Carpathia III: Episode 86: Turning South
Forest, Somewhere in Zhail
In silence, Adell, Artemis, and Azrael trudged through the gap in the mountains. Artemis made a conspicuous effort to walk at least a few feet in front of Adell at all times. The tension in the air was palpable and Adell wondered what might be the best way to approach Artemis while wondering what Azrael was thinking as well, as he was also quiet during the journey.
It wasn't long before they reached a road and Adell and Artemis could clearly see that it was the road by which they entered Zhail City. To their left, they could see the bridges connecting the island near where they bathed after coming through the tunnels. Adell thought about everything that lead to their current journey down an unknown road. Sleeping behind a building. A chance meeting with Sra. Spending several months as a delivery boy. The first, tense meeting with Prince Riven. Their lives, he thought, had taken many sudden turns. That memorable night under the bridge was so long ago that it felt to Adell that it was a story about different people.
The party turned right, heading away from Zhail City, and Adell cast one last glance back at the bridges. Though they weren't sure where the boundaries of Zhail City were, it wasn't long before they came across another town.
The canyon with the river below bisected the town and, just as Riven said, there was a bridge connecting the two sides that he said they should cross. Before that, however, Adell started feeling hungry and thought a stop was in order.
Adell suddenly realized that, though he had Riven's key necklace, he didn't have any money.
Adell: I'm hungry, but how are we going to buy food?
Azrael: No need to worry, Master Adell. There is a significant amount of coin in all three of our backpacks. If you wish, I can handle the transaction for you.
Adell: That would be good, thanks. It's been awhile since we've had to use money.
The three of them queued in front of a small food stand that was selling simple meals in bowls. Behind the counter, one took orders while three others worked frantically fulfilling them and exuberantly shouting the name of each dish as they were completed. The people standing in line, chatting excitedly about their day and others hovering nearby quickly wolfing down their meals created a lively atmosphere that stood in stark contrast to Adell's solemnity. Adell asked Azrael to order a particularly meaty bowl, as he felt he'd need the extra calories for their journey. Artemis mumbled something for his own order.
The line moved quickly and soon Azrael was able to place their orders. The completed bowls arrived within moments. After having a seat at an empty table, Adell cast several furtive glances at Artemis, attempting to divine a good moment to make conversation. Unable to do so, the three ate their meals in silence.
After their hasty meal, it was time to cross the bridge. It was here that Artemis finally slowed down and allowed Adell and Azrael to catch up to him. Artemis kept his head down, watching the road as he walked.
Artemis: So, do you love him?
Adell stopped cold, flustered by the question. Artemis stopped as well and looked at Adell expectantly.
Adell: I... um... Honestly, I never thought about it.
Adell took a few more moments to think, but he knew he would have to do so quickly. He knew Artemis wouldn't wait long for an answer.
Adell: No, I don't. I mean, he has good qualities. He's smart, good in bed, and he wants to do the right thing...
Adell stopped talking suddenly, noticing that Artemis's face was growing more severe by the moment.
Adell: Well, he's still a spoiled prince and he can be very shallow. In spite of the good qualities, I don't think that's going to change. I couldn't stay with someone like that forever.
Adell looked away, though he kept Artemis in sight in the corner of his eye. Many thoughts poured through his head as he tried to make sense of his life. Though he knew he couldn't stay with someone like Riven forever, the question remained, why did he for so long?
Artemis: That's something, at least.
Artemis just started to turn to continue across the bridge. Adell felt compelled to stop him.
Adell: Artemis, wait.
Artemis stopped and turned again, this time folding his arms across his chest. His defiant posture flustered Adell and he struggled to find his words.
Adell: Artemis, I...
Adell took a deep breath in hopes that it would help him coax the words out.
Adell: I've never loved anyone before.
Artemis's arms dropped from his chest and hung limply by his sides. Adell continued, feeling that if he were to stop now, he'd never be able to do this again.
Adell: I mean, Mitani, Riven, all the other boyfriends... they were nice for sex, but that's the only interest I had. I didn't care for them more than just being friends. You might think I seem confident with guys, but that's because I never really cared about anything long-term.
Artemis, his face shriveled up in confusion, continued glaring at Adell.
Adell: You're angry and hurt and it's my fault. I get that. With anyone else, I'd be fine if they dumped me and we all got on with our lives. Right now, though, seeing you unhappy, I feel sick and that all my confidence has left me. I don't really understand it. I've never felt this way before.
Adell hung his head low and kicked a pebble across the surface.
Adell: Just tell me what I can do to fix this.
Artemis took a step forward and scratched nervously behind his ear.
Artemis: Don't have the answers for everything after all, do you? That's probably the weirdest compliment I've ever received... if that was a compliment.
Artemis held out his hand, beckoning Adell to take it.
Artemis: I'm not exactly blameless in this either. Let's go. We can figure this... us out together.
Adell took Artemis's hand and, together, they pulled each other together and hugged tightly.
Azrael: We should continue if we are to reach a suitable hotel before dark.
Both Adell and Artemis had forgotten that Azrael was there as they both turned to look at him. They parted and slowly proceeded once again across the bridge.
