Question of Faith
It felt like morning to Cameo, as he lay in the soft bed. It had been over a week since he'd slept this comfortably, and he could thank the softness of the mattress for that. He'd become pampered, he thought wryly. A little government work instead of living in barracks had spoiled him and made the last few days of sleeping on the ground unpleasant.
That wasn't the only unpleasant thing he'd been through lately. His chest was still tender from the beating he'd taken, and his mind was strained from the emotional turmoil he'd been through. Even now, memories of Psikaris' double being savagely hit with those batons made him shudder and look over to where his bond mate lay sleeping.
He wasn't the only one to be put through the emotional wringer, he scolded himself. For all that he'd been through, Psikaris was feeling worse. Her body language showed clearly that she was withdrawn, shying away from him even in sleep. She was curled tightly into a ball, blanket pulled over her head, and clinging to the far side of the bed. He longed to hold her again, remind her again and again just how much he loved her. Sure, there were things she wasn't good at, and he wasn't at the top of her list of people she loved, but it didn't mean a thing to him. Hell, he'd known when he'd first asked her out that her work would be ranked higher than him, it was the way things were, and he had no inclination to change things.
Until now. Now he wanted to change her mind, and let her see herself through his eyes. Right now, though, she needed rest, and that was something he could give her easily. He padded over to the bookshelf and skimmed the titles looking for something he could quietly read until she woke up. He chose one about an Icewalker stranded on the Dark Moon.
It felt unusual, sitting with an ex-girlfriend and the guy she was currently sleeping with, but Psychro had been in that position before. Heavy Bevy was one of the few women he had managed to maintain a relationship post-coitus, thanks to her role in his fan club and he did his best to keep her updated on his affairs, as it were. They had spent the last hour or so discussing his experience with Mandora the evil chaser, a story that Tug Mug had already heard. It was one of his favourites because of where it would lead.
"I hope Cheella's worth eet," Heavy Bevy said, looking longingly at the now empty bottle of syrup on the table. They were in the room that Psychro had rented with the Tug Mug, even though it had somehow become the Graviton love nest.
"Yeah, well, I'm hoping that number two three four is my last one," Psychro sighed. If he could make it work with Chilla then he was content to make her his one and only love. He had little doubt that she would delay sex for as long as she could, testing him to see if he was only using her to gain another notch on his bedpost.
"And eef you cheat on her, then number two three five weell be your last one ever," Tug Mug chortled. The kitchen staff had been forced to work overtime to provide the room service, but didn't mind because Gravitons were known as heavy tippers when it came to good food. The amount of bacon that descended in to Tug Mug's waiting gullet was evidence that he was indeed pleased. "Although, I must say I'm a beet offended. Cheella almost slept with Alluro and slept with Red Eye. Other than Amok, I'm the only one of that group she deedn't think of sleeping with."
There was a reason for that, but Psychro chose not to say it. "And Luna. Speaking of which, what's the betting line on her being a blushing bride?"
"The gossip ees that she's at least considering eet, but that there aren't many takers. I've heard that eet's five to one that she decides not to take a husband, and three to one that she can't find one," Heavy Bevy said.
Psychro blinked. That was surprising to him. "There are enough power hungry people out there that would be willing to overlook her defects. I'll agree that there's question whether she'll want them or not. I wouldn't be surprised to see her hitched, it would do her some good to get laid."
"Eef she does, you'll be able to hear eet from here."
Psikaris woke, escaping the grips of a far too vivid dream, and was more than a little surprised to find that Cameo was lying next to her. But then, why wouldn't he? This was reality, not the dream world, no matter how real it had felt.
She'd been abandoned, in that dream, Cameo telling her how much he loathed her and how he had gotten all he'd wanted out of her. Her brother had been there too, that self-satisfied smirk on his face as he pointed out that he had warned her of the dangers of opening her heart to a man. They were scum, he reminded her, wanting only sex, and that she was better off bonding with an engine. Those would never leave her. Break down, maybe, but she could fix them. A broken heart or wounded pride was trickier.
"You okay?" Cameo asked, putting down the book he had been reading. He seemed genuinely concerned, which only shocked her for an instant.
"Just a dream. Don't worry about it," she said reassuringly, dispelling the ghosts of that vision. Then, to change the subject, she asked "what are you reading?"
"Icewalker propaganda. Some guy named Tym of the night cloak, who managed to elude the best Darkling hunters and survived undetected on the Dark Moon for a year. It says it's based on a true story, but I'm doubtful anyone can be this uninteresting. We should probably get going soon before it gets too late and we're forced to stay an extra day. I've had enough of this," Cameo stretched and climbed out of bed.
