Purity and Control: Betrayal

The God Jars Saga Book 6

Betrayal-Kindle

Betrayal is the most painful blow to bear, especially from the one you love most.

The time has come. Valis is ready to finally join the Aesriphos ranks in an official capacity. The only thing standing in his way is his joining night with Tavros. But with nineteen days left before their marriage, Valis and Tavros are fighting to retain their sanity. Strange things keep happening, intent on tearing them apart. And no matter what Valis does to find the source of their anguish, he’s blocked at every turn.

Incessant nightmares, visions, and heated arguments strain their relationship to the breaking point, and harrowing events escalate in number and severity. Valis is forced to watch helplessly as the evil shifts to focus its malice on Tavros. And with every mind-bending incident, Tavros creeps closer and closer to the ultimate betrayal.

Valis and Tavros must marry to join the Aesriphos Order if Valis has any chance at rescuing the lost god jar. But if he can’t find the source of the insanity, he may lose Tavros forever.

Published: October 2, 2018
Publisher: Magelight Press
Cover Artist: Devon Vesper
Genres: FantasyFantasy RomanceM/M Gay Romance

4.6/5

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

Valis looked around at his room for the last time. Everything he owned had been removed. His closet door stood open, the dark inside even darker without all of his white uniforms giving it the appearance of the darkness not being so complete. The white walls shone from a fresh scrubbing. Even though the stone gleamed, it seemed dull and lifeless.

He touched the wall where the tapestry Maphias had bought him once hung. With everything gone, the room seemed hollow, without a soul where once it had so much life and, most of the time, joy. These walls no longer comforted him. It no longer felt like it was his. With the seating arrangement gone, the space felt cold and desolate.

“Are you ready?” Tavros asked. He closed the door behind him and came up behind Valis, pulling him against his broad chest.

Valis took a deep breath, taking his lover’s comforting scent deep into his lungs. “It looks strange, doesn’t it? I used to feel safe here. Now it feels foreign and cold.” He turned in Tavros’ arms and kissed the side of his neck, making Tavros shiver and pull him tighter to his chest. “I never saw it so empty. Even when I first moved in, it was full because of you guys and that surprise party.”

“And now Seza and Zhasina are decorating our new suite.” Tavros chuckled and let out a quiet, fond sigh. “I can’t believe you let them talk you into kicking us out so they could decorate for us.”

Valis shrugged. “It brings them joy. And I don’t mind.” He pinched Tavros’ side. “Neither did you. What did you say?”

“You shush.”

“Oh, no,” Valis teased. “You said you didn’t mind because it saved you the trouble of moving the heavy shit. Because they got Maphias and Jedai to do everything while the girls supervised.”

“And what do you think Aenali is doing?”

Grinning, Valis closed his eyes and rested his head on Tavros’ shoulder. “Probably bossing everyone around like always. She’s in charge of our office area.”

“Mm.” Tavros nuzzled the top of Valis’ head. “Why are you hanging around in an empty room? We could be doing other things. You’ve stopped your schooling before we left to rescue the Kalutakeni, and we need to get back into it. We could train, or—”

Valis cut him off with a snort. “Aren’t you the one who is always complaining about my inability to sit idle?”

“Cheeky shit.”

Your cheeky shit.”

Tavros rewarded him for that comment with a kiss to his temple. “Yes.” He gripped a fistful of hair at the back of Valis’ head and used it to tilt Valis’ face up so he could plant a sweet kiss to the tip of his nose. Tavros’ clear gray eyes seemed almost white today with just the dark ring around the iris to show where it ended and the whites of his eyes began. His black hair, freshly cut, stuck up in messy spikes that Valis couldn’t help but run his fingers through. Tavros groaned and squeezed Valis’ hair tighter, the tug delicious against Valis’ scalp. “Nineteen days,” Tavros murmured. “We get married in nineteen days! Are you getting excited?”

Smirking, Valis rubbed his nose. “Obviously not as excited as you.”

“You’re going to make me sad, Valis…”

“Can’t have that. You’ll pout for days.”

“I don’t pout.”

