The rain was steady and cool, combating the normal heat and steam of the jungle. In the midst of the sheltering trees, Tao leaned against the trunk of a mighty tree, eyeing his friend with a grin. Dar was soaked. Not that he had much clothing to get soaked in the first place, but water dribbled through his hair, plastering the golden strands against his skull; his eyes squinted against the falling rain; even his loincloth was a mass of sodden leather. Unable to help himself, Tao pointed out, “See now, if you had listened to me in the beginning, you wouldn’t need to be drenched like this.”
Dar’s mouth tightened but he otherwise didn’t respond. Crossing his arms over his chest, Dar leaned against a large boulder and sighed faintly.
“Dar, it’s not that bad. The rain will stop and then I’ll put that lotion together and you’ll be as good as new. No, don’t scratch!” Tao warned as he saw Dar’s fingers start rubbing his upper arm. “That’ll make it worse.”
“It can’t get any worse,” Dar groaned. He gave in to the need to scratch and fire raced along the reddened patch of skin.
“Sure it can. I could have had the same reaction,” Tao pointed out, his grin getting bigger.
“Tao. You’re not helping.”
“Sorry,” Tao replied, trying to bring a somewhat serious look over his face. But, as usual, he failed. “Dar, you seriously shouldn’t scratch like that. It’ll only drive the plant’s juices deeper.”
“I think it’s been washed off,” Dar said dryly.
“Not if you’re still itchy,” Tao said firmly.
Sighing, Dar put both his hands behind him and sat against them so that he wouldn’t be tempted. It would just figure that Tao had some kind of immunity to the native plant. It had looked like any other ground-covering plant and, even though Tao had warned him not to cross through it, he’d insisted that it would take too long to find a path free of it.
With everything else going on, his having a reaction like this to a plant was just the final straw. Zad was in power. Voden was cowering somewhere without his right hand man since Hjalmar’s death at Zad’s sword. Arina was off somewhere, hopefully safe with her unborn child. The number of armed patrols had increased to an alarming amount so that simply walking through the open areas had become dangerous. Zad was proving to be just as…focused…as Voden in his determination to capture them. Only it wasn’t Dar that he wanted, it was Tao.
His eyes drifted to his friend standing dry in the shelter of the tree and a rueful smile crossed his lips. Tao was definitely handy to have around. If he’d listened to the scholar then he wouldn’t now feel like scratching off his skin. And it would be Tao who created the potion to stop the maddening itching. It was the reason they were leaving this territory. It simply didn’t make sense to stay if Zad was going to continue trying to take Tao to make more weapons.
Dar wished that his friend had never discovered the correct way to make swords. It was dangerous knowledge and it made him a target. Tao insisted that knowledge itself was neither good nor evil, it was the men who used it that made it so. A valid point but with so many power-hungry men around, having that knowledge was a hardship they could do without.
“What?” Tao asked suddenly.
Startled, Dar echoed, “What?”
“You’re looking at me strangely,” Tao said.
“I was just thinking about where we should go from here,” Dar evaded. From the faint frown on Tao’s face, his friend knew that he wasn’t being completely truthful. For a change, Tao didn’t press him. “We could continue heading north, towards the mountains. Weren’t there some ruins there you were talking with Loriel about?”
Tao nodded briefly. “There are, yes. But I’m not of a mind to disturb ancient things after the last time.”
Dar knew Tao was talking about Annibus and agreed, “That’s probably wise. Where do you want to go?”
Tao thought about the question for a long time, knowing that Dar didn’t need an immediate response. One of the better things about having a best friend who had grown up with animals; Dar was extremely patient. Closing his eyes, Tao rested his head against the rough bark of the tree. It was a massive thing, filled with life and strength. There was a lesson here somewhere, he thought. Aloud, he fumbled for the words to describe what he was feeling. “This tree has been in the same place for probably a hundred years. It’s grown strong and true, even to a position of dominance in this area.”
Feeling as though he knew where Tao was going with his thoughts, Dar asked, “You want to stay here?”
Opening his eyes, Tao looked up at the tree limbs that began many feet above them. Through the leaves, he could see the clouds thinning, the rain lessening. There were many things right here that he could study and learn from. Many things he could do to help Dar with the animals of this jungle. Starting with helping Dar to not itch, he thought with a grin. Looking back at Dar, he nodded decisively. “Yes. I would like to stay here for a while.”
They found an area nearby that could be made into a semi-permanent shelter by dragging over dead tree branches and moss. Covered head to toe in a sticky white paste, Dar was very careful not to go near the plants that had caused him to itch, even though they were everywhere. Part of the reasons for choosing this particular clearing was that none of those plants grew in it. The other part was a fairly substantial pond a short distance away. They wouldn’t have to go far to refill the water gourds or swim if they felt like it.
Sitting on a blanket as Tao cooked part of Ruh’s catch for himself, Dar said, “Tao, I feel ridiculous. How long do I have to leave this on?”
Looking at Dar innocently, Tao answered, “I’m sorry Dar, you could have cleaned that off after an hour. Didn’t I tell you?”
Eyes narrowing, Dar stood and answered, “No, you did not.”
Mouth twitching with the effort to not laugh, Tao apologized, “My mistake.”
Dar walked to the nearby water and took a running dive into it. Tao watched with a grin as Dar dove and resurfaced a few times then turned back to his sewing. It was good to have time to repair everything. They’d been going and going for so long that it was amazing his clothes hadn’t fallen apart. Not to mention his bags and the chaos of his herbs within his bags. This would be a good time to replenish his supplies as well as regroup.
