Duty and Sacrifice: Avristin

The God Jars Saga Book 2

Avristin-Kindle

Avristin isn’t the quiet, contemplative monastery he imagined…

Valis escaped his birth father and made it to Avristin. Now, the adopted son of his two saviors, the honorable Aesriphos Kerac and Darolen, Valis vows to become just like them. The only things standing in his way are his lack of magic and crippling social anxiety.

With the help of six new friends, Valis hopes to overcome his new fears. But when the eldest of the group, Tavros, finds the mark of the evil God, Qos, tattooed on Valis’ skin, he sends Valis right back into his birth father’s clutches.

Surviving and escaping the prison cell is just his first test. Once he’s back in Avristin, more await. And with Tavros as his new mentor, Valis needs to do everything in his power to make the man trust him again. Valis’ entire future depends on it, in more ways than one.

Published: October 31, 2017
Publisher: Magelight Press
Cover Artist: Devon Vesper
Genres: FantasyFantasy RomanceM/M Gay Romance

4.3/5

Kindle: $4.99
Paperback: $12.99

Part of the God Jars Saga:

No amount of hard work and dedication could ever prepare Valis for becoming the world’s only hope of survival, but after finding love and true family he’s determined to give that destiny his all.

The God Jars Saga by Devon Vesper is a raw epic tale of strength and love in the face of adversity. If you’re looking for sword & sorcery fantasy with rich character development, intensity, uniqueness, and an unforgettable love story, look no further!

Over two-thousand years ago, one of the ten God Jars went missing.

In the wake of that ancient theft, the god attached to that Jar has become evil and wrought havoc and despair across the world. Brave souls of the Aesriphos order that’s comprised of same-sex mated pairs of noble men and women battle the resulting scourge with magic and might while continuing the endless search to bring the missing god jar home and end the devastation.

But soon may not be soon enough.

In this nine-book epic saga of medieval-esque sword and sorcery, the weight of the world rests in the hands of a single man, but only if he can find the strength within himself to overcome his trauma and face the world as he truly is.

Chapter 1

The moment he stepped into the monastery, it was like Valis stepped into a whole other world. Avristin was in the center of Cadoras City, and there were people everywhere. And seeing such a crowd in the vast white halls made Valis cringe against Darolen’s side. His new adopted fathers, Darolen and Kerac, were his rocks. It had taken him so long to trust them, but they had shown him, over and over again, that they were worth it.

They both proved it again as Darolen wrapped an arm about his shoulders and Kerac drew closer to Valis’ other side. Their love wrapped around him like an ethereal blanket, and Valis felt himself relax, even if only a little. Even after months of traveling from the farmstead where Valis had spent his entire life with his abusive and murderous father, toiling the land and praying that day’s beatings wouldn’t break bone, Valis still couldn’t believe his fortune. Those months spent with his new fathers were the brightest spots in his life, and he wondered if that would come crashing down around his ears as everything else had in his life until his fathers had saved him.

That thought solidified as one man with short black hair stared hard at him from a group of youths on the periphery of another throng of people. Everyone they passed stared while trying to act and appear as if they weren’t gawping at them. That black haired boy, though, made something in Valis shiver. The intensity of his gaze, the confident way he stood and his presence drew Valis in like he’d never experienced before. But the connection he felt with that man broke as Darolen and Kerac ushered him past that group of people, and the loss of it hit Valis like a bucking horse. Right in the chest.

The image of that man’s face haunted Valis’ thoughts. It continued until they reached what Valis learned was Darolen and Kerac’s shared suite, and so did the gawping of everyone they passed. Valis’ spent the next hour in Avristin taking a long, luxurious, hot bath where Valis daydreamed of that man, a nap where he dreamed of him, and then a short tour of the monastery’s upper floors where Valis kept hoping he would see him again. He didn’t get his wish, and Valis wondered if he ever would again. But at least his fathers kept his mind occupied with the tour.

The monastery sat just beyond the small village at the front of the city that he, Kerac, and Darolen had passed through to get to the monastery’s gates. Looking at it from the high windows showed just how vast the city was, and it both thrilled and terrified him. Kerac went on about how there were several villages within the city’s vast defensive walls, but he mostly went on about the interior of the monastery, itself due to Valis’ excited questions. Avristin dominated the area with tall towers and vast wings. The central tower stood tallest and glittered with a domed crystal ceiling.

Inside, Valis followed Kerac and Darolen around like an inquisitive and adoring kitten. The press of people made his stomach roll, but as long as he kept his fathers in his sights, tucked mostly between them, he felt a little better. The anxiety threatened to consume him, but everyone they passed seemed pleasant after the initial shock of their presence. Some were even nice. He tried to turn his attention fully on the grand monastery, the white halls, rich tapestries that hung in some areas. But that anxiety put a damper on the gorgeous surroundings. While everything was simply made and spartan in most areas, it all held such stark beauty that it soon became almost as overwhelming as the press of so many people.

“Stop gawking, lad.” Darolen laughed and nudged Valis’ shoulder. “You will have free rein to ogle everything soon enough. First, we fill our bellies, then we need to take you to Brother Bachris for residency protocol. Get you your own room and such.”

