Part 1 of Not Alone
“If we don’t find a way forward soon,” War growls, destroying the last of the partition walls in an almost casual manner, “I’m going to—”
“Blow a gasket?”
Sitting atop a pillar that has somehow survived his frustration—for now—I gaze absently at the expanse of the labyrinth around us. It’s a strange pocket in the Void, both like and unlike the sanctuary Vulgrim has carved out for himself and his guests. This one seems to stretch on forever, and it looks the same in every direction: an endless succession of floating islands, their hexagonal tiles extending vertically to form the walls and pathways of an insanely complicated and, from what we’ve seen so far, completely vacant and pointless maze.
I’ve no idea how long we’ve been here. Time flows strangely in some reaches of the Void and I have the feeling this is one of them. It’s been a long while since we realized we could no longer trace our steps back to the serpent hole that brought us in. In other words, we’re lost.
My bad, really. Should’ve suspected not all is as it seems from the misty turquoise shimmer clinging to all the architecture. I thought I was being smart and all, leaving a trail of bullet holes in the walls to mark our way.
I shake my head, watching War grind the debris to a fine powder with the stomping of his heavy boots.
“What’s the point?” I ask, even though I don’t need to. “You know they’ll regenerate in minutes.”
“It makes me feel better!”
He swings Chaoseater at my pillar. I have a moment to marvel at the fluid power of his move before the stone crumbles on impact, the ensuing shockwave reverberating up my spine and forcing me to jump down. The din alone is enough to make me dizzy.
“Hello? I was sitting there!”
“Doing nothing, as usual.”
“I was thinking. Someone’s gotta do that too, you know.”
He snorts. “Could you at least glimpse something useful from your vantage point? The extent of the labyrinth? Or the glow of the serpent hole?”
“Nope. No end, no hole, no shiny.”
I can actually hear his teeth grating. “Vulgrim will pay for this treachery. Moloch must have bribed him to ensnare us here while he regains his footing.”
“Don’t think so. Vulgrim is wise enough to bet on the winners, and that’s us.” As I speak, the ruined walls at the far end of our island, those that War demolished the earliest, begin to regenerate. First as a turquoise outline, then as a semi-transparent template, and finally to full substance you can scratch with your clawed gloves, riddle with bullets, or break with your sword—just to see it heal again after a short interval.
“I think it’s a puzzle,” I muse on, watching the debris scattered by War’s futile efforts evaporate in wisps of bluish smoke. “And puzzle means treasure. Why else would Moloch hide the portal to this place in his basement?”
“To punish trespassers. Doubtless he laughs now at how easily the Horsemen can be steered from their path by promise of treasure!” He spits the word like some foul obscenity.
It’s a jab at my… less-than-professional conduct during our raid of Mammon’s hoard. A fair one. I feel heat climb up my face. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let him know, and offense is the best defense. I square a hand on my hip and cock my head sideways. “Hey, now. You jumped into that hole faster than I could say wait, let alone whoa there, War, let’s think about this first because it just might be a trap.”
He takes a step forward, clenching the hilt of Chaoseater so hard the rough leather stripes adorning it screech. “You dare blame this on me? When you insisted the entire way to leave no rock unturned despite our haste?”
It takes a conscious effort to ignore his taunt and neither step back nor forward, as every instinct tells me to. The last thing we need right now is a stupid fight. He’s been strangely calm since our excursions in Eden, and for a while there it looked like we were finally starting to get along. Doesn’t look like it anymore.
“C’mon, War.” I spread my arms. “We’ll figure it out. We always do, eventually. And if we chance upon a treasure while at it, maybe it’ll be something useful. Facing Moloch will be no joke and given the cosmic irony of our fates, I wouldn’t be surprised if some silly magical trinket tips the balance in our favor. Besides, we haven’t been here that long. Where does this frustration come from?”
