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The Hogwarts Four: The Guild Wars by NTSDHogwartsFour
Chapter 9 : Chapter Seven: Perfect Imperfections
 
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Chapter Seven: Perfect Imperfections


He didn’t know how it had come to this. It made sense when he really thought about it but...it was almost unbelievable. If he had known that the information he and the Shining Blade had found in the hunting cabin was correct, he would have been better prepared for this.


It hadn’t been out of the ordinary to ask Reth to accompany him on a preliminary sweep of Blackroot Cut before the scheduled sting was meant to happen. He had hoped that he was wrong...that the information had been planted just in case some well-meaning individual found it. But no. No, Alexander Reth was a member of the White Mantle. Whether it was willing or not was something he would find out soon enough...he just had to keep calm and play his cards right.


The cold edge pressed against the skin of his throat, threatening to break the skin even as he stood stock-still. The dagger itself was beautiful with a pearlescent finish on the handle and a wickedly curved blade. It wasn’t the kind of weapon anyone would have normally seen in those hands.


“Lex, please, just listen to me…” Harley’s voice rang through the stifling chirps and animal calls of the swamp. “You don’t have to do this. I know what--”


“No, no you don’t know, Ley.” Alexander Reth grit out between his teeth, those beautiful blue eyes staring at him even as he held the blade ever-deeper against Harley’s pale throat. “You don’t know what they’ll do if I don’t do this.”


“And what about after you kill me, Lex?” Harley continued to use their nicknames for each other, noting that the other hadn’t switched over to his last name or even just his first. If his friend had really wanted to do this, if he hadn’t been his friend at all...but no, he couldn’t believe that Reth had never actually been his friend. He had to hold onto that. “Do you really think you’ll get to keep Ra after that? After you kill me, there are no excuses you could make that would fool them. Especially not Ra. And if you are doing this for the White Mantle, Lex, remember that Ra and the others are on that list. Logan, Anise, Selena and Glinda...they’re all on that list to die. Who’s to say they won’t have you kill them too?” Harley stepped closer to his friend, his larger hand covering the other’s over the handle of the dagger, uncaring of the slice the edge made in his skin.


He could feel the blood trickling down the side of his neck, catching in the sleeveless black turtleneck he had worn under his armor. “Go on. Kill me. Kill me, Lex. If you can’t do it here and now then do it later when we take on the White Mantle. At least then you might have a chance of fooling your fiance as to why his Sworn Shield and friend is dead.”


Harley could feel the shaking of the hand in his own, watched the tremors taking over his friend as he lowered the knife from his neck. “I know they’re threatening your parents, Lex. I know what they’ve made you do to keep them safe. But you know that we can protect you...that I can protect you. You’re going to be my Sworn Lord Consort soon,” Harley’s fingers traced over the engagement ring sitting in pride of place on Reth’s hand, sparkling and perfect. “Which means you are just as much my responsibility as Ra or the others. What changes is that,” his breath caught in his throat, feeling the strength in his body waver at this onslaught of emotions, “after this I won’t trust you with Ra. I won’t let you just run off with him because I won’t be your friend anymore if you keep going with this. I have to be able to trust you, Lex...just like I always have. It will break me to not be able to do that. Please, Lex. You don’t want what follows after this.”


The warmth of Blackroot Cut sweltered around them, watching the swirling vortexes twitch and turn in place as the Shades and Aatxe’s circled the entrance to their homes.


Tears dripped from the thick lashes surrounded Reth’s blue eyes and he cursed softly to Balthazar, removing his hand and knife from Harley’s hand. “I can’t...I can’t do it.”


Harley nodded, wrapping an arm around Reth’s shoulders to lead them both up into the ruins at the top of the swamp to hide in until the others arrived. “We’ll figure this out. After everything is done, we’ll talk to Anise and see what we can do. There is no way the Shining Blade won’t be able to help you. You’re NTSD now, Lex. You’re a Hufflepuff, a member of my house. Come on.”


It took a few moments, huddled there in the ruined remains of what might have been a house, to get Reth’s emotions under control even as he explained to Harley what had been happening and what was going on. Everything just confirmed what Harley had already known from his own research and talks with various people in Hufflepuff.


Harley had promised to speak to Ra when this was all over so that they could go over what needed to happen from here but that it would definitely have to wait until after the day was won and the White Mantle became defunct.


The others began to filter in slowly, Anise and her Exemplars joining Harley and Reth first before Logan and a group of trusted Seraph Officers filed in. The remainder of the core NTSD were the last to arrive, all dressed in practical battle gear. Harley was dressed in his favorite set of black, blue and bronze tempered scale armor that Glinda had given him a few years back. Every year the group tended to give him more armor, weapons and books or clothes for his birthday since the blond rarely asked for frivolous things as gifts. His usual sword and shield were strapped in their places of honor on his person, his friends using their usual weapons as well. Reth with his bow and arrows, Ra and the girls decked out with staffs better suited to their magic.


