“It is being unexpectedly belligerent,” Dagmar remarked.
For the past twenty minutes, he had been trying to coax the blood replica of Armando into doing his bidding.
“Do not refer to me as ‘it.’ My name is Armando Medina!” The replica of the architect stood on the pedestal in the room where Dagmar kept him. His arms were crossed, and he stared at Dagmar without a hint of fear.
Rasmus had witnessed the Kelcho’s unsuccessful attempts with the creation. He stifled a smile as Dagmar fumed.
“I’m glad you’re entertained,” Dagmar bit out to Rasmus. “I hope you’ll still feel that way, when I put you in charge of it.”
“Do not refer to me as—-”
“Oh shut up. I heard you already!” Dagmar shouted at the replica.
The small figure only laughed, as the obnoxious traits of Armando had also been copied into it. The Kelcho had not expected this roadblock. An entity that was less than two feet tall should not have driven him to this level of annoyance, especially when he had created it.
“Perhaps this was a bad idea,” Rasmus stated drily.
He was feeling a sense of satisfaction, as he’d reminded the Kelcho a long time ago that the Blood Replica Spell was one of the most unpredictable enchantments. There were numerous reasons it was forbidden among the Nitelge. The strong possibility of unintended consequences was one of the many justifications for outlawing the spell. However, Dagmar had not allowed his vision to be trifled with and had gone through with his plans. The results of that were already turning out to be, at minimum, a severe annoyance.
“I don’t want to hear any complaints,” Dagmar told Rasmus. “Your father guaranteed that you would cooperate. Surely you would not want to displease him.”
Rasmus eyed the replica apprehensively. The replica mimicked his expression, even exaggerating it for extra effective.
“You appear to have most of Armando’s stubbornness but you will be of use to us,” Dagmar told the creature.
“That’s not possible,” the replica responded cryptically. “You might have created me but you don’t understand my true purpose.” The replica’s look of certainty and satisfaction unnerved both Dagmar and Rasmus.
“Dagmar, what was the main reason you called me here?” Rasmus asked, wanting to avoid discussing the replica any further.
“Come,” Dagmar said, leading him out of the replica’s holding cell. “We’ll talk in my study.”
When they arrived at his study, Dagmar sent a file to Rasmus’ tablet, directing him to read the information on it.
“I need you to investigate what Tybris has been doing,” Dagmar instructed Rasmus. “I’ve let him manage two of my territories but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s meddling elsewhere. It’s what I would do and he’s too much like me. I wish he comported himself as Aksel does; nowhere as driven. Aksel, his older brother, refused to manage any territories, even telling me that I should have had children if I wanted to ‘manipulate’ someone’s life.”
“Incidentally, why didn’t you have children?” Rasmus asked, wondering if it was a wise question.
“The one who should have been my life partner is with another,” Dagmar told him, as bitterness threaded through his voice, which then grew cold with his next words. “And besides, it’s more entertaining to make the children of others be my puppets.”
Rasmus bit back a curse and read over the file Dagmar had sent to his tablet. His eyes repeatedly returned to the picture of Tybris, surprising himself by how drawn he was to the other Nitelge’s features. He’d interacted with Tybris a few times but the last occasion had been almost a decade ago. He suppressed a smiled, as he admired Tybris’ facial features, particularly his deep, dark, intelligent brown eyes and strong jaw.
“Rasmus,” Dagmar prompted. “Are you listening to me?”
“Of course,” Rasmus responded, his voice full of resentment.
“I want to remind you, again, that your family swore that it would collaborate with me,” Dagmar stated, not particularly concerned about Rasmus’ mood. “Don’t disappoint your parents. Now get to work.”
Izdahl had opted to spend several nights at one of the Amasi cabins. Armando was peering mournfully at the empty side of their bed. He wondered if Izdahl ultimately planned to end their relationship.
He looked at the phone on the nightstand next to him. He checked it again, trying to see if he’d missed any calls from Izdahl. There had been nothing during the past three days.
I’m not letting this happen, Armando thought.
He dialed Izdahl’s number. There was no response during the first few attempts. On the fourth try, Izdahl did answer.
“I miss you,” Armando began. “Please come home.”
“And how would things be different?” Izdahl questioned. “Do you think this is easy for me? I could break up with you; instead, I’m here at this cabin wanting you but knowing that we’re lost. I can’t keep going like this.”
“I’ve been thinking about what I can do to bring us even closer,” Armando confided, with a tremor in his voice. “There is one very important thing I’ve never shared with you.”
“And what is that?” Izdahl asked. He believed he already knew but he wasn’t sure.
“I’ve never told you about the night my parents died.” Armando squeezed his eyes shut, already trying to fight back the renewed pain, as he thought about how his parents had been killed. “Please come home, so we can talk about it. I don’t want to discuss it without you here.”
Izdahl sat on the couch and watched Armando pace in front of him, wondering if he should encourage his lover to change his mind. When Armando pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a shuddering sigh, Izdahl reached out to him.
