After listening to Izdahl and Armando explain the events in Dagmar’s territory, Xersa sat quietly. The three were discussing the latest developments in Xersa’s living room. She leaned back in her armchair, repeatedly smoothing two fingers over her right eyebrow, as she pondered the situation. It was a motion Izdahl had seen various times and it meant his great-grandmother was making a series of quick calculations.
Armando looked back and forth nervously, between Xersa and Izdahl. While he was calmer than Armando, Izdahl was also concerned about Xersa’s reactions. He wasn’t able to read much into her expression. From years of experience, he knew that any recipients could be traumatized, when she released volatile emotions. She’d led her clan with a fine-tuned balance of coaxing and domination, knowing how to encourage but also dropping the hammer without remorse, when it was necessary. Her years of carefully maneuvering among the other clan leaders stood to take some damage from this latest development. Though Izdahl wanted a response from her, he knew better than to pushfor one. He remained quiet and pressed his hand on Armando’s left knee, to stop its incessant bouncing. He looked at Armando and gave him an encouraging smile.
“Clearly, you two should understand that I’m displeased with these events,” Xersa finally began. She pinned them with her eyes and Armando flinched, as he saw power and anger mingle in them.
“Yes, GG, and we never intended for anything like this to happen,” Izdahl quickly assured her. “Armando and I hadn’t thought it was possible for the barrier to drop the way it did.”
“You said that Dagmar seemed especially panicked. Correct?” Xersa took sips of her tea, as she listened to the response.
“Yes. He tried to be composed but he was genuinely worried,” Izdahl told her. “I don’t have proof but I doubt it was strictly because of the barrier falling.”
“There’s that presence I felt,” Armando reminded her. “It must have been the person who appeared at my bedside all those years ago.”
“Armando, can you remember the face of that person?” Xersa asked.
“I’ve tried for years,” Armando said, frustration running through his voice. “He must have done something to do me. There’s still some pain, when I try to think of him.”
“It could be different soon,” Izdahl told him. “You remembered the brand on his arm.”
“That’s all I’ve been able to do for a long time. Still, maybe more will happen. When that barrier fell, I immediately picked up on that feeling I had as a boy.”
“Armando, I’ll need you to access the Book of Truths with Sunja and me, as soon as possible. I’m going to contact her today and schedule a meeting with her. The three of us will get more answers, between the power from its pages and what we can do.”
Xersa rose; Armando and Izdahl followed her lead.
“And what should I do in the meantime, GG?” Izdahl asked.
“Stay away from Dagmar and all of his territories,” Xersa told him sharply. “That’s what I directed you to do a long time ago!” She turned and left the living room. Izdahl stared at the floor, embarrassed about the chastisement.
“I’m sorry,” Armando said. “If I hadn’t wanted to go to the statue…”
“It’s alright,” Izdahl murmured. “She’s worried for our safety, so she became a bit cross with me.”
“Look, let’s put this aside for the moment,” Armando suggested. “You have your practice with Metienne. If you can’t concentrate on that, you’ll get hurt.”
Despite Armando’s earlier words to be careful, Izdahl was failing to properly defend himself. Metienne’s knee fiercely connected with his ribs, sending shock waves through his body. Her follow-up punch to his throat sent him stumbling to the floor, as he fought to breathe. Increasing her power output, Metienne executed a vicious kick that sent him flying six feet into a nearby wall. Before he could get his bearings, a barrage of fireballs outlined his slumped body, the heat of them burning his hair and clothing, exposing skin.
Metienne was suddenly standing over him, berating him for his inability to fight at the level she expected. She’d been training him for the past two hours and had increased the level of aggression. As she’d reviewed his techniques for the Elite Nakra Hein, his growing lack of concentration had finally caused her to lose her patience.
“I don’t have time for your bullshit!” Metienne blared into Izdahl’s face, her dark brown eyes filled with fury. She punctuated each syllable of the last word with a jab of her index finger into his forehead.
“I get it!” Izdahl suddenly shouted, smacking her hand away.
“I think you need to return home,” Metienne said, as she stood up, her hands on her hips.
“I apologize,” Izdahl told her, the words in contrast to the way he snapped them. He forced himself to use a tone that was calmer, as he added, “I know you’re just trying to help.”
