aodhán’s body. “What do you want to know?” he asked in a low voice.
“The amulet,” Daithí said. “Where is it?”
Aodhán’s jaw clenched. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not good enough.” Daithí ran another pulse of light through his hand, which Aodhán cringed away from.
“I don’t know because I sold it, alright?! Gave it away just yesterday!”
“To who?” Cillian demanded.
“The same man who hired us in the first place! He told us to do it – said there’d be two men passing through the Shrouded Forest and heading towards Treestop on that day. Gave us your description and all. Paid through the nose once we handed the bloody thing over.”
“What did he want with my amulet?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. Didn’t care, once I had the coin.”
“What was his name?” Daithí urged him.
“I…I don’t remember.”
Daithí sighed. “You’re trying my patience, Aodhán.”
“I don’t, I swear!” The bandit grimaced as he eyed the light playing between Daithí’s fingers. “Frostfield! Something Frostfield! Tall fella – ginger hair, green eyes, carried a bow with him.”
Daithi stiffened, but it was Cillian who asked the damning question.
“Was his name ‘Éanna’?”
“Y-Yeah, I think so. He acted like he knew the pair of you.”
“…You could say that.”
Daithi spoke up, trying to hide the tremor in his voice. “Where is he now?”
“Not in Treestop. He left town as soon as we handed the amulet over to him – left through the western gate. If he was travelling in that direction, he’s probably in Boulderfield by now.”
Cillian exhaled through his nose, before releasing his hold on Aodhán and letting him drop to the ground. “Get out of here. Don’t let us catch sight or you or any of your thieving friends around here again. Understood?”
Aodhán nodded, picking himself up and limping away down the alleyway and into the street, leaving Daithí and Cillian alone in the dark.
The tavern room that they booked was barely large enough to allow room for pacing, but Daithí managed it anyway – passing by the door, the bed, the limp flower in its aging vase, then reaching the wall and turning around to go back the way he came. He could feel Cillian’s eyes watching him from the bed, could feel the pity and concern radiating from him in waves.
Eventually, the paladin said, “Daithí, I know how you feel, but there’s no use getting yourself worked up like this.”
“How can I not get worked up?!” Daithí whirled on him. “Why are you being so calm about this?”
“You think I’m being calm?” Cillian’s eyes were hard as ice. “I’m furious. I can’t believe he would do this to us – on top of everything else he put us through. But, right now, there isn’t anything we can do. You need to rest.”
“How in the name of all the gods can I rest at a time like this? We should be…should be out on the road already heading west, on his trail!”
“In the middle of the night?”
“I can light the way,” Daithí said, lighting his hands up with magic, shadows dancing over his face. “We don’t need to wait around.”
“Daithí, listen to yourself. Boulderfield is miles and miles away – more than we could cover on foot in a single night. You couldn’t use your magic constantly for that long; it would exhaust you. And, truth be told, you’re already tired enough as it is.”
Daithí ground his teeth, unwilling to admit aloud that Cillian was right, as usual. The past few days had taken their toll on him, both physically and mentally. He needed rest. But he couldn’t afford it.
“I wish I were stronger,” Daithí said. “If I were, then none of this would have ever happened. You’d still be alive – fully alive – and you’d still have your amulet.”
“Please don’t start blaming yourself for this, honey. Even if you’d been able to stop those bandits from putting an arrow through me, what then? Éanna would’ve just sent another group after us.”
“Then I’d stop them, too,” Daithí insisted. “I’ll never let anybody take you away from me.”
The room flickered with light once again, Daithí’s rage lending power to his magic. The silhouette in the bed resolved itself into Cillian’s naked form, before growing dark again as the light dimmed.
“You’re not invincible, Daithí. Nobody is. Even the lightwakers of old were stopped eventually.”
“The lightwakers…” Daithí shook his head. “I can’t believe the academy just…hid all that knowledge away. If I knew more about lightwaking, maybe I could do more than just flail around with my magic.”
“Honey, that magic was forbidden for a reason,” Cillian reminded him. “It started a war – one between the living and the dead. I don’t want anything like that to happen ever again.”
“But surely just covering all that up isn’t the solution! If the history of the War of Light was common knowledge, steps could be taken to ensure it doesn’t repeat itself. Lightwaking could be used for the good of all Vhastia. But instead, it’s kept hidden by the powers that be.”
Daithí passed by the withering flower yet again, and this time halted beside it as a thought occurred to him. He turned to face the vase, eyeing the sad little plant within – some sort of wildflower, likely plucked from the forest some time ago and left to wilt here in this tiny room in the Hoary Oak. Daithí flexed his fingers, and the flower’s stalk seemed to bulge, like it was filling up. He channelled more magic into it, and it began to straighten out, as though a puppeteer were pulling on invisible strings.
Within seconds, the flower stood upright in the vase, looking for all the world like it had been freshly plucked, the once-lifeless petals blooming filling with colour. Daithí cast a glance over his shoulder to see Cillian watching the flower nervously, a frown pushing his brows closer together.
“Just think of all the good that could be done,” Daithí said to him, gesturing towards the flower as he continued fuelling it with light. “Farmers would have no fear of failed crops. Families could bid their loved ones a proper farewell before they pass on.” This was why he’d wanted to study at the academy in the first place – so that he could use his magic to help the people who needed it.
Daithí’s hand twisted, and the flower trembled as though caught in a breeze. Its stalk split as another shoot emerged, growing steadily before their eyes. The new stalk peeled open to reveal another flower – just as vibrant and beautiful as the first. More light flooded into the plant, and soon another shoot was growing. The vase rumbled, and Daithí noticed something creeping over the lip of the vase – roots, slithering out of the vase as they searched for soil. Another shoot appeared, and the flower quivered as more light coursed through it.
“Daithí,” Cillian’s voice sounded almost fearful. “Stop it. This isn’t right.”
Daithí almost rolled his eyes at his lover’s hesitance, but did as he was told all the same, relinquishing the spell and allowing the light to cease. At once, the plants began to shrivel, and Daithí took a step back in alarm as all of the flowers wilted, roots curling up like the legs of a dying spider. The stalk deflated as it rotted away, sinking into the vase and vanishing from sight. Daithí’s hands fell limply to his sides as the scent of decay reached him.
“Some things are meant to stay dead,” Cillian said. “I think the art of lightwaking might be one of them.”
Daithí studied his fingers, but didn’t allow them to glimmer with magic this time. He wasn’t entirely convinced, still, but he was called out of his thoughts by a knock on the bedroom door. Cillian shrank back under the covers to preserve his modesty as Daithí moved to the door, pulling it open to reveal a familiar face standing in the doorway.
“I thought I heard your voice as I was passing by,” Aoife Treestop said, giving Daithí a smile as he stepped out into the hallway, shutting the door behind him. “Everything all right?”
“…Not exactly,” Daithí admitted.
“Don’t tell me he got away from you?”
“Who…? Oh, no, he didn’t. Don’t worry. Problem is, he didn’t have what we were looking for.”
“Shit. Sorry to hear that. Do you know who does have it?”
