Into the Depths

Into the Depths

A Story by Kessira26

The fateful meeting of Torch and Lord Arren some 60 years before the events of Infinity Gate



In the far future, on an Earth perhaps our own, humanity stood on the brink of absolute extinction. They had learned technology vast beyond the scope of our imagination, but in the process destroyed their world. Desperate, they looked for a way out. There was talk of colonizing other planets, building great ships to take them to another home, but the Earth was too stripped of resources. There was no fuel left for the trip across the stars and little left to build the ships needed in the first place. They were trapped. Then like a bolt from heaven, a hope appeared. Professor Arren, a retired scientist and part time teacher created a device, the Infinity Gate. With it, it was possible to open a portal to a parallel dimension; to an Earth untouched by humans, to an Earth in the time of dinosaurs, even to an Earth exactly the same as the one they fled.  The Professor offered his device freely to help move all of humanity to safety, to worlds where the Earth was still whole and green. There were only a few big governments in power at that time and they all courted Professor Arren, wanting him to give only them the power.  He refused to choose, saying his creation was meant for all, so they plotted against each other and him to steal his device.  But Professor Arren had built his device with a fail safe. It only worked for the members of his family, only those with his genetic code.

In the end, all were forced to acquiesce to the will of the Arren family and the peoples of Earth were sent to start new lives in the colonies.

The Arren family watched over those colonies, aiding them when necessary. The original colonies all failed  in time, except one, overcome by their greed and dependence on the very technology that made them flee their homeworld in the first place and the Arren’s split the failing colonies into new colonies, with those colonies splitting further, The new smaller colonies couldn’t survive on their own, so trade was facilitated between them, growing and growing even as technology faltered and failed,  until the very cultures of those colonies were dependent on that trade. Constant contact between colonies required more and more Arren family intervention and the family grew with the demand. Several times did one colony threaten to wage war on another but without the cooperation of the Arren’s there was no means for war. Then between one generation and the next, the Arren family began to decline, with fewer children born that could use the gate. Concerned for the future, the head of the Arren family created the prototype for a permanent gate that could be used by anyone to travel between one colony and the next. Huge monolithic gates were stationed on all of the colonies facilitating trade and travel. But nothing lasts forever and the day will come when both the gates and the Arren family will fall.

Part One

Gabriel stood under the bright blue light, his dark gaze surveying the people on the seedy little street. The beggar selling toys made out of twisted wires and old bits and pieces of electronics was no longer on his regular corner. Gabriel felt a slight frown tug at his lips and quickly stilled the expression before it could manifest. His grandfather had been drilling into his head the past two years how impassive he must remain and any hint of disappointment, anger or fear was strictly forbidden.  Every day the emotionless face Gabriel wore became less and less a mask and more and more the truth. Yet he still didn’t have full control and irritation swamped him. He’d been assigned this task by his demanding grandfather some months back and he’d been well on his way to completing it until now.

His eyes searched up and down the street once again, looking for a likely source of information.

A rumble from overhead drew his eyes upward and Gabriel looked to see a huge transport ship, slowly wending its way through the dirty fog.The transport ship was nearly as seedy as the street beneath and the fog swirled about it like malevolent tentacles as it passed by, the fumes from it’s fuel polluting the street below. Gabriel both loved and hated visiting these technologically advanced non-colony worlds. Being able to explore on his own, discovering new things and learning, was his singular joy and  here no one knew who he was, or expected anything of him. But travel on these worlds frequently left him feeling dirty, as if the pollution in the air had crept into his soul as well.

The clear click of a bootheel on the street before him snapped Gabriel’s attention back to ground level. Approaching him from the south with a determined stride came what might have once been a human woman. She’d been surgically altered and modified until she no longer even resembled humanity in Gabriel’s eyes, but he understood that among the people of this place, she was considered highly desirable.

She stepped directly up to the edge of the circle of light he was standing in and halted.

“30 teran” she announced boldly, cocking her head back slightly and waiting. Her voice was odd, obviously modified as well.

“I’m not buying,” he said flatly in response, not looking directly at her, but instead watching his surroundings.

“You were lookin’,” she said in a suggestive manner.

“I was looking for information,” he replied, his voice still cool and stiff.

She allowed the diaphanous veils that barely covered her body to drift apart, revealing even more flesh to his offended eye and stepped into his circle of light.

“You have money?” she asked coyly, moving even closer.

Gabriel could smell a strange, sickly sweet smell coming off her and he quickly controlled his breathing, trying not to draw in the strange scent. Many of the streetwalkers here wore perfumes or colognes designed to muddle the mind and inflame the senses.

“I have something to offer in trade for information,” he answered, tilting his head away from her to try and draw in cleaner air.

A sharp prick at the small of his back and a burly arm wrapped around his shoulders, alerted him to their game.

“Grab his money, pet,” came a deep rumbling voice behind him.

The voice most likely belonged to her handler and Gabriel guessed that they’d picked him out as an easy mark.

The woman stroked a hand down Gabriel’s face and tangled her fingers briefly in one of the loose curls that framed it, before stroking suggestively down his body, searching for the tell-tale lump that would indicate his wallet.

“Where’d you have your modifications done?” she purred, “they’re magnificent!”

Gabriel felt his lip curl in disgust  at both her actions and comment. For a moment he allowed the expression to remain on his face as a warning.

Then he stilled his features again and waited while the woman gleefully pawed at him all over her fingers slipping through the layers of his clothing searching pockets and seams.

“There’s nothing,” she said finally in confusion her hands stilling.

“What?” the handler questioned.

“I can’t find it,” she clarified, groping him again in a few choice spots.

Gabriel decided he’d had enough.

Using their distraction Gabriel gave a quick shrug of his shoulders with an immediate sidestep to break the man’s hold on him, then in one smooth and precise move he spun to take the knife away, snatching it from the burly man’s hands with a skill that made evident the rigorous training he’d undergone.

He studied the knife a moment, noting the handle, before deliberately wiping the blade clean on one of the woman’s diaphanous veils and sheathing it in his own tall boot. It was a good quality knife and might come in handy.

Gabriel stood in a deceptively relaxed posture, waiting to see what they would do. Many confused him for a weak man, for he was not particularly tall and appeared slight. But Gabriel was absolutely deadly. He’d killed his first assassin at the tender age of 13 and many had come for him since.

The man behind him was very large in comparison and his burly appearance gave the impression of someone who could break Gabriel in half, but that fellow made no effort to move, instead just watching Gabriel with cautious eyes.

The survival instincts are strong in this one.

The woman nudged her companion, “You gonna let him do that?”

Her handler regarded him a moment more, before nodding slowly and there was a certain level of respect on his rough face.

“I’m looking for information and I can pay you for it,” Gabriel said in a conversational tone, as if the previous altercation had never happened, “There’s a toy seller who normally works that corner there, do you know his whereabouts?”

“How you gonna pay for it,” the woman demanded her voice a little shrill, “you ain’t got no scratch, I just checked. No credit, no terans.”

Gabriel waited, his face impassive.

“Old Three-Eyed Bob, he got sick about a month back. They carried him off in the Tippen Van,” the large man said abruptly,ignoring the woman’s whined protest.

Gabriel reached calmly into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out a small bag of gems. He casually opened the bag, spilling out a few onto his palm and picked out three, before dumping the rest back into the bag and tucking it back in his pocket.

The expressions on the man and woman were priceless and Gabriel stopped the mischievous smile that threatened to appear on his lips before it could blossom, maintaining his impassive facade with an effort of will. The dumbfounded face the woman now bore almost made it worth the early pawing...almost.

“One for the information and two to pay for the knife,” he announced mildly instead.

He reached with his mind and opened a gate directly behind himself, before turning his palm down and dropping the gems onto the street.

The man and woman both lunged forward, but Gabriel had already stepped backwards through the gate, vanishing from sight.

His amusement was short lived, giving way before his irritation.. He’d delivered Three-Eyed Bobs’ toys to fourteen of the colony leaders as guesting gifts. The broken pieces of electronics made tempting morsels in the colonies where so much of technology had been lost and only the legends of what it once could do remained. The toys were clever little things, designed so various parts moved. If they’d been made out of wood, the colony leaders would have recognized them immediately for what they were, simple children’s toys, but because of the materials Three-Eyed Bob used, every one of those leaders had been sure that he was bringing them a piece of forbidden tech and all had been pathetically eager to get their hands on his gift and learn its secrets. It had been a clever way to introduce himself to the colony leaders without giving them anything to trouble him later, but now his plan was spoiled and he must come up with a new way of satisfying his grandfather’s demands.

Gabriel let out a huff of breath and convinced himself he was merely clearing the polluted air from his lungs to fill it with the clean air here before he turned to head through the east garden of his family’s estate and into the manor itself.