“Yes, and you’re the one who asked me to train you. Entering the Elite Nakra Hein isn’t a requirement. If you’re not prepared, you’d better—”
“I’m not withdrawing. Don’t even suggest it.”
“Then you must listen to me,” she insisted. “You have to hone your skills and be in the right mindset, for Armando to draw amplification markings on you.” She adjusted her long black hair, tying it back into a tight bun. Throttling Izdahl had forced it to come loose. “Have you spoken to Armando about what you want?”
Since the Elite Nakra Hein was considered especially dangerous, combatants were permitted to have protective markings drawn on their bodies. Each fighter selected one person to do the markings, under the guidance of a skilled calligrapher.
“Not yet,” Izdahl said. He flinched, as his body begin to heal itself from Metienne’s onslaught. “Armando is preoccupied with other things. I’ve been reluctant to worry him. Since humans are currently forbidden from seeing the sparring, he has no idea of how dangerous it is.”
“I understand but he needs to know soon.”
“I’ll tell him. I promise.”
“Excellent. I only want you to do the right thing. I’d hate to see you get your ass destroyed at the sparring,” Metienne said. “I don’t want to feel second-hand embarrassment for you. And since this will be the first Gathering humans can attend, you’d be shamed in front of a whole new group of people.”
“That’s why I train with you, Met,” Izdahl responded drily, as the ribs on his right side realigned. “I know my ego won’t get stroked.”
“Good. Then, let’s get back to practice. Afterward, we’ll talk about your power display for the opening ceremonies.”
Izdahl grinned with excitement, as he thought about his idea for the display. Each of the 16 contestants would create a thrilling entrance to impress the crowd and, more importantly, hopefully intimidate the other participants. After considering several concepts, Izdahl had finally settled on one. He was looking forward to refining the details with Metienne, once he’d surpassed the hurdle of surviving the rest of that day’s lesson. The burns from her fireballs were still healing, though at a much faster rate than months ago.
Dagmar sat on the balcony outside his bedroom, watching the setting sun. He contemplated the recent developments and what they might mean for him. The barrier for Zaitis’ statue had been repaired that afternoon but there were aspects of Dagmar’s life that were on their path to being ruined. He’d confirmed for himself that the one he’d forced into stasis and trapped within the barrier was gone. The meddling of Armando and Izdahl had released Volpe, an individual who could destroy what Dagmar was building
The history between the Kelcho and Volpe was volatile. Volpe was hired because of his ruthlessness, which hadn’t been a problem, until his target had become the one who’d commissioned his services. Volpe had begun questioning why Dagmar wanted to kill the Medinas. As a mercenary who’d left his guild to swear allegiance to Dagmar, Volpe wasn’t supposed to have cared. Yet, his views had changed, once his partner, Farai, announced that she was pregnant. Fatherhood made Volpe reassess his priorities and scruples.
Volpe’s new mindset hadn’t been acceptable for Dagmar. To bring Volpe in line, he’d hired another mercenary to capture Farai. As expected, Volpe’s view changed and he’d hunted the Medinas. Since he hadn’t completed the job, Dagmar punished Volpe by killing Farai, at least that’s what Volpe thought. Using magic, Dagmar had fooled Volpe into believing what he’d seen. Driven by grief and anger, Volpe had attacked Dagmar. In the ensuing fight, Dagmar was viciously wounded but ultimately managed to incapacitate Volpe, forcing him into suspended animation.
Dagmar resisted completely using magic, to heal the deep wound that Volpe had cleaved between his shoulder and neck. He’d administered enough magic to keep himself from dying. When he was well enough, he’d hidden Volpe inside the barrier protecting Zaitis’ statue, while convincing Balvan to keep Farai within one of his territories.
As weeks had passed after the violent altercation, the mutilated flesh of Dagmar had knitted itself back together. The pain and the resulting scar served a purpose. Whenever Dagmar found himself wanting to show mercy towards someone, he’d touched that scar, reminding himself of the importance of knowing when to be ruthless.