The meat was dripping fat into the fire and his mouth watered at the aroma. Ruh had taken down a deer and, because Tao didn’t hunt on his own, the tiger had consented to share his meal. It had been some time since he’d had meat and he was looking forward to it. Dar was excellent at finding food of course, they both were, but after a while, fruit, grains and vegetables got boring and he just craved meat.
Glancing over at the pond, Tao frowned when he couldn’t see Dar. He hadn’t heard any splashing for a bit either, come to think of it. A worry etched itself into the back of his mind that perhaps something was in the water and Dar was in trouble. Too many things had happened in seemingly calm waters for him to feel completely easy in the silence. Pulling the venison off the fire so it wouldn’t burn, Tao jogged to the water’s edge and called out anxiously, “Dar? Dar, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Dar answered from behind, shoving Tao towards the water. He laughed as Tao hung off balance for a moment then fell in. The Eiron splashed and sputtered around in the pond for a minute before regaining his equilibrium.
Wading back to the edge, Tao glared at Dar and exclaimed, “That wasn’t fair!”
Holding out a hand to help Tao out of the pond, Dar asked, “And leaving me covered in that muck was?”
Tao reached up for Dar’s hand but instead of getting out, he yanked his friend back into the water. A water fight quickly ensued and laughter and shouting were heard at a great distance throughout the jungle.
“What are they doing?” the Sorceress asked curiously. She couldn’t help but smile at Dar and Tao’s antics in the pond; it was strangely uplifting.
The Ancient One, recently returned from his quest to find a more secure power base, looked into the scrying-pool and replied, “Playing.”
“Playing? I thought only children did that,” the Sorceress commented, blue eyes lighting up with curiosity. She smiled faintly as Tao dunked Dar beneath the water and was then pulled underneath in turn by Dar.
“Adults also require a certain amount of playtime though they, of course, would never admit it to themselves or to children. There are many essential things that children know innately and yet forget as they grow into adults,” the Ancient One explained. “Play is important to humans of all ages for a variety of reasons: release of strong emotions, the rebuilding of friendship, and balance against hardship, foremost among the list.”
“That seems rather backwards. If it’s so important, why would they forget?”
“It is merely another facet of the human condition, my dear. People forget many important things as they age.”
“All people?” the Sorceress questioned.
Eyeing the pool, the Ancient One rested a long black fingernail on his chin thoughtfully. “Apparently not.”
Exhausted but happier than he had been in a long time, Dar lay on the blanket and stared up at the sky. Darkness had fallen during their time in the pond which had shifted from outright battle and drowning of each other to lazy floating in companionable silence. They had reluctantly quit the water and returned to find an amused Ruh lying on Tao’s pallet. Amused both because of their play and having eaten Tao’s dinner.
“If it’s any consolation, Ruh says that it didn’t taste very good cooked,” Dar said suddenly.
Tao snorted and replied, “Good.”
Grinning, Dar commented, “I had fun this afternoon.”
“So did I,” Tao agreed, lazy contentment evident in his voice. “Of course a hot meal would have been a great way to end the day.”
Chuckling, Dar closed his eyes and felt sleep drifting over him.
Tao listened to Dar’s breathing as it evened out and smiled. It was good that they’d decided to camp for a while. They obviously needed the break if a simple water-fight had reduced them to helpless laughter. He yawned, extremely tired, but was unable to stop thinking. He glanced over at Dar but the warrior was sprawled out, oblivious to the world. His smile grew affectionate and he murmured, “So did I.”
Lying back down, he stared up at the stars and thought familiar thoughts. What were they? Why did they shift with the seasons? Did they shift with the seasons? Perhaps it was the world that moved instead, shifting in time to the stars. Another yawn, this time big enough to split his jaw if his bones cracked and yet he still couldn’t fall asleep.
“You think too much to sleep.”
Startled by the voice, Tao pushed himself up to find the Sorceress sitting on a nearby rock. She had allied herself with them when it was important, so he wasn’t terribly worried. Quietly, he smiled and agreed, “I usually do.”
“Dar doesn’t seem to have that problem,” she observed, long hair catching the light in golden streaks.
“Dar lives in the moment for the most part. As long as something works, he doesn’t usually question why or how,” Tao replied.
“Yet you do,” she said, looking at him curiously.
His smile turning rueful, Tao confirmed, “I do. Always have.”
Smiling in return, she said, “So I’ve seen.”
“Where do you go when you leave us? Is it another plane of existence? Why do you stay with the other, with the Ancient? Is he your teacher?” Tao asked.
“I have a question for you,” she countered.
Surprised, Tao said, “Which is?”
“Why do you forget things that you know in childhood if they are important?”
Puzzled by the question, Tao thought for a moment before answering. “I’m not sure. We don’t forget everything. Sometimes events are too painful to be remembered well, or at all.”
“What about the good things?”
“Yes. Like play. And make-believe? And exploring. Though you don’t seem to have forgotten or left off that particular concept.”
Her smile was kind so Tao didn’t take offense to being compared to a child. “I think that life gets in the way. We are anxious to grow up, to be considered adult, and then when we are, we wish we were children. It’s a paradox.”
“Part of the human condition,” she suggested thoughtfully.
“I suppose so,” Tao agreed. “Still, it serves a purpose. If we didn’t stop being children then we wouldn’t have the discipline to learn to work together, or gain the knowledge to plant and harvest food to store for the winter.”
“Yet if you retained the qualities of children, would you not be better off? Live happier lives?”
