Question of Faith
The first thing he was aware of was that the place he was in was cold. The ground was hard, the air was stale, and his body was sore and weak. Gradually he tried to piece together what had happened. He'd been with Psikaris, talking about her business with Isilik, he'd fallen through the ice and been attacked. Then he'd seen some of the creatures swarming around her.
Cameo jerked upright, regretting the motion almost immediately as his head began to spin. "Here, eat," a friendly voice said, approaching from the other side of the room with a plate of some purple discs. It was another Icewalker, though this one looked pale and thin. The discs weren't delicious, but they seemed to take the edge off his hunger and alleviated some of the weakness he felt.
They were in a small room. Three beds and a chamber pot the only items inside. It was lit by some kind of florescent fungus along the edge of the ceiling, which explained why the other's skin looked off. The woman really did look thin, though, probably malnourished.
"You've been out for a week. I was wondering if you'd ever wake up," the woman said.
"A week?" Cameo repeated. That didn't sound right, did it? Then again, he did feel very hungry, and the dampness of the mattress indicated there was some truth in his prolonged sleep. His mind had so many questions, trying to sort everything out.
The woman held out the plate again. "My name is Nora of House Polarin. I'll explain what I can, though I admit it's not much."
"They're called the Yerin," the young man who had identified herself as Seth of House Polarin said. "They live along the route of the trek and prey on the unwary. I have heard that their men are sterile, so they need viable men. They seduce the men to impregnate the Yerin womenfolk."
Psikaris wasn't sure what to make of any of it. She had awakened moments ago in a warm bedroom. There was a fire in one corner, a large bed, and... this man. He had been tending to the fire when she'd groaned and had rushed to her side. It was all so confusing. Where was Cameo? Were they working on seducing him? "Why are you here then? You're male," she said, suddenly voicing the question lingering in the back of her mind.
"My mistress has found a new man to service her," he said with a hint of jealousy. "I assume it's the one that came with you. I also regret to say that they don't have much use for Icewalker women around here. You've been spared because of your condition, but once the children are born..." He looked away, ashamed, leaving her to fill in the blanks.
"Me and any girl children. I see. That doesn't sound very promising," she said. "And where's Cameo now?"
"I don't know. With my mistress, no doubt. I'll try and find out what I can, but it's risky. Try to keep up your energy. You never know," Seth stood and walked out the door, locking it firmly behind him.
She was alone, now. Something didn't feel right about any of this. She was being held captive, naturally, but it didn't add up. There was something she wasn't being told, and it nagged at her. If the men were sterile then there had to be a medical reason. Something in the air, perhaps. And depending on how many generations this had been a problem for, then the species wouldn't be the Yerin anymore, they would be so diluted with Icewalker DNA that they would be Icewalkers.
She crossed the room to the fire and looked at it again. She was missing something, and that lack of knowledge would probably keep her mind occupied for a long long time. Psikaris knew deep down that until she sorted it out, she wouldn't be able to rescue Cameo.
Cameo overturned a bed in anger, as Nora scuttled from the room. Those damned Yerin. Trying to take his bondmate as their slaves. His bondmate and any female children she was carrying. *His* children. Nothing more than baby factories, seduced to their whims or forced into it if they resisted. His blood boiled at the thought. Psikaris loved him, she had a strong will even if it had been shaken lately. He couldn't allow it. He wouldn't allow it.
The door was locked, Nora had seen to it, and he assumed there were guards nearby in any case. The most insulting part was that they were only keeping him alive as a bargaining chip, something to provide Psikaris with incentive to obey. Maybe they would see each other. He needed to let her know he was working on something to rescue them.
But what could he do? His personal possessions were gone, save for his clothes. He was an adequate hand to hand fighter, but without knowing what kind of training or weaponry the Yerin had, his hopes were diminished. The beds might serve as adequate weaponry, if he improvised. Wooden legs, wooden frame, a makeshift rope of blankets. Perhaps he could even sharpen one of the legs to a point.
He didn't want to have to hurt Nora, she had done him no wrong after all. She was a victim, just like all the other Icewalkers he'd seen. She had gotten herself knocked up by her Yerin master and he didn't need her for another several months. Oh, he was sly, he kept saying the right things to her to keep her love strong, but Cameo saw through it. When he got out, he swore, he would get the Icewalker army and purge the area of the oppressors.
"Psikaris?" Seth knocked softly a few hours later. He opened the door and saw her sitting comfortably on the bed. She had been staring at the wall, trying to visualize all the possible reasons the men might be sterile. When she'd grown tired of that, she began speculating on what kind of drugs might be used to ensure compliance from the Icewalker men and whether Cameo's Solarian DNA would help protect him or not. Biological science wasn't her forte, but she had picked up a few things. Her mind was razor sharp and collected data like a vacuum.
"I found Cameo. I'm afraid the process is already begun," he sat down at her feet, not quite touching, but close enough that she felt a little unsettled. The words hit strongly. He said that she had been out for about a week, which was highly unusual. He suspected it might have something to do with the Psion part of her. That was a week in which the Yerin could work their magic on Cameo.
"What do you mean?" she asked. Her feet jumped as he brushed his hand against one, but paid the movement no further mind.
Seth looked furtively at the door and lowered his voice, as though afraid that someone might hear. "I listened through the walls. I heard him say that he needed a strong woman, that he liked having a more experienced lover. I hesitate to say but I believe they were having sex."
Psikaris' heart dropped. The words stinging, they couldn't be true. Not Cameo, he wasn't like that. How often had he assured her that he loved her for who she was, not just the physical aspects, but the whole package. Sure, she wasn't as skilled as some women she knew of in the art of sex, and she had shown weakness in the Isilik mess, but he couldn't have lost that much faith in her...
Faith. The word struck a chord and pieces began falling into place. "This is part of the trek!" she exclaimed aloud. "We're supposed to have our faith in each other tested. It makes sense now. This whole place, the kidnapping, maybe even you."
"Me? I assure you, this is no test. I'm as real as it gets and the sooner you accept your fate the easier the last days will be for you. You won't be seeing Cameo again, I'm certain of it. Lunis doesn't reach this far below the surface," Seth said, standing. "I suggest you rest. I have other duties to perform, I'll see you in the morning."
