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CHAPTER 66 ~ TRUTHS
"Don't you ever scare me like that again."
Gunther's voice trembled as he crouched beside the bed where Valois lay, hardly daring to touch him but wanting desperately to hold him.
They had arrived back at the ship in the back of a small cart pulled by a donkey, after Amir glanced out of his window, saw Gunther kneeling beside Valois, and came running out of his shop again. He'd tutted and tsked and muttered that the silly foreigners should have listened to him about the remedy he had for tourist belly. With Gunther's help, he'd lifted the dead weight of Valois's body into the back of the cart, hitched up his spindly-legged old donkey, and—after Gunther had clambered into the cart to sit with Valois and shade his face with a piece of cloth that Amir handed him—they'd set off slowly back to the ship, drawing a small gaggle of curious children behind them.
The ship's doctor had looked Valois over, pronounced a touch of sunstroke, and told Gunther to keep an eye on him and make sure he kept hydrated and cool. Valois was uncharacteristically quiet, letting himself be examined and talked over, and now that the doctor had gone and they were alone, Gunther couldn't stop shaking.
"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" he mumbled, entirely unconvinced of the sunstroke diagnosis. He could still remember the sheer terror on Valois's face when he'd seen that trinket, and he'd probably never manage to un-hear the hoarse panic and pleading in Valois's voice.
Valois nodded, still more subdued than Gunther had ever seen him.
"What was that thing?" Gunther asked. "Why did it affect you so badly?"
"Stupid superstition," Valois murmured. "Anything unexplained is regarded as evil, and that includes witchcraft." He gave a mirthless smile. "It especially includes witchcraft. That trinket... how much did it cost you?"
"A lot. The shopkeeper said it was an original, not a souvenir copy."
Valois nodded faintly. "I guessed as much. I am never affected by modern copies of the Eye of Horus. The only other time that I experienced such a reaction as this was when I first came here centuries ago to help with excavations. An Eye was uncovered at the dig, and I was a scant five feet away when it was unearthed. I woke up a few days later in hospital."
"What does it do?" Gunther asked. "I mean, you just went down like you'd been shot. I've never been so fucking frightened."
Valois smiled sadly, cradling his palm against Gunther's cheek briefly. "It renders me insensible, mon cœur. The point of the Eye is that it is a curse against anything regarded as evil, such as witches. It is not so much like being shot as it is like... having your insides completely scrambled, including your brain."
Gunther shuddered, but something was still niggling in the back of his mind. "Amir... the shopkeeper. He told me the Eyes always find their way to where they're needed. And that I clearly needed this one." He closed his eyes and inhaled shakily, then opened them, looking squarely at Valois as the realisation hit him that he wasn't being given the whole truth here. "He told me to guard myself against evil."
There was a long silence. Finally, Valois nodded with a faint sigh, his eyelids drooping until Gunther thought he'd fallen asleep.
"Very well," he eventually murmured.
Another long pause followed, before he spoke again. "It is time that I told you just how I came to be immortal. When we were in France I mentioned to you that it was a long story and that I had no say in the matter, but now is the time for me to explain what happened, since it will help you to understand why that trinket affected me so badly."
He opened his eyes and looked steadily at Gunther. "Will you lie here with me while I tell you?" he asked, and the hesitation in his voice touched Gunther's heart. He nodded and climbed onto the bed, nestling down and resting his cheek on Valois's chest, reassured by the slow, rhythmic thump of his heart.
"I have mentioned to you once or twice my dislike of the word 'warlock' to describe my kind," Valois continued softly.
"Yeah," Gunther murmured. "You said warlocks are like evil versions of witches. Oath-breakers, or something?"
"That is correct. 'Warlock' comes from the Old English waerloga, which means 'oath-breaker', and there is a reason for my dislike of the term."
Gunther waited, half scared that some terrible revelation was coming his way, and half unsettled that he'd somehow seemed to know he wasn't getting the entire truth from Valois. Had the Eye affected him, too? No. No, that was ridiculous. There was no way some ancient artifact could turn him into some kind of walking lie detector.
"My father was a warlock," Valois eventually said. "The most powerful user of magic the world had ever known at that time in history."
Gunther looked up at him, not knowing quite what to say to that.
"Oh, that isn't even the half of it." Valois sighed. "He seduced my mother until she was pregnant with me, and then—once I had quickened in her belly—he cast the greatest spell any witch or warlock has ever uttered."
Silently, Gunther threaded his fingers into Valois's hair, stroking gently, instinctively divining that his husband needed a soothing and calming touch. Inside, though, he was shivering.
"He had his hand on my mother's belly, and she told me many years later that when his incantation was done he simply... vanished. And a moment later, I gave a great kick; far harder than a baby of so short a term should rightly be able to manage."
Valois's arms tightened around Gunther. "The only thing left of my father was the ring that I wear to this day, and it is the only thing I have to remember my mother by, for she gave it to me before I left home."