Psikaris joined him at the table of food soon after. There was trickery going on with the table, she noted, taking a slab of an unidentified meat product. All the food was at their optimum temperature, but she could detect no heating source on the table. Most people would pass it off as magic, but she had always believed that 'magic' was the term used for anything one could not identify. There was a reason behind all this and, given time she was sure she could figure it out.
They didn't really have time. Cameo was right about that much. If they wanted to get to Lunis Lake and finish the trek, they would have to leave sooner rather than later, or else commit themselves to spending an extra day here. Lunis had said that they could spend as long as they liked, but she didn't feel up to taking advantage of the offer. She had been through enough on this trek, thank you very much.
There was a lot to sort out when this was over. It had started out pleasantly enough, with the intense feeling of love she had felt from Cameo, and the highs he had taken her to following the ceremony. But then there had been the business with Isilik, the difficult decision she had had to make concerning Cameo and her brother, the prospects of losing one or both of them. The self-doubts and the fears had overwhelmed her and she could only hope that she would recover from the spiritual abuse.
And it wasn't over yet. They had been five days away from the end of the journey when they had first been abducted by the Yerin. How far had they been taken and did that distance put them closer or farther from their goal.
"What do you suppose happens when someone goes through the trek for a second time?" Cameo asked, breaking into her thoughts. He had selected a bowl of thick stew. The meat in that, at least, they had identified as Reptilian Mutant, a meat that she had never learned to enjoy.
"I don't know," she answered. "I guess the person either gets a free pass through part of the trial, or the Yerin try something different." Certainly a person going through it again would know to expect an abduction and seduction. Would they prepare their partner for it? A lingering feeling from her dream rose to the surface. "Why? Are you planning on going through this again?"
"No. Of course not. Just something I wondered. I'm not letting you get away from me. Ever." He looked hurt by the question, and she knew that she had said it a little more harshly than she'd intended.
"I'm sorry," she said, patting his arm, "I didn't mean it like that. We should get going." She wanted to do more, to show him that really did love him, but that would lead back to the bed, and that could wait until they got back. Instead Psikaris walked over to the door, where their possessions were waiting, and began to change into a clean outfit, a yellow and black thing that was soon covered with heavier gear.
Cameo pushed open the door, causing the cold air to rush in, and they looked outside. She didn't know how, or rather why, they'd done it, but the Yerin had transported them close to Lunis Lake. Somewhere on the other side of that was the shrine and their destination. That seemed a little too convenient. Was the trek basically over already? Another day and a half and they would be home, snug in their beds?
As they stood in the mouth of the tunnel, she was taken back briefly to a similar experience, when they had first left White Fang. They had been standing side by side, about to embark on a quest, unsure of what was to follow. That day seemed like a lifetime ago, though she knew that to be foolish. "Let's do this," she said, pulling him close for a lengthy kiss, an echo of that other departure.
They stepped into the gently falling snow, the warm Yerin tunnels vanishing behind them. There was no turning back now, as there hadn't been then. It was onwards, into the unknown.
Lunis Lake was frozen, about a foot thick if Cameo was any judge. It was deceptive, though. Many a foolish traveler had tried to cross it on foot, only to find that the ice was much thinner closer to the middle. There were all sorts of legends surrounding this, but he preferred to think of it as simple science. There were no fire breathing monsters there, and Lunis' heart wasn't stashed there. He often wondered where such legends got their origin.
He also wondered how many unwary trek goers attempted it, trying to cut their journey down only to be cut down themselves. It was tempting, he had to admit, but he wasn't foolhardy enough to try. He and Psikaris had made good time, reaching the lake in little over an hour. The scenery was beautiful, the Qindar hills that they had emerged from were still visible, topped with small trees that made them resemble little heads with hair. The lake itself was a rich dark blue colour, barely visible beneath the ice, contrasting sharply with the cloudless sky. The shrine was located somewhere along the edge of the lake, and he took out his map to determine the shortest route. "Figures," he smirked, catching Psikaris' attention. He held the map out for her to see. "It's on the opposite side."
"Of course. How else is Lunis supposed to lure us across the lake?" Psikaris replied. It pleased him to see her outside. Some of the gloom seemed to have lifted from her expression, and he was almost willing to let it slide as having been remnants of her dream. Almost. He'd known her since childhood, and knew there was something more, but that she would tell him later. It was one of the things that she said she loved about him, was that he was concerned, but respected her enough to let her deal with these things at her pace.
"Well, we're not falling for that one. It's that way," he pointed, taking the lead.