She watched him go, but her mind kept rolling, weighing the odds of this being something real or not. There were rumours of creatures living out here, but who was to say that they weren't part of it all. Isilik and Psychro had sort of been, so why not these Yerin too? She needed more data to be a hundred percent sure, but she felt like she was getting closer to the truth.
Cameo tried desperately to control his rage. Nora was innocent, and he seemed to be scaring her. She had come in the following morning, or what she claimed was morning. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "It's true. My master made her watch while he slept with me. Then, together we pleasured her. She seemed enraptured by our efforts. She called his name. When the master left I asked her about you and she couldn't even remember your name."
She had been drugged. That was the only logical answer. There was no way that Psikaris would ever succumb like that. Not the Psikaris he knew. Nora threw herself into his arms, sobbing. "I'm sorry," she said. "He treats me so well, but I didn't want to see you hurt. I hoped she would be as strong as you said she was."
He rubbed her back, not knowing what else to do. Anger fought with sorrow. He knew that she would never betray him on her own, but if her mind was being twisted then what could he do? If she didn't even know his name. Nora's lips touched his suddenly, and he yielded to the pressure for a moment, seeking comfort of his own in the warm embrace of another victim. But reality set back in within seconds and he pushed her away. The tears came harder and he forced himself to soften his stance. "I'm sorry. I can't do that. She may have forgotten me, but there's still hope I can undo what they did. I'm going to rescue her, where is she? Take me there!"
"I can't. My master will beat me," she backed away, startled to see that he had produced a very sharp stick.
"I don't want to hurt you, and I'll even rescue you too. But I need to see Psikaris now." His military training helped him move quicker than she when she tried to bolt for the door. He wrapped an arm around her neck and pressed the stake into her back at just the right angle to pierce the heart. "Now."
Psikaris peeked out the door of her cell, glad to see that no one was coming. She needed to think, and the best way she knew to do that was to tinker, let the mind wander. If she was doing that, however, she wouldn't notice someone coming in for a while and they might catch her at it. She had been poking around the room and discovered some kind of monitoring device tucked in the fire place, probably to register anyone sneaking out through the chimney. Letting the fire go out was easy, handling the still warm metallic device was not. She had no tools on her, so even when it popped off the bracket, she didn't really have any way to open it up without damaging it.
She tried improvising with a nail, and found that she was at least able to remove one of the screws holding the thing together. She found it very strange that a species would kidnap her and go through the efforts of keeping her alive just for the sake of the babies she had. Perhaps, they figured, corrupting a child would be easier than an adult, but then why not abduct children from the city? White Fang wasn't that far away, it would be doable if the race were so inclined. They obviously knew enough about the trek, so they must have gleaned city locations from their captives.
And why were these people so familiar looking, not that she'd seen one since coming here. They didn't look that much like Icewalkers, other than a general humanoid appearance. A second screw came loose as she wracked her brain for a memory of who they reminded her of. "Darius," she finally said, aloud. Tycho Lunar was second in line to the throne, until Queen Luna produced an heir, and he was protected by changeling named Darius. It was no secret that Darius was also Tycho's lover, but that didn't really concern her at the moment.
Darius was the product of a genetic experiment, one that had mutated a small winged humanoid creature on the Royal Moon into a larger version. They tended to be a similar green colour, only darker, and had wings. Could they be some kind of racial cousin to the Yerin that had attacked her and Cameo? Evolution might have traded the wings away and lightened the skin, living underground would account for both to some degree.
The lid popped off as the last screw bounced on to the mattress and she caught it before it fell on the floor. It was an interesting hypothesis, and suggested a faint possibility that Seth was one of these creatures, but she needed to make sure before she made that kind of statement. If she were wrong he might perceive that he had lost her trust, and he was the closest thing she had to a source at the moment. She needed him, just in case she was wrong.
It was a good thing that Nora didn't know him very well. All she saw was a desperate man, determined to rescue his wife. Cameo was smart enough to know that he couldn't kill her for two reasons; one was that she was innocent in this, and two was that she was the only one who knew where Psikaris was. She might also know a way out, but he would worry about that later.
The halls were barren as they walked. The stone had been smoothed somewhat on the sides, and the floor was worn from use, but evidence of traffic was non-existent. Cameo kept his hand on her shoulder, but eased the spike from her back. He was quick enough that he could put it back if he needed, and she knew it.
They came to a halt outside a thick wooden door, and she looked at him with wide eyes, pleading him to change his mind. "Open it," he said simply.
What he saw when it opened was something that would stick in his mind forever. Psikaris, lay naked on a large bed in a position he would never have imagined her being in. For an instant, before she opened her eyes, she looked more content than he had ever seen her, and that included the time she had received the technical manual to the Ice Sabre ship a month before any tech had a chance to see it. The eyes fluttered open and she screamed, hastily covering herself with a blanket. "Who are you? Get out!"
The words hurt more than any physical blow he'd ever been dealt. Nora had told him that she didn't remember his name, but he had hoped that she was either wrong, or that it had been an act. He started forward and stopped, she might attack him, and he would be unable to fight back. "It's me, Cameo; your bondmate. I've come to rescue you?"
"My what? Why would I ever bond with you? And why would I ever want to leave? I'm happy here, for the first time in my life I'm truly happy," she said. She moved to a seated position, blankets wrapped tightly around her.
"Please remember. I don't know what they've done to you, but you have to remember. We're on our trek. Those are my babies you're carrying," he said. He wanted to go to her, try anything he could think of to make her remember.
"Wait. I faintly remember. You were my first, weren't you?"
"Yes," he said hopefully.
"The one I had to fake an orgasm for? With the small penis?"
"You heard. You were inadequate. Sorry," Psikaris shrugged and nodded slightly. Nora deftly reached around with a chemical infused cloth. He had completely forgotten his prisoner in his rush to get to Psikaris. He saw the ground rushing up towards him as he blacked out again.
Psychro threw the covers off and walked to the bathroom, splashing cool water across his face. Another blasted nightmare. He'd been having them every day since he and Tug Mug had returned to White Fang. He had foolishly hoped that his part in Psikaris' trek was over with, but he had a sneaky feeling that this was part of it. Something to test his patience or some nonsense like that.
Faintly he heard Tug Mug's bed creak as the Graviton rolled over. "Another one?" his voice echoed towards the bathroom.
"Yeah. Go back to sleep."