Still stunned at the beauty and the people, Valis only nodded and stared at the groups they passed. He couldn’t help it. While his stomach crawled with anxiety, he still was so curious that his eyes went from one pack of people to the next, though if he were truthful with himself, he was again looking for that black haired man.

Some of the people in the tight groups wore the white garb with gold and blue trim like Brother Cazho had at the garrison. It shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. Others wore plate or chain armor. A few wore simpler cotton or wool shirts and pants, akin to what Valis wore. The diversity in styles of each kind of clothing had him nearly dizzy with the colors, textures and gilding. With their jewels and precious metals, some seemed more important than others, while some just looked to be flaunting their riches.

He leaned in against Kerac and whispered, not daring to speak aloud lest he draw unwanted attention to himself, “Why are so many gilded?”

Kerac glanced around with a confused frown and cocked his head, then chuckled. “Some of the residents here come from very wealthy families. If they become Aesriphos, they often donate their inherited wealth to the monastery. After several generations of such donations… well, they had to do something with the gold and jewels. We are self-sufficient here with farms and ranches within the walls. Few things must be bought or traded, and what little need there is, most of it gets donated from families outside the city.”

“So everyone is gilded?” Valis asked. “Truly?”

Kerac grinned at him, but shook his head. “Aesriphos are decorated or gilded in line with our status as Holy Warriors and decorated differently depending on rank. Those you see wearing decorated armor, are either in ceremonial use, or they need to distinguish their ranks for one reason or other. Warriors of the Fold who are not magically inclined are not as gilded. They have blue enameling on their breastplates with Phaerith’s symbol.”

“And the others?” Valis asked, gesturing toward a man wearing stylish leathers with gold and silver accents, an ornate sword strapped to his hip that looked to be more for show than actual use.

“He is a visiting dignitary, from what I can tell,” Kerac mused. “We get them from time to time. Generally, they come to gain some peace in their lives, to pay their respects to Phaerith, visit family members or what have you. With the blizzard, they may be stuck here until the storm passes and the roads are cleared.”

“Ah, that makes sense.” Still, it didn’t stop him from looking while trying to use his fathers as human shields so no one would notice him gawking.

After a long walk down a series of corridors, they entered a large dining hall strewn with strategically placed tables and sturdy chairs. Delicious scents assaulted him. Everything smelled so good, but at the same time his stomach seemed to shrink in on itself as he noticed the hall was packed with people. He did his best not to focus on the crowd, but noticed that there were at least a few people here with blond hair and blue eyes like Valis had. Feeling a little less out of place, he turned back to the serving line and took a long look at the smorgasbord. Along one whole wall ran a buffet with the serving line on one side, and cooks preparing and setting out food on the other from the kitchens behind them. The robust scents of seasoned food and fresh baked bread had Valis’ mouth watering and his stomach squealing in loud pleas. Apparently the shrinking feeling was a lie, and his stomach was telling him to feed it, regardless of how he felt emotionally.

Darolen chuckled and patted Valis’ belly, completely ignorant to his stomach’s conflicted feelings. “Settle down, you. We’ll get you fed.”

“Not soon enough.” Valis groaned and rubbed his angry stomach. If only it would choose between ravenous and nervous. “We skipped breakfast, and I was too cold to find snacks.”

“You will live,” Kerac said. “Grab a plate and fill it. Remember, though, that you can always come back for more, but you can’t put back what you can’t eat. Start out slow and eat light. You aren’t used to rich foods anymore.”

As Kerac ushered him toward the serving line, Valis cast another nervous glance over the dining hall. Nearly every table was full to capacity. From what he saw, none of them had three seats available at a single table. The sheer amount of people… Valis had never seen so many before in his life. The hired farm hands were maybe twelve heads at most, and Valis had never been around them all at the same time, as they were always spread out along the fields. He shuddered and turned around to grab a plate, swallowing down his anxiety. If I could nap alone in the garrison, I can eat with strangers here. This is… home.

He sighed with that thought as he filled his plate. Just as he neared the end of the line, a male called out, “Hey Sunshine, come sit with us when you’re done loading your plate!”

Sunshine? Valis fought the urge to jump. Mostly succeeded. Looked behind him to see a collection of four boys and two girls sat at a table, all staring directly at him. One boy with long black hair akin to Kerac’s, but with gray eyes, smacked a larger male on the arm and frowned. “At least pretend you have some tact, Jedai.” He turned his attention back to Valis and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, Brother. The offer is real, no matter how badly given.”

The last, he said with a pointed glare at Jedai. What did they want? All his life, Valis had known that kindness and generosity and offers of friendship came at a price. True… Kerac and Darolen had proved that false, but it couldn’t be that way with everyone. His family and a few of the meaner farm hands had proven that to him time and again. He couldn’t keep thinking that way. Not if he wanted to stay sane. He blushed, ducked his head, and Valis turned back around to finish filling his plate, intent on ignoring them. But Darolen bumped him with his arm. “I think you should.”

“Should what?” Valis mumbled without taking his gaze from his plate.

“Go,” he chuckled, “make some friends. They seem like a fun group.”

“I—”

“Darolen and I need to eat swiftly,” Kerac said, cutting off his objection. “We have duties to tend before we take you to Brother Bachris. They will do well to keep you entertained while we are away.”

