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DEAD HEAT

Part 7a

Written by Juxian Tang

Bright, obnoxious light streamed into his squinting eyes; and he was cold. After a few moments of struggle against sleep, Hellar sat up and peered at Alora's skinny form in front of him. The torch in her hand crackled and smelled and she held Hellar's blanket draped over her arm.

"Get up. You are too sloppy. Sleeping like this will kill you one day."

"What happened?" Hellar slumped back, deciding that it obviously was not an emergency, and rubbed his face. He tried to figure out what time it was. Maybe, an hour or two after he'd fallen asleep. Tarkh's place near to him was empty and cold.

"Nothing yet," Alora answered enigmatically. "Rhys needs us."

Hellar felt her gaze on himself as he groped on the floor for his clothes. Her cold eyes slid over him slowly, causing an almost physical sensation. He suddenly felt an urge to speed up dressing and shook this thought away. It was not that the superiors of the Legion had never seen him naked, with or without consequences.

"You are a fine specimen, Carlos. Something to look at," Alora said thoughtfully as Hellar got dressed. "Even the scars - now when they faded a bit, they just add to your looks. It's a pity you have to wear these rags all the time."

The night was bright and icy, the air completely still as they briskly walked through the camp. Hellar had noticed before that Alora's walk could be very swift and efficient when she wanted; becoming a shuffle of a hag when someone watched.

"So, what's the matter? Where are we going to?"

"Don't you know?" Alora's dry mouth curved in a sarcastic smile. "It's a big party that Rhys gathers. Half of the camp is there."

"And we are invited," Hellar added.

"Yeah. For a job. They tend to go overboard on these occasions," Alora informed. "Rhys wants us there just in case. There is always some case, of course. Broken ribs or squashed nose or bad overdose of kyth."

Hellar wondered how much Alora really was annoyed with this prospect - or whether she secretly enjoyed another proof of her indispensability.

"And what am I going to do there?"

"Oh, I dunno. Bandage some wounds? You aren't used to feel unnecessary, Carlos? I bet you never felt like that in the Legion. You were a model officer, weren't you? A Praetorian poster-boy? Feral, ruthless, determined... and looking stunning in black leather, not to mention." She laughed at him; she always did that. Hellar thought he should've got used to it by then. "Only you fucked up your own carrier," she continued. "All your beautiful career. A Captain at twenty-five - you could've become a Major some years later or after leading a smart operation. How do you have to regret it, don't you?"

It was a rhetoric question; Alora should've known that. He'd never succumbed to the temptation to admit he was sorry to those who'd interrogated him in the Legion. Why would he share what he felt with her?

Yet sometimes Hellar wished he could do it - could tell things to someone, even to Alora, with her snappy, deliberately uncaring voice and her ability to get under his skin purposefully. He didn't know if Alora would understand - if anyone would understand. He just would like to talk.

He would tell her about that time when, entering his quarters, he saw a thin, tall figure in the shadows and heard a quiet voice:

"I want to talk to you, Captain."

Major Alexis Dimitriades. Slender and dark and exotically beautiful - and a hero of the last operation in Engure. He and Hellar had known each other, had drinks in a company but hardly ever exchanged a personal phrase.

At first Hellar thought it was some secret mission; a part of him wanted it to be something else, though. He would relish a thought of the handsome Major in his bed but it was not how these things were done, Dimitriades had a wide choice of subordinates of lower ranks for that.

"I want to talk about the Legion," Dimitriades said. "I want to know how you feel about some things here."

Hellar didn't know how Dimitriades could guess; he never - not to his closest comrades, not even to Ursula - said anything about his secret thoughts. In fact, there were things he even didn't dare think about. Later he wondered why he answered Dimitriades' questions so openly, as if he couldn't think it could be a provocation or a test. Perhaps he was sealing his own fate then.

"I'm glad I'm not mistaken in you," Dimitriades said at last. "The last concern of the Legion is whether there is peace or not. In fact, we all are better off if the conflicts in the System keep smoldering. It allows us to come off as champions, as rescuers. And who really cares about the High Command trading information and, sometimes, weapons with both sides?"

"It's always been like that," Hellar said.

"No," Dimitriades said plainly. "And it means that it doesn't always have to be like that. We can change it."

It was when he told Hellar about the Organization - and about the machines they had; not really mind-control machines, it would be impossible - but the ones that allowed to alter a mind slightly, to change an individual's mood to a positive one. With these machines, Dimitriades said, they could secure peace in the System and make the Legion unnecessary.

"It doesn't scare you - that the only thing you can do won't be needed?" Dimitriades said. "You'll have to change your life completely, after our aim is achieved."

"It doesn't matter," Hellar said.

When the Major was about to leave, Hellar stopped him, a sudden thought coming to his mind.

"How can you be sure I won't report on you to the High Command as soon as you walk out?"

There was a light, easy smile on Dimitriades' lips, making him look boyish and carefree.

"I risk. There is no other way. I can draw you - another man - into our Organization. Or a man - me - can be lost. My life means nothing. I am ready to everything that can happen to me. Are you?"

Hellar said 'yes' and he meant it. But when, a few weeks later, Dimitriades asked him whether they should've tried to enlist First Lieutenant Ursula Wong, he cut it off, suddenly scared for her.

"She has nothing to do with it."

Then there was an assignment, the negotiations between Tergaron and Manos. And Hellar failed and was captured...

"And look at yourself now." Alora was still talking to him, her crisp, cold voice very clear in the transparent air. "You are alive just because Tarkh fancies you. Well, I understand him, of course - you have probably the most fuckable ass in the whole camp - except the little Rauni prince, that is. Tarkh must consider you a gift from the Goddess - especially since you don't mind his specific face."

"It's just a few scars," Hellar muttered. He felt tense, hating what Alora said - but even more awkward because of his urge to defend Tarkh. Defend Tarkh... it was truly ridiculous.

Alora's laughter was like snapping of gunshots.

"Good for you if you see it like this. As far as I remember, when we picked him up in the desert, he had his nose cut off."

"You picked him up?" Despite his stubborn resolution not to pry, Hellar couldn't help it, his curiosity was piqued.

"Oh, I see you woke up." Alora snorted. "I already started wondering if I was talking to this stupid moon up there. Didn't he tell you it was Rhys and me who found him?" And, as Hellar kept silent, she couldn't resist taking a dig. " Sorry, I forgot. You apparently don't meet to talk."

"I do what I have to do," Hellar forced himself to say.

"Six years ago we found him," Alora continued lightly, ignoring his snap. "He almost reached the camp - but you know in desert you can die in two hundred feet from a habitation and never know it. He was pretty weak when we stumbled against him, half dead with thirst and the sand made his face wounds all festering.

"I think he'd been good-looking, before Rauni did their knife-work on him," Alora went on almost dreamily. "What a waste. It's a pity I didn't have any devices for facial corrections, either. But let me tell you something - I don't think Rhys would let me use them even if I had. He liked it how Tarkh was... is. It makes easier to keep him under control this way."

"Well, Tarkh was quite a valuable acquisition, wasn't he?" Hellar said through the clenched teeth. "He's pretty good at what he's doing."

"Tarkh had been one of the warlords of Rauni." Alora shrugged. "A right hand man or something like that. Another one who'd fucked up everything himself," she added irritably, glancing at Hellar as if expecting some comments. "You don't even know that part? You two really have strange relations for lovers."

We are not lovers, Hellar wanted to say - but it would come off awkwardly, too, so, he just kept silent.

"Tarkh fell in love with his father's bride. When they were caught and punished, he got spiteful and returned to Rauni with mercenaries from Shegra. Killed his father and two brothers in the commotion. Eventually Rauni caught him and marked him... kin-slayer and a traitor, you see. He'd managed to escape before they proceeded with the mutilation... below the waist."

"And the girl?" Hellar didn't know why he felt so uneasy suddenly. "The one he fell in love with?"

"How can I know?" Alora snapped.

The tents in front of them were noisy, illuminated brightly, with people walking in and out unceasingly.

"Not so quickly, where do you hurry so?" Alora whined suddenly, lagging behind. Hellar slowed down and heard her whisper acidly. "Now we are going to say 'hi' to Rhys - and then just wait for trouble."

As it was, Rhys barely acknowledged Alora's arrival, his eyes sliding over Hellar as if he didn't recognize him. Rhys sat at the head of the table, between two Kori, nipping delicately on food and bringing the glass to his dry lips from time to time. Whether Rhys was amused with the party, Hellar couldn't say - but others seemed more than to enjoy it, their cups emptied and filled again, the whores of both genders sitting on the men's laps or kneeling at their customers' feet, working with their mouths.

Hellar looked around, noticed a man he hadn't seen before - slim, neat-looking, sitting not far from Rhys, his eyes half-shadowed as if lazily but his gaze sharp and cautious. And there, at his feet - at the first moment Hellar took a double look and knew he saw right - there was Tsianni.

At least he's not sucking the guy's dick, Hellar thought meanly. Just sitting there like a nice little slave. A slave with just a loincloth to cover him and a few jingling bracelets around his wrists and ankles. Tsianni's thin braids were unplaited and his hair was made into neat, tight locks spread over his shoulders. His lips were glossy with pink, bright lipstick.

He looked... attractive, Hellar decided. He looked like a whore. But he was a whore, of course.

It was not that Hellar had really shown any interest in the destiny of the fuckin' kid - but he couldn't shut his ears when people talked, could he? So, he knew that Rhys had tried Tsianni - and got bored with him - and then Tsianni was passed to the master of the house. A common whore; almost.

What an end... Normally Hellar wouldn't have dwelled on it, actually, would've shrugged away any thought about the kid. Tsianni was a goner; he couldn't have fallen any lower - and there was no way up from there.

And surely Hellar was not going to feel remorse for his own role in what happened; in fact, there was hardly anything that depended on him, since the moment he'd lost consciousness on the flyer. After all, it was Amanar who'd sold his baby cousin to the bandits. Life was unfair, okay? Hellar had enough occasions to make sure in it.

He still realized he was staring - and unsuccessfully tried to bring two images of Tsianni together: his haughty, chilly-cold bearing in the desert, ahead of his people - and the perfect little whore who seemed to belong at the feet of his master.

He sneered when Tsianni, having sensed his gaze, met it. The way Tsianni stared didn't change much. Still trying to look as if he's a head taller than anyone else - when in fact it was exactly the opposite.

Hellar brought the cup of kyth to his lips, saluting Tsianni, and expected the kid to look away contemptuously. He saw Tsianni mutter something, carefully articulating the words.

He didn't get it; the voices around were too loud. And why would he care? The kid's eyes, almost black, narrowed as he moved his head, as if calling for Hellar. His master didn't appear to look or allowed him this much slack - so, Tsianni got on his feet and walked a little away, to the corner.

It was insane; Hellar was not going to follow him.

He got up casually, drained out his cup and walked there; an absent, careless look on his face. The kid leant against the wall, his thin-boned body a comprehensive display of scabs and bruises, old and fresh ones.

"Where is your master, Praetorian?"

For a moment the question - or, rather, the tone - didn't register with Hellar. He saw Tsianni smile - a nasty, deliberate smile that curled the kid's upper lip; there was no shadow of humor in it.

"You are looking for Tarkh, aren't you?" Tsianni's voice still sounded unsteady, too quiet; he probably never got over after a Kori.

"You mean something?" Hellar scowled; he almost knew what Tsianni was going to say - and yet asked it.

"Just wondering. Why did he leave you all alone, huh? Already bored with you? Or is he fucking someone else at the moment?"

There was a tiny sliver of reason in Tsianni's words; Tarkh was not at the party and Hellar wondered where he was. Needless to say, Tsianni hitting the nerve didn't make him feel happy at all.

"You tell me. You probably know every whore here." Hellar shrugged. "You look like you were born here, kid, not in your father's posh tent."

"You apparently think you are less a whore than I am?" The boy's smile was as insincere as Hellar's must've been - even as Tsianni continued to talk in a casual, almost civil way. "It's hardly for long, Praetorian. I wonder how soon Tarkh will start sharing you with his men. You won't make good price, damaged goods as you are - but they can get a free fuck from time to time."

It made him feel uncomfortable, a little, to hear Tsianni talk like this. Another change that'd happened to the kid. Not just in his appearance but in his manners, too.

A whore, indeed, he was.

"For Goddess' sake, boy." Hellar tried very carefully to sound casual - and hoped he succeeded. "You have a twisted perception of things. Do you even have any idea that people can just have sex because they like it, not because one forces the other? Oh, sorry, I forgot - it's not how you Rauni do it."

It got to Tsianni, for some reason. Hellar didn't expect it to - but he saw a ripple of pain go over the kid's smooth face - and Tsianni's voice, as he talked, had very little civil in it:

"Don't you tell me it's Tarkh's pretty face you are helplessly in love with! Or do you get off on fucking a traitor and a murderer? I won't get surprised - for it's what you are, too."

Hellar flinched. He hated feeling like this, as if Tsianni managed to find a soft place inside him, a place where he could wound him. Well well, what he was doing around the kid all in all? He should've been back at the table, having fun...

"Tarkh must've been the best of you, Rauni, since he made such a damage before you could stop him."

He saw a twitch of Tsianni's mouth, almost as if the kid was surprised; it made Tsianni look like a small boy, suddenly very vulnerable. Hellar tried to get rid of this thought; he couldn't afford anything but pure animosity towards the kid.

"You really are in love with him, aren't you?" Tsianni said quietly. "I wonder what makes him fuck me then."

It was bullshit. The kid just said it to get to him. Hellar felt an uncertain smile curve his lips. He noticed Tsianni's eyes, that looked very dark, not light-brown as usual, search his face for the sign of impact of his words.

"You sure it was Tarkh? I thought you're not allowed to look up from your client's cock."

"Well, he was talking as I blew him. He told me how you played a bitch, wiggling your ass in front of him, Praetorian."

Hellar raised his hand, clenched in a fist, about to smash it into Tsianni's face. He wanted to see the boy bleed, to see tears spring out of his eyes. Then he saw a hawkish, too attentive gaze of Tsianni.

As if the kid expected him to do it, wanted him to do it.

Perhaps it was the thing. It must've been Tsianni's plan all along - to provoke him, preferably to make Hellar snap his neck... Damn the kid!

A heavy hand lay down on Hellar's shoulder - and he snapped back without looking:

"Don't you see we are talking?"

"I only see that you are about to damage my property." The silver voice behind him made Hellar shiver. He turned around, knowing whom he would see. Kori right next to him - and then - Rhys, leaning against his other bodyguard; Rhys, so fragile and seemingly vulnerable in comparison with Kori - yet the man's eyes couldn't be any colder.

"Sorry, my lord," Hellar mumbled, carefully keeping his eyes down. "I didn't mean to, my lord..."

"Coward," Tsianni whispered distinctly. "You lick his ass as well as Tarkh's?"

Anger made Hellar see white. What did the boy know? How did he dare accuse him?

"You don't look so much like a road kill any more, Praetorian," Rhys continued thoughtfully, as if Hellar's words slid over him unheard. "Amazing what a couple of weeks of safety and sharing your bed with someone powerful can do. You even dare snap at my men."

"I apologize, my lord." It was getting difficult. What else could he say? The Kori looked at Hellar without any expression in the narrow eyes. "I really wouldn't think to do anything that would anger you..."

"Good," Rhys cut him off. "Because I don't want to get angry. I want fun. Preston!"

The slim, smooth-haired man appeared at Rhys' side fast and soundless, like a shadow. Hellar noticed a brief look the man cast at Tsianni but couldn't interpret if there was annoyance or something else in it.

"Everything is ready, sir."

"Listen to me!" Rhys clapped his hands just once, facing the crowd. The silence took a few moments to settle down but Rhys didn't need to ask for it once more. All the eyes were on him now. "I know what you are waiting for. And I know you wonder what's the price for the fight today. I'll tell you. A special whore, his ass as close to virginal as possible - I checked it myself. You fight and win - you get him. For the whole night at your disposal - and not a credit to pay for it."

The man called Preston locked his thin-fingered hand on Tsianni's upper arm, shoving him forward. The men applauded enthusiastically, whistles and remarks approving Rhys' offer.

"Gentlemen, those who want to participate in the fight can put their rings on my table," Preston announced in a cool, cultured voice. Hellar noticed that his arm was knotted, though, as he made Tsianni stand still.

"Here it goes." Alora suddenly was next to Hellar, her face flushed with kyth and her eyes not all unhappy. "They are going to punch the shit out of each other and we are going to patch their ribs and jaws."

The flow of fighters wasn't actually overwhelming, Hellar noticed. Perhaps a lot of men already bought a whore for the night or were too drunk to stand. There were still quite a few coming up to Preston to submit their rings. Some tables were moved out, freeing the space for the fighters.

Hellar glanced at Tsianni who was pushed on the floor at the feet of Preston's fat assistant. The kid's face was ghostly pale, his lips, compressed in a thin line, unnaturally pink with the lipstick; Hellar could see how desperately he tried to look unaffected, probably put all his strength into it. But the kid's eyes were not calm, darting around the room, stopping at Preston, who didn't look at him - as if the stupid boy had something to expect from the man.

Bummer, isn't it, Hellar thought. He knew he probably should've felt more malicious joy at what was going to happen to the little prince of whores; Tsianni's words, about Tarkh, still smarted. But, strangely, he didn't feel glad or anything. At least not till the moment when Tsianni's eyes met his - and the boy formed one word with his lips:

"Asslicker."

Hellar felt his face twitch. So much for a brief moment of almost compassion he felt! The darn kid didn't deserve any compassion. In fact, he deserved...

The idea came to Hellar, freeing the urge that stirred inside him all the time as he watched the man who gathered in front of Preston's table. He stepped up there and put the obsidian ring from his little finger on the board.