"Try and keep eet down, next time," Tug Mug grumbled. It was easy for him to do. His sleep wasn't haunted by images that he couldn't forget. Tonight Psikaris was stranded, leg broken and leaving a trail of blood as she tried to follow after Cameo. He didn't know where Cameo was going and, given the nature of dreams, it probably wasn't important. A polar bear stumbled across the trail, and followed it to the helpless meal. It pawed at her, catching a leg and pulling her into its maw.
Psychro could still hear the crunch of bone it had made, which set his stomach on end. The dreams had been similar the last week. Vivid images of Psikaris in trouble. Only once had he seen Cameo in trouble too. The first time he had begged Snoeya to let him search for her, to verify that she was still alive, but she denied him.
It was frustrating, this feeling of helplessness, and the lack of sleep wasn't helping matters. He walked determinedly to his bag and produced a bottle of hard liquor, he'd found it waiting in his room when he'd gotten back and was amused because it was the same kind he'd consumed in his meeting with Lunis. The brandy went down smooth and he managed to fall back asleep.
It was night, or so her body told her. Psikaris was awake in bed, the bits of machinery tucked beneath the mattress for safekeeping. An Icewalker learned to tell the time of day through an internal clock and by the natural feel around them. She found that in her home of Froston Ridge, that the mountain was warmer at night after the heat of day had seeped through. It was harder to gauge here, though.
Seth had not returned, as he had promised, so she knew it couldn't be morning yet. He was with his master, if he was to be believed. At present she didn't. The more she thought about it, the more certain she was that she was right. She just needed one more piece of evidence, and had a good idea of how to get it.
"Drat," Cameo groaned, rolling on to his side. He'd been dumped unceremoniously back in his room, the beds had been removed and there was no one around. He'd blown his chance of escape, and yet he would do it again. Psikaris still needed him, even if she barely remembered him. But he would have to do things a little differently next time. He couldn't afford to waste his next opportunity lest they decide he was too much bother to keep alive.
Who had brought him here? Nora wouldn't have had the strength to carry him alone, nor remove the beds. Had Psikaris helped? Had they contacted the Yerin and they had moved him here?
But then why was he still alive? Nora had said something about being kept alive to keep Psikaris behaved. That certainly didn't seem to be a requirement anymore, what with whatever drugs they'd pumped her full of. It nauseated him to think about what they might be doing to her now.
Footsteps. There was nothing he could use as a weapon, but he had been trained to fight. Cameo got to a crouch and tensed himself, bracing to attack whomever came in. Psikaris, Nora, and six of the Yerin, holding the girls in front of them. "You tried to escape, Cameo of House Mymekon," one of the green skinned creatures said. Their voices sounded as though they weren't used to speaking native Icewalker. "We must punish you. One of these two will be beaten for your transgression. Choose."
His eyes widened. "What? No. Beat me instead," he said.
"Choose one, or we beat them both."
The words served to enrage him. He couldn't ask for anyone to pay for his crimes, it didn't make sense. There were six of them, and they had hostages between them. He figured he might be able to take a few of them out before he was overwhelmed, and that depended greatly on whose side the women were on. But what if he failed? The question rattled in his head. He didn't think the Yerin would kill the women, they were too valuable for that. But they might kill him. Psikaris would be spared a beating, but she would be a helpless prisoner forever. Was this why so many couples failed the trek? Abductions?
"Choose her! You claim you love me," Psikaris said, startling him. It didn't sound like anything he had ever heard her say before.
"What? She insulted you, she betrayed you. Take your revenge!" Nora said.
"I'm not choosing at all. I'm not taking the blame for what you do. But know that if you hurt either one of them, I will hurt you in return," Cameo growled.
One of the Yerin clubbed Nora in the back with a metal rod, causing her to fall to her hands and knees. He didn't get a second strike, as Cameo flew over her prone body at the man. He punched the man hard in the head and tried to get to his feet quickly to deal with the others.
"Fool!" Another Yerin said, as he and his mates began hitting Cameo with their batons. They pulled him off their fallen brother and dragged him to the wall. They clamped manacles around his wrists, manacles he didn't remember being there before, and savagely alternated between victims, clubbing Nora and Psikaris repeatedly until both were crying for mercy. Then, just as suddenly, the Yerin dragged their prisoners out, leaving Cameo alone again.
His own tears streamed down his face as he hung limply. Two innocents, suffering on his behalf. These Yerin were evil, and he swore to Lunis that he would kill them all for what they'd done. Never again would anyone have to be put through what he had just witnessed.
Psychro glanced at the clock. It was a little after nine in the morning, which probably signalled about as much sleep as he was going to get. At least this time he wasn't waking up in a cold sweat. In fact, his sleep had been completely dream free since the previous wake-up call. Tug Mug was still snoring soundly, the kind of snore that could cause an avalanche, and Psychro let him be. The hefty Lunatak was having a miserable stay, thanks to the increasing frequency of his roommate's nightmares. It was so bad that they had talked about trying to find separate lodgings.
He didn't really want to admit it, but there was something comforting about waking up to find someone you knew in the room. An attractive woman would be better, as Psychro had no desire to snuggle Tug Mug, but he was denying himself that too. All this effort for Chilla, a woman who probably wouldn't even put out for him. She was only going out with him the one time because she had promised, and she'd only made that promise as a means to shut him up. She couldn't possibly have expected him to fulfill the conditions of their agreement. But he had, and Mandora had been a memorable partner, he still had a copy of the holographic image hidden somewhere safe, with the original on its way to Third Earth so Chilla could see it.
"I must be feeling rested," he thought to himself. "I'm thinking of Chilla instead of Psikaris." He dressed quickly and made his way to the temple of Lunis. Hopefully there would be an update of some kind.
She must have fallen asleep again. Psikaris opened her eyes and found that Seth had returned. He was sitting by the fire, stoking it to warm the room. "You shouldn't have taken it," he said softly. "They're bound to notice sooner or later." She knew what he was talking about, the device from the fireplace.
"I was curious. I hoped to learn more about the Yerin with it," she replied simply, watching him closely, looking for anything to prove her theories right. Was his skin off? Were his eyes? His mannerisms?
