Avenari - Chapter 27
We were like newlyweds. We showered together, laughed, talked, teased...it all felt like some surreal dream. Andris was simply fun to be with, cool and sly and occasionally almost frightening. He remained arrogant and nihilistic, but rather than annoying me, it intrigued me. His mere presence created a realm of infinite possibility in my tiny world. He was willing to stand at my side, and was powerful enough to do it without risking his own safety.
My lack of forethought would easily have been Ivan’s undoing.
I filed through memories of my relationship with Ivan from when we were still kids, but back then it had never felt like this. Actually, I had been perfectly fine with leaving him behind when Simone turned me. I hadn’t wanted him to give up his family. I had understood the pain of losing loved ones, and I didn’t want him to go through it.
I also had to admit, however, that once I turned, and once I lost contact with all of my human needs, I just didn’t feel the same way about him. He was a dear friend, but that became the extent of it. Ivan had always looked at things from the perspective of someone watching through a window. He kept a level of distance that I couldn’t reach across—which was all well and good when I needed someone levelheaded to figure out a problem, but often left me feeling like there was a wall between us that I could never break down. Even as mortals, even when we shared a bed, he had always held back. It was his nature, but that made all the difference.
Andris didn’t hold anything back, though. He gave me everything—the good, the bad, and the horrifying. Despite his past, he was honest with me. He had changed so much in so short a time that I was willing to forgive everything he had ever done to deserve my hate…
“You know, after all that life-altering, mind-blowing, utterly wonderful lovemaking, it worries me that you now look as though I’ve killed your puppy.”
Startled out of my brooding, I peeked up to meet the faceted jewels acting as portals into my demon’s world, and had to pause for several seconds to lower my heart rate.
After showering, he’d dried his hair out and brushed the chaos into order, leaving it glossy and iridescent like the feathers on a raven’s back. It swept down to his shoulders, the random flips and waves giving the impression that the choppy, elegant waters of a black sea were his kith and kin, just barely touching his silk-clad shoulders to create a zone of darkness from his neck down to comfy boots.
Even though I wore a bright green T-shirt and cobalt blue cargo pants, and even though his ensemble consisted of the same open-collared, black dress shirt and slim, black jeans that he always wore, I felt so plain standing next to him. It was like a battle—Technicolor vs. Monochrome: Death Match, available only on pay-per-view. For some reason or another, Andris’ perfection was at its peak only when garbed in a total absence of light. In a nutshell, black just worked for him. I had no chance.
I looked best in red...but not to that extent. To reach his level would have required a serious re-evaluation of my priorities, and I’d be damned if I started wearing makeup just to
“You should wear purple,” I said without thinking, once again reasserting the fact that, with human lust sharing the same space as my blood, my brain was wasting entirely too much time fantasizing. It was the shirt. It had to be the shirt. There weren’t enough buttons, and the pearly white skin of his throat called to me like the Pied Piper to an ignorant child.
Apparently, I had lost my train of thought entirely, because it was a while before I realized that he was waving his hand in front of my face and speaking in a baffled tone. “Princess, I never thought a man could ever be in a situation where he would have to say this, but I’m up here. What on Earth has gotten into you?”
I blinked. “You have,” I said, totally and completely serious...or maybe just distracted.
“That’s not what I mean,” he sighed, folding his arms and seating himself in the violet velvet chair beside the bed. “Just a moment ago you looked ready to cry.” He held a hand out and tilted his head to invite me over. “Come here and tell me what’s wrong—and don’t say it’s nothing, because that would be childish.”
I wanted to argue the “childish” remark, but in the end I decided not to waste the effort. Instead, I let him draw me into his lap and wrap his arms around my waist in that sweet, possessive way of his. “I was just thinking,” I muttered.
“That’s the same as saying it’s nothing,” he said, turning me so that I sank back against his shoulder and rested my head in the crook of his neck. I felt so safe, cradled against his ethereal warmth. “Tell me what was making you so upset. Please?”
I relented at last, figuring that, in the end, hiding it would do more harm than good. “I was just thinking that Ivan will be upset when we go back.”
