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It was looking for him.

It scratched at the walls of that flimsy thing called reality. The more it dug and insinuated itself towards him, the clearer he could see it with this sense that did not involve vision. It was a ridged grey sac the size of a wrecking ball, sprouting projections in every direction. Like a nerve ganglia in a nest of neurones, but these jointed protrusions, thick as a man's wrist, sprouted out over an area that would cover the size and volume of a house and were tipped with hard bony black chitin. They scratched-scratched-scratched. Ryou could sense it coming. The ganglia at the center of the mass pulsed to the beat of some complex equation. The creature was intelligent, but in a way so totally alien to the human mind that he could not gauge it. And it was looking for him. It knew him. He'd crossed its territory, left a trail, and now he was prey.

Ryou huddled in a dark corner. He was thirteen and hiding in his room from what he'd done. No, he was twenty-nine and hiding from a monster out of nightmares. Nightmares- dreaming? He was dreaming?

Scratch scratch scratch.

It wanted to find him. It was going to find him, invade him from a direction that should not even exist, and lay its larvae in his brain.

It was getting closer. It was nearly here. People moved around it, even walked through it since it was still not close enough to intersect their reality. Men clinked by in armor, sang and laughed as it insinuated its way towards them no more than a shadow's width away.

More noises nearby. A few hushed words in a familiar voice softer than the scritching sounds. Ryou's ears pricked. Clinks, then a thud. Darius muttered an imprecation- Darius?!

SCRATCH SCRATCH-

"Watch out!" shouted Ryou, bolting upright in bed.

Darius jumped, hands frozen in the act of giving his sword to an attending soldier. His subordinate was already holding the red and black hauberk, though he dropped the helm in shock. The two large hounds scrambled to their feet where they'd been sitting near their master and stared at Ryou with much the same expression of astonishment.

Ryou gaped, looking around for a monster that did not exist. But the shadows, flickering from the light thrown by a set of candles in a holder, were empty.

"Sir?!" The tapestries partitioning the private quarters from the rest of the pavilion jerked aside and a guard poked his head in. Another hovered at his shoulder.

"It's fine," said Darius, still watching Ryou. Then he took his hand away from where it'd instinctively gripped his sword's hilt and turned towards his men. "It's fine. He's just got a case of nerves. That was his first battle. Leave. You can keep watch out front. You too," he told the soldier attending him and who was still staring at Ryou in slack-jawed amazement.

The guards obeyed immediately. The attendant bobbed at Darius and followed them out with the armor, presumably to go and clean off the smudges of blood on the hem.

Darius waited until the men had left, then he propped the sword against an open chest of clothes, crossed the space between them and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Are you alright?"

Ryou had had the time to sort fantasy from reality. Reality was already knotted, complex and thorny enough, he didn't need imaginary monsters to deal with as well. At least he thought it was imaginary...Though he could not explain it in words, that fledgling ability that had allowed him to feel the Rajin's arrival so many days ago and sense the dog-creature's presence back in Palis was now stretched to its limit, and he could not feel anything suspicious stirring.

"I'm sorry I startled you, it's nothing," he said, scrubbing his face and trying to rid himself of the memory of that ugly alien thing by sheer willpower. "Just a nightmare."

"A bad dream?" Darius looked at him searchingly. "Should I call for the augur?"

"The what?"

"The augur. Bad dreams of that scale should be properly interpreted."

"Ahhh, no, that's okay."

Darius was frowning. "If this is in any way a forewarning of disaster, we need to know, especially if we're about to be attacked. A few years ago, my friend Shahram woke up like that after a dream of a bull getting killed by a pack of wolves, and three days later half our unit were slaughtered in a Roman ambush, including him."

"It's okay, Darius, it was just a dream." One he would have no hopes of describing. And though he could not feel anything hostile coming near, Ryou instinctively felt that it was probably dangerous to think about that thing too hard, or even talk about it. It would be...it would be like sending up a beacon. Ryou could not even find the words in his own mind to describe what he was sensing, but in a world of multiple dimensions where the human mind could use maths to pierce the map of reality, it somehow held a kind of logic. And if there truly was something out there, Ryou felt he was better equipped at handling it than the local shaman.