“Like you didn’t pout for the hour I wouldn’t pay attention to you yesterday because I was writing a lesson plan down for the reliquary guards? Or, how about that time you didn’t pout this morning when I said we couldn’t fool around because people would be moving the bed out of the room, and I didn’t want it smelling like sex. I had to promise orgasms in the bath for you to pull your lower lip back in.”

Tavros heaved a dramatic sigh. “Those were looks of disappointment, not pouting.”

Valis grinned and kissed him until Tavros was breathless, his hands squeezing Valis’ ass, grinding their hips together. “Noted,” Valis said between pants. “You get handsy when I’m trying to make a point.”

“I thought the point to the kiss was to make me handsy.”

Valis snorted and pushed against Tavros’ chest playfully. “Go check on the group before we get this room dirty again. I want to make a few last-minute checks.”

“There’s nothing left in either of the rooms, and they’re both sparkling clean,” Tavros said. His lower lip came out in another pout that made Valis kiss him again. “What are you checking for?”

In truth, Valis didn’t know. It must have shown on his face because Tavros leaned in and kissed his forehead. “It’s okay. I’ll see you in a few minutes. Take your time, love.”

Valis gave him a grateful smile and squeezed his hand. “Thanks.”

Nodding, Tavros squeezed back and left the room. But with him gone, Valis felt empty again. The room seemed to echo Valis’ heart and mind in that moment, and his thoughts drifted back to the morning of two days ago.

Aryn’s fury still seemed to reverberate through the room, even with the walls and floors stripped bare and polished to a high shine.

You bastards! I can smell your sex. It’s so strong I’m choking on it!

How could you do this to me?

You don’t love him. You just want him to take him away from me.

Nothing will help. Nothing…

You will be sorry. I’ll make sure of it.

The remembered sound of the door slamming still made Valis’ heart stutter in his chest, made his breath hitch as if he could still feel the breeze of Aryn’s passing. Two days, and it was still so fresh. Two days, and those words still cut Valis deep. Two days, and Aryn hadn’t said a single word to him since. His best friend had become closed off, withdrawn, quieter than normal. He almost seemed like a completely different person.

Nothing made sense. And with the echo of the door slamming shut behind Aryn reverberating in Valis’ mind, and precognitive feelings clenching his gut so tight he had to swallow repeatedly to keep breakfast down, he fled the room for the last time and leaned against the wall in the hall to catch his breath. Leaning over, he rested his palms on his knees, wrenched his eyes shut, and took deep breaths through his nose to calm his nausea. Why wouldn’t the memory leave him?

What was Aryn planning? Was this something he would eventually get over? How could Valis enjoy the time until he and Tavros married without his best friend by his side?

So many questions, and not a single answer. After Aryn had left, Valis hadn’t known what to feel. He’d stood stock still, staring at the door.

“What the fuck just happened?” Tavros had asked.

Like Valis, Tavros had stared at the door Aryn had just stormed through. The sound of it slamming echoed through the room, or was that echo in Valis’ head? Instead of the broken heart Valis was sure showed on his own face, Tavros’ had been pinched and red with fury.

“Your brother just accused us of betraying him,” Valis said, his voice sounding far-off to his own ears, as if someone else spoke instead of the words coming from his own mouth. He rubbed his forehead and groaned. “Oh, I don’t think this is going to go well.”

Tavros had sighed and pulled Valis close to him, tucking him against his side. “He’s been acting strange for a while. Did you notice? When he’s with our group, he’s unusually quiet, and lately, since we came back, he’s not been with our group often. He always has some excuse to beg off.”

Valis had frowned and rested his head on Tavros’ shoulder. “I noticed. Things have just been too hectic for either of us to do anything about it.”

And now—in the present as Valis stood in the hall to catch his breath, fighting the nausea that bubbled up in the back of his throat—he watched as people passed by while trying not to look like they were staring at him with questions scrolling by in their eyes, and he wondered if the universe was laughing at him. Time seemed to mean nothing. Either it crawled by so slow that Valis had to fight not to go mad, or it sped by so fast he wondered where the day, week, or month went. Now, as he wanted his best friend by his side, Valis was left in that limbo between realities. Time was speeding past, but Valis felt stuck in time, like time was moving by without him.

But was Aryn even his best friend anymore? Or had Tavros taken his place, since they were closer than ever, and on their way toward getting married? Did a lover also count as a best friend?