Logan gestured everyone in close, hoping to get this over and done with quickly. “Get into position, everyone. I'll approach, and when they make their move, you all rush in and spring the trap.” The brunette Seraph Captain turned to Harley and Reth, the two heavy armor fighters ignoring the looks they were receiving from their light-armor counterparts. “Harley, Lieutenant, you came early to scout out the area. What did you find?”


“Not too many things to trip us up. These ruins at the top of the hill make for good cover. They’re well elevated; we’d be able to see and hear everything that’s going on.” Harley offered the brunette a small smile, hoping that no one had noticed the slight tremor he felt as he grasped his shield tightly in hand. It didn’t...feel right. Over the past few days it felt like his Guardian Skills were fighting with him...it was as if he was going through training all over again.


Logan gave the two of them a proud smile, slapping his hand down on a shoulder each. “Sounds perfect. Thank you, my friends. Just be ready to move quickly when things get ugly.”


A soft chuckle coming from Anise forced Harley’s attention on the svelte redhead with a curious eyebrow raised in her direction.


“Logan, playing the part of the helpless victim.” She grinned, shaking her head in a show of amusement he rarely got to see. “This should prove to be...interesting.”


Watching Logan make his way down into the swamp and begin wandering around, muttering to himself as if he was just trying to have a moment alone (or maybe he was going around the twist, but who was Harley to judge?), Harley turned to Reth and gestured to Talon and Cerise as well as a few of the Seraph. “Okay, listen up.” He made sure to keep his voice down, listening for any indication that the White Mantle had closed in on Logan’s position. “Most of the people in this fight are on the White Mantle’s hit list. Other than dismantling these bastards we need to make sure that they don’t get clear shots of the nobles in our midst. Watch your  back and do your job but remember, if any of them die, it just furthers their agenda. Understood?”


“Sir, yes, sir!” The group of mismatched Exemplars and Seraph intoned, voices thankfully kept at the same volume as his even as Reth smirked next to him.


“Well, well, look at you being all Commander Hufflepuff.” Reth playfully punched the other’s shoulder, noting how their three friends seemed to relax slightly once the two of them were teasing each other like usual. Harley’s gauntlet-covered hand immediately came up and landed on the top of steel brown hair, rumpling his hair into a fearful disarray before stuffing the helm of his armor on top of his head with his free hand.


“Yea, yea, yuck it up, Lieutenant Lex.” Harley couldn’t see the slightly impressed gaze Anise was sending his way, busy as he was with settling his own helm on his head. He normally detested wearing them but in a situation like this, he couldn’t afford to take chances. The usual sounds of the marshlands suddenly hushed, nearly deafening the waiting group with the silence. Showtime.


“Well, Captain Thackeray! A long way from home, aren't we?” crowed the leader.  The speaker was a woman, slightly shorter than Selena, with wheat blonde hair and clothed in the traditional white and red garb of the White Mantle: a calf-length leather coat, pant, and boots.  “I thought we saved you for last, but since you're here…”


The hidden small army of soldiers almost choked on their own tongues at the actions of Captain Thackeray down in the swamp, watching as he waved his arms dramatically; even going so far as to lay the back of one of his hands against his forehead like some put-upon maiden in a penny novel.  “Oh dear, oh, mercy!  The White Mantle is upon me. Woe! Lamentation! Is this the end for poor Logan?”


Even from as high up as they were from the action, Harley could practically see the steam coming out of the White Mantle woman’s ears.  “Are... are... are you mocking me!?” she growled, eyes flashing, “I don't think you understand how this works. White Mantle! Give the captain a demonstration.”


Logan put his arms down and smirked. “No, thanks. I think I already have a pretty good idea. Now!”


After Logan’s shout, everything went insane. The ambush became an out-and-out brawl with spells flying, fireballs singeing friendlies and the cringe-worthy crunching noise of armor crumpling under the force of weapons. Reth and Harley ensured they fought close to Ra and the others, keeping an eye on the three lightly armored nobles. Glinda bounced from Mantle to Mantle, electrocuting or barbecuing them as was her wont. Selena concentrated on using her defense as an offense, slinging ice to harm enemies while the ensuing water healed her allies and the earth under their feet cracked and shook, trapping feet in the muddy fissures and causing broken limbs all over the field.


Harley winced as his shield nearly fell from his hands, the blue aura flickering in and out like the flame of a candle. A low growl escaped him before the  blond smashed it against the head of the woman that had been taunting Logan before the fight, satisfied when the glow intensified and ceased its flickering. He was seriously beginning to wonder what was going on. A few words might have to be had with his old trainer after all of this was over to see what he could do to keep this from happening again. He needed to be able to rely on his skills and strength so that he could keep the others safe.


Pain unlike anything he had ever experienced racked through his chest, feeling the pressure of an armored  body smash into his own with the speed of a rogue moa. A warhammer fell out of his line of sight, eyes screwing shut even as he tried to gain traction under his feet before the pain spread to his side. This damn bastard was treating him like a pool ball! Harley’s arms immediately wrapped around the body that had been forced into him, feeling them both falling into the quagmire around the twisted roots. The Guardian coughed, the action coming out more like a wheeze as he tried to gain his breath back after that last hit to his side. Forcing himself up onto his hands and knees, one hand holding his side where he could feel a severe dent in his armor and the trickle of blood seeping out from the torn skin of his abdomen.


