Oren disrobed in silence, wincing slightly any time he moved a touch too quickly, or a touch too far. Each item he discarded revealed another bruise, a colourful array of brown, purple, pale green and yellow, against a canvas of white. They were across his back, his ribs, his legs - all impacts from the fight that had yet to fade. His entire body ached, but that was no new sensation; it was just like after a good training session. Except for the giants made of ice and the threat of death.
With a whispered cry of both pain and relief, Oren sank down into the hot water. It burned, but he couldn’t care less right now. His eyes half-lidded, he leaned back against the side of the tub. It was… nice, to be in the water. He didn’t know why, but he enjoyed it - it almost felt as though he and his troubles were weightless. Oren could focus solely on his thoughts.
Well, not quite focus. More… reflect. The past few days had brought no end to his questions, and not enough of them had answers. It was more than likely he’d forget all about them, eventually, but there were a few things that lingered. This… Asherahn, for one. Again, Oren reflexively closed his hand. Why did he care? All he had to do was just dismiss the whole business from his mind and it wouldn’t trouble him - but he couldn’t ignore it, either. Conflicting gods, Titans of Ice and Fire, war, hate, destruction, all of it - it was intertwined with his path. Oren was an Inquisitor of the Hungering Lord, a warrior bade to carry out his will. He was never going to escape that - only through death.
And yet… Lady Lyessa lived free. Lady Lyessa al-Nors, High Inquisitor, former member of Warband Ifrit. She had gone her own way, despite her past.
Oren groaned, sinking deeper into the water. No, this wasn’t helping. It wasn’t helping at all.
“Just… retrace your steps, Oren.” he murmured. “Always retrace your steps.”
Three Days Ago
Two acolytes walked past, and Oren ducked his head, holding his breath ever so slightly. There was no general worry - he outranked them, and people were far more likely to believe a fully realised Inquisitor than a fledgling one. Still, when the majority of the Seminary was empty, every pair of eyes meant risk, especially when he might be walking away with stolen items. He tweaked the edge of his hood, but didn’t pull it up - he’d only look suspicious like that.
He passed by the training yard, and stopped momentarily to look at the crowd of youths sparring with each other. All of them had blunt iron weapons of their various preferences - and they pulled no punches, either. The memory of Father Gregoroth was still fresh in their minds, and the pressure was high enough with the void the Inquisitors left behind. Among the acolytes, a tall figure paced - a dark haired Muraadan Inquisitor, his hand on the sword at his side, some slight stubble coming through - unusual for him, but Oren could only assume that the increased workload meant that he’d had less time for personal grooming.
Oren watched for a few moments longer as one of the students was knocked from her feet, winded and bruised. The man swiftly made his way over to her, and bent at the knee so that they were on more equal level, not even taking note that everyone had turned to watch. He said something, and the girl replied, wiping spittle and blood from her chin. After a few moments, he reached out his hand to help her up - and when she took it, swiftly pulled her into an armlock. Oren winced in sympathy for the girl as she grimaced, even though the man’s grip wasn’t too harsh; there were a few more words, and then she pushed herself away. The issue resolved, the Inquisitor began to go back to his routine… and his eyes met Oren’s.
Oren flinched and stepped away from the door - he’d lingered too long. Increasing his pace, he closed his eyes and shook his head. He wasn’t here to watch teenagers attack each other. He was here for Antoni-
Oren walked straight into a solid metal wall, and stumbled, tripping over his own feet, and fell backwards onto the ground. Opening his eyes, he glanced up at the Inquisitor that had so swiftly cut him off. Purple-grey irises bored into amber, and Oren felt the tips of his ears flush pink, his mind racing to find a way out of this situation. But Marius Valtari, warleader of Warband Leviathan, was already holding out his hand.
“Sorry, Oren. You should really look where you’re going, though.” he said.
Breathing heavily, the tips of his ears tinged with pink, Oren looked at the extended arm. Reluctantly, he grasped it. “...I hope you realise that I’m not going to be as easily restrained as your students.”
Marius let out a laugh as he pulled Oren to his feet. “I wouldn’t expect less. You can be as slippery as a fox when you want to be. I’m just glad I caught you - I thought you’d be in Cero by now.”
“I just returned from Iddin-Mar this morning. Mother Ziotea and I have a half-day here until we can leave.” Oren cocked his head. “I see you’ve taken well to your new role, Marius. You seem to be doing as good a job as the Great Bear.”
The taller Inquisitor rubbed the back of his neck. “No, I don’t think so. He hasn’t been gone long, and I haven’t even got half of his experience or skill, and definitely not his strength. And I don’t think Gregoroth would ever run off to speak with a friend.” His mouth twitched. “Could always turn into the bear, though. I wouldn’t be any better a teacher, but it’d probably scare the kids more.”
“You underestimate Father Gregoroth’s influence.”
Marius blinked, before his brow creased slightly. “Is there a reason you’re being so formal with me, Oren?”
The pale inquisitor tensed, fumbling for words, his heart pounding at an alarming rate. “No! I just… it’s…”
Marius’ frown grew, and pulling Oren by the arm - since neither of them had let go - he walked into an empty room and shut the door behind him. Oren expected him to be angry or stern, but when Marius turned to face him, all Oren could see was worry.
“Is it the dreams?” Marius asked in a low voice. “Are you having them again?”
Oren hesitated, then shook his head. “No, Marius, it’s not tha-”
Marius caught Oren by the wrist, and twisted it upward. A small red mark was clearly visible, showing exactly where Oren had put the needle. “Then why are you still taking Gantleaf? You said you’d stop.”
Oren looked down at the ground. “I also said I’d stopped a year ago, and it wasn’t true then, either. I’m fine, Marius.”
Booted feet walked closer, and he was pushed into the wall. A hand fell on his shoulder, and the other was pinning his wrist to the stone.
“Oren, please. You’re going to be gone for months. Don’t make me worry about you for that whole time.”
His heart was pounding, and blood was rushing in his ears. Oren knew his face was reddening with shame and embarrassment, but he still met the taller man’s gaze. And he regretted it instantly. Marius’ eyes were filled with concern - and the love Marius had for all of his warsiblings. It shot through Oren like an arrow, but it hurt so much more. Why? Why did his heart hurt so much?
...Oren knew why. Even though he’d tried to deny it for years. Even though it wasn’t, couldn’t ever be, permitted. He drew a deep breath… in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Then he looked at Marius, golden eyes colder than the ice.
“I’m going to die
out there, Marius Valtari. Forget me. It’ll save you a whole lot of trouble.”
The other man’s face turned to shock and hurt, but his grip loosened, allowing Oren to slip out from his grasp and leave.
Oren was, for what must have been the hundredth time in these past few days, looking at his palm. Instead of contemplating the azure circle, however, he was watching blood trickle down his arm. Four crescent-shaped wounds marked where his nails had dug deeply, his entire hand sore from clenching it so tightly. Sighing, he drew on a small amount of ether and healed what he could; leaving just little red marks instead. It was time to bury these feelings deep.
Dipping his arm into the water to wash the blood away, he turned over to grab something between finger and thumb. Holding it up, he turned the indigo-black diamond around, letting it catch the light. To any other, this might have looked like a simple game piece, and well, it was. But to Oren, it was far more significant. After all, Lady Essa’s catalyst was just like it. There was more to this mystery yet.