Your mind is far too clouded, his friend and mentor, Thyran, said into their mental link. I swear, if you don’t go find something to do other than relive the past, I will stick you in front of a stack of books until your mind goes numb.

Valis chuckled to himself and closed his eyes. I think I’ll pass for now.

Damn. I had hoped you would come help me with these.

Soon. If I go now, I’ll make sure you are the one to face the three girls’ wrath.

…Take your time, Valis. There is no need to be so hasty with your wondrous help.

Thought you would see it my way.

Tavros is right. You really are a cheeky shit.

Valis barked a laugh that startled one of the women who walked by. After apologizing, he went to Maphias’ room where he and Tavros were supposed to wait until their suite was “ready.” Whenever that would be, he had no idea, but he knew better than to not be there when Seza came to fetch him.

To his surprise, Valis was the only one there. Where had Tavros gone? He didn’t have long to wonder, because before he could sit in one of the chairs in the seating area, someone kicked the door.

Heading back over, Valis peered outside and laughed. Tavros had a large steaming mug in each hand, napkins hanging from his mouth, and each elbow held a bag full of what smelled like pastries from the kitchens.

“I take it you would like a hand with all that?”

“Mm-hm.”

Valis grinned. “Okay.” He took the napkins from Tavros’ mouth and turned to go back to the seating area.

“You had better be joking,” Tavros snarled. “At least take the bags?”

Laughing harder, Valis plucked the bags out of the crooks of Tavros’ elbows and leaned in to peck his lips. “Of course.”

“So, what were you thinking about?” Tavros set the mugs down on the low table in the center of the seating arrangement. He fussed, taking the napkins from Valis to place one under each mug, and spread out two more to use as plates for the pastries. As he worked, he kept glancing up at Valis, waiting for Valis to answer. “You know, it can help to talk it out…”

Valis scrunched his nose. “And how do you know there was a problem?”

“You opened the door like you were afraid of who you might find on the other side and had these little lines between your blond brows that let me know something is going on in that gorgeous head that probably shouldn’t be.”

Sighing, Valis helped set out the food, and instead of taking up his napkin loaded with meat and vegetable-filled pastries, he curled up on the couch. Thinking of Aryn made his appetite wither up and die, and the last thing he wanted was food in his hands when he told Tavros about it. Not telling him wasn’t even an option. Aryn was both of their problem.

Tavros moved their food and drinks around, then sat next to Valis, putting a warm hand on his knee. “Valis?”

Valis blew out a shaky breath. “Aryn. I can’t get his words out of my head. Every time they cycle through, I get that pitting in my stomach that tells me something bad is about to happen, and I’m waiting for the sword to fall.”

“He can’t do anything to us.” Tavros squeezed Valis’ knee and when Valis covered his hand, Tavros turned his own over and gripped Valis’ tight, lacing their fingers together. “He’ll get over it.”

“I don’t think he will,” Valis admitted. “It feels like it’s going to escalate before it gets any better.”

After a beat of silence where Tavros pressed his lips into a thin line, as if he were about to argue, he blew out a breath, leaned over, and pressed a kiss to Valis’ shoulder. “I trust your instincts. What should we do about it?”

Valis shrugged and leaned into Tavros’ warmth. “I’m not sure we can do anything about it. At least, not until we know what he’s going to do, or if he’s actually going to do anything at all.”

“Then let’s just take each day as it comes.” Tavros gathered up Valis’ food and handed it to him. “Until then, eat your lunch while we still have time.”

They ate in companionable silence, and just as they were finishing up someone knocked at the door. Valis sighed as he stuffed the last bite of pastry into his mouth and balled up his napkin. He chewed fast as he headed for the door and swallowed as he opened it to reveal Thyran.

“You didn’t have to inhale your food on my account,” the historian said, his piercing blue eyes shining with his amusement.

Thyran stood tall and stout, and Valis sighed as he realized he was actually taller than the man now when he used to be so much shorter. Thyran grinned at him, privy to his thoughts. He ran his hand through his freshly cut salt and pepper hair, sending it up into attractive spikes. The man’s almost ghostly complexion from staying indoors flushed as he laughed. For a man over two-thousand years old, he was still as virile and attractive as if he were only in his early forties.