A furry feeling made him glance down. One of the large hounds had put its head on the bed over Ryou's hands and was looking up at him soulfully.

"Good doggy," he muttered, mind still mostly elsewhere. There was slobber on the back of his hand. He pulled it away without making any sudden movements and wiped it discreetly against the covers.

Darius looked unconvinced. "Are you sure? You're awfully white in the face."

"Don't worry, I'm feeling much better," said Ryou briskly, glancing at his watch. "Three o'clock? Rand had someone bring me lunch and then he said I should rest, but I didn't think I'd sleep three whole hours. I'm sorry I invaded your space without asking," he added, gesturing at Darius's pavilion and the bed, a frame strung with ropes holding a rag-stuffed mattress. "Rand said it'd be best if I stayed here, because the tent and things I used last night were being tithed, whatever that means."

Darius was silent for a spell, gaze not wavering even when the dog put its head hopefully beneath his hand.

"Tithed means being distributed as part of pay-out after the battle, all tribute and capture being split according to rank and merit, as well as that portion set aside for the gods. Rand was right that it is best you stay here, to make it clear who it is who protects you, as you are a stranger in our lands. As for the time, I never got my head around your time keeping, but it's the middle of the night, the fourth qa, so I really do have to ask," Darius added with an unblinking look that drilled right through Ryou, "considering that you slept the equivalent of a whole day without realizing it, are you sure you're alright?"

"I'm fine," repeated Ryou a little weakly, stupidly glancing at the edges where tent met ground - with no hint of sunlight peaking through - and then at his watch again. Darius knew what clocks were, though he didn't use them himself. He'd told Ryou that the countries that did use them started their 'day' when the sun rose. This meant that the clocks had to be reset each day at dawn, but that was okay, they were so inexact they'd probably have to be reset anyway. Darius had been curious about Ryou's watch and had borrowed it for twenty four hours while traveling through Palis, but he still didn't get the concept of a day that started arbitrarily in the middle of the night. So it was up to Ryou to figure out that his Seiko was informing him it was three in the morning. He'd slept fifteen hours without stirring.

"I'm just a bit tired," he added diplomatically, avoiding Darius's gaze.

Darius said nothing, absent-mindedly scratching the mutt's ears, which resulted in a thump-thump-thump of tail on the beaten dirt floor covered in carpets. Finally he made a grumpy noise. "I'd be a hypocrite lecturing you on your use of magic earlier, when I cannot deny that I am glad you came back. Just swear to me that you will not do that again. You-...I can't believe you managed such a feat without training, but you might not get so lucky next time. And it's not just that. The Per Gathas might-...Just don't."

"I shouldn't need to anyway," said Ryou, an evasion Darius fortunately didn't catch. It wasn't that Ryou thought he'd need to do something like that to talk to Darius again, at least he certainly hoped they'd be able to discuss future misunderstandings without any grandstanding or need for extremes. But Ryou's ability might come in handy in the future. If a monster from the realm of nightmares managed to track him down, for example. He wouldn't know how to fight it, but he was certain that this 'magic' of his was the way to do it rather than waving a dagger around.

Darius looked willing to put the subject aside. He lost his serious scowl and put more attention into rubbing the hound's head and neck.

"Do you like dogs?" he asked over the ecstatic writhing and whimpering that resulted.

"We never had any," answered Ryou, instead of 'I've always thought they were dirty, noisy and not very bright. I'm not really good with animals, I prefer computers.'

Darius looked like he had something to say, but didn't know how to go about putting it into words. "I never bothered with them much when I was a child, but then-...It's not that I like them all that much. dogs are for warfare, hounding prey and guarding the house. But then I spent a lot of time with them, and I found them to be better than most men." He stared at the hound, then made a dismissive gesture. "That'll be a tale for another day. Cham, Zuru, out."

The dogs rubbed against his legs and then turned without fuss to slip beneath the partition and head towards another part of the tent. Darius watched them go, elbows propped on his knees, a slump in his shoulders. Ryou studied him with growing concern, which peaked into a worried "Are you alright?" when he noticed a slit in the russet linen tunic near Darius's shoulder blade.

