“We honor our obligations,” he had taken to saying every night before we fell asleep for the last year. “Even if we have regrets. Honor one’s word even if the practice does not have the same weight in the Principalities of Heaven high above us. Be careful with your words, and stingy with your Word. We Rangers are considered stingy and spare with our friendship, affections, and promises.”
After seven years I understood. Among the thinking folk who dwelt in the occasionally aptly named Wastes of Purgatory, Word, Work, and Blood were currency. A careless or rash promise could be taken as a binding contract to some, or as a reason to make war. In a Principality, promises result in more complex interactions depending on how wide a ripple the interaction creates in the coteries of the parties involved.
“When in an escalating dispute, always invoke the Rite of Combat,” Paulos informed me one night around the campfire while gnawing on a well cooked piece of desert skink I had harpooned on a spike of faith. “You do not have the money for paying a real or imagined price for insulting some self-important sky-born bastard. If you immediately make it a matter of blood or pain, they have little choice but to prove their claim then and there, or let it go. Don’t be stupid, though; a Prelate would crush you. Use the senses you have trained… just don’t always share what you know. “
One night after dinner, I ran my fingers over the beaten silver ring he gave me when I finished my last trial and became what Paulos was, a Ranger.
I was not a Legionnaire though. Legionnaires were inducted and trained in the Principalities in the cities by experts who train the neophyte Legion members to manipulate the prana of the heavens and the earth in service of the Principality of their Induction. They are trained to pull this divine force from the heavens and earth, and use it to make war.
Rangers were “laymen.” Deacons of sort, moving through the under-cities and the wild and wasted places below, providing services such as keeping the sky folk apprised of events on the ground, and finding those lost in the wastes.
“It’s a silly thing,” he said that night. “We are here because we have a bit of Grace in us, but for some of us, it is not enough. So we all learn, even those of us who are more equipped for the harshness of the light than others. It makes us stronger. Some people stop training after being placed in whatever profession they test into. Others put effort into learning things that they would have chosen. They have time to pursue their heart’s desire. It’s not like they have to worry about disease or old age. But those things do not always come free. Sometimes dreams are stopped by simple greed.”
“You’ve taught me some of the Legionnaire’s training, haven’t you?” I asked.
He smiled and said with a small hint of rare pride, “I taught you all of it. At least what can be done without the curiass, and other tools of pranic tech that make our lives more efficient. When you are in official Legion training, I want you to concentrate on getting along with people, and you cannot do that if you are trying to learn difficult pranic principles as well. Plus, you can eat decent food rather than those rocks you like so much.”
“Rocks are plentiful and they don’t run away,” I retorted. “I’ve been hunting for you for years now. I can still appreciate meat. But it is nice to not need to. I’ve always wanted that.”
He cuffed me gently on the shoulder. “But be mindful. I am used to seeing you eat. In the City it will not be seen as a gift, but as a sign of being cursed by the sun. That prejudice is also the reason you can’t…”
“I know,” I said. “Be intimate with anyone who lives in the city. I should seek release in the under-cities at the base of any of the beanstalks.”
“‘Beanstalk,’” he muttered for the thousandth time, “It sounds so pedestrian, ‘Towers to Heaven,’ ‘Gateway to Heaven,’ ‘Path to Eternity.’ And that was when the cities they led to were tiny by comparison.”
Paulos grew quiet, a subtle beep emanated from his curiass-harness. He pulled a communications device from one of his belt pouches and read something quietly.
I said sprightly, “Well, since I’m about to enter a new phase of celibacy, I think I need to get all of my wild oats sown.”
He cuffed me again, ending in a gentle squeeze on my shoulder and he laughed, put the device away, and he kissed me. He smelled of sweat, meat, and dirt. “We have to go,” he said, stepping back.
“I thought I’d get to sow my oats?” I replied.
“You’ve planted several acres over the last few years,” he replied.
I needed to be careful in moments like this; the only real pitfall in our relationship was that he tended to switch too quickly from lover to teacher. When he was teacher, I had to obey and follow him in all ways. As lover though, I had a different level of privilege.
I let my hands run over his thews – that damned cuirass barred access to the small of his back – and I kissed him back. I felt the need, but he turned it into want and the leader,…Erastes…came to the fore. But he did not push me away, just enough to speak. “There is one more test, Yrek.”
We were almost at the beanstalk. “We have time for a test?”
“Yes,” he replied. “It is a test of endurance, focus, and your ability to manage several things at once. We are going to fly to the City. You are going to follow me. Since you will be behind me, I may be able to reach you before you hit the ground or the superstructure of the tower.”
I nodded, a blanket of wariness and focus wrapping around me. At nightfall, we dressed.