He lets out a disgusted grunt. But just as I conclude my words were in vain, he suddenly deflates and puts his sword away. “The silence bothers me,” he grumbles. “The emptiness. I can hear my thoughts echoed a thousandfold.”
I scratch my head. “Yeah. That does sound pretty bad.”
Even though his face is mostly hidden in the shadow of his cowl, I see his brow furrow. Sigh. I can’t resist being an asshole any more than he can resist being a drama queen.
“C’mon,” I repeat. “Let’s be friends again. I’ll ward off the silence with my gibbering while we think about this together.”
As I say it, it occurs to me that he’s not the only one who’s been unusually quiet since Eden. We haven’t spoken outside combat once after defeating Dagon. What if that is the silence and emptiness he refers to?
“It’s a waste of time,” he grumbles.
“Time doesn’t matter here, and you know it.”
His focus shifts to something behind me. I turn around, and yay! My pillar is regenerating. I bolt up on top of it and offer War a hand. Not that he needs my help; plus, he’s heavy. Fifty stone at least, I swear. But I feel a nice gesture of cooperation is in order.
He glares at me from below.
“C’mon.” I beckon with my fingers. “Maybe you’ll see something I don’t.”
My heart sinks when he snorts and shakes his head. But then he leaps and pulls himself up beside me, ignoring my hand. I use it to clap his back, relieved. “There we go, buddy. I knew you could do it.”
For a minute, we’re silent. War makes a full circle in place, squinting at the hazy distance. I wonder what thoughts would bother him enough to call for wall-crushing. Is it what I suspect it is? I’m not entirely sure I want to know, but when at last he sits down with an irritated sigh, curiosity gets the better of me.
“So… what is it you’re so desperate not to think about?” I ask, settling down next to him. “Can’t be the mission, right. I’m sure you enjoy the clear-cut, goal-oriented nature of this one, at least.”
“No,” he confirms. Then after a while, “Do you really not know?”
Something flips in my stomach. The impulse to rebuff his gravity with some irreverent joke is almost too strong to wrestle down. His right hand balls into a fist when I don’t answer at once. But unlike me, he’s tough enough to weather the tension and remain silent.
“Maybe,” is what I say. “You mean the Lucent Redoubt?”
His jaw muscles flex like he’s chewing on his unspoken words. The pause is long enough that I start to suspect he decided to swallow them after all. But for once, I manage to hold my tongue.
“We agreed to leave the past behind,” he says at last. His voice is weirdly soft, barely above a whisper. “Yet I am reluctant to bury that particular piece of it.”
“Same,” I say before I know I’ll say it—and only a second later realize it’s true. Huh.
He turns to look at me, but I keep my gaze safely directed at the blurry horizon. “It was within sight from Bastion,” he says. “Yet you uttered not a word. I thought you wished it forgotten with all the other memories of that time.”
“Perhaps it’s okay to keep the good ones.”
“Good? It was a slaughter. One of the worst in the entire war.”
“Now who’s pretending not to know what we’re talking about?”
I glance at him sideways in time to see his throat work, up and down and once again, no doubt swallowing some words I’ll never get to hear. Possibly for the best. “I don’t know how to speak of it.”
“Makes two of us, brother.” I notice a fleck of dried blood on my boot and start to scratch it off. Not blood. Something… meaty. Stretchy. Ugh. At least it peels away easy enough. “Do you resent me for it?”
He snorts, but the corner of his lips curls up. “You asked me the same question then. My answer has not changed.”
At first, I can’t remember having such an exchange. And then it comes back to me. Damn.
I gotta clear my throat before speaking again. “I meant rather the uh… silence and emptiness, since.”
“Everything crashed down on us after that. Not many opportunities to talk. And by the time the war was over…”
“You needn’t explain, Strife. I understand.”
“You do? That’s great! You can explain it to me, then. ‘Cause forgetting it seemed the right thing to do up until literally a minute ago, but now I can’t for the life of me figure out why.”