"Why do you make your last months of life so uncomfortable? Enjoy it while you can. Take advantage of the opportunity to rest and relax. If they think you're too much bother, they might hurt you; there are things they could do to you that wouldn't hurt your children," he said. He walked over to the bed and settled beside her. Ever so gently he took her hand and caressed the smooth skin. "You know, my master doesn't have much use for me right now. I could make your time here much more enjoyable."
A contrast of emotions tried to find their way to her face. Pleasure at having been proven right about something, and disgust that he would try so blatantly to seduce. It had come to her in a flash, that the Yerin were tied to the trek somehow. It was a controlled environment, where they could prey on their subjects' minds without too many unknown variables. If that were true, then Seth had to either be a shape changing Yerin or an Icewalker in the employ of them. Part of the trek's purpose was to test the love between couples, which likely meant seduction. Why else send a male to keep her company?
Luckily, since she'd worked that much out for herself, she knew how to exploit it for her own purposes, to further her theory. She pretended to be tempted, though it wasn't a very good acting job, leaning towards him as though about to kiss him, but jerked away suddenly. Psikaris stood and walked over to the fireplace. "I... I can't. Not while there is hope that Cameo and I might be re-united. Do you suppose that I could see him? Even once?" she asked. "My body aches for your touch, but my heart. If he is truly under your master's spell, my heart would break." It sounded hokey, and she was surprised if she managed to say it with anything resembling a straight face, but Seth seemed to consider it.
"I will try, Psikaris. I will try."
Tug Mug bounced into a local bar, the same bar he'd frequented at least once a day so far. Today there was a Graviton woman, a strange sight to see in this neck of the woods. Despite their extra mass providing natural warmth, Gravitons didn't tend to frequent the Ice Moon. A holy city such as this made it doubly unlikely to see one. He produced two of the finest beers on tap and wheeled over to her. "Hello there, what brings a lovely woman like you to a place like thees?" he asked, admiring her ample waistline.
She smiled at him, the shocking yellow lipstick contrasting with the pink and green hair. "I'm looking for a friend. I was told he came to thees city, and I figured a bar was a good place to start."
"Well, I could be your friend too," Tug Mug replied, pouring on the charm, while trying to remember a pick-up line that he had heard Psychro use once. It had gotten him a Darkling woman whom Tug Mug had been eyeing himself. "I was told that friends are like stars, each one lights up your life, and I would like to do that for you."
"That sounds similar to a line I told my friend, only eet's mangled a little. His name's Psychro," she said.
"What do you know? I'm his roommate here. I don't know where he's gotten to, but you can wait for him there. They call me Tug Mug, but you can call me whatever you like," he consumed his beer.
"Heavy Bevy," she replied. "Tell you what, I'm staying in the city with a friend that ees eager to meet him. Give him my room number, and maybe while they get together, you and I can get together." She jotted something down on a slip of paper and handed it to him. Tug Mug grinned. He was going to get lucky tonight!
The minutes ticked by so slowly. Cameo wasn't sure how long he'd been there, but it felt like an eternity. Nora had just left, refusing to speak a word, showing no signs of hearing him when he begged for forgiveness. She looked awful, she wore the bare minimum of clothes, exposing her mottled skin. Cuts and bruises, each one standing out for him to see, each caused, indirectly, by him.
He had tried to explain to her that it wasn't his fault, that he hadn't wanted her to get in trouble, and that he would do anything to help her escape, but she wouldn't hear it. She went about her work, feeding him, cleaning his own injuries with a wet rag, and then left. There was little else to do. His heart ached, realizing that if she looked like that, then Psikaris probably didn't look much better.
"Still nothing," Psychro said over the screen to Luna. "They won't even let me go check on them. About all Snoeya says is that they probably aren't dead. Can't you do something?" He wasn't sure why he was trying this angle. He and Luna weren't exactly good friends, only barely casual acquaintances through Psikaris and Cameo, but he was growing desperate.
The look she gave him on the other side of the screen revealed that she was thinking the same thing. "I could probably order her, but why? The Icewalkers are loyal to me, and I don't need religious pressures coming down on me. Suck it up and go get laid. Oh wait, you can't, Chilla's not there. And if you do see Cameo, tell him that Artemyn is doing a great job. I might not need them to come back at all."
She terminated the connection. Those last lines had been intentionally barbed because she knew it was bugging him. Luna took pleasure in making people miserable, he thought, especially when they owed her. And ending the communication meant that she was guaranteed to get the last word. With nothing else to do, he went back to the bar.
"Heavy Bevy? What's she up to?" Psychro said aloud when Tug Mug told him the news. The woman herself had gone a half hour ago, and Tug Mug had accumulated several empty mugs.
"Who ees she?" the Graviton asked, barely seeming to show any effects of alcohol. That was one thing that had always astonished Psychro, the capacity for holding their liquor. It was the reason that his brandy was hidden in a locked box.
But the question dredged up memories, from his more promiscuous days. "She's the president of my fanclub. Psychro's Gals is an organization of women who have either slept with me or want to sleep with me. Don't ask, I had nothing to do with it." He wasn't sure who had started the group, or how Heavy Bevy had become president. All he knew was that one day he'd gotten a letter from them, offering their services if he ever found himself on a dry spell. "She sent me a message one day, said that she'd heard of my prowess, offered her services, and I was so flattered that I slept with her without giving it a second thought. We've got a daughter somewhere, Rathja. Cute kid from what I'm told. I keep meaning to check up on her but I haven't yet."
"Really? I knew you had a keed, but a Graviton one? Congratulations!" Tug Mug said, clapping Psychro across the back and finishing the salute with a swig of beer.
He didn't see the pained look flash across Psychro's face. Even after all these years, Icilia still haunted him. Coming from a family that looked down on crossbreeds, she had taken her life rather than carry his child to term. But no one knew about her, other than Psikaris.
"So. You going to see who she's brought to see you? Maybe eet's Rathja." Tug Mug looked hopefully at his friend, and Psychro groaned. What Tug Mug was really asking was for Psychro to give him the room for his meeting with Heavy Bevy for a few hours. Graviton mating rituals were something else, which he knew first hand, and often left quite the mess. Heavy Bevy had probably brought some woman along that was desperate to sleep with him, and he would have to find a way to turn her down but make it last several hours.
"I guess so," he finally said reluctantly. After all he'd put Tug Mug through the last couple of days, he probably owed it to him. The Graviton's face lit up, telling him that it was all worthwhile.