“But—”

“Do you want to live here with Kerac and I as your only friends?” Darolen asked. “You have to start somewhere. We aren’t telling you to lick them, Son, just sit and talk with them.”

“But—”

Valis…” Kerac gave him a stern, but pleading look with his mouth set in a thin line, and bright, hopeful eyes. Valis knew that look. That look meant Valis would cave with his next sentence, and he knew it. “Darolen and I will have many duties here that will keep us away from you for possibly days at a time. I don’t want you to be lonely during our absences. Please. For us.”

He let out a defeated sigh as Kerac kept giving him that look. Valis had to drop his gaze before it melted him completely. Even his anxiety couldn’t handle that look, not with the way Kerac rarely asked him to do anything he didn’t want to do, anyway. Best he just treat this like another duty. Still… he didn’t want to. But, maybe they were kind, like Darolen and Kerac. Maybe they could become his friends. With a soft groan, he went back to loading his plate, stuffed two soft rolls on top of the mountain of food and drooped his shoulders. “Fine, but that was a low blow.”

Kerac snickered and kissed his temple. “An Aesriphos uses every tool in his arsenal to get the job done. And since you agreed, you are bound to your promise.”

Something tugged at Valis’ ponytail, and he whirled around, nearly sending his food to the floor. The polite one from the table caught and steadied his tray and plate with a laugh. “No stalling, Goldenrod. What would you like to drink? There is tea, fruit juice, milk, and cider.”

“I—Uhm.” He cleared his throat to keep it from squeaking, and to try to tamp down the intense blush that threatened to scald his face. “Milk, please.”

“I’m Aryn,” he said, laughter making his gray eyes twinkle. “Head on over, and I’ll be there with your milk. Spiced, or plain?”

“Spiced?”

The boy grinned and dipped his head. “Cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and ginger, warmed.”

Valis’ stomach gurgled, and his blush deepened. “Spiced, please.”

Still with that grin, Aryn dipped his head in a half-bow and turned toward the drink line. Caught between the urge to stare at Aryn’s back and the need to get his feet moving, Valis swallowed hard and slowly turned. The entire table still looked at him, most with laughter in their eyes. Laughing at me already… But one man in particular caught his attention. When he had his back turned to Valis, he hadn’t recognized him. Now, though, Valis’ cheeks heated as the black haired man from earlier stared at him with mild curiosity.

Regretting his promise, Valis made his way over and took the seat one of the girls indicated, which coincidentally resided right between that black haired man and where Aryn had been sitting. Then, as he forced himself not to look at anyone—especially the black haired man next to him, who sat so close Valis could feel the heat his body radiated—he realized something as he settled his plate down. Great. How am I supposed to eat without—

“You must be starving, Goldenrod,” Aryn said from behind him. He set silverware next to Valis’ plate, wrapped in a cloth napkin. “You forgot your utensils.” He set a large mug of spiced milk in front of him as he sat down and smiled. “Go ahead and eat. We’ll save the chatter until your stomach quits screaming.”

Nodding, Valis unwrapped his napkin and laid it across his lap as he would back at his farmstead, and resisted the urge to twist it and fiddle until his hands bled just to keep his outward composure in check. As he picked up his spoon, he glanced at Aryn. He needed to say something. He knew he did. What was it? …Oh. Manners. He ducked his head, wiped his sweaty palms on his napkin, and sighed before murmuring, “Thank you. Though, why do you call me Goldenrod?”

The raven haired boy grinned and reached out to gently tug his ponytail again. It took every ounce of Valis’ self-control not to flinch away. These people aren’t my family. Every touch doesn’t instantly mean an attack. If only his nerves believed that. His stomach kept pitting like it always did before he was about to get into trouble. But what could happen to him in a monastery? With a force of will, he shoved that feeling down so he could pay attention to Aryn, who was currently talking to him. “Your golden hair… and the fact that we don’t know your name yet. Calling you Sunshine was a bit emasculating.”

If he could get redder, his face would burst aflame. Rubbing the back of his neck, Valis huffed a nervous laugh. “I’m Valis Bakor.”

Aryn smiled and nodded, then motioned around the table. “As I said, I’m Aryn. Next to me is Jedai, whom you’ve already had the displeasure of hearing speak. To his right is Aenali, Jedai’s unfortunate sister. To her right is Seza, and her brother Maphias. On the other side of you, is Tavros.”

Valis nodded to each in turn. “A pleasure to meet you all.”

Tavros snorted and leveled a hard stare at him. “Gods, kid. We have to get you to knock that off.”

The tone made him flinch. It didn’t quite sound like Roba, but it was close enough to hit him in the soft spot of his memories. He sat back and frowned at the boy, anger flaring in his gut, even as that strange feeling made his cheeks flame hotter. “Knock… what off?”

Tavros.” That one stern word from Aryn had the boy cowed and muttering. Aryn cleared his throat and squeezed Valis’ shoulder. “Unfortunately, Tavros is my older brother. He has a small valid point though.”