The rings were defining signs in the camp, holding the information about the owner's status and occupation. Hellar so far had only one, given to him by Tarkh.

He saw Preston glance at him for a moment, a weary, casual look, as he gathered the ring.

"I'm going to fuck the little blondie's ass until he screams," a man next to Hellar said. Hellar knew the words reached Tsianni and knew that the kid looked at him, understood he'd joined, too. He smiled deliberately, keeping his gaze, making Tsianni look away.

"What is it you think you're doing?" Alora was at his side, her voice barely containing anger. "You are here to fix the troubles, not to make them!"

"What do you worry about?" Her words barely registered with Hellar as he studied his opponents. There were eight men, him including. Four fights would be carried out simultaneously, then the winners meet each other - and two last winners have one more fight. "I'll wrestle them all down."

"Exactly, my Praetorian boy," Alora sneered. "That's the problem."

He didn't care. He already felt high with the expectation of the fight. Preston threw the rings by two by chance, choosing the opponents. Hellar's was a stocky bearded man with a broken, badly put together nose; the man's chest bulged with muscles as he dropped off his jacket.

"Shall we start?" Rhys' melodic voice covered every other noise in the hall. Hellar couldn't explain it but he distinctly felt Rhys' gaze on himself - and made himself not to turn back.

"You start at the count 'five'," Preston said in a hollow voice. "One, two, three, four, five..."

For a short while everything became a blur for Hellar. He heard the calls of the crowd, knew their presence and presence of other fighters - but his perception was only on the man who moved towards him. He moved so slowly, it seemed - like though the water. Hellar dodged a blow, felt a heavy fist swish over his head - and slammed his fingers upwards into the hollow between the man's collarbones. The man's eyes rolled up and he collapsed on the floor, choking. The crowd went wild. Hellar was the first one to finish the fight.

Two other victors defined pretty clearly when their opponents couldn't get up - but the fourth pair was either too drunk or too weak - so, they clutched on each other, just exchanging a punch or two from time to time, under the jeering remarks of the audience that they seemed more interested in each other than in the prize. Hellar noticed a slight frown of Preston, as if the man had a headache.

"Some changes in the program, gentlemen," he announced at last. "These two are disqualified and the last fight is going to be a three-some, so to say - all against all."

That was perfectly okay for Hellar. The sooner it was over, the better. He turned to the other men and clenched his fists.

At the very first moment he understood that they agreed to act together against him, probably having noticed how quickly he'd done his opponent. He kicked one man in the guts and meanwhile the other managed to slam his fist in Hellar's ribs. It was not too bad but sensitive. Hellar blocked the next blow and drove his heel in the other fighter's solar plexus. He didn't stop when the man fell on his knees, curling down. He hit twice more, until the man was spread flat on the floor.

The last one was pretty good. Hellar missed a blow that made him feel like a fireball exploded in his head. He tasted blood in his mouth. He was also getting tired. Two weeks in the camp, with normal food and without getting beaten had made him feel much better, just as Rhys noticed - but he still was not, would apparently never be as strong and tireless as the chip used to make him.

He knew he should've finished it as soon as possible. The man's eyes were white with anger as he moved on Hellar. It was the man who promised to fuck Tsianni's ass mercilessly. Hellar smiled, feeling the split on his lip open some more, and thought: not tonight - as he broke his fist into the man's jaw. A few moments of his opponent's disorientation were enough to finish the sequence. The guy was probably concussed, Hellar thought as the man collapsed on the floor. Sorry, Alora.

Hellar straightened, looking around, and snuffled blood back into his nose, then felt it leak out again. The faces were slightly swimming in front of his eyes and he shook his head, returning the sharpness of perception. The men cheered him, not extremely enthusiastically - but, after all, he was still pretty new there.

He saw Alora tinker with her devices over the man he'd knocked down first - and winked her. She gave him a murderous look.

He turned to Tsianni. Ah, the boy was an eyesore... couldn't even meet Hellar's gaze. Hellar smiled.

With his peripheral sight Hellar noticed Rhys give Preston a sign, calling for him - and didn't know at the first moment what kind of unpleasant feeling seized him. He watched them talk, Preston's eyes going wide at first - and then the man just nodded and nodded. His walk was kind of slow, however, as he walked back to his table.

"And now - another little change of the rules, gentlemen. A new contestant in our most entertaining games. The winner of the fight gets the prize." He reached his hand at Rhys' direction and for a moment Hellar thought incredulously that Rhys decided to fight himself. Then he saw a Kori to get up.

Everything went quiet. Of course, no one said it was unfair or anything. Hellar was not going to say it was unfair - he was not a fool enough for that.

"Of course, either contestant can refuse to fight - and will relinquish the victory," Preston said calmly, definitely for his benefit.

"Tell him you refuse."

A hard palm clasped on Hellar's wrist as familiar slurry voice sounded behind him. He turned back and looked into Tarkh's dark eyes over the facecloth.

"You stupid fool, Hellar. Can't I leave you alone for a few hours without you getting in trouble?"

Really, where have you been, Hellar wanted to ask. 'Fucking some whore...' Tsianni's words resurfaced in his memory. He bit his lip stubbornly.

"Why is Rhys angry with you? What have you done?" Tarkh continued in a furious whisper. "I hope he'll let it slip if you just admit you've lost."

Hellar looked around, pointedly not meeting Tarkh's glare. Rhys smiled - almost pleasantly; the Kori looked as idol-like and detached as always. It was not the same one who'd touched his shoulder, Hellar realized; that one had red beads in his hair and this one - blue.

"I'll fight," Hellar said.

"What?" He heard an explosive gasp from Tarkh - and the man's voice became scathing. "Don't be more pigheaded than you can help! It's a Kori if you didn't notice."

"I noticed," Hellar whispered in the same sarcastic voice. "Are you worried for me - or don't you want me to have my cock up the Rauni prince's ass?"

For a few moment Tarkh was silent, just eyeing him as if in disbelief. His voice was almost careful as he spoke at last.

"You can't be so stupid, Hellar, can you? If I cared for this Rahuni - why would I mind you fighting Kori? Don't you know a night with Kori will kill him? I don't want *you* to get hurt. And the Kori will kill you, Rhys will allow him. You apparently outlived your amusement with Rhys..."

Of all the words Tarkh said, only one phrase really stuck in Hellar's mind. 'I don't want *you* to get hurt'. He looked at Tarkh, met his fierce, widened eyes - and felt unexplainable relief wash over him. Whatever Tsianni said about Tarkh - it didn't matter.

"Too late," he said softly.

"You start at the count 'three'," Preston said.

Hellar let the Kori start, studying his movements. Goddess, the man was huge. He'd never fought a Kori before. He'd had spars from different races but Kori was a small race, the Legion didn't consider them as enemies. Yet Kori must've been vulnerable; all living beings were.

Hellar waited, letting the Kori closer, watching for the first blow. The giant approached him rather carefully. And then everything happened very fast. Hellar sidestepped, evading the blow - and didn't manage to escape it completely. If the Kori didn't miss, his fist would probably crushed Hellar's ribs. As it was, the impact made his shoulder go numb.

He placed a kick into the Kori's groin - and felt a hand catch his ankle. The floor hit hard and swift against his side as the Kori threw him down. Hellar barely managed to roll away before the Kori's fist slammed where his head had just been.

He hadn't taken Tarkh's words seriously, that the Kori might've intended to kill him - but whether it was Rhys' permission or just the style of the Kori, Hellar knew he wouldn't have survived the blow, if it had landed right. He kicked with both his heels in the Kori's face. The Kori shook his head slightly.

Hellar got up, as fast as he could - but not as fast as the Kori. The Kori's fist slammed into his belly. The blow was stunning; Hellar felt as if all the air was knocked out of him, as if his insides burst. Dazed, he watched as the Kori lowered his head, preparing to another attack.

He plunged forward and slapped his palms over the Kori's ears.

He didn't know if it would work; he knew he had little chance if it didn't. But it worked - the Kori lost his balance, his motions became disoriented. A trickle of blood ran from his ear and Hellar knew one or both his eardrums burst.

Yet Hellar underestimated him; as he hit again, the Kori caught his wrist. Excruciating pain pierced his arm, the bones giving way under the pressure. Hellar heard his own growl of pain - and thrust his fingers into the Kori's throat.

It was possibly the only place where thick planes of muscles didn't cover the Kori's body. Hellar's fingers grasped on the Kori's Adam's apple and he twisted, tearing his throat out.

The Kori choked with blood. His hand kept gripping on Hellar's wrist - but these were just convulsive movements. He started in the eyes of the dying Kori and, when they went dull, the grip loosened.

"I won," Hellar said with a smirk.

He felt light-headed with pain, his arm feeling huge and throbbing - yet he felt very jolly, almost playful. He bowed towards Rhys, politely. The man's fine-lined face blurred in front of his eyes - but Hellar could see the other Kori get up and look at his dead comrade as if in disbelief.

"Nope," Hellar said. "I don't fight any more. No more contestants. I get my prize."

He knew Tarkh was somewhere behind him but he didn't look back. He walked up to Tsianni and pulled him up on his feet, holding the kid's forearm. The kid didn't struggle, probably too stunned for that. Hellar wrapped his good arm around Tsianni's neck, feeling the incredible silkiness of curled locks against his arm.

"You are mine," he informed Tsianni and giggled at the fact that he couldn't clearly see the kid's face to enjoy all the expression of repulsion on it. "Come on. Give me a kiss."

He shoved his tongue between Tsianni's lips, tugging the kid closer, and was vaguely surprised that Tsianni's mouth tasted like blood.

The End of Part 7a

DEAD HEAT

Part 7b

Written by BlueGreen

Hellar's eyes didn't leave his as he spat out and wiped his lips.

An instinctive reaction, nothing a man should be blamed for, some detached part of Tsianni's mind noted. So, Hellar realized he'd put his tongue into the mouth of a whore. Which had to be quite another taste than having a freshly captured Rahuni prince under him.

Spiked by the sharp fumes of spilled kyth, the odor of blood and sex suddenly became over-powering.

He would not swoon like some girl, Tsianni told himself firmly. It was humiliating enough that Hellar had to hold him upright when his legs began to shake with spastic tremors. Nothing of his rage was still with him, nothing of the madness that had let him escape into the fantasy of a quick death.

He flinched as Rhys' shrill and incoherent yell cut through the reigning pandemonium, convinced that he was its focus. For a short breath the noise just ceased to be. And all Tsianni felt was this monstrous tiredness that rushed through his veins until the world around him shrunk to the little bubble of silence around him and Hellar.

The parties inside the tent, those not on their knees serving their customers, were too far gone to react in their usual cowed way for any length of time, though. As if on cue, one more incoming wave of intoxicated bandits started to shove and bawl, afraid to miss the fun. Within seconds the clamor ruled again.

"Didn't they tell you, I'm not a good lay?"

Tsianni snapped at the fingers that wanted to paw his face.

"Go and fuck Tarkh!"

It was almost funny to see Hellar's expression.

Wasn't it the guy who'd risked slow dismemberment by the camp's champion for a privilege that he could've gotten for a few coins from any camp follower? So, why did the man's obvious disgust sting so? Hellar hated him; how could he not?

Tsianni couldn't let himself care what this foreign bandit lover thought of him. Everything else was just - delusions. He should've started seeing things as they were. If Rhys demanded a performance right over the Kori's dead body, Hellar would oblige.

But I won't. I-- can't.

"You touch me and you will so rue this-- Fuck you!" Tsianni hissed catching the other's grin.

Was the bastard making fun of him?

He nearly bit his tongue when Hellar gave him a furious short shake that left him dazed. His own kick Hellar evaded with ease, still hyped up from the battle, faster and stronger and much more devious when it came to inflicting pain. Tsianni never knew what hit him.

White, hot pain shot like a needle-thin lance through his side and the next breath wouldn't come. He didn't make a sound as he sagged into the Praetorian's arms.

With pain-hazed eyes, Tsianni saw Hellar glare at him from above, annoyance and some kind of resentment in the man's gaze. Gods, but what did the condescending bastard expect? That Tsianni would fling himself into his arms, thanking him for salvation from dying an ugly death under a rutting Kori? Did he want some kind of reward, risking his life for a skinny slave who'd tried to hang on to the rags of his former honor instead of submitting to the inevitable?

The man was so stupid. He'd come to Rhys' entertainment, arrogantly flaunting his newly protected status and thinking he wouldn't be used. What a blind fool -

Anyone could've seen that there was a nasty game of power going on - and the Praetorian, as well as he, Tsianni, were just pawns in it.

And he - he was as bad as Hellar at that, Tsianni thought. He'd hoped he could somehow make Preston react...

In hindsight it felt like the dream of a madman. Worse even. Like those pitiful fantasies a slave might harbor towards an indifferent owner. Mistaking the very sentiment that made the master tolerable for something it was clearly not.

Now Preston was gone form his corner. For a moment Tsianni's vision went black completely. He knew he wasn't taking this well at all - that Preston might as well have washed his hands of him.

No, he wailed inwardly, it couldn't be. There was more between them.

Humiliated, Tsianni felt Hellar's hand grip on his tresses and noted that his open hair provided a good hold. He had earned himself a beating, fighting against having his hair washed and perfumed and oiled to make it softer to the touch. It had been done to mark him not just as a slave - for those were customarily shorn short to keep the bugs down - but as one of the whores in the camp. Rhys' orders, of course; Rhys had an eye for such gestures.

The man who pressed him against Hellar's front was yelling something over his head. Tarkh, he guessed from the smell and rough leathers. The raiders' leader was not a happy man. He only grunted as Tsianni's naked foot managed to connect with his own sturdy footwear. Determinedly, Tsianni pushed his head up from the shoulder he'd been slumped on - there was a thigh wedged between his legs now and he could just see himself being done in public by both of them.

He gave a mindless growl and tried to jerk his head out of the hold of Hellar's fingers.

"No - I won't - "

But fighting was useless, he knew that. Rhys' toy inside of him was tuned to his rebellious nature - and would act accordingly. He did it nonetheless.

Earlier that day Rhys had done a demonstration of the worm's use while Preston stood silently at his side, eyes gone cold and dead as he looked down at Tsianni's writhing body.

"You can't get enough of that, can you?" Rhys had his almost boyish grin on, one arm around Preston stiff shoulders, drawing the reluctant man nearer. "Or you wouldn't defy me again and again..."

Although his eyes where glued to the show at his feet, the words were for Preston alone. And Preston had watched almost - as if he wasn't there. Nothing in his demeanor betrayed the fact that he did care for the man at his feet or would mind that his slave might not survive the evening.

A training device for the willful, Rhys had called it, the night Pig had delivered him greased and primed at the abode of the returning leader.

It won't stop until you do.

Hellar transferred his grip to his upper arm and turned them around, away from Tarkh, who let it happen, just stood there motionless, flanked by two of his men. His eyes found Tsianni's briefly, promising murder. The rambunctious masses pushed them to the side of the tent and then into the open; one of many pairings, a whore and his customer looking for a quiet place.

Hellar's mouth come hard upon his lips and left them burning.

All reasons were swept aside as Tsianni's mouth opened and he felt the tongue touching his, then withdraw and lick across lips that were raw and hurting. He couldn't get enough of the sensation.

With the last bit of his will he turned his head away.

Preston, pale and fine, stood out among the coarser crowd. Tsianni dug his heels in violently as he got a glimpse of the man turning away - and was nearly bowed over by angry pulse the thing inside his guts sent. He swallowed the cry.

Where were Preston's men? Those few who were not already creatures of Rhys, they should've been with him, Tsianni thought, alarmed. He didn't see a single one. Rather there was Pig's fraction, in full force and disturbingly much more sober and determined than usual, cutting though the crowd like a pack of sandsharks who'd scented blood.

"Where do you think you are going, Rauni?" Hellar asked coldly.

A man a little distance in front of them turned around and Tsianni was stopped by the weird way his hair rose in a sudden swaying cloud. Blue crackling lights appeared to dance above the crowd near him.

Next to him Hellar exploded into motion. Tsianni was swung around with enough force to nearly dislocate his shoulder, then lost the rest of his footing as a ferocious push catapulted him in the direction of the nearest wall.

Consciousness went for a few seconds and came back with him disoriented, spitting sand and blood. It felt as if a ton of hot and hard growling Praetorians had landed on him.

"--fighting! Stay down, cover your ears - open your mouth!"

Whether he'd followed any of these orders, Tsianni never knew; it was more likely that he just started to curse the man on top of him. But once the wave of hellish noise and pressure rolled over them, every recollection just stopped.

* * *

You had to be born and raised lowland to find your peace in the constant level of noise that ruled festival season.

The drums of the lowland clans would play day and night until every movement from tiny platter of the evening rains to the very act of breathing surrendered to their rhythm.

Tsianni and his guards took wax ball in their ears like any foreigner, unlucky enough to get stranded there during the holy weeks.

But silence isn't just absence of sound and that was something Tsianni began to realize once he'd cut off the noise from outside, only to drown in the deafening pulse of his own blood .

* * *

His eyes must've been open for quite a while, for when he saw the dark sky turn to daylight and then plunge back into the blackness of a starless night, it didn't amaze him. It left curious greenish glowing writings on the inside of his lids that he couldn't decipher, so he blinked his eyes to make them vanish. His ears rang.

The next time the burn of the brightness was muted through the curtain of Hellar hair - a smooth dark waterfall that glowed indigo blackness that surrounded Tsianni for a breath or two.

Don't go to sleep. Can you hear me? That is an energy weapon on overload. A big one.

Odd. He seemed to be lying on something soft. And he couldn't move his arms that were strung over his head. It disturbed him a bit but not to the point where the notion of struggling ever came into consideration. Tsianni really wanted to ask something fundamental, like where he was but the sound that made it out of his mouth suspiciously sounded like a moan. It echoed eerily inside his head.