With a little more tinkering, Psikaris felt confident that the monitoring device could be used to her advantage. If she could trick it into thinking that she was still inside the room, she might be able to slip out up the chimney, assuming her plan didn't work. It had to work. Seth had been gone for a while now, more than enough time to convince his master to bring Cameo to her. If she was right, an opportunity to escape would present itself.
Footfalls indicated people were coming, and there was more than one set this time. The monitoring device went back under the mattress just in time, as the door opened. Seth ducked in first, followed by Cameo and a Yerin. The last, she assumed, was a woman based on how Cameo fawned over her. "Cam!" she said, starting to rise.
"Tell her, my love," the Yerin said, stroking Cameo's chest. He was clad only in a thin pair of pants, not any of the clothes she remembered seeing him in. Then again, that would be expected if his only duty was to impregnate his master.
"I'm sorry, Psikaris, but it's over between us. We thought it might help you adjust to hear it from me. What we had was alright, but frankly it wasn't worth the wait. I got what I wanted out of you, just like your brother said, and I watched you blubber over killing Isilik. How pathetic is that? I'd like to say it's been nice knowing you, but I don't like lying," Cameo said, leaning in and kissing the Yerin tightly on the lips.
"Come dear. I want to show you a position that the prude in there wouldn't even think of." The two walked out, closing the door behind them.
"I knew it. Nice try, Yerin," Psikaris said quietly, watching them leave through the tiny window in the door.
"What do you mean?" Seth asked, causing her to jump. She'd forgotten for a moment that he was in the room. But now that she had her evidence, she could use it to verify his identity.
"The Yerin. They're shape changers," she watched his expression carefully now. He had moved to the side of the bed and stood with a confused look. "I've suspected it for a while, it makes sense. There's a changeling on the Royal Moon that looks very similar to them, and that fake Cameo only proves it. The walk was different, there's a small scar on his chest that the imposter didn't get quite right and, most importantly, I called him by a nickname that he hates. If that had been the real Cameo he'd have reacted negatively to being called 'Cam' which proves that that wasn't the real Cameo."
"Maybe he ignored it," Seth stammered.
"Right, and I think you're one too. What happened to the real Seth?"
"You've gone crazy. I am the real Seth." He inched towards the door, and she knew she had him, but she didn't budge from her spot in front of the door.
"Prove it. House Polarin. That's in the Dagger Mouth Ridge; I've been there recently. Who's in charge of House Iespyk? Which direction does the main entrance point? How many stars are on your family's coat of arms?"
"I don't remember. I've been here for seven years. You have to let me go by. My master will wonder if I'm not back soon."
"She'll be busy with Cameo, remember? He has good stamina, she won't notice for at least ten more minutes. Long enough for me to do what must be done." Psikaris flew towards him, catching him off-guard and pinning him to the bed. She held him in place with her body and reached beneath the mattress for the device. She had noticed that one side had an edge that she could use, and she held it against his neck. "I have a theory that cutting your throat won't kill you. Shall I test it?"
He stopped struggling beneath her, seeing in her eyes how serious she was. Psikaris couldn't help but feel a little pleased with herself, and wondered if Isilik's death had helped or hindered her here. Gradually his skin turned green, and his horns turned into stubby antennae. She watched him closely in case he decided to attack, but figured that he wouldn't. His disguise had been pierced and he looked defeated. "It's usually the woman who figures it out first," he said, his voice croaking. "You're right. Your faith in yourself and in Cameo has served you well. Your trek is not over yet, but you have accomplished a lot."
Psikaris stepped away, now convinced that he was no further threat. "I don't know how we came to the Ice Moon, but we Yerin were found and saved by Lunis, who helped us settle in these caverns. Out of gratitude to her we continue to serve her, testing many couples as they come through our lands. We tempt them, offer them what we think they desire most, try to tear them apart. Most succeed, those who succumb we are forced to kill. It is a distasteful thing, but Lunis commands. You have seen through the veil more quickly than most, I'm impressed. Your bondmate on the other hand." She heard the hesitation in his voice and tried to control the anxiousness inside.
She had been so focussed on her own immediate escape, and the theories, that she hadn't stopped to wonder whether Cameo was going through similar experiences. Oh, she'd thought about rescuing him, but it had never occurred to her that his faith in her would be equally tested. "Is he okay?" she asked, finding her voice.
"He is. We have found him to be far more aggressive, although..." here the Yerin rubbed his throat, "you bear the same warrior spirit. He has been wounded, though not severely. You must find him on your own, but finding him will lead to your next challenge. We will not hinder you the rest of the way, you are free to go."
The Yerin started to walk away, but paused. "To answer the other question you have, the real Seth and Nora of House Polarin were a real couple. We captured them and brought them here. He succumbed to the temptations of another woman, and she gave in to the greed of untold riches. I remember when we killed them. Such promise in them, but so much corruption. Don't grieve for them."
Far away, in the city of White Fang, Psychro found himself face to face with an incredibly beautiful woman. She was lean but muscular, very well endowed and had shoulder length white hair. He gulped hard, as his eyes travelled up and down her body of their own free will. She wore dark blue tights, which showed off her strong legs, and a loose white top that showed more cleavage than was decent. "I'm so glad you came," she said. Her voice was husky and rough, but he loved it. "My name is Ciffla, I've heard a lot about you, please come in."
"Look Ciffla, I don't know what you've heard, but I'm committed to another woman at the moment," he said, finding it hard to concentrate with her moving around the room. For a woman who presumably hadn't been here long, she had an inordinate amount of underwear strewn about. The room, was clean on the front half (other than the underwear) and filthy on the other. That was the Heavy Bevy he remembered.
"Oh? And what is it you think I want?" she asked, pausing while holding the skimpiest bra he'd ever seen. It was his favourite colour too, purple.
He gulped hard, trying hard not to imagine her trying to fit into that garment. "Well, Heavy Bevy said that you wanted to see me," he stammered.
"I do. I'm an admirer of yours, but I don't just throw myself on top of any reasonably handsome man. I'm not that easy." She finished putting the underwear away, inevitably in a suitcase on the floor that she had to bend over to get into.
