THE COURSE of true love never did run smooth….
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as the lightning in the collied night….
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
THE SUN was rising angry and red over the half world as the Oberon shuttle came around to give its one passenger the view it was most famous for—the Split. Jessa stared at the naked, broken edge of Oberon, fascinated.
She was the only one making the journey down to the surface, and it had cost her a pretty penny to buy her way onto this trip. Titan Station had been jam-packed with refugees fleeing the planet. Her Jameson was down there somewhere, maybe taken hostage by the locals, for all she knew. He’d dropped off the grid, and she meant to find him and bring him home.
The shuttle shook violently, and Jessa grabbed the arms of her seat. Something was wrong. The craft jumped, as if pushed upward by a giant hand. She closed her eyes, praying to God to get her to the ground safely.
The cabin shuddered, and for a moment she thought her teeth would be rattled out of her skull. Then as suddenly as it had begun, the turbulence was over.
She opened her eyes and peered out the window.
The impossible had happened, and her eyes refused to accept it for a moment. The Split was gone. The planet was suddenly whole, round. Impossibly normal. What the hell?
Boiling clouds spread upward and outward from the ground, and thunder and lightning exploded all around her in a cacophony of violence. Fierce winds and heavy rain buffeted the shuttle as the storm overtook them.
“Please hold on,” the pilot said over the comm. “We’re taking this shuttle down as quickly as we can in these unexpected conditions.”
Unexpected conditions. The world had gone mad. The cabin was plunged into darkness as the lights failed and the clouds blotted out the world. What had Jamie gotten himself into? What had he gotten her into?
A lightning bolt passed within a couple meters of the wing with a deafening boom, lighting up her world in a monochrome flash. There was no way this thing would make it to the ground. I’m going to die here.
The shuttle shook again as if in the grip of some vengeful god. The lights came on and then went off again in the cabin, and something audibly cracked. “Oh God oh God oh God oh God….” She forgave herself for using the Lord’s name in vain, just this once. He would understand, given the circumstances.
She closed her eyes and willed herself to be calm, shutting out the turbulence. I can do this.
Strangely, the ship’s course smoothed out. She opened her eyes. Sunlight once again streamed into the cabin. The shuttle had come out of the fury of the storm to settle into an even descent path.
Jessa closed her eyes. “Thank you, Lord.” She sent a little prayer heavenward. Maybe it wasn’t quite her time. Not yet.
She looked out the window. Oberon City was spread out below them, as gritty a black-and-white place as she’d ever seen. The shuttle swung past it to find its landing place at the spaceport on the edge of town. Grim towers soared over black pavement, and one whole section looked like it had fallen into utter ruin.
As they made the turn, she got a good look at the monster tempest approaching the city. It was a storm on a scale she’d never seen before, its thunderheads raising up kilometers into the sky, their skirts black as the void.
She’d need to find cover as soon as she got through customs, but at least she’d survived the landing. She said a small prayer of thanks.
Jamie, you better be in a serious heap of trouble.
Chapter One: The Gathering Storm
JAMESON SAVORED the kiss, his arms around Xander, the way they fit just right. They were finally together, and Titania and Oberon were one again.
Erro, Quince had called this new world. Like the skythane god of the sun, the one Errian and the Erriani were named for.
For the moment, everything was right in his life, and he never wanted it to end.
A cold drop of water on his cheek brought him out of his reverie. He glanced up. Storm clouds were piled high and were swiftly overtaking them. Rain began to pour out of the sky like a waterfall, and thunder echoed in the clouds as the valley went dark, sunlight smothered by the onrushing tempest. Nearby trees thrashed about in the wind, their purple leaves fluttering in distress.
“What the hell?” Xander said as the winds picked up and ruffled the feathers of his wings. He stared up at the black sky.
“The Split!” Jameson shouted over the howling of the wind. He mimed the two halves of the world, each with their own atmosphere, suddenly being forced together in the middle. “When the Oberon half shifted, all the atmosphere it brought with it along the Split was forced up here!”
A bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, crisping it to ashes and standing Jameson’s hair on end.
“Run!” Xander shouted.
Jameson’s vision swam, and a memory slipped into his conscious mind from that other part of him. It was a high-ceilinged cavern that was more like a faery palace than a cave, a place where he’d stolen away with a lover more than once.
His stomach heaved at the displacement, and he clenched his hands. That wasn’t me. They were someone else’s memories.
“Follow me!” he shouted at his four companions—Xander, Quince, Kadin, and Venin—and ran toward the cliffs that were rapidly fading to invisibility behind the rain. He pushed down the memory-nausea, tasting bile in the back of his mouth.
Alia was missing.
He’d last seen her as they had fled the Mountain, when it had begun to collapse. Jameson looked around wildly, but she was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Alia?” he shouted at Kadin as they ran. Thunder shook the valley.
Kadin shook his head, mouthing, “I don’t know.”
Rain swirled all around them, coming down so fast that it pooled on the ground and ran in rivulets downhill toward the lake that was now half-filled with the broken remains of the Mountain.
Mud made his footing treacherous. Jameson clambered up the hill, using roots and rocks that offered a firmer surface than the naked ground. The wind tugged at his wings, threatening to flip him over. He pulled them in tightly and glanced back to be sure the others were following him through the tempest.
Jameson reached the cover of the forest, plunging under the protection of the canopy. The trees here were tall and thin with white bark trunks and broad purple leaves that were being shredded by the storm.
The thunder boomed constantly now, loud as a shuttle engine at close range, and lightning strikes were coming every few seconds all around them. Thank God it’s only a few hundred meters—
A flash and boom and he was flying backward into Xander, sending them both crashing down in the mud. Jameson’s head slammed against the ground hard, and he blacked out.
He opened his eyes, with no sense of how much time had passed. His head was spinning.
He untangled himself from Xander, who said something he couldn’t hear, pointing.
The world had gone silent.
“I can’t hear you!” he shouted, but it was barely audible. God, I hope this isn’t permanent. There was no time to worry about it then.
They started off again toward the cliff face. He got a glimpse of it every now and then. The trees blocked some of the rain, enough for him to strike a path toward the cavern he remembered.
The world around him was strangely mute. Jameson was separated from it by the peculiar, deadening silence. They staggered through the nightmare forest of burned, fallen, and broken trees.
A monster tree trunk crashed directly in their path. Jameson jumped back and pulled Xander hard to the left to detour around it.
At last the cliff face appeared ahead, lining the southern side of the valley. He threw himself forward at a dead run, praying not to be struck down by lightning. God—or the gods?—seemed to favor them. They reached it safely after coming out of the deadly forest. The cliff face was white like chalk, and water was pouring down it in a thundering deluge all along its length. So much water.
Jameson stopped and looked around, casting about for something he recognized.
The standing stones. There were two tall stones that guarded the entrance to the cavern he sought. If he closed his eyes, he could see them, staring blankly into the valley below. His stomach lurched again, and he pushed the memory aside.
The trees had fallen away behind them, leaving them exposed to the full fury of the storm. He could only see a few feet in either direction. If he had to guess….
“This way,” he shouted, but it sounded small and tinny inside his head. He ran along the cliff wall, searching for the standing stones. The entrance was here somewhere. It had to be.
Then the statues materialized out of the rain like ancient sentinels, tall and slender, the rock worn smooth by weather and the ages. Who or what they depicted, he had no idea.
He beckoned his friends to follow, but only Xander was there. “Where are the others?” he mouthed.
Xander looked around wildly. “I don’t know.”
Jameson grabbed Xander’s hand and pulled him inside, plunging through the wall of water that cascaded down across the entrance.
A few more steps and they were out of the rain and inside the safety of the cavern.