Pursing his lips, Tao thought for a moment then shook his head. “I don’t think so. Children can be crueler than adults because they don’t have the experience or wisdom to know when something will hurt another person. Adults know and most of us hold off from hurting each other. Sometimes children persist in bullying each other beyond reason just because they can inflict hurt.”
“You have interesting thoughts, Tao, a unique perspective,” the Sorceress said after a moment.
“We all do,” Tao pointed out. Hesitantly, he asked, “So you’re not, not human? Because you look it.”
“Don’t your people have a saying? Do not always believe appearances?”
In the dying firelight, Tao saw a shadow moving around the woman that didn’t quite belong to her. Licking suddenly dry lips, Tao nodded. “We do.”
“Then you should listen to it.”
Between one blink and the next, she disappeared. Shivering slightly, Tao felt the cold she left behind and looked over at Dar. The warrior was sleeping peacefully as though nothing had happened and Tao sighed in relief. He lay down and shifted a little closer to his friend for warmth. Within the Dar’s protective span, even asleep, Tao felt safe enough to close his eyes.
This time, sleep came swiftly.
“What are you doing in our jungle?”
The demand brought Dar instantly out of sleep and he opened his eyes to find a young boy staring down at him, a crude knife in his hands. He didn’t have far to look for Tao; his friend was sleeping mere inches from him, curled on his side, dark head pillowed on an arm. “We are resting.”
“This isn’t just resting,” the boy said, motioning towards the shelter. “This is staying.”
“Not for long. We just wanted to rest and fix our things and then we will be moving on,” Dar answered. The boy was probably about ten seasons old though his dark eyes appeared much older.
“You will leave now,” the boy ordered.
“We have things to do first. Then we will leave,” Dar said patiently. “Where are your parents?”
The boy gave him a disgusted look and said, “If you don’t leave then we’ll make you.”
“Who? Your family?” Dar asked, looking around the area. He didn’t see anyone else but that didn’t mean that no one was there. Though who would send a child to threaten a man he couldn’t even begin to guess.
Tao chose that moment to wake up. Yawning, he looked at Dar with a sleepy smile, took in Dar’s serious face and half turned over to see what Dar was focused on. When he saw the boy, his smile turned uncertain before glancing back at Dar. “What’s going on?”
“We were just being told to leave,” Dar answered.
“I see,” Tao said. He sat up, growing more awake by the moment and crossed his legs, looking up at the boy. “My name is Tao. What’s yours?”
The boy glared at him. “My name doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does,” Tao countered easily. “If you’re going to threaten someone, you have to do it properly. You can’t instill the necessary fear without a name.”
The boy frowned for a moment then said, “Chala.”
“Chala. That’s a strong name. Good name to threaten people with,” Tao said in approval. “Of course, now that you’ve told us your name, you need to tell us why we have to go.”
“Because,” Chala said sullenly.
“That’s not a fearsome reason. In order to make sure we’re frightened enough to leave, you have to give dire consequences if we don’t obey you,” Tao pointed out.
Scowling now, Chala exclaimed, “If you don’t leave you’re going to be killed!”
“That’s a good reason,” Tao agreed, glancing briefly at Dar. The warrior seemed content to let him continue with the questioning, so he asked, “By who? A tribe of tremendous warriors? Trampled by a horde of elephants? Squashed flat by a rampaging rhino? No, I know! A flood of alligators is going to come out from the pond and eat us alive!”
The boy’s lips twitched as though trying not to smile while Dar’s did the same. He was always amazed by how easily Tao could communicate with children. Perhaps because on some level, he left himself open to the wonders of the world with the same kind of abandon. The boy’s answer, however, quickly killed his impulse to smile.
“It’s Marcash. He won’t let anyone stay in this jungle except for us and the animals. He kills everyone,” Chala said.
“Who is Marcash?” Tao asked seriously.
Angrily, the boy shouted “It doesn’t matter who he is! You have to leave! He watched you all yesterday and knows you’re here! If you don’t leave now, he’ll kill you!”
Before either of them could say anything, Chala ran off into the trees. Dar looked at his friend and said quietly, “We should see who this Marcash is.”
“And if he’s holding more than just that boy. It seems obvious that Chala isn’t here for his own benefit,” Tao agreed. Yawning, he stretched and said, “So much for a break.”
Smiling, Dar said, “We had a day at least.”
“So we did. Come on, let’s get something to eat. You know, we probably won’t have to find this Marcash,” Tao pointed out as they left the shelter. “If he wants this part of the jungle to himself then he’ll come here to try to kill us, like Chala said.”
“Always the optimist,” Dar observed with a faint grin.
Still, even though they spent the day there, repairing clothing and building their supplies, no one else showed up. No other children, no man wanting them to leave and threatening them with death if they didn’t. Tao completely finished repairing their things and re-supplying his herbs. By the time the sun began its descent from the sky, all his herbs were neatly tied together and replaced in his bag. Dar returned from scouting the surrounding area with Sharak’s help, just as Tao was building up the evening fire.
“I didn’t find anything unusual,” Dar said, sitting next to his friend. “I didn’t find anything at all. No village or even the ruins of one.”
“The boy couldn’t have come from nowhere,” Tao said. “What about caves?”
“Not in this area. Sharak flew a good distance in all directions while I searched the ground,” Dar told him.
“What did you bring back to eat?” Tao asked.
“I thought you were going to forage while I was out scouting,” Dar replied, with a faint frown.