"Psychro of House Myntaello," Snoeya said simply, standing in the doorway to his bedroom. He had been rummaging through his pack for his brandy when she had arrived. He bowed low to her in respect for her position. He had never had much time for religion, considering it useful at times, but generally serving as a waste of time. He'd met religious fanatics, and they had never struck him as being particularly bright or fully sane. Surely, he thought, if the gods were so powerful, why would they care at all about mere mortals. His greatest triumph, where religion was concerned, was getting a priestess to moan out the name of another god. She'd been the only priestess to join him under his sheets.
It was ironic, in a way, that he had been chosen to serve Lunis despite all this. Or maybe it was because of this. If he were a god, and he wasn't despite what some of his suitors said, he would get tired of people constantly sucking up to him. He would want people around who weren't so easily swayed and who wouldn't be afraid to tell him no. Snoeya stood there still, smiling at him in a way that made him think she could read his mind. "Erm, yes?" he asked.
"It's almost time, if it is to be. Psikaris and Cameo will arrive at the shrine tomorrow afternoon. Unless they fail the final test. One last test of faith. I've taken the liberty of arranging for a ship to transport you there, if you'd like."
"Thank you. I'll let Tug Mug know. I'm sure he'll be thrilled."
This is going way too smoothly, Psikaris thought to herself. She was walking in the lead now, her feet crunching softly through the snow. The wind was still blowing, but gently, otherwise it was still. The trek was about many things; love, faith, and more. Lunis had another trick up her proverbial sleeve and Psikaris knew it. But what form would it take? Physical? Mental? Emotional? She hoped for anything but the last. Her mind was burdened with so much as it was that the prospects of being taken through the wringer again didn't appeal to her. Not that she ever enjoyed dealing with the emotional, she chastised herself, nor the physical. The mental could be fun, under the right circumstances.
The conversation had gone quiet, as the two conserved their energy for the walking. Through mutual consent, they wanted to cover as much distance as possible. They stopped now and again for breaks, their bodies protesting the exercise and muscles ached from overuse. They continued on, even as it began getting dark, before calling a stop. They were walking beside the frozen lake, and it wouldn't take much to veer off-course and wind up taking an unpleasant dip in the cold water.
Psikaris set up the tent, ever alert, while Cameo moved around setting up their campfire. They still had plenty of food, gratefully, and had their fills. "I'll take the first watch," she said, prodding a fallen branch back into place with the toe of her boot. Cameo looked at her quizzically. "I know it sounds silly, but it's a feeling. How many people do you suppose let down their guard with the finish in sight?"
"It's not silly, and I trust you. You're probably right too. If you get tired, wake me." Cameo kissed her once and shuffled into the tent. Within minutes she heard his faint snoring and knew he was asleep. She got up, mostly to keep her circulation going, and paced around the camp, eyes peeled and pistol drawn.
I hope your trust is justified, she thought. She had been snuck up on by Isilik and by the Yerin, embarrassingly. But she reasoned that in both cases she had been distracted, thinking of Cameo. Now it was still, and there would be no excuses.
Tug Mug cried softly into his pillow. Heavy Bevy had left him. She'd made some flimsy excuse about needing to return to the Graviton Moon and had left him. The only consolation was that the goodbye note had been attached to a large sandwich. But now the sandwich was gone, just like her.
Cameo was having a very strange dream, one in which he was watching his children embark on their own treks, when he was wakened abruptly by Psikaris calling his name. There was a sense of urgency in her voice that he didn't like, and he fumbled for his pistol.
Staggering out into the snow, not bothering to even put on his boots, he heard the reason for her panic. A polar bear was lumbering across the ice, far too close by for comfort. He adjusted the pistol's power setting to its maximum, knowing that they were practically armoured.
Was it being drawn to them? They hadn't cooked any meat tonight, but there certainly was some buried in his pack. Was it the fire, or did fire keep them away? Automatically his mind ran through every scrap of information he had on the creatures. He'd never encountered one, though he had seen the hide of one once. Few people who met them survived, in fact. They could be scared off though.
"Told you Lunis had one more trick," Psikaris said. She stood by the fire, facing in the direction she thought the polar bear was coming from. Her eyes were wide and her hands were shaking. She'd never killed before until Isilik, and now she was facing something stronger. Cameo cursed himself for a fool. Of course this was what Lunis would send, something to see if Psikaris had learned from that and could put her trust in himself or the goddess.
Another roar, this time much closer. Now they could make out the faint dark shape, lumbering towards them. He aimed his pistol in that direction and left off a clean shot, lancing into the ground in front it. He didn't want to hurt the thing, just chase it away. But if it got much closer he wouldn't have a choice.