Hellar's loose hair dragged over his skin briefly, cool and silky at the same time. Tsianni shivered long after the sensation was gone. The thought came to him that it shouldn't have felt so good.

They... are dead then?

Dead?

A grin or rather white teeth bared like a charging animal.

Not likely. Deaf, dazed and with aching heads and some broken bones, probably. Minus one tent for sure. And with all their fucking machinery shorted out.

Light wandered behind closed eyes and into his very brain. Then darkness. Then light again. In the darkness that followed, Hellar's quiet voice seemed bodiless.

"They must've been mates. The other tried for self-destruct - can't do with contraband weapon and too little extra energy to draw on. So, he's been shooting his weapon unshielded on maximum into the sky. For hours."

"Who?"

"The remaining Kori. Who else? He's committing suicide."

It was inside one of the gutted flyer wrecks that Hellar had found them shelter.

Those were quite a way from Rhys' tent, if Tsianni had their location correctly, in the north of the wadi and then some distance from the working flotilla. Not that he remembered walking under his own power but somehow the picture of Hellar carrying a naked slave through camp wouldn't come either.

The man's shadow played on the gently shifting walls of cloth that shielded them from the frosty skies with a strange fluidity that made its elongated dark gestures strange and alien. An elusive sight. The fire in the sky only came sporadic now, its brilliance muted; almost grudgingly it gave way to the murky light of predawn.

Tsianni's flesh still tingled form the wet cloth that Hellar had used to clean the worst of the dirt and blood off him. The old wreck proved to be a neat little spot that came fully equipped for a night's quick pleasure; soft blankets, a tiny heating apparatus and water, enough water for a man to last him through a week...

Never a week at this rate, Tsianni corrected himself, and found that he'd stopped being bothered by waste of water. No longer to smell his own fear and sweat, that was rather nice, too. He gulped down the offered water, horribly aware that he was too weak to raise his head properly, waiting for a nasty comment. But all he received was a long serious look from shadowed eyes that saw too much of his condition to be fooled by any shows of stubborn pride.

Maybe Hellar would let him rest for a bit longer before doing whatever he'd planned to do to him. Tsianni found it hard to care. A blanket had been thrown over him negligently and he was just burrowing deeper into its fold as best as he could with his arms like two unfeeling sticks above him when his sight fell on the rations which hung neatly knotted from the ceiling and the way the insect netting was tied just so. He knew then it was Tarkh's hideout, and it was Tarkh's bedding he was stretched upon. He went very still. With his heartbeat rushing in his ears, he tried to keep his breathing even and desperately strained the bonds around his wrists.

Hellar had his back to him for the last few minutes.

Hurting, Tsianni thought. In his memory the fight was a hazy collection of blood-splattered flesh clashing and that ever-roaring noise, but not much else, not even how long it had gone on. And the sight of Hellar's hands dripping with the hot blood of his kill as he came for him. That was burned into his soul.

But not even a fighter of that caliber would survive a fight with a Kori completely unscathed.

So, Tsianni's only chance would be right now, while the other was preoccupied with tending his wounds and not willing to risk further injury. And alone.

He saw the Hellar's suppressed flinch as he shifted, now that he was looking for it. The next tug at his wrists felt as if he'd touched bone. The bangles around his joints gave a musical tingle.

Hellar turned almost lazily.

"Going somewhere?"

He reached over Tsianni's head leisurely, ignoring the other's reflective wince to unbuckle the strap around his wrists.

"This will hurt."

It did, eventually - enough to make Tsianni's eyes tear, but that wasn't why he gave a warning snarl when Hellar reclined next to him. The scent of the man had enveloped him and he found it difficult to breathe all of a sudden - confused and frightened, he had to witness his body react like an animal trained to please.

"Don't try me, kid, you're not in the shape." Hellar said without his usual exasperation. "Why don't you take it easy for a while."

Say it, Tsianni raged silently, say that I should be glad it is you rather than the Kori.

Instead, he had to succumb to having his arms flexed back and forth, then skillfully massaged until the numb flesh began to tingle painfully with the return of sensation. Just a good clean kind of hurt, something he might have done to a comrade and not have felt like touching on his honor.

It wouldn't stay that way, Tsianni thought. He wouldn't be fooled.

This man wasn't the one he'd spared in the fight with Hebners. It occurred to him that he'd so far never seen the real Hellar; the ruthless soldier, the educated person, the lover - all those parts that made the man.

He watched Hellar tie his hands again this time to his front.

And isn't that a sensible precaution...

Surely he would've done the same, just with no care for the other's comfort, for Tsianni couldn't remember a moment when they both hadn't been looking for a way to do the other in.

Only that Hellar had fought a Kori when all he'd had to do was step back and enjoy his revenge.

What are you waiting for? You want to fuck me, he thought rather at a loss. I know that. That's why you kissed me. What more do you want?

"I lied," he whispered against Hellar's throat. "I am good at it. I can suck you till you scream." With the tip of his tongue he lapped at the salty smooth skin he could reach, tiny delicate licks that forced the body above him into the faintest shiver. "I am not going to owe you -"

My life. There, he nearly had said it. Don't lose it now, Rahuni.

He looked up to meet irritated green eyes.

"No? And what makes you think I will collect the debt?" Hellar said bitingly. "Not that I doubt your training. But I am not in the habit of sleeping with whores. "

Then he rode Tsianni's furious jerk, pressing them both deeper into the bedding.

"Who is the whore here?" Tsianni howled. "Who showed his belly the moment we saw those fucking low-life bandits? Who sucks up to Tarkh? WHO are you calling a whore, you bastard!"

He sobbed with rage.

Hellar hadn't drawn back during his fit, and now every bruise seemed to flare with its own agonizing beat wherever their two bodies touched. It didn't keep Tsianni's traitorous cock down and that was about the last straw, that he should have no control over his own sluttish flesh.

When he went for Hellar throat, he knew his speed was frightening, knew his sharp teeth could make a man think twice about letting him come anywhere near. But Hellar hardly flinched.

Crazy, he thought, crazy and proud enough not to show his fear. We're not so far apart.

With tiny growling sounds Tsianni lapped at skin prickly with the shade of a new beard. As soon as hands closed on his shoulders he dared for a quick taste of the man's lips before shaking out of their hold. Almost frantic then, he kicked off the scratchy blanket and twisted to his side to lick a path from Hellar's sternum to the lower belly, over hard flesh lighter than his own and scarred by stranger weapons. The tiny starburst of a white scar on Hellar's thigh caught his attention briefly and he let his fingers stroke over it before returning his ministrations to the rapidly filling cock. Hellar made his first involuntary sound then.

Encouraged, Tsianni dared to rub his lips over its length much harsher than his previous caresses and felt the whole body under him flinch satisfactorily. The intoxicating smell, that sharp blend of the man's own scent and the smell of camp-life that clung to his skin went right into Tsianni's brain. He groaned as fingers forced his mouth open and a thumb pressed down on his tongue, until he had to swallow his own salvia. His hands clawed into Hellar's thigh as his own hips began to jerk.

Immediately Hellar pushed him off and rolled him over onto his back covering his burning body with his own - and held him down forcefully enough to make a struggle impossible. Tsianni wasn't allowed to move expect to breathe and even that, he was shown, was under the Hellar's control.

"I don't want your mouth," he whispered into Tsianni's ear. "And I want you to scream for me to fuck you."

He must've felt Tsianni's staccato heartbeat.

"You're free of the thing, kid, I am not into fucking hardware."

Then he met Tsianni's eyes from a hand-span - and Hellar's eyes were green like no clansman ever had. This time Tsianni's lips were touched almost hesitantly before his leg was raised over Hellar's shoulder.

It was a position Tsianni knew he would hate - so exposed and vulnerable he felt as soon as the other's fingers pressed urgently at his opening.

Hellar's open hair touched his shivering skin and he barely suppressed a groan. A fist closed around his arousal, hot and possessive, and squeezed. Tsianni was given the very fist stroke and screamed as the fingers slid into him to the last digit.

Then again - and he thought it would rip him apart. And once more - only this time the strokes got faster and a place inside him flared up. Then the fingers withdrew.

"No..." Tsianni gasped and lifted his hips. "Don't stop!"

Hellar's mouth, devouring his, silenced him but did nothing to quench the feverish ache in him. So, it was pure animal relief that made him groan as Hellar resumed to slowly stroke his cock. Just to stop anew. Tsianni nearly cried with frustration as his hands were slapped away and pinned over his head.. But when the hot flesh of Hellar's cock did press against his separated buttocks, he shrunk back. Hellar gave his bottom lip a sharp little nip to get his attention.

Then he pushed in.

Tsianni bit into the back of his hand not to scream.

He knew that pain.

"Shh, there. I will go slow, I know you can take me."

"Bastard-" Tsianni got his sobbing breath back under control.

Hellar gave a short breathless laugh and then moved.

He could've never taken him like this without being worked by the worm first, that thought flashed through Tsianni's mind and yet he didn't care. He was burning with each deep and slow thrust. Spinning out of control with each stroke of the hand and each stabbing shove of the cock that hit the place in him Hellar's fingers only had teased. His body threw itself towards completion and he came hard then.

Hellar stilled and drew in a hissing breath above him. He seemed oddly vulnerable now with his hair hanging into his flushed face and those eyes gone dark.

I could touch you now, Tsianni mused. Your mouth would be soft.

Tsianni was already half asleep when he felt Hellar sag next to him; infused with a strange warming glow that pushed both the pain and the numbness back.

The End of Part 7b

DEAD HEAT

Part 8a

Written by Juxian Tang

Tsianni's thin arm was flung across Hellar's chest, his metal bracelets feeling cold at the first moment and then getting warmer against Hellar's skin. The strands of his soft hair under Hellar's cheek felt warm and silky, keeping the residuals of some sweet, fruity perfume.

Hellar liked this smell - he admitted it to himself, lying with his eyes open, sleepless and in silence. He liked that he could feel it even through the stronger smell of their recent sex and ever-present, copper scent of blood. He didn't feel ashamed with liking something un-masculine like this; it was only temporary, only for a few minutes, on the brink of the dawn; a few minutes when Hellar felt warm, comfortable and purely content.

Through the seams of the tent, the rays of the sun laid narrow stripes of light across Tsianni's face. The kid looked surprisingly peaceful; his mouth, bright and nearly bruised with kissing, seemed unusually soft, Hellar thought. The kid's eyes under the closed eyelids moved swiftly as he dreamed but his eyelashes didn't flutter.

Hellar grinned slightly, recalling the feathery softness of these eyelashes against his lips last night - and the fury, mixed with resignation, in Tsianni's stare as he kissed the kid's face. Just thinking about it made him conscious of the warmth spread through his body, the sensation of Tsianni's arm against his ribs emanating heat.

He wondered how the kid would react if he put his mouth on his lips now, woke him up this way. Would probably thrash again, deliciously, the way he'd done yesterday, in a fight that Tsianni obviously wanted to lose as much as Hellar wanted to win.

"You little slut," Hellar whispered. Tsianni's soft, steady breath didn't break. For a moment Hellar almost felt ashamed with the injustice of his words, the injustice that he realized and yet didn't want to admit. His hand hovered over Tsianni's cheekbone, just short of touching, and he pulled it away, unwilling to get into a contact.

Well, too many good things were dangerous. And what had been fun at night might've turned out to be just a nuisance in the daylight. Time to get up. Deftly Hellar slid from under Tsianni's arm and got on his feet. The fight yesterday with the Kori reminded him about itself with sharp claws of pain in his arm and side. He gnawed at his lip, willing the pain away. He was not going to pay attention to these things; it was the best tactics. And his injuries certainly hadn't hindered him to enjoy the previous night, so, there was no reason to slacken now.

He gave Tsianni's face one last look before getting out of the tent, somewhat melancholic. It was nice, kid, but I don't think we'll ever do it again... In fact, he hardly was going to afford Tsianni's services, not when Rhys priced them like this.

The sun, bright as usual, was low above the horizon and the air still so cold that Hellar's breath made small clouds of white. He stretched, squinting his eyes against the light, pointedly ignoring the complaints of his body. Damn the Kori... Damn both of them.

The camp was quiet at last, quieter than always, people probably exhausted after the eventful night. The flames were gone but Hellar could smell the bitter tang of fuel quite distinctly.

Fuel - and fire smoke. He turned around, wide-eyed, to see Tarkh sitting cross-legged at the small fire in a few steps away from him. The man wasn't asleep; his figure, wrapped in a fur cloak, was motionless, except for a stick in his hands he used to stir the ashes from time to time. He didn't look back at Hellar, as if not hearing him - although, for Goddess' sake, Hellar had made enough noise to disturb a flock of khaasi.

Hellar sighed. In fact, there was no reason why he hadn't expected to see Tarkh here. Last night, in the hell started by the grieving Kori, Hellar had gone nearly mad with the tearing pain in his head as the machines went wild. Tarkh was the one who shook him back into consciousness, slapped him until Hellar managed to focus again.

He didn't know what Tarkh thought, perhaps that Hellar shitted himself in fear - but it didn't matter. Seeing Tarkh's face, uncovered with the cloth, was suddenly everything Hellar needed. It was something he was able to hold onto, while trying to dispel the pain. He saw Tarkh pick up Tsianni's lax body effortlessly - and then felt himself being pulled up on his feet.

By the time they reached Tarkh's hideaway place, Hellar was more or less himself again.

"Take the little shit and get into the tent." Tarkh's voice seemed to be the only thing that could get through the horrible noise in the camp. And as Hellar tried to say something, Tarkh just shook his head and dumped Tsianni on him, making Hellar reconsider what hurt worse, his head or his ribs. "Use your winnings."

Well, that's what he'd done, eventually.

Now Hellar made a few steps towards Tarkh, stopping behind his back hesitantly.

"You... spent the whole night here?"

For a few moments it seemed like Tarkh was intended to ignore him further - but eventually he glanced back at Hellar, his eyebrow raised.

"The quietest place in the camp last night."

His voice had its normal, annoyed tone; Hellar tried very hard to keep a contented smile away from his face but he was not sure if he succeeded.

"Ugh... Thank you for letting me use your tent. And... I'm sorry."

"The hell you are!" Now Tarkh's eyes were on him and glaring. "Sorry - with this shit-eating grin? And why would you feel sorry after a night like this? The little scum was loud... If not for the explosions I bet the whole camp would be able to hear him! What were you doing? Fucking him through the ground?"

If Tarkh wanted him to feel guilty, he couldn't choose a worse way to get to Hellar's conscience.

"Hmm, well. I know I'm good," he admitted meekly.

"You're a smug asshole."

In a moment Tarkh was on his feet, his fist aimed at Hellar's face. Hellar reacted instinctively, his hand catching the fist as he slammed against Tarkh, sending them both on the ground.

He must've been out of his mind, fighting Tarkh... And yet somehow Hellar was sure it couldn't turn to be too bad. Not when he felt so good.

If only Tarkh knew... Okay, he had a reason to be smug. Two reasons, in fact - and only the lesser of them was the memory about Tsianni's futile struggle, the flailing of the kid's hands suddenly turning into pulling closer. The other thing was...

In Tarkh's tent, near to unconscious Tsianni, there was time when Hellar had thought he would pass out as well, blood streaming from his nose and mouth as the pain tore his brain apart. And then... something seemed to snap. The pain was going away; he was making it go away.

The catastrophe created by the Kori hadn't killed him, hadn't driven him mad. And more than that - suddenly Hellar understood that he could make it stop. Could take the machines under control, could make them do what he wanted. Go on or stall. Just as he'd done with the flyer, a while ago. Only with more ease and more certainty.

Surely, he had no intention to stop anything. In fact, the only target he applied his power to was the device inside Tsianni; removing it was as easy as snapping a buckle on a belt...

Hellar smiled again thinking about it. Last night he'd been in control, both over the engines and over the kid. And now...

Tarkh's struggling body under him felt hot even through their clothes. The man's eyes, furious, glittering, stared at Hellar unblinkingly. Hellar shook his head, letting his hair fall over Tarkh's face - and saw a shade of torment and passion flitting in Tarkh's gaze. He reached his hand and pulled Tarkh's facecloth away.

"Why do you want to hit me? Wouldn't you rather kiss me?"

He felt a soft, painful jolt inside his chest as he saw Tarkh's eyes change, as if trying to escape Hellar's gaze as he looked at the man's mutilated face. But whether Tarkh wanted it or not, Hellar was not intended to let him go.

He sank down and put his lips on Tarkh's mouth.

For a moment, before his lips touched Tarkh's, he saw Tsianni's face in front of himself, as he'd seen it yesterday - its clean-cut features, lit with the orange light of the torches. A pale, flushed face, with eyes bright with tears and arousal. I only used you, little slut, he thought. And a moment later he already didn't think about Tsianni, plunging his tongue into Tarkh's mouth.

A minute or two later, as they paused, Hellar felt a cocky grin on his face. He wasn't sure it was a good idea, to look so happy, but he couldn't help it.

"Get off of me." There was no conviction in Tarkh's voice at all. "Come on, Hellar, behave your age."

"You mean I do something that can be qualified as childish?" His hand slid between the folds of Tarkh's clothes, brushing against the smooth skin.

"Stop it... You're not going to... right here, where everybody can see us?"

"No one's around," Hellar whispered even without checking. "And who cares, anyway?"

He felt Tarkh tremble but he was sure it was not of the cold that must've been seeping into the man's body from the ground. He dug his hands through Tarkh's clothes - and under the rags the man's body was ablaze, the greatest heat in his groin, the length of Tarkh's cock almost burning against Hellar's cool hands.