Aoife huffed a quiet laugh, evidently having caught the weary note in Daithí’s voice. “Long story?”
“Something like that.”
“I don’t need to hear all the details, don’t worry. I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”
“Me too, Aoife.”
“So, what’s the next step? You leaving Treestop?”
“Yeah, for Boulderfield – tomorrow morning, most likely.”
“Is that so?” Aoife tilted her head as she considered something. “You know, I’ve a good friend who’ll be heading that way tomorrow. She’s a courier – transports cargo from town to town. She’s got a wagon and she usually lets people hitch a ride, so long as they can pay.”
“We can,” Daithí assured her. “Will you put us in contact with her?”
“No problem. Go down to the western gate before noon and look for a tall woman with an eyepatch who answers to the name ‘Bláithín’. I’ll let her know you’re coming ahead of time.”
“Thank you,” Daithí said, sincere relief flooding his voice. “How can I ever make it up to you?”
Aoife cocked her head and gave him a smirk. “I can think of a few ways.”
Daithí’s heart pounded in his ears. “Oh…? Ah, well…”
She chuckled. “Ah, don’t worry. I’m not looking for favours or anything like that. The offer’s open, of course, but I’ll contact Bláithín tomorrow even if you turn me down.”
On any other night, Daithí would have been more than happy to spend some time alone with a beautiful woman in the privacy of her bedroom. But his current situation prevented him from leaving Cillian by himself, and the day’s events had thoroughly killed off whatever desire he might have had to have a quick tryst with a stranger.
Aoife smiled at him again. “Not to worry. I might see you tomorrow, before you leave.”
He watched her walk away down the corridor, only slipping back into the room once she turned the corner and vanished from sight. Trying not to feel too disappointed with what might have been, Daithí slipped out of his clothes and clambered into bed, planting a warm kiss on Cillian’s cheek as they cosied up to one another.
“She’s very beautiful, you know,” Cillian murmured to him, earning a quiet laugh from Daithí in response.
“She is. But, more importantly, I’ve got good news about our journey to Boulderfield tomorrow…”
Daithí’s dreams were filled with Éanna’s face – his mocking smile as familiar as it was cruel. He dreamt of shared moments in their tent, three voices mingling together, crying out as one in pleasure and passion. He dreamt of snide comments and sneers, of the nights he’d spent sobbing into Cillian’s chest after yet another fight had broken out. And he dreamt of thin, calloused fingers slipping between his own, of whispered promises that had always been hollow and meaningless.
Daithi blinked his eyes open to see Cillian’s face in front of his own. His blue eyes, flickering sleepily as Cillian awoke in turn, filled Daithí’s vision. They had fallen asleep entwined together and clearly had largely remained as such through the night, judging by the pleasant stiffness Daithí felt in his body.
“Morning, honey,” Cillian mumbled, planting a soft kiss on Daithí’s cheek. “How did you sleep?”
“Not well. I had a dream about, well, himself.”
“You too?” Cillian grimaced. “Somehow, I’m not surprised.”
“Even in our sleep, we can’t get rid of him,” Daithí complained. “I’m so fed up. The sooner we find him and put a stop to all of this, the better.”
“Sweetheart, I wish it was that simple. But we both know that even if Éanna was out of our lives for good, you’d still keep thinking about him. Your thoughts can’t help focusing on your negative memories.”
Daithí ground his teeth. Sometimes, he thought Cillian knew him a little bit too well. “You’re right, of course.” He sighed. “I hate feeling like this.”
Cillian pulled him in tighter against his body. “Would you like me to help take your mind off it?”
They had awoken early in the morning, and they weren’t due to meet Aoife’s friend Bláithín until it was near noon. As such, the two of them had a great deal of time to spend ‘taking their mind off things’ – more than enough time for them to make love in bed, find their way to the bathroom where they shared a proper bath together for the first time in recent memory, grind against one another until the water turned lukewarm against their bare skin, before toppling back into bed and losing themselves in each other’s touch yet again. In fact, by the time they finally staggered out of their room, the sun had risen quite high in the summer sky, and they had to race to find a quick bite to eat before making their way to the western gate in search of the courier.
Fortunately, the woman named Bláithín proved remarkably easy to spot: a towering individual with a shaved head and arms rippling with muscle and sinew leaned against a wagon that was resting just inside the town entrance. The eyepatch Aoife had mentioned covered her left socket, but failed to hide the deadly-looking scars that likely marked the wound that had taken the eye out. She spotted them shortly after they had noticed her, a single brown eye locking onto them as they approached.
“Daithí Riverfall and Cillian Coldlake?” she asked in a low, rumbling voice.
“That’s us. I take it you’re Bláithín?”
“You guessed it.” She held a hand out, palm facing expectantly upwards. “I take payments in advance. One gold coin for each passenger, or you’re walking to Boulderfield.”
“Not a problem,” Daithí assured her as he fished around in his coinpurse (trying not to wince as he felt hardly any coins nudging against his fingers), withdrawing a pair of golden coins before handing them over. That eye scanned the coins for a brief moment before she pocketed them.
“All right. We’re leaving in ten minutes. Get in the back.”
And with that, Bláithín began setting out preparing for the journey, seeing to the horses and checking provisions. Daithí caught Cillian’s gaze as they shared a shrug, before doing as they’d been bidden and clambering inside the wagon.
A few hours later, Daithí was beginning to wonder whether taking the journey on foot would have been preferable after all; the road to Boulderfield was long and well-worn – a fact that Daithí couldn’t help noticing as the wagon passed over yet another dip in the road, jostling the cargo and passengers for the umpteenth time.
“Travelling in style,” he muttered, “as usual.”
“Don’t complain,” Cillian chided him. “We were lucky to get transport to Boulderfield on such short notice. We ought to be grateful.”
Daithí hummed a sigh as he leaned back against the cargo behind him, trying his best to ignore the way the hard wooden boxes dug into his back. “I suppose it’s better than walking through the night.”
“So glad you’ve seen sense at last.”
Daithí mimed a kick at his lover. “Don’t be cheeky, you. That’s my job.”
“Maybe you’re rubbing off on me?”
“Gods know I’m a bad influence,” Daithí agreed, and Cillian let out a laugh. For a moment, Daithí could almost believe things were back to normal – that the two of them had just finished healing a few sick and injured souls in one hamlet and were now swiftly on their way to another. Back when Cillian’s heart still beat in his chest and Daithí was nothing more than a shadowsoother. It was a brief moment of levity between the two of them, but a brief one nonetheless.
It was Cillian who broke the spell. “What do you think will be waiting for us in Boulderfield?”
“Do you want the best-case scenario, or the worst?”
Daithí considered the question posed. “Éanna’s already gone, has taken the amulet with him, and has left another group of hired goons lying in wait for us who find us and kill us.”
“And the best?”
“Éanna’s there waiting for us with the amulet and a basket full of puppies, hands them both over with his sincerest apologies, and then I sic the pups on him and they maul him to death before devouring his bloodied corpse.”
“You asked,” Daithí replied with a shrug.
Cillian didn’t seem to appreciate the attempt at humour, given the pensive look on his face. “Do you think we’ll have to fight him?”