“Which is?” Valis tried to keep the defensive growl from his voice, but failed. What were they on about? How could Valis get away if they all turned on him? Tavros didn’t seem as welcoming as the others, and he tried not to think about how much that hurt. Would they take his side instead of Valis’? Even if he was being obnoxious? They seemed to have put Jedai in his place, but Tavros looked to be the eldest of the bunch, and that automatically put him in the “danger” category.

Aryn only smiled at him. “Shyness. While endearing in some respects, it can lead to unnecessary tension… such as that growl of yours.”

The pretty brunette with braids coiled about her head cleared her throat. If Valis remembered right, her name was Seza. She looked to be almost Tavros’ age, but seemed kinder. A strange and mystifying mix of warrior and mother. It both calmed Valis in a way he couldn’t explain and made him feel a little awkward. She narrowed her eyes at Tavros, then pointed a blunt finger with the nail clipped absurdly short at Tavros’ chest. “Talking about it isn’t going to get him to open up and quit blushing, brutes. Aryn,” she leveled that finger at Aryn’s chest, which made the boy flinch, “you’re not his mother. Tavros,” she shot him another fierce glare, “behave. Valis,” she pointed to his plate and grinned, “eat before your stomach tries to devour us.”

Taking that as pointed permission to ignore everyone and focus on his food, Valis did just that. He got halfway through his plate before Aenali started bouncing in her seat and making whimpering noises.

“Can I ask questions now?” she whined. When Valis glanced at her, it became clear that she was the youngest of the bunch and probably sitting on something so she could reach the table. “Please?”

Her exuberance and cherub face made Valis laugh, easing some of the tension that coiled within him, and he set his spoon aside. “Only if you can somehow get more adorable.”

She gasped at that, and must have taken it as a challenge. With the brightest grin, she beamed at him with the force and light of the sun and fluttered her long, dark lashes at him. The whole picture, with her chubby pink cheeks, clasped hands, and doe eyes made him melt. He covered his face and shook his head. “Not a one of you warned me. …Go ahead.”

“YAY!” she squealed. “Where are you from? I like your accent!”

“Eight countries to the west, called Evakis. I lived in the township of Vau Taun.”

“How long have you spoken Arlvorian?” Seza asked. “You speak it like a native, minus the accent.”

“Eight months or so of traveling with my fathers.” He took a bite of his food and shrugged to give himself time to chew and swallow. “They taught me along the way here. Constant conversation helped.”

Jedai grinned and leaned over the table. “Teach us some Evaki curses!”

“Jedai!” Aryn cried, sounding scandalized. “You would ask such a thing.”

Valis blinked, gritting his teeth. Curses? His blood boiled. The only curses he could think of were the ones his father had cast on unfortunate souls who had crossed him. Other than that, Valis’ entire life up until he met his true fathers was a very long, painful curse that he would rather forget. Under the table, his hands trembled. He clenched them into fists, but managed to stay quiet.

His bewilderment—obviously not his anger—must have shown on his face, because Maphias laughed. “He means things like bitch and whore… things that aren’t said in polite company.”

His confusion grew, the anger and resentment bleeding away. What did they mean? Unable to parse that, he cocked his head and stared. “How can those be impolite? It’s what they are.”

Everyone at the table went quiet and stared at him. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Seza took a deep breath. “Okay. That backfired.”

“I don’t understand,” Valis murmured. “A female dog is a bitch. A woman or man who sells their sex is a whore.” A memory made him screw his nose up and chuckle. “…Though, there is a story behind that one.”

“Oh, gods,” Maphias laughed, “I have to hear this!”

Squirming in his seat, Valis grinned and ducked his head. “I was still learning Arlvorian. We passed through a city somewhere in Haiana. While Darolen went to get supplies, Kerac and I walked around the city so he could expand my vocabulary by teaching me new words.

“We came across a brothel, and the whores stood outside to get customers.”

Tavros laughed. “I can almost tell where this is going.”

Valis smirked at him, finally feeling a little more at ease now that the oldest boy was smiling, a devious twinkle in his clear as sky gray eyes. That twinkle had Valis warm to his toes, and his palms sweating, but he did his best to hide it and went on with a nod. “Perhaps. Anyway. I had trouble with certain sounds as my language doesn’t really have them. So, when Kerac wrapped his arm about a whore’s shoulder, spoke her title, and asked me to repeat it, I was already blushing due to the scanty way she was dressed. Kerac repeated the word. The woman repeated the word and grinned at me, urging me on. I had worked myself into a mild panic, so I was panting. When I finally opened my mouth, I gasped, ‘Whoa…’. Every whore at that brothel, and some random people on the street cackled every time they saw me after that until we left.”

They all stared at him as he sipped his spiced milk. He couldn’t help his chuckle. “Kerac spent the next week teaching me how to pronounce the R sound.”

It dawned on Tavros first. He laughed so hard that he curled in on himself until his face met the table. Each boy fell into line as they got it. The girls, though, still sat and stared. “I don’t get it,” Aenali whined.

Aryn spoke between bouts of laughter, “You’re too young to get it.”

Seza smirked and ruffled Aenali’s hair. “I don’t get it either. You boys must think alike.”

“Instead of calling her a whore, as they were telling me to,” Valis explained, “I couldn’t pronounce the R sound, so it sounded as if I saw her state of near undress and exclaimed, ‘Whoa!’ like a suddenly aroused client.”