He ran his palms along Tarkh's shaft, knowing that the roughness of his skin was scratching, knowing that it was exactly what made Tarkh arch and growl through clenched teeth. Hellar smiled before wrapping his mouth around Tarkh's cock and felt a convulsive movement of Tarkh's hand tightening in his hair.

He knew, even a while ago, this gesture would send a pang of panic through him, momentary but undeniable. The Hebners had liked to use his hair as they guided his mouth on their cocks, he still remembered that. But now it seemed to be the past. Last night, Hellar's new ability - it made him feel powerful, made him feel in control in more ways than one.

He still could feel the taste of Tsianni's skin on his tongue, salt and slight bitterness of perfumed oil, as he slid his mouth down Tarkh's cock. He heard Tarkh take a sharp inhale - and as he continued his movements, Tarkh's breath became panting. Hellar tried for more, flickering his tongue, causing a groan reverberate in Tarkh's throat. Tarkh's hands were feverish in his hair, tugging, then patting almost gently, then clenching again, in the rhythm that Hellar set with his mouth.

He heard the words between Tarkh's gasps, couldn't figure them out at first - and then, realizing them, smiled contentedly.

"Beautiful, beautiful one..." Tarkh's whisper was so soft, almost inaudible as he let Hellar's hair spill through his hand.

Tarkh's cock pushed into his mouth urgently, making him lose his smile - and Hellar let it in, as far and as fast as he could. He knew he did all right as he heard one more, almost suffering moan Tarkh made - and then his mouth filled with Tarkh's come.

Hellar rolled it on his tongue, looking up at Tarkh's face, still slack with passion, the man's dark eyes slitted, and stretched along Tarkh's body, bringing his lips to Tarkh's.

"Wasn't it a better way to spend time, hmm?"

Tarkh's voice was hoarse, a little muffled:

"And what about you?"

"Never mind."

He didn't want to lose this moment; he couldn't quite explain it but it felt as if letting Tarkh go down on him or bring him off in some other way would mean losing a part of the wonderful, utter control that he felt now. Hellar felt like he hadn't felt since the moment the chip had been removed from his head.

Rising on his elbow, looking down at Tarkh's face, Hellar saw a strange mixture of emotions in the man's eyes - anger, and satisfied passion, and some kind of pain down there. And he was so carried away that this time Tarkh's fist came unexpectedly, wiping away Hellar's smile.

"What was that for?" The blow wasn't full force, not even making him bleed. More a statement. Hellar sat up, touching his mouth and watching Tarkh get on his feet.

"Spare your skills to impress the Rahuni bitch."

"Rauni bitch..." Not the kid... again. "The little brat is nothing, Tarkh. Forget him."

He felt Tarkh look at him as the man readjusted the cloth over his face - a searching stare, as if checking for something. Hellar wasn't sure if he truly could see it, something surrender in unyielding blackness of Tarkh's eyes. And if he was glad to see it.

"Get up. Let's go." The last notes of languidness were gone from Tarkh's voice as he brushed his clothes and started without looking back at Hellar.

"Where?"

Hellar came alongside with him in a few steps and still it almost looked like Tarkh was running away from him.

"You are going on the raid with me."

Hellar nearly stopped, a smirk on his face brief but completely delighted. Goddess, could it get any better?

"You changed your mind, didn't you?" Somehow he knew he shouldn't have pried but he just couldn't resist. "It's because I fought the Kori, right? Because I'm so good?"

He practically bumped into Tarkh as the man stopped and turned towards him, his eyes all but burning Hellar to ashes.

"It's because you're a cretin! A damned self-complacent Praetorian!" Tarkh turned away as abruptly and walked again.

"And Rhys?" Now there was no more smugness in Hellar's voice. "Did he permit you... to take me on the raid?"

"I don't have to coordinate it with Rhys - whom I take on my missions," Tarkh muttered without looking back.

Hellar bit his lip, his all-too-happy mood suddenly shadowed. It was not fear, not the hint of threat that he at last managed to figured out in Tarkh's words. He'd fallen out of grace with Rhys so badly that now it was dangerous to leave him alone in the camp...

But Tarkh was going to risk his standing to protect him. It was what made him feel both uncomfortable and strangely warm.

* * *

There were five people, apart from him and Tarkh, preparing for the raid - and the flyer they were taking was a small one, not the behemoth that the bandits had used when picking up him and Tsianni. Hellar wondered briefly about the essence of their mission - but knew better than to ask.

The men met him silently; whether they minded him joining them or not, Tarkh obviously had enough authority not to have his orders argued.

"Take this." Right before they climbed on the flyer, Tarkh put something into his hand - and Hellar recognized a smooth handle of a dagger. He couldn't help feeling a flare of delight in his chest. It was the first time he got hold on a weapon in the camp. So, Tarkh trusted him enough to give him that... and Tarkh trusted him enough to let him out of the camp.

A mistake. Only as the flyer rose in the air, Hellar let himself think it. It'd been a much better judgement on Tarkh's part when he'd kept Hellar in the camp, under Alora's eyes. Because nothing had changed in those weeks - nothing changed for him. Hellar still was prepared to escape - as soon as there was a chance.

And there was a chance. Hellar tried this thought carefully and felt a small shiver run along his spine. He could escape. Right now.

From where he stood, Hellar saw the man at the steering panel of the flyer. He closed his eyes, letting the connection establish, between something in his mind and the engine of the machine. Taking over the control.

It was so easy! A small pang of pain pierced his temples - and then the flyer sank in the air, going down uncontrollably. Uncontrollably - for others. Hellar knew it was him who was doing it.

He heard others yell - immediate panic in their voices. There was this sweet, dangerous feeling in the pit of his stomach, caused by the falling - but the sand-cloth that covered his face hid his smile. He could make the flyer do whatever he wanted. Fall; or not fall; or fly whatever direction he wanted. As soon as he wanted.

He let go the link with the engine - and let the operator resume the control. Not yet. Not this time. He'd do it on the next raid. It was just stupid to do it now, to go like this, unprepared and without a plan. He could afford waiting a little, now when he had the trump cards.

Hellar listened to the men yell at each other for their imaginary faults - and turned towards the wind, feeling the strands of his hair brushed away from his face. His eyes stung with sand slightly but it felt good.

Next time. He'd do it. He'd just give himself a bit of time.

"Fuck." Tarkh's voice behind him was tense and unhappy. "I wonder what was up. Those flyers are acting weirdly recently, you know... I guess Rhys needs to buy the new ones if he wants to hold up."

Tarkh's closeness and voice affected him suddenly more than Hellar wanted to accept, bringing an unexpected sadness that made it difficult for him to swallow.

Next time. Next time nothing was going to stop him from escape. He was going to be free - and if there was no place for Tarkh in this freedom, so let it be.

* * *

They kept moving for a little more than an hour, Tarkh giving short, quiet directions from time to time. The landscape under them looked the same dull and uneventful as before when Tarkh ordered to go down. And only when they were already on the ground, Hellar saw their destination.

Three figures standing in the hollow between the dunes. Standing and waiting. Not the intended victims of the raid at all.

Tarkh jumped on the ground, with others following him closely, and stopped, looking at the men from under his palm. Hellar's eyes already felt teary with irritation but even like that he recognized one of the men... Fierce beauty, proud silhouette, long smoldering eyes and clean-shaven scull - how wouldn't Hellar recognize it, even if the guy in question seemed to be the least likely person there? Amanar...

Tsianni's cousin stood between two of his men and Hellar caught a sign Tarkh made.

"Devon. Hellar. Follow me."

Sand crunched under their feet as they approached in silence. Amanar's face stayed impenetrable - and beamed in a radiant smile only when they were in a few steps away.

"At last. You've made me wait, Tarkh."

"Those in a hurry die first."

Amanar... Interesting. Hellar recalled the clashing of swords between those two, on his first night in the camp, the open hatred in their eyes. Well, they didn't look like they were going to get onto each other's throats in a moment now.

Or... Perhaps he was wrong. The hatred was still there, just barely veiled. Just put away handily until they could afford to get back to it.

"You're right, brother, I'm not in a hurry to die. In fact, I think there's someone else who'd better be dead now. You know whom I mean."

"I know." Hellar could sense a smile in Tarkh's voice even without seeing his face. "That's why I'm here."

"You hate the old goat as much as I do," Amanar nodded. "Which means - Ka'hazaya's is a goner."

There was still contentment in Amanar's voice - as his heavy-lidded, too black eyes slid over Tarkh's companions. And suddenly his eyes blazed up, his stare clinging to Hellar's face.

He shouldn't have recognized him, not with the sand-cloth covering half of his face, Hellar thought.

"Praetorian!" In a moment Amanar's hand was on the handle of the sword, pulling it out. Hellar pressed the dagger to his palm, ready to throw it.

"Now stop, you!"

Tarkh seemed to make just a small movement but it somehow was enough to get between them, separating them from each other. Hellar didn't know if Amanar knew it but he could see Tarkh hold his own blade behind his back - even as his voice continued to sound placid, pacifying. "I thought you came here for a business, Amanar, not to get into fights."

"Why is he here?" Amanar's face stayed feral and frozen.

"He's one of my men now. You can trust me as much as you trust me."

"Trust you? It's not even funny. I trust neither you nor your bitch or whoever he is for you."

It was said in a very deliberate manner, in a manner that urged Hellar to act - so, he did, making a step forward. A fierce motion of Tarkh's palm stopped him.

"Leave him alone, brother."

"Oh Tarkh..." Amanar laughed, his beautiful neck bared as he threw his head back - but he put the sword away. "You never learn, do you? You always let your whores take more than just a place in your bed, don't you? Like you don't know where it brings them eventually."

Hellar saw Tarkh's palm slide along the blade, dangerously close from cutting the skin - but eventually he kept control.

"Why do you hate him so much, Amanar? If anything, you should be grateful to him - since he delivered you from one very inconvenient heir of Ka'hazaya."

"Right you are!" Amanar shook his head, the change of topic obviously pleasing him. "The little Tsianni is gone. Now it's time to finish the business."

"I have my orders from Rhys to fully cooperate with you." Tarkh lowered his head.

"Especially since it goes along with your own wishes?" Amanar's laughter halted as abruptly as it started. He pointed with his chin at Devon's boots. "Like it that case with Khaled's squadron."

Tarkh shrugged.

"They hindered you - and I hated them. So, we got rid of them. We both are criminals against our people, Amanar. Only I paid for it - and you..."

"I'm going to run the tribe in the nearest future," Amanar smirked.

"Did Ka'hazaya nominate you as his heir already?"

"It's not like there's much choice," Amanar said smugly. "With his poor little Tsianni dead and gone, who else can he choose?" A note of insistence broke through in Amanar's voice suddenly. "Come on, brother, you'll do it for me. I have everything planned. In two days Ka'hazaya's going to on a diplomatic visit. The fool wants to make a pact with them against the bandits - and my people will accompany him, as usual. You send a small group to attack - and we stay to fight, sending Ka'hazaya forward. Then you strike. When we come to the rescue, it'll be too late. I don't care how many others die - but Ka'hazaya must be the first you finish off."

"I'll do it."

"I know you will." An almost delirious smile appeared on Amanar's lips. "And you'll enjoy doing it. The old bastard has a few scores to pay, doesn't he? He judged you twice and both times found guilty, nah, brother? Only the first time they just whipped you half to death and made you watch how your whole family enjoyed Lea's body in front of you. And the next time you said farewell to your nose."

"I remember this, Amanar. I remember everything."

Hellar wondered if Amanar could hear it as clearly as he could, the notes of hatred sounding in the quietness of Tarkh's voice. Perhaps Amanar could - and enjoyed it.

"I also remember how you promised to take care of Lea, Amanar. How happened that she died, my blood brother?"

"Like many women die. In a childbirth." A challenge in Amanar's voice was practically undisguised. "Perhaps she just didn't want to live. Giving a birth to a child when she didn't even know its father..."

"Perhaps someone helped her to die," Tarkh said flatly. "Or didn't help her when she needed it."

"You imply something?"

"Imply? I don't imply anything, brother. Watch your back when you come to the 'rescue' of your uncle - because I'm going to try to kill you."

"Same to you, Tarkh." A sneer was gone from Amanar's voice, just deadly cold stayed. "I'll try to spare your bitch's life, though - so that our people could have fun with him."

"In two days." Tarkh concluded and turned away without another word.

Following him, Hellar could feel Amanar's stare that didn't leave them even for a moment. As the flyer rose, they looked down at three figures that walked across the sand towards the big dune where the rest of Amanar's squadron waited. Tarkh's laughter behind him was like a snap, making Hellar move uneasily.

"He thinks he can beat me, my brother. Only he's in for a big surprise... One big surprise."

Hellar didn't care and was not going to ask - and yet it came off almost by itself:

"You're not going to kill Tsianni's father?"

Tarkh's eyes stopped on his face, completely black and suddenly very serious, no amusement in them any more.

"Of course, I'm going to kill him."

The End of Part 8a

 

DEAD HEAT

Part 8b

Written by Juxian Tang

His right side was freezing cold; but the left part of his body seemed to be cozily warm. Tsianni wiggled a little, unwilling to wake up, snuggling closer to the source of heat, burying himself deeper into the soft rags. The cloth had a familiar smell - strong, musky and strangely titillating - and almost despite himself Tsianni took a starker breath, reaching his hand unconsciously to try to grab something that smelled so nicely.

There was nothing but a quilt, crumpled and still warm - even though Tsianni knew there had to be... someone.

His eyes flew open. Hellar was gone.

Almost surreptitiously Tsianni scrambled away from the place on the bedding that still held the indentation from the Praetorian's body. Gods... what was he about to do? Oh yes; exactly. Tried to cuddle - and against the Praetorian, no less.

Tsianni was lucky the man was gone; so, he had to do only with his own shame, not with Hellar's mockery.

He fell back on the bedding, groaning through the clenched teeth, feeling how blood pulsed in his flushed cheeks. Well, his face was definitely not the only thing about him that pulsed with blood, though, but Tsianni decided to pretend it was not happening. He was not going to think about his erection - and then it would go away. He was not going to think about the Praetorian. No reason to let vain regrets eat him up.

But the damage had already been done. Tsianni felt well-fucked. And he liked this feeling.

Nibbling his lower lip, Tsianni realized that he had to keep his hands pinned down under him to prevent himself from smoothing his palms over his body, in a phantom memory of last night touches. The Praetorian's hands were rougher - and unmercifully skilled - pulling Tsianni closer, capturing his hips, holding him... and it was what Tsianni had wanted himself: closer, harder, faster... more... wanted to suck this man into his body and stay linked with him... forever.

Gah; he felt sick. He was going mad, wasn't he? It was Hellar he was talking about. Hellar; stupid loser... fuckin' whore.

Well, if the Praetorian was a whore, what did it make Tsianni?

He flopped onto his belly, burying his nose in the crooks of the elbows, not wanting to see even the little light that seeped into the tent through the slits in the walls. Light... morning. The Praetorian had left him in his sleep.

And left him in someone else's tent, by the way. Suddenly Tsianni became aware of this additional source of irritation. The tent was too spacey and well-furnished to belong to the Praetorian. Tarkh's tent, wasn't it?

Face it, he told himself with a thin smile . The man fucked you in the tent of his lover.

Somehow it made things all the worse.

And what now? Did Hellar leave him for Tarkh to have his fun as well? I'd better die, Tsianni thought in a fit of self-hatred. No, I'd better kill him.

He was not sure if 'him' was Tarkh or Hellar.

He couldn't stay still any more, too much in anxiety - crawled very quietly to the tent flap. It was a silly thing to do; with Tsianni's usual luck someone could choose right this moment to come in and stumble over him, on his fours and butt-naked - but... well.

He reached for the flap - and his hand froze in mid-air.

"Why do you want to hit me? Wouldn't you rather kiss me?"

The voice, low, almost purring - unmistakable - sounded so clearly in the transparent air, in the complete silence of the camp. A shiver went through Tsianni's body as he thought for a moment it could be him Hellar talked to, somehow knowing Tsianni was right there, behind the thin wall of the tent.

A pause; there were small noises like a fight but not really a fight. And then Tarkh's voice, angry and hoarse, sounded somehow retrained.

"Get off of me. Come on, Hellar, behave your age."

Oh. It felt like a gut punch. Blood rushed into Tsianni's temples with deafening wave. If he already was not on his fours, he would probably reel; as it was, he just shuddered a little. He missed Hellar's answer - the noise of his pulse was so hard and loud. Just before a growl fell from his lips, Tsianni managed to catch it. Not good - he didn't want them to hear him.

Only they were too busy to listen, right?

His body seemed to be pulled into two different directions; one was to scramble back into the depth of the tent, farther from the offending sounds - to bury himself into the pile of quilts, cover his ears with his hands. But a part of him wanted to stay - certainly a very perverted part - wanted to raise the flap just enough for him to see...

Gods... If he wanted, he could see; everyone could. They were going to have sex outside, in the plain view of everybody! Was there a limit to the Praetorian's depravity?

"No one's around..." Hellar's whisper was so soft - Tsianni didn't know how he managed to hear it. So soft - like silk touching his skin, raising the little hairs on his arms.

The first impulse won; Tsianni crawled away and hid. Only he could not stop listening all the same. He didn't miss a word - a sound.

The Praetorian was going down on Tarkh. After the night he'd had with Tsianni - like it was not enough for him - he was plastering himself all over the traitor - and Tarkh's ugly face didn't matter for him at all...

This thought made something freeze inside Tsianni. It didn't matter for Hellar that Tarkh was mutilated, did it? He recalled how the Praetorian's face had fallen yesterday, when Tsianni said to him something indicating that Tarkh could be fucking around. What if it was not because Hellar was worried about his position?

What if he...