“Hopefully not; he’s a little weasel and I know he won’t fight fair. Luckily, I have a few new tricks up my sleeve.”
“What I mean is, can all three of us walk away from this with our lives?”
Daithí was quiet for a moment before he responded, “I don’t plan on murdering him, if that’s what you’re talking about. Not unless he gives us no choice. I might fantasise semi-regularly about mounting his severed head onto a spike and acting out a farcical puppet show with it, but I don’t actually intend on ending his life.” Daithí eyed his lover curiously. “When have you ever known me to want to try and kill somebody who wasn’t immediately trying to kill us? I know you’re afraid of my new magic, but I’m still the same person I’ve always been.”
Cillian met his gaze. “I hope so.”
“Please, don’t start acting like that, honey. If I don’t have you on my side then…” Daithí broke off, taking a calming breath to still his beating heart. “Then who have I got?”
Cillian reached out and took hold of Daithí’s hand with his own. “You still have me, sweetheart, I promise. I’m just worried about you.”
“You’re worried about me?” Daithí snorted. “I’m not the one trapped between life and death at the moment.”
“We’ll fix that, and soon,” Cillian assured him. “But, in the meantime, I don’t want to lose you.”
They passed the rest of the journey in silence.
Whoever had decided that Boulderfield constituted a “town” had been fond of exaggeration, Daithí reflected as the wagon pulled into the settlement. It lacked the walls and gates of Treestop, as well as the rustic charm of Waterwood. The great rocks that gave the place its name dotted the landscape, both dwarfing and outnumbering the tiny buildings. They were either relics of a time when ice had covered most of Vhastia’s plains, or the debris from a mighty battle between the gods and a race of giants (depending on who was offering the explanation). To the denizens of Boulderfield, however, they were simply a fact of life, like rainfall or overwhelming boredom.
The horses’ cantering slowed to a trot before ceasing altogether, and Daithí and Cillian watched as Bláithín clambered off the wagon, giving the side of the vehicle a hard rap with her fist as a signal that it was time for her two passengers to get out, which they eagerly (albeit stiffly) did. Daithí stretched his body out with a grunt as he cast an unimpressed glance around the pitiful excuse for a “square” they had found themselves in.
“At least it won’t be difficult to track him down in a place like this,” he remarked, trying to inject a feeble note of cheer into his voice.
“Provided he’s still here,” Cillian reminded him.
“You know, I miss when you were the one with all the optimism and it was my job to sour the mood.”
Cillian shot him a smile that ever so slightly warmed Daithí’s heart, before stepping away from the wagon as its master approached. Bláithín barely paid them any mind as she began unloading the cargo, but Cillian offered her their thanks all the same.
“Don’t worry about it,” she told him, hefting the boxes out two at a time. “If you see Aoife back in Treestop, tell her we’re even for the moment.”
“We will. Thanks again, Bláithín.”
The courier grunted again, and the two men took that as their cue to bid farewell. Together, they walked through the streets, passing between houses and boulders alike.
Unfortunately, as Daithí was forced to conclude after only a few minutes of walking, his initial assumption might have been more optimistic than even he had thought; the numerous rocks, combined with the narrow buildings, provided a surprising number of nooks and crannies where an individual could hide themself away. What was worse, the sun was beginning to set, and the long, dark shadows cast by the boulders were swallowing the town up. It was impossible to see beyond the street one was currently located in, meaning that it would be difficult to give chase if their target tried to flee.
“I don’t like this place,” Daithí muttered, the vain hope that had visited him earlier having now abandoned him entirely. “It creeps me out.”
“Don’t be so disparaging,” Cillian chided him. “I’m sure it’s not as bleak a place as it looks.”
“The sooner we find him and get that amulet, the better.
“Perhaps we should ask around? Oh, ah, excuse me–”
Cillian managed to catch the attention of a passer-by – who waved the two of them off when Cillian began asking him questions about any strangers who might have passed through recently. Daithí had similar luck with another local, who merely fixed him with a withering look before turning on her heel and marching away again. It took a few more tries before the two of them were eventually able to wheedle some information out of somebody, who pointed them in the direction of a bar called the ‘Sleepy Snail’ and walked away before either Daithí or Cillian could thank him.
“Somehow, I’m not surprised that they didn’t seem to know anything about Éanna,” Cillian remarked set off down the street. “He always did have a tendency to avoid people’s notice whenever he needed to.”
“He’s a sneaky bastard, all right,” Daithí agreed.
“I suppose we can only hope the people at this establishment can tell us more.”
“I get the feeling this ‘establishment’ is more like a dive than a bar. I can’t imagine the locals there will be any more charitable than the ones we just spoke with.”
“Perhaps not, but–”
A shout rang out from somewhere nearby, interrupting Daithí and Cillian’s discussion. The shout was soon followed by another, and the two men took off at a run at once, making for the source of the commotion – or as best they could manage, given the way the sound bounced off the rock faces and echoed around the street. They ducked between buildings and wove their way around boulders until they finally came to a secluded spot that was nestled between a handful of buildings and a large rock, forming a sort of yard. There, they spotted three figures – two of them with their backs to Daithí and Cillian, and one who was facing them.
Daithí’s stomach lurched as he recognised the very man who they had been searching for, briefly becoming overwhelmed by painful memories of his smug smirk and all his snide comments. But Éanna Frostfield wasn’t smirking now – not in the least. His hands were clenched tightly by his sides as he backed away from the two people who were advancing on him. Éanna’s back was to the boulder, and when he took a step back, they moved forward.
“You’ve nowhere to run,” one of the pursuers said – a tall woman with short, black hair and a gruff voice. “You’re not wormling your way out of this one.”
Even from this distance, Daithí could see Éanna’s nervous swallow. Éanna hadn’t noticed either of his former lovers, although Daithí and Cillian hugged the wall of the nearby building to avoid detection all the same. Éanna opened his mouth to speak, and Daithí was surprised to hear his voice tremble.
“No,” Éanna said. “Of course not. Why would I–?”
“Don’t fucking try to play nice with us!” The other person – this one a short man with shoulder-length hair, blond strands dirtied with grime – spoke up. “You wasted enough time! Now, pay up!”
“Now, Daragh,” the woman chided her partner without turning her head from Éanna, “there’s no need to get so aggravated. I’m sure our friend here has an excellent reason as to why he’s neglected to pay his debts. So, let’s hear it.”
Daithí could hear her smile in her tone, but her words were razor-sharp.
“It’s a long story,” Éanna said.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” the woman replied in that same sweetly vicious tone.
“I…I will have the money, I promise you. Just give me, ah, a few more days. Maybe a week.”
“A week?!” the man named Daragh snarled. “You expect us to wait a week in this shithole for you?!”
“My friend raises an excellent point,” the woman said. “We came here to carry out a very simple job, and you are making things very complicated for us. If you hand over the gold, we’ll leave you alone and be on our merry way. If not, well…”
“Róisín,” Éanna began, addressing the woman. “May I call you Róisín?”
“You certainly may.”
“Might I ask you a very important question?”
“You certainly might.”