Familiar brown hair laid in the muck, unmoving. The helm had been torn off at some point during the fight.  Quickly ignoring the aches racketing through him, Harley grabbed hold of his friend, tugging off his gauntlet to check the brunette’s pulse at his throat. “Come on, come on…” He hissed, begging in his mind to feel the usual thumping pump of blood under the skin. “Lex...Lex! Come on, Lex…” Harley moved the other to lean him back against the knotted roots of a nearby tree, watching the Lieutenant’s head lolling uselessly. “No...please, please no…”


The sounds that had filled his consciousness were replaced with the sound of the blood pumping in his ears, muting everything around him in a dull roar as Alexander Reth refused to wake, his heart still and no pulse to be found along his neck. A section of his chestplate had caved in along his ribs, a byproduct of the warhammer that had knocked them both around...though Harley refused to believe that Reth had been dead when he impacted with his body during the fight.


He could feel the rage blinding his sight, the roar building up in his chest that was a  mixture of hatred and despair. The sound was ringing in the ears of all nearby, sending chills down the spines of the surviving White Mantle cultists.


It was a sound that should never be uttered by human vocal chords, the kind of noise you expect to hear from a rampaging minotaur defending a fallen packmate or a sleuth of bears. To those that heard it with malice in their hearts it sounded like the very earth was going to open up beneath them so that Grenth might steal their very souls.  


Then he heard the scream.  It was a heart-wrenching sound, like an eagle screeching as it was shot down mid-flight or a wolf’s whine of agony as it was dying from injuries too great to let it live.  It was the sound of loss and emptiness.  The sound was enough to wrench Harley from his blinding rage and search to find his Sworn Lord.  Ra stood facing them, eyes going blank…


Oh shit… Harley thought, scrambling to try and get to his feet and reach Ra, but he also knew it would be too late to stop it from happening.  He would have to try to lessen the damage, if he could.  


Once Ra was facing those fools in the White Mantle, his breathing heavy, everyone there felt a wave of cold rush over them.  It was as if time stopped around the Ravenclaw.  He blinked forward, stabbing his sword hilt-deep into a Mantle’s throat.  At that same second, a phantasm emerged from his side, raised a bow, and fired an arrow through the skull of another Mantle.  From the arrow’s tip emerged another phantasm, wielding a greatsword and spinning through five of the Mantle, slicing them all in half.  This phantasm then split in two, creating two with standard swords, who then thrust their blades through the hearts of the two Mantle members guarding their blonde leader.  They then reformed into one phantasm, wielding a pistol.  This phantasm fired the pistol three times, bullets piercing the Mantle Leader’s forehead, heart, and throat.  


None of the others saw any of this.  To them, only a second passed from the time they felt the chill and all they saw then was the entire remaining White Mantle army crumple, all dead, amid a flood of blue-white butterflies that vanished into nothingness.  


Ra, drained of magic, stumbled over to Reth, and collapsed, tears in his eyes.  “Reth,” the Ravenclaw youth choked out, tears falling from his eyes to his fallen betrothed’s face.  Then, he fainted.  

~

Ra’s eyes fluttered open to find Harley looking very concerned and Glinda checking his pulse.  “What… What happened?”  


Harley and Glinda exchanged a look of concern.  Glinda looked back at Ra, slowly, and said, “You… don’t remember any of it?”


Ra shook his head.  “Remember what, Glinda?  I-”


“Ra,” Harley said, hesitantly, afraid, “You… you lost control.”  The  blond’s helm was nowhere in sight, probably lost somewhere in the bog.


There had been very few times in the history of their small group that someone had lost control. Harley had lost control and broken things before, shattering doors, breaking his own hand on occasion in his rage. Glinda had randomly set things ablaze in her fury while Selena was her opposite in having frozen the hands or feet of those who upset her almost to the point of solidifying the blood in their veins. Ra was the controlled one. He had lost control so few times that they had started to believe that he couldn’t be made to lose his cool anymore...but they had been wrong. Watching Ra lose it, using his Mesmer Magic with such fury and sorrow behind it, with that urge to hurt, to maim, to kill ...it drove into their minds just how dangerous their de facto leader could and would be.  


Harley stood from his place kneeling in the grass, heading back down the side of the cliff from the ruins they had been hiding in not too long ago. Harley had carried his fallen Sworn Lord up onto the ruin-littered hill above Blackroot Cut. Right now he had to do something, move...he couldn’t just sit there and watch his friends fall apart.


An Exemplar had run to the nearby Seraph camp in the Delanian Foothills to grab a large lengths of cloth for them to wrap the bodies of the fallen in. The White Mantle cultists were being identified and catalogued, doing what they could to see what had been happening and tracing the actions of the White Mantle. After they were catalogued, the  bodies would be piled up and burned like the trash they were. Thankfully, the casualties on their side had been limited to only three out of the thirteen that had taken part. Two Seraph and an Exemplar...their families would be notified and bodies buried or cremated, depending upon the family preference.