The core of the vast structure had been built by Gabriel’s ancestors in a time when the technology available was much greater, yet it had been designed to mimic the structures of history. An amusing conceit that was at times very frustrating to later generations that might have preferred a more obvious and blatant sign of the technology they still possessed. Yet the structure had at least been built to withstand the test of time. Over the years various wings and towers had been added to it, yet only the original endured, the additions decaying over generations, torn down only to be rebuilt in a new configuration.

Gabriel entered through the east solar, hoping to avoid his grandfather’s office off the main hall, but unfortunately his uncle caught him as he was passing through.

“Young Master, you are back. Lord Arren was looking for you,” the older man told him. Unlike his own father, Gabriel’s uncle was one of the gifted in the family. He was also one of the few in the clan to have any sympathy for Gabriel, having been in the same position with the expectations of all the Arren’s loaded down upon him by his father. However that had all changed for him when Gabriel manifested signs of compatibility with the gate at four years of age. He’d been only too relieved to pass the burden of future leader of the family along to the young Gabriel. Despite careful breeding of the family fewer and fewer Arren’s had been born with an affinity to the gate. Even those born who could use it had very limited access. It had been thus for the past four generations of Arren’s and the responsibilities of the family had come to rest more and more on the handful of those born that could use the gate. Gabriel’s birth had been regarded as a blessing and revival of the family, for his affinity to the gate was full and complete and perhaps even more powerful than that of the original Arren’s. It was not only his grandfather that regarded him as the hope and the future of the clan, but all of the Arren’s..

Gabriel stilled himself to avoid any softening of his expression and nodded slightly to acknowledge his uncle instead. Once he might have felt free to smile at the man, but as much as his uncle might have sympathy for him, Gabriel knew the limits of their relationship. He dare not show too much weakness lest it be reported to his grandfather. The entire clan had grown more and more nervous around him as his power grew and what few allies he had felt he had among them had quickly dried up in light of his increasing responsibilities and the pressures put on him.

“I will change in my rooms before greeting him,” Gabriel said in formal tones and his uncle hid his own smile and nodded slightly in acknowledgment.

Gabriel was well aware that his grandfather expected to see him the very moment he returned home and would be only too eager to grill him over any slight in his appearance and it’s cause. Changing his clothes beforehand was just one tiny rebellion that Gabriel still allowed himself, as well as a chance to think about what he was going to tell Lord Arren about the delay in completing his task.

Giving one last polite nod to his uncle, Gabriel slipped from the solar and down the hall to his private rooms.

The rooms were faintly musty when he opened the door and he was relieved by the smell. He’d given orders to the servants that they were not to enter his room to clean while he was away, and he appreciated the sign that no one had countermanded his orders while he was gone. Unlike his family, the servants had become more and more his allies as he’d grown in power, well aware that he was their future master.

He moved first to his desk in a side chamber. Behind the desk was a shelf and lined on the shelf were various pouches, weapons and tools. Above each item was a strange suspended hoop, with an indicator light in blue. Running a quick eye over them Gabriel ascertained that everything was still in its place and that the lights all still glowed the blue of a full charge. Reaching up he twitched the bag of gems he’d used earlier into a better position to be grabbed, then he moved out of his office and into his room. He should have time for a quick shower before seeing his grandfather. Gabriel could still smell a hint of the musky perfume the street walker had worn and he wanted a chance to wash away all traces of it.

Gabriel stripped quickly out of his travel clothes, emptying his pockets of several bits of equipment, including the trigger for the mini-gate he used to so cleverly pull things out of his jacket that hadn’t been there a moment before. Leaving those handmade bits of technology on the bed, along with his newly purchased dagger, he dropped his dirty laundry down the shoot and walked naked into the bathroom.

He stepped into the steaming shower and bathed quickly, scrubbing his hair clean and washing away all traces of that foul scent from his body. When he was finished, he stood by the large counter and gazed into the mirror a moment to make sure his face was as expressionless as possible. Dark eyes, with only the faintest hint of deep blue to the iris stared back at him. His face was classic Arren, but still bore the traces of the softness of youth. Gabriel set his jaw slightly to disguise it. His age wasn’t really an emotion for him to hide, yet lately even that seemed to irritate his grandfather, the old man giving no allowance for the fact that Gabriel was only seventeen.

“I’ve wasted enough time mirror gazing,”  he was sure his face gave away no clue as to his actual emotions, only fathomless eyes and stillness.

There was a neatly pressed and elaborate suit waiting for him on his bed, the ever vigilant and efficient servants having realized immediately that he was back. That there was no accompanying tray of food meant that they knew he must face his grandfather before he could relax.

Gabriel dressed quickly, tying his cravat elaborately and setting it with a carved jade pin, the infinity symbol etched into the silver around it. His vest, trousers, coat and pocket watch also bore the infinity symbol and he stroked a finger down the embroidery on his lapel before shrugging into his jacket. He tucked a pristine and carefully edged handkerchief in his pocket.  His polished shoes were the last item he donned before quickly stashing his specially made contraptions where they would not easily been seen or detected. He paused a moment with the dagger tossing it from hand to hand and debating its merits before remembering a piece of advice his grandfather had given him about arming oneself. Gabriel tucked the dagger under his jacket where it wouldn’t be immediately spotted, but still easily reached.

With one last glance in the mirror to make sure of his appearance, he left the room. He looked like a dapper young lord and that was exactly as his grandfather expected of him.

Gabriel gave a brief rap on his grandfather’s door before entering the office. Lord Arren sat behind his desk, his own suit still immaculate despite what was no doubt a long day spent seeing to the affairs of the family.

The old man’s bright blue eyes were sharp above high cheekbones and he examined Gabriel closely before waving him forward. Gabriel was not offered a seat, but left to stand at attention while his grandfather finished the paper he was checking.

Finally the older man set his work down and, crossing his arms on the desk before him, leaned forward.

“Have you been keeping up with your studies Master Arren?” he asked.

Lord Arren never referred to Gabriel by name, insisting that the title was more important than his name. The rest of the family had followed suit and now none referred to Gabriel by name aside from himself.

“I have,” Gabriel replied shortly.

“Show me,” the old man demanded and Gabriel knew he’d been able to find no fault with Gabriel’s appearance or manner.

Gabriel reached with his mind and formed a gate a step to his left, then rapid fire he pulled another and another, moving around the room in flashes, first here and then in a blink of an eye two steps beyond, all the while moving between his grandfather’s office and an alternate dimension that was vastly different. Gabriel paid no mind the the dimension he was using to play the trick, it was barren but for some simple plant life and didn’t require his attention. Instead he was focused on the brief flashes of his grandfather he saw as he moved from one place to another. The final gate brought him back to precisely the spot he’d started in and he stepped back into place, resuming the same straight shouldered pose he’d had before.

Lord Arren’s face was impassive but Gabriel had seen his eyes widen mid-way through the maneuver and he knew he’d managed to surprise his grandfather.

“How many gates was that, fifteen?” the older man queried, throwing out a guess.

“Thirty,” Gabriel replied, allowing no trace of pride to show on his face.

To pull up thirty gates in under five minutes was completely unheard of in his family, even for the original users of the gates. It was just another sign of the prodigy he was, but Gabriel expected no praise for the fete.

“Hmpf, seems wasteful,” the old man grumbled, ignoring that he’d been the one to ask Gabriel to prove himself.

The older man shuffled some papers around on his desk, then picked up a glossy photo, the vivid color and fine texture of the paper at odds with the style of clothing and look of the woman pictured in it.

Gabriel just barely stopped the grimace from manifesting on his face. He knew what the picture signified. For once he was not to be called to task for his slowness at introducing himself to the colony leaders or grilled over the exchange rate for gold and silver in the various colonies, instead something far more horrible was coming.

“This is your third cousin Adah. She is four and twenty and has already born three children for her husband, all with mild sympathy for the gate. They have already agreed to the dissolution of their marriage. Her current husband will work as one of your aides and her children will be adopted into the main family,” the older man’s eyes were challenging Gabriel, daring him to object.

“When are they expected to arrive?” Gabriel questioned in a bored tone and was satisfied to see his grandfather’s jaw tighten in frustration.

In truth Gabriel felt like vomiting. He’d known for a while that his grandfather was plotting this. Wishing to breed Gabriel like a prize stallion. He’d tried many times already, encouraging maids to seduce him and even hiring a professional to try and spark his interest in women, but Gabriel had spent so much of his childhood suppressing his own needs and desires that he was unable to become aroused and every effort had failed. In a way Gabriel took a sick sort of satisfaction in that. He wanted nothing to do with carrying on the family name and the thought of producing a child that shared his gift and cursing them with the terrible responsibility of the family made him ill. That his grandfather would go so far with his desperate breeding plan as to break up a marriage only added to his disgust. But he didn’t dare let that show on his face, so he maintained his bored facade.