His plan didn't work. Instead of backing away, or hesitating at least, it began to run, heavy footfalls sending clumps of snow behind it. Polar bears weren't quick, or so he'd heard, but this one seemed plenty quick enough. His pistol fired again, this time catching a glancing blow on the beast's shoulder. It stumbled to the side but recovered quickly. Unlike the variety on Third Earth, Ice Moon bears had a third set of legs, which they used to distribute weight and to give them better manoeuverability on the ice.
He fired again, this time missing by a hair. Where was his support fire? Why wasn't Psikaris shooting? He didn't have the time to look in her direction and just kept shooting. The polar bear howled as the shots began hitting it in the chest and even once in the face. The bear was enraged, and he couldn't blame it, but why wasn't it falling? "It must be an older one," he thought grimly, taking a half-second to check the power level on his weapon. Notoriously the hide grew thicker with every year, or so he had been told. Or was this a Lunis trick? Should he get on his knees and pray? Psikaris was much better at reading the goddess' intents. Speaking of which, he wondered again where she was.
"Lunis, protect us," he said, realizing that the polar bear was too close for ranged weapons to be of much use. He switched to the saber that hung on his belt, watching closely as the nearby fire cast shadows across the white beast's side. It moved towards him, those massive paws poised to strike. Cameo moved away as quickly as he dared, watching for an opening, even as a strange white blur struck its back.
He realized what the blur was a second later, even as he rushed in, ducking a wildly swinging arm to pierce the bear's belly. His blade snapped, even as the metal plunged into the bear's gut, sending blood from the wound. Psikaris? What was she doing? The bear stood on its hind legs, flailing to try and pry loose the person on its back. Cameo swatted at the arms with his broken sword, hoping above all else that Psikaris knew what she was doing, and tried to draw some of its attention to him so that she could do whatever it was that she had in mind. Cameo heard the shot and jumped aside as he realized that the polar bear was coming down.
The polar bear landed beside the tent, extinguishing the fire with the rush of air caused when it fell. Cameo gaped, crouched with his useless weapon in one hand, and a half dead pistol in the other. Psikaris, her own eyes wild and hair in disarray, slowly got off the bear and walked methodically towards her bondmate. "What in Lunis' name made you do that?" he asked, a mixture of awe and shock in his voice.
"A simple deduction," she replied. He saw her stagger as the adrenaline rush began to fade. "I figured that this was a test. Lunis wanted me to prove that I'm every bit a warrior. She knew my confidence was shaken with the Isilik mess, and I had a hunch that she would give me an opening to redeem myself. I thought all this during my watch. When I first saw the polar bear I was terrified, especially when your shots weren't doing anything, but then I started praying to Lunis, and I realized something. These things have a weak spot in their craniums. I knew the angles and power and trajectory. I calculated everything and I, well, I jumped instinctively because I knew I'd chicken out if I didn't."
"You did all that math in a few seconds?" Cameo asked, eyes flicking from Psikaris to where the polar bear rested. It was harder to see both now, as the fire had gone out, but he could see enough to be amazed.
"Well yeah. I had to. You were in danger," she replied.
He helped her to her feet, and held her tightly against him. "Karis. I'm going to be honest with you here. I've never been more turned on in my life." He kissed her to prove his words, and pulled her towards the tent. The desire to keep watch was forgotten in the haste to relieve her of her clothes, and to give her the best sex she could possibly get. His lips and hands frantically touched every sensitive piece of flesh, desperate to try and reciprocate the pleasure he was feeling before he burst. In no time at all he was thrusting a different sword, ecstasy building until he cried out, shattering the stillness of the night.
Much later, still basking in the afterglow of their intense coupling, Cameo found himself gently caressing Psikaris' thigh, draped loosely over his leg while rested her head on his chest. "Cameo?" she asked. "Thank you for not giving up on me. I know it's not going to be easy between us all the time but..."
"I know. I will always love you, no matter what, because you're worth it," he whispered.
"So are you," she said, tilting her head and kissing his lips. "I love you too."
They saw the shining temple within an hour of walking. A domed building which legend said was supposed to resemble a pregnant belly. Cameo didn't know why pregnancy was the aspect of Lunis' role as goddess of lovers that people focussed on, he supposed it was a part of her 'duties' but it wasn't exclusive. But then, a heart shaped temple would be more difficult to construct, with the ventricles and everything.