"Fine," Darius answered, rubbing his eyes. "Oh, that," he added, when Ryou touched the hole in his top. "Someone hit me in the back with an aclys before Dyo nailed him; a glancing blow, no harm done, but the impact on the armor tore the tunic. I'll have it repaired." The last words were muffled as he pulled it over his head, unconcerned that he was naked beneath it.

There was a nice deep bruise forming where the 'glancing blow' had landed. Ryou wondered how he'd failed to notice Darius was injured earlier. Then again, they’d been busy.

Darius shrugged off the injury along with Ryou's suggestion of medical care. "The devotees of Hygiea have more than enough to deal with tonight. Ugh, talking of which, that's why I'm so tired. That son of a sick goat, Terentius - whom I otherwise love like a brother - had the good idea of making me the one to talk to Essin's Holy Seer. He said I'd scare her into submission. Yeah, right, she was awfully scared. The woman has a voice of a harpy, and she talked about every - single - detail. Assurances we wouldn't take anything from the Temples. That'd we restrain our soldiers so they wouldn't help themselves to more than the allotted tribute. My personal word that every bloody donkey in Essin would still be in its stable by the end of the month. We haggled over access to the wells, over the donations to make to each temple and the price to pay any father who saw one of his daughters knocked up. I damn well agreed to everything she asked for by the end just to get away, and just as I was standing up to leave, she started talking about the provisions we are going to bring the temple while we're here, to feed the priests, Romans and the women hiding out there. The gall of the bitch; every single bloody temple in her town is decorated with the Sun of Aten, and she wants me to bring her a basket of bread and a bottle of wine. Fuck. I told the Fury she was lucky I didn’t rip them all down and bury the cowards inside beneath the rubble, and that clammed her up long enough for me to get out the door. Damn, sometimes I wish we were back in the old days when women were only charged with the temple of Ishhara and otherwise shut up and did what they were told."

Ryou had never thought of himself as an ardent defender of women's rights, but the words "Why would a male priest have asked for anything less?" still slipped out by reflex, a knee-jerk demand for impartiality.

"No reason, but I could have threatened him more," Darius grumbled. "I swore to my brother back when I was seventeen that I'd never mistreat another woman again, and every female in the Outlands from here to the Maurya Empire somehow knows it. Never mind, I finished that and my other duties for today, I even managed to drink the cup of victory with the men and eat a bite, and now I have a few hours to spend on my own pursuits," he finished with a crooked smile. "That reminds me, here. I was keeping this for you."

As he said that, he reached towards the only thing he was wearing at this point, a golden brace clasped around his upper arm. He twisted and pulled it off, letting his hand sink once as if gauging the weight and, finding it sufficient, passed it to Ryou. The metal was warm beneath the latter's fingers from the heat of Darius's skin. It was studded with large round semi-precious stones, deep black onyx.

"What is-"

"A gift," said Darius, leaning back, one hand propped against the sheets.

"I don't need anything," Ryou said, bewildered. "I mean, you already gave me-" he gestured at the bracer around his right forearm.

"That's for protection. This is a gift. It's something Sezerena had, so it's not like he's gonna miss it."

Oh boy. Ryou stared at the jewel. He was already grappling with what Darius had meant earlier about swearing not to mistreat 'another' woman again, and how Ryou was going to ask about that and if he should. Now he had another moral quandary to add to that.

Darius looked puzzled. "What's wrong?"

"Um." Ryou knew that the line he was drawing was completely arbitrary, but accepting what had happened today and the violence that would surround him in the future was one thing. Receiving war plunder obtained from the bloodied body of the middle-aged man he'd seen dragged away by the heels earlier just seemed like going too far past the point of no return.

But how to explain this to Darius, who was looking at him quizzically and, beneath the blunt exterior, seemed just a little disappointed at his reaction?

"My grandfather-" started Ryou and stopped in sheer amazement that he was even contemplating saying this. But he was free to do so now, he realized. That was an upside to burning one's bridges; it put a certain distance between oneself and the past.