“You have six more months of freedom,” his grandfather answered, “after that you will be wed to your cousin and announced to be the new head of the family.”

The man made a little flick of his fingers that indicated that Gabriel was dismissed. Instead of walking from the room Gabriel pulled up a gate and stepped through it, not bothering to even properly visualize it’s destination. As soon as he was out of sight he started shaking with terror, an emotional reaction he could not seem to control. He wanted to run away. He’d never suspected that his grandfather would hand over the title so soon. His grandfather was old, very old, but member’s of the Arren family lived a long time, some of them as much as 300 years. Mentally Gabriel reviewed the things he’d noticed about his grandfather during the meeting. Was the old man nearing the end of his life span? There had been a faint yellowing to his skin, perhaps a hint of fragility to his wrist that had not been there before. If he thought the end of his life was approaching, he would wish to see the family safely transferred over before that happened. Gabriel had always known he’d have to take over the family eventually, but the reality of it being so close made him feel unbalanced, as if the whole world was tipping beneath him.

“What can I do? How do I escape?”

No solutions occurred to him. Without a talented Lord Arren in charge, his family and all the colonies that depended on them would fall and there were none that could pick up the pieces should he abandon them. Only his massive talent could make up for the lack of Arren’s born able to use the gate. Without constant maintenance the huge permanent gates that linked one colony to the next would fail, without a powerful and impartial Arren in charge, the colonies would take the chance to attack each other and wage war. This was his responsibility, the burden laden onto him, the price of the massive power he’d been given and he wanted none of it.

Gabriel randomly opened another gate and drifted through. For the next few days he travelled that way, just wandering the worlds that opened to him. Tramping through deserted wilderness and beautiful meadows, then winding down busy city streets. He didn’t return home, not even to get food or change his clothes, but just purchased what he needed along the way.

He gradually found himself frequenting more and more populated worlds. He found several that matched closely with the history of his own dimension and for a moment he gave into temptation, finding moments that echoed strongly in history, and trying to change them, creating ripples, echoes through the gates. He skipped through dimensions that were too close to each other, ignoring the rules governing the use of the gate that forbid just that. He tried to create a paradox, just to see what would happen, but managed to create nothing more than more ripples. He stared too close into the being of the gate, let it always be half open in this mind, so that he could see all the potential, all the possibilities as they fractured out from each new change. It was in the back of his mind, all the warnings about the gates, the worries that they could drive a person mad and perhaps on some level that’s what Gabriel wanted. If he was mad, then they couldn’t lever this huge responsibility onto him, or perhaps he would be able to stop caring that they did and just accept it with grace. Finally he got bored of his manipulations. The wandering made him aware of this aching loneliness within him, something that never dissipated even when he was surrounded by people. A feeling that he realized now had been with him his whole life. He thought about returning home, but he’d determined that he would wander until the last possible moment, enjoying his freedom until it was snatched from him. He travelled a thread of echo’s in the gate, worlds where technology thrived, each one more advanced than the next. His curiosity driving him to see if perhaps in some future mankind had managed to reach the peak of technology without killing themselves and their world unlike his own people in the past.  

In that way he stumbled one day only two weeks before he was set to return home,onto a dead lifeless planet. The air was acrid and his lungs burned to breathe it.

For a moment he nearly pulled up a gate on the spot to leave, but the potential of this place should have been high for both technology and humanities survival and curiosity welled within him. Looking about carefully for some sign of the inhabitants of this place he spotted a cave opening in the rocks nearby with markings all about it and entered. He traveled down through the cave, to another, then another until the light faded and his eyes could no longer adjust.  The world was finally black and far from being frightened he found the blackness soothed his soul. The air had cleared the further down he’d travelled, but the toxic fumes he’d breathed before had left his chest feeling weak. Sagging back against the rock of the cave wall, he closed his eyes a moment and thought again of leaving. A gate could take him swiftly elsewhere, even home to see his kin, but hopelessness crept upon him. Why return to the light when it brought him no joy or comfort? The blackness was a welcome relief, a place to struggle with his demons where none could see his face. He need not even acknowledge if tears trickled from his eyes and his grandfather should never see into this darkness to berate him.

He cursed the weakness that was inside of him, his inability to completely become what his grandfather had required of him, to become what the family needed him to be. Despite his efforts to quell his own feelings and desires, always, always the emotions boiled back up within him; powerful things that clouded his judgement, made him afraid and corrupted his heart with desire.

Frantically he tore at his emotions, trying to rip out the softness, the fear. He searched within himself for the strength to do what needed to be done, but found nothing. Only a vast aching need for acceptance and love and a frantic desire to have this burden lifted from his shoulders.

For a moment perhaps he slept, drifting in and out with his thoughts, his body slumped down to sit on the cool stone floor. He slipped into a dream, a memory of his mother holding him gentle and sweet against her and the warmth of a hand that stroked his hair. He woke with a startled shout of denial at the falseness of the dream. His mother had never treated him gently. She’d had no interest in the child she’d born and had left him for his grandfather to raise shortly after his birth. Had the woman of his dream been one of his nursemaids? He tried to bring the details of the dream into sharp focus, tried to match what he could with his childhood memories but nothing matched up. None of his nursemaids had had such large gentle hands, or soft moonlight hair.

Shaking his head to try and clear it, an awareness creeped up on Gabriel and suddenly he was sure that he was no longer alone.

Part Two

“Hello?” he asked the silence.

“Who is there?” he questioned, his tone immediately taking on a note of command to hide his disquiet. He was at a serious disadvantage in the dark should something choose to attack him, but more importantly whoever was there had witnessed him in a moment of weakness, something that was completely untenable.

From a distance there came a rustling and a strange shhhhk sound, then a bright pinpoint of light seared Gabriel’s eyes. The tiny light reflected off long pale hair and briefly a humanoid face was lit, then the figure bent, shielding the light from view.

Even tiny and shielded, the light was enough to give Gabriel more of an impression of the cave he was in. It was long and narrow, the floor sloping gradually down. In truth it looked more like a man-formed passageway than a natural cave, even the floors seemed unnaturally smooth.

The figure was at the far end where the cave made a turn before presumably continuing on.  The light grew brighter and then the figure stood and Gabriel realized they were now holding a torch.

The increased light was enough to be able to tell that it was a man rather than a woman. A dark beard hid his jaw and chin, but his hair appeared white in contrast. His body was encased in very tight fitting black clothing and he carried a strange long handled hook on his back. Light gleamed in a bright pinpoint off the side of his nose.

He drew closer cautiously, several times stopping to bend down and tap his fingers against the wall or floor or pausing to use his foot to do the same.

He would look at Gabriel after, as if waiting for a reaction before frowning and continuing on. Gabriel noted those frowns and felt his spine stiffen in reaction to them. Before he knew it he’d taken on the expressionless mask he wore for his grandfather, allowing no hint of emotions to shine through.

Finally the man was close enough that Gabriel could see his eyes. They were a bright reflective gold, like those of a cat and the pupils reacted to the light like a cat’s as well, narrowing to a slit. The man’s face was bright and inquisitive, his expressions wide and varied and as he drew closer, Gabriel got to see a range of those expressions. His eyes took in Gabriel’s clothing, the state of his shoes, his mop of dark curly hair and his face nearly transmitted his thoughts with it’s expressions of surprise and wonder. But most intensely he searched Gabriel’s face, his own eyebrows quirking up and down, his eyes widening and narrowing, an intricate dance of facial muscles as if hoping to inspire Gabriel’s face to move.

When he reached Gabriel’s side, he squatted down, bringing him to Gabriel’s level, and tapped the floor once more. Gabriel could see now that both of the man’s nostrils were pierced, the strangely designed studs laying flush against his skin, and he had several earrings in each ear. His cheekbones were high, and his face very fine aside from the dark beard that obscured it. He tilted his head his expression going quiet for once and he repeated the pattern against the floor two more times with subtle variations to it, before pausing meeting Gabriel’s eyes with expectation.

Gabriel reached down and cautiously tapped his finger against the cool stone floor, trying to mimic the rhythm he heard.

The man made a grimace of distaste and Gabriel immediately stopped.

“I don’t know what this means,” he said in a quiet voice miming the tapping again but not making contact with the floor, “but thank you for bringing the torch.”

“T....tor,” the man repeated the sound and his head tilted the other way. He inched closer, and Gabriel felt his body tense in reaction. Whatever his peaceful manner at the moment, this man was clearly a predator and Gabriel’s instincts recognized that.

The man leaned very close to Gabriel’s face and then breathed out, his breath washing across Gabriel’s cheeks. Gabriel stilled his shudder of revulsion by sheer force of will. He hated having people in his space, let alone close enough to feel and smell their breath. He unconsciously held his own breath and when the man drew back he felt his lungs protest the lack of air, still irritated from exposure to the surface. He fell to coughing, a nasty wheezing echoing from deep in his lungs. The man’s eyes widened in alarm and he grabbed Gabriel’s arm suddenly, motioning up the cave, then pointing to Gabriel.

