Broken Stars and Talking Dogs (Rei Ginsei Saga, ch. 6)
December 7, 2017
There’s something familiar in Rei Ginsei’s personality. I wonder what. It. Could. Be.
Sabrael hadn’t been exaggerating about how far-in the mages of Illinalta’s Deep made their home. Rei walked carefully through damp, dark hallways and common rooms that smelled of mold and mildew until he heard movement, finally, at the end of yet another hallway. His heart rate spiked uncomfortably as Sabrael grew tense.
He looked back, trying to make his feelings soft to reassure his kirin. It was only briefly, though. As soon as Sabrael’s apprehension subsided a bit, he got low and clung to the shadows, getting as close to the door as he could without being seen while he himself observed the occupants of the room.
“Skeletons,” he said quietly, rising up and strolling into the room. He deflected one creature’s swing with his off-hand and lazily swung with the main, collapsing the fragile structure. “Get that one, Sabrael.”
There was a moment’s hesitation, but before Rei had to dispatch the incoming skeleton himself, a spike of ice zoomed through the air and sent bones flying in all directions.
“See? I knew you could do it,” Rei said, sheathing his weapons.
“Why use skeletons as guards if they’re so easy to put down?” Sabrael asked.
“Guards can be as flimsy as you want so long as you know most people will be too scared of them to fight.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“In all fairness, when was the last time you needed to hide your nefarious deeds? Come on, quickly.”
They were finally nearing the thick of it, Rei surmised. Just a few rooms further, and he was looking in at a table of mages making small talk and snacking on bits of cheese and what he could only assume was hideously stale wine. As an expectant shiver coursed through him, he lifted his bow from its position hanging around his torso and pulled an arrow from his quiver. Turning back to Sabrael, he whispered as quietly as he could: “Stay right here, and don’t move a muscle until I get into it. When I draw my swords and run in at that one, pick one of the other four and start casting.”
With only his left eye in use, he could clearly see Sabrael swallow in the dark hallway. He wasn’t surprised to feel his hands beginning to shake.
“Not to add to your upset, my beauty, but I’m down an eye – the one I need, incidentally – and if my chest is tight and my hands are shaking while I try to aim, we’ll both be in trouble.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Rei said as he nocked the arrow. “Just try not to be nervous.”
In choosing his target, being that he had no way to know these particular mages’ abilities, it came down to a matter of position. He had chosen, therefore, the closest mage: a particularly lovely Dunmer girl. Rei bit his lips against the thrill that bubbled up from his chest, trying to damp it as he had promised. Still…
He drew the string and slowed his breathing against Sabrael’s nerves. The increased light in the dining room made colors bleed and the candles adopt painful, shimmering auras, but he could see well enough to pick and choose his preferred target. The mage laughed at something her colleague had said, and as she did, she pulled her hair back, exposing her neck. It was a slim and perfectly smooth expanse of cobalt skin. Rei imagined that in the muddy colors he could see the subtle pulse of her carotid artery, just below her elegant jaw, and just as his lip raised in anticipation, he loosed his arrow.
The projectile blew through the delicate tissue of her throat, sending a fuzzy spray of red arterial blood into the air. Rei felt that surge, the old brilliance that compressed his muscles with predatory excitement. In a state of panicked confusion, the other mages jumped from their seats to tend their comrade who had fallen forward, briefly clutching at her ruined neck before coming to rest against the lap of the man who’d made her laugh. In the midst of their brief confusion, Rei took only half a second to enjoy his work before he threw his bow to the ground and sprang forward as he drew his swords.
Four of the surviving mages were facing him, and, still disoriented, cursed and scrambled out of the path of the creature who had come out of nowhere, sporting a rictus grin. The fifth mage, whose back was to him, began to look behind him to see what was happening, but Rei caught him before he could turn very far. He raised both his swords above his head as he ran, letting their momentum lift him just enough to give him enough of an angle to plunge them down and forward into the man’s back. One final push caused them to explode through his lower abdomen, eviscerating him.
Rei wished he could enjoy his victim’s twitching, but lightning began to arc around him. He spun to use the dying man as a shield as he ducked behind the table, using his boot to leverage the limp form off his blades. He could just hear the squealing of metal against bone and the hollow, wet sounds of sinew popping and flesh rending. His eyes rolled back in ecstasy, but there was still more fun to be had.