LIGHTNING STRUCK ten meters away, and Alix clapped his hands over his ears. It left a strong, acrid smell hanging in the air, fraying his sensitive nerves. God, I hate this world.
Wind howled all around them, and the rain flew by sideways in the semidarkness. They’d come out of the tunnel from near the work camp to reach Titania. Greeted by Alia, who had spotted them far below as the world had shifted, they were all soon swamped by the ferocious storm.
Alix scrambled over the wet rubble, clambering from rock to rock, trying to reach somewhere more stable. He took the lead with Tucker right behind him. Robyn and Alia brought up the rear.
The world—worlds—he had known, Oberon and Titania, were now one. Erro, Robyn had called it.
He couldn’t wrap his head around it. He was a simple soldier, not an astrophysicist, though his mother would have been happier to have him home studying the stars.
He’d seen the Pyramus Mountains before the storm had closed in. It was impossible. They were part of Oberon, not Titania. The Split, where he’d languished for weeks, working in the amalite mines, was gone too.
He shook his head. The skythane had been right about the whole shift thing after all.
Xander was one of those skythane. His beautiful, damaged Xander. Fuck, why’d I ever leave him?
Water trickled down Alix’s back under his shirt. He was a wet mess all over. His clothes were soaked and clammy, and he was miserable. He climbed over another half-shattered boulder, wondering where the hell the four of them were now. This ruined landscape resembled no place he’d visited on either half of Erro.
The ground shook, an ominous rumble filling the air.
Alix looked back. An avalanche was descending upon them. “Ruuuuuun!” Small bits of scree slipped past him, nipping his ankles, as the rest of the slide crashed toward them. Alix scrambled down the broken hillside as the roar built into a crescendo. He slipped, fell, and slid on his ass down the pile of rubble.
Alia sprang into the air, buffeted by the powerful wind, and pulled Robyn, the queen, with her up and out of harm’s way.
Wish I had that option. Alix skidded twenty meters downhill, trying to find purchase in the loose rubble.
The avalanche subsided, leaving him shaken but alive. Thank God. He came to rest against a large boulder and stood, checking his body. Other than a few scrapes and scratches, he seemed to be in one piece.
He stared up the hillside as Alia and Robyn came back to ground. Displeasure was evident on the queen’s face, probably at having to be saved by someone else.
Alia ignored her. “Where’s Tucker?”
Shit. Alix clambered back up the loose slope, ignoring the ache from the various cuts and bruises he’d sustained in the fall. “Tucker!” he called over the rain and wind. They weren’t safe there, but he wouldn’t leave a man behind.
“Alix.” Robyn pointed to the edge of the slide.
One arm and the edge of a red shirt were visible, sticking out from under a large rock. The man’s fingers twitched once and then went still.
Alix looked away. “Goddammit.” He’d seen far worse on the campaign in Gaelan, and he hardly knew the man. Nevertheless, the man had been under his charge. He hated losing someone, and it could just as easily have been him. I’m sorry, Tucker. He knelt and laid a hand on his arm. “Into the void,” he whispered.
“We have to keep going. There’s nothing we can do for him,” Robyn shouted over the howling of the wind. “The Mountain is still settling. We’re not safe here.”
Alix nodded. The Mountain. So that’s where this was? The once-beautiful valley, reduced to a pile of wet, crumbled stone.
He knew where they needed to go. If they could get to where Dani stashed the bi-wings, they might make it to Gaelan once the storm abated. “Come on.” He stood and started back down the broken mountain.
The occupation had started out simply enough, with Dani and her rangers as a support force, there at the will of the king. As the year wore on and the occupation tightened, things had gone downhill. His fellow soldiers were subjected to regular acts of disobedience, small and large, and relations with the wingmen, as the invaders called them derisively, had quickly soured. “Lander-boy,” they’d called him and spat on him, though he was probably about as far from his boyhood as he was from his life’s end.
In the end, some of the OberCorp rangers and enforcers had taken matters into their own hands. More than a couple wingmen lay buried in shallow graves, just outside the city. That was a black time in Alix’s life, one he still regretted.