He repeated the gesture this time mimicking walking with his fingers, his face questioning.

Glad for once that the communication was something he understood, Gabriel nodded an affirmative

“Yes, I came down from the surface,” he answered verbally as well.

The man’s face drained of color and he grabbed Gabriel by the shoulders, squeezing him in a tight hug before he stood abruptly dragging Gabriel to his feet with him.

Gabriel felt himself reeling slightly, taken aback by the man’s sudden and undesired physical contact as well as by the man’s unnatural strength.  He was inhumanly strong, pulling Gabriel up as if he were light as a feather.

Still holding Gabriel’s arm, the man with the torch swiftly started moving downhill and further into the caves, dragging Gabriel along with him. Briefly Gabriel thought to flee the strange and overly demonstrative man, he could gate home at any time, but a sense of adventure had already taken hold of him. How long had it been since he’d actually wished to explore something? He’d been travelling the gates freely since he was twelve and already a sense of ennui had struck him. This was his final adventure and at last, so close to the end there was something to hold his attention.

Now that he was up and moving, Gabriel found his lungs protesting once again and soon he was doubled over coughing. The other man paused, worry reflected in his eyes, but pulled Gabriel on as soon as he caught his breath.

Twice more the coughing fits struck Gabriel, each time a little worse and Gabriel felt a pang of concern at their severity. The coughing settled into a low wheeze deep in his chest with sudden spasmatic coughs that crawled their way to the surface, but then just as suddenly as they had started up, the coughing began to ease. The man with the torch turned a corner in the passageway and abruptly stopped. The passageway ahead was full of strange soft growths coming out from the walls and ceiling. They glowed a soft white and looked like a cross between a sea anemone and some kind of fungus. The white haired man led Gabriel over to a bare patch on the wall, right in the thick of all that swaying white and gestured for him to sit. Staring suspiciously at the strange flora, Gabriel did so. He might not have been so compliant, but he’d already noticed the tightness in his chest easing and he suspected the flora was clearing the air somehow. The man mimed taking deep breaths and Gabriel followed him, until the last of the tickles disappeared in his chest and his throat felt clear. The man gave a huge grin, and gently stroked Gabriel’s head as if he were a well behaved spaniel. Gabriel jerked as if shocked at the caress and for once didn’t restrain his glower. Trying his best with his body language to indicate that he didn’t wish to be touched.

The man seemed amused by his expression and gave his head another pat before handing him the torch and motioning him to stay sitting against the wall. Gabriel stiffened further at the man’s outrageous attitude. He’d never in his life dealt with someone who touched him so nonchalantly.

The man had turned away before Gabriel was able to form verbal protest. He squatted with a casual grace, and began harvesting the smallest of the growths from the very base of the wall across from where Gabriel was sitting, plucking them off with gentle fingers. He pulled about twenty of the fragile things and then returned to Gabriel’s side with them.

Gabriel watched in awe and a little horror as the small creatures feebly wiggled and twitched on the other man’s hand in sad mockery of their normal graceful swaying. He felt his eyes go even wider as the man brought one of the things to his mouth.

“Does he expect me to eat them?”

But instead of eating the creature, the other man licked the end of it where it had been attached to the wall, then moving swiftly he pressed it against the standing collar on Gabriel’s jacket.

He leaned back again once he was sure the small creature was secure and met Gabriel’s eyes, looking for comprehension, his mobile face caught somewhere between intent and amusement. Gabriel was positive then that the man was enjoying his discomfort.

Rather than let the man invade his space again, Gabriel calmly thrust the torch back into his free hand and picked up one of the tiny creatures himself raising it to his mouth. As best he could reason, from the other man’s actions, the small ones would act as a personal air filtration system for him as he travelled. The idea of having them attached to his collar was somewhat alarming, but better than being unable to breathe.

With precise motions Gabriel licked the creature, surprised that there was utterly no taste to the thing and pressed it to his collar, being firm, but gentle.

He would have reached for another, but the man, evidently pleased at his understanding suddenly grinned again showing slightly pointed canines and stroked a hand down the side of his face.

Gabriel lurched his head back frantically taken by surprise. The man had a way of moving that he was completely unable to anticipate.

“How’d he manage to free up a hand? Why the hell didn’t I see him do it?”

Gabriel was alarmed by his lack of ability to read the man and he found the constant touching an affront on his dignity.

Before he could recover his normal calm, the man was handing him another of the small creatures, before taking one himself. He affixed the creatures on the right side of his collar while Gabriel worked on the left side. As Gabriel reached up to affix the next in line, he could feel the previous one sway over to stroke its cilia across his fingers. It seemed to greet the one he placed beside it and the feathery soft feel across his fingers was somehow faintly calming.

By the time Gabriel had finished affixing a double row of the small beings on his collar he found that his calm had returned entirely despite the proximity of the other man.

When the man finished his task, he lingered closer, his fingers stroking the side of Gabriel’s neck, and his face intent as he waited for reaction. This time Gabriel was able to maintain his calm simply picking up the torch from where it rested on the floor near them and shoving it towards the other man.

“Here, torch,” he said in a commanding tone, then gathering his legs under him he rose to his feet with as much grace as he could muster.

The man gave him a slightly confused and disappointed look, but accepted the torch, rising to his feet as well and after a moment, turning to lead the way.

Time stretched out in a near meaningless fashion as they travelled deeper and deeper underground. The passageways they traversed were nothing short of a maze and if Gabriel had not had the option to simply gate out at any moment, he might have begun to panic, for he had no idea how to return to the surface any longer. The going was at times very treacherous, and Gabriel took to calling out “Torch!” whenever the other man got to far away from him, for fear he would not see the danger ahead.

The only way Gabriel could mark the passage of time, was by how often they stopped to eat. The man was carrying rations as well as water. The water was a limited supply though, so as often as possible they stopped by underground rivers and lakes to refill the man’s filtration system.

Whatever he’d been out doing, the man had clearly been prepared for a long journey, for he easily carried enough food for them both, and Gabriel was grateful he didn’t have to try and sneak food through a gate for himself, for the other man was watching him like a hawk, his eyes studying Gabriel at every opportunity.

Despite this the journey was really quite fun and for the first time in a long time Gabriel found he was enjoying himself. The cave system was remarkably beautiful in stark and harsh way. There was a  much wider variety of life living within than Gabriel ever would have suspected. Fungi and strange white plant life grew wherever there was a source of water and insects, fish and small alien looking creatures ran rampant among it. Despite their lack of communication and the other man’s propensity for touching, Gabriel found him a good travelling companion, quick to point out an interesting sight and shooing him away from danger.

Each time they stopped to eat, the man would pull out one of his piercings and tinker with it.

Gabriel was very startled the first time he saw the piercing actually open. Inside was a tiny circuit and suddenly Gabriel was reminded that this was supposed to be a very high tech world, despite the barrenness he’d seen so far. The man had a needle-like tool he used to tinker inside each piece, and while he was working he would occasionally look over, meet Gabriel’s eyes and say “” Whereby Gabriel would nod and repeat the word back to him.

Gabriel tried a few other words as well, “food” and “water”, hoping to start teaching him his language, but the man seemed stuck on the word torch, and after some time, Gabriel just gave up and called him Torch.

It was perhaps four days later, as close as Gabriel could reckon, when in the middle of tinkering with one of the black hoops from inside his ear the man suddenly turned and said, “I’m trying to fix my translator so that we can understand each other, could you give it that word again, TORCH.” Only he didn’t say it, except for the word ‘torch’, yet the phrase was clearly his own, and in his own voice. This time it was the other man’s turn to jerk his head, his eyes going a bit wild.

“It appears to be working, but it is so very loud! Is your communication always this loud? Everything is spoken in words with the mouth, the voice? This is so awkward, I need to make some more modifications.” The last was said in a panicked tone, and the man quickly turned back to hunch over his tiny translation device.

Several awkward tries later and the man was actually speaking the correct words instead of them just appearing out of nowhere.

For the first time they were able to have a conversation and Gabriel learned of the man’s purpose. Torch told him of his family and his people. How few of them were left, how they lived in a huge cavern even deeper beneath the earth and how that cavern had grown increasingly unstable over time, the area’s around it collapsing, until now his people were desperate to find a new home.

Gabriel learned that this man, Torch, was actually a scout for his people, sent out to look for a new home, or to make contact with one of the other colonies and see if the peoples could join together. Suddenly his eagerness to help Gabriel made perfect sense. He’d been making first contact with someone he hoped might be his ally in the future.

He eagerly asked Gabriel  for information about his home, how far it was, what the people were like and how well they were surviving.