“Don’t bother packing,” he said. “Stay close as you can. You do not, as of yet, have a means of communicating with the airspace patrols. You may want to eat something.” He waited while I fished a pebble from the small pouch I wore around my neck.
“What about camp?” I asked.
“I won’t need it,” Paulos said. “You won’t need it. Someone who needs it will find it.”
I nodded, swallowing the last of the crunchy stone. Putting on his helmet, he said, “We are going up. Stay close.”
He did not wait for a reply, the metal pinions expanded from his curiass and the wings of dim pranic light formed. The tips of his wings twitched and he entered a steep climb; I followed in his wake riding my disks of faith.
He accelerated and banked. I followed, rapidly reaching my casual limits; and the rest of the trip was exertion, cold, and vacuum.
The electric sensation of the flow of faith, or as Paulos insisted, “prana” chased at the cold and kept a membrane of air around me. Eating was definitely the right thing to have done before this. It was a marathon dance; the beanstalk passed us and we were “chasing” it, not even really starting to catch it until we were in full orbit, and then it was a slog to catch up.
In space, I could feel objects in my head. It was an odd sense, one that was fogged out when I was planet-side, but had great clarity in the void. I could give Paulos a bit more space because I knew where he was at all times. He wasn’t going to lose me.
I did catch up to Paulos as he matched velocity with the space station, and we began our final approach, the domed concentric rings of the Central North American Principality looming larger and larger, an astounding, almost numbing presence. I had to squint, concentrating as we got closer and closer. I could barely make out Paulo against the shadow cast by the city.
I had a blinding headache by the time we finally landed on an opaque part of the largest dome near an airlock. Paulos ran his gauntlet over a sensor and vibration began drifting up through the material. I was not willing to retract my bubble to see if it was actually metal.
“You did well,” he said once we were in an empty hall outside of the airlock. “Too well. I thought I would have left you behind and you would have had to sense me out.”
I cradled my face in my hands, “Right now my head is hurting so bad I almost wish I did let you go.” I pulled out a pebble and crunched down. The clean stone taste was steadying. “But I could tell how fast you were going. I just had to match you.”
“You could not do that before,” he said.
“Yes I could,” I replied. “It happened every time we came into orbit here for training. The farther we get from the surface of a large mass, the more I can feel object moving around me. I didn’t bother telling you because we spend so much time on earth where I’m blind.”
He frowned, “You should have told me this.”
“You knew, sort of,” I countered. “I told you I can feel things when I move them with my prana. Out here, it goes from feeling to seeing. Besides, how often am I going to be flying through space?”
He whirled on me and punched me in the face.
Between the pain of the strain, the throbbing face, and general surprise, there was no way I could be manly about the reply. “What did I do wrong?”
“Like you’ve been teaching me?” I retorted.
“Not…with…me!” He said punctuating each word with a punch.
He surprised me the first time, but the other three punches I could see coming. Despite the surprise, hurt, violence, and the fact that I was already taxed, I defended, the force of his punches rippling visibly over my torso’s renewed shield.
I evaded in the small space. I let him hit me when we trained, and there were times he’d punched me when I’d really fucked up. I worked as hard as I could to not fuck up.
He was stronger than I was physically, so wrestling him would just lead to a broken arm. Instead, I tried to pinion him to the wall in a rapidly woven web of prana.
“Stop hitting me!” I roared.
He dissolved the net with a pulse of diffuse prana and pinned me against the back wall, “Pathetic.”
“I don’t want to hurt you!”
“What if I’m not me?” he replied. “What if you are not you?”
I blinked at him, “What?”
“Secrets between friends, between us can be dangerous,” he replied, taking off his helmet. “Parasite riders, dopplegangers, hell, pranic constructs, homumculi, and simple biomantic clones. There are many ways of making doubles of people. In these circumstances, you have to be prepared to inflict damage on them, either to save your life or defend your friends. You cannot let your feelings get in the way of your survival.”
He kissed me, an undercurrent of anger and fear charging the kiss, and the taste of water and salt.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered.
“I should have hit you more!” he whispered. “So I could see your anger, your rage.”
“It gets in the way,” I replied, breathing around his embrace, “This has been the only time I’ve been really, truly happy. I love you. I say it becuause I mean it even if you don’t feel the same way. I’ve been happpy with you, and anger spoils it. I spent my entire life angry. When I get angry it is hard to stop. Please don’t make me angry with you. I just want this to be a period of… pain from effort.”
“I want you right now,” he replied. “One last time before we part.”
“You can visit me,” I said. “You said that it was an Academy, not a prison.”
“I also told you I cannot step foot there,” he said. “And now it is even more impossible.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
The door began to open and he pushed away from me putting his helmet back on his head. Primate Dion was standing in the doorway as the hatch retracted, wearing black sackcloth with ashes smeared on his head.