“You don’t have to do this, ‘Mando,” Izdahl said, giving his hand a squeeze. “I’m not certain if this is what I want. And, I’m not sure if it is good for you. So, I won’t think less of you, if—”
“Love, please…” Armando shook his head, motioning for Izdahl to stop speaking.
Izdahl became quiet and waited for Armando to be truly ready.
“I’d barely turned ten, when my parents died,” Armando began, after a few minutes had passed. “We’d gone to the beach during the week of my birthday. I’d received diving lessons and the day after we’d returned from the beach, we’d attended a convention on Nitelge/Human relations; that’s where I first saw some excellent examples of collaborations in the architectural field. It was one of the happiest moments of my life but it was all tainted by our return home.”
Armando paused and shut his eyes tightly, mentally preparing himself for what else he wanted to say.
Ramon and Olivia Medina had been listening to Armando and Kiana chatter excitedly about a short science-fiction film they had seen at the Nitelge/Human symposium. Periodically, the two adults would add to their children’s comments, talking about their favorite parts of the film. The conversation abruptly halted, when a valjeel, a malevolent creature conjured strictly for destruction, had landed on the top of their car.
The weight of the creature had pushed in the roof of the vehicle. The exceptionally strong being had beat its thick burgundy wings and caused the car to begin a jagged path that narrowly missed a series of other vehicles. Various drivers had honked their horns in anger, until they’d glimpsed the valjeel and some had lost control of their vehicles. Others had accelerated their speed, wanting to get away from what they’d known would soon become a gruesome scene.
Armando’s father had managed to stop the car, moments before it would have veered into a cluster of trees. Everyone had become quiet for a few moments, as their hearts pounded. Ramon and Olivia had turned to check on their children, who were peering back at them with wide, frightened eyes. The parents had been about to ask if anyone was hurt, when the roof of the car was peeled back, as if it hadn’t been made of one of the strongest metals on the planet. Ramon, Olivia, Armando and Kiana had stared up in terror as the valjeel peered down at them, its green eyes filled with the singular need to destroy, as it had been directed. Kiana’s scream had pierced the night. The creature had drowned her out, driving greater fear into the hearts of the Medinas, as it had signaled to the other valjeel that it had found the prey. Then it had reached for Ramon, gripping him by his head with thick black talons. Squeezing and twisting its talons, it had brutally broken Ramon’s neck before wrenching him out of his seat and tossing him ten feet away from the car, where he’d lain lifeless.
Olivia had hurriedly undone her seatbelt and began to crawl in the back towards her children. As she was making her way to them, the second valjeel had pecked at her. The other creature had arrived, eager to help do its master’s bidding. It had crushed the right front passenger side door and nonchalantly thrown it away. Then it had tried to grip Olivia’s leg, as its hunting partner turned glaring eyes to the children in the back. Olivia had been able to twist away from the valjeel’s clutches for a few seconds. Armando had grasped for his mother’s hand, their fingertips meeting for one hopeful instance, before Olivia had been hauled from the car.
“Take your sister and run!” she’d shouted to her oldest child, as she’d disappeared out of sight.
Armando had briefly frozen, when he’d realized that he might never lay eyes on his mother again. Then he’d turned to his sister, focusing on protecting her, as Olivia had requested. Kiana had undone her seatbelt but had huddled between the front and back seats. She’d covered her head, as she’d rocked back and forth, trying to drown out what was happening.
Armando had been struggling to convince her that they needed to get out of the car, when a valjeel had broken the window nearest to him. The creature had grabbed him and yanked him through the opening, causing him to suffer repeated cuts from the jagged remnants of the window pane. Holding Armando tightly, it had forced him to look at its hunting partner, as it expected him to be further traumatized, while it was to be entertained.
The other creature had ripped the door off the side where Kiana had been cowering. It had managed to grab her arm. Armando had watched helplessly, while the creature dangled Kiana, as if she were a toy. The monstrosity had extended a talon, preparing to slit her from stomach to throat, even as she struggled to get out of its grip.
“My sister was looking at me and screaming for help and I could do nothing!” Armando exclaimed, his voice tight with pain. “I’d tried to look away from what I thought was about to happen, when a figure suddenly appeared in front of me but he didn’t completely materialize. He’d asked, ‘Aren’t you the holder of the orb?’ I’d had no idea what he meant and I’d told him so. He’d grabbed me by my left arm and was shaking me, when a few Nitelge came through this portal. I’d hoped that help had come because I’d recognized Xersa and Marishi. The figure that had been questioning me completely disappeared, leaving the two creatures behind.”
Xersa had been informed of the accident and had arrived at the scene, as soon as she could. She’d cut the valjeel that had captured Kiana in two at the waist. Her daughter-in-law had caught Kiana moments, before she would have tumbled to the ground. Kiana had huddled against Marishi. The valjeel with Armando had taken flight with its prey. Xersa had followed, while Marishi tended to Kiana and called for more forces.