He grew as still as a plank of wood, making my seat a little uncomfortable. “What, that we’ve blood-bonded and made love? Why is that a problem?”
“He’s still in love with me, sort of. Maybe it’s not the same as when we were mortal, but the emotional attachment is still there. He always wanted to become my blood partner.” I didn’t want to hurt Ivan. Sure, he would put on a smile and congratulate us—sincerely, in fact—but deep down he would be hurting. That sweetheart was too sweet for his own good.
“Ah.” My demon frowned, understandably uncomfortable with the thought of someone else taking his place. He cast a hesitant glance at me and said slowly, “I’m not sure how to take that. Honestly, I can’t bear any ill will—Ivan seems like a good man—but I would lose my mind if I saw anyone else touching you. There’s no point in lying about that.”
“Few people are as reliable as he is,” I murmured. “I love you, of course, but Ivan has been with me since the beginning. He’s the best friend I could have had.”
“You’re not having second thoughts, are you?” he asked. It seemed he wanted to add more, but left it at that.
Smiling a little, I shook my head and turned him to me. “I want you. That will never change. It can’t and it won’t.”
Again, he stunned me with a peek through to his soul, and kissed my forehead sweetly as he tightened his embrace. “Dear gods, you make me so ridiculously happy. If I had known that such joy were possible, I’d have raided your home much sooner.”
I laughed a little, feeling better. “I’d have liked that. Now, let’s get going before Quelos decides to invade my bedroom again.”
* o * o *
We were soon following Sakura through yet another endless route of confusing concentric halls and corridors, and once again I felt some gratitude for the half-breeds’ guidance. Ivanarke seemed so simple from the outside, but traversing its halls was an entirely different story. The only reference points this time were various increasingly bizarre works of art: paintings and sculptures depicting more and more fantastical scenes.
At first, the pieces were in common styles with normal subjects, but as we continued on, snakes sprouted feathers and wings, tree branches evolved into human arms, and still-life paintings formed surprisingly clever pictures within pictures, like visual nesting dolls.
“So Sakura,” I said at last, breaking the absorbed silence to satisfy my nagging curiosity, “did Quelos really have a meeting with the Shimari Council, or were you just worried about us?”
She remained silent for some time, before responding distantly, “The Lightning Master feels that your powers are worth cultivating. As for the Nariuvne...Anase Quelos has not had this much stimulation in a hundred years. He would have wanted me to tell him.”
Despite his general disapproval of having half-breed slaves, the obvious capacity for reason in the tiny figure made Andris smile, if only a little. “Who made you a half-breed, Sakura?” he asked. “You seem rather attached to Quelos. Did he change you?”
She shook her head, not even bothering to look back. “All half-breed servants become as such via the fourth line’s veritas caput. We are then assigned to different areas. I handle matters between the Emperor, Yoko, and the Elementals. Kaze is my adjutant, though his usual duty is to assist envoys who visit from other manors. Tsuki belongs to the Council Elders.”
Andris actually stopped walking. “Wait, Tatsune gave you the Fourth Line’s blood in order to turn you? That’s sacrilege, isn’t it? The Council has executed Shimaren for less.”
She paused in her guidance and gave him an empty stare. “The Council no longer abides by Ivanarke’s laws. Eternity seems to be having an adverse effect on their views. In addition, they prefer the extra assistance, and Lord Tatsune has enough power to protect us.”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, eternity is an unbearable wasteland of repetition and boredom. I can see how they would want to spice things up a bit.”
I pushed him forward in annoyance. “Let’s go, you embodiment of ‘dark and brooding!’ Quit your whining and let’s go see this training thing. I’ve never trained to fight before, and I will not have you ruining my good time.”
Shaking his head in exasperation, he started walking again. Sakura, however, watched me in curiosity until we had passed before easily matching our pace.
“I find it interesting how you have managed to set him straight,” she said to me, glancing between the two of us. “I read his file in preparation for your arrival, and he is nothing like the monster in those pages.”
“He’s a fixer-upper,” I said with a grin.