“Dar. I told you that I had to…oh…very funny,” Tao finished, upon seeing the humorous glint in the golden eyes. He shoved his friend lightly and Dar reacted by pushing him back, sending them both sprawling in a tangle of limbs. Grinning up at Dar, Tao demanded, “Going to be like that are you?” and wrestled his way onto Dar’s back.
Dar carefully rolled them a short distance from the fire before coming out on top, easily pinning Tao to the ground, holding Tao’s arms above the healer’s head. Grinning, he asked, “Do you yield?”
“I’m going to yield to a man whose best friends are rodents? I think not,” Tao scoffed loftily, wriggling and finally managing to pitch Dar off him. They both lay on the ground, gasping with laughter for a few minutes. Tao rolled over to get to his feet a split second before an arrow sailed into the ground where he had been. “Dar!”
Dar was already moving towards the source of the arrow, thanking the Gods that Tao had the timing of the luckiest man in the world. He heard Tao crashing through the underbrush behind him, but didn’t stop, calling mentally for Ruh to help in the hunt. The tiger responded and loped ahead, sniffing the air for their attacker. He heard the roar as well as Ruh’s thoughts of finding the assailant and almost stopped in shock at the image of a young girl in a tree.
Altering his course, Dar reached the tree the girl was sitting in a few moments later and called out, “We aren’t going to hurt you. Will you come down?”
“I could kill you,” the girl called down to him, arrow notched and aimed at Dar.
“You could,” Dar agreed quietly. “But why would you?”
“Because you aren’t supposed to be here. Chala already told you that this morning!” the girl exclaimed.
“Because of Marcash,” Tao guessed, coming up behind Dar and resting a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“He’s not supposed to tell you about Marcash!” the girl exclaimed fearfully.
“We won’t tell on him,” Tao assured her. “Why don’t you come down before you hurt yourself?”
“I won’t hurt myself. I’m the best tree climber among us,” the girl said proudly. “And the best archer.”
“That’s quite an accomplishment,” Tao complimented with a smile. “Why don’t you come down so we don’t hurt our necks looking up at you? We’re very old you know.”
The girl giggled, slowly lowering the bow and arrow. “You’re silly. How could looking up hurt you?”
Winking, Tao explained, “We don’t get out much.”
She giggled again then shouldered the bow and nimbly climbed down the tree, landing lightly beside them. She looked curiously at the tiger but without fear. “Does he obey you?”
Dar shook his head. “He’s a friend. He helps us when we need it.”
“What’s your name, beautiful one?” Tao asked.
“Leal,” she answered, smiling up at him shyly. “You’re Tao?”
“Did Chala tell you about me?” Tao asked in surprise.
“He said you were silly and talked a lot,” Leal replied.
“That’s Tao,” Dar agreed with a grin.
Tao elbowed him as painfully as possible in the side before questioning, “Why are you and Chala with Marcash? Where are your parents?”
“All our parents died a long time ago. I was very little. Marcash takes care of us, he keeps the bad people away,” Leal answered solemnly.
Tao glanced at Dar who shrugged minutely for him to continue. “How does he do that?”
“Magic,” Leal answered, suddenly fearful. “He knows what we do. He probably knows that I’m talking with you right now. I should go!”
“Wait! Please, Leal. We want to help you,” Dar said, reaching out to lightly grasp the girl’s shoulder.
Looking much older than her years, Leal replied, “You can’t. Marcash won’t ever let us go. But you can save yourselves and leave now. He won’t give you another chance.”
“Maybe we can help you, tell us where you live and we’ll at least talk to him,” Tao suggested. “If you don’t want to stay, we can find homes for you and the other children. How many of you are there?”
“Not many,” Leal said. “I really have to go before he finds out we’ve been talking. Please, leave here, I like you.”
Before either man could say anything else, she turned and ran swiftly through the jungle.
Tao looked at Dar. “What do you make of it?”
Frowning, Dar said, “Something doesn’t feel right about all of this Tao, but I don’t know what it is.”
“Should we follow her?” Tao asked.
Dar shook his head, staring after Leal, obviously troubled. “Not tonight. I don’t think there will be another warning until dawn but we’ll take watches, just in case. Come, let’s eat and get what rest we can. We’ll deal with Marcash tomorrow.”
Tao fell into step with Dar and they walked back to camp.
Dar was awake as the sun dawned the following day. He sat just outside the shelter in which Tao slept, an obvious and easy target for anyone with arrows or magic to hit. Yet he didn’t feel as though anything was going to happen while he was vigilant. The two warnings had come when they’d least expected it. Since Tao had let him sleep the lion’s share of the night, Dar was fully rested.
He was going to have to talk to the philosopher about that. Just because Tao didn’t fight as much as Dar didn’t mean the other man didn’t fight. And in order for Tao to be at his peak, he needed more sleep than he’d gotten the night before. He was going to let Tao sleep another hour or so to try and even things out a little.
He passed the time peacefully, sitting with his back against the shelter and Ruh on one side of him. Kodo and Podo were curled up with Tao inside while Sharak remained in the trees. All his friends were safe and at peace, at least for a little while longer. His thoughts turned to their current situation and he frowned. There was something strange going on here, aside from the obvious. Dar hadn’t grown up with other children but these children…something was wrong with them. It was more than living in fear, more than a controlling magician. The problem was that Dar didn’t know what else it might be. Tao would hopefully figure it out before it was too late.
“Why didn’t you wake me earlier?” Tao’s voice asked through a yawn.
Dar looked over at his friend’s sleepy face with a smile. “The same reason you didn’t wake me earlier.”