Harley carefully wrapped up the body of his best friend, feeling his eyes and throat burning with emotion but refusing to let it go. He had to stay strong. Glinda and Selena were already so upset and Ra...he couldn’t lose it in front of Ra. Ra was going to be a wreck and it wouldn’t matter how much pain Harley was in if he lost Ra to his grief. Memories of that tearful talk ran through his mind as he carried the frighteningly light body in his arms, making his way to where the Seraph and remaining Exemplars waited to bring their fallen allies back home. “I’ll carry him. Let’s get the others home.”


A Seraph Officer, one that Harley couldn’t recognize at the moment, shook his head. “No. Captain’s orders, Harley. We are to take each of the fallen to their chosen place of worship so that they may receive their rites and then transport them to their family’s dwelling for the funeral.”


Harley took a deep breath, trying to steady himself before he laid the sheet-wrapped body between the other two in the horse-drawn cart even as his vision swam. “I’ll...tell his parents when I get the others back home.” He felt lightheaded and dizzy but there wasn’t anything he could do about it at the moment, too much to do. The blond forced the feeling away, walking back to the other three in the ruins, finding them right where he had left them. “They’re taking him to the Temple of Balthazar. We’ll be able to go tomorrow with his family for visitation bef--”


Harley stopped talking at a look from Glinda.  He looked at Ra, and saw… nothing.  Ra had always been good at covering up his emotions, but still giving enough sign of them to show he was still human.  What he saw scared him.  Ra looked dead.  No emotion, no life.  No care.  No movement as Selena tended his few wounds.  He didn't even wince, flinch, or comment as she sewed one deep, painful-looking gash shut.  Nothing at all.  Just staring, lifeless, passed her shoulder to the Seraph bearing away the body of his betrothed.  


The blond Guardian tugged on his ponytail, feeling raw, cold and off as he sighed. His eyes fell shut and mentally counted down, going through the visualization of locking away his emotions until he was in a better place to be able to think about them. Ra and the others were what mattered right now. “We need to get home.” Harley kept his voice in its flat cadence, carefully helping the girls to their feet and doing the same for Ra so that they could get going and out of this area.Harley was certain that none of them would  be able to come back to this place without good reason for a very long time.  


The waypoint next to the Seraph outpost of Blackroot Cut allowed them a quick return to the outer gate of Ossan Quarter, Harley leading the quiet procession to Ravenclaw Manor. The moment the quartet cleared the door the Ravenclaw youth was walking up the stairs of their tower, the sound of the hidden wall sliding into place behind him ringing in Harley’s ears as the dark-haired youth disappeared from sight.


Selena glanced up at the blond, curious as to what he was about to do. She couldn’t imagine that all of this had happened in one day...it was almost surreal.


“Would you ladies like to go home?” Harley asked, voice still blank as he turned to watch them, his eyes two flat discs of gold with no insight into the thoughts happening behind them. If he had been in a normal state of mind it would have been an idiotic question but...well, the blond wasn’t thinking at the moment. Glinda shook her head, red curls bouncing at the motion. “No. We’ll be here when Ra comes out. He’s going to need all of us.” That certainty in her voice brooked no arguments and Harley wasn’t about to give her any.


“Understood.” Harley gestured for the two girls to go up to their usual rooms in the adjacent tower to get cleaned up and comfortable while he went to his room to do the same. As if on automatic the blond removed his armor, setting it off to the side to be cleaned later and have the dents fixed. He made use of the bowl of cold water near his bed to clean up his face and visible extremities, quickly changing his clothes without care for the injuries he could feel tugging at his skin.


He changed into a black turtleneck, black pants and boots before tying a black ribbon into his hair.  Harley tracked down Annamarie, informing her to keep a close eye on the three nobles in the house while he was out and that he was not going to be home for a while.  The flaxen-haired Norn seemed more than slightly concerned but nodded, returning to her work as she watched the Ravenclaw Sworn Shield leave the house in mourning attire. If she had it right, she didn’t envy the blond what he was about to do.

~

Glinda ran a towel over her damp curls, her cheeks flushed from the heat of the cleansing bath. Her usual bright clothing was replaced with a knee-length black dress, leggings, sensible heels and a black cotton jacket that came down just below her hips. The slightly darker, iridescent black threaded designs of leaves, blossoms and thorns along the edges of her skirt, jacket and the neck of the top all added her usual layer of Glinda-ness to her dress sense but thankfully still allowed her to show her state of mourning for the loss of a good friend.


She sincerely wished she hadn’t seen that coming. She hated that Ra and the others would be going through this pain for a while to come but...there had been no changing it. No other options had flown through her mind. Eventually they would all be happier. Hard times were ahead of them but she knew that they would get through it...together.


Too many things were blurry to her Sight. So much of Harley’s future was what concerned her the most, unable to See it as she was. Selena would find a reason to be happy soon, a reason to be herself. Glinda was already working on her reason to be perfectly happy through Talon Mehid and even though she couldn’t see her own future everything she saw involving the handsome Exemplar featured her friends in some fashion so she knew even if they didn’t last he wouldn’t be completely gone from her life.