Her expression changed from a virtual brick wall to something about as dynamic as a coffee maker—an improvement, I thought. “I do not believe that to be the phrasing one would normally use when referring to someone who has killed so many that his existence is associated with myths and tall tales.”
“Yeah, well I call him a fixer-upper—like an old house you have to renovate. It’s got the same personality, but now you can see it better with the gunk cleared away.”
“I really don’t appreciate you talking about me as though I’m an inanimate object,” muttered the demon.
“In that case, you lack imagination.”
“And you lack reason, little Princess.”
“I’m so going to kick your ass once Quelos teaches me how to do it,” I threatened.
“I look forward to it.” He smiled in a peculiar way, as though the thought excited him immensely—perhaps the remnants of his human life? It was hard to believe that the painfully sophisticated-looking Crimson had once run around in loincloths.
The image kind of weirded me out, actually...him Tarzan, me Jane?
I shoved the picture out of my horrified mind.
* o * o *
The Elementals, obviously, were spoiled rotten. Maybe I didn’t understand their significance, or perhaps I was merely jealous as hell, but the accommodations which Ivanarke provided them made me want to hit Quelos upside the head with a golf club.
Like a blind child seeing color for the first time, I froze before the doorway, standing between imposing, thirty-foot-tall marble columns wrapped in carvings of winding dragons and scattered, rolling clouds—the whole of which was such pure white that even Andris looked like he had a nice tan standing next to it. I had to crane my neck back to stare at a baas relief high above our heads. It depicted a red-enameled dragon coiling into an infinity shape as it snaked through thirteen glass orbs with various elemental symbols at their cores.
“I think I hate them,” I commented unceremoniously, looking at Andris.
He frowned at me. “Your expression is certainly unique. Please don’t explode—that would be awkward.”
I shook my head and glared at the monstrous whitewashed doors, studying the thick, scored glass panes on either side and blinking several times in surprise when the seemingly random frost patterns came together to form smoky, intricate designs.
The designs were animals, wrought in and out of each other like a Celtic knot of fur and flesh and feathers, beaks and claws and fangs. Each creature was distinct and solitary, yet came together with the others to form this chaotic, beautiful improvement on the concept of stained glass. Color was unnecessary. Hatches and scratches and frosted patches strewn in seeming disarray were all it needed to breathe with life.
“I really hate them,” I grumbled, stepping back so that Sakura could admit us into the chamber beyond.
“Place your hatred in something more significant than the décor, cara mea,” my sensible demon said, slipping his arms around me and shrouding me in his warmth. It was irritatingly effective. “Or have you completely forgotten about Tivor and your self-imposed mission?”
“I didn’t forget anything. It’s just annoying. Quelos is weird, and the fact that he lives in this palace within a palace only confirms it.”
“He seems normal enough...though I guess I’m not one to talk of normalcy.”
Sakura pushed the doors open and distracted both of us from the potential argument.
The Elementals’ chamber was a sight to behold, indeed. There was no color at all, just brilliant, glowing white—from the granite floor and bleached fur rug to the leather couches and recliners, from the paper chandelier above to the marble fireplace and matching Ionic scrolled columns all around the perimeter. Across the way, lining the entire back wall, between windows shrouded in white drapes, were more than dozen mirror panels which made the already spacious chamber feel immense and majestic.
“Welcome to the Elementals’ gathering chamber,” Sakura said.
There were several Shimaren seated in the chairs, apparently oblivious to our entrance as they discussed something about the Western Brood Manor’s latest atrocities. Quelos and Nick were nowhere to be seen.
“My Lords, I have brought your guests, as requested,” the little half-breed said in a clear, bell-like voice, which pierced the conversation and cast an attentive silence over the group.
Normally, Shimaren looked like normal people to other Shimaren—the way humans appeared to other humans—but as with Andris, these people carried fascinating auras. Some were like liquid, a gentle stream wrapped around their presence; some crackled and flickered like a torch; still others were nebulous or brittle, giving off strong impressions of their powers.
“You are late.”
I traced the voice to a Shimare sitting in the armchair closest to the fireplace. He sat with his eyes closed, his arms folded across a narrow chest.