"What happened to your father?" Gunther whispered. "He couldn't have simply vanished into thin air. He had to have gone somewhere. Did he go to the Veil?"
Again, Valois sighed. "No, he did not." Another long silence, then he added softly, "I have worked for centuries to bury him. My darling boy, I carry the essence, the spirit of my father within me. That was the place he vanished to: the body of his own child."
The enormity of that stunned Gunther into silence. He couldn't even manage the WHAT?! that he was thinking, but Valois's wince told him that he'd picked up on the thought anyway.
"All of my magic," Valois whispered, "comes from my father. It is his magic. My body is my own. My mind is my own. But my magic... is not mine. Well, some of it is, since I am the son of a warlock, and magical power is inherited, but most of it is his. Over the centuries, as I have studied, I have honed and increased that power, purifying and transforming it, melding his power with my own until it is now rightly regarded as wholly mine. But, deep down, I know it began as his." His voice trembled a little. "The root of my magical power... is evil."
"How much else of him is there in you?" Gunther managed.
"In truth... I do not know," Valois admitted. "Once I found out what he had done, I spent centuries in study, working to bury his presence. It is now locked down so tightly that it can never be freed. Only his magical ability remains. But... the Eye of Horus identified me as evil because... I carry the essence of what was once evil within me."
He sighed. "My father cheated Death through me. He is the reason why I am immortal. Even his name—Athanase, which I carry as my own middle name—means 'immortal' in the Greek tongue, and he is the reason why the Lords despise me. They call me 'beast', you know."
Gunther's heart near enough broke at the sadness in Valois's voice. "Why do they call you that?" he whispered.
When Valois next spoke his voice was changed, the sound of sepulchres and hollow graves echoing from his chest as he quoted Death itself:
You, beast, have defied Us for centuries. You continue. You linger. You are the worm that spoils the apple of the world.
"Imagine an endless life," Valois muttered, "where even Death hates you."
Gunther snuggled closer. "It won't be an endless life alone now, though," he murmured. "Death may hate you, but I love you, and I'll always be here with you."
Valois craned his neck a little to smile down at him, but it was a sad smile. "Yet you are frightened of me, are you not? Of what I carry within me?"
"A little bit, yes," Gunther admitted. "But you've worked all your life to lock it away because you fear it yourself, and that proves you want no part of it."
He was quiet for a moment, then he added as an afterthought, "You know... nobody is born evil. Babies aren't evil. Humans are innocent until bad things in life teach them otherwise. Something must have happened to him, something that turned him evil." He looked up at Valois. "Did you ever find out what that was?"
"I had that same thought myself," Valois said. "I searched the records of the Veil, but..." He gave another sigh, exasperated this time. "Everything around him is murky, like black dust. Nothing is clear around his memory and presence. I simply cannot penetrate beyond that cloud of evil to find a purer man behind it."
"Could anyone else do it? With all due respect to your age and experience, there must be someone in the Veil who could do it. You said that Elsanine is much older than you. Maybe he could find out?"
Valois hesitated. "He... he might, I suppose."
"Why don't you ask him?"
"Because searching that far back is not only time-consuming, but with a presence such as my father's it can also be dangerous. Elsanine would need a great deal of protection around him before he ventured into it. And I would of course, ask permission of Arcturus first of all, since he may not agree to his aeternus putting his life in danger like that."
Gunther thought for a moment. "Would... would a combination of several witches' power give him that protection?"
"Mon cœur, what exactly are you hinting at?"
"I was thinking maybe a combined effort to protect him. You, Natalie, her mother... maybe it would work?"
"My darling boy, while her mother would have the skill, there is no way I would ask Natalie to assume such responsibility. Not while she is still in the early days of her training. And don't even mention Esther, before you get the notion to!"
Gunther sighed and subsided, nodding meekly. "It was just a thought," he mumbled. "I want you to see or know your father as he was before he became evil, because there must have been a time when he was just a normal man. Well, a normal but very powerful witch, anyway."
"There must have been a time, yes," Valois said softly. "And the love that you, as a father, feel for your own son makes you wish that I, a son, could feel the same love for my own father." He kissed the crown of Gunther's head. "Mon cœur, your heart is golden to me."
Gunther smiled. "Your father loved you. I'm sure he did. Maybe he still does, even though he's buried and locked away."
"I think not anymore," Valois said. "He is dormant. I have not felt even the faintest trace of him for centuries, and that is exactly how I prefer things to be."
Gunther nodded. "I don't blame you." He looked up again, adding in a whisper, "Thank you for telling me. I feel... I feel like I'm even closer to you, now that I know this important thing about you."
Valois kissed him. "I could give you innumerable history lessons on my life," he said softly, his lips finally curving into a smile against Gunther's mouth. "But I fear that would bore you to tears rather than bring you closer to me."
"Try me." Gunther grinned. "I always loved history at school."
"Then maybe one day I will."
Gunther yawned and snuggled down. "Well, we've got all the time in the world, thanks to your dad."
"Indeed we have."