Deadpan, Seza shook her head. “I don’t know if that’s disgusting or adorable…”

Aryn patted Valis’ shoulder to take the sting out of his words, still breathless from cackling. “Both!”

“What about insults?” Jedai asked. “Surely you can tell us some!”

“No,” Valis growled. The sudden souring of his mood made his stomach clench. Jedai actually recoiled back in his chair from the unintentional vehemence in Valis’ voice. “Almost every insult known in my language was used on me, my mother, or both of us by my father.” He spat the title, not knowing what else to call him. “I won’t teach you that filth.”

“I like him,” Seza murmured, her eyes wide. “He’s fierce, but I like him.”

“Calm yourself, Brother,” Aryn soothed. “He’ll drop the subject now. Won’t you, Jedai?”

For as big and stout as he seemed, Jedai huddled in his seat like a mouse hiding from a predator. “Yeah. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you, man.”

He stared at Jedai for almost half a minute before nodding his acceptance. He went back to his half-empty plate and tried to choke down more of his food. Just as he took a large sip of his spiced milk, Aenali bounced in her seat again. “I know some Evaki! Ishtan kegkt fezegundfekt!

Valis clapped a hand over his mouth. The snort caught him off guard, spiced milk burning as it sprayed from his nose onto his mostly empty plate. When he finally managed to swallow what little remained in his mouth, he laughed and started wiping up his mess. “You just said, ‘I wish to be your castrated bull.’ What I think you intended to say, was Ishtan kegkt fhavengekt, which means ‘I wish to be your friend’.”

“I was close.” She giggled and shifted in her seat so she could reach the table better. “It sounds prettier coming from you, though.”

He gave her what he hoped was a kind smile. “You were trying too hard not to swallow your tongue. I can coach you if you’d like.”

“I’d like that,” she squealed. Then she settled down and gave him a sheepish grin. “You seem like you’d be more fun than my preceptor.”

“Oh, I can try.” He ate a few more bites of his soggy food as he thought and shook his head. “You have to teach me something in return, though.”

She blinked those doe eyes at him and tilted her head. “Like what? I don’t think I could teach you anything you don’t already know.”

This was getting into vastly unfamiliar territory. Asking for things always got him in trouble before, even if it was as simple as asking to relieve himself if his father had him devoted to a certain time-sensitive task. But how much trouble could he get in asking a child for a return favor? Valis squirmed in his seat and poked at the remainder of his food, determined to put his past behind him one problem at a time. “I know how to read and write Evaki… not Arlvorian. I would like for you to teach me.”

“You want a child to teach you?” Jedai scoffed.

And there it was. Trouble. Just not the way Valis had imagined. Setting his jaw, Valis glared at him. “Is there a problem with that? Would you, perhaps, remember your youth lessons well enough to teach them to another? As far as I am concerned, she would be the perfect teacher, because at her age, she would remember how she was taught more clearly than an adult, and be more patient and less condescending.”

“Jedai, shut up.” Seza sighed and leveled a hard but bored gaze on the boy. “He has a larger vocabulary than you.”

Aenali just grinned, ignoring everyone except Valis. “I still have my old grammar books and lesson sheets! I can copy them onto fresh paper while you learn the basic stuff, so that you can have them when you get into the harder stuff! And the games! I think I still have the flash cards Mama made for me. Oh, Papa was so angry that she ‘wasted’ so much parchment.” She sighed, which Valis knew was the first breath she’d taken in that whole spiel, and grinned. “We’ll start in a few days, though. You look tired, Valis. Not sleepy, but… what’s the word?”

“Weary,” Aryn murmured. “Traveling for nearly a year will do that to a person, I’d imagine.”

“Weary.” Valis sighed and wrinkled his nose. His stomach clenched. Hard enough to make his food rise back up his throat. It forced him to swallow repeatedly to keep it down. The bottom dropped from his gut so fast that it felt like the whole world spun on a tilting axis for a split second. A shiver wound its way down his spine, but he tried to ignore it. He kept on with his original thought. No harm could come to him in the monastery. Kerac and Darolen had promised. “My bones are tired.” He rested his elbow on the table, leaned his cheek on his left fist and let out a tired groan. “To know that I don’t have to travel anymore, or worry about food for a while makes me want to curl in a corner and sleep through the winter.”

“I—”

“GUARDS!” Tavros shouted, cutting Aryn off. “Guards, to me!”

Startled, Valis jerked back and stared at the purple-faced man. Anger flared in his gray eyes and his lips quivered as they writhed back from his slightly crooked teeth. His stomach pitted again, harder than before. Bile coated the back of his tongue, flooded his mouth. He knew something bad was going to happen. He frantically looked around for his fathers, but couldn’t find them anywhere. Something told him to run away as fast as he could. But as he got up, his hopes to learn more about the captivating black haired man dashed away as Tavros tackled him to the floor.

His head hit just after his shoulders did. The pain made his full belly revolt. He turned his head and gagged, but Tavros covered his mouth with a hand.

“Tavros! Have you gone mad?” Aryn yelled. “Get off him!”

“He bears the mark of Qos!” Tavros growled. “It’s behind his left ear.”