Then I did a double-take. Wait. Was that really a guy?
His hair was long and white, cut in careful layers to keep it out of his sharp eyes, and when he opened those eyes, they shared Quelos’ gold, though a shade lighter. Beneath a velvet robe—much like the one Quelos wore, but white and silver rather than black and red—he was slim and willowy. He stared at us, taking our measure with a serious, analytical expression on his delicate, Oriental face.
If I had thought Andris pushed the androgynous envelope, then this guy stood right on the edge and danced. Andy was a macho biker gang leader compared to this guy.
“It took longer than expected to retrieve them,” Sakura explained with a formal bow.
“Is that so?” He sighed and stood to approach us, motioning to the other Shimaren. “Welcome. We are the Hikari Elementals.”
“Elementals of Light,” added a tiny vampiress with ankle-length hair the color of polished garnet. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, physically, and that striking hair stood in stark contrast to the white uniform. Her eyes shimmered pale cyan as she grinned, the blue of glacial ice, and her signature swirled around like a brittle, frozen wind. “I’m Ashinar, an Ice Elemental, but you can call me Shina. I helped show Nick around earlier when the lightning bug dropped him off—Quelos, that is. That’s what we call lightning Elementals for fun.”
Ah, so this was probably the one who had caught the kid’s interest.
“My name is Akuro. Yoroshiku,” said the first, giving a gracious bow that let his elbow-length locks flow over his shoulder like water. “Quelos-sama is my Maker, and we share the same Elemental talents in lightning.”
“They’re both lightning bugs,” Shina said.
Another Shimare stood, this time sporting long, wavy black hair, a sharp face, and fiery-orange eyes. “You may call me Nelo-Im. I possess the art of the Flames.”
Shina smirked at his formality and leaned casually against the sofa. “He’s a firefly.”
“Shina, please,” chided the Shimare beside the firefly, who remained sitting. “Nelo-Im takes pride in what he does...unlike some people we know.” That last was muttered under his breath in mild disdain and a faint Australian accent. Somehow he had managed to maintain a decent tan, which only accented his golden hair. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Sirek, the only Earth Elemental in the Brood Manor. I usually take care of keeping Ivanarke happy.”
The fair and ceremonious Japanese Shima at his other side inclined her head. Her eyes were like amethysts, and watched us with unusual intensity. “I am Miko, an air Elemental. I believe you have already met Yoko, my half-fledgling?”
“She’s been helping me out with some sorcery-related stuff,” I said, pleased to finally meet the vampiress who had brought Yoko to Ivanarke.
She smiled. “Yoko is skilled with various types of magic. You are in capable hands.”
“So is it true that Quelos is taking you along to hunt down Tivor?” Shina asked. “No offense, but it’s not often that we get newcomers—and even less often do they get sent right back out on a mission.”
“Quelos-sama has assured me that these three are suited to the job,” Akuro said. “Andris in particular, as you know by now, is powerful enough to hold a seat in the Hanarisar.”
“Where is Quelos, anyway?” Andris asked, deliberately changing the topic.
“I think we should hear a little bit more about the two of you, first, if you would be so kind as to explain. It is rare that we receive visitors of such unusual nature.” Gracefully, Akuro resumed his seat and laced his fingers together in his lap, watching us in expectation.
He must be second-in-command here, my demon said silently, taking the measure of everyone in the room and coming to that reasonable conclusion. “You should already know about me. Quelos does.”
“We have only the bare statistics,” Akuro said. “There are still many things about which we have been left in the dark, so to speak.”
“I see.” Andris looked to me, and I shrugged noncommittally.
“What do you want to know? We’re here to help, after all,” I said.
Shina interrupted before he could speak. “Is it true that you two are blood partners?”
I blinked in surprise. Was I supposed to answer that? How did they—wait, Nick had been able to tell just by sensing our signatures.
“Er...yeah, we are. Is that a problem?”