“Stop staring and get yourself ready. You will be training with me today.”

Valis groaned and let his head fall back until he stared up at the ceiling. He had hoped today would be one of leisure. Thyran had apparently not received that missive. “Can it wait until tomorrow?”

“I am afraid not, no.” And damned if that bastard didn’t smirk at him. “Come along. Tavros can come with you if he chooses.”

Sighing, Valis thumped his forehead against the door and stepped aside to open it wider so he could step out. He glanced back at Tavros. “Are you coming?”

“You go on ahead,” Tavros said. “I’ll clean up our lunch mess and meet you up there.”

“Up there” was the reliquary, one of Valis’ favorite places in the monastery. As much as he wanted leisure time, his heart eased at the thought of stepping into the warmth the temple offered and surrounding himself with the treasures and old books the reliquary guarded.

With a nod to Tavros, Valis followed his mentor through the halls and up to the topmost floor of the monastery, and as soon as they stepped through the wide double doors, Thyran shaded his eyes.

“You know, one day I hope to be able to come in here without someone having to do that.”

Thyran chuckled. “Perhaps one day soon you will have ample enough time to come here and simply bask in the light. Until then, you have work to do, young man.”

The light he spoke of shined down from the center of the domed glass ceiling. The Light of Phaerith was an undulating mass of golden light that drew Valis’ attention whenever he entered the temple and held him captive, making him feel loved, wanted, warm and comforted. But every time he came in, someone shaded his eyes so he could stay on task, or he had to studiously keep his eyes down to the sapphire runner that ran the length of the Hall of Communion from the entry doors to those leading into the reliquary. If he didn’t, he’d most likely lose hours to the comfort that light offered, and he never seemed to have the time to indulge.

Now, with his eyes shaded, Valis turned his gaze to the floor and let Thyran usher him down the aisle between rows of concave benches to the back of the room. Two reliquary guards bowed to Thyran as they opened the doors to the reliquary, and once through, Valis was finally able to look straight ahead without worry.

While there were great and wondrous treasures in the reliquary, none of them held Valis’ attention except the stacks of his father, Roba’s books along the long table that ran most of the length of the room. The greatest treasures were in the vault in the very back, protected by spells, a special door, and more reliquary guards. Those were the treasures that mattered, the God Jars. And just looking at that door, Valis wondered if he would be strong enough to see his duty through. It amazed him that just one of the ten jars could corrupt the whole.

“Your mind has wandered off again,” Thyran chided, though his tone held amusement instead of censure. “You will not learn today’s lesson if your mind cannot stay on task.”

Valis groaned and scrubbed a hand over his face. “I know. It’s just that everything is going so fast, and I feel like I can’t keep up.”

The historian patted his shoulder and pushed him toward a smaller table between two giant bookcases near the back of the room that would effectively hide him from view of most of the rest of the room. The scent of old parchment, ancient ink, and musty paper tickled his nose and oddly gave him some comfort as it wrapped him in what felt like another world.

Thyran reached around Valis and touched the rim of a dark blue bowl full of water, making the liquid ripple and dance. “Just as well that this lesson can be quite relaxing. And, it will keep you out of your friends’ way while they work on your new suite.”

Valis turned and narrowed his eyes at his friend. “Really? You did this on purpose as a diversion?”

Thyran’s eyes twinkled with his grin and he gave a one-shoulder shrug. “Yes.”

With a snort, Valis turned back to the bowl and forced his shoulders to relax. “Fine. What am I doing, and how do I do this?”

And just like that, Thyran went from jovial friend to mentor in a breath and leaned against the side of the bookcase to Valis’ left. “For today’s lesson, and for the foreseeable future, you will be learning how to scry.”

“Oh, great.”

Thyran laughed, a joyous sound, and clapped Valis hard on the shoulder. “It is time you learned to scry, my boy. I have had a vision. This is definitely a skill you need to master, and in a short amount of time.”

“By… staring into a bowl of water?”

“Indeed.”

“Are you serious?”

“As I’ve ever been.”

“A bowl of water…”

“You were expecting something else?”

“Well, yeah… One of those scrying mirrors, or my spelled pocket watch—”

“Your pocket watch is not spelled, Valis.”

“I thought it would be when I was ready to use it,” Valis groused. “A bowl of water.”