He heaves a long sigh. “You were overcome by grief and guilt. More so than the rest of us, though we were all affected. I only realized it recently myself.” His throat works again in the pause. “You didn’t deem yourself deserving even of such meager support the three of us could provide, being more likely to fight amongst ourselves than to help each other. So, you set yourself apart, to suffer in solitude. As long ago, I too had done.”
I laugh to hide the impact his words had on me. “Damn, War.” Leave it at that. Just leave it alone. Don’t be a dick. Don’t—“If that’s not the longest speech I’ve ever heard from you.”
He nods, jaw clenching. Next thing, he’s gone. Jumped down, landed in a crouch, cracked the ground with the gauntlet, all in an instant, like the strike of the thunder. I swear the entire island shakes. I close my eyes. Damn it all to the Abyss and back.
“War,” I call, but my voice is drowned in the clang and crunch of magic stone under magic steel. He’s back to hacking at the walls. Back where we started.
“War. I’m sorry.”
It doesn’t get to him. Though in all honesty I can’t say I exactly shouted. He makes quick progress clearing the island and I slip down from the pillar before he can dethrone me so rudely again.
In other circumstances, I could watch him swing all day and never get bored. The speed and elegance of his moves and the ridiculous power behind them are hypnotic. Without an intelligent opponent to disrupt his choreography, it’s like a dance. He could do it all day too, and not break a sweat.
I’m sweating, though. I resolve to yell. “War!”
He faces me in mid-motion, blade arrested behind his back. His eyes are alight, the brand on his forehead glowing red and dangerous.
He squints at me, then finishes the interrupted pirouette, slapping me with a wave of hot air that smells of smoke and sweat and horse. My stomach does that thing again as more memories bubble up from the lava pool that is Lucent Redoubt. Missing me by a hair’s width, War strikes down the pillar.
“Listen,” I start before the echoes have cleared.
I face him, bracing for a well-deserved nagging. But what he says makes my eyebrows rise high enough to brush the inside of my helmet.
“I may know of a way to mark our passage through the labyrinth.”
“What—” I shake my head to clear it. “Oh.” Right. The labyrinth. Where we’re stuck, trying to find something, or at the very least, a way out. Somehow, I’ve totally forgotten about that. “What?”
“Shoot here.” He offers his hand.
I shake my head again. “What?”
He makes the ‘gimme’ gesture. “Shoot the gauntlet. You will not harm me.”
And indeed, it’s the giant paw that he has extended. But I’m lagging too far behind. Why would he want me to shoot the gauntlet?
“Before the Tree of Life has withered,” he deadpans.
“’Ight,” I say, pulling Redemption. “As you wish.”
I shoot. There’s a spark, and then the gauntlet closes around it at lightning speed. When War opens it again, the round, all black and wrinkled, rolls around on his palm. So far as I can tell, it has done no damage whatsoever, though one more gouge or scratch on that thing would hardly stand out. War gets down on one knee and gently lays the round on the ground, then gets up again.
We stand there, watching the round. The only sound, apart from our breathing, is the nervous beat of my glove’s claws on Mercy’s holster. Soon I learn what he meant, about thoughts and silence. I can’t take it. “What now?”
“Wait for what?”
He huffs in annoyance but offers no further elaboration. Fair enough. That’s what you get for being a foul-mouthed ass and a shit friend.
The walls begin to regrow. They make no noise, but something happening is so much better than nothing happening. Is this what we’ve been waiting for?
Once everything is solid again, War picks up the round from the floor and shows it to me. “It’s still here. Those you put in the walls disappeared together with the holes.”
“Oh!” It only dawns on me now. “Oh, that’s brilliant. We can leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Bulletcrumbs!”
“It will not help us find the way back to the serpent hole.”
“But it’s a way forward. Exactly what you wanted. Can’t we be pleased with ourselves for even a second?”
He harrumphs and ambles away toward the opening in the walls where we can make the jump to a few adjacent islands. I follow with a somewhat lighter heart.