Dani Black, the leader of the Lander occupation force, had called him into her room. She wanted his help capturing Xander—Prince of the Gaelani—and hadn’t that been a surprise. He knew how to pick ’em.
His left leg was sore. He glanced at the back of his calf. He’d scraped it up on the slide downhill. Something had sliced clean through the material of his trousers. Nothing to do about it at the moment.
His refusal to help Dani had gotten him sent to the mines—days of backbreaking manual labor and nights alone in a cold, dark cell.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember Xander’s touch. The smell of him, the taste of him when they kissed. The arch of his back and the fluttering of his wings as he reached climax. God, he missed that touch.
Now he was free, and in company with two of the skythane—the young woman, Alia, and the Queen of the Gaelani, who had lost her wings. Fate was laughing at him. He would find Xander and apologize for the things he’d done.
They descended another slope of loose scree. The rain was continuous, pouring in heavy sheets.
Robyn lost her footing and slid down the slope past him. Alix grabbed her arm, pulling her back up onto her feet. “Careful.”
She nodded but said nothing in reply. She was cold to him. She had her reasons.
Alix wondered what had happened to the others who’d fled the mines, both on foot and in the escape balloons. Surely they hadn’t fared well in the storm, if they had even managed to escape the Split. If not, they were entombed beneath a couple hundred trillion tons of rock.
They reached the bottom of the slope after another hour. The boulders were more widely placed here, making it easier to get around them, and the howl of the wind lessened slightly.
Robyn’s emerald eyes narrowed. She looked like he was a bug she wanted to squash.
Alia fell in beside him as they navigated the boulder field.
“Where did you come from?” he asked Alia over the sound of the wind and the rain.
“What?” she asked, looking up at him.
She was beautiful enough, with fine features and honey-blonde hair pulled back and tied behind her neck in a long braid. There was a hardness in her brown eyes. She’d seen things that had marked her soul. She had golden wings, though they were damp and matted down with rain and mud.
He’d always had a thing for wings, but his heart belonged to Xander. Maybe, if he were still single…. “Where… did… you… come… from?” he tried again, louder this time.
“Gaelan,” she shouted back with a weak smile.
“I mean, why were you here?”
She shook her head. “What?”
He sighed. It was still too loud for a conversation. He’d have to wait until the storm settled down to get some answers.
He closed his eyes and drifted into a quieter place, holding on to the image of Xander’s face.
I’ll see you again soon.
XANDER STARED at the torrent of water pouring over the cavern entrance. Somewhere out there, Quince and the others were lost in the storm.
“What happened to everyone else?” Jameson shouted, putting his hand on Xander’s shoulder.
“I don’t know. Last I saw them was before the lightning strike.” How had things changed so quickly?
Jameson started toward the exit. “We have to look for them!”
Xander pulled him back.
Jameson’s eyes were wild.
He squeezed Jameson’s hands, trying to reassure him. “Hey, calm down. There’s nothing we can do right now.”
“We already lost Morgan.” Jameson’s eyes pleaded with him. “I can’t lose the rest of them.”
Xander shook his head. “It’s no use. We’ll never find them in this tempest. They’re seasoned veterans. They can take care of themselves. We’ll go looking after the storm passes.” The loss of Morgan weighed on him too, though he was less and less certain that Morgan had been a human boy at all.
Jameson looked doubtful.
Xander felt it too, but there really was nothing they could do. “Hey, it’s gonna be all right.” He pulled Jameson to him, enfolding the two of them with his wings. Jameson was soaked, but Xander didn’t care.
Jameson nodded against his chest. “You’re right. Gods, I know you’re right. I’m sorry. I thought we were done with all this.”
Xander held him out at arm’s length. “Gods, huh? We’re doing the plural thing now?”
Jameson gave him a half smile. “Trying it out? When in Rome….”
“How’s your hearing?”