“Yes. A bowl of water. Focus your mind and intent on the water’s surface, let your eyes go unfocused and let your mind clear of all else but your intent. Just as with anything else you have learned or have taught, it is all about focusing your will. Will yourself to see what it is you wish to see. Then make it happen.”

Valis wrinkled his nose but nodded. “Can’t be that hard.”

Thyran chuckled but went back to mentor-mode. “Scrying is an art that can show you the happenings of the present, as well as both past and future. The trick once you learn how to see, is to focus on who you wish to view, or have a very specific location in mind, just like when you translocate. It can also be used as a communication tool.” He caressed the side of the bowl like it was an old friend. “The water will help. It is fluid and malleable, just like time and space, but when you have the basics down, you can scry using any reflective surface.”

Valis nodded. “Like the inside of the pocket watch you gave me, and Qeraden’s mirror.” Qeraden had been a Lesser Priest of Qos. Valis had captured him on his excursion to Lyvea to rescue the Kalutakeni caravan. Among his things were kill and capture on sight lists, supplies, and a hidden scrying mirror that had momentarily fascinated Valis. Now, he would finally learn how to use such a tool, and it filled Valis with purpose. “How do I do this?”

“The first task,” Thyran said cautiously, “is to clear your mind completely. This may be hard for you because of all that you have resting on your shoulders, which is why I chose this alcove, so you would have minimal distraction. Then, once your mind is clear, you need a singular focus. Focus on who you want to see, and whether you want to see their past, present, or future. And if you choose past or future, you need a specific event in mind. For now, I just want you to try to focus on viewing the present.”

“Ugh.” Valis’ shoulders sagged. Then he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and cracked his neck. “I can do this.”

“I know you can. I will be reading at the table if you have any questions or need a break.”

“Thanks, Thyran.”

As his mentor left, Valis flicked his blond ponytail off his shoulder and took another steadying breath. He would always put duty above all else. What could go wrong?

 

Chapter 2

Valis’ mind spun. Apparently, what could go wrong, did. His mind had refused to empty. Instead, it rolled from one discarded thought to the next in an endless loop that started to make him think he would be insane before he learned how to scry.

Now, all Valis wanted to do was pass out, preferably while wrapped around Tavros. But first, he had to get through his friends. Zhasina stood dutifully outside his door, effectively blocking him from entering. Her arms were crossed over her armored chest, and it made him wonder why she was in full armor instead of just in her uniform.

Matter of fact, he scrunched up his nose and asked. “What’s with the armor?”

Zhasina smirked. “I just came back from sparring. Seza kicked me out to keep an eye on you, and when you started your scrying training, I went and had a little fun.”

“Sooo… can I go in?”

“No.”

Valis snorted. “Figures. When can I go in?”

“When Aenali and Seza say you can.”

Someone gripped the back of Valis’ neck, and recognizing that hand, Valis leaned back into Tavros’ warmth. Valis groaned as Tavros massaged the tension from his neck, barely paying attention as his lover and muttered, “I hope you’re joking.”

Zhasina shrugged and pushed her tight black curls out of her face, tying them back like she was about to go into battle. Her golden eyes narrowed at him and she cracked her knuckles. “Not at all.”

Just as Tavros growled, the door opened and Aenali poked her head out from between the door and Zhasina’s waist. “They can come in now, Zhasina. We’re done.”

Zhasina grinned as she stepped aside. Her entire posture changed from aggressive to welcoming in a breath as she made a sweeping gesture toward the door with her hand. “You may enter.”

With another snort, Valis stepped through the door and gasped. The Evaki Realist tapestry Maphias had bought him hung in the short hallway, as did his mother’s handkerchief, pressed and framed with beautiful weeping whiptail wood edged in a thin, delicate band of gold. A bright, sky blue runner and two hanging lamps lightened the dark hall and made it seem inviting instead of gloomy. And at the end of the hall, Aenali stood, a silent and grinning sentinel who vibrated with enough energy to match the light of the sun.

“What do you think so far?” she asked, clearly excited.

“I love it!”

“Tav?”

Valis glanced behind him when Tavros didn’t immediately answer. His lover wore a knowing grin. “It’s perfect, ‘Nali.”