Psikaris looked over her shoulder at his sudden laughter, but he waved it off. It was too silly to explain right now. Besides, they were almost there. Another two hours of walking and their adventure would be over. Long over and the prospect was making him giddy. He had everything he could possibly want. A bondmate, a steady job, kids on the way, the empire was stable, and he'd passed the goddess' test. Even she approved of his relationship.
He conceded, for an instant only, that life wasn't going to be smooth sailing after today. Work alone was going to be stressful, along with the heavy responsibilities of being a father. Was he ready for it? He somehow doubted it, but he had been raised by an awesome mother who had set the example for him. For a long while, he hoped, she would be there to pitch in if he needed it. And he still had Psikaris.
Psikaris. He loved the sound of her name on his tongue. She looked like she was feeling better. There was confidence in her walking that had been lacking yesterday. She had needed that encounter last night with the polar bear as much as she had the lovemaking afterwards. Cameo knew she was right in her speculation, he felt it inside. Lunis had tested their love and then rewarded them with what they needed. It had been for him too, he thought with a wry smile. Something to confirm that he could count on Psikaris in a pinch.
It wasn't over yet, he tried to remind himself, making his head swivel to survey the land, there was still time for Lunis to play one more trick. She wouldn't though, his heart said. She'd had her fun. Still, one never knew.
Conversely, Psikaris was forming in her mind all the things that they had to do when they got back. Although they'd been away from the capital for about eight or nine days, she had been so busy that it might as well have been more. Her doctor would want to see her almost immediately, though they both knew that Lunis would protect the unborn children, as well as catching up on all the latest news in the science and technology world. Advances were being made daily, after all, and she enjoyed keeping up with it.
There was bound to be at least one family function to attend, to formally celebrate their passing of the trek, as well as checking in to see what had been happening in their lives. She would need at least one solid day to catch up with Psychro somewhere private. And then of course was unpacking everything in her new home. She and Cameo had been living together for a while now, but now it was official, they were almost bonded. He would be moving into the bedroom. She shivered at the thought.
And that was just the start of the living arrangements. Cameo had been converting the room he'd been using as an office for about a week now, off and on, into a bedroom for the kids. The home would need to be child proofed down the line, and she would need to stop leaving tools and machine bits around that a small child could meddle with. It was a little worrisome, and more than a minor hassle, she liked having everything where she could get at it. Some called it disorganized, but she knew where on her worktable everything was. She'd scolded Cameo more than once for removing some tool, and she knew he would occasionally move something just to see if she noticed. She usually did.
She let out a sudden shriek when Cameo tackled her into the snow, pinning her on her back beneath him and planting a kiss on her lips. She had panicked for a second, imagining that he had seen some terror before she did, but relaxed when she saw his playful grin. He'd been in a strange mood all morning, like a child waiting for their birthday. Psikaris tossed snow in his face, buying her time to shove him off so that they could reverse positions. "I don't know what's gotten into you," she said, trying to look angry. "I think I like it." The mask crumbled and she scooped up her hat from the snow.
"I'm high on you," Cameo replied charmingly. He always seemed to turn the goofiest sounding things into something sweet and romantic. "And if you liked that, then I've got more waiting for you at the temple."
"Then let's not waste any more time."
The temple was much more impressive close up. Cameo had heard the legends of why the temple had been formed. It was said to be the place where Lunis had touched when she had first come to this moon. Legend said that one of the earliest Icewalkers had found her there and had offered her the shelter of his cave. She fell in love with him and bore him a son, from whom all other Icewalkers were descended. One of the greatest heroes to ever live, Vaekin the second had come here near the end of his life and was buried in the temple's basement along with a pair of other corpses. Cameo had figured it was mostly superstition, but seeing the place itself now he could almost believe it. Up close he saw that was a large green building, easily housing a hundred people, and adorned with statues of figures, weapons pointed towards the sky, and all holding the hand of a loved one.
Perhaps the most striking thing of all, was that there was no snow on the building, nor on the ground immediately around it. "It's the statues," Psikaris said in wonderment. "See how their weapons are pointed over the ground? The tips of the weapons mark the outside of the snow-free area."
She was right, naturally. He didn't know how it was done, possibly with a force field, but more likely through magic, but it did appear that the statues were somehow protecting the building from the snow.
The door was plain wood, and opened easily at a touch. A loud cheer went up as they crossed the threshold. Psikaris ran from his side into her brother's waiting arms, and he didn't mind. He thought he understood now. Priests and servants crowded around, congratulating them on their successful trek. A large statue of Lunis in the main hall seemed to be facing the door, her expression warming him and making his spirit feel light. Yes, they had completed their trek, their love was true.
On to Question of Faith - epilogue
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