“Ooh, you’re so lucky,” she pouted, getting up and skipping over to stalk a circle around my wary blood partner. “Andris, right? You’re a lot sexier than I thought you’d be. With all the talk of what a monster you are, I’d expected some hideous beast.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that, and Andris seemed to share my uncertainty as he struggled with the innate conditioning to hide his face and leave the vicinity. Shina was shorter than even me, not to mention much less powerful than Andris, but her boldness was uncanny.
“You don’t like being the center of attention, do you?” she crooned, as if he were frightened puppy.
“Well, being the center of attention means that everyone knows where I am. If everyone knows where I am then, ninety percent of the time, they’ll try to attack me. Under those circumstances, I have no choice but to fight back. Habits are difficult to overcome at my age.”
“Ah. You’re a good guy, then? Surprising, since you’re a cannibal.”
I winced. “Hey, lay off!”
“What? He drinks our blood—a vampire’s vampire. Quelos brought you here to train, yes, but also to test his loyalties.” She clasped her hands behind her back and looked up at him almost innocently. “So, where do your loyalties lie? Earlier, you tried to kill a Council member.”
“Atreus isn’t intelligent enough to know when to let things alone,” Andris muttered, starting to get annoyed. “I’m not loyal in the least to you, Tatsune, or the Council.”
“Then to whom are you loyal?” Shina asked, somewhat perplexed. The look on her young face would have been more appropriate on that of a wise, shrewd old lady. A quick sweep of my spatial sense informed me that she was, in fact, over a thousand years old.
Well, hell. Nick had his work cut out for him, it seemed.
Andris frowned at her, his blacked-out eyes slowly shifting to brilliant crimson, and said tightly, “All of my loyalties lie with Lydian. I’ll go along with whatever she wants.”
Akuro frowned in curiosity. “Then you really are blood bonded.”
He glanced up, hooking an arm around my neck and possessively pinning me to his side. “For eternity, if we can manage it.”
“Arrogant bastard,” I sighed, rolling my eyes.
He grimaced. “Cara mea, spare my pride. I’ve only so much left.”
“Put it to better use, like battling evil in the name of justice or something—not to irritate the Emperor’s henchmen. I don’t want to get caught in the crossfire when heads start to roll.”
“Their heads will roll, not ours!” he argued.
“With that hot-headed disposition, you’re going to have a hard time handling Lydian’s training, you know,” sounded a voice from really, really close-by.
We looked over our shoulders to find a familiar golden stare less than three inches away.
Startled, I jerked back, but Andris held tight and put on an arrogant smirk. “Is that so? What exactly do you have planned for my Princess?”
“Shut up!” I snapped. Calling me Princess in front of all these people—unforgivable!
Quelos ignored my outburst. “She’s new at this, so we should show her how to use weapons. Her strength may not match up to the opponent, but that doesn’t matter if she’s good with a blade. I truly doubt that Tivor’s people are that skilled. Most of them are probably cannon fodder. Anyway, we’re going to the training grounds. Nick and Mizumi have been there for a while, teaching him how to control his power—though he’ll be lucky to survive at this rate.”
I forgot about my anger. “What’s wrong with Nick?”
He gave a vague shrug. “He can turn the power on, but he can’t turn it off. Instead of a faucet, the kid’s a fire hose. Strong is good, but without control it’s pretty much useless.”
“He’ll figure it out,” Andris replied with certainty. “So how are you going to teach Lynn how to use weapons?”
The lightning bug’s eyes narrowed with unbridled mischief. “Chigeeyo. We are going to show her. I assume you’re not completely ignorant?”
“Like hell. I can take anything you’ve got.”
“Ii jisshin, da na? I like your confidence.” Snapping into Leader Mode, he looked past us at the rest of the Elementals, who seemed a bit off-put that they couldn’t interrogate us further—Shina, most notably. “Akuro, come. Everyone else stays here. It’s not a spectacle—it’s training.”
Murmurs of dissent rose all around, but nobody argued with the order, and Akuro stood to accompany us as he tied his hair back with a silver ribbon. He didn’t seem to care either way.
“Watch your backs.” Shina appeared beside me, whispering with a sneaky grin. “Those two are madmen on the battlefield, and worse on the training grounds.”