"My father founded Ujiie Security and Trading after selling off my grandfather's firm for a lot of money," he continued, staring at the golden jewel cupped in his palm. It hardly seemed to matter that Darius might not understand all the words and notions he was using. "My grandfather built his fortune up from scratch after a terrible war that-...I can't tell you what it did to my country, I don't think you have the concepts. Suffice to say that populations four times the size of Essin's were wiped out overnight during some of the attacks, and it went on for months. Yeah," he said in acknowledgement to Darius's look of shock and superstitious sign to ward off evil. "It left my country devastated...My grandfather had friends in the new government, and he used them to obtain contracts and build up a transport and reconstruction business to help the worse hit areas. It made him very powerful politically, and very rich. He was proud of the fact that he'd bettered himself that much. He was just the third son of a minor Kyoto family before the war. When I was young, I thought it was a great story, and a great thing for my grandfather to have done. I did not understand why my father didn't like to discuss it. It was only later, during my schooling, that I learned a bit more about all this. How many of the men who were involved in the rebuilding made money by skimming off the funds that had been earmarked by the Allies for aid, to the detriment of people terribly afflicted by the war. My father took me and my brother to a war museum when we were young, and-...it...stuck with me to this day. I don't think even my father knows for certain if our family was implicated in those kind of deals. My grandfather can't tell us now, he's in a home, dementia, he can't even speak anymore, and of course my father would never dig deeper. We've never even discussed this out loud, but I think he suspects..."

Ryou looked down at his hands. Somewhere in a far-off land, possibly several dimensions away from this one, his father must have woken from a sound sleep with the knowledge that his eldest son had just done something irremediable to their family name. Ryou did not think he'd managed to adequately express his feelings on the matter anyway. He could barely remember his grandfather as a healthy man, and their family name had never been attached to any scam or scandal that'd been investigated decades later, to everyone's relief. In fact Ryou was convinced his grandfather was guilty of nothing more than being at the right spot at the right time with the right idea and the will to make a lot of money, with perhaps a little hedging on the bills and hiking a few prices thrown in. Not that much all in all, and if their family had any bad karma still attached to them, then Ryou knew his father was working on that. He had to give the president his due on that account; he always kept a close eye on UST's dealings, and the company made charitable donations to various causes. It didn't feel particularly charitable when his father did it, Ryou conceded, more a matter of personal expiation for the sin of having made money the smart way rather than the honorable way, but he still held to his principles. So would Ryou, even if it was for the same, flimsy personal reasons.

"It's just something I believe in, that most of my countrymen believe in very strongly. War is something that must be avoided at all cost, and never, ever profited from," he concluded.

Darius digested that in silence for a moment before pointing out the obvious. "Ryou, we're at war-"

"I know, I know. But that's justified. Even pacifists - people who believe in peace back in the Inlands - even they agree that resisting invasion is permissible," said Ryou, bending the truth a little.

Darius gave him a pointed look. "You do remember this is not Assyria, right?"

"...Well, King Ka is one of the founders of the Alliance and he did invite you and Terentius to help him pacify a province that was risking the stability of the whole region...you're sort of a peacekeeping force."

"A what?"

"Never mind. Um, thank you for the gift, but I don't think I can..."

"Well as long as you're with me, you won't lack for bread and wine," said Darius prosaically, picking the brace from Ryou's fingers and tossing it from hand to hand. "I'll give it to tithe to someone."

"Could you give it to Targuta and his men?"

"Who? Oh, those lame sheep who let you slip loose so you could go and nearly get yourself killed."

Ryou took it from Darius's tone that he did not like the suggestion. "That was my own decision and my own doing, you know. And you said you didn't regret the result. Don't hold it against them."

"Yeah, yeah, I'll see to it they get half a share," Darius grumbled. "But damned if I'm showing them favor beyond that. Discipline would go to the dogs." The bracelet described another arc through the air.

"The tent I was in last night," said Ryou, watching the golden hoop dance before his eyes.

"Huh?"

"Rand said the man who owned it had died."

"Yeah? Oh, true, Dionysodoros told me. Teratiqas, one of my officers. A lucky shot from a bowman up on the wall while his party was scouting the river fork. It's a damned shame, he was a good man."

"Did he have a family?"