Grinning sheepishly, Tao nodded to concede the point and sat beside him. “Thinking great thoughts? I could practically hear the millwheel grinding.”
Snorting softly in amusement, Dar replied, “You should know.”
“What are we going to do about the children?”
“I don’t know. If Marcash really is a magician then this might be more than we can handle,” Dar admitted.
“Yet many things appear as magic to children that are merely adults using tricks and sleight of hand,” Tao pointed out.
“I know,” Dar agreed. “I think we should follow Leal’s trail back to wherever they live and see what is really going on.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Tao said. “So what’s for breakfast? Berries, berries, or berries?”
“I think berries,” Dar picked.
It seemed surprisingly difficult for Ruh and Dar to pick up Leal’s trail from the night before. Tao didn’t know if that was because the wind or dew had dissipated the trail or if magic was truly involved. The Sorceress’ words kept echoing through his head as they roamed through the jungle in search of the missing children.
“Do not always believe appearances…Then you should listen to it.”
Did that mean they shouldn’t believe that Marcash was a wizard like the Ancient One or was there something about the children themselves that bore watching? She always did this. She threw them enough information to save themselves and get through whatever the situation might be but without telling them directly what the answer was. So that when they solved the problem, no one could say that she’d actually helped them out. Especially given the fact that if they didn’t determine the correct meaning of her words in time, they could easily die.
It was always that last part that Tao didn’t like.
Finally Ruh picked up the scent and they were on the right trail. It carried them straight through the thickest part of the jungle where the trees crowded into a canopy above, cutting off much of the light. It felt as though they walked in a perpetual twilight. Tao twitched uneasily as they continued to walk deeper into unknown territory.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Dar commented. “Thinking great thoughts?”
“Heard the millwheel grinding, huh?” Tao agreed with a faint smile. “It’s this whole situation. I didn’t think to tell you but on the first night we stopped here, I had a visit from the Sorceress.”
Golden eyebrow arching in surprise, Dar asked, “What did she want?”
“I’m still not sure. She was talking about, well asking about why we forgot things we knew as children. And if we wouldn’t be happier living as children. It was very strange,” Tao admitted.
“Most things to do with her and the Ancient One are,” Dar observed, pausing to look at the ground with a frown.
“True. But she said, and I think it was a warning now, she said for us not to always believe appearances,” Tao said.
Dar glanced up at him curiously. “That sounds reasonable. What’s the problem?”
“Was she talking in general or about this situation in particular? Was it a warning at all or just a statement? And if she was talking about what’s going on here, which she probably was, then who shouldn’t we take at face value? The children or Marcash? Not to mention mph…” Tao shut up the instant Dar’s hand sealed over his mouth.
Looking around them, Dar drew closer to Tao even as he released his friend’s mouth. Something was terribly wrong here. It was as though they had crossed an invisible barrier that the animals would not. There were no birds, small animals or predators anywhere around. Only they disturbed the silence. “Do you hear that?”
Tao nodded with a martyred sigh. “Silence. Never a good sign for us, is it?”
Dar’s mouth quirked slightly. “No, it isn’t. We must be getting close.”
“Yes, but close to what?” Tao asked.
Motioning forward, Dar suggested, “Let’s find out.”
“I hate it when you say things like that,” Tao groaned as he followed Dar even deeper into the darkness. He didn’t know whether or not to be reassured when Dar pulled out his staff and put it together. It would give his friend a quicker response time if something happened but inevitably meant that the BeastMaster felt threatened. The jungle ended abruptly into a large clearing that housed several small huts. He and Dar stood behind a large tree as they took in the new surroundings silently. Glancing at Dar, Tao said, “I thought you said there weren’t any houses nearby.”
Glancing back at Tao meaningfully, Dar replied, “There weren’t.”
Tao groaned again. “Magic. So now what?”
Something struck Tao in the back of the head and he dropped to the ground. Curling himself into a ball to protect himself from the painful blows that seemed to be everywhere, he heard, “Now you will either serve Marcash or die.” and then passed out as a heavy boot slammed into his head.
Things could be a lot better, Tao mused, looking at the pyre being built around him with a strange detachment. Dar was unconscious and chained to a large pillar a short distance away. He hadn’t regained consciousness once since the unexpected beating of hours before and Tao was worried. There was a large, raised discoloration at Dar’s temple that bespoke of problems to come if he didn’t get them out of there soon. Being chained to the pillar that held him didn’t inspire any great escape plans.
So far he had only seen children in the village but he knew that these children couldn’t have overwhelmed them. Most of them were about Chala’s age and just as slight and frail looking. There had to be adults around here controlling things. Finally, a man came out of one of the huts. He was old with short white hair and walked with the help of a cane. His face was badly scarred and as he drew closer, Tao saw one of his eyes had filmed over, probably causing blindness. He was supposed to worship that or die? The old man stopped a few feet in front of the pyre and looked at him silently.
“You should have left when you had the chance,” the man intoned.
Was that a hint of sadness in the old man’s eye? Tao wondered. “We’d be happy to leave now. Really. Free us and I’ll carry my friend out of here and you’ll never see us again.”
“It’s too late now.”
“It’s never too late,” Tao countered.
Leaning heavily on his cane, the man said, “It is for you.”
“Why do you keep the children here?” Tao asked, desperately trying to keep the man talking. Maybe if he stalled long enough, Dar would wake up.
The man appeared faintly startled at the question. “I care for them as best I can.”
“If you cared for them, you wouldn’t be forcing them to do these awful things,” Tao said. “You would give them to parents who would love them.”