Xersa had fought with the creature as Armando hung perilously in its grasp. She’d been knocked from the sky, as the valjeel had struck her across the chest, opening a deep wound. Taking advantage of the situation, the valjeel had started flying away again with Armando. It hadn’t been able to get far, as it had howled and fallen out of the air. Its skull had been crushed by a boulder that Kehalos had crafted, moments after he had appeared and seen his wife in danger. Kehalos had caught Armando and returned him to Xersa. He’d then turned his attention to finding the figure that had started to conjure more valjeel, as the several Nitelge who’d arrived with him began to fight combatants that had revealed themselves.
Xersa had begun to cast a spell to open a portal to take the children to the nearest hospital. She’d known that the carnage was going to get worse and wanted to shield them from further tragedy. As she was casting the spell, a massive black fireball had rocketed from far across the road, creating destruction in its path, as it headed to its ultimate destination. The figure who had demanded answers from Armando had sent the blazing missile and watched as it barreled towards Xersa. Kehalos had quickly stepped into the fireball’s path to protect his wife and the Medina children. He’d fallen to the ground, when the flames engulfed him, as Xersa had watched in horror. Despite what she’d just seen, she’d been able to compose herself and take the children to safety.
“I must have passed out because the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the hospital,” Armando said. “My sister had been put in the same room. She still wasn’t conscious. She didn’t awake for another day and when she did, she started screaming. She had to be sedated…Sometime later, I heard Xersa and Uncle Guillem arguing. Then Xersa left without saying anything to Kiana or me. I didn’t see her for years…Did she ever tell you about that night?”
“No; it was too painful for her,” Izdahl admitted. “It wasn’t until college that I learned some bits and pieces from her. There were stories in the media but I never knew what the truth was. Very few who had survived would talk about it and that’s still the case. It’s a taboo topic because accusations continue to fly about who was involved and on which side. GG did speak of it one of those times I’d gone with her to visit GG Kehalos’ grave. It was the tenth anniversary of his death. She said when she returned to the scene, there was a full battle among hundreds of Nitelge. That night was a catalyst for the release of the discord about how Nitelge and Humans should interact.”
Nothing grew on the acres of land where the battle had taken place. The area was made that much more stark by the lush greenery and the colorful housing that surrounded it. Though there had been repeated attempts to bring beauty to it, everything that had begun to grow there had eventually died. Overtime, it had been left alone.
“Have you ever gone back to the site?” Izdahl asked.
“No. I drive by it only when it’s absolutely necessary.”
Izdahl stood and took Armando into his arms.
“Let me take care of you,” he murmured.
He led Armando up the stairs and ran a bath for his lover, soothing him and then letting him rest. When Armando had fallen asleep, Izdahl stepped out onto the balcony, wondering if it wasn’t time to begin asking more questions about what had happened to Armando’s parents and who was ultimately accountable. The issue remained a festering wound in Nitelge and Human cultures, still used by some as a reason for why the two groups should not interact.
Izdahl knew his great-grandmother had started several stealthy inquiries into what happened and had various suspicions but she hadn’t been able to get definitive proof of who was responsible. He felt it was time for him truly to consider all that she had learned. He’d been hesitant before, given the painful history and the distress he’d known it would caused many involved. However, now, it seemed that Armando might be open to answers and he wanted to help get them for his lover.
In the morning, when Izdahl awoke, Armando was looking at him with a pensive expression on his face. He lovingly smoothed a finger over Izdahl’s brow, down his nose and to his lips.
“Good morning, love,” Armando said, as he handed Izdahl a cup of coffee.
“Thank you. Morning, love.” Izdahl smiled and inhaled the aroma of his favorite brand of coffee. After taking a few sips, he asked, “Are you alright?”
“I feel much better,” Armando responded, as he sat in a chair nearby the bed. He hesitated before voicing his concern. “But…do you…still want me?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Izdahl set down his coffee cup on the bedside table and peered at him in confusion.
“Because I realize how patient you’ve been,” Armando said. “I haven’t properly shown you how much I love you, though I’ve had many chances. When you wanted me to see Sunja about my dreams, I should have done it right away. When you asked me to stay away from Dagmar, I shouldn’t have argued. And, after all of our time together, I should have shared my most painful experience with you. In some ways, you’ve been sleeping with a stranger.”
“Come here.” Izdahl beckoned for Armando. Armando went to him and he tenderly stroked the architect’s face and gave him a light kiss. “It’s not like I’ve been perfect. Maybe this is all an opportunity to recharge ourselves and get on stronger ground.”
“So then you want to stay together?” Armando asked, his voice wavering between apprehension and hope.
“How could you even ask that? Of course.” He held Armando’s chin and gazed firmly into his eyes. “And Armando, there’s something we need to handle. Do you understand me?”
“Absolutely,” Armando replied, with resolve in his voice.