Ra would find reasons to be happy, to continue to be the Ra Ravenclaw that they knew and loved so dearly. She just hated that he had to lose his first love like this.  A knock on the bedroom door brought a smile to her face. “Come in, Selena.”


Selena’s beautiful dark hair was pulled back into a twisted chignon wrapped with a black velvet ribbon. A black sheath dress of silk covered in lace was covered by a fashionable high-collared jacket that barely extended past the bottom of Selena’s rib cage, her pale legs hidden by leggings and the sensible ankle boots she had thrown on.


Neither of them had had reason to wear mourning attire for years and were suitably grateful for it. The very fact that it could have been any one of them that it could have happened to. It could just as easily have been Harley that had received that hammer to the chest. Where would they have been without their mountainous mouse?


“None of us seem to be handling this very well. Harley has already left the house. Annamarie saw him leave in mourning attire.” Selena murmured, settling herself on the arm of the cushy, red sofa.  The red fabric matched the rings around the Slytherin’s eyes, the same color decorating Glinda’s own. “She believes he went to inform Reth’s parents.”


The dark-haired girl didn’t have to wonder why Harley would have gone to do that alone. He probably blamed himself, the silly boy. Unfortunately, just because his closest friends knew better didn’t mean that the boy wasn’t going to hate himself for a while...she just hoped that Ra wouldn’t give him a reason to hold onto that notion.


“Where's Ra?” Selena asked.  Glinda sighed.  “Still in his room.  Has been since we got back.”

 

Selena let out her own sigh, worry coloring her face as she looked up at the ceiling towards her friend’s bedroom.  “Do you… do you think we should go see if he needs to talk?”


Glinda shook her head no.  “Let him mourn on his own for a while.  He needs time to recover.  Besides, if we interfere, it'll make things worse.”  


Selena had learned not to question the redhead a long time ago. Sighing, she settled herself fully onto the sofa and got comfortable. They would have to wait for Harley to get back to try talking to Ra. They had both loved Reth, after all.


“Ok, so we won’t bother Ra,” the Slytherin heiress said, calmly.  “Then should we go looking for Harley?  Shouldn’t he always have adult supervision?”


The redheaded Elementalist took a moment to ponder that, chewing on her bottom lip. Unfortunately that path wasn’t clear in her mind. There was a 50/50 chance of that ending as badly as it could be good. But there was no way she was going to be able to just sit in this room until the boys were ready...leaving them alone for too long was the worst thing they could possibly do.


Nodding, Glinda shared a small smile with her Slytherin friend. “Come on, let’s go make sure Harley doesn’t get into any trouble.”


They tasked the Ravenclaw’s staff to keep an eye on Ra and provide for anything he needed or wanted, then set off to find their favorite Badgerboy, wherever he was.  

~

Unfortunately for Harley, the trip on foot from the Ossan Quarter to Claypool only took fifteen minutes, twenty if you were being a turtle about the trip.  Somehow he managed to make the walk take half an hour.  His cheek hurt as if someone had slammed into it with a horse’s hoof and his chest wasn’t too far off from feeling the same. Julianna’s reaction to the news had been exactly what he had expected, her small fists beating against his chest as she screamed at him. She didn’t allow him to wrap his arms around her in comfort, slapping him hard enough to turn his head in such a way he thought he would get whiplash.


Why did my boy have to die while you’re standing here? You shouldn’t be here, my Alexander is supposed to be getting married soon! You were supposed to protect him and you failed. The words refused to stop spinning in his head and they hurt with every spin back around that they made. The burning behind his eyes grew worse, spreading into his throat and making it hard to breathe but he refused to let himself cry.


“Oh Harley...” Glinda’s voice echoed in the air, forcing his head up to look at the two girls standing on the dirt road leading back to Divinity’s Reach. Their mourning clothes were so different from what they would  normally wear he was almost struck dumb, forcefully shaking it off so he could just concentrate.


Harley cleared his throat, the sound uncomfortably loud in the silent twilight around them. “His...his parents know. Let’s go home.” His voice was thick and husky, wrong in his own ears. He made himself stand up straight, undoing the arms that had crossed over his aching chest as he just kept walking. The Guardian couldn’t see the looks shared between his friends but he didn’t jump when they stepped easily to either side of him, hooking their arms around his own and walking with him in the quiet night with Glinda’s soft, peaceful humming the only sound in their ears. Neither of the girls bothered him for words and he was grateful for that.  


Upon their return to Ossan Quarter and Ravenclaw Manor, Harley reassured them with a shaky smile as he requested they talk in the morning after everyone had gotten some sleep. But he didn’t sleep, preferring to sit in his room looking over the things in his room that reminded him of his friend. The few books that littered his room, his personal collection, came from Reth when the brunette had had the extra money to buy him a gift...a Seraph dagger, a teardrop pendant of rough amber hanging from his mirror, his favorite brown boots. Images of Reth’s smiling face swam in his mind’s eye, blue eyes sparkling as the brunette held out the necklace in some frayed blue velvet bag. The blond forced himself to pick out clothes for the visitation from the better clothing in his wardrobe, making sure to put the pendant on top of the chosen garb.


