Five and a half years before the events of The Living God…
Seven Healers and two weeks. That’s what it took to mend a charred body, one that was beyond human form. Each Healer worked interchangeably to manage the pain and keep the pulse strong, and they all worked in shifts to repair the damaged flesh. The first week was spent mending the shriveled and deteriorated muscle, reforming it around blackened bones. The second week was spent regrowing flesh over that muscle and eventually bringing Saran back from the mystical world of the half-dead, or in Second Earth terms, a coma. Once she was aware of the world, her power over Time did the rest, even while she slept.
Saran lay in the last infirmary room, beneath a cracked window and a pool of warm sun. The room was small, but not unfamiliar to her. She’d visited many times over the course of her life when magic did not always fix her problems. She slept soundly, her magic slowly regrowing the long curling hair that adorned her head. It mended all the other small, intricate details that the Healers were less familiar with, like the mole on her chest and the freckles across her nose and shoulders.
In the dark corner of the room, where the only stiff wooden chair available sat tucked in the shadows, a slender pale-haired figure waited like perfectly carved marble. He sat straight, his hands resting across his knees, his deep red gaze fixed on the lengthening fire-red hair.
He’d waited for two weeks, off and on, in that chair. It was all he knew to do. No matter how often he stepped away, something called him back.
It was foreign for him to feel guilty for anything.
Yet, something drew him to the room. When he entered — neigh, when he grew close to it, he felt her. At first, all he could read off the vibrations in the air was absolute agony. It had twisted his stomach into knots. It had made him want to deliver her to a merciful death, as if her soul were screaming for him to bring an end to her suffering. Of course, he hadn’t. If not for his brother’s sake, then surely for morbid curiosity? No, that wasn’t quite it either. He wasn’t that man anymore, and no longer driven by such sick fascinations. He had the reigns to his mind and the control of his own body.
And he had no idea what to do with it.
As the weeks passed, her agony slipped into silence and the power he felt floating in the air between them became more alluring… Even pleasant, like a comforting sea of energy that he could swim in just by passing through the room. The longer he sat there, the more he felt he knew her. But, of course, he knew her. In his mind, he could make out blurry images, blips of memory captured while the Rauke had control of him. But, the only memories he had of her were all connected to anger, hate, and other emotions too complex to be defined with a single word. In looking at her, he could feel none of that now. He did not know her enough to hate her, and he knew the Rauke enough to know that it hated everyone.
At the end of the second week, he sat silently and watched her hair regrow and the lovely marks of life mar perfectly smooth and pale flesh. She was beautiful. Not the most beautiful woman in the world, but beautiful nevertheless. She was athletic and strong. He could see that even as she lay recovering from death.
Keleir noted the shift of her mood even in the air around them, like a ripple of energy washing over his skin. He knew the moment she woke. It sent his stomach whirling. He felt alive… and frightened.
Keleir Ahriman had never been this afraid. Not even as a boy.
His hands tightened over his knees and he sat just an inch forward in his chair. Had he always felt her like this? Had that been the reason for the Rauke’s hatred? How could he hate something so wonderful.
Saran shifted, and his heart lifted into his throat.
She groaned and parted her lips and opened her eyes. They fluttered, long amber lashes flickering in the light of the sun. She fisted handfuls of blankets and dragged herself forward with a great heaving groan. Keleir shifted in his chair involuntarily before managing to reign in the urge to go help her up. Unfortunately, his sudden movement caught her eye.
She peered at him through strings of red hair and he was sure she couldn’t see him clearly. Her eyes were that of a blind woman, staring straight at him and through him all at once. She blinked and narrowed her eyes and then wiped her hands across her face. It was the first time she had used the eyes the Healers had mended. Perhaps they had left her blind.
Saran pushed back her hair, falling heavy against the headboard to look dead at him. He saw the moment of realization click across her face in the twitch of her cheek, even as he felt it in the air.
Fear. It was cold ice in his blood, radiating from her in waves of static that he could only describe as the mystical equivalent of erecting invisible and matterless barriers between them.
She scurried back against the headboard, as far back as she could go without melting into the wall. Her eyes were wide, her nostrils flaring. She was nothing more than a deer about to bolt, and he knew she hadn’t the energy for running.
Keleir held up his hands slowly, ashamed to find them shaking. He immediately put them down and wrapped his fingers tight around his knees again. “I won’t…”
His voice wouldn’t work. He opened his lips and nothing came out, so he tried again, “I… I’m not him.”