He knew the signs, he just couldn't explain it right now. Over the years, he had learned to read women by their body language, by their dialect, by every minute facial expression. She wanted him but figured she had to save face, or play hard to get. She thought it would work, and if it weren't for Chilla... Hell, even with Chilla glowering in his mind he was finding it hard to resist. He wanted to pull down those tights and take her while she was still bent over. He wanted to take large handfuls of that ripe ass and... No! He couldn't do that. He might enjoy it once, but Chilla would kill him. If he could resist sleeping with a goddess then...
A lightbulb turned on, even as Ciffla turned around and deliberately wet her lips. The body, the outfit, even the name was designed to subtly remind him of Chilla. "Very clever, Lunis," he said.
In a wink Ciffla was replaced with Lunis' goddess of love incarnation. "Just keeping you honest. You'll be pleased to know that Psikaris has passed a major test, but the hardest is yet to come. I suggest you stay here tonight. Your roommate is going to be very busy tonight."
Tug Mug stared up at the ceiling, wondering exactly how he was going to get the salsa stains down. It hardly mattered. Heavy Bevy had been incredible, working his 'fourth wheel' as only another Graviton could. And she wasn't done yet, either.
Cameo reflected back on his childhood in an effort to take his mind off his current situation to calm down. He'd had a pleasant life on the whole, with only the usual rigours to gripe about. His mother had loved him dearly, she still did, and he suspected most of his aunts and uncles had too in their way. Icewalkers could be harsh on the young, both punishments and rewards being at the extremes of the spectrum. He could remember one uncle who had been upset that Cameo had lost a fight to a member of an inferior House and had added a vicious beating to try and motivate him to do better the next time. But then there was the time his mother had made him a batch of his favourite cookies for just getting accepted into the pilot program.
His family meant a lot to him. Even those beatings had helped instill a strange sense of honour in him. It showed that, in their warped way, they cared about what he did. And, in reflecting, it prepared him for the real world, the swirl of politics and intrigue that went on daily. While he hadn't enjoyed the beatings, and still resented them, he understood why they'd been dealt him.
He wouldn't be like that to his own children. If he ever saw them or Psikaris again. "Well, that didn't work," he mused out loud. He was calmer now, but was still dwelling on those he loved, wherever they were. There was noise outside, and he hoped it wasn't the Yerin; he didn't think he could face those creatures right now. His body was still sore from where they had applied their batons. "Karis!" he said, surprised. She looked beautiful and strangely unharmed.
"There you are. I've been looking all over for you. It would have been nice if they'd given me a map or something." She seemed to recognize him now, causing him to wonder if maybe the drugs had worn off. Either way, he wasn't going to complain. She came over and began fiddling with the shackles.
"Look, about earlier. I'm sorry, I had nothing to do..." he started, as she put a finger to his lips.
"Hold that thought. I think I've got a lot more explaining than you do," she caught him as the second shackle came loose and helped him to the ground.
"We have to hurry and get out of here!" he tried to stand, but she held him in place.
"Trust me. We're safe for now." And those words alone stopped him. He did trust her, more than she would ever know. Slowly, Psikaris began explaining things, from their capture and her experiences with the Yerin. Everything that Seth had said and done, including the arrival of the fake Cameo. As she talked, pieces of his own adventure slid into place. She was right, obviously. If this was part of the trek then it explained the faux-Psikaris, Nora's reactions, everything. But even with that explanation, it did make him wonder why they had started in such different situations. Did the Yerin really alter their tests for each person in a couple? What was it based on? Personality? At least Lunis had listened to his prayers, keeping Psikaris safe when he couldn't do it.
He'd sworn to her that he would kill all the Yerin too, he wondered if he was released from that promise. "Now what?" He wondered, after he had told his version of the events and she allowed to stand finally. He was tired, but felt a surge of adrenaline at seeing his bond mate unharmed.
"Now we try and find a way out of here. It shouldn't be that hard, unless that's a test too," Psikaris brushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and opened the door.
Sitting in her office, high in the city of White Fang, Snoeya received the status report from her goddess. Lunis tried not to take too active a role in the lives of her people, but found it too tempting more often than not. The trek was one of those things that she had established to give herself an excuse. The other gods, she knew, would not take kindly if she interfered in her warrior aspect, but rarely said anything about the love role. Even still, Snoeya knew that Lunis had a small cadre of elite champions at her beck and call, people who sidestepped the realm of the dead to stay with her.
Snoeya hoped most couples would succeed, and was always saddened when she heard that they hadn't, but Psikaris and Cameo had seemed especially in love, and she hoped a little harder that they would come through, so news that they were progressing well pleased her.
The tunnels seemed to go on forever, but at least they seemed to be travelling in a general upwards direction. At length they arrived at a fork in the tunnel. Psikaris groaned. Up until now the choices had been easy. The two bedrooms had been more or less on a major thoroughfare, and she suspected that they were being guided. As she had pointed out to Cameo, a place like this was bound to have branching tunnels, so it stood to reason that the Yerin had the capability to block them off when needed. Possibly there were ever other couples within this place; that thought had given them both pause.
After that, both she and Cameo had started looking at the walls a little more closely, and had found one or two places that looked like they might be false doors. They had been unable to hear anything on the other side though.
"You've got to be kidding," Psikaris said, walking over to the spot where the two tunnels met. "A coin?" The coin was gold, and bore her own face on one side and Cameo's on the other.
"So we can put our faith in Lunis to guide us, I guess," Cameo said.
"Or so we can test Lunis, making her choose for us," Psikaris replied. "If I was a goddess I'd pick the opposite just out of spite."
"I think you're beautiful enough to be a goddess," Cameo said, causing Psikaris to roll her eyes. She didn't think that Lunis would take the comment as a slight, and would instead see it as the hokey remark that it was. She herself appreciated it, just didn't think it was the right place for flattery. "So do we flip it then? It's a nice little souvenir either way."
"We can if you want. I just don't think we should assume that Lunis is going to guide it either way."
"Well, if you don't want to do it then let's not."
"You're allowed an opinion," she said, probably a little more harshly than she'd intended, as she slipped the coin into her pocket.
"I do have one. I just..." he stopped, his ears picking up a faint noise. "Let's take the left. I hear something."
Psychro's sleep was surprisingly restful. He was sitting at a bar floating on an iceberg. The scenery drifted past him, and it was quite peaceful. There was no one else around, not even a bartender, but the drinks kept coming anyway. It didn't make much sense, but then his experience told him that dreams weren't supposed to. It was a welcome change from the haunting nightmares of nights past, and even from the horrific mental image of what Tug Mug and Heavy Bevy were up to. She'd been wild when they'd met, and had shown him how many different erotic uses there were for butter. He'd never touched the stuff since.