Adell: You know, another problem with Riven... it does get old being the pitcher every single night.
Artemis: Too right, but it was the other way around with Shai.
As they continued forward, Adell turned his head and very obviously scoped out Artemis from top to bottom. Artemis rolled his eyes and twisted his mouth to the side.
Artemis: Life revelation notwithstanding, you're still a pervert.
Adell reached up and stroked the tip of Artemis's ear and was relieved that Artemis neither flinched nor resisted. From that moment, Adell silently decided to himself that Artemis was well worth the effort of caring beyond anyone before him.
Adell: Heh. Some things I can't change. Thanks for giving me a second chance.
Adell and Artemis continued following Azrael across the bridge. When they were at the halfway point, Azrael began to slow.
Azrael: While there is nobody else around us, I would like to have a word.
Both Adell and Artemis looked at each other. Thus far, Azrael had barely spoken neither had any idea what he might want to say and silently worried that they might be in for some trouble.
Adell: Sure, Azrael. What's up?
Azrael: Shai explained in brief to me what transpired in the King's chambers. I can only surmise my Prince's reasoning for releasing me, but he was right to do so. Though I would not serve a master as odious as King Elmlund unless sufficiently coerced, that he was the master of my master indeed complicates the situation.
Again, Adell and Artemis looked at each other, attempting to ascertain what each was thinking.
Adell: I guess this situation isn't easy for you.
Azrael: Perhaps. While I do not find the situation ideal, I believe my Prince made the right decision. However, he did err in one significant way.
Azrael slowed his pace even more, though he did not stop.
Artemis: Oh? In what way was that?
Azrael: After my Prince gave me my final command, he released me from his service. Because of this, I am, technically, no longer under any obligation to fulfill his orders.
Artemis and Adell stopped, as did Azrael a moment later.
Adell: I see. I suppose you want to find a new master?
Azrael stood up straight and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword.
Azrael: I believe I already have. Adell, you are an honorable man, but there is certainly more to you than I can guess. I am ashamed to admit that I am sure that you would defeat me in a fight, though I do not understand why. You seem to possess no extraordinary characteristics, and yet I cannot shake this feeling.
Adell and Artemis waited, but Azrael simply stared at them, seemingly awaiting some sort of explanation.
Adell: Should we tell him?
Artemis: If he's going to be with us for a long time, I think so.
Adell: In that case, better to show than tell, I guess.
Adell looked around the area at his feet for a small stone. Finding one about the size of his fist, he held his hand out and concentrated on it. The stone rose into the air to his hand. Adell allowed it to hover several inches above his hand as he spun it around in mid-air. Azrael watched in rapt attention.
Azrael: Astonishing. Is that the limit of your ability?
Adell continued turning the stone around over his hand.
Adell: Not at all. I could pull this whole bridge apart if I wanted to. Of course, I'm not going to do that.
Azrael: I see. And what of you, Master Artemis? I have a similar feeling from you, but it is different somehow.
Artemis looked around, trying to think of a way to demonstrate his ability. When he noticed that Adell was still playing with the stone in his hand, he had an idea.
Artemis: Adell, look closely at that stone. I think you put a crack in it.
Adell leaned forward and carefully examined the stone.
Adell: Oh? Where?
Artemis lifted his leg and stomped on Adell's foot a hard as he could. The stone suddenly bolted from his hand and hit Adell in the forehead. Adell staggered backwards a couple of steps and wiped the blood off his head.
Adell: Ow! What the hell, Artemis?
Artemis grabbed Adell's shirt and yanked him down to eye-level.
Artemis: That's for being a dumbass for so long. Now hold still, you big baby.
Artemis reached up and placed his fingers around the wound on Adell's forehead. It had been a long time since he healed someone, but the sensation was still very familiar. He could feel the warmth in his hand and the intimate connection to Adell's heartbeat. Azrael watched as the green light grew and then faded. When it was over, Adell wiped the remaining blood from his forehead. The wound was gone.
Azrael: I see. Odd as you two are, I believe you are worthy.
Azrael suddenly unsheathed his sword. Adell and Artemis stepped back, wondering if they would now have to fight him.
Azrael: I solemnly swear my fealty to you, Master Adell and Master Artemis, for as long as you deign to have me in your service.
Azrael twirled his sword and swiped it in front of himself dramatically a few times before tapping the end to the ground where he kneeled. However, Adell and Artemis were much more interested in something else.
Adell: Um... Azrael...
Artemis: Did you just cut off your own tail?
Azrael's eyes went wide and he turned behind him to look. Sure enough, on the ground, was his thin, pointed tail. Azrael suddenly turned a bright shade of red and began hastily kicking dirt over his severed tail in a vain attempt to hide it. After, he looked around suspiciously and very awkwardly marched down the bridge once more. Adell and Artemis didn't follow, at first, and instead watched the display in both confusion and amusement until Azrael called to them.
Azrael: It grows back!
Both Adell and Artemis shrugged and trotted after Azrael, catching up to him at the end of the bridge.
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