She scowled a beautiful, angry look. “How do I know that?” she asked, slowly moving one leg off the bed on the opposite side from him. She was going to run. He could feel it as surely as reading her mind.
“You saved me.” Keleir felt surprise at his own admission. He’d spent thirteen years lost in his own mind, viewing the world through fog. He knew every awful thing he’d done, and yet he did not know why he’d done it, only that it had not been his own hands. Even now he could feel the Rauke inside him, squirming around like a worm in the middle of his brain and his heart. “I’m not him.”
She slipped out of bed, resting her hands against the mattress. “Forgive me if I’m skeptical.”
“Sit,” he urged. He knew she was going to collapse well before her knees began to buckle, for the very same reason he knew she’d run anyway. There was fire in her eyes and she stood straight and backed towards the door. There it was, the change in the air the moment that realization washed over her. She knew she couldn’t make it, so he attempted to reason with her again. “Please, sit.”
Saran’s knees buckled and she fell back.
Fire erupted near her and fear tore a scream from her throat. For an instant, she could remember all too clearly the flames eating at her flesh and she saw it happening again. Saran fell into hot, solid arms and the figure collapsed with her to the floor. She came to rest comfortably, back pressed against her murder’s chest. It took her minutes of heaving fearful breaths to realize that there wasn’t any flame wrapping around her or burning at her skin. The fear hammering away in her heart and bounding across the room in sweeping pulses punched him in the gut. He’d never felt so guilty in his life, never wanted more than ever to not be what he was.
“I told you to sit,” he murmured, but he couldn’t avoid the fact that he was the reason for her fear and the reason she chose to run. Could he blame her? Not while he felt what she felt. Not while he knew how strong that fear was.
Keleir didn’t move, too frozen with his own measure of self-hatred and indecision, and Saran didn’t try to escape, she assumed she hadn’t the strength to stand. The two sat stiff and silent on the floor, wrapped in some strange hug that was both horribly uncomfortable and eerily pleasant. The juxtaposition confused them both. Keleir knew he should let go of her, and yet there was something comfortable with the position. Something that made the uneasiness in his mind more tempered.
Saran let out a long hard breath. “Well, are you going to help me up or shall we cuddle on the floor all day?”
She was frighteningly easy to lift, and he reminded himself that she was missing quite a bit of blood. The Healers could do a lot, but recreate blood once lost was not one of them. Blood was life. They could mend, but they could not restore. Still, he didn’t think that should have made her extraordinarily light. He deposited her back onto the bed and retreated to his usual corner.
“Has it always been like this?” Keleir asked and waved his hand through the air like he would water. “This… thing in the air.”
Saran lifted her eyes to him, green daggers burning holes in his heart. “Mostly. Yes. You usually feel like a swarm of angry bees prickling at my nerves, though.”
“What do I feel like now?”
She pursed her lips together and settled back against the pillows. “Like a cloud of thick uncertainty.” A red eyebrow arched. “And fear.”
“See,” he mused. “Not a threat.”
“I’ve been deceived by you before, Lifesbane. You’re playing nice so I don’t kill you. Then, when I’m least expecting it, you’ll wrap those lovely strong fingers of yours around my throat.”
He remembered that, just as the Rauke wiggled inside his mind. He remembered choking her as a child. Then, again, as a teen… after kissing her. He shook his head and wiped away the thought.
“I’m not him.” Keleir lifted his gaze. “I’m not. I don’t know how to prove it to you. You’ll have to trust me.”
“You’ll have to earn it.”
“Can’t you feel I’m different? Don’t you know that what you did saved me?”
Saran’s gaze misted. Her jaw tightened. “I don’t know what I did.”
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
She paled and shook her head. “I had to stop you from killing them. You were killing them all…”
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because I heard you screaming… Through the storm of rage and the heat of flame, I heard you screaming.” She slowly reached up and tapped her temple, telling him without words that she’d felt him buried deep beneath the will of the Rauke. He wondered how long she’d known he was in there. “And I don’t kill. Ever. Not even you, who have killed so many.”
“No, I suppose not… Not really you.”
Keleir turned his gaze up to the window and the sun. He was lost. He had no idea who he was in this world. He’d avoided it by hiding in her room for weeks. Every time he passed someone who knew him, he could only vaguely remember who they were. He had people who feared him and he didn’t know the reason. He had people who revered him and worshiped him and he hid from all of it in her room. “What do I do now?”
Silence fell between them heavy enough to draw his eyes down to her.
She met his gaze and held it. “You atone.”