But it was not possible, right? Even if Hellar didn't care what Tarkh had done to his own family - how could the Praetorian want someone who looked like that? He, Tsianni, was much better looking, wasn't it? Among his mother's people he had been considered beautiful; among Rahuni, due to their own dark looks, he was exotic but still caught enough appreciative eyes. Even Rhys found him desirable... and others...

How dared Hellar prefer Tarkh to him?

Anger didn't let him think straight - made white and red stains flash in front of his eyes, made him gnaw into his lip until he tasted blood - just to prevent himself from screaming aloud. He hated the Praetorian! He hated Tarkh! He hated his own fuckin' miserable life...

"Rauni bitch... The little brat is nothing, Tarkh. Forget him."

Why didn't his anger prevent him from hearing *this*?

I'll kill him, Tsianni thought again. Definitely; as soon as he gets back to the tent.

But Hellar didn't ever get back - and neither did Tarkh. Tsianni was vaguely aware of their conversation, something about Tarkh falling out of grace and Hellar being in danger - and he felt a small pang of malicious joy hearing it. But it was truly not enough in comparison with the flare of pain that blazed in his chest.

* * *

"Wakey, wakey, little slut. Someone likes to sleep too much, I see..."

He should've tried to get out of the tent while he could. Get out and run. Arms covering his eyes, blocking the light, Tsianni let miserable thoughts float through his mind. He could've done it. Tarkh's tent was on the edge of the camp, Tsianni could've gotten out unnoticed. And who cared that he had no fuckin' idea where to go and most likely wouldn't last a day in the desert, barefoot and without any supplies? He felt mad enough to run amok; why hadn't he?

But now it was too late - and who else but Pig was sticking his head into the tent, his mocking greasy voice clinging to Tsianni's skin like a layer of oil.

"A difficult night, wasn't it? Have you made it up for the Praetorian? He certainly looked satisfied when I've seen him this morning. Did he and his lover use you from both ends?"

Pig was inside now, towering over Tsianni. He didn't want to pull the arms away from his face, like it could make Pig go away. Empty expectations.

"What? Playing deaf on me?"

Now, there was only one person Tsianni hated more than Hellar... and it was Tsianni himself.

A toe-cap of the boot unceremoniously pushed him under the ribs. And suddenly it felt like something snapped in him. Tsianni whirled up, scrambled onto his knees, snarling:

"Don't you dare touch me..."

"Or what? Or you'll throw your lipstick at me? I've touched you already, pretty girl - and I'll be dead if I don't touch you again."

The man was like a pile of flesh above him - a sweaty, huffing, disgusting mountain of flesh. With a dizzy feeling Tsianni remembered the filthy taste on his tongue as Pig's cock was tearing the corners of his mouth, slamming deeper into his throat. His stomach lurched almost to the point of vomiting - but somehow he managed to do without it.

The boot kicked him again - well-aimed at the thigh; Tsianni clenched his teeth refusing to make a sound. Pig's small eyes measured him with an appraising look.

"You certainly look well-worked, little bitch," he drawled. "This puffy mouth, smudged mascara... and the smell... the traces... let me see."

The hands were on Tsianni's hips, jerking them apart - and for a moment Tsianni allowed it. He heard Pig whistling.

"Interesting... looks like..."

He didn't wait to find out what looked so interesting for Pig - Tsianni's gaping ass-hole or the streaks of Hellar's dried sperm on his thighs. Anger flared in him, switching off the reason, driving him to insanity.

He wrenched out of Pig's grip, kicked with both feet into the prominent belly. The muscles under the layer of fat were surprisingly taut; and he was barefoot. Yet Pig staggered a little - enough for Tsianni to get on his feet.

There was some trinket on a rather sturdy chain hanging from Pig's neck - and Tsianni grabbed it, twisting it around his hand until the chain bit into his palm and into the man's neck.

Something like that a Praetorian could have done, he thought distantly. A brief flash of memory came to him - of Hellar, half-naked, wrestling out other contestants. Then Tsianni saw nothing but Pig's eyes going very big in surprise. The man's hands flew up ineffectually.

It was easy, Tsianni thought feeling very light-headed. Killing... was easy. Now his reputation of a ruthless killer would be well-earned. And now Rhys wouldn't limit himself to such non-damaging punishments as before...

He didn't care. He reached for Pig's waist, finding the handle of a dagger - and he already could imagine how the steel slid into the fat body, how the man gaped in apparent shock as his intestines fell out of the gash. Very possibly, Pig imagined it as well. Tsianni saw his reflection in Pig's dark, frightened eyes - and his own pale face seemed to Tsianni menacing and strange.

Was it what the Praetorian saw countless times in the eyes of people dying from his hand?

Tsianni thought he could just learn to like it.

And then... things happened very quickly. First the chain gave in under his grip, the links unclasping, falling apart - and his feet gave in under him as well since he was holding on Pig by this chain. But there was a cool hand that caught him, preventing from falling - as the other hand wrenched the dagger from him.

Preston... Tsianni didn't even notice when the man entered the tent... seeing death with his own face in Pig's eyes was much too fascinating.

The contact was short - next moment Preston threw him on the floor, pushed to the corner of the tent.

"I thought I'd find you fucking him bloody, Marvo, when you took so long. But I never thought I'd find you getting yourself killed."

The voice was almost kind - but somehow Tsianni knew there was contempt masked under it. Apparently it got through Pig's thick skin as well. Rubbing his neck crossed with a faint red welt, he looked down at Tsianni - and now it was Pig's eyes that flashed murder.

"Fuckin'..." his voice was coarse. "Fuckin' shitty bitch..."

Preston's bearing grew a bit more rigid as he looked down at Pig in a no-nonsense way.

"I suppose Tarkh is going to be tremendously happy if you thrash his tent while he is away. He will be totally understanding, after hearing all the story."

Tsianni would almost feel triumph at seeing Pig back away slightly. Yet the memory of the chain cutting his fingers was still too stark, the wish to kill still singeing his nerves. He didn't know if he felt sorry for being unable to complete it.

"Let's move to a more appropriate place," Preston said. "Not you, Marvo, you are free to go. You failed one single task I've chosen to charge you with - so, for now you can consider yourself dismissed."

Tsianni could hear a small growl in the man's throat as Pig turned and left, shooting two dire glances at Preston and at Tsianni. Tsianni shook his head, swallowed - and looked up at the man who stayed.

Preston's pose, so casual, with his arms crossed on his chest, suddenly reminded Tsianni about the first time he'd seen the man. He'd taken Preston for Hellar then for one moment. Preston's stance was more refined, of course, his expression more of boredom than of predatory wariness. Yet for a second Tsianni felt a pang of pain shooting through him.

Stupid... Don't think about the Praetorian; don't you dare to. Think what can happen to you for your attempt to kill Pig.

"Get up," Preston said coldly.

One more mutinous look didn't impress Preston. He didn't repeat his order, just waited. Tsianni got up.

Ooh fine; this look again. Not like it was totally unexpected, taking into account how little clothes he had on - namely, a few bracelets, a necklace and earrings. Tsianni felt a helpless flush flood his cheeks; then a sudden terrifying thought came to his mind - what if Preston made him go out like this as a punishment - with nothing on apart from the clear signs of belonging to someone... and Pig was right - his make-up was smudged, his lips red without lipstick.

"Interesting," Preston remarked with his eyes slightly widening. "I thought I hadn't given him the key to take out the grub."

Tsianni shuddered. Indeed... that thing in his ass... it was gone. He hadn't even noticed Hellar taking it out - he really was not up to thinking at that moment, after all. But now his spine vibrated in relief of being free from the constant half-alive weight inside him.

And how the hell had the Praetorian managed it?

He stuck his fingernails in the palms deeply, in fear that Preston would make him accept that grub inside him again. But the man just shrugged.

"Cover yourself. Let's go."

He should've felt a bit better that he was permitted to dress; maybe, he even did feel better.

The sun was so bright it burned the eyes. Or, maybe, burning was somewhere in his head, the chaos of emotions - fear, humiliation and fervent hatred.

Everything was the Praetorian's fault. From that miserable moment when Tsianni had seen him after the Hebners massacre, bedraggled, battered, exhausted and with that hungry fire in hazel eyes - everything was Hellar's fault. Tsianni should've never allowed him closer... Should've never let it happen... should've never recalled how the Praetorian looked last night, his face in fresh streaks of dark-red blood, a strand of black hair falling from the braid, almost touching Tsianni's cheek.

Tsianni shivered, suppressing a small moan. He wanted to see this face like that again; he wanted to slam his fist into this face.

"I need to talk to you... sir." They were near the entertainment tents now - and Preston still hadn't said a word. The silence felt strange; from a distance Tsianni heard a few catcalls from the bandits - about him, a whore ushered home after a night's work - but for once Tsianni just ignored them.

He was not afraid of the punishment; he was afraid Preston would let someone else carry out the punishment. He was afraid he would lose any chance then.

The man's light eyes stopped on Tsianni, slightly narrowed, studying him for long moments - not un-kindly, just without interest. Tsianni felt his stomach twist again.

"What do you want?" the man said almost thoughtfully.

What did he want? To play a game? To learn from the fuckin' Praetorian how to survive?

"To talk," he repeated. He didn't look away from Preston.

"Go take a wash," the man said finally. "I'll see you in my tent."

* * *

Getting clean felt good; using Preston's name for authority, Tsianni managed to shoo out other slaves from the bathroom and get some privacy. Running a wet cold rag over his body, cleaning a thin film of perfumed oil, he also told himself he was wiping the touches from his skin, the marks, the memories Hellar had left. Tsianni told himself he should've been exultant doing it.

Yet he just felt numb inside.

He dressed; well, donning his usual outfit consisting of a loincloth could hardly qualify as dressing - but it was clean at least. The ankle-bracelets clinked pitifully as he walked towards Preston's place.

What was he going to do? Of all things, the one he planned was probably the most crazy. But Tsianni didn't care.

The man reclined in his seat, leaning against the comfortably propped pillows, a laptop on his lap; his hands hovered over the keyboard, fingers moving ghost-like light and fast. There were small rimless glasses perched on Preston's nose, Tsianni suddenly noticed. They changed the man's face, made it somehow more distant... and even less fitting for this camp and for Preston's position as Rhys' assistant.

Light grey eyes looked at Tsianni - and for a moment he had a sinking feeling in his stomach. He took a deep breath, his nostrils flaring, made himself stay upright.

"Sir..."

"Spit it out, boy. And you'd better make it worth my while - because if you're going to beg me to take mercy on you for the stunt you pulled with Marvo - I'm going to be disappointed."

"I'm not going to beg."

"Well, then?" He clearly waited - like Tsianni was wasting his time.

"I'm still a Rahuni prince, you know."

"A Rahuni whore, you meant to say? Haven't we already discussed it?"

He was not going to think about the expression of those tired eyes behind the round glasses, about the way warm air clung to his uncovered shoulders, about the earrings tugging on his earlobes.

The words came out easier than Tsianni expected.

"Help me to resume my place. And I'll put you to the highest position in the tribe. My father will pay you - we Rahuni are not a poor tribe, we have enough money to reward your services."

He went on before Preston had time to say anything:

"You can't possibly be happy here, serving the filthy madman, gathering dead bodies, watching over whores. It is not the place where you belong to... sir."

Yes; that was it. An outright call for disobedience - for betraying Rhys. A suicide, most possible.

Preston did it again - moved faster than Tsianni could notice - got up on his feet. A thin strong hand grabbed Tsianni's chin, forcing his head up. The man was tall - and Tsianni looked up at most men - so, he strove up to meet the glare, to see Preston's thin lips move apart in a sneer.

"What's that, boy? Growing a backbone all of a sudden? What happened?"

Just don't care enough to live any more. Just want out at any price.

Just a certain Praetorian telling his lover that he, Tsianni, was nothing...

He didn't look away; blinked slowly, holding Preston's gaze.

A memory washed through him, of yesterday, of Preston so easily letting him become a prize in the contest, letting him get killed should the Kori win. Only now this thought slammed on Tsianni fully. If the Kori had won, he would've been dead now. Ripped so wide open his guts would be spilling out of his ass... cousin Amanar would like it, wouldn't he?

If not for Hellar... No, don't think about it.

And Preston had not done a thing to save him. Why did Tsianni think he would do anything now?

Maybe, he didn't think that; maybe, he simply wanted to die.

"What do you know about me to judge where I belong?" the man said unexpectedly. "You're just a stupid kid."

Tsianni started shaking - vibrating in the grip of Preston's hand - and hated himself for that but couldn't do anything. At least his voice didn't sound too weak.

"You're not happy here," he said. "This place is not yours."

"And the place next to a prince-turned-whore is mine?" Preston raised an eyebrow. Strange... Tsianni would think the man should've sent him to the whipping post by now, not keep talking to him. "Sorry, boy. I don't have taste for losers."

It hurt; almost as much as the memory of Hellar's voice... whispering to him: "Open up for me, don't be afraid, yes, like that..."

"I can go back." Tsianni said it with such certainty that he almost made himself believe in it. "I brought my men from my mother's land. They won't desert me - once they know I'm alive. My father will execute Amanar, will cut off his nose, like Tarkh's - and I..."

"You'll flash your brand for everyone to prove you're a true Rahuni prince?" Preston asked mildly. "Start a new fashion, maybe?"

The brand... right.

For a moment there was silence - and then in the reflection in Preston's glasses Tsianni saw how a little smile curved his own lips. He wrenched out of Preston's grip, made a step back, squatted, reaching to the hearth.

"No one will see the brand," he whispered. "It's just... a piece of skin."

He reached into the fire, ran his fingers through the licking tongues of the flame and clasped his hand on a glowing ember. He didn't let himself think how much it would hurt - because otherwise he wouldn't be able to do it. Pushing the loincloth away with his other hand, he pressed the burning wood to his thigh.

It hurt worse than the moment when the brand had been put there; it hurt incredibly. His hip - and his hand - it seemed the pain rose from there right up to his heart. Breath was caught in his throat. The pain was so immense that the only way not to let out a scream was not to breathe. Tsianni kept silent - and let it burn.

It took a few moments for Preston to realize what he was doing - and then a moment more to get to Tsianni, grab his wrist. Tsianni resisted until Preston managed to knock the ember out of his hand, then slapped him hard enough to send him falling on the floor. But the truth was Tsianni couldn't stand firmly on his feet anyway.

Curiously, the slap cleared his hazed vision somehow. He looked up from the floor at Preston's distorted face, the man's chest rising in hard panting. There were lines of anger marring his forehead.

"You stupid... stupid... little cretin..."

"Is Rhys going to punish you for letting me do it?" Until then, Tsianni hadn't thought about it - but now it flashed through him like a lightning. "He's going to be displeased with you - you didn't manage to watch over his property. He doesn't trust you that much as it is, right - with Pig sneaking all around and all? Why? Are you too clean for Rhys? Are you too clever? Are you..." he wanted to say 'in love with him' but somehow couldn't manage these words.

Pain made him delirious - his left hip in agony, burning excruciatingly, and his hand feeling swollen and alien to him. Tsianni didn't want to look at what he'd done to himself - he looked at Preston instead.

There was a strangest expression in the man's eyes; it seemed even anger was drained out of him. He looked down at Tsianni, biting his lip slightly. And his voice as he talked sounded rather mild.

"Rhys probably is going to punish me for not preventing you to damage yourself. But are you aware, my boy, how he is going... to punish you?"

Then I'll finally be dead, Tsianni thought.

"Well..." Preston said with the same thoughtful expression. "Maybe, it will change nothing. He already wrote you off yesterday, after all, intending you for the Kori. It's just a matter of time before he decides to finish you off."

And the matter of means, too... but Tsianni didn't want to dwell on it.

"All right," Preston said almost compassionately. "No need to precipitate it, though. And your wounds still needs to be taken care of."

His cool hand touched Tsianni's shoulder, bidding him to get up - and Tsianni did try, ignoring the pain flare up. He managed to get up on his knees - and then the world swirled around him - and he slipped back on the floor in a heap.

* * *

He was drowning in quick sands. The fathomless mass caught him - he didn't know how it happened - and he must've struggled; it pressed around his chest, tight like a ring of steel, impending his fluttering breath. He choked - tried to inhale - but all he could manage were small shallow gasps, not nearly enough. The sand squashed him - so heavy that it was about to snap his bones. Wrenching pain enveloped his hand - and below, in his hip, was another center of agony, as if the sand was fire and it burned.

He wanted to breathe; he wanted something more than this abominably hot air. A strand of hair clung to his sweaty forehead but as he tried to push it away, he realized he couldn't reached to it. His lips, swollen, parched, were opened - but he didn't know if he wanted a gulp of water or...

Or someone's lips pressed to his... warm, unexpectedly soft lips brushing slightly against his mouth in a mocking yet strangely affectionate touch. He didn't know why; why at the moment that seemed to be his last one this face came to haunt him - hard features and soft lips, predatory yellowish eyes and long ink-drawn eyelashes.

He wanted to reach to this face, find out if it was real - but he couldn't. His body gave in. And then the face faded; unconsciousness stepped away.

Tsianni knew he lay flat on something hard - and he knew he was not alone. Voices blurred over him, for a moment unrecognizable. He decided he wouldn't look up, wouldn't let them know he came round. What good could expect for him apart from punishment - and this pleasure could wait.

Smells were next to come - sharp, metallic blend of chemicals and herbs that reminded him the smell he sniffed on Hellar's clothes last night. A strange humming sound of a small machine was very close - and there was this pain in his hip again, rising suddenly to such acuity that Tsianni nearly yelped

He managed not to - the pain abated.

"Here, the tissues knotted a bit."

Tsianni recognized the voice - the old woman, a medic or who she was in Rhys' camp. The other voice belonged to Preston, no doubt of that.

"Is it possible to restore the brand?"

"No, I am afraid. He's burnt it off pretty thoroughly."