She squealed and did a little dance before heading to the door on the right and pushing it open. “This is your living room!”

Apparently, she was going to only speak in exclamations until the tour was over. And all it did was make Valis grin until his face hurt. All his anxiety bled away until Aenali’s excitement filled him up and carried him into their living room. He was still exhausted, still wanted to sleep, but this was more important. He had to admit, it was fun, too.

Their living room was set up much the same as his adopted fathers’ was, but with more seating. They had taken both Valis’ and Tavros’ couches, chairs, and their low tables, and ringed them around the hearth to make a warm, inviting place. It made Valis’ shoulders drop the rest of their tension.

He looked around, and more art that he hadn’t bought hung strategically on the walls to make them not-so-bare, and make the room feel like home. And stretched on the floor lay a new carpet that Valis hadn’t bought. How much money had his friends spent on their suite? Or had Tavros bought these things?

A glance back, and the sheepish grin on Tavros’ face confirmed it. That made it feel a lot more like home.

Right now, that didn’t matter, though. What mattered was his friends’ shining, expectant faces as they sat in the chairs around the seating area staring at him, waiting for his reaction. That was what made Valis remember how to breathe. His first breath came as a gasp.

“I think that means he likes it,” Jedai said with a laugh. “Go check out your bedroom.”

Valis was so stunned that he couldn’t do anything else but listen to orders. He and Tavros backed out and turned to the other door on the left side of the hall. Aenali pushed it open for them, and when Valis went inside, he let out another gasp.

On one wall stood Valis’ side table, his phonograph taking pride of place in the center. The bed and a second hearth took up the majority of the space, but his friends had added a second side table to house some of Tavros’ belongings on another wall. In two of the corners stood Valis and Tavros’ armor stands, their armor arranged neatly, shined and polished, and looking new.

The fourth wall boasted three doors, and Valis knew from his fathers’ suite that two of them were walk-in closets, one for each of them, and the third was the lavatory.

More new art hung on the walls. Valis’ and Tavros’ nightstands stood on either side of the bed, thankfully matching, with lamps casting a warm flood of light to make the space seem cozy and warm.

The best thing, though, was the comforter on the bed. The girls must have spent most of their time on it. The bed was larger than their old ones, and the comforter had new bands of alternating blue and white color along the sides and bottom to make it fit.

All in all, their new quarters were so warm and inviting that his earlier exhaustion weighed Valis down and made him want to sink into that bed and not leave it for a week.

“What do you think?” he asked Tavros.

“I think it’s perfect. They managed to blend the both of us into this space perfectly. And I always did like your comforter better than mine.”

Valis grinned so hard his cheeks hurt again. “I love it, too.”

“We should spend some time with the others before we head to bed,” Tavros murmured.

“No,” Seza said from the doorway. “Valis is clearly exhausted. You two get some rest. We’ll head out and you can see our suite tomorrow.”

Valis gave her a thankful smile. “Thank you. All of you. This is perfect.”

His friends grinned back at him, and one by one, they all left, closing the door behind them. When he heard the hall door close, the last of Valis’ tension left him sagging where he stood.

“Come on, love,” Tavros said. He rested his hands on Valis’ shoulders, giving them a squeeze before lightly pushing him toward the bed. “Let’s get some sleep. You’re swaying like a metronome.”

He really was. The sudden lethargy that had washed over him with their friends’ departure left him weary and made standing difficult. With Tavros’ help, and plenty of sweet, sleepy kisses, they tossed their dirty uniforms into a discreet hamper in another corner of the room and crawled into bed. The comfort had him asleep within minutes, tucked securely against Tavros’ side and breathing him in.

Consciousness morphed into a hazy blackness that tugged Valis down into depths so black it felt like drowning. From the darkness, figures flitted by, black against a deeper void, wraiths just beyond visible comprehension. Like a veil being lifted, the shadows lightened, showing hooded figures surrounding him.

Valis glanced down and his blood froze. He struggled against bands of black magic that held his arms at his sides, his hands in magical mitts, preventing him from using his own magic. It left him with a sense of loss, a helplessness so acute his skin felt too tight. He couldn’t remember a time where he had felt so mundane. He tried to scream, but all that came out was a stifled moan against whatever magical gag they had around his nose, mouth and chin.