Julianna and Richard probably wouldn’t even want him at the visitation but he would have to try going anyway. There was no way Glinda was going to let him not go. Shrugging out of the mourning attire, Harley forced himself into the black sleeveless tunic and trousers he wore for every workout and made his way down into the basement training area of the house, intent on staying there and working on his Guardian powers until he passed out. He couldn’t let them fail like that again...if they hadn’t been failing and flickering maybe Reth would be with Ra, keeping him awake with the noises he could hear every night without fail.


~


Rowena Ravenclaw was shocked at the sight of her oldest ‘son’, coming up out of the basement with the look of a man that had been put through the ringer and lost. “Harley…” she sighed, shaking her head at the boy even as he stared at her with those wide golden eyes that were nothing like what she was used to seeing on him. She too was garbed in mourning attire, her makeup of black lipstick and eyelids consistent with the visitation and funeral rites of Balthazar’s faithful. “Go get cleaned up, darling. You look horrible. After you get yourself all handsome again, please make sure that Ra is ready to go. We can’t be late.”


The barest nod was her answer, the blond making his way up into the tower to do as Rowena said. His night hadn’t been fruitful, his powers were still being spotty at best. He had to work twice as hard to get anything to work, even his basic sword skills and his favorite shield...what was worse was that he was seeing a tinge of black, miasmatic and smoky, seemed to be taking over his usual blue aura. Stepping into the day’s chosen outfit and ensuring Reth’s pendant was in his hand, the Guardian took deep breaths to calm himself and remain centered.


Making his way back through the bathroom, Harley knocked carefully on the heavy wooden door that led into Ra’s bedroom.  “Ra?”  Normally he would have just barged in by this point but he couldn’t...he couldn’t be normal today.  He couldn’t be Harlequin.  “Ra, may I come in?”  How long had it been since he had asked for permission to go into his room?  He couldn’t even remember at this point.


Not hearing anything to tell him if the youth heard him or not, Harley let out a soft sigh and pulled the door open to allow himself in.  He had expected to see the room wrecked, to see things out of place but everything looked as normal as it should.  A chill ran down the blond’s spine, rubbing his arm self-consciously as if to ward away some sudden cold spell.  The room was darker than usual, but he blamed that on the fact that the drapes had been pulled over the windows.  He had hoped that Ra would have been able to get some sleep the night before but he doubted it.  “Ra? We...we need to get ready.”


Ra was unmoving.  He showed absolutely no sign that he had heard Harley speak, let alone any acknowledgement of the blonde’s presence in his room.  Ra still seemed dead to the world, senseless.  He just sat there on the side of his bed, gently hugging himself, staring unseeingly out of the window.  Harley had never seen Ra like this.  It was like Ra had died out there on the field as well, and only a living shell had returned with them, like their friend had gone on to be with Reth in the afterlife.  


The carefully constructed wall Harley had painstakingly built around his emotions cracked like a shard of glass and Harley was moving before he could really think about it. For the first time in years the blond leaned back against the headboard of a bed that wasn’t his, tugging the unresponsive raven-haired man to lean against his chest so that his legs lay between his own. Wrapping his arms snugly around Ra’s shoulders, the blond couldn’t stop himself from laying his forehead against the top of that thick black hair. He felt the tears burning at his eyes, leaking out onto the bereft young man’s head. “Please...please, Ra, you can’t leave me too. I couldn’t live with myself if I lost you as well.”


A sob wrenched itself out of his chest and suddenly the blond was crying like he hadn’t since Helena had been reported missing. Fat, hot tears burned his face as he tightened his hold on Ra as if he was the only thing keeping him alive and sane...and in many ways, he was. “I--I know you probably blame me and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry...please, please don’t hate me. If, if you want to blame me th-that’s fine. Just...please,” Harley had never considered himself the begging type but if it got even a spark of life in those beautiful blue eyes that he loved so very much...he would spend the rest of his life doing whatever he could to keep life in sapphire orbs that could bring him to his knees and break his heart with a single look. “Don’t make me lose two people that I love.” His voice broke in the words, squeaking out the last bit like a cog that hadn’t been oiled and he winced, the pain in his throat almost too much as it felt as if his chest was being slowly stomped on with a centaur stampede.


Maybe by some miracle, or maybe his words had reached through or the sobbing had broken through the veil separating Ra from him, Harley wasn’t sure which, but Ra stirred, raising his head so that he could look into his Sworn Shield’s eyes.  Those bottomless sapphires had a small glimmer of life in them, but it gave Harley a small drop of hope seeing that.  “Oh, Harley,” the raven-haired noble sighed, a single tear trailing down his left cheek, “You do not seem to understand.  It wasn’t your fault, nor do I blame you.  The fault rests entirely with me, and as for blame, I blame only myself for what happened.  I can never forgive myself for what happened to Alexander, because I was the one who took him from his comfortable job as a Ministry Guard and turning his whole life upside down.  How utterly selfish of me!  True, he was your friend, but don’t you see?  It was I who turned your friend into a future Lord and put him in a risky position that was going to result in only disaster.  I can never forgive myself for what I did to that wonderful man whom you called friend and I called my companion.”  