For a moment Tsianni felt throat-gripping relief at these words. He'd done it - he'd managed; cleaned himself from the obscene mark.

"I guess you'll just have to re-brand him," the woman snickered. Tsianni would have hated her if he hadn't felt so tired.

"As if." Preston didn't sound so happy with this suggestion as well. "And what about his hand?"

Now when his thigh bothered him much less, all the pain seemed to concentrate in Tsianni's palm - fingers feeling puffy, huge and throbbing - and so sore that he couldn't even think about moving them.

Someone else's hands, indelicate, probed him.

"Is he left-handed?" the woman asked.

"No... why? I didn't notice if he was."

"Then he's simply a fool," she said. "Should've used the hand that he needs less."

Oh gods... gods... Breath caught in his throat, Tsianni didn't know how he managed to stay silent and motionless. He'd done it, hadn't he? The thing that scared him most of all. He'd crippled himself. And not in a fight, not in a contest - but out of his own sheer stupidity. He felt his eyelashes going wet but tears never broke down onto his cheeks.

Well... Maybe, he wouldn't need to live with it - lucky him - taking into account that soon Rhys would come to deal with him...

The humming of a small machine sounded again - and now pain laced the palm of his hand - for a long, long time. Finally the device was switched off.

"Better," the woman said smugly. "He'll likely be able to use it, in a while."

"You certainly pride yourself on good work, don't you?" Preston said with a kind of mockery in his voice. She didn't sound perturbed as she answered.

"Why not? I am good."

"You former Praetorians are of terribly high opinion about yourselves, aren't you?"

Praetorians... so, she also was... damn...

"At least I'm not the one who got into a situation like this." For some reason Tsianni realized quite distinctly that she meant him under the 'situation'. "What are you going to do? Rhys will not be pleased with the state of his property."

Well, Preston always could lay the blame for everything on Tsianni; and there was blame, by all means - enough to sign his death warrant. At least he would go not as a slave then...

He wished suddenly Hellar knew about it. But would the Praetorian even care?

"I don't know," Preston said in an almost melancholic tone. "Maybe, I just won't tell him anything so far. He seems to have lost his interest in the Rahuni."

"So he seems."

What was so annoying about this woman, Tsianni thought. She made Preston's words sound like a flimsy hope. She shared it with Hellar, he decided, this impossible arrogance. But anyway, why did he care what Preston was going to do? He played to win - and lost; if he was not going to get out of here, he might be better off dead.

All right; he didn't want to die - he just wanted not to feel so miserable any more.

"Marvo won't say anything," Preston mused. "He was stupid enough to nearly let the boy kill him - so..."

"Kill him?" the old woman's laughter was unpleasant - mean and harsh. "Something new about our little desert queen, huh? He didn't look dangerous to me. I wonder what bit him."

"What? Maybe, who? He'd spent the night with your Praetorian."

"Ha ha."

Assholes. Tsianni clenched his fists to stay quiet; he wasn't sure he could keep from blushing but fortunately they didn't look at him.

"He tried to talk me into helping him to get out."

"Oh... wouldn't they all?"

"And then he's gone and done... this. After telling me my place was really not next to Rhys."

Had he really said that? Now Tsianni couldn't remember clearly - was yes"> not sure any more what he'd done and why.

Silence stretched a little - and then the obnoxious woman chuckled.

"He's smarter than he looks."

"You know why I'm here."

The calmness of Preston's voice was surprising. And with an icy feeling Tsianni wondered if his idea, of Preston being in love with Rhys, was true. He didn't know why it disgusted him so much - and at the same time scared him.

"Just like I know why you're here," Preston added.

"Only our purposes are different, little Intellic priest," the old hag croaked.

"Not a priest any more."

"Sure thing - since there is no Intellic any more as well."

"Because you Praetorians destroyed it."

Her voice sounded as if she'd been through this topic times and times before.

"The Legion hasn't destroyed Intellic. Why would we? We benefited from it, like many, many others."

"Who then?" Bitterness unexpectedly laced Preston's voice, making it somehow vulnerable.

"They say cyborgs did it."

It seemed the man mused on this possibility for a while, then Tsianni heard a faint rustle of cloth, as if from shrugging shoulders.

"I don't care."

"You don't care about anything much at all," she said in a barbed tone. "As long as you're next to 'The One'."

"Neither do you." It was not a harsh retort - just a statement of fact.

"That's what he does, doesn't he?" At this moment the woman sounded mellow, almost dreamy, too. "It's his power... his special ability - just like Intellic predicted. To consolidate the energy of large groups of people... Tete-a-tete with him - it is difficult to resist him. But en masse... it is impossible. He's ruling two hundred bandits with ease now - and with much greater ease he will rule a country... or a planet... or the world."

"Rule - or at least 'change its face'. That's what Intellic said."

Wait... what was it all about? Tsianni's head was spinning. He felt too exhausted to think clearly but still latched on every word, knowing somehow that it was important. Did they talk about Rhys? Rhys was... special? The thought sickened him, making his stomach revolt. And then he recalled sandsails and the touch of Rhys' long cool fingers - and how his body and mind, despite his efforts, seemed to melt into this closeness - to plunge into the trap eagerly.

"By the way... Your little Praetorian pet," suddenly Preston said with a snort. "He doesn't seem to be affected with Rhys'... charms, does he?"

"Ninety nine comma five per cent," the woman said flatly. "That's the number we counted - that's the number of those who get under Rhys' influence - alone or in a group."

"So, he belongs to the blessed half a per cent, right?"

"Blessed?" There was a thin smile in the woman's voice. "Do you think the fate of those who won't submit to 'The One' will be blessed? Hellar doesn't fare too well even now, you know. Rhys doesn't know about his own ability yet - or not in so many words - but he feels resistance. He doesn't like it. My little pet, as you put it, is as dead as yours."

Tsianni told himself he should've been seething inwardly at someone putting his fate next to Hellar's. But the truth was he also felt fear. Stupid Praetorian, so smug... didn't even know how close he was to death.

On the other hand, why did Tsianni care? The Praetorian certainly wouldn't care shit for him - didn't care shit.

And Hellar had faced death so many times - it probably lost its novelty for him. Maybe, he'd get away again.

"I wonder sometimes," Preston said almost softly, "what the world is going to be when Rhys realizes his ability. Isn't it disastrous that this role belongs to..."

"Someone so unsavory?" The woman grinned. "Intellic said about it, too. That it will be 'not a chosen one'."

"There is something," Preston added quietly, "that indicates that 'The One' won't even be a human. 'Created', is said, 'not born.'"

"Oh right. 'And those who created him will come to claim their creation.' Interesting, isn't it? Especially taking into account that no one still knows where Rhys has come from."

"I wish Intellic could've been a bit clearer," Preston said rather sadly.

"What do I hear?" she laughed. "The priest doubts his superior being? Even if the superior being is ruined."

"It was just a computer," Preston said blandly.

"Yes. But it still said enough for us to calculate it through. Soon Rhys will come to force completely."

"And what then?"

"You know what."

There was some special meaning in the tones of Preston and the woman - but Tsianni couldn't interpret it. And weakness washed over him again. The voices continued sounding, blurring together, distorting - but Tsianni's mind seemed to be too tired to decipher the phrases any more. The words he still could catch - 'Intellic', 'The One', 'the prediction', 'change' but they were losing their grip on him. He started slipping back to oblivion.

And then something happened. He couldn't even say what exactly it was: a slight draft of air, a sound of steps, of the tent flap pulled away. But he felt as if a huge hand took him and shook him up violently, robbing him of the shreds of hopeful unconsciousness. He was as awake as ever. And as his eyes finally cracked open, he saw the third man entering the tent in his habitual slightly swaggering walk, his ragged clothes dusted with sand and strands of black hair falling from the braid onto his face.

Hellar stopped in the center of the tent, looking around with the manic glint in his yellowish eyes, and grinned, turning to the woman:

"Anyone missed me here?"

Tsianni closed his eyes and groaned loudly.

The End of Part 8b

DEAD HEAT

Part 9a

Written by Juxian Tang

"Smart ass," Alora muttered through the clenched teeth. Hellar snorted. He almost felt like playing along - casting a demonstrative glance at his backside and saying: 'Is it?' - but decided it would be pushing too far. Besides there was that gloomy major-domo of Rhys, Preston or whatever his name was. Hellar shrugged, trying to put a rein on his disgusting cheerfulness.

Well, maybe, it wasn't cheerfulness what he felt - but rather something like fever-high. He thought for the millionth time how he missed the chip that allowed him almost full control over his emotions. But anyway - now he had to learn to control it by himself.

The air in the tent seemed tingling with recent use of healing machines; and the smell - Hellar realized all of a sudden - was slightly sickening, salty smell of patched burns.

Then he heard a groan, recognized the voice - and knew what he'd see. Perhaps he was already aware about the presence of the third person in the tent from the moment he'd entered. Like something faintly bothering... like the lightest touch of fingertips against his spine. He just didn't want to look.

Oh, don't be ridiculous.

A flash of anger was short and directed against himself - and then Hellar turned and looked intently at the figure curled on the thin bedding.

Really - what else could he expect from the damned kid? Who else could be stupid enough to mess himself up within several hours that passed since Hellar had left him in Tarkh's tent?

The boy's face was very pale - even his lips, normally pink, seemed to be of the same ashy color. The eyes under dark thick eyelashes were shut tightly. There was some bitterness in Tsianni's expression - maybe, a result of lingering pain - and he looked older - he looked worn out at this moment.

"Hmm... that's something new." Hellar's voice didn't change - sounded as light and unconcerned as a moment before - and he congratulated himself on it. "I don't remember leaving my prize in such a condition."

"If you left him in such a condition, Rhys would have your sorry hide nailed to the wall," Alora said scathingly.

"Promises, promises."

Now as he'd taken a look at Tsianni, he couldn't look away. The nearly naked body was covered only with a thin sheet caught between the boy's thighs. And then the sight of pink, half-healed flesh that was Tsianni's right hand struck him.

Oh. The impossibly crude machinery used by Alora couldn't do anything better. It was just the boy's bad luck - as always.

What did you get yourself into, you stupid thing? A fit of rage was so sudden that it took Hellar a few seconds to remind himself there was no reason why he would care.

Behind him, he heard the man - Preston - move slightly, changing his position. The voice that came was quiet but rather insistent.

"What I wonder about is how you managed to get the grub out of him. I don't remember giving you the key."

Ah. The grub. The icky thing inside the kid. It was giving Hellar headache when he was near to Tsianni - until Hellar realized the boy had something shoved up his ass that was half-alive half-a-machine. A weird creature... he'd never seen anything like this before.

It wasn't a problem, given his new abilities, to order this thing to get out. It slid from Tsianni's anus and trailed over the boy's thigh - and then, when touching the ground, it just seemed to dissolve in a pool.

Right... he should've known better. One doesn't stuff something like that in the slave's ass to be removed lightly.

"He took out the grub without a key?" Alora's voice was pretty amused. "How did he do it?"

"That's what I would like to know."

Shit. Hellar really wanted to turn and glare at the man - see who'd look away first. But he knew it probably was a bad idea. Instead of it he tried hard to sound unimpressed.

"Is it a big deal?"

"It's a matter of safety for our whores. I don't think it'll please Rhys if anyone could just use them."

This Preston man was giving him headache, too. Unfortunately, Hellar couldn't just switch him off.

"Ah that..." He grimaced. "Don't worry. The thing was dying... I don't know... it just slipped out. Maybe, all that vibration from explosions or something..."

A look from Alora was strange; well, she knew him better to wonder about his sudden patience. But at least she was silent.

"Or, maybe, the kid's ass seemed too tight for it," he smirked. Being nasty actually felt good.

A small sound made him look. Tsianni's eyes were open, very dark, staring at him.

Hellar remembered suddenly how he'd seen this face for the first time, when the blindfold was taken off his eyes: half-childish features schooled in complete, haughty absence of emotions, many braids falling like thin snakes over deliberately straight shoulders. Yet Tsianni's eyes were alive then - full of greedy interest as he looked at approaching Hellar - like a kid hoping for a new fairy tale. Now those eyes were dull - except for the low burning of hatred in them.

If I had any choice, Hellar thought in a surge of honesty, Well, Hellar wouldn't be here to see that. By that time he would be out of the camp, luckily approaching Shegra. Maybe, that's why now he was close to feeling guilty for what he'd done. Not that he was going to say it aloud.

He knew Alora was saying something, forced himself to listen.

"What are you doing here, anyway? You aren't my assistant any more."

"Just wanted to make sure you know that," he smirked.

"How nice of you... ditching me as soon as something better turned up... I hope you'll break your neck, on those flyers..."

He could live without her berating him like that - so, he turned to Tsianni again, meeting the pain-darkened, loathing eyes. It was a challenge - and Hellar accepted it.

What's wrong, boy? Last night you looked at me differently.

He almost could swear Tsianni read it correctly in Hellar's gaze. The line of the boy's compressed lips broke, parting - and then hatred - resentment? - became even more fervent.

Last night you were pretty willing to move your legs apart for me.

Melting - as if Hellar's touch was a blessing - as if there had never been any bad blood between them - as if nothing in the world mattered but a joining of their bodies. He licked his lips absent-mindedly, recalling the taste of blood and strange sweetness coming from Tsianni's mouth.

It was not that it was the most intense sex in Hellar's life; but, maybe, no one before had given himself to him with such self-abandonment.

Get a grip, he ordered himself. Don't think about it.

He could change nothing in the boy's life. The boy would become an orphan soon. There was something sad in this thought. Hellar hadn't known his own parents, being 'born for the service', specially to be taken into training since the earliest childhood - so, he couldn't understand filial love.

But being alone - that he understood.

He grinned, shrugged and deliberately slowly turned to Alora. She was looking at him with disdain.

"I just wanted..." he said easily, looking only at her, not at Preston who still stood with his arms crossed on his chest, with a distinct feeling that he wanted Hellar out of here as soon as possible. "I just wanted to thank you," he said. "For everything you've done for me."

Alora's pale eyes peered at him.

She snorted - and partly to piss her off even more, partly because he felt like doing that - Hellar stepped towards her and locked his arms around her, hugging, raising her up a little. She was so skinny it wasn't a problem.

He brushed his lips against her cheek - and then, not waiting for her indignant reply, he turned and walked out.

* * *

Fingernails dug into Tarkh's shoulders. Lips bitten in passion; unplaited, tangled hair clung to his sweaty forehead - and Tarkh's hips slammed between his thighs, hard and fast. Each stroke was just right, sending a jolt through his body, making Hellar push back just a little more every time, spread his legs wider, arch his spine towards the other's body.

Their panting seemed deafening - harsh, loud sounds mixed with the cracking of fire in the hearth. One probably could hear them outside; these sounds wouldn't leave any doubt what they were doing - so, Hellar didn't know why he tried so hard to stifle a moan. He did so feeling a sharp tang of blood on his tongue - and for some reason it was driving him even wilder, even further over the edge.

Tarkh's hand, very hot and sweaty, unwrapped from Hellar's nape to run over his cheek. He leaned into this touch, feeling long fingers brush against his temple. He saw Tarkh's mutilated lips in something that was supposed to be a smile - and mirrored this smile with his own, then tightened his legs around Tarkh's waist.

Tarkh leaned down and kissed Hellar's mouth, mixing the sour taste of kyhf with the salty taste of blood.

So... When should he make his escape?

There was something perverted in combining those two things: responding to sex in self-abandonment and coldly reasoning at the same time, weighing opportunities and making choices. Nothing new for him - in letting his body derive all the pleasure he could from an intercourse while his mind seemed to be completely distanced from it, locked in a cold secluded place where it was free to roll in planning. Hellar had learned to do it quite early, when realizing that he had ambitions - and that to satisfy for his ambitions he had to go through the bed of his elders. Not that a lack of ambitions would spare him this fate; but Hellar decided to take everything he could.

And now he just slipped into habitual mode.

The logical suggestion for the attempt of escape was the day after tomorrow - when Tarkh was going on the raid, intending to kill the Rahuni's chief. He apparently would take Hellar along - he still was worried about Rhys' anger: since after Kori's death he barely let Hellar walk around the camp unsupervised - and even then, Hellar suspected, someone of Tarkh's people held an eye on him. So, that time would be a perfect choice - most reasonable by all means. He would be out of camp and on the flyer - and there would be only a limited number of people he'd have to get rid of. What could be better?

In the dim light he felt rather than saw Tarkh looking at him; the man's eyes seemed completely black, staring at Hellar with absorbed attention - almost like he wanted to look through Hellar's scull, to read his thoughts. It didn't worry Hellar - he knew Tarkh didn't suspect anything. And this gaze, this devouring fascination made him feel a strange warm wave rising in his body, made him thrust towards the entering cock harder.

Tarkh's breath halted, turned into a near whimper as he felt Hellar clench around him. His lips moved, scar tissue distorting. Hellar thought he could almost catch the words - his name... and something else... something that made him feel lightheaded and strangely pleased.

Well... so, if he was going to make it on the day of the supposed assassination of Tsianni's father... likely he would have to do it on the way there, right? That'd mean that the old man would be safe, at least for now. The idea had its merits: for one thing, it would be good to ruin Amanar's plans. The other thing Hellar didn't deliberately think about but it kept hovering in the back of his mind. This way... this way he could make it up to Tsianni somehow - saving his father in payment for ruining Tsianni's own life.

Not that the kid was ever going to find out about it.

But then... another thought came and it was strangely, unhappily passionate. Then Tarkh wouldn't get his revenge. He wanted to kill the man. The man who'd mutilated him, who'd wrecked his life. Didn't Tarkh have the right for a payback?

Hellar knew everything about being helpless to revenge himself upon those he hated. He didn't want Tarkh to feel the same.