One of the hooded figures shoved him from behind, forcing him to walk, to follow those in front of him. They parted as a single entity, forming a circle around a figure on his knees, and with mounting horror, Valis’ gut clenched as Tavros looked up at him, grim determination in his eyes. He wore no armor. His shirt was bloody and torn, and his eyes were haunted, like he knew what was about to happen. Like Valis, Tavros’ arms and mouth were trussed with black magic, leaving him mute and unable to fight back. Unlike Valis, he no longer struggled. As if he had accepted whatever fate these hooded figures had in store for him.

“Watch as your love dies and let the darkness reign.”

The moment those guttural words left one of the hoods, another hooded man shoved a sword through Tavros’ neck. Tavros fought, trying to gasp for even a scrap of breath, his eyes wide and bulging from the pain. Then his chest stopped heaving. His eyes dulled. And as Valis frantically fought against his bonds, screamed against the gag, Tavros’ eyes went completely blank and he slumped forward, sliding off the sword with a dull thud.

Valis fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face as he shuffled forward, heedless of the hooded figures surrounding him. He fell onto Tavros’ body, mentally begging him not to leave even as, deep in his soul, Valis knew he already had.

But he couldn’t even have the comfort of feeling the last of his lover’s body heat. Two of the hooded figures jerked him to his feet and dragged him away. Everything blurred, and the next thing Valis knew, they led him into the side of a mountain and down stone steps, deep into the earth.

Everything felt too fast, and too slow at the same time. The stairs seemed endless, but eventually, they stepped into an open space, and Valis gasped through his nose.

In front of him, deep underground, was a replica of Avristin, but instead of white stone with gold and blue sigils, this monstrosity was built from black marble, sickly blue and purple sigils glowing menacingly from its walls.

“Welcome to your new home.”

Valis shuddered and cringed back, but the figures dragged him inexorably forward, making his feet skid across the ground as he tried in vain to stop their progress. The halls seemed like a black maze, lit with blue flames to cast disorienting shadows that made it impossible for Valis to remember the way out. The only direction he knew for sure they headed was up. Up stairs, up ramps, up toward—if this had been Avristin—the temple.

The shrouds, as Valis had started calling them in his mind, pushed him through a set of ebony doors etched with arcane symbols and into what must have been the Hall of Communion. On instinct, Valis glanced up to see Phaerith’s Light, but… this wasn’t any Light of Phaerith. The amoeba that roiled in the crystalline dome above was black with purple and blue lights emanating from it. Its evil pressed on him in a way that his soul felt it, and his body reacted, making him feel lethargic and ill.

“Ah, you have come,” a robust voice said. Valis looked down toward the back of the room where the reliquary doors stood and sucked a sharp breath in through his nose. Whoever this man was, he had no face. Where his features should have been, this man had smooth, blank skin. No mouth, no eyes, not even a bump where the nose should be.

Someone kicked the back of Valis’ knee, and he went down hard. “You will kneel before your Sovereign Priest, boy!”

Valis shuddered and thought, “My Sovereign Priest? Not in this lifetime.”

“Bring him closer. I wish to see the young man who has caused me so much trouble.”

Valis renewed his struggles. Anything to keep from going nearer to that faceless thing. But with several pairs of hands on him, Valis found himself on his knees at the faceless one’s feet, glaring up at him.

“Such fire in your eyes.” The Sovereign Priest of Qos chuckled and reached down to thread his fingers through Valis’ hair. When Valis jerked away, he followed, grabbing a tight fist of the strands near his temple. A wave of pain bloomed, causing a headache unlike anything Valis had ever experienced. “I think a lesson in obedience is in order.”

The man lifted his head, palmed Valis’ face and shoved. Valis grunted as he fell back, cracking his head on the polished stone floor so hard that white light exploded in his vision in flashing constellations of blinding stars. “Remove his bonds. He will learn his place.”

The moment magic faded from around Valis torso, arms and head, Valis rocked up to his feet in a crouch. Without looking around, he knew he was surrounded. There was no chance for escape at this moment. And with Tavros dead, there was little reason to. Except, he thought with a sinking heart, without retrieving the lost God Jar, the world would fall to blackness, and Sovras would become a terror unto the world.