Gabriel gave no thought to the impact of his words, baldly telling Torch that he was from off-world, without going into detail of how he arrived. He rightly assumed that Torch’s people would know of space travel, even if they were not currently capable of it.

The man’s face fell at the news and it seemed Gabriel had snuffed out all the light within him. He didn’t even ask about the capacity of Gabriel’s spaceship or if that was indeed how he had arrived, just slumped down where he was sitting as if he were a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Gabriel was shocked at his reaction and at seeing this man who had been so full of life suddenly listless. A creeping feeling crawled up from his heart and he realized with shock that he felt guilt over snuffing the man’s hopes. More than guilt was a nagging desire to do something to help the man.

Gabriel didn’t want to feel pity for Torch’s plight. Pity was a weak feeling and something he thought he shouldn’t allow himself. But the plight of his people, their need to be rescued...for the first time he felt a connection to his ancestor Professor Arren. For what truly was the point in having this horrible gift, in being able to use the gate, in claiming this enormous power, if it was not for exactly this purpose: To save others. Was that not what his ancestor Professor Arren had built it for? Not to ferry merchants about and deal with petty bureaucrats, but to save whole peoples who would otherwise perish.

Gabriel clenched both his hands together in fists, then closed his eyes and looked through the gate, searching for just the right spot, a free world that he could gift to them. He found one and scanned it till he found a cave mouth, then reaching he pulled up a gate directly behind himself.

For the first time he willingly touched the other man, “Come Torch, I would show you something,” he said, grabbing the other man by the arm and pulling him through the gate with him.

Light flared up bright, though it was evening on the other world and the sun was going down.

Torch shielded his eyes frantically and then looked about in wonder through the gaps in his fingers.

“What? Where?” he questioned.

“You said you were searching for a new home,” Gabriel said calmly with a tone of authority. In this he was acting not as himself, but as a working member of the Arren family, “this will be it. There are extensive caves behind us where your people can adjust to living above surface once again if they wish. This place is untouched by man and somewhat safe, though there are predators.”

“We can handle predators!” Torch replied fiercely and squinting his eyes nearly shut, he lowered his hands from his face by sheer force of will and though his body started trembling in reaction he looked hard around himself at the beautiful landscape, at the openness, the endless sky and the towering trees that grew nearby. He drew in a deep breath of the clean unpolluted air, scrunched his feet inside his boots as if feeling the earth beneath him.

Gabriel was entranced to watch his companion and see the purpose and energy come back to life in his body.

“How...How did we come to be here and how do I bring my people here?” Torch asked finally.

“I built a gate between worlds, do not ask how, I cannot explain it to you. Suffice to say, I can return us to the cave we were in with ease, and once we reach your people, I can easily build another large enough to move them all through,” Gabriel explained, “Though they will all have to come through in one trip.”

“Just like that?” Torch questioned, “What is the price?”

Gabriel shook his head.

“It will cost you nothing, nor your people anything. Only that you acknowledge me as Lord Arren.” Gabriel intoned solemnly, following the mandates of his family.

“We will be under your rule?” Torch asked.

“No, you will rule yourself and I will have no part in that, nor any power to command you. If you wish, I will leave you there and you shall never see me again.” Gabriel inclined his head at exactly the angle his grandfather had taught him,  “But if you prefer the security of the Arren family, then you must acknowledge my family and its head as Lord Arren, and swear that you will create no title higher in the land.  I shall leave you with a way to contact me if ever you should need.”

“And if we have will come?” Torch asked him and there was a hint of wonder on his face.

“I shall, or if I cannot, I shall send a member of my family in my stead. We will help if we are able,” Gabriel inclined his head a second time. For once instead of feeling the weight of his family upon him, he felt the power and authority they held as a blessing he could promise upon these people.

“If the help requires the intervention of one of the other colonies,” he continued, “then we might call upon your colony later to help in turn, but no tithes will be required of you unless you wish a permanent gate to be built to the other colonies.” Gabriel explained carefully.

Torch raised his hand to his head as if overwhelmed, then before Gabriel could react, he launched himself tackling Gabriel in a bear hug that made his ribs groan in protest.

“This is such hope for my people! We can survive, more than survive, we can truly live,” he buried his face against Gabriel’s neck, an intimacy that made all of Gabriel’s cool pride shatter. Flustered and off-balance with his emotions rising, Gabriel listened to Torch’s choked whisper.

“I knew I should trust in you, from the moment I met you I believed you to be a sign of hope for us, thank you...thank you.”

After a moment Torch seemed to regain his composure, pulling back to meet Gabriel’s eyes.

Gabriel felt buffeted by the man’s strong emotions, the trust and hope he saw there. Part of him cringed back at the weight of responsibility he’d just added to his load, but another part of him gloried in feeling so useful and wanted.  To receive thanks for his deeds was a heady feeling, and Gabriel felt himself grow light headed from it.

“Explain more of that to me on the way,” Torch begged and Gabriel understood his sense of urgency to get back to his people, now that he had a way to save them.

Gabriel led him back through the gate, glad he had left it open. It was always chancy opening one of the gates so far underground. To travel from such a gate held little danger, but to travel to it...the likelihood that the gate would open not in the tunnel, but instead in the wall, or the floor or even the ceiling was high. For most of the Arren family it was simply impossible to do. They required a gate that moved from the same relative space in that dimension too the one they were travelling in and that generally expected that a person would be travelling from the surface of the planet TO the same piece of surface, however changed it might be. But Gabriel was not bound by those laws. He could see through the gate to where he needed to go and thus open a gate almost anywhere, regardless of his starting point, but still...caves scared him. It was very difficult to see, even through the power of the gate where it was you were going to end up, when the destination was miles beneath the surface of the earth. Once on the other side, Gabriel collapsed the gate and they erased the signs of their camp as Torch was eager to set out immediately.

For the next three days they travelled at a heightened pace, heading down, down, and yet further down. Gabriel found himself distracted from their journey by his own emotions and the strange sense of purpose within him. It felt almost like he’d pulled back from a precipice, as if in doing this, in saving these people he would somehow save himself as well..

When they were only two days out from Torch’s people, the quakes began. First it was mild, just a hint of shaking, a rumble in the distance and the scent of dust clogging the air, but the closer they came to his homeland, the worse the quakes became. They were travelling now at a breakneck speed, almost running through the passageways and more than once Gabriel thought they would come to their deaths crushed beneath the rocks as the quakes shook the tunnels, and made the ceiling groan above them. He was very glad that they had managed to pick up an extra torch for him to carry so at least he could see where he was going as his companion raced on ahead.

They reached a farflung and now abandoned outpost of Torch’s city and it was there, as they passed through the twisted caverns half collapsed with debris all about that it happened.

One moment Torch’s bright white hair was gleaming before him in the flickering torch light and the next it was gone.Swinging his own torch frantically about Gabriel finally spotted him dropped off the ledge they were travelling to the ravine below and surrounded by foul dark creatures with glowing eyes and huge claws. In that moment Gabriel didn’t think, he simply yanked the sharp dagger out of his boot and dropped down amongst them, stabbing one through the back of the neck, then swinging his torch around to give himself space and lunging for the next one.

He killed four of them in rapid succession, while trying to keep them off the unconscious Torch, but there were two more and now they were aware of his movements and watching him with eerily intelligent eyes.

They both attacked him at once and Gabriel used his torch as a cudgel to lash out at one while slashing the other with his blade. He managed to kill the one he’d sliced with his blade, but the other took the blow from the torch and kept coming, slicing at his face as he grappled with it. The world went red as blood suddenly washed down into his eye, and Gabriel frantically leaped towards the beast instead of retreating, getting lucky with a strike, he took out one of the beast’s huge glowing eyes. The monster gave a strange yelping cough, and then retreated quickly glaring at him from it’s good eye.

Covered now in the monster’s thick blood, with his own streaming down his face and a hot fire coming from the area that went beyond just a flesh wound, Gabriel staggered to Torch’s body, and hefting him by one arm, drug him through the gate he’d just built and back onto the safe cave floor of the new homeland he’d chosen for Torch’s people.

He checked Torch’s head and found a good size lump at the back, but otherwise the man was rather miraculously injury free, only a few bumps and bruises from his tumble into the ravine and subsequent squabbling over him by the monsters.

The same could not be said about Gabriel and just as he was thinking that perhaps he should have taken them both to his own home instead, a blackness came rushing up out of nowhere and swallowed him whole.

Part Three

Gabriel floated up out of darkness, tormented by some agony that clawed at this face, and wracked his body with tremors. He wished to sink back down into oblivion and away from the pain, but a hoarse pleading voice and a constant rhythmic vibration against his skin would not let him be.

After some time struggling he managed to open his eyes. It was dark, but bright moonlight shone down and lit the hair of the man that crouched near him.

Swallowing with difficulty against the painful feeling in his throat, Gabriel managed to force out “How long?”