Before he lost his soul he had never had the chance to take on active challengers, and certainly not in any number. A small part of him knew how foolish he was being now, rushing in with complete and utter abandon, but that didn’t matter. It was a rapturous reunion with the man he had once been, multiplied and amplified; he could smell the blood, could almost feel their fear alongside his kirin’s. His kirin, who was all but forgotten in his joy.
As soon as his swords were free, he put his faith in the leather that encapsulated him to insulate against the electricity that bolted from the mages’ hands, and he shot from his hiding place, running a serpentine path towards his opponents. Lightning caught him in the stomach and knocked him back a bit. It was strong enough the felt the burn through his armor and tingling in his extremities, but he recovered quickly, continuing his path towards the Altmer in the bunch. His height made things easier when Rei drew back his main hand and rammed the blade into his stomach, laughing gleefully as he yanked it back, the serrated edge at the end pulling flesh and organ tissue with it. As the mage fell, he moved quickly to another.
This one was close enough that he could simply leap over and slam the same blade into the side of his neck. He felt the spray against his face this time, and he cackled. Clutching his throat as his fallen Dunmer compatriot had, he sank to his knees and fell over sideways to bleed out. There were two more, Bretons, and both were running towards the far hallway that went deeper into the ruins. Fun was fun, but that was unacceptable.
He leapt up onto the table and sprinted the short distance down, his stride giving him a notable advantage. Just as he reached the end, and the woman was close to her goal, he jumped down onto the bench between them and kicked her square in the back, knocking her down and onto her face. Once he hopped down to the floor, he planted his boot firmly between her shoulder blades, holding her effortlessly as she struggled against him.
“Help!” she cried, “Matthew, help me, please!”
The other of the pair, a man, drew a dagger and began charging towards him. Rei thrust his off-hand blade forward threateningly, and the mage stopped cold in his tracks, his own small blade still at the ready. There was an opportunity here, and Rei actually found himself giggling at his genius.
“What are you?” the man asked.
“Kill him, Matthew!”
Rei stomped a bit against the woman’s back, knocking the air from her. “I think your Matthew might have exhausted his power. At least, that’s what I assume from the butter knife he’s wielding.”
“Let her go,” the mage called Matthew said with a quivering voice. “Let her go, get out of here, and I promise we won’t tell the others who did this.”
“What is this woman to you?” Rei asked.
“Family, hm? Well let’s just see what family means. One of you is going to die, that much is certain. The question is, who will sacrifice themselves so the other will go free?”
Neither of them were very quick to offer themselves, and Rei smirked. He’d not expected much more from necromancers.
“Come now, I haven’t got all-“
All of a sudden one of Sabrael’s ice spikes flew through the air and lodged itself in Matthew’s brain.
Rei watched as his plaything fell, body caught in a seizure. The woman beneath his boot began crying, renewing her efforts to squirm free. Rei stomped on her again, harder, and she quieted down, though he could feel her shaking.
“Sabrael!” he barked.
Out of the shadows his kirin timidly walked towards him, clutching his hands in front of him. He stopped at the doorway.
“Get over here!” Rei could feel the worst terror he’d ever felt from his kirin, and it only fed his rage. As soon as Sabrael was close, he snapped, “What in Oblivion did you do that for?”
“I-I-I didn’t know what else to do, Rei. You were playing with those people, and I thought it would be better if I just killed that one if it meant you’d let the other one go.”
“I had to take care of four people by myself, and you stood there doing nothing! Then, the moment I start really enjoying myself, you go and kill my prey!”
“No! I was having fun. I haven’t had fun in four hundred years.”
“You said you’d try not to have fun.”
“And I failed. What do you want from me?”
“Are you going to put him out of his misery?” Sabrael asked weakly.
“Why don’t you do it? You’re the one that fucked it up.”
“I-I did. I know.”
Sabrael looked down at the slowly dying man and swallowed. Rei felt the hateful sting of Sabrael’s conscience and dug his foot down into his victim’s back, causing her to moan pitifully. Finally, he raised his hands, and in a burst of frost and cold air, he sent a spike deep into the man’s heart. He was trying not to cry, but wasn’t succeeding.
“Now can-” he sniffled, “-can you let her go? Like you said?”