The cold, almost manic stare of the bright black eyes captured his gaze again - as Tarkh looked down at Hellar, slamming deeper, almost painfully violent - his heavy, dirty hair falling onto Hellar's face, bringing the taste of sand and bitterness on his lips.

"H...hellar..." His name, said in this choking, accented voice had a sound that was disturbing. Hard fingertips touched his face, pulling Hellar's moist hair away from it. Hellar's breath was caught.

The safe place in his mind that made him invulnerable, that kept him sane through everything - it was crumbling. Let Tarkh have what he wants... let him kill Tsianni's father... help him kill Amanar... whatever...

Don't go just yet.

Maybe, it was the crux of it. Hellar wanted to be free again; wanted nothing more than that - but a part of his mind wanted t stay with Tarkh. And it scared him most of all.

He had never wanted to be with anyone before. Okay, he had... he had never wanted to stay. Those romps - it was just what he had to do, to assure his safety in the camp... necessary means...

His lips parted letting out a breath. And as if it was a clue, Tarkh leaned down, pulling him closer, pressing his mouth to Hellar's again. The scars were rough against his lips and harsh on the tip of his tongue as Hellar licked and lapped - until a hot wave rolled through his bottom belly, his balls tightening, spurting his come into Tarkh's stroking hand. Tarkh didn't stop kissing him until, in a few more thrusts, he climaxed, too.

Afterwards, there was orange glowing of the fire - and their bare arms tangled together. Minutes slipped away in silence. Hellar didn't sleep looking at the crossing of thin beams under the tent's ceiling.

Tarkh didn't sleep either.

"What..." Hellar started; his voice was hoarse and he broke for a moment, clearing his throat. There were things he wanted to ask: what exactly Tarkh planned to do about Ka'hazaya... how he was going to prevent Amanar to stab him in the back... was he going to be satisfied with the man's death - or would he keep avenging on Amanar as well. But what he said was a completely different thing, totally unexpected for him. "That woman, Lea..."

Goddess, he didn't know what he was saying. What pushed him to bring it up? And he didn't even know what he wanted to ask. 'Do you miss her?' 'How important was she for you?' 'How did it feel to lose her?' Questions he didn't have the right to ask and shouldn't be interested in.

He distinctly felt Tarkh going tense, the muscles under the smooth skin becoming steel. And a moment later the heavy hard body was over Hellar again, implacable fingers grabbing his face.

"Why did it come to your mind that you could ask me that?"

Hellar expected worse - maybe, a fist in his face - maybe, 'don't desecrate her name with your filthy lips' - but neither came. Tarkh just held him and stared down at him.

Okay, he thought, okay, let me go. But sometimes Hellar acted against his best judgement.

"Would you..." his voice was stifled - Tarkh pressed on his ribcage - but Hellar still managed the words. "Would you rather me to pretend I don't know anything? Haven't heard a word?"

It seemed his words hit the aim - far more successfully than they should have. In Tarkh's eyes, something flickered.

"Or do you just enjoy holding me like that?" Hellar said in a completely unexcited voice. "Not that I can't make us switch the places."

A hand grazed his face - not quite a slap but not a gentle touch as well.

"You overstep every border, Praetorian. Don't you understand what can get you killed?"

But you won't kill me, right, Tarkh? No, you won't.

Hellar shook his head, carefully, as much as he could in Tarkh's grip on his face.

"No wonder Rhys hates you so much," Tarkh said.

Tsk, tsk. Another reason why Hellar didn't want to overstay Rhys' hospitality. He wondered suddenly what Tarkh would do if he knew Hellar was going to escape - that it was Hellar who'd tampered the flyer today... Would he decide that Hellar was too dangerous to live?

Or would he... join Hellar?

A palm lay on his face, covering his mouth, preventing him from talking. Tarkh's eyes were very close, boring into Hellar's face.

"I'll tell you," he said - and his voice, low and hushed, made a strange shiver run through Hellar's body - almost like then, when Tarkh had called his name - only now there was apprehension in this feeling. "I'll tell you - but listen here. After that, I don't want to hear a word back from your flux of a mouth, you stupid chatterbox. Is it clear?"

Not like Hellar could say anything anyway. He nodded.

Dark, elongated eyes were half-shielded with heavy eyelids - Tarkh still looked close at Hellar but also seemed to be staring through him, somewhere far away. His lips parted.

"She was everything I ever wanted. She was my sky and my earth, the beginning and the end of my world."

The hand was gone from Hellar's mouth - and Tarkh's body shifted away. Without his heat it felt very cold suddenly. But it was good Tarkh didn't touch him any more - because he couldn't feel the shiver that ran through Hellar, so long and violent it almost hurt.

Hellar rose on his elbow, reached for the half-empty bottle of kyhf and drank.

He recalled suddenly a strange image that once flashed in his mind on the verge of consciousness - an awkward figment of imagination: of him and Tarkh coming to Shegra together, starting a new life in the huge city where no one knew them.

How pathetic. He... was pathetic.

He didn't know what he felt - what difference Tarkh's words made. What was that woman, long dead, for him? No difference. He'd already made his mind, hadn't he? He'd do it the day after tomorrow. And if Tarkh tried to prevent him... so let it be.

He was aware of Tarkh lying flat again - the man's arms were braced under his head. After the intensity of the touch, the words - this pose seemed unnaturally relaxed. Hellar consciously made himself ease up as well, taking his mimic under control, smoothing the features of his face.

Goddess... what did Tarkh say that made him so wired up, really?

Just the words that no one had said about Hellar.

Not that he wanted anyone to say something like this about him, to feel something like this. Emotions were a weakness; emotions bore dependence - and that was not what a Praetorian could afford.

"Hellar..." Tarkh said suddenly. There was something unusual in his voice - something tentative; like Tarkh wanted to ask him something but didn't. Hellar didn't ask back - and silence went on, until Tarkh's hand reached to him in the darkness, running over his chest strangely softly. The touch on Hellar's scarred nipple was almost gentle. A part of him wanted to lean to this caress, to respond to it - but a part of him wanted to recoil, to wither away.

Perhaps Tarkh sensed something; the hand lingered and then was gone.

"Why don't you say anything?" Tarkh asked in his normal tone.

"I recall it you forbid me to say another word." Hellar's voice was regular, too - and he wondered if it was as false as Tarkh's tone. Or, maybe, Tarkh's was not false - he really put it behind.

"Come on," it sounded like a chuckle. "You know better than that. You know... I can't wait for the day after tomorrow." Tarkh rolled onto his belly now, settling comfortably. "I almost can't breathe so much I want the time to run faster. I would like to kill every one of them - every one of Rahuni. But as it is impossible... I guess I'll settle for the second best."

Talking about those things was safe. Hellar could do it concentrating on his plan at the same time.

"What exactly do you have in mind?"

"What do you think the Rahuni will do with the chief of their tribe dead? And the heir proven to be his murderer?"

So, that was Tarkh's plot; Hellar coldly appreciated the deliberate cruelty of it. The tribe would be left headless - would lose its authority among other tribes irrevocably. And such thing meant that at the time of the next alliance it would get scattered completely.

Clever... simple... ruthless. Much like Tarkh himself. With a kind of sadness Hellar thought that they two really were of a kind.

Too bad he had to choose between freedom and... his partner.

"But the best thing," Tarkh continued almost dreamily, "the best thing is that the Rahuni will have a heir - one they won't be able to deny. The little prince is still the old man's son. The new chief of the tribe with a brand on his butt! Rahuni will perish - and they will go in shame."

He said the last words, turning away from Hellar. His bare back emanated heat - and Hellar lay with his eyes opened, Tarkh's last words sounding in his ears.

It was unexpected; crueler that Hellar would be able to plan it. But... he could learn from Tarkh. In fact, he'd need every sliver of ruthlessness to do what he was going to do - and to survive afterwards.

* * *

There was another unexpected thing as well. In the chilly pre-dawn morning, with the wind chasing snakes of sand over the ground, the flopping of the sandsails and low rumble of two flyers were the only sounds. He saw Tarkh coming up to them - dragging a thin shivering figure after him. The kid's loincloth was nothing more than a piece of rag and his braids rumpled from sleep. Tarkh was hauling him by the hair - then shoved on the ground roughly, making him fall.

Tsianni's eyes, puffy from sleep and still holding some kind of vulnerability in them, like he didn't understand what was going on, stared up at Tarkh. Hellar buried his hands in the wide sleeves of his robe and tried not to feel the piercing wind. "You know where we're going, don't you?"

The boy's eyes traced the flyers, then stopped for a moment on Hellar, no doubt recognizing it even with the facecloth on. Then the wide look was on Tarkh again.

Be ready, boy; it'll hurt.

Tarkh leaned down, so close Tsianni apparently could feel his breath through the facecloth - his whisper was clear and loud enough for Hellar not to miss a word.

"I'll come back wearing your father's boots," Tarkh said.

The kid's face went white. And at the next moment Tarkh pushed him away and walked to the flyers lightly.

Hellar saw Tsianni surge forward, like he wanted to stop the man - but all he managed was to grab the tiny jiggling bells from Tarkh's boot, clench his fist on them. Tarkh didn't even notice it; the bells tore off, staying in the kid's hand - and Hellar noticed clearly how Tsianni's hand shook.

The boy's lips trembled, he all did - like in fever, small convulsions distorting his face. But there was no sound coming from him.

"Let's go," Tarkh waved his hand.

Airborne, Hellar kept looking at the huddling figure on the sand - as it grew smaller until became just a dark dot - and the camp itself looked like a patchwork now.

So, he was leaving at last - leaving for a new life. He listened to the soft rumble of the engines that echoed deeply in his mind - and counted. Two flyers; nine people on the other one and seven on his - apart from him and Tarkh... no, wrong, he should've added Tarkh to those seven...

Never mind; he'd do what he had to. He always did.

Bracing himself, he concentrated, reaching through the distance to the control panel of the other flyer - pushed in his mental fingers. Pain enveloped him but it was a good pain, he could bear it.

He clenched his teeth, feeling a thin trickle of blood slide from his nose - and made the engine stop.

The End of Part 9a

DEAD HEAT

Part 9b

Written by Juxian Tang

Sand was on his teeth; his jaws clenched so tightly they ached. He tried to concentrate on little things - like the grit in his mouth - like the wind tossing the braids in his face - like heat and wetness of blood dripping from his palm that clasped around tiny metal bells from Tarkh's boot. It didn't help him; there still was that huge, unbearable emptiness - and he felt as if he was sucked into it whole yet it still wasn't filled.

He felt like he was dying.

The roar of the engines grew weaker - but Tsianni barely noticed it; the pounding of blood in his temples made more noise. Sand was in his eyes, too - they burned and his vision blurred. He knew he had to raise his head, to see how far the flyers were gone - but he couldn't. His world narrowed to the small patch of yellowish sand under his knees, the wind playing with the light upper layer of it.

If he never moved - if he stayed like this, no matter what - maybe, the ground would open and swallow him. It would be a good thing; Tsianni wanted it to happen. It was a silly thing to wish - he never knew he would want something so silly so fervently. But if he died - no, if he just stopped being - it would be so much easier.

Then he wouldn't have to deal with knowing that he had to do something - and didn't do anything.

Sickness rose in his throat, tasting bitter and seeming to be poisoned with sand as well. Tsianni recognized this taste. Fear tasted like that. Fear was this all-enveloping numbness that he couldn't even try to shake off.

Fear of losing.

Right now, Tarkh was heading to kill his father - and he, Tsianni, knew about it but could do nothing. The cursed traitor really hated him, didn't he? That's why he told Tsianni what he was going to do. So that Tsianni had to live with it, with his helplessness and deficiency, with the realization that he failed as a son and as a member of the tribe. Sweet revenge it must have been, indeed... to ruin him, Tsianni, just in a few casually dropped words.

Until now, it still could be repaired. Even when something that belonged to Tsianni by birthright had been ripped from him so brutally and unfairly - he still knew that it didn't change But he only had a useless jingling ornament in his hand instead.

Tsianni raised the hand to his face, looked at the sore, bleeding palm and licked the gashed skin absent-mindedly. It tasted with sand, too.

Loser, aren't you, boy?

The voice was suspiciously familiar, sounding in the aching void of Tsianni's mind. He didn't want to hear it - it was the last thing he needed: to hear the phantom teasing of the Praetorian. He'd rather be left alone - to take the whole brunt of his shame, to say good-bye to the last hopes he had.

I'm not a loser.

Yeah? And what are you then?

I'll stop... you.

Did he really talk to someone who was not there? And in any case, the Praetorian apparently considered it below himself even to taunt Tsianni before leaving to kill his father.

His fingers dug into the sand, like claws, burying deeper.

I'll stop you!

His inner scream was so desperate it felt like his head was going to explode. Tsianni reeled a little, gathering some more sand in his palms, mixing it with blood.

Gods help me but I won't let you...

The hand on his shoulder felt scalding. Tsianni gasped, looking up, staring at the surly wide face peering down at him, mouth pursed in disgust.

"You're going to sit here for the whole day or what, whore? Don't you have anything to do?"

Pig made a step back, seeing a sneer on Tsianni's lips. The guy was really wary about him since that time in Tarkh's tent... not very pleased that Tsianni apparently got away unpunished either but not daring to try anything.

"What amuses you so, you crazy shit?"

It felt good - brought a little jolt of pleasure into the abyss of dismal - to see a blink of fear in Pig's eyes. Well, Pig was in for a bigger surprise now. Yes, Tsianni would do it; would try to be more cunning and ruthless than the Praetorian was, than Tarkh was. He had to defeat them, after all.

"Nothing, Marvo." It came like a drawl. "Nothing at all." And then Tsianni's voice rose, almost to hysterical pitch. "Rhys! I want to talk to Rhys!"

He forbid himself to think that he was most likely warranting his death order now.

"I want to talk to Rhys!"

He knew he was heard - there were people gathering around - bandits, camp whores. Tsianni stood, swaying just slightly, and waited - until, in his easy gait, surrounded by his new bodyguards, the man appeared - yellow hair in the usual spikes, yellow eyes gleaming in a strange dreamy way that made Tsianni's knees weaken.

It's difficult to resist him, he recalled the conversation in the medic's tent.

"Master..." His lips were numb, the word didn't want to come out. He pushed it out by force. It was how Rhys wanted to be called - and Tsianni was going to give it to him... and a part of Tsianni also wanted to call him so. "Master..."

"My little Rahuni!" the voice was cheerful - making little hair rise on Tsianni's forearms. "What do I owe this pleasure to? Have you missed me so much you could not live another hour without me?"

"Master..." he croaked. His throat was parched and Tsianni coughed, desperate to sound clear and loud. "I want... I want to report a treachery to you."

It grew so silent around him that it seemed he could hear his heartbeat - his own breath sounded explosive. The aged beauty of Rhys' face distorted slightly but the grimace was gone momentarily. He swayed a little bit from heels to toes lazily; one golden eyebrow rose.

"Yes?" The whisper was so soft.

"Tarkh... Tarkh conspired with my cousin, Amanar, to kill my father..." The world was not steady, seemed to swirl in front of his eyes, and Tsianni clung to the sound of his own voice - his voice saying things that lead to hell. "They..."

"I know they're going to kill Ka'hazaya, little one," Rhys interrupted him, words dismissed with a wave of thin hand. He said it almost kindly... only Tsianni was not deceived with this kindness. "I don't see where a treachery is there. Or rather, I don't see why you thought that your father being betrayed by your cousin is any business of mine."

"It's not my father who's going to be betrayed." Somehow he managed to make his voice sound as softly as Rhys'. "It's you."

"How so?"

Tsianni swallowed; there was something sharp in his saliva. His vision was blurry but he never looked away from Rhys - never had to give him a reason to think Tsianni lied.

He looked as if he allowed Rhys to stare right into his soul. And it scared him, too - because it was so easy to really let Rhys get into his soul - let Rhys slide into him like the silver body of the grub slid inside him.

"After killing my father," he said, "Amanar is going to take over the tribe. And then they will unite their forces and attack you."

He seemed to hear a few gasps, vaguely recalling that there were other people around. No, he didn't have to look at them - only at Rhys - if he wanted to pull it off.

"Tarkh... He knows every weak place of the camp, doesn't he? It won't be the first time when he brings the enemy to his own folks. Once a traitor is always a traitor. A snake slithering in the night, hiding, waiting for a moment to strike..."

He talked so fast, afraid that he would be interrupted - and at the same time the words were nearly meaningless to him. If Rhys wanted to stop him from talking, he'd have to kill him. Tsianni really didn't care much if it happened.

"Rahuni under Amanar's command - together with Tarkh's people - are a formidable force. My tribe knows how to fight - they know how to kill. And betrayal will be their secret weapon..."

"And pray tell, how the little bitch like you, spending his days in the whore tent, can know about that?"

With amazement, Tsianni realized that Rhys had let him talk this far. And now the question, asked in a teasing, rather bored tone - it indicated doubts, not outright disbelief.

And the answer... he had the answer - had put it all together.

"I overheard that," he said simply. "That night, remember, Master... when Kori died. I spent it with the Praetorian, in Tarkh's tent. Tarkh talked to his lover in the morning - and I heard them."

With a strange feeling he thought that those words implicated not only Tarkh but Hellar as well. He didn't know if he felt guilt or malicious joy at it.

See? I told you I'd stop you...

The Praetorian deserved it. He was going to kill Tsianni's father... and not only that... It was Hellar's own fault, let him pay for it. Rhys would make him pay.

"They caught me eavesdropping," he said evenly. "Tarkh said he would skin me alive if I let out a word... he..." Tsianni's voice broke, as if it was fear that made him tremble. "He did this to me."

The loincloth pulled away, showing ugly pink scars in the place where the brand had been. He heard some reaction again - surprised whistles and low noises.