Torch swung around to face him, then with a cry he clasped Gabriel to him, squeezing him tightly.

“You are alive, thank goodness you are alive. We must hurry back to the caves, to my home world. We must go now!”

Gabriel understood his sense of urgency, but he was slightly disgruntled as well. He currently felt as if he might genuinely be dying, yet this man cared only to return to his people.

He tried to lever himself up and failed.

“Don’t try and get up, I’ll carry you. Simply tell me where the portal is. We must return immediately,” Torch said.

“I closed it,” Gabriel answered flatly, “those creatures might have tried to follow us through, I had no choice.”

“Then how do we get back?” Torch questioned his voice filled with panic. Gabriel felt like panicking himself. Trying to gate back into a cave system was bad enough, but with his mind so muddled he was likely to kill them both. He pondered telling Torch that it was simply impossible, but decided he should at least try and explain.

“We will have to wait until my mind is clear enough to attempt another gate and even then we’ll have to test it carefully before going through ourselves.  Building a gate down into a cave system like that is very dangerous, we might end up half buried in the rock with no way out or worse.” Gabriel explained patiently. His head was throbbing and the walls of the cave kept spinning around him. The more he spoke the more a fire lit upon his face and for once his expressionlessness was a true blessing, for the muscles of his face barely moved.

“If we wait, your mind will only muddy further,” Torch said his tone full of despair, “the poison on the claws of those beasts is deadly and the longer it is in your system, the harder it will be to treat. The cure...the cure is in the caves, I can get it for you, but...we have to be there! I know not if it even exists on this world, it is something we specially cultivated to grow there and even if it were here, I know not where to find it.”

Gabriel stared at Torch as comprehension slowly sank in and he felt a moment of shame as he realized how much he’d misjudged the other man. Then the urgency of their situation truly hit him. What was the chance that they had an appropriate anti-toxin or anti-venom at home that would work? If they didn’t, how long would it take to manufacture one and how long before the poison in his system would claim his life. Instead of gating them both to his home he turned his eyes inward, searching through the gate for their route back. But the caves they had left were a blur in his mind and he could latch onto no secure place to put the other end of the portal. The possibilities fluctuating too greatly and the line between open space and solid rock blurring to his perception.

He searched again and felt dizziness come in waves, distorting even his vision of the worlds through the gate...but then he perceived that some of that distortion was not dizziness at all, but rather a slight ripple left by the the last gate he had set here.

Panting with effort he created the gate following the template left by the ripples of the older one, and then clutching Torch’s hand, he pointed to it and whispered, “Same gate as before, to the same spot...the best I can do,” before the blackness reached up with dark claws and took him entirely.

Gabriel once again swam in darkness, but now the fire in his face had eased. It was a sickening pain in his stomach and a sense of nausea that brought him to the surface.

The first thing to meet his eyes made no sense to Gabriel’s addled brain and he stared a long moment, his head swaying with some motion, before he realized he was staring at the curves of Torch’s a*s from above with his legs flashing below as he half ran, half walked.

The pain in his stomach resolved into Torch’s shoulder where it jabbed him as he was carried and the nausea was no doubt induced by the swaying.

Struggling a bit, Gabriel pushed himself up slightly, by pressing his hands against Torch’s strongly muscled back, and then yelped when the man squeezed his hand around Gabriel’s thigh in response.

“Let me down,” Gabriel tried for the words, but all that came out of his mouth was a dry croak.

“We will rest ahead, so please hold on for now,” Torch informed him.

Gabriel didn’t recognize the caves they were in, but judging by the way the walls shook, they must have travelled far while he was unconscious. That, or more of the cave system had gone unstable while they were gone.

They reached a larger cavern with a quiet pool of water, and Torch gently slid Gabriel off his shoulder, careful not to jar him, and propped him against the wall.

He moved off swiftly, stretching his shoulder, headed for the water and Gabriel found his mind drifting towards blackness, now that the world wasn’t lurching beneath him with each step of  Torch’s stride.

Another tremor woke him quickly and his eyes snapped open to assess their danger.

“Are we close to your people?” Gabriel asked, the chamber was one he didn’t recognize at all, and with a source of water they would have stopped here on their previous journey if they had come this way. Torch must have found them a different route.

“Yes,” Torch said, his face very tight and troubled, “But three of the routes to them were blocked by rockfall. The whole area has gone massively unstable.”

“How long was I out for?” Gabriel asked in shock.

“Four days.”

“You’ve been carrying me that whole time?” Gabriel asked in alarm.

“I took breaks,” Torch said mildly.

“How...” Gabriel trailed off without completing his question, but Torch answered anyways.

“My people were bred that way, to be strong, fast, hardy. Our eyesight, hearing and sense of smell are sharper and more acute. We can run faster, our bones are very dense so they don’t break easily,” Torch’s voice took on a fond note of pride, but his eyes were distant as if he were talking about someone else and not his own race, “We live much longer lives as well,” he finished finally.

“Any downsides to that?” Gabriel questioned, glad at least that the conversation was clearing his head.

“We can’t swim,” Torch answered with a wry smile, “We sink like a stone and we’re heavier than we look.”

The man’s face was went still and he lowered his head a bit, white hair falling forward to shadow his face.

“And there’s infertility,” he said finally his voice very soft, “many of us are born infertile and thus our numbers are fewer every year.”

The way he spoke gave Gabriel the hint that this was likely a problem that had touched Torch personally. The expectant silence that followed made it clear Torch was willing to open up if Gabriel should ask him about it, but Gabriel had a good idea they wouldn’t see eye to eye on the issue. An infertile man that wished desperately for the ability to help continue his race, would not likely sympathize with a boy who desperately wished to get out of carrying on his own family name even if it did come packaged as “my grandfather wants me to f**k my cousin.”

“Well,” Torch continued after a moment of awkward silence.

To cover his discomfort he began tending to Gabriel checking his wound, taking his pulse and checking the temperature of his skin.

“Are you good to carry on?” Torch asked when he was finished.

The white haired man stretched and Gabriel couldn’t help but ponder again how the man had carried him such a distance. Surely it must have been taxing, even to one of Torch’s strength. But the man’s urgency to reach his people was clear.

Gabriel’s own anxiety about the fate of Torch’s people was rising by the moment and another small quake was enough to convince him that they dare not linger.

“Let’s go,” he said, pushing himself to his feet despite the weakness in his muscles, “If I collapse again, then carry me,  but I think we must hurry to get there in time.”

Now that he was conscious Gabriel could feel it, a moment of importance coming, a moment that would resonate so strongly as to create echoes of this world.

Torch took Gabriel’s hand and they started travelling. Slow at first, but then with more speed as Gabriel pushed the stiffness out of his muscles.

It was not long before his whole body was one screaming mass of pain and he felt like he would have given almost anything to stop, but he knew they didn’t dare.

“Tell me more about your people,” he asked Torch between panting breaths, needing the distraction so that he could keep going.

Torch looked at him a moment, weighing the threat of making extra noise as they travelled against the good it would do to keep his companion on his feet. Finally he gave a nod, and picking up the pace once more, he began to tell Gabriel of his people, starting with his own family and his two beloved younger sisters and smart beautiful older sister. They were the pride of the colony, genetically fit and sound with full capacity fertility. He spoke of the nephew his older sister had already bore, much beloved and future hope for the colony. It was immediately clear that Torch treasured his family. That he adored them and was adored in turn. Gabriel felt a pang of ugly emotion at that, something that resembled jealousy or envy, but he squashed it down. To ward off the ugly emotion, he asked more questions this time less personal, about their culture, about their language. He learned that the rhythm that Torch had so repeatedly greeted him with, tapped upon the rocks was part of a complicated distance language his people had created, and that much of their language was communicated through subtle vibrations during touch. Other things were communicated by scent and subtle body language and almost nothing was verbalized.

Gabriel had a moment of horror to realize he was about to greet a people who would all wish to reply by touching him or breathing on him. The thought made his skin crawl, but he hid his aversion from Torch.  At last they reached a long switchback staircase that was the last obstacle before reaching Torch’s people and they both breathed a sigh of relief to see the staircase intact and the area around it seemingly undisturbed by the recent quakes. In fact, Gabriel realized it had been quite some time since they’d felt the tremors and he hoped that meant they’d travelled out of the area that was experiencing them.

Unfortunately, not far up the staircase, Gabriel’s muscles seized. He fell to his knees, barely stopping himself in time before smashing face first into the sharp stone stairs.

Gabriel attempted to right himself and discovered he couldn’t. Swallowing his pride he turned to Torch.

“Have you the strength to carry me the rest of the way?” he asked.

Torch didn’t answer. He just scooped Gabriel up and turned to run up the stairs with him.

Gabriel could feel the hardness of the man, the unyielding determination as he ran with them both and for the first time Gabriel wished for a greater power. A power that would let him rescue this man’s people no matter what they found on the other side of the stairs. He hated this feeling of creeping anxiety and worry.