Rei looked at him dangerously and watched him shrink back. Turning his attention back to his sobbing captive, he raised his boot, and, before she had the chance to move, brought the raised heel down as hard as he could on the back of her neck, savoring the satisfying crunch of broken bone. She went limp immediately.
Sabrael squealed. Tears were pouring down his cheeks.
“You know I wouldn’t have let her go anyway,” Rei said quietly. “How stupid do you think I am? Pretty stupid, I suppose, since I’ve let this ruckus continue way too long.”
Sabrael just sobbed with his hands over his mouth and his eyes shut tight.
“Get out of here.”
“W-What do you mean?”
“I mean get out of here,” Rei repeated. He was suddenly aware of his own tears and running nose. “I can’t do this while your emotions are working on me.”
“But I mean, do you not want me…I mean…”
He closed his eyes. The storm was passing, but the anger had taken root. “Just wait for me at camp. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Sabrael took a shuddering breath as he fidgeted with his fingers. “Can you please, at least, promise me you won’t do anything like what you just did? Can you just fight and not be cruel?”
Rei clenched his jaw and looked at the corpse whose neck he’d crushed. With his rage subsiding, he could better feel Sabrael’s emotions and appreciate them without letting his anger get in the way. His heart hurt with his kirin’s. He wasn’t sorry for what he did, but he was sorry for again hurting the one he loved.
“I promise, Sabrael,” he said. “I do.”
Rei nodded. “Go on.”
He waited until Sabrael was gone from sight before he continued. With his spirits dampened, he wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic in his combat. He tried throwing himself into it, but, while it was enjoyable, it had been tainted by the events before.
Then, as he went deeper, he felt suddenly empty. It was the void again. His brain was telling him about the things he should have been feeling, but there was just nothing there. He wondered if it was because he was too far away from Sabrael…and if that was the case, was the distance because of how far into the fortress he was, or could it be that Sabrael thought better of all of this and left him?
Rei supposed there was no use in mulling over possibilities he couldn’t do much with. Whatever the case, he had to press on. He’d progressed from ecstasy, to anger, to melancholy, and now to nothing in the course of an hour. It made things easier, he guessed. He’d reverted to his old habits of quietly sniping from the shadows and only drawing his swords when it was absolutely necessary.
Eventually he came upon a room, a dead end littered with hundreds of humanoid bones. At the back was a plain throne, upon which rested what appeared to be a specific pile of bones, and on the floor, leaning against the dark wood, was Azura’s Star.
Rei carefully picked it up. It was, in general, beautiful: a star whose points were graceful tendrils curving outwards from the center. It was one black soul gem, accented in places with shimmering moonstone. Unfortunately, there were cracks running all through the gem. What that meant – whether it was a cosmetic flaw or if it was something that would need to be fixed before it could function – Rei didn’t know. Regardless, he clutched the Star to him and made for the ladder leading out.
As soon as he set foot on the first rung, he felt his soul returning, and as he shoved open the door and scrabbled out onto the top of the turret, he felt Sabrael’s, too! His heart clenched as the terror of his previous thought hit him, followed shortly by a burst of disbelieving relief. Clutching the Star to his chest with one hand, he leaped from the turret and landed hard on the dock below. His ankles sang with a sharp pain on impact, but he ran towards their camp as hard as he could.
Sabrael was nowhere to be found, though. Not in the tent, not in the woods. Rei tried to hold onto the logic that if Sabrael were gone, he wouldn’t be able to feel him, but panic had taken proper hold, and he didn’t know what to do beyond run back and forth along the same path, hoping maybe something would change. Finally, he heard splashing behind him from the lake, and there was his kirin in his natural form, walking awkwardly up onto the shore.
Rei sprinted to the shore before dropping the star in the mud and throwing his arms around the beast’s thick, muscular neck. He felt Sabrael turn his head and rest his chin against his back.
“I’m sorry, Sabrael,” he sobbed. “I ruined everything, and I thought you’d left. You’d be right to. I can’t…I can’t…”
“Rei,” the beast’s voice echoed in his head. It was just as weak and shaky as his was. “I wouldn’t leave you. I’ve never been in my other form for this long, though, and all of this has been stressful. I just needed to swim. I needed to get my bearings again.”