Jameson cocked his head. “It’s better. But everything sounds muffled.”
Xander nodded. “I can tell.”
Jameson blushed. “Am I talking too loud?”
“Just a little.”
Jameson smiled sheepishly. “It’s weird. It feels like my ears are full of water.”
Xander kissed him gently. “It’ll pass.” He looked around the cavern at last, his eyes gradually adjusting to the dim blue light.
The place was a faeryland, filled with rows of golden stalactites and stalagmites, like the bulwarks of an eldritch castle. Each one was a miracle of minute detail, like candle wax dripped from above. The whole cavern was lit by a turquoise-blue glow.
Xander looked around for the source. It came from pools of water on either side of the cavern. The scintillating light shimmered along the walls, creating complex, ever-changing patterns.
“Look, Jameson… it’s beautiful.” They were both a muddy mess. “We’re stuck here until the storm blows itself out. Why don’t we get cleaned up and try to rest? Then we can figure out what to do next. We have a long flight to Gaelan.” He was still shivering from the rain.
“A bath sounds like heaven.” Jameson let Xander lead him to one of the glowing ponds.
“Do you think it’s safe to go in?” Xander asked, pulling off his boots and testing the water with his toes. It was warm.
Jameson looked queasy, but then he smiled. “They called them faery ponds. There’s a microscopic organism that makes the light. It’s harmless, but beautiful.” He grinned. “Romantic, even.”
Ah, that’s how you knew this place. “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” he said, slowly and clearly, gesturing to indicate Jameson and the cavern. His own generational memories were still fleeting, occasional things.
Jameson’s smile fled. He shrugged. “Not me personally….”
“Shhh. I know.” If he closed his eyes and focused, he could see this place too, but he seemed to be able to block them out when they were inconvenient. “Too many memories.” Xander pointed at his head.
Jameson nodded. He looked relieved. He reached out and pulled Xander close, his hands warm on Xander’s waist.
Xander slipped his arms around Jameson and kissed him once, twice. He wrinkled his nose. “You’re filthy and you stink! So do I.” He held up his shirt as proof. It was covered in mud stains.
Jameson laughed. “We can fix that.”
He helped Jameson unlace the sides of his shirt, pulling it off to reveal the naked skin underneath. Jameson returned the favor, his hands lingering for a moment before withdrawing to pull down his own pants.
They shucked their wet and dirty clothes and descended into the water. It was surprisingly warm, silky and smooth around Xander’s waist.
The pool was about three meters across and sloped down to about a meter deep at the far end. There was a warm, gentle current drifting past Xander’s legs, and the stone beneath his feet had been worn smooth by water and time.
Xander washed the grime off his skin, and it drifted off into the water around him.
Jameson pulled him in deeper and gestured for him to lower his head.
Xander lay in Jameson’s arms, and warm water washed over him, carrying the mud and dirt out of his hair. Jameson massaged his scalp, pulling away the twigs and bits of gunk he’d accumulated on the mad run through the forest in the storm.
Xander’s desire threatened to overwhelm him at Jameson’s gentle touch. He dipped his face into the water and rinsed off. It was so fucking good to get clean.
He shook his head, splashing Jameson, who shot him an aggrieved look.
The look turned into a wicked grin, and Jameson splashed him back. Then they were going after each other and laughing, a fine mist of water flying through the air.
Damn, it’s good to hear you laugh again. Xander grabbed Jameson and kissed him, harder this time, and Jameson’s body responded. They fell back into the water, and Jameson was hard against him, his own need naked before Xander’s desire.
After all that had happened, Xander needed to feel human and alive again. He tugged Jameson back to the shallow part of the pool and pulled his skythane down on top of him, Jameson’s skin warm against his own.
He kissed Jameson’s neck and nibbled on his ear, eliciting a low moan.
Jameson wanted this as much as he did. He could tell.
For a long, slow, ecstatic hour, Xander forgot all about the storm.