"Yeah, several by the sounds of it, the horny goat," Darius snorted, then he glanced down at the jewel with understanding. "Oh, you want them to have this?"

"If that's all right."

"Sure, I'll get Jexen to get it to them." Darius tossed the jewel onto the end of the bed, then he put his freed hand on Ryou's cheek. "Ah, my gentle, selfless magian, a better man than I would have marched you to the Paths and kicked you back to your kindly country. But that man is not me..."

Ryou knew damn well he wasn't selfless, since all he was indulging was his own skewed sense of ethics which he was compromising anyway, but it didn't seem to be worth discussing further.

The hand on his cheek dropped to touch Ryou gently on the right arm. Ryou glanced down and noted with some surprise a new set of bruises appearing. Oh yes, from where he'd fallen off the horse after his jump through space. As if the sight was a reminder, Ryou suddenly realized he felt sore and stiff all over.

Darius's finger traced the mark so gently it didn't hurt. His gaze was tracing something else, Ryou's bare chest. The look was appreciative.

"I'm out of clothes," Ryou mumbled. His usual willpower banished any trace of blush that might have been tempted to invade his cheeks. "I just have that tunic over there-"

"We'll do something about that tomorrow. What you're wearing now suits my tastes just fine," was the foreseeable answer. "Tell me, Ryou, are you tired?"

"No," said Ryou after clearing his throat. "Aren't you, though?"

"Oh yes, but I still have some energy to burn," answered Darius, that smile now near Ryou's ear. "You told me much about your home, even if I'm too dumb a mutt to understand it all, but there's one thing you didn't tell me. Do the men in your lands know how to use their mouths in bed for anything other than talking?"

Ryou felt a smile twitch at the corner of his mouth. "Yes, as it happens, we do," he answered very seriously, sliding his arms around Darius's neck.

The deep, searing kiss that followed blew out the last dregs of weariness Ryou might have felt, There was something hasty and brittle about the force used. He could feel a tension in the shoulders he gripped, a fitfully burning force as Darius captured his mouth again. The commander of the Assyrians had gotten up early this morning, had fought until noon and had spent the rest of the day and night sorting out details and other sundries without the benefit of Ryou's long hours of sleep. He was currently burning up the last of his strength. It was a given that this was not going to last long again.

Ryou ran his hand down the strong back, avoiding the injured shoulder; chasing with the pressure from the heel of his palm the dying waves of tension that'd stop his lover from collapsing and sleeping like the dead as soon as they were done. Darius made a contented noise deep in his throat, a rumble like a big cat's purr. Ahead of his palm, Ryou's fingers explored the dips between muscles, the bony bumps of the spine and tripped over the etch of scars he'd only seen up until now - the memory of Darius bathing in that stream was going to haunt him until the day he died, or at least Ryou fervently hoped so.

"What's this?" he whispered, his fingertips feeling out tiny dips and dimples across his lover's lower back and bare thighs, losing themselves in the dark hair peppering Darius's legs.

"Hmm, a plague that spread from Kalicee when I was young," Darius said, talking into the skin of Ryou's throat. "Killed one of my royal siblings yet left me virtually intact. The Gods are either blind or have their very own sense of amusement." Then Darius slid off the bed, dragging Ryou's legs around so that the latter, startled, found himself sitting on the edge of the bed with hands on his thighs and a heated gaze looking up into his face.

"What?" croaked Ryou, overly aware that the only walls separating them from a camp full of soldiers were made of canvas. He cleared his throat and kept his voice low. "What are you doing?"

Darius gave him a lopsided smirk. "Seriously, what do you think?"

"Oh-" the rest of what Ryou might have been about to say disappeared as his mind went blank. And that was okay, he could live perfectly fine without thinking for the next handful of minutes... He relaxed and let the surge of feelings banish the last shreds of his nightmare vision back to the abyss.

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A note from Mal Chants

We are slowly coming up to the end of this arc, some 10 more (short-ish) chapters to go. Ryou's going to spend most of them dealing with the culture clash and political fallout of his decision to stay, but eventually, but eventually the magical side is going to catch up with him to, and this time he will not have the luxury of sticking his head in the sand and ignoring it to make it go away...


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Mal Chants

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