Rei just took a shuddering breath and pressed his face harder into the damp fur. He thought of all the dreams, ones that could ease sadness and anger as a teenager, ones that could push aside the void as an aspect of Clavicus Vile. He clutched Sabrael’s fur in his hands and cried harder and longer than he could ever remember doing so. When Sabrael lowered himself to his knees and leaned to the side, Rei laid his head on the strong chest to hear him breathe.
“All my life you’ve done nothing but bring me comfort,” he said, “and now that you’re here, I only hurt you. I thought maybe I could be different with you. Maybe this is penance for everything I’ve done.”
“Don’t talk like that, Rei. You just…you just have some problems, that’s all. We all do.”
Rei felt a twinge of concern at Sabrael’s ability to write off what he knew well was a cruel and spiteful murder as “problems”, but he supposed it was okay if it kept him here.
“I’ll help you,” Sabrael continued. “You can be better.”
Rei shook his head. “I don’t know that I can, my beauty, not if I could casually toss aside a promise to the one I supposedly love and then mistreat him, on top of it. A promise designed to keep you feeling secure and safe. I tell you that I won’t, and then I do.”
“I’m not expecting an instant change,” Sabrael said. “That wouldn’t be fair, and even so, what practice had you had before this? What you did frightened and hurt me, but…”
“There shouldn’t be a ‘but’ there, to begin with.”
“But would you continue trying?”
“To keep you, I would do anything.”
“I know a good way to start.”
“Anything,” he answered.
“If you could just scratch my ear? It’s bit awkward when I do it.”
Rei laughed in spite of himself. “I can do that,” he said.
He reached up as Sabrael leaned his long, equine head down, and held the offending ear in his palm and moved his fingers up and down the edges, roughed up the back, and gently ran his claws over the base.
“Ahhhh,” Sabrael sighed. “I’ve never had someone else to scratch them. I’d see you do this to Baku and get very jealous.”
“Is that what that was?” Rei laughed. “I didn’t know what to make of it.”
“Well, I guess ‘jealousy’ is a bit too strong, but I was envious, for sure.”
Rei let his hand drop and pressed his lips lightly to Sabrael’s cheek. In response his kirin nudged his neck with his velvety nose. Peace was settling in, finally. Sabrael was content and in love, and Rei lost himself in those emotions and tried to follow suit.
“I see you found the Star,” Sabrael said after a while.
“I did. It’s broken, though.”
“Can I see?”
Rei, not wanting to get up from the muddy bank and his kirin’s side, stretched forward and managed to grab the artifact. He washed it a bit in the couple of inches of water where they sat, and held it up to one big, violet eye.
“There’s a soul in there,” Sabrael observed.
Rei brought the Star back down to his own eye level, and, indeed, the gem was cloudy on the inside, swirling gently and glinting in the light like the silica in wet sand.
“Varen?” Rei questioned, more to himself than anything.
“Malyn Varen, the mage who turned it black to begin with. Could he have trapped his own soul?”
“I guess it’s possible, but why?”
“He was seeking immortality like I was. I guess this was his way.”
“So he’s wandering around without a soul?”
Rei shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think he’s literally in the Star himself.”
Sabrael looked at him skeptically.
“We need to get this back to Winterhold,” Rei said excitedly. “I know someone who could help us, maybe.”
He almost simply said “yes”, but for once he thought of someone else. “Are you okay to travel? Do you need to stay this way longer?”
“I’m fine now, thanks. Let’s get dressed and packed up!”
Packing was done in a bigger hurry than Rei could ever remember doing before. Dirty clothes were stuffed unceremoniously into a canvas bag, his weapons and armor were put away dirty, and extra effort had to be made to ensure the sloppy job was able to all fit on and behind Baku’s saddle. But somehow, they managed, and Rei hoisted himself up into the ornate saddle.
“You’re behind me this time,” he said, moving his leg away from the stirrup to give Sabrael a foothold, “and we’re gonna move, so let me know when you’re secure and hold on as best you can.”
He moved as close to the pommel as his sense of self-preservation with regards to his genitals would allow, and waited until the shifting settled down behind him, and until he felt Sabrael’s arms wrap around his waist. On his kirin’s command, he set off. Because of the terrain around the lake, he could only in good conscience take Baku at a trot. It seemed to take ages, but once they reached the road, Rei jabbed his spurs back and just above his steed’s knees. Baku didn’t hesitate; he knew the force well enough that he lunged forward and accelerated as hard as he could.