The tunnel veered left and ended overlooking a vast cavern. It was from the cavern that the noise was coming from. Below were cages filled with people and things. Cameo couldn't see what was in them very well, but the place sent shivers up his spine. A path led from the ledge down to the ground floor. Stepping out from the rock itself, a Yerin approached. It didn't appear hostile, but Cameo still felt anger welling up from his previous dealings. "This is the maze of truth. Each cage represents someone or something in your lives. You will be asked about your own possessions or about your partner's. Answer honestly and no harm will come to you, and you will be permitted to leave our home and continue your quest. Answer wrongly and there will be dire consequences. I suggest you rest here for a while, food and drink will be provided."
He produced more of the purple discs and a jug of water, before vanishing back into the rock. "I wonder what kind of consequences he means," Cameo said, peering more closely from the ledge. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he could see his ship sitting in one of those cages, as well as a statue of some kind. There were faint voices below, as well as the cry of children.
Psikaris offered one of the discs and crunched on her own. "I don't think we want to find out," she replied.
"You and Psikaris are twins, and as such your fates are entwined. Your success depends on her, and hers depends on you. If one dies, the other dies too." Lunis' words to Psychro ran through her head while she ate what was left of their food. Psikaris wondered if that was still true. Psychro had certainly passed a part of the test, one where her life hung in the balance. If the goddess had phrased it that way, then the opposite was bound to be the case. "Dire consequences." Those words could mean anything, but they could also mean the loss of life.
She had no illusions that things were going to be easier. If this was going to be a test of honesty, and knowledge of Cameo she supposed, then it was going to be much more complicated than "Does Cameo like eggs for breakfast?"
They had eaten some, and then drifted off to sleep, deciding that tackling this challenge with a clear head was the way to go. Her internal clock had been warning her that it was past midnight anyway, so they'd needed the rest. If she was right, it was a little after eight outside. Across the cavern she could see light filtering in from the distant exit, and suspected that she was.
"Let's get this over with," Cameo said, offering his hand. She accepted gracefully and they began wending their way to the bottom.
Psikaris assumed that there was some kind of logic to the way the cages were laid out. The first set of cages were filled with magazines. 'Engineer Weekly' and 'The New Mechanical Institute' including the latest issue of the former on top. Psikaris considered briefly reaching through the bars to obtain it, but figured that might violate the test, tempting as it was.
"Cameo," a woman's voice said. Psikaris didn't see the speaker, nor could she tell if it had been spoken aloud or directly into their heads. "Which is Psikaris' favourite?"
She assumed that giving Cameo the answer would be cheating. It was a fairly easy one though, especially since she had written more than one article for the latter in the past. Come to think of it, she'd even been talking to him about how TNMI was much better written before they'd left for the Ice Moon. Whether Cameo remembered that or not, she didn't know, but he did know the answer. "The New Mechanical Institute," he said. The cage holding those issues vanished, allowing them to step through.
The next set were opposite each other. One contained a mug of beer, the other had a cup of coffee. "Psikaris. Which would Cameo rather drink while relaxing at home?"
It was a curious thought. He didn't really drink much of either, preferring water generally, but she had seen him puttering around the house with both. He did drink coffee in the mornings before work, but that was mostly for the caffeine. Beer, on the other hand, was more of a relaxant for after a hard day of working. "The beer?" she said, a little nervously. She hoped that getting such a silly question wrong wouldn't lead to death. She didn't know how she would die, but that sounded like a stupid way to go. Luckily she was right, and that path became open to them.
The cavern went on like that for a long time. And the questions got progressively harder. If he thought that choosing between inanimate objects was hard, he struggled when the objects began representing aspects of his life; sex life over wealth, career over childhood memories and so forth. And when it came to answering questions on Psikaris' behalf, it became even harder. Luckily, perhaps, the penalties at this early stage didn't seem to be too harsh. He'd received a minor electric shock for not knowing that her favourite colour was black, and she had gotten a slightly more harsh one for thinking that he would prefer to fight Darklings to Psions. But as the cages moved from the inanimate to the abstract he saw cages of people coming and that, he suspected, was where things would get more complicated.
"Cameo." His head jerked up. Before him were two statues of Lunis, one in each of her forms, and each seemed to speak. "Which is my more important form?"
"That's easy," he replied. "Your lover form. If everyone loved one another there would be no need for your other side." He wasn't sure why he'd felt compelled to elaborate, but the statues seemed to smile in response, as the left one vanished.
Now they were faced with a quartet of children, two boys and two girls clutching the bars of their respective cells. "Psikaris," they said, in childlike voices instead of the voice of Lunis that they had become accustomed to. "If both your children are the same, which would you rather have. Boys or girls."
"It doesn't matter to me," she started to say, even as a wracking pain came over her. Cameo caught her and helped her to the ground. Watching her in pain was equally agonizing for Cameo. He held her tight against his shoulder, stroking her hair and trying to sound calming. "Fine. Boys," she said, and the pain subsided.
"Really?" Cameo asked. He tended to agree with her that it didn't matter, he would love his children no matter what gender they were. They could be purple, have seven tentacles and three eyes and he would love them unconditionally, but he did secretly hope for one of each.
"Yes. I've heard that boys are easier to raise, and I'm not going to be 'mother of the year' or anything so..." she trailed off as he helped her to her feet. That would be a conversation for another day. He had confidence that she would do fine, even if she had little faith herself. Maybe that was the purpose of this maze, to help couples learn more about their partners, both in their answers and how they perceived their partner.
He couldn't help but wonder how many couples had found their perceptions of their partner change as a result of this series of questions, would that count as a failure? It didn't matter; his love for her couldn't be broken. As before the correct cage melted away leaving Cameo with a clear image of his mother and Queen Luna. "Cameo. Would you sacrifice the lives of those you love for the sake of the empire?" The two women asked.
The question boggled his mind. On the one hand, without the empire what would his family do? Many of them would be lost trying to adapt on another planet, as Lunataks weren't generally well loved. But then an Icewalker was supposed to be loyal to both the empire and their family, to many the empire was their family. But Cameo disagreed. He loved the crown, respected Luna's rulership even, but not at the expense of the people he cared about. "No. I would find a way to revitalize the empire with my family," he said, grateful when his mother's cage vanished.