At last they reached the summit.  Ahead was a thick square door set into the stone before them. Torch moved to it and with feverish speed he tapped out a complicated rhythm over the surface of it. The door gave a hiss and then opened swinging outward. They passed through and came out upon a high ledge looking out over a vast underground cavern. Light glowed from all over and Gabriel stared in wonder as he beheld the city of Torch’s people. Torch sagged with relief to find his home intact. After a moment of ragged breathing where Gabriel was careful not to watch his face, he composed himself. He pointed to a spot in the distance where a particularly bright and beautiful structure stood, festooned with lights. Only the size of the structure allowed it to be seen at this distance.

“There. That is home,” Torch told him proudly and Gabriel regarded the structure with no little awe, for it was truly a feat of engineering. Now at last Gabriel could see the technology of these people. It could be seen in the way the buildings were constructed, in the complicated mass of reinforcement and lighting rigged to the high domed ceiling. He noted with interest tiers of crops incorporated into the walls of the cavern. Even the clever way the roofs of each dwelling became a garden was ingenious making the best use of every space.

In a way Gabriel was sad that he would be leading these people away from their home, for clearly this was a place where they had learned to live in harmony with their surroundings.

This here before him was a portrait of what the colonies should have been, the lesson they should have learned.

Torch took Gabriel very gently by the elbow, distracting him from his thoughts and they began the long trek down to the cavern floor.

They were about halfway down the slope when it began. Torch felt it first and his eyes went wide with horror, but then Gabriel felt it too, a trembling in the stone beneath them that increased and increased until they could no longer stand.

Lights overhead swayed and then came crashing down. Screams of animals and people could be heard from below. The dim white light of the plant life was suddenly snuffed out, and the cavern grew darker, as if a thunderstorm had rolled in.

The rock beneath them was shaking so fiercely that it pulled their feet from beneath them, and they could only cling on with their fingers as it tossed them about. There was a horrifying groan from the rock above them, and a loud crack, then another groan. A huge hunk of rock gave way, crashing to the cavern floor so far below and Gabriel watched in horror as it obliterated the house beneath it. Another piece of the ceiling gave way, this time very close, and a cloud of dust rose to obscure their view.

Gabriel tried to get to his feet, but failed, falling again as the rock beneath him jarred. The tang of blood filled his mouth and he looked up in time to see that the dust had cleared a little. For a moment time seemed to slow and his eyes glued to the spectacle, Gabriel watched as the rock that formed the ceiling at the far end of the cavern gave way and then like a rippling wave the ceiling poured down in a chain reaction that was headed straight across the cavern for them. The supports that were there to bolster the ceiling buckled one after another, the crushing weight above them more than they could bear now that the structural integrity of the cavern itself was destroyed.  As he watched, it methodically snuffed out the lights below, pulverizing everything beneath the weight of itself as it came crashing down.

Gabriel turned to find Torch frozen in place, just watching the spectacle from where they were clinging to the rocks, his eyes round with horror and disbelief.

Gabriel gathered himself against the rocks, feeling his bones strain as they took the force of the lurching and shaking beneath him. He waited until the moment the last light was snuffed out in the cavern before launching himself at Torch and wrapping himself around his body, propelling them both through the gate he’d just opened.

They landed in the soft grass of the west wing gardens of his family home.

Gabriel cradled the other man’s head against him to shield his eyes from the light and tried to think what he should do now.

His mind felt numb from the horror of what he’d seen and combined with the reaction to the poison, he felt like his thoughts were filled with fog. Distantly he could feel his emotions swirl. Desolation, failure, empathy and dread churned below the surface, but he ignored them. His eyes stared around him blankly and he half expected one of the servants to see him and come help. For once he didn’t mind that he might appear weak and he welcomed the interference, for he felt like what he had seen and witnessed was somehow too much for him to cope as if the weight of the roof had crushed down on some part of him, but no help arrived.

Gabriel sat that way for long minutes, shielding Torch against him, staring mindlessly at the grass, when it suddenly hit him that it had grown much too long, nearly as tall as his knees if he were standing. The servants would never allow the grass to grow so long, his grandfather would be completely affronted at the slight.

Gabriel blinked a moment, then looked about himself with more care. He noticed signs of neglect everywhere he looked, the flowers were untended, there were no signs of the animals that normally inhabited the place and aside from the birds calling in the trees there was no noise. His home was normally full of the murmuring and chattering of servants, the lowing of cows, the whickering of horses, even the annoying clucks and crows of two dozen chickens, but now there was nothing. There should be a hundred plus servants and animals here, yet it was silent as the grave.

Gabriel felt his face go stiff and artificial calm rained down on him, clearing his mind.

Something had happened to his family.

Reaching into a pocket, Gabriel pulled out a fine lace edged handkerchief and used it to bind thinly over Torch’s eyes and block some of the light, obscuring his vision slightly so he could cope better with the vastness of the sky and the openness around them..

“This is my family home,” Gabriel told him in a flat voice, “I brought us here seeking safety, but it appears something has occurred. I need to investigate where my family has gone.”

Torch suddenly rolled to his feet. His body was shaking slightly but otherwise he made no noise or indication of his thoughts, his face completely blank, like some strange reversal of the time they first met each other in the caves.. He followed as Gabriel led him across the overgrown garden and into the main house.

Four hours later Gabriel knew for sure none of his family were still there. Every servant and animal was also gone. Many things in the house were missing, but none of the things in the vaults were gone, leading Gabriel to believe there must have been some foul play at work. His family would never abandon the technology locked in those vaults.

The door to Gabriel’s room was locked shut and wouldn’t open even with his key. He finally gated himself and Torch inside. The first thing he noticed was the stench. Locked and barricaded from the inside, he found his door guarded by the body of the family’s head footman, a man who had always shown particular loyalty to Gabriel himself. The man’s stomach was bandaged, but the huge brownish stain on the floor beneath him told tale of the futility of those bindings.

“They were attacked,” Gabriel said flatly though he didn’t expect Torch to respond. The man maintained his silence, and lack of expression following only a step behind Gabriel regardless of where he had travelled in the house. Gabriel knew he should probably do something for Torch right now, talk to him and comfort him, perhaps even think about trying to take him back to his world and look for survivors. But somehow both of those options made Gabriel feel unnerved. It was far, far easier for him to focus on the mystery here then to delve into his own shattered feelings on the subject, so that is what he did, squashing all other concerns down to the darkest reaches of his soul.

They searched the house from top to bottom for clues, then baffled by what they had found and knowing they would get no more answers there, Gabriel gated them to the village below the estates that served as home for the servants of the manor.

There he found many of the family servants alive and well. The relief he felt on finding them surprised him and under the cold facade he was trying to maintain, he told himself he was simply glad they were there to be sources of information for him. He located and spoke to several members of the staff and he was able to begin piecing the story together.

One after another his family members had fallen ill, or gone missing. Much of the family had been en route to the estate to gather for Gabriel’s upcoming wedding and simply vanished along the way. His grandfather had quickly gathered the last of the family together and barricaded them inside the house, much to the servants dismay, but that night the old man had died, his heart giving out and the rest of the family fell into chaos. Many of the remaining family fled the house only to disappear themselves, with no reports that they had made it home.  Others stayed only to fall ill. In the end soldiers disguised as bandits stormed the house, slaughtering all the family that remained and the servants had fled, abandoning the remaining Arren’s to their doom.

Gabriel returned to the manor with Torch. He needed to be sure that his family was truly gone and that none had taken refuge in any of the families secret retreats or hideaways. But Torch was looking paler than death, though he still had not spoke and Gabriel knew he needed to do something for him. He took the man down to the lowest levels of the house where the family vaults and medical center were located. It was a place full of lost technology and one of the  few places in the house that the bandits had clearly not known about, for there was no sign of their pilfering and the secret door to the place was still closed and locked. Gabriel was unsurprised that his family had failed to use the safe spot to hole up. Only the gifted members of the family and the two highest ranked servants were even aware of the rooms and from the stories the servants had told, the gifted members of his family had died first.

He led Torch into the medical center and guiding him gently by the hand led him to lay down on one of the cots there. He gave Torch a sedative and watched to be sure that Torch’s vital’s remained normal as he drifted off into a deep slumber. He left Torch sleeping and ignoring his own exhaustion, quickly travelled by gate to look for some sign of his family.