The man smiled bitterly. “It is for the sake of those very parents that I keep them here. You do not know what is going on here, stranger.”
“Then tell me!” Tao exclaimed, straining against his chains.
Looking at him silently, the elder repeated, “It’s too late.”
That was when they both noticed Leal arguing with Chala, hands on her hips as she began to shout. “I like Tao! I want to keep him!”
“He won’t worship Marcash! He must die!” Chala shouted back.
“I don’t care! He can be our keeper instead of the old man! I want Tao!” Leal shouted, stomping her foot.
Scowling, Chala shook his head. “The old man is our keeper and always has been. It’s not for you to change that!”
The other children were gathered around Leal and Chala in two uneasy groups. It wasn’t girl against boy, but there were obvious factions. Tao quickly counted twenty-three children altogether, fairly evenly split in their support, with slightly more numbers in Leal’s group.
“I can do whatever I want,” Leal said haughtily. “I am Leal!”
Looking furious now, Chala insisted, “He has to die! He won’t worship!”
“You haven’t even asked him, so how do you know?” Leal demanded.
“Fine! I’ll ask him!” Chala exclaimed. He stormed over to Tao and stopped in front of the pyre. “Will you worship Marcash?”
“I don’t know what Marcash is,” Tao answered slowly.
“Marcash is,” Chala answered. “Will you worship and become one with the whole?”
“Can you tell me a little more about Marcash?” Tao asked.
Chala turned to Leal. “You see? He doesn’t understand. He won’t worship!”
“He was playing, Chala!” Leal exclaimed.
That caused a murmur among the children, though why Tao couldn’t fathom.
“They were both playing but they won’t worship,” Chala said. “Do you want to strengthen the whole or not?”
Leal bit her lip, looking up at Tao. “Please Tao. Worship Marcash.”
“I can’t worship something I know nothing about. I’m sorry, Leal,” Tao said gently.
Her lip trembled and tears filled her large brown eyes but didn’t spill over. “Then Chala is right.”
“Ah, no, Leal! Wait! Just tell me what Marcash is!” Tao exclaimed as the girl walked away. He saw Chala slip a comforting arm over the girl’s shoulder and whisper something in her ear and sighed. Now what was he going to do?
“You should have said yes, stranger,” the old man said.
“You’re a big help,” Tao retorted. “What are you doing here? You’re obviously not Marcash like they led me to believe.”
“I told you. I watch over them. I try to keep them from harm, and from harming others, but it doesn’t always work,” the old man said. “I was their friend once, a very long time ago.”
“Keeper! We need you!” Chala shouted impatiently from the other side of the village.
‘Think,’ Tao ordered himself as the old man limped away. ‘What do we know for sure? Leal said their parents died a long time ago. Marcash hasn’t shown him or itself but they want us to worship him or it. Worshipping Marcash strengthens the whole but the whole of what? And what does playing have to do with anything? That seemed important. Oh God, I hope Dar is all right! I wish he’d wake.’
Tao’s thoughts were interrupted by some children returning to look at him curiously. One of them asked, “Did you really play?”
“Ah, yes. Dar and I, we were wrestling and ah, we had a water fight,” Tao recounted. His revelation caused excited talking amidst the group. “Do you have a favorite game?”
“I like hide and seek,” the boy answered.
“Tag is lots more fun!” a girl countered scornfully.
“What do you all like to do together?” Tao interrupted hastily when it looked like a shoving match was going to erupt.
“We worship,” the boy said simply. “It keeps us strong.”
That was helpful, Tao thought sourly. “Strong how?”
“It just does,” the boy replied.
“What is Marcash?” Tao tried again.
“Marcash is,” the boy answered, repeating Chala’s frustrating explanation.
“Yes but what is Marcash? Is it a God? Is it a wizard?”
“He asks more questions than Janar did,” the girl giggled.
That set off a bunch of laughter and Tao smiled uncertainly. “Who’s Janar?”
“Janar used to be our friend. He asked a lot of questions all the time,” the girl replied. “Then one day he just wasn’t part of the whole. Maybe his questions angered Marcash.”
“Did you kill him?” Tao asked.
“Oh no. Janar stayed with us,” the girl explained happily.
“Where is Janar now?” Tao questioned.
Before she could answer, Chala returned and ordered, “You should all be getting ready.”
They scattered and Tao looked at Chala. “I thought you were afraid of Marcash. I thought you wanted us to get away free.”
The boy looked at him sadly. “I did. But you wouldn’t leave.”
“What about Dar?” Tao asked. “What if just one of us was killed? Would that satisfy Marcash?”
Chala looked uncertain. “I don’t know.”
“Is there any way you can find out?” Tao pressed.
“We’ll know in the ceremony,” Chala said.
Tao figured that that was as good an answer as he was going to get and in the meantime, he could still try and figure a way out of this. “If you can spare him, please, spare him.”
This time Chala didn’t even answer, he just left.
Tao sighed, trying to ignore the headache pounding along the base of his neck. He felt like one big bruise, probably looked like one too. He had to think, had to find a way out of this. His eyes rested painfully on Dar who hung limp in his chains. If only he could be sure that Dar was all right.
The voice was quiet and barely reached Tao’s ears but he heard it nonetheless, his heart leaping for joy at the simple sound of his name. Keeping his happiness firmly lidded, he murmured, “Are you all right?”
“My sight is blurred but I think I can get free,” Dar answered quietly.
“How? They’ve chained you.”
“The pole is loose,” Dar replied. “Ruh and Sharak are on the outskirts of the village. What is going on?”