Éanna smiled mirthlessly. “Did your employers tell you who, exactly, you’re dealing with?”
Róisín threw back her head and cackled – a sound which transformed as Éanna’s hand flew upwards and something small and sharp shot from his grasp, becoming a strangled choke. She toppled to her knees, clutching at her throat before falling to the ground, spasming slightly as blood began to pool around her. Daragh roared, drawing a wicked-looking blade from his hip, but Éanna was too fast. He crossed the clearing in a second and swung, another knife clutched between his fingers, and Daithí watched as Daragh collapsed to the ground just as his partner had done, leaking crimson.
Éanna withdrew his blade from Róisín’s throat, wiping it clean on her clothes while doing the same with the knife he still held in his other hand. He was breathing lightly, but his jaw was clenched tight, and his head snapped up in alarm when Daithi called out to him.
“Friends of yours?”
Éanna blinked once in surprise as his two former lovers stepped into the clearing, doing their best to avoid the puddle of blood as it rapidly spread across the ground. His eyes locked on Cillian, brow creasing in confusion.
“They told me you were dead,” Éanna said in disbelief.
“I was,” Cillian said, his glare as pointed as his tone. “Now I’m not.”
Éanna’s eyes darted back and forth between them. “What do you want from me, then? An apology? Revenge? I never wanted either of you to get hurt–”
“Well, fuck me,” Daithí declared in a loud voice. “Did you hear that, Cillian? He never wanted us to get hurt! Maybe he should have thought of that before he sent a group of vicious bandits after us?”
“I just wanted the amulet,” Éanna said, almost pleadingly. “That’s all. What happened to you was…a mistake.”
“‘A mistake’,” Daithí repeated with a scoff. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve caused us?”
“How did you even know where we would be?” Cillian asked. “That day, in the forest, the bandits were able to track us down because they knew we’d be travelling to Treestop. How did you know?”
Éanna’s eyes dropped to the ground, and realisation hit Daithí along with a fresh burst of anger.
“Have you been spying on us?” Daithí demanded.
Éanna flinched. “Just…keeping tabs, that’s all.”
“Gods above,” Daithí snarled. “Even when we sent you packing, you still needed to try to watch and control us as much as possible. You’re despicable.”
“That’s not it!” Éanna snapped, anger crossing his expression now, too. “I just…I needed that amulet.”
“Why?” Cillian asked.
“I…I have a lot of debts, lads. Too many.” He nodded towards the fresh corpses lying nearby. “You can see what it’s costing me. I can’t stay in one place for too long, or they’ll track me down. They won’t stop until they get what they want. I thought there was no way out, until…” He licked his lips. “I found someone with too much money and not enough sense – someone who was willing to pay through the nose for rare items and artefacts. Including paladins’ amulets.”
Cillian shook his head. “There are as many paladins in Vhastia as there are birds in the sky. You could have taken one from any of them, but instead you decided to track us down and steal mine.”
“Because I know you!” Éanna protested. “I know your habits, and I know where you like to go and what paths you like to take. You were the easiest paladin for me to find.”
“And you wanted payback,” Daithí pressed him. “For having the temerity to show you the disrespect you deserve.”
Éanna’s jaw clenched. “I know what you might think, but it really wasn’t personal.”
Daithí snapped,. “Are you fucking serious?! Cillian died because of you! On top of all the other hardship you put us through! How can you say that ‘wasn’t personal’?!”
But Daithí had heard enough, and clearly Cillian felt the same.
“Give us back the amulet, Éanna,” Cillian said.
“You don’t have a choice,” Daithí assured him, and waved a glowing hand.
Éanna frowned at the sight of the unfamiliar magic, and tried to take a step backwards, only to find that he couldn’t: his foot refused to budge. A glance downward made his expression twist in horror as he saw a bloody hand gripping him by the ankle – a hand belonging to the body that had once been Róisín’s. The corpse’s eyes were burning with the same light that was emanating from Daithí’s hand, its jaw hanging loosely open as it shuffled unnaturally along the ground towards him.
Éanna yelped in fear, lashing out with his free leg to kick the corpse in the face. Several teeth fell rattling to the ground, but the corpse’s blank expression never showed a trace of pain as it reached out with its other hand to take hold of the leg that was trying to fend it off. Caught, Éanna tried to squirm out of the corpse’s grip, only to cry out in terror as another cold pair of arms grabbed him around the neck and shoulders. Daragh’s body had risen unsteadily to its feet, shambling behind Éanna and holding him quite literally in a dead man’s grip. The corpses bent to Daithí’s will, forcing Éanna onto his knees and keeping him still even as he snarled in impotent rage to hide his fear.
“See if you can find the amulet,” Daithí said to Cillian, concentrating on the spell. “I’ll hold him steady.”
Cillian nodded, a hint of wariness still etched on his face as he stepped cautiously over to where the corpses had pinned Éanna. The man tried his best to jerk his head away from Cillian’s hands as he brought them around his neck, but Daragh’s body grabbed onto his head and kept it still as Cillian searched. It didn’t take very long – a conspicuously familiar metal chain was wrapped around Éanna’s neck, hidden beneath the collar of his shirt. Cillian undid the clasp and fished out a shining silver pendant with Óralen’s sunburst carved into the metal.
“This is it,” he said, his voice almost reverent with relief. “We found it.”
Cillian immediately straightened, fastening the amulet around his own neck and depositing it beneath his clothes, where it belonged. He was about to move away again when Daithí said, “Wait. Take his knives, too.”
Cillian did as he was told, ignoring Éanna’s glare as he searched his pockets for his knives, pulling out several more than the pair he had used to kill the debt collectors. He took a few steps back and gave Daithí another nod, seemingly satisfied that he had found every last blade. Daithi relaxed, releasing the spell and watching as the twin corpses became limp once more, collapsing to the ground like bloodstained ragdolls. Éanna took a shuddering breath, remaining where he was as the bodies dropped beside him, sweat dampening his face.
“What the hell kind of magic is that?” he hissed. “You could never do anything like that before!”
“People change, Éanna. Maybe you should, too.” Daithí glanced at Cillian. “We should go. I don’t want to spend any more time here.”
Daithí turned away from Éanna and made to depart, moving towards the path that wound between the buildings and led back to the street. He’d been dreading this very confrontation for what felt like months, planning out exactly what he would say when he saw his former lover’s face again. And now that it was over, all he felt was exhausted. There was no catharsis, or even vindictive pleasure at having seen the man he so despised brought so low. It was almost anti-climactic.
A noise from behind – the scuff of a boot on the ground – was his only warning.
He spun around, hands already glowing with magic, but Éanna was too close, hurtling towards him at breakneck speed, teeth bared and eyes wide, his expression filled with hatred.
Daithí’s arms lifted, heart pounding in his ears as panic flared, preparing to let loose the spell that he already knew wouldn’t save him. Light rent the space before him – not the light from his hands, but a glint of the red sky reflected off a sword as it split the air in two, severing Éanna’s grimacing head from his body.