There was not a single sign of them, not even their bodies.  The entire family was missing down to every last fourth cousin twice removed that he’d been forced to memorize by his grandfather. More than that, every personal gate device that the talented members of his family had carried was also missing and that gave clue to the game. The devices had been stolen before by greedy men hoping to use their power. Even the original Infinity Gate device had been stolen from Professor Arren, but none but Gabriel’s family could use it, regardless of how hard they tried and how much they studied. Gabriel made a mental note to try and get the tracking computer back up and running, it had been built for exactly the purpose of tracking any missing devices and though it only worked on the original colony worlds, it might yet lead him to some information on who had destroyed his family. For one thing was certain, Gabriel’s family was dead. The Arren’s were singular entities within the gates, even the non-gifted members of the family. They created no echoes and their presence sang out to him regardless of where amongst the worlds they might go. Even without travelling, even without collecting the stories of the servants, Gabriel had known they were gone but still he had to look for himself and be sure.

Confirmation had only served to add to the numb void within him, like the soft lights of Torch’s city snuffed out by blackness. Gabriel felt lost, as if his spirit had also been snuffed out, yet he continued to shamble on in some weird parody of a living thing.

He returned home. He wanted to curl up in his bed, sleep...try not to dream, try not to think, but there was a dead man in his rooms.

Gabriel wrinkled his nose in disgust at his thoughts.

Some little inner voice berated him for the expression and he forced his face into stillness only to remember that there was no one left to see if he showed a little weakness if he had an expression.

Still, the cold mask felt stronger than his puling emotions, so he left it in place.

He joined Torch on the cot in the medical bay, choosing to lay close to the man so that he could monitor him as he slept.

He needed to sleep before he could decide the future.

Gabriel closed his eyes and felt the world spinning about him. He reached with one finger to gently touch the gate device that hung from his own ear as blackness swam up to claim his exhausted mind.

A gentle rap at the door woke Gabriel from his sleep. He recognized the precise tapping sound as it was exactly the way the head butler had trained his staff to knock before entering a room.

Struggling out of sleep, Gabriel found himself suffocatingly hot. Torch was wrapped tightly around him, clinging to his body and shaking slightly even in his sleep. Gabriel levered himself up out of the other man’s arms and cringed a little as the other man whimpered at the loss.

Moving carefully on sleep stiff muscles, Gabriel moved to the door and taking a moment to be sure his weakness didn’t show, he opened it to find the calm face of the head butler waiting for him.

“I brought your tea, Lord Arren,” the man said calmly, as if everything were normal and the house wasn’t ransacked and abandoned.

Gabriel managed to nod politely the way his grandfather had taught him, all the while his mind was racing.

He gracefully accepted a teacup along with one of the delicate cakes and settled back against a nearby hospital cot to enjoy it.

He watched the man’s face carefully as he deliberately took a big bite of the cake, then chased it down with a good sized gulp of the tea. He took another more moderate sip before speaking.

“If, as I suspect, the majority of the family were poisoned, rather than contracting a natural illness, you would be my prime suspect for administering it,” he said nonchalantly, taking another bite of the cake.

He allowed a hint of deadly intent to enter the dark pools of his eyes.

“Yes my lord,” the older man said unruffled, “but I suspect it was actually footman Godfey, head  footman Winstone and chambermaid Kerry who completed the deed. They have disappeared, and no signs of their bodies were found.”

“You investigated?” Gabriel questioned.

“I did, sir,” the man answered with dignity, “I have served this family my whole life. I could not let them pass without searching for answers.”

A noise from behind him made Gabriel turn and he caught sight of Torch thrashing on the bed.

“Go,” he commanded perfunctorily, waving the servant to leave.

“Wait,” he called back over his shoulder, “did the rest of the staff return?”

The head butler inclined his head.

“You’ll find Head Footman Winstone in my rooms, I suspect from the nature of his injuries that he was indeed loyal. Please deal with that first before tending to the rest of the house,” he commanded. Then keeping a close eye on Torch, he locked the door to the room before returning to the white haired man’s side.

Torch’s body thrashed on the cot, his legs jerking and twitching. Sweat had broken out all over his body and his eyes moved frantically beneath the closed lids. Yet he made not a single sound above the hiss of his body against the fabric of the cot and the occasional dull thump he made hitting it.

Gabriel reached out a hand to feel Torch’s forehead and bright gold eyes snapped open locking on his. For a moment Torch was there, alive and aware. Then like the fog rolling in, dullness came over his eyes and all his vitality faded away.

Suddenly desperate to halt that, Gabriel grabbed Torch’s hand and squeezed it tightly.

“I’ll take you back, we’ll find survivors,” he promised recklessly..

“No,” Torch croaked, “they are all dead.”

“You don’t know that!” Gabriel insisted, though some part of him was sure it was the truth, “there could be survivors in the rubble. We’ve been away less than a day, if we return we might be able to save some.”

Torch met his eyes firmly, “They are all dead,” he said with a note of finality.

For a moment it was as if there were a thousand voices shouting in Gabriel’s head. He could not order his thoughts as they spun out in many directions. Unable to deduce the correct answer he blindly chose one and spoke it.

“What then would you have me do with you?” he asked the white haired man.

“Save me?” Torch whispered, as if he didn’t understand the meaning of the words.

“I can’t save anyone,” Gabriel answered and the truth in that echoed in his head, killing all hope in it’s path. Yet part of him was still clinging to the desire, the need.

Torch regarded Gabriel, his normally mobile face still dead and lifeless. Slowly he cocked his head to one side, then the other,finally he nodded to himself as if reaching a decision.

“Your family is gone,” he spoke the words as fact rather than question.

“Yes,” Gabriel answered.

“Mine too,” Torch said simply.

He crawled off the cot and knelt down on the floor.

Then he lowered his body till his forehead rested atop one of Gabriel’s boots.

Reaching with an awkward hand he grabbed his climbing hook from where it rested half under the cot and set it on the floor beside him. Without looking at it, his face still pressed to Gabriel’s boot, he cut his thumb upon the blade.

Then gripping Gabriel’s ankle with the other hand he intoned solemnly while faint vibrations crept up Gabriels leg.

“For saving me and for trying to save my people I swear this.”

“By my blood and this weapon I shall protect you.”

Moving his bloody thumb to his face, he tilted his head to the side to press it to his forehead.

“By my blood and mind I shall serve you.”

Lastly he lifted his body so that he could look Gabriel in the face and he pressed his thumb to his heart while he intoned.

“By my blood, heart and spirit I now belong to you. Use me as you wish, for my life is now yours.”

Gabriel felt a cold shudder go through him as the weight of the man’s words settled on his shoulders. He had no doubt this was a totally binding vow for Torch to make and the responsibility of this man’s life only served to remind Gabriel of his other burdens. His last hope for redemption was snuffed out.

Very soon he must leave the quietness of this room and take on the mantle of Lord Arren. It was imperative that he visit the colony leaders immediately and show them the strength of the Arren family remained undimmed, for among them crept those who had thought to exterminate his clan and seize the power for their own.

Perhaps another man might have stopped to grieve his family first, but Gabriel felt no desire to do so. The puzzle of their deaths was there in his mind, the blackness of the loss of Torch’s people, but no grief welled up within him. Instead, like ice settling into his bones, he only felt...alone.

His responsibility now was not simply to guide the rest of his family in carrying out the duties of the Arren’s and supporting them with his strength, but instead to take the place of every single one of them, keeping the peace between a multitude of worlds. If he failed in his task, the weaker colonies would be preyed upon by the strong and war would come. Lights would be snuffed out in masses.

A tremor went through Gabriel’s frame as the weight of that burden settled fully in his bones, but he didn’t buckle beneath it’s weight. The pride of the Arren’s would be maintained and for the length of his life at least, the Arren family would continue to serve.

He studied Torch a moment. All trace of the warm and friendly man he’d known in the caves was gone and a cold, hard, shell of a man stood before him, but the man was strong, fast, powerful and now wholly dedicated to him. He could be used and Lord Arren required such. He would need many more of such servants if he were to keep the peace and staring at Torch he now had an inkling of how and where he might find them.  With this man at his back and by his side, he could accomplish his goals.

“Come,” he told his new servant, “I no longer need worry about collecting guesting gifts for the colony leaders to impress them with my usefulness,” there was no hint of irony or childlike resentment in his tone, only flat coldness. “I think instead I shall gift them with a display of my strength so that none get it in their head to question my power and the authority of the Arren family.”

“We go to search for your family’s killers?” Torch questioned, rising from the floor. There was a certain eagerness in his voice, as if the prospect of a fight roused his spirit.

“No,” Lord Arren answered, “there is no need to hunt for them, for they will surely come hunting for us,” he turned to meet Torch’s eye and offered a challenge,” Are you up to the task of protecting me?”

Torch’s eyes gleamed in a parody of their former life and he stroked one hand down the handle of his climbing hook to show his readiness.

“Then come, it is time I set my house in order,” Lord Arren told him heading for the door.

“Yes master,” Torch replied and like a silent graceful shadow he followed behind.

© 2013 Kessira26

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Added on August 14, 2013
Last Updated on August 14, 2013
Tags: Into the Depths, Infinity Gate, Lord Arren, Torch