That island was tiny. The next one is huge, and exploring it is a painfully boring and—unsurprisingly—utterly fruitless affair. So we “solve” the next, and every one after that, by letting War level it to the ground. If there’s nothing to be had, we plant a bulletcrumb at every access point, so we’d know we’ve been there. It’s genius.
Soon enough, it turns out that the islands aren’t as many as they seemed at first. A magical shimmer becomes visible as we reach the boundary of the pocket: a mirroring phantasm projecting illusionary extensions of the labyrinth as far as the eye can reach. It is the seventh island along this boundary that we find the treasure on: a hefty chunk of abyssal ore, more than sufficient to complete the reforging of War’s armor. We all but gave up on the hope that we’d find enough of the stuff before the showdown with Moloch. Far more than a trinket, and I am relieved.
As we stare at the antediluvian rock, listening, as it were, to the subliminal hum of its power, so well attuned with our own, a rare and fascinating event occurs. War throws back his crimson hood and wipes the sweat off his forehead.
“That gave you a workout, didn’t it?”
He nods ponderously. “Chaoseater found no nourishment in these magic walls, so it sapped my strength instead. But it was well worth it, brother.”
Warmth spreads in my chest at the admission. Before I can think myself out of it, I pull off my helmet and let it clatter on the ground, shaking my hair loose. “Let’s take a breather.”
This island is different from the rest. There are only outer walls, with no internal partitions. While far from spacious, the treasure room isn’t as claustrophobic as the pathways through the maze. In the corners, squat stone braziers burn with eternal blue fire that gives off no heat, but at least it softens the shadows. I lower myself on the ground facing the closest one and after a few awkward moments—or maybe that’s just me—War sits next to me with a tired grunt.
“I was an ass earlier,” I say while the courage holds. “I wish I could take it back. You had me figured out and I was too embarrassed to admit it.”
“That despite all your wit, a brute such as I can see into your heart more clearly than you?”
I grin. “Basically. Though ‘brute’ isn’t the word I’d use.”
He snorts. It sounds like a challenge for my alleged wit, but I’m past the jokes.
“I’ve always held you in the highest regard, War. As I’m sure you know, but there. Just in case.”
“It didn’t seem so at the beginning of this journey.”
“To be fair, you didn’t seem too happy to have my company either.”
“I only followed your lead.”
I sigh. Probably for the best.
The blue flame dances and flickers in the silence. But it doesn’t bother me anymore. Fleeting images and bits of dialog pop up at random in my head with an odd feeling here and there thrown in for flavor, but it’s all weirdly disconnected, like memories of a dream rather than of real events. Like I was drunk or drugged or under a spell and I couldn’t fully recall till I got drunk with the same drink, drugged with the same drug, or put under the same spell again. Like it wasn’t me. Yet if I’m sure of anything, I’m sure it was more me than anything before or after.
“Have you—” he starts.
“Do you—” I start at the same time. We glance at each other and laugh. “Ladies first.”
“’Ight.” But then I almost lose my nerve. My face has gotten hot and it sure ain’t from the pale fire in the brazier. “Do you ever think about it?”
His lips curl.
I exaggerate a gasp. “You were gonna ask the same thing!”
As he bows his head, to take a closer look at his boots—or hide his face; whichever is more probable—a few noticeably whiter locks of his hair from the back of his scalp, normally protected both from view and from the many grimy aspects of our work by his cloak, tumble down over his shoulder. Not really thinking, I catch one and wind it around my finger. Can’t feel a thing with the glove on but it fills me with a strange, diffuse joy that grows into heart-pounding excitement when he makes no move to stop me.
“I used to,” he says. “During the war, it was a refuge between one battle and the next, where my mind could briefly be diverted from the atrocities we witnessed, and those we committed.”
With a conscious effort, I ignore atrocities and zone in on the rest. “And after?”
“It was obvious you had put it out of your mind. So, I did the same.”