“It’s the children killing people, Dar. The children worship this Marcash. We were fooled,” Tao explained quietly.
“Not the first time,” Dar said, voice tinged with regret.
“Probably not the last,” Tao agreed with a sigh. “What should we do? We can’t just leave them here to kill future travelers.”
They were both silent for a long while after that, each thinking about the situation. When Dar groaned faintly, Tao’s eyes locked to him to see if something was wrong. Dar was trying to shift his position without looking as though he’d regained his senses. Surprise was their only weapon right now and it had to be preserved but Dar needed to rest his body as well.
“What is that wood I can see a little of?” Dar asked.
Grimly, Tao answered, “My sacrificial fire.”
“That’s how they kill? They burn people alive?”
“Dar, quiet, they’re coming,” Tao warned swiftly.
The children were walking towards them in one group. Seeing that it was nearing sunset, Tao assumed it was time for the ritual to begin, whatever it might be. The old man was at the back of the crowd and wouldn’t meet Tao’s eyes, which did not inspire confidence. Chala and Leal were dressed in colorful but crude garments as though they’d made the outfits themselves, which they probably had. Chala held a long metallic scepter with a large purple gem set in the center. In a clear, light voice, Chala called out, “We celebrate and strengthen the whole by adding this man Tao to it. In Marcash’s name!”
As rituals went, it was over much faster than Tao anticipated. Though perhaps being a ceremony designed by children, it shouldn’t have surprised him. Children did tend to cut to the heart of things; especially when they sensed weakness in their opponents. The scepter was held high and a beam reminiscent of Mydoro’s crystals fired the kindling. Panicked at how quickly the fire caught, Tao shouted, “Dar! Help me!”
He heard a roar from Ruh, and Sharak screamed overhead, but Tao only had eyes for the man who burst upright, knocking down the pillar that held him with sheer physical strength. Though still chained, Dar now had freedom of movement and instantly pushed through the group of children to get to Tao. Though he was obviously trying not to hurt them, there were so many that Dar was forced to shove aside those who got in his way.
“The scepter! Destroy the scepter! It’s Marcash’s power!” the old man shouted.
Tao saw Chala running away with the scepter, back to wherever it had come from. He met Dar’s eyes and saw his friend’s determination to get him free but shook his head despite the heat getting ever closer, and ordered, “Get the scepter Dar! They have to be stopped!”
Roaring his frustration, Dar spun on his heel and sprinted after Chala.
Tao did his best to kick at the wood, trying to get it as far from his body as possible but his legs were chained as well. To his surprise, he saw the old man shove the children callously aside to reach the flames. Another surprise was that the man leaned on Dar’s staff, not the cane from before. He used the staff to split apart the wood, casting it as far from Tao as possible. The fire grew faster than the old man could fight and Tao cried out in pain as he felt the kiss of a flame against his hand.
Seeing that time was running out, the old man plunged into the fire, shouting in pain but using his momentum to slam the staff against the chains. The iron fell and Tao nearly collapsed, muscles protesting violently when he forced himself to remain standing. The old man had reached the center of the wooden circle, momentarily out of the fire’s reach and swung again, taking out the chains around Tao’s legs. Tao put his shoulder under the man’s arm and dragged him through the path he’d created. He lowered the old man to the ground gently, kneeling beside him. “Thank you.”
“Waited too long to fight. Waited forever,” the man murmured. His seeing eye locked with Tao’s and he gasped, “Kill Chala. Break the cycle of power by destroying the scepter.”
“Dar won’t kill a child,” Tao said.
“Not a child, not what he seems,” the old man gasped before lying still.
“Janar?” one of the children asked apprehensively.
Tao looked up to find himself surrounded by the children. “He’s dead.”
“Dead? But Janar can’t die. He used to be one of us,” Leal said, lip trembling.
Tao touched the man’s throat but there was no heartbeat. “He’s dead, Leal. He died to save me. Where would Chala go with the scepter?”
Eyes wide, she shook her head. “I can’t tell you.”
“Do you want Janar to have died for nothing? Do you? Tell me!” Tao ordered firmly, picking up the staff and climbing painfully to his feet.
Leal pointed and said, “There’s a cave behind the last hut. That’s where Marcash rests.”
Without another word, Tao forced himself to run towards the hut she’d pointed out. It took precious long minutes to find. The sound of fighting was what brought him to the right place. He stumbled through the darkness towards a glow and entered a large cavern. ‘Why do crystal weapons always seem to be housed in caves?’ Tao wondered vaguely.
In the dim, purplish light, Tao saw Dar struggling with a large man, barely holding his own. “Dar!”
Dar’s eyes flickered to him and Tao saw instant relief flare in the golden eyes. Then Tao held aloft the staff and determination crossed his friend’s face. Dar broke the chokehold the man had on him by slamming his forearms up and dislodging the grip. Reaching up, Dar grabbed hold of an outcropping above him and kicked out with his legs, sending the other man stumbling backwards. Taking that opportunity, Tao threw the staff at Dar and it sailed into the BeastMaster’s hand, Dar instantly spinning it in a dangerous arc before turning to face his foe once again.
Tao was safe! Relief surged through Dar, renewing his strength. When he saw his staff in Tao’s hands, hope ran through him as well. Grunting with the effort, Dar hit Chala’s arms out of the way then took hold of the rock over his head and kicked out, shoving the other man a good distance off. He caught the staff and cut the air with it, stepping away from the cavern wall to give himself room to work.