Sabrael shouted in surprise, and Rei felt his arms squeeze him more tightly. This was as close as he could ever get to flying, and he laughed joyfully. He had forgotten how much he loved to speed full-tilt on the back of a horse.
“Lean forward,” he called over his shoulder. “Makes it easier on Baku.”
Sabrael quickly obeyed, pressing his cheek against his shoulder, and Rei wondered if he could have anything better than this. He wondered if changing wouldn’t be too hard to try.
Suddenly, as they took the road which ran above and parallel to Falkreath Town, Rei saw a dog wandering aimlessly across the road.
“Shit!” he hissed as he pulled back on the reins. He felt Baku’s hindquarters begin to dip, and yelled, “Hang on, hang on, hang on!”
His waist was squeezed almost painfully as Baku’s body tilted severely back in a squat. The air was momentarily forced from his lungs as Sabrael slid backward, and he held his stallion’s sides with his thighs as hard as he could against Sabrael’s weight trying to pull him back.
Finally Baku’s momentum had normalized, and he stood back up properly. Sabrael sighed, and Rei could feel his entire body shaking along with his kirin’s. “Are you okay?” he asked.
Sabrael nodded, breathing quickly.
Rei reached back and pressed his hand against Sabrael’s head reassuringly before dismounting. The dog was sitting serenely ahead of them, panting in an almost matter-of-fact way.
“Barbas!” he called sharply.
“There you are!” the dog answered.
“You’re lucky I’m not one of those hayseed villagers or you’d have been shot dead. Wandering around like you’re rabid.”
“I was looking for you, actually. I knew you’d been around here, but I couldn’t go into the town. Last time I tried, some blacksmith tried to catch me for a pet.”
“For a dog, your nose isn’t very impressive,” Rei said.
“I’m older than you are, kid. Get back to me in a couple thousand years and we’ll talk about how great your senses are. Although it certainly seems like you’ve improved in some areas, lately.”
“What do you want? Why hasn’t Vile come for me?”
“Well that’s just it,” Barbas said. “Our master is in a bit of a bind. He’d love to see you, but I’m here for my own reasons.”
Rei spread his hands a bit and shrugged expectantly.
“He and I, we had a bit of a disagreement.”
“You always have disagreements.”
“Yeah, well, this time he lost it. I’m not here because I wanted some fresh air, you see, he banished me.”
“What?” Rei asked. “I didn’t realize he could do that. I thought you were basically an appendage.”
“Stop with the flattery,” Barbas answered dryly. “Though I suppose you’re right. He hasn’t come to you recently because he can’t. I’m a part of him, and without the power I contain, he can’t appear more than a few feet away from a shrine.”
“So what do you want me to do about it?”
“You’re one of his oldest and dearest playthings, as I’m sure you know. No offense to your little boyfriend back there, but since getting rid of me, he’s been – ugh – a bit pent-up. I figure if anyone could convince him to take me back it’d be you.”
Rei felt a pleasant chill. He’d been worried enough of crossing Vile and incurring some form of ironic wrath that he hadn’t thought of the ability to enjoy their more-or-less regular play times. Potentially.
“Look, it’s taken me months to track you down, Rei Ginsei,” Barbas said frankly. “Do me this favor, and I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Where can I find a shrine?” he asked.
“There just so happens to be one along the mountain path that runs past Helgen. It’s in a cave, used to be home to a coven of vampires. Probably still is, actually. I don’t keep perfect track of our Clavicus’ precious victims. If you want, I’ll lead you right to it.”
Rei nodded. “One moment.”
He walked back to Baku where Sabrael was still sitting, looking oddly transported. He suddenly realized that all of that arousal wasn’t his own. “What’s going on back here?” he asked teasingly.
“I never imagined you and Clavicus Vile did things together.”
“Well, I couldn’t enjoy any of it. I’m basically something he pulls from his toy box when he wishes to satisfy particular desires.”
“Still,” Sabrael said. “I don’t know why, but it drives me crazy. In a good way.”
Rei chuckled. “I’m sorry I can’t say for sure how he’ll react to seeing me this time, but let’s just see what happens.”
Sabrael leaned down and Rei pressed his lips to his kirin’s. He walked back to Barbas.
“Clavicus will either love this or pitch a fit,” Barbas said, shaking his head. “So we’re all on board?”