Shit. Roba’s done it again. In prison and still ruining my life. He groaned, trying to keep his food down. Thunder rolled as several pairs of boots pounded the floor toward them. Male and female guards in armor of various gilding surrounded them on all sides. Tavros explained about the mark. He manipulated Valis’ head over with the hand on his mouth and jerked down his ear to show the tattoo.

Valis bit down on that hand when it shifted. Tavros squawked and jerked it away. “It isn’t my—”

The world flashed, cutting off his words. When it flashed again, Valis sagged onto a stone bench and gasped. The guards were gone. His companions were gone. Tavros was gone. He sat in a dark cell lit with only twinkling lights near the ceiling that had to be magic. Four cots lined the two longest walls.

At the back of the room, a familiar man grinned. “Even in this prison, Qos smiles upon me. My sacrificial son returns.”

“Roba! No…” Valis pressed back against the wall, his heart frozen in his chest. “No! DAROLEN!”

Chapter 2

“They can’t save you now, child.” Roba stalked toward him with lazy steps, a triumphant grin on his stately face. “They put you here with me, after all.” He stopped just short of touching Valis’ knees with the hem of his long tunic and rolled his wrist with a sigh. “Though, they could have removed that damned stasis from you sooner. It was such a tease.”

Valis’ gut twisted until he felt sick. If his heart beat any harder, it would explode. Sweat drenched him, but he rocketed to his feet. Balled his hand as he brought it up. He was done being the victim. Done being Roba’s victim. Kerac and Darolen had taught him to fight. To fight against evil. Fight for what he believed in. Fight to protect himself from the wicked and insane.

Just as his fist neared Roba’s face, the man grinned again and pain flared through Valis’ body. The scream that ripped from his throat startled Valis. Almost as much as the pain itself. He staggered. All the strength left his legs. His knees cracked hard against the floor before he knew he fell. Curling in on himself, Valis fought against the urge to vomit, not knowing when his next full meal would be.

The pain subsided and Roba laughed. “Petulant whelp. I own you.”

“How?” Valis croaked. “They stripped you of magic.”

Roba reached down. His fingers circled tight around Valis’ throat and squeezed as he lifted him up like a weak kitten. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. Not when he finally escaped. Not again. But it was. When Valis found his footing, Roba smirked at him. “Some magic can never be stripped, boy. Some magic will remain for eternity. Qos granted us magic that no one, no god, can ever dispel.”

He reached back and caressed the area behind Valis’ left ear where the tattoo marred his skin. The almost tender caress made Valis’ skin crawl. He cringed away. It only made his birth father chuckle. “You may just be useful to me yet.”

Panic had never felt this way before. Never made him this scared for his life. Even running from Roba’s hounds didn’t feel like this. At least then he had never had hope. Now all the hope he had gained with his true fathers fled, leaving Valis empty and terrified. That terror grew when Roba grinned, murder hidden in his eyes when the rest of his face remained calm. That was the look he got the day the village attacked. The look when Valis saw him hawking over his dead mother. The look when he glanced at Valis in the clearing when he faced off against Kerac and Darolen. To have that look leveled on him… He shrieked, “No! Darolen!” He fought to get Roba to let go. Anything to get that hand off his throat. Anything to give him a fighting chance. “Kerac!”

“They can’t hear you, child,” Roba said, calm as ever. He squeezed harder until Valis shut his mouth and whimpered. Part of him hoped that if he obeyed, Roba would grow bored as he sometimes did. But he had little hope of that happening. Not when there wasn’t anything else to amuse him. “You are mine now, just as you were mine back home, and just as you will be mine until your useless soul leaves your body, whether to fuel my success, or to wither away into the aether.”

Valis glanced around to see if there were any other prisoners in the cell. He knew there weren’t, but his frantic heart, his racing mind begged any god who might be listening for there to be someone hidden in the room. Someone who might help him. But out of the four cots in the tiny room, three were unused. The one Roba had vacated barely had a wrinkle in the blanket. His sire caught him looking. Grinned at him and canted his head. “Did you think that even if we were not alone you would go unpunished for the predicament you have placed me in?”

That grin grew. When Valis wriggled, the pain returned, hotter and sharper than before, piercing his head and core until Valis shrieked and went still. “Tell me, my son, what would you do if I stopped putting you in your place? You have no skills other than farm work. Your schooling is limited to what your mother taught you behind my back, and do not think it went unnoticed.” Valis’ heart stuttered. Roba sneered. “You are useless and pathetic, child. You are only worth what I seeded you to become.”

“What did—” Valis croaked as Roba gripped his throat tighter. His father’s knuckles cracked across his face so hard that the pain didn’t register at first. He stared as sparks filled his vision, numbed his senses. Then, the pain bloomed across his cheek like a gust of fire. Valis winced and let out a pained groan. When it hit, Roba chuckled as if every agonized sound from Valis’ throat brought him absolute joy.

“My time in stasis made you forget yourself,” he mused. “Must I again teach you the virtue of being silent?”

The skin around Valis’ nose and mouth twitched. Blood seeped into his mouth from a small cut and he sucked on it. When he had enough saliva, he spat in Roba’s face. “I’m not afraid of you anymore.” But that was a lie. He was terrified. Roba didn’t seem to notice.