I play with the curled lock, feeling it scrape against itself between my fingers. A few more locks slide down, slipping into my hand on their own, I swear, and War finally looks at what I’m doing, but thankfully doesn’t comment. I feel the passage of time as distinctly as if a mechanical clock of some frivolous Maker’s design was ticking in the echoing chamber. What I want, of course, is to take a fistful of his hair and pull him closer, but I’m paralyzed by an almost comical fear of rejection.
Because this is it. The last chance we’ll have to rest and talk and be alone before we go after Moloch. And even though we both make light of the fight to come, neither of us is deluded enough to truly believe a victory is guaranteed. One of us may die; perhaps both of us will. And if we don’t, the godheads will summon us back and then send us out on some new fool’s errands, on our own or with one of the other two, but not together, not for a long time. This has been a rare enough occasion to begin with. I suspect that, despite their protestations at our quarreling, they would rather avoid any two of us, or, God forbid, all of us, bonding. Together, we might just be able to break free from their yoke.
“Strife?” War says. Am I imagining it, or has his voice gone all soft and velveteen? When I glance up, I find him much closer than he was before. Close enough for his hot breath to moisten the skin on my face. Have I inched closer to him, or has he inched closer to me?
“I was just thinking…” My heart races. “Maybe we could finish what we started in the Redoubt. Just in case, you know, that we don’t meet again in this millennium. Or ever. Might be nice to have…”
…that refuge again, is what I planned to end with, but I trail off.
The silence is so dense I feel I might drown in it.
War’s breath quickens. “Are you certain?” he says. “Think before you answer, and not just of yourself. I have no wish to be ignored and forgotten a second time.”
The temptation to give an enthusiastic nod without really thinking despite his warning is so great I can barely stop myself. He’s right, of course. It wasn’t fair. And I’m an idiot. He may understand why I had to ‘put it out of my mind’—hell, it looks like he understands it better than I do—but it doesn’t mean he’s up for more of that shit. I shouldn’t need him to spell it out for me.
But the question isn’t if I was wrong and stupid. We all know the answer to that.
The question is… if I can be better.
“I can only promise to try. And for the record,” I add when he makes no immediate reply, “I never really forgot? It’s more like—”
His lunge is abrupt, but when his lips land on mine, the contact is gentle. Solid. Warm. Lingering. My heart leaps and I dare not move. I dare not breathe. I dare not even close my eyes and I see his are open too, though hooded, and in them I see the same nameless emotion that’s tearing me apart and piecing me together again, all at once.
I open my mouth for his tongue. He leans in, all fifty stone of him, and tilts me backward till I lie on the ground and he lies on top of me. It’s like our first kiss all over again: violent, biting, wet and clumsy, but I don’t care. My paralysis broken, I hook my arms behind his neck and my legs around his hips. Bracing on the gauntlet above my head, he cups my butt with the other hand and thrusts his hips forward.
I’ve gone hard as a rock and his weight makes the inside of my armor chafe almost painfully. I can’t remember when I last had an erection. Have I had a single one since the war? Since… War? The distant, nostalgic longing that started flickering on top of Bastion’s ramparts ignites into acute, aching need.
“War,” I utter when he lets me breathe, and it comes out as a moan.
For a moment, he regards me from above. Then he kisses my lips, and chin, and jaw up to my ear, where he whispers. “Call me by my true name.”
Once more I become aware of my heavy heartbeat. “You remember that.”
“I remember everything.”
We kiss again. Slower, this time. Longer. I’m trembling with excitement. When he dives for my neck, I land a wet kiss on his ear. “Israfil.”
I feel his smile on my skin. “Andras,” he whispers back.
It makes my eyes sting. I don’t know, nor have I ever cared to learn, the old names of the other two. They are relics of a bygone era we were all eager to denounce when we defected. But in War’s arms—in Israfil’s arms—somehow, it’s ok. To remember. To be remembered.
To be forgiven, even if for a few days in an eon.