He fell to the ground in two pieces, blood spraying like a fountain, and Daithí gasped both as the reality of what had just happened struck him and as the warm fluid splashed onto him. He caught Cillian’s gaze as the paladin sheathed his sword, his mouth set in a hard, grim line.
“We have to go. Now.”
Daithí nodded numbly, before leaving the grisly scene behind him as he and Cillian ran back out into the street.
They ran for miles without stopping, the town of Boulderfield becoming little more than a cluster of shapes on the horizon, illuminated by the sun as it sank beneath. Daithí was far from what most people might have considered athletic, and so most of their flight was spent with Cillian tugging him along with him as the paladin raced ahead, dragging his lover in his wake. They couldn’t risk staying in Boulderfield – not when the blood on their clothes had yet to dry and three fresh corpses were lying undiscovered behind a set of buildings. The blame for all three deaths would most likely fall on their heads, and neither of the two men fancied their chances explaining their innocence to a town of people so disinclined towards strangers.
Then again, Daithí considered as his legs pelted the ground, “innocence” was perhaps not the best word to describe them. After all, Cillian had been the one to kill Éanna, albeit for the sake of saving Daithí’s life. It was a justifiable murder, but a murder all the same. And so they ran, and ran, and ran – pushing all thoughts aside for the time being.
Night had long since fallen by the time they came across a narrow stream in the middle of the plains northeast of Boulderfield, and they finally came to a stop, legs aching from the exertion. They wearily set up camp in silence, stripping off their bloodied clothes and washing them in the water as best they could in the dark. They set the wet clothes out to dry as they clambered, exhausted, into bed. Their tired bodies made them forego their usual late-night activities, and Daithí instead snuggled up against his lover, shut his eyes and tried to sleep.
But he couldn’t. And, judging by the lack of heavy breathing coming from Cillian, neither could he.
“Are you all right?” Daithí eventually asked, his voice barely a whisper.
Cillian was quiet for several, long moments before he answered. “He wasn’t the first person I’ve killed.”
“That’s not what I asked you, honey.”
When Cillian didn’t reply, Daithí lifted up a hand to gently cup his lover’s face.
“It’s okay if you’re upset by what happened. I understand.”
“That’s just it,” Cillian said. “I…I’m not upset at all. I’m glad he’s dead. And I’m glad I did it.”
“And that bothers you,” Daithí realised. “You think it’s wrong to feel that way?”
“Isn’t it? I cared about him a lot, Daithí – once upon a time, at least. I might even have loved him. Even after I realised he was just using us, I couldn’t fully change the way I felt. But now, all I feel is…cold. Cold and angry. He tried to kill you, right before my eyes.” Cillian’s voice had grown louder, until it became a strangled whisper. “I hate him.”
“I hate him, too, sweetheart. But he’s gone, now. We’ll never have to worry about him ever again.”
“I was afraid this would happen, you know.”
Daithi recalled their conversation on their way to Boulderfield. Less than thirteen hours ago. A lifetime ago. “I remember.”
“I had been afraid that your new magic would change you. But maybe I should have been more afraid of myself.”
“Listen, sweetheart, do you remember the story of Volanan and the two brothers?”
It had been one of the few tales of the Faith and its pantheon that Daithí had actually enjoyed while growing up – largely for the interpersonal drama. The story told of a pair of mortals who had fallen in love with the God of War and the Land, and how he had returned their feelings in kind. But one mortal grew jealous of the love between his brother and Volanan, for he desired the Bringer of Conflict and Plenty all to himself. He made to strike his brother down, only for the soil itself to swallow him like a beast devouring its prey. The surviving brother was grateful to Volanan for saving his life, and lived out the rest of his days as one of His most beloved.
Cillian grunted, but Daithí could hear the fond smile in his voice all the same. “I was the one who told you that story, Daithí.”
“My point is,” Daithí went on, “Volanan didn’t feel sorry for the brother He had killed. Perhaps He regretted what might have been, yes, but He regretted not the action He took. He saved the other brother’s life, and the two of them lived happily in love for the remainder of his mortal life.” Daithí brushed his lips against Cillian’s. “You’re not a bad person because you don’t feel sorry for saving my life.”
“I’m not Volanan,” Cillian said softly. “I’m just…well, me.”
“And I wouldn’t have you any other way, honey.”
Cillian sighed and wrapped his arms around him. “I know, Daithí, I know. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Daithí didn’t know if he had succeeded in easing his lover’s doubts and worries. Perhaps he never could – not fully, at least. But, before long, Cillian’s gentle snores reached his ears, and Daithí was glad to know he had done the best he could.
The next morning, they set off once again – continuing northeast in the direction of Waterwood, deciding to bypass Treestop and head directly to the temple. It was a long day of travel, passing over the wide plains without a road beneath their feet or a wagon to speed them on their way. By the time they reached their destination, the sky was already turning dark. Daithí and Cillian strode through the quiet town once again, making their way towards the great temple, where their friend awaited them. They found Manus in the main hall this time, kneeling before the mighty statue of his patron deity. He glanced over his shoulder at their approach, before getting to his feet as his eyes widened in surprise.
“You’re here,” he said. “Already. Did you find the amulet?”
Cillian tugged at the chain around his neck. “We did, indeed.”
Manus’ stunned expression relaxed into a relieved smile. “Excellent. Well, I suppose we’d better perform the ritual as soon as possible. Follow me.”
He led them into the eastern wing, bringing them through the winding halls until they reached his private chambers once again. Manus lit a few candles to brighten up the room as the two visitors unloaded their supplies.
“So, what does this ritual entail, exactly?” Daithí asked. “I can’t imagine it involves blood sacrifice, though I’ll try anything once, I suppose.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Manus assured them. “I did as much research as I could into the matter. Unfortunately, the details are somewhat vague – as much of the records on the War of Light and its immediate aftermath are. But what I did discover is this: in order to release a lightwaker revenant from their state of undeath, magic both divine and arcane must be channelled into their body.”
“That’s why we need the amulet,” Cillian said as he nodded in understanding.
“Yes. We can use your amulet, not just to draw on Óralen’s divine power, but also as a focus to channel the magic into you through.” Manus turned to face the mage. “Daithí, you’ll need to use your own magic, as well – for the arcane part of the ritual.”
Daithí snorted. “Never thought I’d hear you, of all people, asking for arcane magic.”
“It’s to save Cillian’s life,” Manus reminded him, irritation creasing his brow. “I wouldn’t ask, otherwise.”
“Right, right. Point taken. But when you say that the ritual will ‘release’ Cillian from undeath, does that mean he’ll definitely be alive afterwards?”
Manus grimaced. “I really can’t say for sure. I read as much as I could on the subject, but the only real clue I could find was something about a ‘beating heart’ being the key to restoring life.”
Daithi’s stomach flipped. “Wait, does that mean…?”
“If my heart is beating, and you channel magic into me, I’ll be brought back to life?”
Manus nodded. “As far as I can tell, yes. Certainly, it would mean the ritual would be more likely to succeed. The problem is, I have no idea how we might get your heart started again.”
Cillian caught Daithí’s eye. “We…might have a solution to that particular problem,” Daithí said.
“Oh? Don’t tell me your heart is already beating?”