“You have to kill him, Dar,” Tao called.
Dar nodded grimly, having already determined to do so. Though the taking of life was an anathema to him, in this case, Dar didn’t think Chala was even human. He suspected that they now looked upon Marcash himself. Would the other children transform into incredibly strong men and women and attack them? That had to be the reason they had been overpowered in the first place.
Staff met scepter in a clash that sent Dar stumbling back from the impact. He had to find a weakness and fast because his own strength was failing rapidly. Dar knew Tao wasn’t in much better shape from the way his friend leaned against the wall, watching them tensely. Swinging his staff at Chala, Dar managed to evade the defensive strike by twisting mid-blow and hitting Chala from the other side.
Chala staggered to the ground. Dar pressed his advantage but the other man rolled before the bladed end of the staff could meet with his body. Raining down blow after blow, the white bone staff cut and chopped through the air almost faster than the eye could follow. Dar hit more often than not, both men grunting at each impact, and the last time staff met scepter, the metal and gem rod went flying through the air. Both Dar and Chala watched the flight through the air to where it landed a short distance from Tao.
Shouting in anger and fear as Tao raced to pick up the scepter, Chala moved to tear it from the Eiron’s grasp. Knowing Chala would do more than just take the scepter, that he would kill Tao if given the chance, Dar struck from behind. The blunted end of his staff slammed into the back of Chala’s head as hard as he could manage it. It didn’t completely incapacitate his opponent but did send him to his knees. Dar watched as Tao swung the scepter hard against the sharp rock wall, shattering the crystal center. There was an explosion and Dar found himself picked up by invisible forces and smashed into the wall. His head connected with the rock and darkness claimed him once more.
The first thing Dar noticed when he struggled through the darkness to open his eyes, as was the case most times after being knocked out, was Tao. Since Tao was kneeling directly beside him and leaning over him, it would have been hard to miss his friend. It was impossible to miss the happiness shining from the green-brown eyes staring at him.
“Welcome back. How’s the head?” Tao asked.
Dar grimaced and tried to sit up, Tao slipping an arm under him to help. Looking around, he saw they were in the village clearing but didn’t see any of the children. “It’s still attached I think. What happened?”
“The scepter was Marcash’s focus in this world. He was using it to manifest in Chala. Without it, he was forced back into the spirit world. Apparently, Marcash has held sway here for decades. All the children are old enough to be our great-great-great-great-great-grandparents,” Tao explained.
“Where are they?”
“Most of them scattered after the explosion. I barely got you out of the cave before it collapsed altogether. Chala didn’t make it,” Tao said, his tone darkening.
Dar gripped Tao’s shoulder briefly. “There wasn’t anything you could have done.”
Tao nodded reluctantly. “I know. It saddens me though. I think that Chala was blameless in this, controlled by Marcash’s will all this time.”
“At least now he is free,” Dar pointed out. Ruh padded over to him and Dar smiled, resting his hand on the warm hide.
“True,” Tao agreed. “And now the children are free to grow up and live real lives as well. From what Leal told me, they’ve lived here since their parents’ deaths in the beginning. Chala discovered Marcash’s scepter while playing in the cave. Marcash took him over and caused the adults to die, though Leal doesn’t remember how, she was very young when it happened.
“There were other villages in the surrounding area but when Marcash came into being, they were driven away and the jungle allowed to grow up around this one. They would snare what travelers they could to feed Marcash’s power. Either the traveler would agree to worship Marcash and somehow be transformed into energy for the scepter or the traveler would die and his life energy was taken that way. More often than not, they were killed.”
Dar rubbed his hand across his eyes, wanting nothing more than to curl up and sleep for a week. He felt bruised and sore and his head still hurt, despite his vision being back to normal.
Looking at Tao, Dar gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m fine.”
Tao gave him a skeptical look but only said, “I’m sure you will be, but you need rest. Why don’t you get some more sleep?”
“What about you?” Dar asked.
Tao shrugged. “I’m fine for now. You took the brunt of the force. I was thrown into the dirt, not the wall.”
Ruh growled, startling them both. Dar looked into the impassive eyes and thought, What’s wrong?
Packmates both rest. We will watch.
“What did he say?” Tao asked.
Grinning ruefully, Dar answered, “He told us both to get some sleep, the animals will keep watch.”
Sighing deeply, Tao groaned and said, “That sounds great. I’m exhausted.”
Glaring at him accusingly, Dar said, “You just said you were fine.”
Grinning unrepentantly, Tao replied, “I lied. You needed to rest and there wasn’t a third option just then.”
“Tao…” Dar trailed off, shaking his head in amusement. Then he noticed the bandage on Tao’s hand. “What’s that?”
Tao followed his gaze then flushed. “A burn. I didn’t quite get out unscathed this time.”
Which reminded Dar of what he’d heard earlier. Reaching over, Dar gripped Tao’s shoulder, meeting the hazel eyes seriously. “I heard what you said.”
Frowning, Tao repeated, “What I said?”
“About sparing me,” Dar replied. This time the flush darkened and Tao looked away. “You are…important…to me, Tao. Don’t sacrifice yourself needlessly for me, please.”
Tao looked back at him, dark eyes unreadable for a long moment. Reaching up to cover Dar’s hand with his own, Tao said, “Never needlessly, Dar.”
After a long moment, Dar nodded, understanding what his friend hadn’t said. He would sacrifice himself for Dar as surely as Dar would for Tao. It was the way and depth of their friendship. He smiled at last, just a brief quirking of his lips, then said, “Let’s get some rest.”