His fingers found that scar now. He’d taken deep satisfaction in separating Volpe and Farai. If he couldn’t have the relationship he’d wanted with Hadil, a lowly Terada mercenary who’d rebelled against him certainly wouldn’t have a relationship either. For decades, Dagmar had been able to enjoy what he’d done, until recently.
Izdahl returned home that night, after the extended training session with Metienne. Armando’s eyes filled with concern and sympathy, when he saw his lover. He noted that Izdahl was limping, there was a gouge extending from his right temple to just above his cheek and a three-inch patch of hair on the left side of his head was gone.
“Don’t look at me, until I fully heal,” Izdahl grumbled. “Metienne only let me treat the worse wounds at the gym. She wanted me to ‘wear some shame’ because I was beaten so badly today. She made me walk in the crowded downtown, mocking me about my skills regressing. Do you know how many people were staring at me? It will be on the news, if it isn’t already! I can only imagine the shit I’ll hear from Syrik.”
“Oh, it couldn’t have been that bad,” Armando teased, marveling as he saw the injuries healing, even as he spoke. “You’re still alive.”
“If I wasn’t feeling so broken, I’d give you one vicious spanking!”
“Promises…” Armando ran his hands through the renewing hair on his lover’s head. “I think dealing with me pestering you is a small burden. It’s more than covered by how powerful you’ve become.”
“The only thing saving you is that I need my strength,” Izdahl informed his lover, as he wrapped his arms around Armando’s waist. “I have to see Metienne again tomorrow.”
“Yes, for about another month but I get a break two weeks before the tournament.”
Armando peered closely at Izdahl, seeing the pain and fatigue in his lover’s eyes.
“How about I make you some of that tea your mother sent?” Armando suggested. “It should help soothe your aches.”
When Izdahl began his training months ago, his mother had used her skills to make him a special drink. She knew the rigors of the Elite Nakra Hein, as she’d been on call to heal those who were critically injured during the actual competition. The destructive powers of the fighters left little to no time for conventional medicine to repair their injuries. Life-threatening damage often required the use of magic. After attending several Elite Nakra Hein events, Hadil had begun distilling some of her healing powers into a tea that participants used after their practices.
“That would be great,” Izdahl said to Armando’s offer to tend to him. All of his injuries had healed by then but the boost from the liquid would help him feel even better.
When Armando left the room to make him some tea, Izdahl settled himself on the couch. He picked up his tablet from the nearby end table and turned it on, going to an internet page he’d been eager to see all day. Looking at the contents of the page made his heart beat faster. Dmitri had emailed him a link to some fan art, where admirers of the Core Guardians and their Core Receptors showed off their illustrative talents. The graphic material was especially appealing to Izdahl. As he looked at it, he gained some ideas; there were a few things he hadn’t tried with Armando. He’d never done Armando against the wall. They’d never had sex in either of their cars; or in a field. He added those places to his carnal wish list. However, the image that truly appealed to him was Armando inside him. They’d never switched, having fallen into the pattern of Izdahl entering Armando. He was still enthralled with the image, not hearing Armando return.
“Hey, did you hear me? I said here’s your…” Armando’s voice trailed off. He carefully set the tray with the tea and a sandwich down, after noting the expression on Izdahl’s face. A flush rose from Izdahl’s neck, all the way up to his hairline.
“What’s wrong?” Armando asked.
“Nothing,” Izdahl said, shaking his head vigorously, as his eyes widened. Armando narrowed his eyes and studied his lover. Then he glanced at the tablet, which Izdahl had clutched to his chest.
“Give it to me,” Armando said, holding out his hand.
“What? No? I’m just checking my email…”
“You’re terrible, when it comes to lying to me.” Armando motioned again for the tablet and Izdahl reluctantly handed it to him. When Armando saw what was on the screen he smiled, then he began to laugh.
“You want something like this?” he teased, looking at Izdahl through half-closed eyes.
“It’s not a big deal.” Izdahl rubbed the back of his neck, as he glanced everywhere but at Armando. “Someone mentioned these images were online and I was curious.”
Armando set the tablet aside and closed the distance between them. He pulled Izdahl to his feet; then, he slid his hands around his lover.
“I can make that all happen for you,” he promised, playfully squeezing Izdahl’s ass. “But I’ll keep you guessing about when.”