Cillian swallowed, his face suddenly tinged with pink. “It’s not – not at the moment, at least…”
“But we know how to get it beating again,” Daithí told him, the idea forming in his mind’s eye like a rather enticing dream.
“Then, tell me,” Manus insisted. “What does it take?”
Cillian’s mouth opened, but no sound emerged. Daithí sighed.
“We discovered that Cillian’s heart starts beating again every time we make love,” he explained, feeling heat flooding into his own face in turn. “I think it might be because our bodies are brought so close together; if my magic is keeping Cillian’s body moving, then the closer in proximity he is to me, the stronger the magic should be.”
Daithí had been half-expecting Manus to become flustered upon realising just what form this ritual would need to take. But he merely nodded thoughtfully, and said, “Yes, that would make sense. Of course, if that was the case, then Cillian moving too far away from you would cause his body to cease functioning altogether.”
Manus, Daithí remembered, was a cleric of Elerath, after all; it made sense for a devotee of the God of Love and Waters to be so comfortable around sex – physical intimacy was quite often a form of worshipping Him.
“It does,” Cillian muttered, a touch shamefacedly. “I haven’t been able to move more than twenty paces or so away from Daithí since this all began.”
“Not that you’d ever want to,” Daithí teased, prompting Cillian to blush harder still.
“Then it seems we’ve found a solution,” Manus declared. “The two of you will need to join your bodies under the sight of Elerath, the Master of Peace and Desire. Fortunately, I have a shrine to Him right here.” Manus gestured towards the statue by the wall. “When Cillian’s heart begins beating again, you’ll need to channel your magic through his amulet, and he must call upon Óralen in turn.”
“But won’t you need to be a part of this ritual, too?” Cillian asked tentatively.
Manus cleared his throat. “W-Well, I suppose I would, yes. So long as you were both comfortable with…everything.”
“I promised that I would do whatever it takes,” Cillian said. “And Manus…there’s nobody else I’d rather have do this with us than you.”
Now it was the cleric’s turn to blush, much to Daithí’s surprise. Perhaps Manus had a bashful side after all?
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Daithí couldn’t help but grin. “So, how would you like us to go about doing this? All at once, or would you like me and Cillian to get things started?”
Manus met Daithí’s gaze for a moment, before quickly glancing away. “Ah, well, I suppose…just do whatever feels natural to you both. You could pretend I’m not here, if it makes you feel more comfortable?”
“That’s not nearly as fun,” Daithí assured him, as he began to remove his clothes. Cillian joined him, slipping out of his armour and stepping in close to his lover, who closed the gap between their mouths with a hungry kiss, which Cillian returned. They kicked off their boots, making their way towards the bed, which Daithí lowered himself to as Cillian bore down on top of him. They wrestled one another out of their remaining clothes, and Daithí eagerly ran his hands down the paladin’s naked body, feeling the taut muscle beneath his skin. Cillian straddled him, still joined to Daithí at the lips, only breaking away from him to groan as Daithí manoeuvred his cock to slip between Cillian’s buttocks, the hardened head rubbing gently against his hole.
“Mmm,” the mage murmured, humming with delight at the way his lover trembled against him. “You like that?”
“Yes,” Cillian breathed.
The paladin’s eyes flickered off to the side momentarily, and Daithí caught his meaning. “I’m sure our friend won’t mind too much.” He craned his neck to look past Cillian’s form, spying the cleric still standing some distance from the bed. “Isn’t that right, Manus?”
He was staring at the two lovers atop the bed with barely disguised interest, mouth hanging slightly agape. But something seemed to be holding Manus back – maybe the awkwardness between himself and Cillian, after everything that had happened between them long ago? Clearly, it was up to Daithí to try and break the ice.
As Manus watched, Daithí took hold of Cillian’s asscheeks with each hand, pushing them firmly apart and pushing his hips upwards, determinedly pressing his cock against Cillian’s entrance, making him sob with need. Manus let out a sharp breath.
“No need to keep your distance,” Daithí told him, shooting the cleric a grin. “Cillian loves to be shared.”
Daithí watched as Manus nodded, swallowing deeply before tugging at his robes as he began to remove them. What little clothing Manus had on beneath his robes was quickly discarded, and he stepped calmly towards the bed, the mage’s eyes never leaving him.
Manus’ body, unclothed, put Daithí in mind of the great statue of his patron deity out in the main hall – broad thighs and chest, coupled with wide hips and waist. He had a large pair of breasts that his robe had previously concealed, along with a great deal of thick, dark hair that covered most of his arms, legs, and belly. A trail of hair led down from his navel to the gap between his thighs, where Daithí could see a nub of flesh just above a narrow parting. Daithí couldn’t look away as Manus clambered onto the bed and crawled over to join them.
“See something you like, Daithí?” he asked.
“Lots,” Daithí replied, still guiding the movement of Cillian’s hips with his hands.
Cillian turned his head upon hearing Manus’ voice, and came face-to-face with the cleric almost at once, blinking in surprise. “H-Hello.”
A smile tugged at Manus’ lips. “Hello, Cillian.”
The tense moment that passed between them both was interrupted when Daithí said, “You should kiss.”
Cillian’s already-flushed face turned a darker shade of scarlet, while Manus snorted. “Does he always tell you what to do in bed like this?”
“Always,” Cillian replied, grinding his hips against Daithí’s. “But, I don’t mind at all…”
They leaned in, slowly and tentatively at first, and then all at once, breathing hard as their mouths crushed together. Cillian lifted his hands from Daithí’s chest to cup Manus’ instead, rubbing his hands against his large nipples, the cleric sighing under his touch.
“I missed this,” Cillian said in between feverish kisses.
“So did I,” Manus replied, one hand fondly stroking Cillian’s hair.
“You didn’t have to stop on my account,” Daithí protested.
“We didn’t, exactly.” Cillian’s eyes fluttered shut, as they always did when he had his hair played with. “We just drifted apart, I suppose?”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Manus said. “All that matters is making sure we bring you back to life.”
“No reason why we can’t all have fun along the way, though.”
Manus quirked an eyebrow at Daithí. “I never said otherwise.”
Daithí grinned at him, and to his delight, Manus lowered himself down to meet him with his lips. Daithí tilted his head to deepen the kiss, grumbling contentedly into the cleric’s mouth, pleasure racing up his spine from the sweet sensation of his cock against Cillian’s hole still. When Manus eventually pulled away, Cillian immediately swooped in to take his place, lips hungering for Daithí’s, who was more than happy with this arrangement.
The three of them slowly moved up the bed until they reached the head, where they clambered under the sheets and let the heat of their bodies swallow them up. After that, it became more and more difficult to tell one another’s touches apart. Daithí thought he could be quite sure most of the time whether his hands were sinking into Cillian’s hard flesh, or into Manus’ soft flesh, but it wasn’t always so simple. Three pairs of legs tangled together beneath the sheets, soft cries of pleasure mixed and mingled in the otherwise-silent chamber, and mouths hungered for one another without a care of precisely whose lips they found.