“Primate,” I greeted bowing. “We are honored with your presence.”
The last time I saw his face, it was bright with humor. It was haggard now. He looked at me with something akin to pity but the bulk of his sorrow poured when he spoke to Paulos. “I was not able to persuade the Court of Prelates to reconsider the Legion’s decision. Since they claim to support and respect ancient traditions, I hoped that by formalizing your relationship as Erastes and Eremenos, we could buy more time than a mere seven years.”
“They have been a blessing,” Paulos voice was hoarse. “He is not the most powerful by any stretch of the imagination, but he passed all of the tests put before him.”
“Except honesty,” the Primate said soberly.
Paulos’ head snapped around, “He did not lie.”
“And you hit him for…”
“He did not hide it from me,” Paulos said.
“You are afraid that he has more surprises so that when you return you will doubt if it is him or a hallucination from the travails of your upcoming posting,” Primate Dion said. “No matter what the act was, he broke your trust.”
“His vows are intact!” Paulos hissed. “No trust has been broken.”
“I can feel your disbelief,” the Primate replied. “It is enough to do what I think the honorable thing is.”
Paulos’ face closed, instantly, “Will you witness?”
“I will,” he replied.
“What is going on?” I growled.
“I am being assigned to a joint principality unit at what you call Antarctica,” he said. “The placement is permanent until I am withdrawn.”
“Take me with you,” I replied.
He blurred forward and gripped my throat tightly. “I can do it!” I whispered. “I can do the assignment. I promise I won’t be a weight. I can do it.”
“I know you can,” he said, and then he stabbed me in the lower abdomen in my side. A burst of the fires in my gut gouted out as I spilled to the ground in shock and pain.
His pranic blade was still extended, the mirrored edge of the Divine Blade technique fading, as he looked down at me. He removed the gauntlet of the unarmed hand with his teeth and drew the edge of the blade across his palm and dismissed it.
“If you remain my Eremenos, you will be obligated to go, but my heart is too involved, and Prelate Sivar could accuse me of breaking an oath for bringing you here only to bear you away again to the Front.”
He dabbled blood with his gauntleted finger out of the puddle and raised his bleeding hand to pin me with a field of immense pranic generated physical pressure.
“I declare you an adult. You may marry and seek your own destiny,” he anointed my forehead with blood. “We are no longer bonded. You owe me no fidelity. Be free to live, to grow, and to find love, temporary or lasting.”
He took a deep breath and pressed the bloody palm to my face, “I have drawn blood from a brother with purpose to hurt. I hereby nullify all contracts and vows between us. When we meet again, it will be as strangers.”
A surge of prana turned every square micrometer of my skin into electric pain as the blood disappeared into me. The wound on his hand was gone.
“Thank you for trying Primate Dion,” he said. “The Atlantean Station is a poor place to live.”
“I only hope that the good memories you have gained will sustain you,” Dion said.
My gut wound had healed and the pinning field was gone. I stood. Before he could put his glove back on, I took his hand, kissed his palm and slipped my ring onto his little finger. “Remember me. Even when you find solace in someone else. Think well of me.”
“Oh,” Dion sniffed.
He kissed me again, soft and chaste, on the cheek, and reseated his gauntlet. He did not take the ring off. He glowed with golden light, becoming a particalized cloud as he stepped through the hull and back into space.
I brushed myself off. Dion was looking at me clinically. “I am glad you avoided the tragic end that befalls so many Heroic Companions. You do not know it, but we have just ensured that he will likely live through the posting rather than give into despair, as is common, and dying in a monster’s curse.
“So…what just happened here?” I asked.
The Primate sobered, “Do you want the cold hard truth or something more romantic?”
“I think I’ll take it cold,” I replied.
“You were a pliant soul desperate for love and he is an ageless warrior in a place where his ideals have been displaced. You came here able to travel and resist the sun. You are not by any means unique, but you were here and available at that moment in time. The rest is in the Creator’s hands.”
“Creator, God, One above All, Goddess whatever,” he spat dismissively. “It is the ephemeral, primordial thing we Primates strive to meet when we enter our meditation chambers. It offers maddening scatters of direction and prophecy. Through the unity of us, we create something more coherent to use to guide the citizens of the Engine of Creation.
“My Sight says that Paulos would go to guard the Atlantean road and he will die. It would not matter if I told him my prophecy. He would go because of his vows to the Legion. I saw a small chance for him to live. He needed a connection. Anyone of a suitable neediness would do. You were a handful, but at least you proved capable in the end.
“Now, let’s get you cleaned up and delivered to Prelate Sivar.” (by Hank T Cannon)