“You don’t have to be,” he growled. “You just have to scream.”

As he wiped the spittle off his face with one hand, Roba threw Valis against the wall with the other so hard that he thought for sure his skull cracked with the force. He sagged off the bench, puddled onto the floor. Pain radiated from his core to his head and limbs in throbbing waves that pulsed with his heartbeat. Wounds opened up on the skin of his neck and back from whatever magic Roba wielded, trickling blood down his shoulders as it coursed through him. He clenched his jaw against the first dozen beats, but with each passing moment, it grew unbearable.

His scream made his own ears ring. He convulsed on the floor, unable to control his muscles. Roba snatched him up by his shirt front, slammed him against the wall again. The impact rattled his brains. He hit hard enough that his head and hips bounced away. Every time Valis tried to fight, searing pain shot through him until he went limp again. For the first time since Valis woke from stasis, Roba’s face became pinched and red with rage.

It died in the next second as footsteps neared the cell door. Within a heartbeat the high color drained from Roba’s face and he smoothed out his expression. He dragged Valis to the back of the cell and tossed him onto a cot. The man grinned and somehow gagged Valis with whatever magic he still possessed. As hard as he tried, Valis couldn’t make a sound, not even to whimper against the pain. It cut off his breathing and his chest instinctively heaved to draw breath that wouldn’t come. Flashbacks of Rygas doing near the same thing made panic well in his chest more than not being able to breathe did.

Just as his sire covered him with the thin blanket, the door to the cell opened, and the Aesriphos on the other side shoved in two new prisoners. They didn’t even look into the cell before they slammed the door closed, locked it, and stomped away. Once their footfalls faded into the distance, the new prisoners shuffled around. Valis barely heard as they took up two of the unoccupied cots. He had little interest in them through his agony, but their very presences made the pain worse somehow.

Roba came back to the cot and threw the cover off him. Valis writhed, clutching at his throat and mouth as the magical gag continued to cut off his breathing. He tried desperately to draw in even a sip of air. His mind worked furiously. How could he get out of this? How could he overcome Roba if he couldn’t even breathe? Would the spell fade if he somehow killed him? Even knocked him unconscious? Right now he couldn’t even get up. How—

“I could kill you right now,” Roba murmured. “Let you suffocate. Watch your face turn ever more purple, your blue lips gape like a fish ashore. But, no.” He smirked as he glanced over the blood that soaked Valis’ shirt. “Killing you would not benefit me at this juncture, and I think I much prefer a show. Your screams are so very lovely. I have missed them.” That smirk increased as Roba glanced over his shoulder. “Perhaps our new cellmates would enjoy a show, as well? We must see what you can do to entertain them.”

At that time, the spell on Valis’ airways released. His gasp for breath ended in a pained moan. He turned onto his stomach and got to his hands and knees. When the pain didn’t return, and his ragged breathing settled into steady panting, he glanced over to see Roba smiling darkly at him as if plotting. That cold, calculating look froze Valis in place. Cornered. Even if he could dodge the man, he couldn’t escape. Hope seemed a foreign thing again. Just like it was when he met his fathers. Please, Sovras, let them come soon. Will anyone even tell them? Tears burned his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. He had to be strong. Enduring this was just another duty. Wasn’t it?

Roba turned to their two cellmates and spoke in several languages that Valis didn’t understand. After a moment, both nodded slowly. Their attention settled on Valis, and malice glittered in both men’s eyes. Their hungry expressions grew as one spoke a few words. He grinned, and Roba turned to face Valis with a delighted laugh.

“Oh, they wish to participate.” He shifted around and mused to himself, “Perhaps I should let them entertain me.”

“No.” Valis’ voice was little more than a croak, but he pushed off the cot. “This is between you and me. Or are you that much of a coward?”

He expected his father to go purple in the face and become belligerent. Instead, Roba chuckled and reached over, grabbed a fistful of Valis’ long hair, and drew him close until they were nose to nose. His fetid breath cascaded over Valis’ face, bringing a different kind of nausea. The pain that skated over Valis’ skin and through his core had him trying to double over, but Roba held him still.

“Coward?” More pain flared as the skin of Valis’ anus split and bled, another cut opened along the length of his spine, immediately sticking his shirt to his back. He spoke over Valis’ screams. “See the difference between cowardice and taking joy in your pain.”

Roba turned to the two men in the room as he wrenched Valis off the cot and onto his feet. As he spoke, he stripped Valis’ shirt off and tossed it to the far corner. Valis shivered in the cool cell and helplessly followed where his sire led him. That fist in his hair did little more than guide him and keep him mostly upright. The pain that coursed through his veins and squeezed his heart and lungs every time he fought kept Valis from disobeying.

That pain made Valis barely able to stand. He still gasped for air, trying desperately to inflate his lungs so that the black spots quit dancing in his vision. His stomach pitted hard, but he already knew he was in trouble. Would he die in this cell? That seemed likely. Between every flash of black, he saw their new cellmates as the two rose from their cots and started to circle him like vultures who scented death on the wind.