The goal of their union was, of course, to make Cillian’s heart begin beating again, but neither Daithí nor Manus were opposed to the blissful minutes where one of them became the centre of attention instead. Manus, in particular, proved remarkably easy to please, and both Cillian and Daithí were more than eager to do so, with their lips, tongues, fingers, and more – relishing when the cleric’s gasps of pleasure pitched up and became breathless moans of rapture, his large legs squeezing whosoever was lucky enough to find himself between them.
Time slunk slowly past the three of them as they whiled it away in the bed. Sweat made their skin stick together like glue, the heat becoming almost unbearable as their bodies moved as one beneath the sheets. Daithí’s hand slipped out of somebody’s slick hand, moving over bare, damp skin in search of a rhythm – one he found at last when his fingers cupped a firm chest.
“Cillian!” he gasped. “I…I think now’s the time…!”
“Understood,” Manus hissed, his own hand slithering around Cillian to take hold of the amulet still dangling around his neck. “Join your hands with mine, both of you!”
They positioned themselves so that Cillian was lying between them, Manus at his back and Daithí against his front, their bodies grinding together as they shared in the pleasure. Daithí’s hand found Manus’ clasped over the amulet, and Cillian’s closed over his, squeezing it tight. Together, Cillian and Manus began to pray – whispered devotions to their respective deities.
“Ohhh, Óralen!” Cillian cried out his patron’s name as though it were that of a lover and not the God of the Sun and Skies. “Grant us y-your…your blessing this night!”
Manus’ words, on the other hand, held the firm focus of somebody who had undoubtedly prayed while in the middle of sex before. “Elerath, O Great One, God of Love and Waters, Master of Peace and Desire, Bringer of Floods and Rains, I call upon you now. Lend your divine power to our cause!”
Meanwhile, Daithí, feeling a touch left out despite himself, instead called within himself – to the magic that lay there, at his beck and call as always. At once, his hand began to glow, turning Cillian’s a warm red as the light shone through his flesh. Light blossomed in the darkness under the sheet, illuminating their naked bodies like a torch.
“Praise be to you, O Sacred One!” Cillian whimpered, his hips picking up speed, his cock pressed firmly against Daithí’s body. “Master of Justice–no, Master of Winds and Justice, I call to you!” He let out a heated moan, one that Daithí knew well, and when his lover cried out, “Gods…!” the mage couldn’t tell if it was part of the prayer or simply a declaration of ecstasy.
“I ask of you, Great Elerath, to bless us with your touch,” Manus was saying, his voice ragged but far more even than Cillian’s. “Please…ohh…! We are your humble servants.”
Daithí continued fuelling the amulet with his magic, taking care not to hurt Manus or Cillian in the process. But something unusual was happening – was that a wisp of darkness in the midst of all that light?
This is to save Cillian, he told himself. I need to save him…!
The light sputtered for a moment, briefly becoming a warm wave of shadow before it lit up again. Daithí’s own heart was pounding hard, in time with Cillian’s. The amulet was growing hot: he could feel it even through Manus’ fingers. The three men were all moaning loudly now, pleasure building up inside them like magic – never cresting, only swelling more and more and more. Both Manus and Cillian’s prayers fell apart as they struggled to form coherent sentences, resorting instead to simply chanting the names of the gods, intermingling with passionate cries of the other men in the bed.
All three of them felt it at once – a tremor passing through them all together, pleasure igniting into a raging inferno. The light surging from Daithí guttered and died, replaced by deep, soothing, darkness.
“Oh, gods!” Daithí cried, and then came apart.
Screams filled the chamber as the three men came in unison, pleasure beyond anything they had ever experienced ripping through them like a tidal wave. They all held tight to the amulet like a lifeline as their bodies were lost to the storm of ecstasy, consuming them utterly. Daithí felt warm fluid soaking his abdomen, both from Cillian’s cock and his own, as they pumped out their loads. Their bodies rocked together, riding out every last wave of pleasure, until the three of them were left shuddering together, damp with sweat and sore from exertion. For a time, the only sound to be heard in the room was that of their heavy, laboured breathing.
“What…?” Daithí attempted to ask a question, but the words had trouble leaving his lips. “What just happened?”
“The touch of Elerath…” Manus’ voice was similarly strained. “That was the power of a god flowing through us.”
“Does that happen often, when using divine magic?” Daithí asked, suddenly heavily considering a change in career.
Cillian chuckled weakly. “I’ve certainly never felt anything like that before. Of course, Óralen and Elerath are two very different gods.”
“Sometimes,” Manus said, “when channelling His Will, I feel something akin to what we just experienced. But certainly never so strongly…”
“Can we do it again?” Daithí asked hopefully.
Manus snorted a laugh. “The power of the God of Love and Waters is not something to be called upon for the sake of simple pleasure.” He stiffened, turning to the paladin. “Cillian, what about your heart? Is it still…?”
Daithí started, the divine touch of the Master of Peace and Desire having obliterated most every thought of their actual reason for having sex. The three of them let go of the amulet at last, peeling their fingers away from the warm metal and fumbling for Cillian’s chest. It wasn’t difficult to find the still-quickened rhythm of his heart pounding against his ribs, and all three of them fell silent once more as they listened closely.
Daithí’s own heart was in his mouth, anxiety gripping him like a vice as he dreaded the inevitable moment when Cillian’s heart would slow all the way down to a weak thrum, before vanishing altogether. Indeed, after a few dozen seconds, the heartbeat did begin to decelerate, but not nearly as fast as it had done before. And it merely slowed down until it reached a steady tempo once again, and there it stayed, beating proudly as a drum in Cillian’s chest.
“I think we did it,” Daithí murmured in disbelief.
“How do you feel?” Manus asked, after a moment of stunned silence blossomed between them.
Cillian opened his mouth, then paused, as he considered how best to answer the question. Eventually, he said, “Hungry.”
Daithí threw his arms around him. “It worked! He’s alive!”
“Thank the gods,” Manus said, sighing with relief as he turned over to lie on his back, staring up at the ceiling. “We did it!”
“Don’t forget to thank me, too,” Daithí muttered, unable to even feign offence. “I helped.”
Manus propped himself up on one elbow and fixed Daithi with a proud smile. “Yes, you did. Thank you, Daithí.”
“We couldn’t have done it without you,” Cillian said with such earnestness that it made Daithí’s face grow warm.
Daithí buried his head in the hollow between Cillian’s neck and shoulder, uncharacteristically embarrassed. “I was only joking, you know.”
“All the same, thank you, Daithí.”
“You’re welcome,” he mumbled, keeping his face hidden and earning laughter from the other two men in response.
“Seriously, though, I’m starving,” Cillian protested, once the laughter had died away. “Is the refectory still open, by any chance?”
Manus chuckled. “I might be able to scrounge something up for a late-night snack. Come on, let’s go.”
The bed shifted beneath them as Manus climbed off of it, making his way over to where he’d discarded his robe and smalls. Cillian made to follow, but the pair of arms wrapped tight around him kept him tethered in place.
“You’ll have to let go of me eventually, honey,” Cillian murmured to his lover, who determinedly shook his head.