That thought cemented Valis’ resolve, and he glared at the faceless man before him, his muscles bunched and ready to fight.

“So much impotent rage.” The Sovereign Priest of Qos laughed, a rather pleasing baritone rumble that made Valis’ muscles lock in terror. “Look how tightly coiled he is, a snake waiting to strike, but not knowing which threat to bite.” His chuckles died down, and his tone turned serious. “Perhaps we should put him out of his misery.”

The men surrounding Valis moved, and that seemed to break his spell. Valis launched into action. With no other weapons than his fists, Valis rounded on the man nearest him, his fist punching through the blackness of the hood to break the man’s nose with a savage punch. As that one recoiled, someone grabbed his waist from behind. Valis roared as he elbowed her in the ribs, tossed his head back to catch her in the face. She shrieked, and when she released him, he spun on the next one.

“Wake up, Valis,” someone jeered. A sinister laugh echoed through the room.

“Valis! Wake up!” Tavros? His love spoke to him through death?

“Valis! Love…”

Valis kicked the man advancing on him and dodged to the side.

And rolled off a bed.

He woke, disoriented and flailing. His muscles screamed, his head throbbed in time with his heartbeat. Breathless, Valis fought to get his eyes to adjust. He rubbed them to get the blurriness to abate, and when it finally lifted, he saw Tavros crouched over him, a worried expression on his bruised and bloody face.

“Valis?”

Valis launched himself into Tavros’ arms and held him as tight as he dared. “You’re alive!”

“Oh, love. It was just a dream.” Tavros held him tight, but his arms and body trembled. “I tried to wake you, but nothing I did would make you open your eyes.”

Shuddering, Valis pressed his face into the curve of Tavros’ neck and breathed him in to try to calm himself down. “How bad did I hurt you?”

“Broken nose and some bruises,” he murmured into Valis’ hair. “Nothing we can’t fix. Are you all right, though?”

Was he all right? Valis shivered and tucked as close to Tavros as he could. The dream had been so vivid, had felt so real, that he could still smell the blood from when the sword had gone through Tavros’ neck, but maybe that was just the blood from Tavros’ bloody nose. “No.”

“Want to talk about it?”

The timid quality to Tavros’ voice nearly broke Valis. “Not yet. Let’s get you healed first.”

You should talk it out, my son, Roba murmured into his mind.

Did you see it?

His birth father sighed, a ghostly echo, before he made a negative noise. I could not, no. Normally, I see them, but not the precognitive ones, apparently. I can see it now from your memory, however.

You think it precognitive?

I think, my son, that if it is not precognitive, it is at least a warning from Phaerith. And it should be treated as such. Be wary, Valis.

“I have to speak with Thyran.” Valis pulled away just enough to look into Tavros’ wrecked face and winced. “After we get you healed.”

He told Tavros about the dream as they healed each other. Valis had a few bruises of his own, skinned knuckles from the punches he threw, as well as abraded flesh from Tavros trying to wake him. By the time they were done, bathed, and dressed, he’d gotten the whole tale out, and Tavros wouldn’t stop touching him.

“I wish you didn’t have to go through this,” he groused.

The sad frown that accompanied his wish made Valis kiss him to try to get rid of it. “Me, too. But, if it helps ready me for the future, then it’s necessary.”

“How can you be so calm about this?” Tavros broke away to start pacing, his agitation growing with each step until he trembled. “You act as if this is all just fine!”

Valis caught him by the arm and pulled him close until their noses touched. “It’s not fine, but I’m willing to bear it if it means I don’t lose you, Tav. If these visions can keep what I see from happening as I see them, then I can be ready, and I can figure out a way to keep you alive, so that maybe, if we succeed, you and I can retire together and live out our years in peace.”

All the fire in Tavros’ eyes banked, and he leaned his forehead against Valis’ with a sigh. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about.” Valis released his grip on Tavros’ biceps and pulled him into a tight embrace. “Caring about me, loving me, is nothing to apologize for.”

They stayed like that for long minutes, clinging to each other until their trembling eased. Then, Valis pulled away with a sigh that ended in a groan. “I should write the dream down and send it to Thyran. Then, we need to head out to the arena and get the day started.” He rolled his neck and squared his shoulders. “Let’s get moving.”

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