There were two set left, and in the final pair he could see images of himself and Psikaris. He didn't know what that meant, just hoped that he would get the question. Psikaris was still feeling the effects of the last punishment, and he didn't think she could withstand another barrage. The set before them was probably hers, as it contained Lunis and Psychro. "Psikaris. Which is more important to you, your faith or your brother?"
Guided by the voice of Lunis, a green clad woman stepped through the halls of White Fang. She passed people along the way, but they did not seem to notice her. And rightly so. She had died sixty-two years ago fighting Mutants on the planet Plundarr. She was one of Lunis' champions, called to action after all these years. There was a duty to perform, a simple killing if the call came. She didn't ask her goddess questions, that wasn't her place.
"What answer do you want?" Psikaris said. "You probably want me to pick you over him, but that's not the truth. In my darkest times, it's been Psychro that was there for me. He's the one that comforted me and kept me safe, not you. Far too easy a decision."
The statue of Lunis seemed to chuckle and stepped out of her cage. In a heartbeat Psikaris wondered if she had pushed things too far with her statements. The statue waved an arm and the image of Psychro sleeping soundly appeared, he had always been a late sleeper. Beside him stood a woman in green, with a pistol drawn and pointed at his head. She tried crying out a warning to him, but he didn't hear. "That was too easy a decision, let's make it a little more difficult. Whose life do you value more, Psychro's or Cameo's?"
Her mouth went dry, staring as the statue of the goddess drew a stone sword to point at Cameo. She wasn't being serious, was she? Lunis wasn't asking her to choose which one of these men in her life would die, was she? The gods could do as they pleased, and mortals could not control them. "If you kill either of them," she said slowly, her eyes burning with tears. She was trying to control what words came out of her mouth, knowing that she could well lose everything. "There may not be anything I can do to stop you, but my devotion to you will be irreparably destroyed."
"And what can you do to me, child? Your faith in me is weak to begin with, perhaps you'd like to pick another god? Cyris, perhaps, the god of your Psion half? Choose one, the sword inched forward, pressing tightly against Cameo's chest. One thrust and he would be dead, there was little doubt.
"Save him. He's flesh and blood," Cameo started, but the sword's point broke through the flimsy fabric of his shirt and drew a thin drop of blood.
"Apparently he's made of flesh and blood too," Lunis smiled.
Psikaris was barely paying attention though. Her mind was whirling through the possibilities, weighing the possible outcomes. She was smart, she knew that she could figure a way out if she tried. It all hinged on whether Lunis was being honest herself, would she kill the 'loser' or was this a bluff. She had never actually said that she would, it was merely implied. "What happens to the one I don't pick?" she asked.
"Perceptive, this one. I'd be on my toes if I were you, Cameo. To the one you don't pick, nothing. If you choose wrong, however, they die," the sword relaxed slightly, and she saw Cameo release a long breath.
And so there it was. As long as Lunis was being honest with her, she just had to pick correctly. Really, there was no point in doubting the goddess, what would the point in lying be? To see how Psikaris would react to adversity? The trek was about faith, and what greater faith could their be than trusting her to tell the truth. "Well. You're trying to see how much I love Cameo, so in theory I should be saying that it's him just on the principle of this trek. But that sounds like too obvious an answer. I do love them both. Psychro has been both my father and my brother, while Cameo has been lover and friend. In fact, if it wouldn't make people wonder about me and Psychro, I would almost say that Cameo has been like a brother too. I am who I am today because of both of them. I hate this, having to choose one over the other."
The tears were streaming now and she couldn't be bothered wiping them away. If she guessed wrong, she would lose someone dear to her, and that didn't sound fair. But she needed to pick. "Cameo," her voice trailed off, staring at the man who had been her lover. He had found a place in her heart, and he would always be there. "I'm sorry. I choose Psychro."
The sword drew back and vanished. Cameo's knees buckled and he dropped to the ground. Psikaris wanted to comfort him but felt shame burning her cheeks. She had chosen right, but at what cost? Would Cameo think less of her for caring more about her brother than himself? She watched the phantom image of the green clad woman holster her gun and walk away.
"Cameo?" this time it was Lunis' voice calling his name. "The final question is yours. I give you now an opportunity. The two of you have faired so poorly in the maze of truth that only one of you will be allowed to leave. If you choose yourself, I will arrange for the safe delivery of your children. You will go on to live your life, you will find someone who will love you more than Psikaris does, and she will live the remainder of her years here. If you choose to allow her to leave, she will prosper while you suffer for all eternity, punished for your sins."
"It's not going to work," Cameo chuckled sardonically. "You're trying to play on my bruised pride. I heard what she said, but that just means I have to work harder to win her love. I respect her for being honest, knowing what it could cost, and I know there wasn't a wrong decision there. I'm not going to let Psikaris or anyone else suffer on my behalf, and you know it. Torture me all you like, set her free."
The cages all disappeared and the cavern transformed. It became a den of opulence, a warm fire crackling in the fireplace, a large soft bed in the middle of the floor, a table laden with food and drink of every sort. Books and ornaments lined the shelves that surrounded the room. And a simple wooden door on the wall, with the possessions they'd brought on the floor. "You are correct. Stay as long as you please. No harm can come to you as long as you are in here," Lunis' voice echoed.
Wordlessly, Cameo took his bond mate in his arms, back against the bed, and rocked her softly. She smiled at him as much as she could, warmed and comforted by his words and gestures than by the fire. She felt the love radiating off him. Somewhere down the road, they would talk about what had happened here, and maybe analyse what it all meant, but for now she was feeling better. Psikaris realized that Cameo was right. She hadn't said that she *didn't* love him, she just happened to love Psychro that little bit more right now; the one didn't mean the other.
They decided to spend the rest of the day there, enjoying the luxuries. They weren't sure how much further they had to go, but knew it could be a long time until they could experience such again. Sated by food and drink, feeling more comfortable as the lingering tension eased away, they soon found themselves again holding each other for comfort, this time lying on the bed. Nestled snugly, a sense of peace settled over them, allowing them to slip into a refreshing slumber.
On to Question of Faith - part five
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