“Not a chance,” Daithí said, smiling so much that his face ached. His fingers traced circles on Cillian’s back, wisps of shadow slithering over the bare skin, chased by glimmers of gentle light.
Summer was in full flow in Greenglen, and the trees in the orchards shimmered in the wind, leaves whispering to one another as the pleasant breeze passed through them. But the placid air was suddenly split by a loud snap, swiftly followed by a scream.
The young boy whimpered and sobbed, clutching his leg as he lay on the ground at the foot of the apple tree. The leaves were falling all around him, landing gently against the grass long after he had already hit the ground. Pain pulsed through him with every movement, especially when he attempted to move the leg that was trapped underneath him, so torturously sore that he couldn’t think straight. A helpless wail dragged itself from his throat as he lay on the grass, unable to move as panic began to take hold. He began to imagine himself lying here on the ground, long after dark, still incapable of getting up. He would waste away in this orchard, his cries for help far beyond the earshot of his parents – assuming the pain didn’t kill him first.
He was still weeping when he heard the footsteps. He slowly craned his neck to watch, doing his best not to jostle the injured leg as he glanced over his shoulder to see two men approaching. One of them was dressed in light armour, like a warrior. The other was clad in clothes whose colours seemed to dance in the hazy afternoon light – black and white and black and white. Perhaps the pain was making him woozy.
Daithí Riverfall knelt down by the boy’s side. “Are you alright?”
The boy shook his head tearfully. “No. I…I hurt my leg.”
“He must have fallen from the tree,” Cillian observed, glancing up at the towering apple tree and spying the conspicuously broken branch high off the ground.
“Can you move?”
“No…it hurts too much.” The boy shuddered as a spasm of pain and despair wracked his tiny body. “And I promised my dads that I wouldn’t play in the orchard anymore but I was walking through the field and I started getting really hungry and I thought just a few apples would be okay so I climbed the tree and–” He hiccupped through the tears. “I’m going to get in trouble, amn’t I?”
“Not at all,” Daithí promised him. “In fact, I’ll have you running on home to your dads in just a few minutes, if you’ll let me.”
The boy sniffled, looking up at Daithí with watery eyes. “C-Can you do magic?”
“I sure can,” Daithí replied with a soft smile. “Now, I’m going to fix your leg. I think it might be broken, so this might feel a bit uncomfortable, but I promise it won’t hurt. My name is Daithí. Can I ask yours?”
“Seán,” the boy mumbled in response.
“Seán, I’m going to need you to be brave for me. Is that alright?”
Seán swallowed down another sob, and nodded firmly.
“Good. All right, now just hold still…”
Tendrils of darkness wound their way down from Daithí’s outstretched hands, darting around Seán’s body and wrapping themselves around the leg beneath him.
“We’ll need to straighten out your leg,” Daithí told him. “Seán, will you let Cillian here lift you up a little bit?”
“Will it hurt?”
“Not a bit,” Daithí assured him.
Cillian stepped around behind Seán and crouched down low, grabbing hold of the boy under his arms and lifting him up. “I’ve got him.”
He heaved Seán up off the ground. The boy flinched, only to blink in surprise when, true to Daithí’s word, he felt no pain from his injured leg.
“You seem to have a few other cuts and bruises, too,” Daithí commented, as his magic continued its work. “It’s not safe to be climbing around on tall trees like this.”
“I-I’ve never fallen before!” Seán protested.
“And hopefully you never will, again. But I’m sure there are much smaller trees with plenty of apples for you to take, instead. That way, if you do fall again, you won’t hurt yourself so badly. You could have had a serious problem if we hadn’t come along when we did. Understand?”
Seán nodded, sniffling again.
“Good boy.” Daithí lifted his hands away, dusting his trousers off as he stood and picking a small, red object up off the ground as he did. “Alright, Cillian, will you help him stand up?”
“Up we go.” Cillian hoisted the boy easily to his feet, lowering him gently back down to the ground. Seán gingerly set one foot down, then the other, eyes widening in amazement.
“How does that feel?” Daithí asked.
“It feels fine!” Seán exclaimed. “You saved me! Thank you so much, ah, Daithí!”
“You’re very welcome, Seán. Now remember what I told you, alright?”
Seán nodded solemnly. “No more climbing tall trees.”
“Good boy.” Daithí held out his hand, presenting the child with a slightly bruised apple. “Is this what you were looking for?”
Seán’s face lit up with delight as he snatched the fruit out of Daithí’s hands. “Thanks so much! I have to go now, but thank you!”
The two men watched as the boy sprinted off into the distance, expertly winding his way through the orchard until he vanished from sight.
“Are you sure we should be encouraging young children to be stealing?” Cillian asked him.
Daithí shrugged. “No harm if a handful of apples go missing every now and again. He’s a growing boy.”
Daithí’s foot nudged against something on the ground, and he glanced down to spot a fractured tree branch – likely the one that had collapsed under Seán’s weight and had come crashing down to the ground with him. With a wave of his hand and a flicker of light, the branch floated up into the air, bark pulling itself back together before their eyes as though time itself were being wound backwards. The branch rose higher and higher, until it reached the part of the tree it had broken off from – where it reattached itself with another soft flash of light.
“Besides,” Daithí said, as he dropped his hands, “some crimes aren’t so bad.”
A handful of seconds ticked by as the two men watched the branch nervously, before sharing a sigh of relief.
“I was expecting it to wither away,” Cillian confessed.
“So was I,” Daithí admitted. “I must be getting the hang of this lightwaking business.”
“I’m still not entirely sure that’s something to be proud of.”
“Well, then, I’ll keep working at it until it is,” Daithí said firmly, as they set off again. The bright sunlight cast deep shadows as they passed through the trees, intermittently illuminating and dimming the scintillating black-and-white patterns on Daithí’s jacket. “Besides, it makes my clothes look incredibly trendy. If I’d realised that being a biarcanist would give me a unique colour scheme to work with like this, I might have tried taken up a new discipline sooner.”
Cillian cast a glance sideways at him. “And if the academy catch wind of the fact that you’re combining shadowsoothing with forbidden magic and decide to hunt you down…?”
Daithí grinned at him. “They can try.”
The core relationship in this is really interesting! For me it works like a metaphor for trauma-induced codependence, in a way, and both characters can only grow and move on from that bad patch by processing (and maybe beheading) the source of their strain, forcing themselves out of their comfort zones so they can return to being two people who want to be together, but not like, all the time at 20 paces or less, man. I’ve always liked it when people can use genre fiction to explore messy subjects with a protective layer of thematic Kevlar wrapped around the uglier bits.
I liked how you went for primarily Irish names instead of traditional fantasy keysmash (though it’s not like I don’t use that method, as all the nonsense words that show up in my own stories can attest). It gave the places they were in a cohesive feel, like they’re all parts of a larger shared culture! The thought of Daithí’s robes ending up like a battleship painted in dazzle camo at the end HIGHLY amuses me, too, thank you for that. Hope to see more from you in the future!
I liked the inversion of the traditional fantasy magic colour associations here, as well as the other more subtle rebellions against fantasy tropes (as well as the ones you leaned in to!). A very enjoyable story!