We both sensed the glare of a certain angry Elemental, and she vanished, only to reappear on the sofa, giggling.
Quelos glanced to me. “Is there a problem?”
“Only if you have a problem,” I shot back.
His auric gaze narrowed. “Let’s go, you two. Your fledgling is being put through hell; it’s rude not to join him for the greater good.”
I sneered as he and Akuro brushed by. “You’re a tyrant, you know that?”
“Oh, I know that well,” he chuckled darkly. “However, an iron fist is the only effective ruling technique with Elementals. Otherwise they’d all end up killing everyone, regardless of intent. It’s better this way.” Still chuckling, he headed out.
“Be careful with him,” Shina cautioned from the sofa, dead serious. “He could kill all of us without breaking a sweat.”
Andris frowned at her. “So could I.” Disregarding the Elementals’ nervous glances, he tugged me forward, and we followed the lightning bugs to Ivanarke’s private training grounds.
* o * o *
Behind the Brood Manor was an enclosed area about the size of a football field, carpeted with hardy grass, and surrounded by the lonely wildflowers to mark where we weren’t allowed to go. Enormous trees towered all around, the largest being Ivanarke itself, leaving a narrow patch of sky through which the waxing moon shone silver like a growing coin.
Lanterns hung from branches high above, casting just enough soft amber light into the shadowed clearing to illuminate Ivanarke’s enormous side and spark highlights off of an entire wall covered in shiny weapons. They came in all shapes and sizes, in archaic and modern designs from all parts of the world: Arabian scimitars, Celtic broadswords, Chinese spears, and Japanese katanas—hell, even ninja stars and whips to be the envy of Indiana Jones. There were no guns, though. As Andris had said before, holes weren’t nearly as effective as total dismemberment.
“You’ve got to be joking,” I said incredulously. “I’ve never used a sword before.”
“Have you ever cut a potato?” Quelos asked as his fledgling perused the wall for a weapon. Akuro eventually settled for a long, narrow scimitar, arcing from a silver and white leather hilt. He tested the balance, then nodded in satisfaction and sheathed it at his hip.
I frowned, uncertain as to where Quelos was going with the potato metaphor. “Of course. Potatoes were as important as rice was in my family.”
“Well, then think of a sword as a kitchen knife, only infinitely more fun and dangerous in the proper hands.” Grinning, he approached a beautiful katana with a red eel skin grip, about a meter long and so sharp that it sang as he snapped it through the air. “Andris, pick something.”
“First, where’s Nick?” I said, nervous at the thought of them suddenly having a sword fight—while in the process abandoning Nick to some possibly heinous, unspeakable torture.
I realized that I was developing a sort of complex towards the kid, but considering the circumstances under which I had discovered him, I questioned his ability to handle Shimari training without some moral support. Who knew what kind of person this Mizumi character was?
The Elemental grimaced in annoyance and raised his sword towards the opposite end of the clearing. “Out there. There’s a path leading to a lake—if it’s really that important, I mean.”
“You and Andy can duke it out all you want, wherever you want, but I won’t take part until I’m sure that Nick is fine.”
He gave me a ruffled frown, then looked to Andris and said impatiently. “Choose something. We’ll go check on the kid then come back here to train her. Later, if Mizumi is done before we leave, we’ll train Nick on the basics as well. If not, there’s always tomorrow.”
Andris sighed and halfheartedly studied the display. “If I like the blade, can I take it with us when we go to capture Tivor?”
“Do whatever the hell you want. I don’t care.”
Somewhat irritated with the Elemental’s attitude, my blood partner finally picked a Japanese-ish sword like Quelos’. It had a black guard and eel skin grip, and an intricately enameled geometric pattern shuffling up one edge. The shape was a little bit different, however, with less of a curve and a thicker profile towards the tip, and both sides honed to a razor edge.
“This isn’t a katana,” my demon said, frowning hard at the blade as he tested it out.
“It’s a combination of a few weapons,” Quelos replied. “Better for cutting.”
“I’ll take it.” He slipped the blade into its sheath and turned back to us, the blackness in his eyes giving away more than color ever could. “Let’s get this over with.”