Pig, Tsianni thought, Pig could give him away. And Preston.

It was difficult to focus his eyes on the crowd around, to look at someone but Rhys - yet he managed, found with his eyes the pale face of the major-domo. Grey eyes didn't want to meet his.

You can't say anything, Tsianni chanted mutely as if he could pass his thoughts to Preston. If you do, Rhys will know you failed your duties; let the blame fall on Tarkh...

Maybe, in some strange way Tsianni succeeded; or maybe the same thoughts came to Preston's mind. A shadow flickered in the light eyes. He won't say anything, Tsianni understood in triumph - and felt another gaze on himself. The old hag, the medic, stared at him with the strangest expression in her usually watery eyes. Was it hatred? A threat? Did she understand that he'd accused her precious Hellar, together with Tarkh?

"He said if I kept his secret, he would let me go back to my tribe, they would never know about the brand. But Master... I couldn't betray you! I beg your forgiveness for not telling you before..."

The old woman's words kept replaying in his mind - about Rhys knowing of his power intuitively, enjoying people bowing to him. The sand scraped his knees again as Tsianni lowered on the ground, staring down.

"Master... please... stop him."

Please stop him from killing my father.

Rhys would never do that. What he would do was stopping Tarkh from betraying him.

Over his head Rhys' silence stretched, mingled with small, quiet whispers - seeming endless to Tsianni. The old woman was silent, too; perhaps she was not sure whom Rhys would believe if she argued with Tsianni - and she couldn't blow her cover, endanger her mission. Thanks gods.

"You don't lie to me, little one, do you?" Rhys' voice was like a trickle of cold water running over his spine. Mutely, not raising his eyes, Tsianni shook his head. Rhys must've made some sign - because suddenly he was jerked up, shaken back onto his feet. Rhys looked right at his sand-smeared face.

"We shall check if you tell the truth, Rahuni. And if you lied... you know what?" Rhys laughed a little. "I'll let Tarkh deal with you. And I'll tell him I don't need you back in one piece."

* * *

The land slid beneath him like a sheet of rippled silk, yellow and grey where it was flat - and colored pink on the slopes of dunes. Kneeling on the hard surface, Tsianni looked down over the edge of the flyer; his eyes watered and he felt dizzy with the ground flashing far below but he didn't turn away. He couldn't - Rhys' cold fingers tangled into his hair, holding him in place - from time to time stroking his nape half-affectionately.

"You make such a sweet little pet, Rahuni," Rhys had told him. "It will be a pity if I have to let Tarkh rip you limb from limb."

In reply Tsianni forced a delirious smile on his lips, like it didn't bother him at all, like he didn't doubt he was safe. And as Rhys touched him, he made himself lean into this touch, pretend he wanted it; and a part of him agreed that it was true - a part of him did want it.

Tsianni told himself there would be time to hate himself for it later; when his father was safe. He had to wish single-mindedly for it now, to wish nothing but it. Everything else was unimportant: his own fate, Tarkh, the Praetorian...

Weird... he didn't even know his father well. A white-haired, cold-faced man who hadn't even hugged Tsianni when he had come to Rahuni from his mother's land; a complete stranger then - and he and Tsianni had never grown closer after that.

His mother... Tsianni loved her, simply; for her he would die happily. For his father he would die, too... or, maybe, not for his father but for himself. Because he had a duty to carry out... or had to die trying.

His lips curved in an anguished grimace, feeling numb and parched with the wind beating in his face. The flyer cut through the air, impossibly fast - so much faster than any machine Tsianni ever boarded.

"Sir," a voice said above him; he couldn't look back to see who it was. "We spotted something... on the ground. Should we check?"

He started shivering again; was it a delay that would ruin everything? But of course he couldn't do anything about it - just pray. So pray he did.

"Let's see." Rhys' long shadow was an ink drawing over the steel surface of the flyer.

"What the hell is that?!"

Tsianni's heart jumped in his chest, up to his throat, choking him. With sandy palms he wiped his eyes furiously, trying to see. Below them a flyer stuck in the sand under a wrong angle.

What was it?

He couldn't breathe; Tsianni's heart fluttered helplessly - hope was worse than fear because it made him so weak. It was a flyer from the camp, one of those that had left this morning. Could it be possible that his father found out about the conspiracy and attacked first?

And which flyer was it?

They approached so slowly... he had to know... he would die if he didn't find out immediately... The crashed bulk of the flyer grew closer - and now Tsianni could see scattered bodies around it, motionless and looking very broken. A sudden memory flashed through his mind, of the impact of his flyer that time when the Praetorian had hijacked it. Only the bandits' flyers went much higher and on much greater speed.

Was the Praetorian there? Tsianni realized abruptly that it was exactly the reason why he looked so intently.

As if he cared...

Rhys' hand in Tsianni's hair clasped tighter.

"It's Demir's flyer," someone said tentatively. "Something happened to the engine or what... Tarkh said there were problems..."

There was a cold feeling in the pit of Tsianni's stomach.

"Yeah?" Rhys said airily. "Then he'll sure explain us everything."

And Tsianni knew suddenly that if he probably was not going to survive this day, Tarkh was not going to survive it for sure.

And where were Tarkh and Hellar? Shouldn't they have been there, checking if someone had survived, as unlikely as it was? Was Tarkh so carried away with his wish of revenge that he'd left his people... the corpses of them, anyway - just like that?

Blood was bright and crimson, soaking into the sand under the bodies. There was no movement other than billowing of the cloth under the wind.

"Nine," someone counted. "Everyone from Demir's party."

The fingers yanked away from his hair, nearly ripping thin braids out on the way. Tsianni barely managed not to cry out. Now he could turn - and he did, peeking cautiously at Rhys pacing around.

The man was so thin - almost fragile - and yet Tsianni knew he was not the only one who felt like any next motion of Rhys' delicate hands could bring death to him or anyone else.

"Rise," the order was like a snap of a metal band. "Find Tarkh. Now!"

The sensation of the flyer soaring up made Tsianni feel groggy. He'd never had any airsickness before - but now they were just too high, going too fast. The landscape under him changed, expanding - dunes seemed insubstantial from here. It hurt to breathe, a little.

And then... his heart leapt up again - far below he saw a cluster of small shadows moving in a group, the outline so familiar for him. Slow, dignified passage of his father's caravan.

The oblong bigger flyer in the center of the party must've be the chief's... even if from here Tsianni couldn't discern the figure of his father, he still could see the colors - bright-yellow and silver, the colors of Rahuni that he'd worn once... and never would wear again.

Perhaps it was the moment when he truly understood that everything was over.

His father was safe - Tarkh was nowhere near to attack him - and his, Tsianni's, mission was over. He thought suddenly... what if he were a little closer to the edge of the flyer... what would prevent him from making one step then?

Had he ever thought he would be able come back - revealing Amanar's evilness to his father, providing that there was no brand on his thigh and no one alive to tell about his shame? Had he thought he would be able to take his position again - a Rahuni prince, a heir to Ka'hazaya? What a fool...

His destiny was sealed; nothing could change it. He would never be with his tribe again.

But the worst thing - the thing that made the numb ache inside almost unbearable - was that he didn't even want to come back.

He wanted to be dead.

Sahr, he thought, please forgive me... mother, please forgive me.

He got up on his feet carefully - Rhys was too occupied with his anger - and inched to the edge of the flyer. The memory of how distorted the bodies looked after the fall made him sick but Tsianni fought the bile down. At least it would be short.

He inhaled full lungs of bitter, sharp wind.

"Over there!"

The flyer whirled suddenly, throwing Tsianni away from the edge. He slipped, falling awkwardly, crying out in pain as his badly healed thigh and hand contacted the surface. His shriek was drowned in the piercing squeal of the engine as the flyer moved forward and down.

Panically, instinctively Tsianni grabbed the rails. It was a strange thing to do, after he'd wanted to jump down just a few moments ago - but his body acted independently from his mind. He felt new bruises form on his skin as the flyer tossed in the air currents, throwing him back and forth. He heard Rhys yell something in delight, in a language Tsianni had never heard.

He managed to raise his head - and just below them there was the other flyer.

Something strange was in the way it flew; no, Tsianni thought, strange was not a good word. It looked like the pilot was drunk - or mad - or the flyer itself was drunk if it were possible. Leaping and swaying, it dived to the earth and rose lopsidedly again - and several moments later, when Rhys' flyer approached enough, Tsianni saw what was wrong.

It was not that the pilot was mad; there was no pilot at all. No one stood at the control panel.

Two people whom Tsianni could see on the flyer were fighting.

Even slipping and falling at every bounce of the flyer - there was no mistake: it was a fight - and a fierce one - the bodies clashed, hands clawing in each other's shoulders.

Tsianni had never seen them having sex; he could only suppose they had done it with the same ferocity. But now Tarkh slammed the Praetorian against the rails of the flyer, again and again, and Hellar's whitened face was richly coated in blood.

At first the Praetorian resisted, trying to push Tarkh away; but then, after an especially vicious blow, he suddenly went limp, falling in Tarkh's grip, his head drooping. Tarkh slammed him against the rails one more time - and then... the flyer started falling.

Just like that - Tsianni realized suddenly that one of the sounds was missing - and it was the engine of Tarkh's flyer. Like a dead weight, it went down and down, twisting in a spiral.

"After them!" Rhys yelled.

They followed close enough - and Tsianni saw how Tarkh looked up, his facecloth gone, his mutilated face having a wild, somewhat desperate expression. He didn't know if Tarkh realized Rhys was there - his black, bleak eyes slid over the approaching flyer without anything changing in them.

But he must've understood they were falling. It looked like he made a motion towards the control panel - but the flyer was in a pique - he wouldn't be able to do anything, even if he got in time. With a strange feeling that seemed to block his breath Tsianni saw how Tarkh grabbed Hellar, clenched his hands on the Praetorian's clothes, shook the man madly.

"A proper payback for traitors!" Behind Tsianni, Rhys laughed piercingly. But over his voice, over the wind and the noise of the engine, Tsianni could hear Tarkh's anguished voice asking as he kept shaking Hellar.

"Why? Why?"

The Praetorian's eyes opened dazedly, his face crumpling as if he tried very hard to figure out what was happening. Then his eyes flashed - and suddenly thicker trickles of blood ran from his nose and ears.

In two short splashes the engine of Tarkh's flyer started working - and choked again.

Suddenly Tsianni felt he didn't want to look at it any more, wanted nothing more than to look away. But for some reason he kept watching - as the Praetorian raised his hand uncertainly and reached to Tarkh's face. The strong fingers that Tsianni remembered playing with his body caressed the mutilated features. The Praetorian said something - Tsianni didn't hear what.

And at the next moment Tarkh's arms locked around Hellar, wrapping his body around the Praetorian in a snake coil - melding them together. The flyer spiraled down, a needle piercing the air - and Tsianni knew only moments were left. But still those moments seemed to dribble like a tar, dark and burning and poignant - until with a huge crash the flyer slammed into the ground, disappearing in a huge cloud of sand.

* * *

He'd already seen it today. The wrecked body of the flyer - and next to it, among the debris of broken metal... human figures. He'd seen it. Only this time - it was different. This time there was no hope.

Rhys' flyer descended smoothly, not in a hurry any more. The sand that had risen in the air settled down a little, clearing the scene. The ground still hummed slightly from the impact - but the flyer was dead. The men were dead, too; had to be.

I don't want to look at this, Tsianni thought distantly. I don't want to see him dead.

Not that he had any choice.

The flyer landed. Rhys jumped down, cat-like easily, and his people followed him, scattering around. Tsianni, as if leaded on an invisible leash, stepped down, too.

He couldn't see the bodies immediately - and found himself looking around jerkily - and yet it was not him who first spotted them but some of Rhys' men.

"That's Tarkh, here!"

A big chunk of the flyer's facing, smeared in something suspiciously red, was dragged away - and there Tsianni saw him - lying on his back, his limbs thrown apart, tangled black hair hiding his face. From his midriff, a broken rail stuck almost perpendicularly in the air - and a huge pool of blood spread under him. Continued spreading, Tsianni realized. Tarkh was not dead.

Someone grabbed his hair, pulling them away.

The man's face was purple - blood vessels must've burst at the collision - and at the rough touch a hoarse, low sound escaped Tarkh's lips.

"Let him go," Rhys ordered. "I'll deal with him myself."

He stepped towards the outstretched body, habitually rolling from heels to toes - and it was when someone else hailed him.

"The other one! Alive as well!"

The Praetorian really always landed on his feet, didn't he? Tsianni turned, almost convulsively, found the group of Rhys' men clustering around the other body.

Only this time it was Tarkh who saved the Praetorian's life - shielding him with his own body, taking the brunt of the fall - didn't he?

Well, of course, Hellar didn't manage to get unscathed out of it. As Rhys' men shook him up, Tsianni figured his legs must've been broken - and several more bones in his body. Blood kept leaking from his mouth and ears, spattering the ground under him.

He probably was in shock, Tsianni thought - his face deathly white - and he didn't seem to react at rather cruel grip of those who held him. They yanked him closer, presenting him to Rhys who spared just a glance to him.

"How lucky - looks like this one is not going to die on us any minute. So, we'll deal with him a bit later. Now I want to talk to my traitor."

It was wrong, Tsianni thought; Tarkh was not a traitor - at least he didn't want to betray Rhys. Despite his own words, despite the accusations he had thrown at Tarkh - Tsianni just knew it. Tarkh was loyal to Rhys.

A keen, high sound cut his nerves; he didn't want to know the source of it but couldn't deceive himself. On the sand, Tarkh writhed like a pinned insect - and Rhys' boot pressed on his belly, pushed and pushed, until Tarkh's eyelashes, glued with blood, rose and black-floating-in-red eyes looked up. Bloodied lips moved.

"Sir..."

Rhys was leaning down, spiky blond hair falling over his eyes. Tsianni saw how his thin mouth worked - and then, casually, almost indifferently Rhys spat on Tarkh's face.

"My traitor."

Nothing changed in Tarkh's gaze for a few moments; he just had to be too tired - too much in pain. And then something flashed in his eyes - his muscles straining as if he tried to get up, tried to find something.

Hellar, Tsianni thought, he looked for Hellar.

An expression in Tarkh's eyes as he saw the Praetorian, sagged in the grip of Rhys' men, was something Tsianni could not name. Was it joy? Something beyond that, maybe...

"Why did you do it, Tarkh?" Rhys asked almost conversationally. His boot continued to press on Tarkh's abdomen - and with sickening feeling Tsianni noticed that some of Tarkh's entrails slipped out of him on the sand from his wound.

"I..." Tarkh's voice was so hoarse it was unrecognizable. Thick clots of blood came of from his mouth with every breath. Through the gashes in Tarkh's clothes, Tsianni could see how the man's chest fluttered oddly. "I... I'm sorry..."

"Not good enough!"

The boot slammed in his side, raising Tarkh's body from, eliciting another cry that choked abruptly. Then Tarkh just lay with his eyes closed - and breathed.

"Why did you betray me?" Rhys repeated. "I gave you shelter when your people doomed you to death. You don't know a thing about gratitude, do you?"

A strangely trapped expression on Tarkh's face made Tsianni's heart clench. Why didn't Tarkh even try to explain anything? Of course, it was insane to wish for it - because if Tarkh denied his betrayal and proved it, it would mean Tsianni's death.

Only Tarkh didn't deny anything.

Maybe, because denying it meant death for one more person, right?

"I'm sorry," Tarkh whispered.

"Scum." The word from Rhys came almost disinterested. "You disgust me, Tarkh."

"I'm sorry."

Tarkh's eyes were still close - and now there were two trickles of slightly dissolved blood sliding from under the man's eyelids.

"You disappointed me so, so much."

All of a sudden, Rhys stepped away, making a sign to his men.

"All right, guys, there's nothing more for us to do here. Let's go."

For a moment Tsianni couldn't believe it. That was all? Rhys didn't even kill Tarkh! And then the realization slammed on him. Killing him - it would be a mercy. Leaving him like that, in agony that could go on for hours - it was a payback that Rhys probably considered appropriate.

Without a word Rhys' men moved to their flyer; those who held Hellar shook him, trying to make him walk and failing. Following others like in a haze, Tsianni still looked back - and saw that Tarkh's eyes were open now - staring unblinkingly at the half-limp figure of the Praetorian. Tarkh's lips moved a little, forming some words.

Tsianni didn't know if anyone else heard them - and if they did, if they understood - Rahuni accent in Tarkh's voice was thicker than ever. But Tsianni didn't miss them, no matter how strange they sounded.

"You were... everything I ever wanted... my sky and my earth... the beginning and the end of me..."

Tsianni was already near the flyer as the Praetorian suddenly thrashed in the hands that held him, struggling wildly, with incomprehensible force - as if half of his bones were not broken. Those who dragged him were clearly unprepared. A small commotion ended as they threw him on the ground - and without their support Hellar couldn't get up again.

He moved painfully on the sand - trying to reach Tarkh, Tsianni realized suddenly. A man raised his boot for a kick - and Rhys stopped him with a small gesture. It seemed he was quite fascinated with what was going on.

The Praetorian pulled himself on his arms, closer to Tarkh's broken body. There was no word coming from him, just short, painful gasps that could be because his ribs were cracked. He touched Tarkh - almost like in a caress. Tarkh's eyes never left his.

"You f.. fool," the Praetorian said.

And then his hands locked on Tarkhs' face, jerking his head sharply. The vertebrae snapped with a dry sound so easily that Tsianni couldn't believe it, even as he saw how Tarkh's head flopped bonelessly - and the black eyes went dull.

The Praetorian lowered Tarkh's head on the ground quietly and looked back at Rhys' men who approached him.

The End of Part 9b

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