Roba moved off to a corner and folded his arms as he rested against the wall in a relaxed pose. He seemed content to leave Valis in the middle of the room with the two cellmates. The dark skinned one sneered. He held his fists up near his face, ready to fight. His eyes darted around Valis’ body as if judging his first move. The tanned one with limp, mouse-brown hair kept trying to get behind Valis, keeping himself always out of his peripheral vision when he could. Trying to keep both of them in his sights made Valis dizzy.

While Valis tried to keep the tanned one in his sights, the ebony one came at him like a lightning strike. He caught Valis by surprise. His fist, hard as a hammer, cracked against Valis’ cheek where Roba had smacked him and renewed the agony. His head snapped to the side. It seemed like slow motion as his body followed. When he spun halfway around, the tanned man behind him caught him six times in each rib. His hands were smaller, fists feeling more like pickax blades.

They gave him no time to recover. While Valis reeled from the damage to his ribs, the dark one curled his fist low and caved in Valis’ stomach. He fought to keep his meal down. He gagged. Brought his hands up to protect his face from further assault. Curled to try to protect his stomach. The hammer and pickax strikes kept coming. Two to his kidney, one to the sensitive area in the pit of his arm. A kick to the back of his leg sent him to his knees. He nearly pitched to the floor. Agony bloomed everywhere. Each blow harder than the last.

Red began to creep into Valis’ vision between the dancing black spots. It throbbed with his rapid heartbeat. As the abuse continued, Valis slowly started to regain calm. Visions of Kerac and Darolen briefly flitted through his mind. Just that brief glimpse helped to fuel his resolve.

Valis’ eyes darted to the edges of his fists. He continued to protect his face. From his vantage, all he saw were legs and feet. In a swift move, he threw himself to the side and laid down. He kicked out his legs. They caught the smaller tanned man’s between them. As Valis twisted and sent that one to the floor, he pushed up and sent a hard, swift punch to the dark-skinned man’s groin.

While one wallowed on the floor to get the wind back in him, the other curled over and cupped his balls. Valis scrambled to his feet. He needed to disable one permanently. The easiest seemed the lanky tanned one. With that in mind, he kicked the dark one in the face and spun around. The other rolled onto his hands and knees, almost up again.

Valis had the barest plan. Movements swift, he darted to the lanky one. Every lesson Darolen and Kerac taught him, every spar came rushing back. But this wasn’t a spar. Spars weren’t life or death. He didn’t have time to think. Didn’t have time to plan his next move. His muscles worked from memory. He landed a swift kick to the lanky one’s stomach. The man let out a strangled moan and fell, curled onto his side. Valis swallowed hard as he lifted his foot. The red tinge to his vision throbbed harder and darkened as he stomped down. The snap of the lanky one’s neck brought Valis an odd sense of satisfaction.

A roar from behind him gave Valis only a second to turn around before the brick house of a man came at him again, swift as a snake’s strike. As that fist came at him, Valis’ training kicked in even harder. He barely dodged to the side. That fist grazed his ear so hard it felt like it ripped off. Valis used that momentum. He moved into the man’s space, grabbed his extended arm. As he curled down, he thrust his leg back between the man’s to get him off balance and threw him, breaking his arm at the elbow in the process. That brick house shattered. He landed with his back on the edge of the bench, limp. To be sure, Valis stomped again. His booted foot landed on his face again and again until his head caved in.

Boots covered in blood and brain matter, Valis fought to regain his breathing. He leaned against the wall on both hands.

Then the pain flared. He had forgotten about Roba. That was a mistake. His sire growled as he snatched Valis back by his hair. He bought Valis’ face close and narrowed his eyes. “You think you have won? You think killing them will save you?” The skin of Valis’ anus, along his scrotum, and a line around his throat split open. Fire erupted in his chest until he thought he would turn to ash. Knives stabbed him in the gut repeatedly and at random. The smell of blood, piss and shit from the two dead men clogged his nose and mouth, made him gag and gasp. Roba sneered. “Remember, child: This is the power I hold over you.”

A wave of nausea washed over him, and Valis curled onto his side, turning his back to Roba. Once his stomach was empty and he only dry retched, he rocked onto his hands and knees. He focused on his breathing like he would during sword forms. His mind cleared. Cold fury iced Valis’ insides until the pain of his lacerations, abused skull, and raw throat dulled to weak throbs. It steeled his muscles as he forced himself to his feet.

“You… hold no power over me, Roba.” His voice cracked and rasped. Each word felt like glass shredding his throat. “Not anymore. Never again.”

“We shall see,” Roba mused.

The pain flared in Valis’ core, worse than before. Thousands of knives stabbed at his center while torches and coals burned him from the inside out. He screamed as he staggered and dropped to a knee.

“Learn your place, boy!” Roba roared. The pain heightened another notch as he gripped Valis by his hair and shoved his head down. “I was too weak and slow to kill you then. Do not think I will be so again!”

The torment made Valis’ vision blur. Darkness encroached on his periphery that flashed with random white spots. He shoved away the panic that wanted to grip him and send him into the void of unconsciousness. Fighting for every breath, he huffed through the pain. He let out a throat-shredding scream and launched to his feet at an angle. His shoulder impacted Roba’s ribs with a loud crack as they both tumbled to the floor.

This ended now.

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