If possible, the tears came faster from Harley’s eyes. He felt as if in some way he was crying for the both of them but he doubted it. He had always  been the crybaby of the group, even if he never did it where anyone could see. “No, no…” Harley shook his head, that thick blond hair hanging in his face to shadow his eyes while a few stray strands stuck to his cheeks. “You made him so happy, Ra. I have never seen Lex as happy as he was with you. He would have given up anything to be with you and I know that, no matter what, he was happy. His...his happiness was everything to me. But the only thing you did was keep him happy. If that’s your greatest sin, I’m sure Lyssa will forgive you.”


There was no way that he was going to tell anyone that his best friend had been blackmailed into the White Mantle and had almost been willing to kill him and it was only the fact that killing him would have eventually meant Ra’s death as well that had stayed his hand. “You are the only thing that mattered to him. He wasn’t happy as a Ministry Guard, by Grenth, Logan and Anise both had been working on poaching him from the Guard for a while before you two met.”


A shaky, hollow laugh escaped from his throat. It was an uncomfortable sound in his ears and he didn’t like it. “He would be kicking our collective asses right now if he saw us.” He could almost hear the words in his ears, forcing a small and rueful smile onto his face. “Neither one of us are going to be okay for a while after this but...we got the bastards that killed him. Eventually they will all pay and we’ll watch each and every one of them die until there isn’t a single White Mantle cultist left in Tyria.”


A cold, slimy feeling filled his stomach even as it felt like something had locked itself in place in his chest. His words had a power all their own and his oath sent him further down an unforeseen path that originally hadn’t been his own.


Reaching up to his face, the blond began to wipe away at the tears that had wrought red rings around his glazed eyes. “Come on…” he muttered, shifting them both forward until Ra was standing at the end of the bed. “You need to get ready.”


It was time to say goodbye.


~


The Temple of Balthazar had always been spartan, clean and utilitarian.  Nothing was wasted with Balthazar’s Faithful.  A pyre had been erected in the open air of the temple, Alexander Reth’s body laid out atop it with his faithful bow and quiver on either side of him.  The priests had rid his form of his Seraph armor, leaving the brunette in a long white gown that covered him from neck to foot.  Guests had left gifts of their own around the body as was customary for a warrior’s funeral in Kryta.  A bottle of wine, flowers, weapons, coins...all things that would be taken with him into the afterlife so that he could gain Grenth’s favor to allow him back into the world anew or remain in the Mists for the end of days.


Harley had already laid out the amber teardrop pendant at Reth’s neck in such a way that it looked as if he was wearing it, eyes still red-rimmed from crying as he moved to join his friends in the outer throng of mourners and those who wished the family well. He felt slightly better after having cried with Ra, knowing that the other didn’t blame him even though they both blamed themselves. It wasn’t going to go away easily and they would both be in pain for awhile but there was every chance that they would be stronger after everything was said and done. He watched as Glinda, free of her usual bright makeup, laid out a small wicker basket with Reth’s favorite items in it, including a few bright green apples. Harley couldn’t help but let out a soft huff of a chuckle, shaking his head. That  boy had adored bitter, tart things with a passion. It was such a difference to Harley’s addiction for spicy foodstuffs, Ra with his chocoholic problem, Selena with anything cinnamon and Glinda had the market on savory foods. That had always made their picnics interesting. Selena, eyes and lips blacked out the same as Rowena’s, placed a dagger wrapped in black leather that looked nondescript until you saw the thumbnail-sized topaz gems decorating the hilt. She had purchased it for him as a gift for his welcome into the NTSD...Harley guessed she hadn’t had the chance to give it to him.


The Priests of Balthazar filed into the room through the open archway at the back of the small temple, their robes the fiery red of their patron deity and their faces covered by the typical helms that depicted Balthazar himself. The Head Priest filled the air with words about  bravery and sacrifice, going down fighting and being the epitome of all that Balthazar held in high esteem.


“As requested by the fallen faithful of Balthazar, the return of his spirit to the Mists will be a private affair. The fallen had left with the Priests a request for those who will free him of his living shell. Ra Erasmus Ravenclaw of Lyssa, fiance of the deceased, and Harley Jonathan Hufflepuff of Kormir, brother in all but blood, you are given the duty to light the pyre after your moments of prayer with the deceased. He has asked for your forgiveness and demands that you take care of each other in his absence. Those whose names have not been spoken, please depart for the lighting of the pyre unless otherwise requested by the two that shall remain.”


As one, the priests bowed at the waist, offering respect to the man on the pyre before filing back through the archway and out of sight.


A deep breath of air finally hit Harley’s lungs and he couldn’t help but cough as he watched the rest of the group begin to disperse, some of the villagers of Claypool and nobles that had known Reth through his attachment to Ra and even some of the Seraph and Ministry Guard said a few words with Reth’s parents, Captain Thackeray leading the family away until only the four of them remained...just like it always had been.


Ra walked slowly up to the pyre, to stand before the body of the man who had, only a day before, had been his fiance.  Ra looked down on the lithe, handsome body, and felt his heart ache, tears dancing in his eyes.  He reached out, and raked a hand through Reth’s grey-brown hair.  As he did so, the lullaby his mother had always sung to him the night before departing on a diplomatic assignment without him came into his mind, and without thinking, the words forced their way out of his mouth.  


Be still, my love.
I will return to you…



A haunting melody that sent chills down everyone’s spine.  He could sense them react to the chilling notes, but he didn’t really much care.  He continued the song, hoping that it would help Reth’s soul to be comforted, feeling a small amount of his confidence return as he thought this.  Glinda had always loved Ra’s clear, powerful tenor voice.  It always seemed to be right for songs such as this.  Ra sat on the pyre next to Reth, cradling the fallen man’s head in his hands carefully.  


Speak to me, speak to me, speak to me


Harley couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Ra sing, and knew Lex must have never heard it.  He sorely hoped that the other man was listening now.  Ra knew tears were falling from his eyes, he knew that some of the mourners who had departed, including Reth’s parents, had come back in upon hearing the haunting words and melody.  

Ra stood up, backing away from the pyre slightly, hugging himself and looking away from the marble resting place.  He wished he could stop singing to Reth, but for some reason, his mind and mouth didn’t want to respond.  His legs became shaky, and he collapsed to his knees, feeling his heart breaking all over again as Harley lit the pyre, then backed away from it.  He came up next to Ra, and just watched it burn.  


Ra felt arms wrap around his shoulders from behind and felt Glinda’s curls on his cheek.  After a minute or two, Harley and Glinda helped Ra up, and they began their departure.  As they left the Temple of Balthazar, Ra couldn’t help but look back one last time, his last words escaping his lips before the pyre vanished from sight.  


Be still, my love
I will return to you…



~


That evening, Harley found Ra in their tower library, looking at a stack of papers.  He sighed, confused.  “Ra, didn’t Her Majesty give you time off to mourn properly?”


Ra looked up, red rings still surrounding his eyes.  A melancholy smile graced his lips, and Harley felt his heart flip over (he repressed it; they’d just been to a funeral, for gods’ sakes).  


“Oh,” Ra said, voice thick, “she did.  This isn’t Ministry business, Harley.  It’s some of Alexander’s personal effects.  I’m going through them before having them sent back to his parents.”  The Ravenclaw heir turned his head and looked out the window at the moon behind him.  “I don’t want his parents getting any nasty shocks or surprises.”  


Harley smiled kindly.  “That’s very kind of you, Ra.  May I help?”


Ra shrugged.  “Sure.  I guess I could use the company.”  


Harley moved over the sit on the opposite side of the trunk across from Ra, and began to assist the raven-haired youth in going through its contents.  Books, armor repair kit, a potions kit Glinda had given him, his NTSD jacket, his favorite dagger, and a rather large pile of letters (some even unopened) filled the trunk, besides his usual clothes and armor.  


The books, it transpired, were from Ra’s personal collection.  Ra had lent them to Lex to read, as he’d shown interest in them.  Said books were immediately returned to their proper shelves.  The pair set aside the potions kit to give back to Glinda tomorrow, along with his NTSD jacket, which would be placed in the Memorial Hall, where fallen gang members were immortalized by their jackets being on display.  Harley placed the dagger and repair kit back in the trunk with Reth’s armor and clothes.  


That just left the letters and papers.  Most were just nonsense, some were orders from Zamon during Lex’s time in the Ministry Guard and some were orders from Logan after he’d Lex had joined the Seraph.  But one letter caught Ra’s eye: an elegant script in blood red ink.  Ra ripped the letter open, curious to see its contents.  


“I think, that’s everything,” Harley said, standing and stretching.  Ra gave no answer, his eyes darting back and forth on the parchment.  Then he gasped, and he went very pale.  His eyes became layered with horror, and he looked up from the letter to see Harley looking at him, very concerned, and kneeling down beside him. 

“Ra?  Are you okay?  What’s wrong?”  Harley nodded to the letter in the other man’s hand.  “What does it say?”


Ra shook himself back to reality, and fixed Harley with a look that scared the taller man slightly.  “Reth was in contact with the White Mantle not long before he died.”  


Harley sighed.  “Yeah, I found out about that not long ago.  I’d hoped you wouldn’t find out about-”


He stopped seeing Ra’s face.  “What?  What is it?”


Ra took a shaky breath, and said, carefully, “They said to Reth that they knew what had happened to my sister…”



Note:  The lyrics are from the song Speak to Me, by Amy Lee, written for the independent film Voice from the Stone.  The song was recorded in 2017 at Skywalker Ranch, and was released as a single on March 17, 2017.  


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